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St. Vartan the Warrior

The Battle of Vartanantz

The Vartanantz' crisis occurred during the reign of King Yazdagird II of Persia, who ruled from A.D. 439 to 456. At the beginning of his reign, King Yazdagird II declared war on the Greeks, who, however being incapable of opposing him signed a peace treaty in 444, paying an annual tribute, and relinquishing to the tender mercy of the pagan Persians all of the former Christian subjects who had sought refuge with them [the Greeks]. The Armenians could not expect anything from Constantinople where an incompetent prince named Theodosius II bore the imperial crown, but the real power rested in the hands of a woman, Pulcheria (408-457), at a time when Attila's Huns were creating havoc in Europe and posing a threat to Constantinople.

The Sasanian Shahs occasionally took a lenient attitude toward Christianity and Judaism, but more frequently they maltreated and persecuted them in matters of religion and state. Christianity, especially the kind that was in communion with the Universal Church, was detestable to the Persians, since it constituted a bond between their Western subjects and the Greeks, and an obstacle to the integration of various elements in the state.

The two striking accomplishments during the reign of Yazdagird II were, first, the persecutions against the Christians and Jews, and second, the endless wars against the White Huns and Hephthalites who lived on the eastern borders of Persia. Yazdagird's efforts failed in both ventures, and we can perhaps state that at least on this occasion the barbaric Turks unintentionally assisted the Christians in making the implementation of Yazdagird's disastrous plan come to naught.

In order to understand the real meaning of the passionate, tearful and bloody disturbances during the Vartanantz war and its sequel in Armenia, it is necessary to keep in mind the well-known religio-political aims of the Sasanian government. The Magi exercised a domineering influence on the Sasanian court, which on many occasions expressed its authority to its subjects of other religious persuasions with fire and the sword.

This stubborn and opportunistic policy of propaganda forged in Ctesiphon (the capital of the Sasanian empire) represented a real trial for Vartan's and Vassak's character and course.

The War of Vartan

It is said that the Armenians are descendants of tribes from Thrace, a region of northern Greece, who invaded Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the mid-second millennium B.C. Some of these tribes settled around the western coasts, and these people came to be called the Phrygians by Classical Greek writers. Others penetrated farther inland, conquering the mighty Hittites and settling somewhere to the west of Lake Van, in lands occupied by yet another people, the Urarteans.

Urartu was weakened by constant war with its powerful southern neighbor, Assyria, and it seems that the tribes from the west became the rulers of the various provinces of Urartu in the neighborhood of Van. They called themselves hay, a word which probably comes from a form of hatti or "Hittite," the name of the empire over whose territory they had passed in their long migration. But others called them Armenians, probably after the first part of the name of the province of Arme-Shupria, where they had first settled. Assyria itself was destroyed at the end of the 7th century B.C. by a new power, the Medians, who had probably conquered the Armenian highlands several decades earlier.

The Medians, an Iranian people, seem to have appointed the Armenians as satraps, or provincial governors, of the conquered lands of the Armenian plateau with its largely non-Armenian population. In ancient times, alliances were sealed not so much by written documents as by marriages between noble families, and Medians and Armenians probably intermarried.

The Armenians had adopted many of the religious traditions of the various Anatolian peoples with whom they had come in contact, in addition, of course, to the native customs of their own Thraco-Phrygian ancestors. Yet at this early stage the Armenians came into close contact with pre-Islamic Iran; of all the peoples encountered by the Armenians in the formative period of their culture, the Iranians were without a doubt the most important and influential. It was a relationship that was to last, unbroken, for 1,300 years.

In its most basic form, the religion of the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) teaches that from the beginning there existed two spirits: one wise, good and creative; the other confused, evil and destructive. The wise one was called Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom; the evil one was called Angra Mainyu, the Evil Spirit. Only the first of these two is worthy to receive the reverence of men, but because there are two spiritual existences in this cosmic scheme that Zoroaster saw, the good and the evil, Zoroastrianism is called dualistic. Judaism and Christianity -- and later, Islam, as well -- are fundamentally different, since in them all things, good and evil alike, proceed from a single origin, the all-powerful God.

Zoroaster taught further that Ahura Mazda created the spirits of men as well as various supernatural beings, and all these became his servants -- the latter by their nature, the former by free will. Ahura Mazda was not all-powerful, for if he had been, he surely would have destroyed Angra Mainyu. But he was wise and could create, while Angra Mainyu could only destroy. So Ahura Mazda created this material world perfect and beautiful, knowing that Angra Mainyu would be lured into it as into a trap, there to be opposed and ultimately destroyed by good men, Ahura Mazda, and his spiritual beings all working together.

