In 451, Armenians were the first Christians to
The year 428 ad brought an end to Armenia's Arsacid (Arshakuni) monarchy, which had ruled the country since 52 ad, when its founder, Trdat I, received his crown from the Roman emperor Nero. Most of Armenia then fell under the rule of the Persian Sassanids and was governed by marzbans (governors-general), appointed by the king of Persia. The marzban was invested with supreme power, including the power to impose death sentences, but could not interfere with the privileges of the Armenian nobility. Of the 35 successive marzbans who ruled during a 200-year period, six were Armenians.
In spite of the Arsacid monarchy's demise, the Armenians preserved their cultural identity through the spiritual power of their Christian faith. King Trdat III (286336) had declared Christianity to be the state religion in 301 ad, thereby making Armenia the first officially Christian nation on earth. (The first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great, did not announce his conversion until 312.) Following the invention of the Armenian alphabet in 405, the Bible and works of the church fathers were translated into Armenian between 422 and 432, filling the soul of the nation with a fervent Christian zeal.
During the marzbanic period, the Persians launched a series of intermittent persecutions against the Christian Armenians. In particular, King Yazdegird II (438457), wanted to pressure the Armenians to accept Zoroastrianism, which included the worship of the supreme god Ahura Mazda. By doing so, he hoped to prevent any future alliance based on religion between the Armenians and Persia's archenemy, the Eastern Roman Empire.
Yazdegird called the Armenian nobles to his court at Ctesiphon. Mihr-Nerseh, the grand vizier, promulgated an edict enjoining the Armenians to give up "the erroneous and foolish ways of the Romans, thus depriving themselves of the benefits of the Persian perfect religion."
After returning to their country in 449, the Armenians held a general assembly in Artashat to ponder an answer to the edict. Catholicos Hovsep presided over the meeting. It was attended by 17 bishops, 18 major nakharars (feudal lords), many noblemen and prominent priests, whose spokesman was the Erets (priest) Ghevond.
The Armenians' reply to Mihr-Nerseh concluded with the following words: "From this belief [Christianity] no one can move us; neither fire, nor sword, nor water, nor any other horrid tortures. All our goods and our possessions are in your hands, our bodies are before you; dispose of them as you will.
"If you leave us to our belief, we will here on earth choose no other lord in your place, and in heaven choose no other God in place of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God but him."
When the Persian king was informed of their rejection, he flew into a rage and sent an order for the chief dignitaries of Armenia to appear before him in Ctesiphon. Fifteen came, headed by Vassak Siuni and Vardan Mamikonian. Before receiving them in audience, Yazdegird had sworn "by the Sun God, that if tomorrow morning, at the rise of the magnificent one [the sun], the nobles would not kneel before it with him, and acknowledge it as god, they would be imprisoned and chained, their wives and children exiled into distant lands, and the imperial troops and herds of elephants would be sent to Armenia to demolish their churches."
The dignitaries opted to make a pretense of yielding, for the sake of their homes and families. Yazdegird, in great joy, heaped honors and gifts upon them and sent them off to Armenia accompanied by 700 Magi, to convert the entire country to Zoroastrianism, or Mazdaism.
Scarcely had the strange cavalcade crossed the frontier, 420 miles east of Dvin, when a horde of Armenian peasants, armed with clubs and slings and led by the fiery priest Ghevond, assailed the trespassers and sent them fleeing.
The Armenian leaders, most of them ashamed of their sham apostasy, avoided appearing in public. Many young men and women were ready to fight and die for their Christian faith if the Persian king made good his threat of an armed invasion. They had implicit confidence in their commander, Vardan Mamikonian.
Vardan was the son of Sparapet (general) Hamazasp Mamikonian and Sahakanush, the daughter of the Catholicos Sahak Bartev, a descendent of Gregory the Illuminator. The Roman Emperor Theodosius II (408450) and the Persian King Bahram V (421438) had both conferred the rank of general upon Vardan. He had visited Constantinople on diplomatic missions. As a commander of Armenian contingents of the Persian army, with a record of service in 40 engagements, he had won laurels in campaigns in Khorassan (modern Turkestan).
