My latest visits to Armenia showed me a face of the country where I was born and spent the first 17 years of my life that I had not noticed in the past. Had that face been there forever and I hadn’t seen it because I had been living with it every day, or was I noticing it because I had seen something more positive elsewhere and had a benchmark to compare it to? The face I am talking about is that of aggression – persistent, dangerous aggression, in the most unimportant and minor situations, where a simple smile could solve the issue.
An accidental bumping of shoulders gives rise to a cycle of, “Look in front of you,” and “Watch how you talk to me,” whereas, in many other countries and cultures, such a scenario would result not in mutual blaming but in mutual apologies, each side taking responsibility for its unintentional carelessness and peacefully resolving the situation. Even worse than when we Armenians walk is what happens when we drive. An endless cycle of loud, repetitive car horns, accompanied by, “Why are you honking at me?” and a series of other exchanges, which sometimes end in swear words and violent remarks, disrupting all traffic for the restoration of the glory of one’s ego.
I witnessed these examples in Armenia, but the virtual world of our social media platforms is even more mind-blowing than this. Aggressive comments, hate speech and profanity are widespread when someone shares different political views than ours, belongs to a political party that we are against, or simply does not share our way of doing, thinking or saying things. This phenomenon of widespread aggression found both in the offline and online worlds of Armenia is unsuitable for a culture that does not allow swearing when women are present and treats foreign visitors to Armenia with such hospitality and warmheartedness, like long-lost sisters and brothers. So why would we treat our very own compatriot sisters and brothers with an attitude that is in no way comparable to how we treat and even praise foreigners? Why do we take each other for granted?
I’ve reflected on several potential factors and causes behind this phenomenon. An obvious one for me is the trauma that we as a nation have lived through over the past few years. The wounds of the 1915 Genocide still unhealed, we witnessed numerous other wars and massacres, which left our population in a physically and psychologically devastated state. Parents who lost their sons, children who lost their fathers, men who lost their body parts, thousands who lost their homes, almost everyone lost something: a brother, a sister, a friend, a loved one. We all lost a homeland. And with all those losses stacked up on top of each other, it’s hard not to lose some percentage of sanity.
That being said, however, I would assume that the shared struggle and suffering would lead us not to aggression but to compassion and mutual support, enhanced care and respect, and unwavering solidarity and unity in the face of a common enemy who is diligently getting ready for another attack. Instead of uniting and preparing to fight the enemy, we are looking for enemies among us, in each others’ eyes, trying to exact revenge on each other.
Psychological trauma may be one of the reasons behind this aggression, and anger is, oftentimes, a fear response, but there is something happening in our hearts and minds on a much deeper level that does not involve our external circumstances as much as our inherent, unchangeable spiritual nature. There has been a shift, both in Armenia and around the world, away from spirituality. As a result, values of humility, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, patience and peace have been overshadowed by arrogance, resentment, cruelty, indifference, impatience and turmoil.
Armenians so often boast that we were the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, yet we so rarely act according to the Christian values of humility, forgiveness, patience, compassion and love. Many go to church only on special holidays and put effort into cooking the right foods for Christmas and Easter without understanding the real, spiritual significance of these events. Many of us remember God and pray only when we are in need, in the same way that we appreciate water when we are thirsty, that we appreciate our health when we get sick, and, unfortunately, that we appreciate our spiritual sites when they are no longer in the scope of our reach.
There are numerous instances when we started to appreciate our geographic, cultural and spiritual gifts only after we lost them, examples both from the past, such as Mount Ararat or Ani (the City of 1,001 Churches), and from the present, such as Dadivank or Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. I remember in the days after the 2020 Artsakh “ceasefire” agreement, so many buses traveled from all regions of Armenia to Dadivank. For many, it was the first time seeing Dadivank, the first time hearing about it, or the first time understanding the historical, cultural and spiritual significance of the monastery. It was a wake-up call of what we had and what we were losing. The visits were an attempt to see and touch the treasure before it was gone, as if trying to catch the last rays of sun before a cold and gloomy winter.