Through one of those spiritual beings -- Vohu Manah, the Good Mind -- Zoroaster was instructed in the way one must live. Zoroastrians believe that through good thoughts, good words and good deeds they fight Angra Mainyu, who has indeed invaded the world. Over the three millennia that Zoroastrianism -- which its own adherents call Mazda-worship or simply the Good Religion -- has been practiced in the world, its pre-eminent symbol has been fire, whose light, warmth and power are seen to oppose demonic darkness, cold and death. Zoroastrians tend sacred fires in their temples, carefully covering the glowing embers with ash to keep them warm between religious ceremonies. Non-Zoroastrians, partly through ignorance and partly through malice, have called the Good Religion fire-worship (krakapashtut'iun) or even ash-worship (mokhrapashtut'iun).

It may be worthwhile to recall, however, that for about a thousand years Zoroastrianism was the main influence on the spiritual culture of the Armenian people, and when we come to consider the armed confrontation between Christians and Zoroastrians that is commemorated on Vartanantz, it is well to remember also the tragic character of that war. For the Armenians and Iranians were very closely linked to each other by many common elements of language, culture, and social structure.

The Christian Armenians went to war with reluctance; the religion they fought could in no respect be regarded as pagan. As we shall see, their enemy was rather fanaticism, an imperial power which sought to subjugate all men, in whose talons religion was but a tool. The struggle of Vartan was one whose principles and ideals should be alive to us.

In the early third century A.D., Armenia was ruled by a branch of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty that ruled Iran. At banquets, the Armenian king sat to the right of the Parthian King of Kings; often, the son of a Parthian king would rule Armenia until his time came to mount the throne of Iran. The rule of the king was not absolute; in both Iran and Armenia noble families whose landed property was sometimes the size of a small country exercised considerable sovereignty and sometimes rebelled openly if they disagreed with a royal policy. Parts of southwestern Armenia appear to have been almost completely independent, and their status was supported by the Roman empire, which regarded Parthia with hostility and periodically intervened in Armenia.

The Armenian king enforced his power as best he could, sometimes exterminating whole noble families to crush rebellion. More often, though, the nobles (who were called nakharars, an Iranian word) would withdraw to their impregnable fortresses in the mountain fastnesses of the rugged Armenian plateau.

Although Armenian society appears at first glance to have been more a complex family squabble than a state, it worked. Each nakharardom had a hereditary role to play in the religion and government of the country. The Vahuni clan, for instance, were the priests of Vahagn (the Armenian name of the Zoroastrian divine being Verethraghna, whose strength and favor supported the Arsacid dynasty; whose seal was a wild boar, symbol of Vahagn). The Mamigonians were the commanders-in-chief of the army. Another clan, the Bagratunis, placed the crown on the king's head, and held another part of the key to his legitimacy. Each nakharardom had its place, its power, and its indispensability. And over them all was the bnik ter, the "natural lord" of the land, the Arsacid king.

Just as one's role in the kingdom was determined not by a civil service examination but by birth, so the rules of proper public conduct for noblemen were considered inherent, inborn if you will. Law and manners were a single concept called in Parthian advenak and in Armenian awren-k' (which, through the application of certain regular sound changes, can be shown to be a borrowing from the Parthian form). One of these rules was that of blood ties, Arsacids engaged in frequent and bloody feuds amongst themselves, but woe betide the foreigner who raised his hand against the king; the relatives of the slain monarch were sworn to exact vengeance, no matter how long it might take or how impolitic it might be.

Another rule was, of course, the sanctity of temples. At that time, Zoroastrian temples contained sacred fires, images of the various divinities, and images of ancestors, particularly royal ancestors. The Armenian word for a temple was mehean, which probably meant originally 'the place of Mithra, Mithra being an important supernatural being of the Zoroastrian pantheon. (We find him in the Armenian national epic of Sasun as Mher.) A fire-altar was called by the Iranian word atrushan; an image-shrine was called bagin, also from Parthian; and the spirits of the ancestors were called hro(r)ts, from an old Iranian word fravart. The latter name survives in the name of the 12th month of the Armenian calendar, Hrot-its', meaning the month of the spirits, corresponding to the Zoroastrian month of Fravashayo, in which a festival similar to the Christian All Souls' Day is celebrated.

Persia, or Pars, is a province in southwestern Iran. In the 6th century B.C. the Persians had wrested control of Iran from the Medians and had founded the great Achaemenian Empire, so named after its founder. The Achaemenians had ruled from the coasts of Asia Minor, threatening Greece itself, as far east as the borders of China. One of their kings, Cyrus, helped rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, which the Babylonians had destroyed, and was hailed by the Hebrew prophets as the anointed of God.

In the late 4th century B.C., the Achaemenian Empire was conquered by Alexander of Macedon, and only in the late 3rd century B.C. did the Parthians, a people from the north of Iran, east of the Caspian Sea, succeed in liberating all Iran from the rule of the Greek descendants of Alexander's generals. Pars came under Parthian rule, but preserved considerable regional independence -- and remembered its past grandeur.

