Summer in Armenia

In summer, Armenia’s Christians observe religious customs with mysterious antecedents.

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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The rites and liturgies of the Armenian Apostolic Church always commemorate important events in the life of Christ and the church. Certain popular observances and customs in Armenia recall, however, the religious and national traditions of its pre-Christian past – an interesting point since Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion.

The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – Vardavar in Armenian – is one of the church’s most important feasts. Celebrated on 11 July, the feast is marked by a popular custom: On that day people pour cold water on each other.

Last July, in the Ararat region, some 30 miles from the capital of Yerevan, four young Armenians – Karine, Armen, Lilit and Andranik – pulled themselves out of bed earlier than usual, hurried through breakfast and raced to fill buckets with cold water. Meeting on the main road in their village, they doused each other, then raced back to refill their buckets. Soaked from head to toe, they removed their shirts and shoes and, with buckets in hand, looked like hunters waiting for their prey.

By midday, more children from the village had joined them. Now they numbered a dozen, all gathered in one spot, each holding a filled bucket. In the absence of villagers on foot, the children poured water onto passing cars, an unfortunate happenstance for those who forgot to close their windows. As the cars approached the children, drivers naturally slowed down, giving the children – now overwhelmed with excitement – the opportunity to open car doors and drench drivers and passengers.

Although young and old alike practice this custom, it is mostly the children who engage in this traditional “sprinkling.”

Due to water shortages in Yerevan, the element is a precious commodity not to be wasted. As a result, water is generally used with moderation. Despite the shortages, the “sprinkling” scene just described is not a rare sight in the streets of the capital either. Some people laugh and take their dousing in good humor, while others get angry, protest or try to convince the children not to drench them, most of the time in vain.

“If you dare to go out on Vardavar, you must be ready and willing to face the consequences – that is, to get totally soaked,” said Vartan, a young resident of Yerevan.

“I don’t know the religious meaning attached to this feast, but I know this custom has been practiced for centuries in Armenia and will continue for a long time to come,” he added.

The exact origins of Vardavar are not known. It is generally believed that in the early fourth century Gregory, the son of a Parthian noble, in an attempt to Christianize the Armenians, destroyed the temples built to honor Armenia’s pagan gods. Known as St. Gregory the Illuminator, Apostle to the Armenians, he constructed churches on sacred pagan sites and transformed pagan revels into Christian feasts.

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Tags: Armenia Pilgrimage/pilgrims Armenian Apostolic Church