The trend began as a way for wealthy businessmen to show off their philanthropy and religiosity. Now communities are using limited funds to erect the towering symbols of Christianity.
A cross being erected in Hovtun last year (SOSCdOrient/Twitter)
In November, a 44-meter cross was erected in the village of Yeranos, in Armenia’s Gegharkunik province. It is the tallest cross in Armenia, the height symbolizing the number of days in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan; the cross was constructed in memory of the victims of that war.
“This cross, which rules from the heights, will always remind us, the survivors, of the selfless struggle of our heroes, the perpetuity of their heroism,” Gegharkunik Governor Karen Sargsyan said at the ceremony inaugurating the cross.
While the Yeranos cross is the biggest and newest giant cross in Armenia, it is far from the first. Recent years have seen crosses sprouting up around the country, sometimes funded by successful businesspeople but increasingly by communities themselves, competing with one another for who can boast a taller structure.
In 2012, a 33-meter cross – at the time, Armenia’s tallest – was erected near the Monument to the Armenian Alphabet, a popular tourist attraction near the town of Aparan.
It was packed with numerological symbols: It was assembled from 1,711 small cylindrical crosses – corresponding to the number of years that had passed since 301, officially considered the year that Armenia formally adopted Christianity. (One small cross has been added every year since it was put up.) That date is again marked by the pedestal, which measures 301 centimeters. The height of the cross itself symbolized the age of Christ when he died. The cylindrical crosses were arranged so as to make a sound like that of a church organ when wind passes through them.
This cross has since become a tourist attraction of its own, and remains the best-known contemporary monument to Christianity in Armenia.
But its record height was soon surpassed. In 2017, a 50-meter cross was erected near Stepanakert in neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh; local media reported that it was the second-tallest cross in Europe, behind only the Millennium Cross in Skopje, Macedonia.
There are plenty of smaller, but still large, crosses being erected regularly. In June 2021, the family of a certain Hamlet Petrosyan gifted a 15-meter cross to the village of Astghadzor in Gegharkunik. The cross was reportedly placed in a historical site, near some centuries-old cross stones, known as khachkars. The governor of Gegharkunik and the vicar of the Gegharkunik diocese attended the opening ceremony.
Armenia’s cross-building trend “was started by some rich people, who thought that by doing this they would be making a great moral contribution to society,” ethnographer Hranush Kharatyan told Eurasianet. “But this has already gone beyond the level of individual ambition and has begun to spread at the community level.”
When the head of the village of Mayisyan was asked why his village spent 950,000 drams (just under $2,000) of its budget to put up a (relatively small) cross, he explained: “All over the country, they have placed a cross at the entrance to every village.”
Another village, Sardarapat, allocated 25 million drams (about $50,000) from the community budget for the erection of a 19-meter cross and a sign with the village’s name.
There tends to be a routine for the erection of a new cross: an inauguration ceremony with government and religious officials during which a priest blesses the cross, after which locals gather for a small feast or to enjoy traditional dance performances.
In the eyes of many urban Armenians, these crosses are kitsch and a waste of resources that could be better spent on more pressing needs. As such, the crosses have been both mocked and criticized.
After the erection of the Aparan cross, which was spearheaded by then Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepyan, the popular show Armcomedy published a satirical article “reporting” that Hovesepyan had a new project to put up a cross in Yerevan’s main Republic Square with the aim of stimulating economic growth. “The project is intended to capture God’s attention and win His heart,” Armcomedy wrote.
Most recently, one of the wealthiest men in the country, oligarch and political party leader Gagik Tsarukyan, announced that he and his family will be funding the erection of a 33-meter statue of Jesus Christ, at a site he didn’t specify. “Together with the pedestal it could be double or triple that height,” said the narrator of a video about the project on Tsarukyan’s Facebook page. Another satirical news website, News from Hell, posted of a photo of a Jesus statue doing a facepalm and the caption: “When Jesus learned that Mr. Tsarukyan is going to build his 33-meter stature in post-war, semi-literate Armenia with 30 percent poverty and ruined hospitals.”
“Instead of building useful and efficient infrastructure they build horrible and ugly, anti-aesthetic and even environmentally dangerous monuments,” poet Karen Antashyan wrote on Facebook. He called the practice “fetishistic” and argued that the sound made by the Aparan cross did not resemble a church organ but was merely a “humming” that disrupted animals’ natural habitats.
“Our ancestors achieved the majestic beauty of cross stones and Christian minimalist asceticism. At least respect that heritage, you barbarians,” he concluded.
Ethnographer Kharatyan, however, says that what may seem like kitsch has deep cultural roots. “Few Christian religions worship the cross like they do in Armenia,” she said. Indeed, one of Armenia’s signature art forms is the khachkar, which dates to the early Middle Ages and has been enshrined in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. An estimated 40,000 khachkars remain dotted around the country.
“The cross can be a symbol, an indicator, but in Armenia it is a subject of personal worship,” Kharatyan said. “And that is why it was used so much throughout the Middle Ages […]. It had a very active role as an indicator of identity in manuscripts, tombstones and even handicrafts.”
The current trend, however, seems to be a distortion of the cross’s earlier role.
“They [the erectors of the crosses] are competing in terms of the size of the crosses, the height, and so on,” Kharatyan said. “I think there is some confusion here in terms of the search for identity. It’s as if the identity has become focused on the cross” rather than other means of practicing Christianity, she said. “People know that they should be baptized, baptisms become a place for big feasts. But these kinds of feasts pass, they are not a visible, demonstrable symbol, while the cross remains demonstrable. And because society in general is in fact mostly secular, the cross continues to remain just a symbol, people pass by it without it playing any significant role in their life.”
Karine Ghazaryan is a freelance journalist covering Armenia.