In A.D. 224, the Persian Ardeshir, son of Papak and grandson of Sasan (who was a priest at the temple of Anahid, or Anahit, at Istakhr), rebelled against the Parthians. The Parthian kingdom was weakened by war with Rome and by internal strife: two brothers, Valakhsh and Ardavan, were fighting for the throne. Ardeshir was victorious. By 226, he was in effective control of the entire country, and the Parthian king Ardavan lay dead.

Our sources for the events that followed are, for Armenia at least, the work of historians of the 5th century or later, but what they tell us accords for the most part with contemporary records, amongst which are the 3rd century inscriptions of Persian kings and priests on stone. There is also a Persian text called the letter of Tansar (a Persian priest of the time of Ardeshir) which is in all likelihood a document of the 3rd century, although only a mediaeval version of it survives.

According to the latter, Ardeshir either confiscated or caused to be extinguished the sacred fires of those temples that had not been established by the Achaemenians. These measures were undertaken, it seems, in an effort to create a centralized religious bureaucracy to support a monolithic state. How did this policy affect the Armenians?

From the outset, it seems that Armenia remained effectively independent of the new Sasanian dynasty until about A.D. 252. The Armenian historian Movses Khorenats'i -- whose dates are uncertain, being estimated by some scholars as early as the 5th century and by others as late as the 8th -- writes that Ardeshir invaded Armenia and destroyed cult images and ancestral shrines of the Arsacids, but commanded that sacred fires be kindled and kept burning unceasingly. Agathangelos, whose name and identity are a mystery -- although his history was at all events composed earlier than that of Khorenats'i -- relates for his part that the Armenian king raided and destroyed Persia to avenge the death of his kinsman, Ardavan. It seems likely that the Persian invasion of Armenia probably took place, not under Ardeshir but under his successor, Shapur I, in 260.

Armenia seems to have preserved its independence under king Tiridates II ( called Khosrov by some writers, including Agathangelos); yet an inscription does survive which records the campaigns of Shapur I in various countries, including Armenia, in 260-1. The inscription, which covers historical events down to the year 293, was made by the Sasanian high priest Kartir on the side of a great stone building in Persia near the rock carvings of Naqsh-i Rustam, called the Ka'aba-yi Zardusht in modern Persian. The structure may have housed the Sasanian royal archives. In his inscription, Kartir boasts that he established sacred fires and persecuted unbelievers and heretics in the various foreign lands -- including Armenia -- which Shapur invaded. Near the inscription is a bas-relief, probably from the late 230's, showing the investiture of Ardeshir as king. The king, on horseback, is shown receiving the ring with tresses of the royal glory from another man-like figure on horseback facing him who is labeled Ahura Mazda, the Creator and supreme god of the Zoroastrians. Ardeshir is also identified, and called a divinity. Under the hoof of Ardeshir's mount lies the prostrate Ardavan; beneath Ahura Mazda's steed is a figure with snake-like curls who, it has been suggested, is Angra Mainyu, the Evil Spirit. This indelible example of political advertisement, in which the victory of Sasanian over Parthian is apparently equated with the triumph of Good over Evil, contains other information of interest to us.

It has been suggested that the Sasanians, in smashing the image-shrines of Armenia, were overthrowing a corrupt and syncretistic paganism and replacing it with a pure and iconoclastic cult of fire. Yet the carving at Naqsh-i Rustam depicts as a human eidolon Ahura Mazda himself: the Sasanians, at least in the 3rd century, were not averse to images when it suited their policies to make them. Armenia had fire altars before Ardeshir in any case, for the word atrushan mentioned above is pre-Sasanian. The Letter of Tansar states that the Sasanians dismantled fire temples in conquered territories wherever these did not serve their campaign of religious centralization. As for the suppression of the cult of the Arsacid ancestral spirits, one need only note that Ardeshir, and, indeed, later Sasanians, called themselves divine just as the Armenian Arsacids were praised as dits'akharrn, or "of divine parentage."

The cult of the Sasanians was from the beginning a political weapon against Zoroastrian Armenia, as it was to be against Christian Armenia in the 5th century. In 252, Tiridates II was murdered, tradition has it, by Anak Suren Pahlaw, a member of one of the great noble clans of Parthia and Armenia who had apparently been recruited by the Sasanians to destroy the Arsacid line. Anak, whose name means "sinful" in Parthian, consented to undertake the dreadful crime of regicide on condition that the Persians restore to him sovereignty over the ancestral lands of the Parthians.

