Rendering of Armenian oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan's planned Jesus monument at Mount Hatis (image via YouTube)

Statues of Jesus are not a thing in the country that prides itself as the first to adopt Christianity as its national religion. But Armenia’s glitziest business tycoon, whose personal style a US Ambassador once described as one that “would make Donald Trump look like an ascetic,” is about to change that. 

When Gagik Tsarukyan announced in 2022 that he would build the world’s tallest statue of Jesus, the Armenian Church that counts him as a megadonor expressed polite dissent: The 1,700-year-old Armenian ecclesiastical tradition rejects three-dimensional Christ figures as idols.  

A resourceful man, Tsarukyan quickly rebranded his pious pet project as a tourism development plan. Before anyone knew it, he conducted a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9, attended by Armenia’s Minister of Economy Vahan Kerobyan and a UN official, on the mountaintop of historical Hatis. 

YouTube video

And groundbreaking it was. Mount Hatis, which Tsarukyan has managed to acquire piece by piece, is a state-protected national monument. In addition to its fauna and flora and its status as a CNN-recognized top world hiking destination located on the Silk Road, Mount Hatis boasts about 20 historical sites. The ceremony partly destroyed a pre-Christian fortress that once adorned the mountaintop, while others may have been damaged during road construction and infrastructure development for the new project.

Tsarukyan’s giant Jesus statue doesn’t only ignore Orthodox Christianity, but also embraces Eurocentric constructions: Mount Hatis is a rare evoker of Armenia’s pagan past. The ancient toponym is thought to derive from the resurrection deity Attis, a god of Asia Minor, a variant of whom is known in Armenian mythology as King Ara the Beautiful and referenced as Er the Son of Armenios in Plato’s Republic. In the Armenian account, Ara is accidentally killed when the Assyrian queen Semiramis (Shamiram) invades Armenia in a desperate attempt to forcefully win his love. Incidentally, Mount Hatis has also been called Mount Shamiram, and the mountaintop archaeological site that Tsarukyan recently damaged is still known locally as Shamiram’s fortress.

On paper, Mount Hatis is protected by Armenian laws. But the project has the backing of Armenia’s once popular Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, under whose leadership Armenians suffered a devastating defeat in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, and who is now courting his long-time foe, Tsarukyan, to prevent his return to politics. 

Gagik Tsarukyan (far right) at a groundbreaking ceremony of his Jesus monument (photo courtesy Radio Free Europe/Azatutyun)

More than post-war Armenia’s weakness and an oligarch’s oversized influence, it is the restrained opposition by one of the world’s oldest institutions — the Armenian Church — that is most surprising. Opposing idols is not just a matter of preference. The founding of the Armenian Church in 301 ushered in the erasure of every perceived idol, eliminating numerous pagan objects. The practice has continued over the centuries. In 1874, while renovating the Mets Astvatsatsin monastery in Agulis (later flattened during post-Soviet Azerbaijan’s complete erasure of the region’s Armenian past), unearthed ancient pagan statues were swiftly destroyed as idols by zealot construction workers. Today, repeat acts of vandalism against a small statue of Jesus (Armenia’s only three-dimensional Jesus figurine), placed in the town of Metsamor in 2005, suggest that zealot opposition to idols remains strong. 

However, Tsarukyan’s supporters argue that the Armenian Church itself has recently embraced holy statues. Over the past two decades, statues of several saints or historical leaders of the Armenian Church have been constructed at churches throughout the country; although to be fair, those are not objects of worship. The tycoon isn’t challenging the church, not knowingly so: In fact, he plans to build 1,700 steps leading to the Jesus statue — to honor the age of the Armenian Church. 

Many ordinary Armenians will likely embrace the giant Jesus statue as an object of worship. A small-scale precedent exists in the famous Yot Verk church in Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri, which houses a large Roman Catholic crucifix that — along with the local Catholic parish — was given refuge during Stalinist repressions. The crucifixion statue has since become a major sacred object for many residents of Gyumri, often generating hours of lines during special occasions. In fact, the statue is probably even more popular than the famous “Seven Wounds of Christ” icon itself (the Armenian Church accepts images and relief carvings) kept at the namesake church. 

Given the Armenian Church’s tradition of embracing some popular beliefs, one day the Church may have to, post facto, embrace the giant Jesus statue. After all, Armenia’s unique brand of Christianity has harmonized fundamental principles of Christianity with popular pagan practices, such as the Vardavar water festival, the August grape blessing, and the winter Trndez fire jumping festival. But why tolerate an oligarch’s challenge of Armenian Church traditions? Money and power have historically been factors in Christianity, explains the University of Hamline Visiting Professor Artyom Tonoyan, a scholar of the sociology of religion. “Power and money may not shape official doctrine and theology, to the degree they used to anyway, but they do inspire certain popular practices that are to their core doctrinally suspect and heterodox,” he told Hyperallergic

Even if the Armenian Church was to embrace the giant Jesus statue, environmentalists, preservationists, and tour agencies would be up in arms. Monument Watch, an initiative launched in 2020 to monitor the fate of Armenian sites under Azerbaijan’s newfound control, was among the first to speak up, announcing that “It is impossible to look at the destruction of Mount Hatis without shuddering, which is being carried out with acceptance and permission of the Armenian authorities,” also calling it “a gross violation of the Armenian legislation on the protection of cultural heritage.” 

After public backlash, relevant Armenian government bodies announced that they had not approved the project on Mount Hatis. In separate statements, the ministries of nature and culture condemned the destruction of Hatis, saying they disagreed with the location without opposing the prime minister’s green light for the idea in general. But there is not much local outrage, possibly because the project would create jobs for the local villagers, although they would also lose grazing grounds for cattle. 

The project has been officially halted, but Tsarukyan’s contracted sculptors are reportedly building the statue at the art studio. The oligarch is moving ahead with it, determined to surpass Rio de Janeiro’s famed Christ the Redeemer. Currently, the world’s tallest Jesus statue is in western Poland, measuring a combined 172 feet, counting the pedestal. The plan for the Mount Hatis monument calls for a 253-foot-tall statue. 

But Tsarukyan may be in for an unpleasant surprise: His team seems to have failed to find out that a statue of that same height is reportedly being built in Mexico. 

Even if it fails to become the world’s tallest Jesus statue, there is still considerable profit potential attached. Despite its presentation as a philanthropic effort, it can yield significant revenue and not just through the complex’s planned restaurants and exhibits. A digital model of the project shows several dozen planned luxury structures that look like houses or lodge rentals, a nearly guaranteed high return in Armenia’s booming real estate.

While it is difficult to ascertain the true motivations behind the statue, it’s hardly for profit. Like with most grandiose projects, it’s probably a monument to Tsarukyan’s favorite person: himself, of whom he speaks in the third person. The availability of extra plots behind the statue may suggest a desire for future personal use, perhaps a necropolis for the tycoon and his family. Did I mention that the giant Jesus statue will glow at night?

Simon Maghakyan has been researching Eurasian politics of cultural erasure since 2005. He lectures on International Relations at the University of Colorado, Denver and has worked with advocacy organizations...