Dadivank was, in fact, an astonishing ray of sunshine. Many sources mention that the church was founded as early as at the end of the first century, on top of the burial site of Saint Dadi, who was one of the 70 disciples of the apostle Thaddeus (traditionally one of the two first apostles to Armenia). In total, the site comprises ten buildings, making it one of the most sizable and substantial monastic complexes in medieval Armenia. Many constructions in Dadivank date back to the 5th, 13th and 18th centuries, and feature remarkable pieces of medieval Armenian architecture, bas-relief sculpture and frescoes, as well as over 100 Armenian inscriptions. The exterior arcades – mind-blowing pieces of art – remind the visitor of Ani Cathedral and other 10th-11th century monuments. The whole monument is covered in engraved and painted inscriptions that share the history of the monastery and inform the visitor about the aesthetic aspects and choices of the space. Inscriptions can also be found on the numerous khachkars in and around the monastery and often include powerful prayers for salvation. The foundation inscription of the main Cathedral dates its construction to as early as 1214.
In the 12th century, Mkhitar Gosh, a prominent Armenian scholar, writer and priest, lived in Dadivank, where he wrote part of his Datastanagirk (Book of Law), which was the first Armenian legal text to cover secular and ecclesiastical matters and became the basis for the legal systems of many other countries around the world. Moreover, according to Arara, during excavations in 2007, the relics of St. Dadi were found in Dadivank. This event, coupled with the information that Dadivank was one of the birthplaces of Datastanagirk and home to numerous important inscriptions and architectural treasures, gives Dadivank a significance not only for Armenians but also for the rest of the Christian world.
The loss of sites such as Dadivank mirrors humanity’s loss of spirituality, or rather our loss of appreciation thereof. But since we, as humans, are spiritual in nature, we cannot afford to lose our spirituality completely.
The fate of Dadivank and the other Armenian churches and monasteries is alarming and worthy of immediate attention. Some of these sites will be intentionally modified and presented as the heritage of the obscure Albanian-Udi religious community, some will be vandalized and desecrated, and some may be turned into mosques, in a similar fashion in which Hagia Sophia was converted. As alarming and critical as the issue is, the response from the international community in no way aligns with this sense of urgency. While there are wide-ranging reasons for this indifference and inaction, one thing is certain. The loss of sites such as Dadivank mirrors humanity’s loss of spirituality, or rather our loss of appreciation thereof. But since we, as humans, are spiritual in nature, we cannot afford to lose our spirituality completely.
As much as I am (self-)critical of Armenia, pinpoint its weaknesses and identify pathways for growth, I need to acknowledge that the issue of lost spirituality is not limited to Armenia alone and is now a widespread phenomenon covering much of the world. The results are clear in the loss of thousands of lives around the world. Twenty first-century aggressors have unique preferences for targeting the most vulnerable with the most advanced and cruel equipment of modern science. As aggressive as Armenians can be to each other during day-to-day encounters, we have still preserved the principle of not targeting children and the elderly even in the most heated moments of war. Against the backdrop of Azerbaijan’s violence toward the Armenian POWs, the Armenian side still chose to provide necessary medical treatment to the Azeri soldiers detained by Artsakh’s military. We kept our humanity in some of the most inhumane of situations, and to some degree preserved our sanity even after witnessing the worst possible of scenes.
Reuniting with spirituality would offer many treasures to humankind. One gift of Christianity is that of prayer. A 2009 research on the effects of prayer on mental health found that “members of a group had lower rates of depression and anxiety and were more optimistic after sessions in which they prayed for one another, compared to the control group (which had no prayer sessions).” The liturgy ceremonies offered in Armenian churches are a great opportunity for the Armenian community to gather (both in Armenia and abroad), pray and move closer to our true origins, to our real nature made in the image of God.
Interestingly, many of us have heard this short part of the Latin proverb “Homo homini lupus” (i.e. “A man is a wolf to another man”), yet very few know the whole phrase, which says, “Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit,” which translates to, “One man to another is a wolf, not a man, when he doesn’t know what sort he is.” We should relearn what sort we really belong to, and, when we do, we will no longer be wolves to each other. We will reconnect with the values of love, peace, patience, forgiveness, kindness and compassion. Then there will be hope, for Armenians and for the rest of the world.