When Tiridates was killed, the Armenian nobles hastened after the murderer and killed him by flinging him from the bridge called Tap'erakan at Artashat, and exterminated all his family except for two sons. One of these, Suren, was spirited off to Iran; the other was taken to the land of the Greeks. The saviors of the latter were, according to the historians Movses Khorenats'i and Zenob Glak, a Persian nobleman named Burdar (whose name means "carrier") and his Cappadocian Greek wife, Sophia (whose name means "wisdom"). These two raised the child in Caesarea.

Meanwhile, the Persians invaded Armenia and massacred the Arsacid royal family, but again a son was saved by his nurses and spirited off to Greek territory. The two stories are very similar, and reflect a theme common in ancient Armenian and Iranian epic literature: the murder of an entire clan except for one son, who is spirited away to safety and returns later as a man to exact vengeance. This cliche is not limited to the Armenians and Iranians; modern Greek tradition preserves the concept of the magia, the grain of yeast of the nation which miraculously survives wholesale destruction and regenerates the Hellenic people.

The death of Anak by casting from a bridge recalls the Armenian epic narrative of the Artaxiad king Artavazd, who for his sins -- he had rebuked his father, the dying Artashes -- is pulled from a bridge by impure spirits called aysk'. These events, although cast in ancient epic form and therefore not likely to be accurately reported in specific detail, seem to accord in the most general terms with subsequent events. Words like Anak and Burdar seem to be epithets, rather than the names of people who really lived. Yet the son of the former and the charge of the latter was none other than St. Gregory the Illuminator.

From 252 to 293, first Ormizd-Ardeshir, then Narseh (both sons of Shapur I) reigned as Great Kings of Armenia. Both were Sasanians, and each would became King of Kings of Iran. The Arsacids were, for the time being, vanquished. The title of Great King of Armenia is found in an Aramaic inscription at Garni from Parthian times. It refers to a king who was a "son of Vologas (Valakhsh) the king." It cannot be stated with precision who this was, for part of the inscription is illegible, and several kings named Valakhsh ruled Parthia in the 1st and 2nd centuries. What is clear is that the heir to the Parthian throne has served as king of the second kingdom of the Empire, Armenia, and the Sasanians renewed the practice presumably in order to strengthen their grip on the country. The difference was, of course, that the Parthian and Armenian kings had belonged to the same family, the Arsacids, while the new Great Kings would have been regarded as usurpers.

During this period, as the Sasanians developed their methods of administration, they seem to have used a vast variety of titles, both in religious and civil functions, which are not attested from earlier times and cannot be distinguished always with precision. Their policy in Armenia seems to have been to impose their rule, but in the guise of a traditional institution. The Armenians would have none of it.

Neither would the Romans. Throughout the 3rd century, the Romans and Iranians were at war. Iranians killed or captured Roman emperors in battle, and Romans set the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon, to the torch. Yet neither side managed to exclude the other entirely from a position of influence in Armenia. The return and coronation of an Arsacid king probably is to be seen as a compromise between the Sasanians and Romans; Narseh may have supported the restoration of the Arsacids in order to gain the support of the Roman emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305) against his brother Varahran. The Arsacid was Tiridates III, who, we remember, had escaped to Roman territory after the death of his father. Another exile returned from the west shortly thereafter: the son of the murderer of the father of Tiridates III had converted to Christianity and received the Greek name Gregory. When did he convince the king to be baptized a Christian, and why did the king do it?

The answers to these questions may never be known. The history of Agathangelos tells us that Tiridates murdered several Greek Christian travelers (St. Rhip'sime and her companions) and cast Gregory into the pit of Khor Virab when the latter refused to participate in Zoroastrian religious ceremonies. The king was turned into a wild boar for his evil deeds, and was finally cured by Gregory with the stipulation that he -- and all the Armenians -- become Christian. This account, like that of the escape of the two principal figures of it in their youth, seems to contain more value as an epic than as history. The wild boar was the symbol of the Zoroastrian divinity of strength and valor, Verethraghna (or in Armenian, Viihagn), and the seal of the Arsacid dynasty. The imprisonment of Gregory may recall the tribulations of other saints in other Christian traditions; there existed by the late 3rd century an abundant hagiographical literature.

Christianity probably found fertile soil for development in Armenia. The Armenian Church preserves a tradition of its foundation by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew in the 1st century, only a few decades after the crucifixion of Christ. While the historical veracity of such a tradition may be questioned, there is no doubt that Christians had settled in the country, for in the mid-3rd century there is attested a bishop Meruzanes (or in Armenian Meruzhan) who was probably a member of the princely family of the Artsrunis and resided in Sophene. This province was in the remote southwest of the country, close to the great Christian centers of Syria and Cappadocia, and was, when not under direct Roman control, at any rate independent of the king of Greater Armenia.

