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RELIGIOUS TRAVEL: IN SEARCH OF THE CROSS

A trip to find the world’s first fully Christian lands could take you places you might never expect. Like Africa.

If I say “religious travel,” what destinations come to your mind? Virtually every religion has its own “holy land,” sacred sites on sacred ground that is the distant goal of many a pilgrim, from the most ancient time up to the present.

But an honest, open-minded search for that sacred ground might take you to some unexpected places on your modern world map.

Take Christianity. Were we to start talking about a trip to the Holy Land, the first region to come to your mind almost certainly would be the Middle East, and for lots of very good reasons.

Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq — they all have places in the Biblical narrative. So does Turkey, which isn’t actually part of the Middle East, but form a land bridge of sorts between Europe and Asia.

And, of course, there’s always Rome, Vatican City, the Holy See.

But what about Armenia? And especially what about Ethiopia? Do either of these lands enter into your thinking when you’re imagining that dream religious journey?

They should.

Armenia, not Roman Catholic Italy, lays claim to being the first Christian nation. That alone would be reason enough for a Christian to want to walk this land.

That claim, however, has a major challenger. More on that in a moment.

ARMENIA
Is this country part of Eastern Europe, Western Asia or the Middle East? Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s no doubt at all, though, that Armenia down through the ages has been a crossroads of history, much of it tragic.

On a map of the world, Armenia is a little potato chip of a country, hemmed in on all sides by larger and more powerful neighbors. The country is bounded by Russia, the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.

At various times in its history, it has been possessed, dominated or fought over by almost all of them. On a per capita basis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a people whose history is more thoroughly soaked in their own blood.

Yerevan holds three different distinctions in Armenia:

  • It’s the national capital.
  • Its population of 1.1 million — roughly the size of San Diego — also makes it Armenia’s largest city.
  • It’s been around since 782 BC, making it one of the oldest cities on Earth that people still call home.

The city is celebrating its 2,797th anniversary on Oct. 15.

It sits in the shadow of Mount Ararat — yes, that Mount Ararat, the dormant volcano where the Bible tells us Noah’s ark came to rest after riding out the great flood.

Yerevan was also a major stop on the Silk Road, the great ancient trade route between China and Europe.

These days, Yerevan is the physical heart and cultural soul of Armenia. A café culture, jazz, a passion for wine, nice cars, good times.

It’s also a relatively cheap destination. You can score a 4-star hotel here for US$100 a night or less. Five-stars go for well under $200. Into shopping? Prices in Yerevan run about 25 percent cheaper than those in Western Europe.

There are guided religious tours available in Yerevan that will take you deep into Armenia’s rich Christian history, and escorted pilgrimage tours to the most important Christian sites around the country, most of which are open 24 hours and free to the public.

Not all of Armenia’s attractions are ancient. You reach the ancient Tatev monastery via a cable car suspended more than 1,000 feet above the Vorotan River Gorge. At 3.5 miles, it’s the longest such suspended cable car line in the world, according to the folks at Guinness.

In 301 AD, Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion, a fact in which Armenians take great pride. But was it really the first Christian nation?

There are those who will tell you that title may rightly belong to another ancient land…in Africa.

ETHIOPIA
The land once known as Abyssinia may not have made Christianity its state religion until 330 AD, three decades after Armenia, but its roots in the church are at least as old as those of Armenia.

And there are those who assert that those roots might be even older. Among them are Mario Alexis Portella, a Catholic priest in Florence, Italy, and Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber, a Cistercian monk from Eritrea. Together, they wrote the book “Abyssinian Christianity: The First Christian Nation?”

DID YOU KNOW?
The King James Bible mentions Ethiopia by name 45 times.

Armenia? Twice.

There’s no disputing the fact that Ethiopia contains some of the most ancient and priceless sites in all of Christendom, including its famed rock churches.

And then, there are the castles. Yes, castles in Africa, a whole complex of them, in Gondar.

It also holds a special place in Africa’s political history: It is the only nation on the Mother Continent which has never been colonized.

Ethiopia is home to nine UN World Heritage sites, and several more that probably should be.

Great as its natural and historical attractions may be, however, the best reason for visiting Ethiopia may be its people — beautiful, ancient people proud of their culture, their heritage and their faiths.

Aside from its own attractions, Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is a great jump-off point for exploring the rest of East Africa. The fact that the national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, has one of the most extensive route maps across the entire Mother Continent doesn’t hurt, either.

In June, Ethiopian is due to begin flying from Los Angeles (LAX) to Addis Ababa (ADD) by way of Dublin, Ireland (IRE), making it the first Africa airline to fly directly from the West Coast.

Armenia. Ethiopia. Even within traveling within the context of Christianity, it’s still possible to think — and travel — outside the box.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

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