With war now inevitable, Vardan dispatched a delegation to the Eastern Roman court for help, but he was met with bitter disappointment. Atilla the Hun, ruling over a territory that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Rhine, was threatening Constantinople. The Roman emperor had drained his meager treasury to purchase peace with the barbarian. As long as the Huns menaced the very gates of the capital, no Roman emperor dared irritate that other great enemy, the king of Persia.
On Easter Day, April 13, 451, the Persian army, numbering 300,000 men, arrived at a location between Her and Zarevand (Khoy and Salmast in present-day Iran). The army's center was held by the division of the "Immortals"--10,000 horsemen. A herd of trained elephants, each carrying an iron tower full of bowmen, was another menace. The rear guard was reinforced by a column of elephants, on one of which, in a barbed tower, sat the commander, Mushkan Nusalavurd, viewing the entire battlefield and directing movements.
The Armenian forces, comprised of 66,000 cavalry and infantry and accompanied by a considerable number of clergy, camped near the village of Avarair in the Plain of Shavarshakan (modern Maku, in the northwestern corner of Iran). The rivulet Ighmud ("muddy"), a tributary of the Araxes River, separated the two armies.
On May 26, Vardan, who from childhood had been well versed in the Holy Scriptures, read aloud the heroic deeds of the Jewish Maccabees, who successfully fought against the Seleucid tyrant Anthiochus IV (175164 bc) in defense of their faith. Then Ghevond delivered a discourse.
Eghishé, a contemporary chronicler, described the Battle of Avarair, to which he was an eyewitness: "One should have seen the turmoil of the great crisis and the immeasurable confusion on both sides, as they clashed with each other in reckless fury. The dull-minded became frenzied; the cowards deserted the fields; the brave dashed forward courageously, and the valiant roared. In a solid mass the great multitude held the river; and the Persian troops, sensing the danger, became restless in their places; but the Armenian cavalry crossed the river and fell upon them with a mighty force. They attacked each other fiercely and many on both sides fell wounded on the field, rolling in agony."
Upon seeing his left flank crumbling before the Persians, Vardan led a counterattack that cut off and destroyed the Persian right wing. Mushkan, however, rallied his troops and committed his reserves. Vardan and his warriors were surrounded by the Persian vanguard and went down fighting.
The battle continued until evening. By that time, 1,036 Armenians and 3,544 Persians lay dead in heaps on the battlefield. The survivors were scattered over the hilltops and in more protected valleys. Despite the heavier Persian casualties, Mushkan had won the day. Vardan had fallen in battle, and there was no longer any chief who could rally his remaining troops.
Though beaten, however, the Armenian army was far from destroyed. Vahan Mamikonian, son of the great Vardan's brother Hmayak, took charge and led the Armenians in a guerrilla war that flared around strongholds and along impregnable heights for the next 33 years.
During that time, the Sassanids underwent three changes of rulers, and also had to deal with external conflicts with Rome and a new wave of eastern barbarians known as the Ephthalites, or White Huns. After the death of King Peroz at the hands of the White Huns in 484, his brother and successor, Balash, made a serious reassessment of the long, inconclusive conflict in Armenia and sued for peace. Vahan sent messengers to the Persian camp, with proposals for liberties in Armenia, the main one being: "Religious worship in accordance with Christian doctrines and rites to be declared free in Armenia, and fire altars to be removed."
Balash accepted Vahan's terms, and in 484, a treaty was signed in the village of Nuwarsak. Vahan was appointed marzban of Armenia. His victory was celebrated in the Cathedral of Dvin, with the Catholicos Hovhan I Mandakuni (478490) officiating. Armenia had regained her autonomy and freedom of the national church and culture. Vahan ruled for 20 years (485505).
Vardan Mamikonian's analogy comparing the Armenians' struggle to that of the Jewish Maccabees proved to be remarkably apt. In both cases, followers of the Bible had fought for the right to worship in the face of religious oppression, and in each case the long, protracted struggle ended in a negotiated settlement assuring those rights. Both struggles also produced martyred heroes--Judas Maccabee the Hammer and Vardan Mamikonian the Brave.
The Vardanian War, as it came to be called in Vardan's honor, began on May 26, 451, but the Armenian church celebrates the event in February. In the past, spring was considered the season for warfare. Armenia's ecclesiastical fathers had decided to commemorate the event in February, before spring, in order to inspire the youth and prepare their minds for battle, in defense of church and fatherland.
By Antranig Chalabian
This is a new coin