Several important trade routes of the ancient world passed through Armenia, and the country's cities were marketplaces of thought as well as of merchandise. The 3rd century religious innovator Mani, whose remarkable philosophy swept the civilized world (the 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo, in distant North Africa, practiced Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity), is known to have written an Epistle to the Armenians in the mid-3rd century. Mani's mother was a member of the noble Parthian Kamsarakan family, a branch of which lived in Armenia.

The early centuries of the Christian Era were a time of profound spiritual ferment which saw many new sects and many conversions; most of these teachings are grouped under the general name of Gnosticism, from a Greek words meaning "knowledge," that is, inspired insight into the causes and effects of human and natural phenomena. Through such knowledge, the Gnostics hoped to attain salvation from the tyranny of the passions and the misery of earthly suffering.

We have every reason to believe from the descriptions provided by Agathangelos of temples and rituals that Tiridates III was a pious Zoroastrian, but he would not have been the first to become a Christian. Many Persian noblemen were baptized into the faith and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Sasanian kings, for although foreigners were more or less tolerated in their alien dispensations, Iran did not suffer apostates from the native religion of the land, Zoroastrianism, to live and spread their contagion. Thus, the martyrologies written in Syriac by the Christians of Mesopotamia are replete with Persian names. One recalls also that Tiridates III had grown to manhood in Rome, where he would have been schooled in Greek philosophy and exposed to the Christian and Gnostic religious currents of the Mediterranean world. He also had no love for the Sasanians, so his conversion would not have been hampered by feelings of loyalty to the usurpers of the dominions of his ancestors.

The traditional date of the conversion of Tiridates by St. Gregory is A.D. 301, at which time the emperor Diocletian was engaged in the vigorous persecution of the Christians of the Roman Empire. It seems unlikely that Gregory would have taken a stance so provocative to such an important ally at that time. Maximin Daia, according to Eusebius, who wrote his Church History in the 4th century, attacked the Armenians, who, Eusebius adds, were Christians. This would have been circa 311, shortly before an edict was issued assuring the Christians of the Roman Empire religious freedom. It is not clear whether the Roman general was assisting Tiridates in his persecution of the Christians or whether he was fighting an already converted king. Historical evidence supports the former assumption, and the date suggested for the conversion of Tiridates and the consecration of Gregory as bishop at Caesarea is A.D. 314.

According to the chronology of Sebeos, who wrote in the 7th century, Tiridates had been crowned in 298; Gregory's consecration as bishop at Caesarea took place in the 17th year of Tiridates, 314. Sebeos places the murder of Khosrov and the deliverance of the infant Tiridates to Rome in 287; and Yeghishe, a historian of the 5th century, mentions that Tiridates' father had been killed by his brothers. The inscription of the Sasanian king Narseh at Paikuli mentions one Tirdat, King of Armenia, who congratulated him upon his accession to the throne of King of Kings in 293. It has been suggested that this Tirdat was one of the slayers of Khosrov, and that he was forgotten because of the horror of his fratricide and because his name is the same as that of his presumed nephew, Tiridates IV (who was converted to Christianity and to whom we have referred as Tiridates III above).

The 17 year of the presumed Tiridates III, the Tirdat of Narseh, would be 303, explaining the traditional date of the conversion of the Armenians. As for the date of 252 assigned to the murder of Khosrov II, it is suggested that this event was telescoped together with the flight of king Tiridates II to Rome. The above chronology, proposed by Cyril Toumanoff, answers many of the discrepancies and problems of dating presented in the Armenian texts, but some scholars still do not accept it. In presenting the history of the conversion we have sought to convey the character of Armenian epic tradition, whose ancient themes are called into service in the chronicle of the new faith. Toumanoff's revisions do not take these sufficiently into account St. Gregory is the son of Anak Suren Pahlaw -- his background is strongly emphasized in later Armenian tradition, and his descendants are buried at T'ordan, near the Arsacid necropolis of Ani, a right which would have been exercised only by the Parthian nobility. Although a universally accepted -- and acceptable -- history of Armenia in the 3rd century may never be written, it may be suggested that subsequent events show that the Armenian Church was from its very beginnings intimately linked to the dynastic structure of ancient Armenian society, its legitimacy based not only on its Apostolic foundations but upon Armenian epic tradition.

Both St. Gregory and king Tiridates were still alive in A.D. 325, when Gregory's son, Aristakes, was dispatched to the ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Although the Armenian Church participated in such gatherings and Armenia was considered a Christian land, it is unlikely that most Armenians had become Christian by that time. The 5th century historian P'austos Biuzand, in writing about the event of the 4th century, complains of attacks on churches and clergymen that were frequently inspired or led by members of the royal family. He singles out for attack King Pap (368-73), whom he blames for the murder of the Patriarch Nerses, the closing of churches, and the confiscation of ecclesiastical estates (which had been appropriated by the Christians from pagan temples; the estates of the cult of Anahit were particularly vast and rich). P'austos complains that the Armenians were Christian in name only, and that many of them went on celebrating the old rituals and singing the ancient epics in secret. An inscription in Greek from Mavafarkin, near modern Diyarbakir, invokes "the province of the gods." Some scholars ascribe this inscription to Pap, while others argue that Pap was nominally Christian and would not have consented to such usage.

