by Suren Musayelyan
If faith has a scent, for millions of believers in the Armenian Apostolic Church, it is the smell of oily paraffin burning messages to God. All across Armenia, lighting candles is a unifying ritual.
For believers in Armenia, most of those thousands of candles, which are melted daily for thousands of reasons, originates in a small factory on the grounds of the Mother See in Holy Etchmiadzin.
There, the workshop that turns out 30,000,000 candles, some 200 tons a year, is also the main source of the Church's non-donor income. Only 20 percent of the Mother See's yearly budget is generated by its own means, and candle sales provide the bulk. It is estimated that an additional 20,000,000 candles lit by the faithful are purchased through outside vendors or stores.
From its temporary home in the Gayane Monastery (while Holy Etchmiadzin undergoes widespread construction and renovation), the factory provides candles of identical form and quality to all dioceses in Armenia. Later this year, or next year, it will move to new premises near the Miabanakan (monastic) residential building where there will be a general service structure, including workshops, a garage, and a forge shop.
The new factory is being built in accordance with all modern requirements. It will have a larger space, including a warehouse, and upgraded equipment.
Fr. Matevos Poghosian, Father-Superior at Hripsime Monastery in Etchmiadzin, who is also in charge of candle production, says the new premises will help increase output. He says, too, that the increased demand for candles is an indication that the Church's general mission to reclaim its place in the spiritual life of the Armenian nation is having success.
Currently 15-19 tons of candles are produced a month depending on demand, which increases during religious holidays, such as Easter.
"Demand has been on the rise over the last three years and continues to grow," Fr. Matevos says.
The new factory will have six production lines instead of the current four, two of which will be operated when there is a demand for increased output, or if the main ones need repair.
Growth in the number of churchgoers has increased demand for candles.
Yet, 20 years ago, with many fewer churchgoers, the annual sale of 15 million candles could fully cover the expenses of the Mother See. That, though, is more an indication of how meager the Church budget was.
In Armenia, candle lighting is a long-standing tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church: invested with a symbolic meaning, it has been handed down from generation to generation. People come to church "to light a candle" and this tradition is reflected in people's sayings and perceptions.
"It is good that people keep the traditions of the past, but on the other hand it is important that they come to church not only to light a candle, but rather to satisfy their spiritual needs," Fr. Matevos says.
Lighting a candle symbolizes the light of God's essence and warmth, and getting rid of darkness.
"It doesn't matter how many candles you light. You can light one, 10, or more, it should come from your heart and be affordable to you. It should be done in a sincere way and not formally. There is no Church order on how many candles should be lit. It entirely comes from people's hearts," Fr. Matevos explains.
In the past candles were produced in different ways, beginning with handmade, dipping and moving a thread into melted paraffin as many times as needed until it got the desired thickness. They were also prepared in templates. Now production lines are used-a thread rolling on a drum going through paraffin through corresponding holes to another drum, 20 times from one to another until the desired size is achieved.
Three types of candles are produced at the factory now. Two of them are of yellow-orange color, and one variety of larger white ones. There are also plans for new candles for special church festivals that would be red or green.
Fr. Matevos says that the quality of paraffin used to be low, due to the blockade and geopolitical problems that restricted trade, but now, under His Holiness's direction, high-quality paraffin is imported from Iran.
"This quality is what we want," Fr. Matevos says, adding that no one should be expected to get oily hands during worship. "In the past we had no problems with that, as the Russian paraffin was of high quality. Now there are problems with transportation of Russian paraffin, the railroad does not function and it involves expenses and risks to transport," he says, hoping that one day the blockade with Turkey and Azerbaijan will be lifted.
Paraffin is an oil product and is not available for production in Armenia. Fr. Matevos hopes, however, that the recently announced construction of an oil refinery in Meghri may open new prospects for paraffin production in Armenia.
Currently, the factory has seven workers, including the manager of production, all of them laymen. Fr. Matevos is responsible for the production matters from the Church and is not on the staff list. All of the laborers are men; there is no gender restriction, simply candle production involves hard labor.
Workers receive wages according to their output. Their salaries are considerably above pay scale for average factory labor in Armenia, but both labor and management point out that the work is more demanding due to the nature of the product.
There are no faith restrictions for workers, but there are standards. It is a Church candle factory and the standards and sizes have not changed for 20 years.
Prices for candles are the same in all churches across the republic. Since the introduction of the national currency in 1993, it was 20, 40 and 100 drams depending on size and thickness. Only one time, in 2003, prices were raised, to 40, 60 and 150 drams, respectively (about 15-40 cents). Fr. Matevos says the current prices are not high either, considering inflation.
Norayr Khachatrian, 62, the director of the candle factory, says their work is important in many ways, not least because their products are used by the faithful.
Laborers work six days a week, seven hours a day Monday to Friday and five hours on Saturday.
All workers are from Etchmiadzin, except one from Yerevan. Khachatrian says their main difficulties are connected with the current outdated conditions, but the new well-equipped factory building will solve many problems connected with production.