Yet at the same time we find Meruzhan Artsruni, who is described as a traitor to the Armenian king but who was more likely the dynastic ruler of Sophene, exercising what he considered his proper sovereignty, destroying churches and constructing fire temples (atrushans) in their place. Vahan Mamigonian, too, is described by P'austos as embracing the laws of the Mazdezns (worshippers of Ahura Mazda, i.e., Zoroastrians). The city of Mayafarkin would have been within the region ruled by the Artsrunis at that time, and the inscription may be attributed to Meruzhan. After the reign of Pap, we find the body of the dead general Mushegh Mamigonian being taken by his grieving relatives to a tower in the hope that he might be revived by the aralezk (dog-like supernatural creatures which supposedly had brought back to life the legendary king Ara). The latter is to be identified with the dying and rising god Attis of ancient Anatolian mythology mentioned by Movses Khorenats'i in his retelling of the legend of Ara and Shamiram, and the survival of this belief gives some indication of the tenacity of pre-Christian religion in Armenia.

Later in the fourth century we find St. Mesrob campaigning against pagan customs in Goght'n (the modern district of Nakhichevan, in the eastern Armenian province of Siunik'), and Movses Khorenats'i, who lived at least half a century -- if not 300 years -later, claims that he heard with his own ears the pagan song of the birth of Vahagn there. We have no reason to disbelieve him.

Although P'austos waxed indignant at the recitation of pagan epics, he uses them often himself in his narrative. Pap is described as having snakes which sprout from his shoulders, like the evil tyrant Azhi Dahaka of Zoroastrian legend. Pap's father, Arshak II, is shown at an interview with the Sasanian king Shapur II. Unbeknownst to Arshak, Shapur has had half the tent in which they are standing covered with soil brought from Armenia. Whenever Arshak stands on native ground, as it were, he declares to Shapur his true, and hostile, intentions. The basis of this epic theme is that soil imparts strength, and is older than the Greek myth of Antaeus. The reason for Arshak's hostility has its roots in the ancient royal code of honor to which we have alluded before: he considers Shapur a usurper of the rightful power of the Arsacids, and it is his sworn duty to avenge the blood of Ardavan, however impolitic and inconvenient it may be.

If religious tolerance had been the hallmark of Parthian rule in the Near East, a tolerance often misinterpreted as weakness or lack of inner conviction and outward orthodoxy in the practice of Zoroastrianism, then fanaticism was quickly becoming the chief characteristic of Sasanian policy. Although after the conversion of Constantine the Sasanian Empire was to face another state with a bureaucracy more systematic and a state church more aggressive than its own, the persecution of other faiths had begun, as we have seen, long before Rome became Christian. There were many Jews living in Mesopotamia, and many of the scholars whose collected utterances are preserved in the Talmud were living at the end of the Parthian period and in the 1st centuries of Sasanian rule. When Ardavan died in 226, one scholar declared gloomy "the bond (of friendship) is snapped."

There were episodes of persecution under Shapur II (reigned 309-79), but it was under Yazdagird II (reigned 438-57) that observance of the Sabbath, the holiest obligation of the Jewish faith, was forbidden. It was in the reign of the same king that Armenia was to fight the crucial battle for survival that we shall describe presently.

In 387, the Roman and Persian empires concluded formally an arrangement that had existed in fact for centuries; they partitioned Armenia between them. In Persian Armenia, the Arsacid line continued to rule the country. One of the secretaries at the court of king Vrramshapuh (388-414) was a cleric named Mesrob, later surnamed Mashdots (361-440), who invented out of Aramaic, Pahlavi, and Greek elements a clear and elegant script with which every sound of the Armenian language could be transcribed. The importance of this achievement is understood when one considers that Iran itself used a perplexing and outdated script in which words were written in an ambiguous Aramaic shorthand and pronounced in Persian; the few inscriptions we have from Armenia before St. Mesrob seem to be a variant of the same system, or Greek. With their new script, the Armenians entered a cultural golden age in which numerous theological, philosophical, and historical texts were translated from Greek and Syriac, and original compositions were written in a lucid idiom which remained the standard of Armenian style down to the 19th century; the liturgy of the Armenian Church is still chanted in 5th century grabar, or Classical Armenian. Many of the Armenian historians were, or claimed to be, students of St. Mesrob.

A number of followers of the Christian heretical teacher Nestor fled Byzantine persecution to the safety of the Sasanian Empire, which was only too glad to welcome the enemies of its enemies, Christians who were not a potential fifth column of the Roman army. As the Nestorian church grew powerful in the Persian kingdom, it was anathematized by the Council of Ephesus in 431, a judgment to which the Armenian Church adhered. In 428, the last Armenian Arsacid king, Artashes, had been ousted from the throne by Iran, and the Armenian Catholicos, Sahak, was dethroned with him. The Armenians came under pressure to accept the authority of the Sasanian-dominated Nestorian Church. The situation worsened with the coronation of Yazdagird, mentioned above.

The story begins with the conscription of the Armenian cavalry to fight for Yazdagird on the eastern frontiers of Iran against the Kushans (more likely the Hephtahalites). When the king's forces are victorious, his Magi (Zoroastrian priests) inform him that this is a sign for him to make all of his subjects of one religion; one young Armenian nakharar nobleman named Karekin has already been put to death for rebuking attackers of the Christian faith.

While the Armenian forces are still conveniently distant, the Zoroastrian high priest Denshapuh is sent to Armenia to impose heavy taxes on the Christian Churches, and the Sasanian commander-in-chief, Mihrnerseh, sends a long letter to the Armenians demanding that they accept Zoroastrianism. The religion described by Mihrnerseh in his epistle is in fact a heterodox philosophy identical to that described by the 5th century Armenian theologian Eznik Koghbats'i in his book "The Refutation of Sects", according to which both Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were born of a single source, Zurvan, whose name means "Infinite Time." There is some evidence that this form of Zoroastrian teaching existed in Armenia, for we find a Mt. Zurvan in the country, the mention of Zurvan in a creation myth related by Movses Khoienats'i, and a reference to "four Aramazds" by the same author which may be a reference to the four aspects of Srvan. A modern Armenian legend about time as an old man on a mountain who unrolls black and white spools of thread representing night and day may go back to old beliefs concerning. Zurvan.

Hovsep, bishop of the central region of Ayrarat, replies to Mihrnarseh in a letter signed by the bishops of 17 other nakharardoms defending Christianity. The letter is read in the great Khonastan, the palace of the King of Kings at Ctesiphon, and the king orders that 10 Armenian nakharars come before him, including Vasak Siuni, the marzpan (Sasanian appointed governor of Armenia), and Vartan Mamigonian, the commander-in-chief. They arrive on Holy Saturday and ask why they are being persecuted. He replies, "You kill the fire and befoul water. By burying the dead in the soil you kill the earth, and by not doing good deeds you give strength to Angra Mainyu (Haramani)."

It seems that the king was coached by his high priest, Denshepuh, for the charges are couched in Zoroastrian theological language. As fire is a sacred element, one "kills" it by extinguishing it. Water, the element of Anahita (or in Armenian Anahit) is also sacred. Dead bodies were exposed on rocks to the birds rather than buried, lest they contaminate the earth, which was sacred to the divinity Spenta Armaiti (called by the ancient Armenians Spandaramet).

The king then threatened to exile the nakharars to Sakastan (modern Seistan, in southeastern Iran) and their people to Khuzhastful (modern Khuzistan, a desert region on the Persian Gulf). The Armenians went through the motions of observing Zoroastrian ritual and were allowed to return home in the company of a number of Zoroastrian priests, who set about enforcing various Zoroastrian practices including the custom of next-of-kin marriage; wearing a pandam (face-mask) while baking, so as not to breathe upon the sacred element of fire; washing with gumez (bull's urine, which was used as an antiseptic); and refraining from killing certain animals considered holy, including otters, foxes, and rabbits.

Of the various nakharars, only Vasak Siuni seems to have taken his conversion seriously. The Bishops of Armenia deplored even the pretense of apostasy, however, and exhorted people not to spare their own relatives, should the latter stray from the Christian faith. Most of the people seem to have heeded the bishops' call, and when the Magi attempted to force their way into a church at Angegh in Tsaghkotn, they were confronted by an angry crowd. The Persians, who decided their policy was not working, counselled Vasak to relent; he told them to be patient, and proceeded with a more native, less rigorous form of proselytism, entertaining the Armenians with their beloved ergs hetbnosakans "heathen songs."

Yeghishe mentions that Mihrnerseh knew both the Parthian and Persian teachings of the Zoroastrian religion, and it may be supposed that Vasak's approach was to temper the activity of the Magi by luring the Armenians with old customs closer to the Parthian than the Persian way.

Vartan decided to raise an army, and Vasak pretended to repent of his pagan lapses. In the summer of 450, the Armenian forces moved against Iran in a three-pronged attack. In the north, Vartan moved east and linked up with the Christian Albanians (Aghvank). Vasak was to cover Ayrarat, and in the south, Nershapuh Rhumbosean moved on Her and Zarevand, on the border of Media-Atropaten (Atrpatakan). Bishop Hovsep, appealed to the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II for aid, but the Christians of the west decided that there was no point in endangering their own security. Armenia, with its Georgian and Albanian allies, were to take on the might of the Sasanian Empire without any Roman help.

The Persians clashed with Vartan at Khaghkhagh, but Vasak had secured the aid of seven other pro-Persian nakharars and was despoiling the rear. Vartan and the Albanians defeated the Persians and hastened to fight Vasak, but the latter fled to his fortress in Siunik and winter was coming on. Vartan dispersed his troops, for it is impossible to fight in the deep snows and bitter cold of winter on the high Armenian plateau.

In the spring, under cover of a false declaration of religious tolerance issued by Yazdagird, Mihrnarseh moved his Persian forces north under the command of Mushkan Niusalavurd through Her and Zaravand, to be joined by Vasak and ten confederate nakharars with their forces.

On May 26, 451, the Sasanian and Christian forces met in battle on the plain of Avarayr, on the shore of the river Tghmut, just to the west of the city of Maku. Maku is still the first city the traveler from Anatolia must pass through in Iran on the main highway linking Tehran with Istanbul and the west. The road passes between towering cliffs of rock that obscure the view of the two peaks of Ararat to the north.

In the battle, Armenian horsemen confronted Sasanian elephants and archers; a country with no king confronted one of the two great world powers of the day. The Armenians were defeated. Vartan was killed, and many others died, either at Avarayr or in Persian captivity and exile.

As the battle had begun, the Armenian soldiers had shouted in a joyful voice and loud: "Let our death be as the death of the righteous, and our spilt blood with the blood of the martyrs. May God be pleased with our offering, and may He give His Church not into the hands of the heathens."

The sacrifice made at Avarayr did not, unfortunately, bring about a change of heart, nor should one have expected it to, on the Sasanian side. The Persian victory was costly, but it was a victory all the same, and the Armenians were not a unified people: Vasak had found many supporters, and we have attempted to show that non-Christian practices were still widespread in 4th and 5th century Armenia.

Yeghishe mentions nearly a score of towns where Vartan destroyed fire altars, and it is inconceivable that all of them were purely Persian foundations. Renewed military activity on the eastern frontier distracted the Persians from Armenian for about 10 years, but the dismissal of Catholicos Giut (461-78) marked the beginning of a new wave of proselytizing. Vartan's nephew, Vahan, took advantage of the capture of King Peroz by the Hephthalimes in 481 to begin a revolt against the Magi.

In 484, the successor of Peroz, Balash, finally granted a decree of religious tolerance to the Armenians in a treaty signed at Nevarsak, near modern Khoy. The climate of the time favored friendship and tolerance. For not only did the Sasanians realize the fruitlessness of their aggressive policies; they had other, more pressing troubles on their eastern frontier, and it was wiser to keep Armenia, their buffer against Rome safe and quiet.

On the Armenian side, an accommodation with Iran made good sense, too. The actions of the Byzantine emperors of the late 5th and 6th centuries in the western parts of Armenia they held were calculated to undermine the nakharar system and to bring the Armenian Church under the sway of Byzantium. In 451, while the Armenian Christians were fighting for their very existence, Byzantium had convened an ecumenical council at Chalcedon, from whose doctrines the Armenian Church and many other Orthodox Christians, both Greek and oriental, were to dissent. In the 6th century, anti-Chalcedonian Greeks streamed into Armenia; the paganly philosophical School of Athens was closed in 529, and its scholars found refuge and welcome in the Sasanian city of Gundeshapur.

Armeno-Sasanian relations remained peaceful, and the refugees from Byzantine absolutism contributed to the growth of the Hellenophilic school of literary composition in Armenia and to the elaboration of Sasanian Zoroastrian philosophy.

Religious intolerance, violence, and the fanatical propagation of one's own ideas without regard for the convictions and dignity of others, are the denial of civilization. The later Sasanians recognized that human diversity was part of the scheme of nature, and allowed each keshvar, or "clime" of the earth, to go its own way. The Armenians had always been a special case, close to Iran but not Iranian, yet the Mamigonians and those who fought with them had asserted successfully the right of Armenia to develop its own culture.

The Armenians became more than a culture with Vartan, separating themselves decisively from Iran -- they became a civilization. No king led them into battle, nor did any hope of victory or gain spur them; they fought with simple bravery and fine reluctance, only for the right to be themselves.

Such a nation is so enlightened, cupped in the very hand of God, that it can never really be defeated. Armenia celebrates in Vartan the victory, not of arms, but of an idea. That idea is the freedom of the spirit, the basis of liberty, of creativity, of thought and of life.

--James R. Russell, Columbia Unversity. 1981

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