In 451 CE under the command of Vartan Mamikonian, Armenians fought the Sasanian Persians in one of the first battles to defend Christianity: the Battle of Avarayr. It came as a result of the Armenian people’s steadfast commitment to their religious beliefs amidst increasing intolerance and oppression. While a minor event in the annals of Iran, the battle continues to be one of the most defining episodes in Armenian history.
In 301, Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Despite Christianity playing a pivotal role in the emergence and maintenance of the Armenian people’s national identity going forward, it created many challenges for the fledgling nation. In 387, Byzantium and Persia partitioned Armenia, which historically found itself caught between conflicting interests of both the East and West, and most of Armenia proper fell under Sasanian dominion. At the time, political loyalty was inseparable from religious conformity, so the Christians in Iran were perceived as a subversive element threatening the safety of the Sasanian state. Since Armenians’ religious traditions were similar to Christian Rome, Persian authorities attempted to disrupt the close relationship between the Armenian and Greek churches. The situation intensified following the collapse of the Armenian Arsacid dynasty in 428 and the rise of the Sasanian monarch Yazdegerd II. A fervent Zoroastrian, he ordered his subjects to abandon their Christian confession and convert to Zoroastrianism. The Armenians bravely refused, and for the next half-century they mobilized in self-defense to restore their right to practice Christianity.
Before the battle, in 447, the Armenian nakharars—or nobles—and ecclesia gathered in the Armenian city of Artashat to proclaim to the Persian king that, although they were faithful to Persia, they were also faithful to their church. The pro-Persian faction led by Vasak Siwni, the frontier deputy or marzpan, preferred to remain loyal to their Persian overlords and facilitated dialogue to reach a compromise. Vartan Mamikonian led other Armenians who remained committed to their church and religion, and under his leadership, this group carried out minor acts of resistance.
Although the Georgians aided them, the Armenians sought a stronger ally to guarantee victory. With no Byzantine reinforcements coming, Vasak Siwni and his retinue saw another reason to remain faithful to their Persian suzerain. But the rebellion gained momentum and soon culminated in the Battle of Avarayr in 451, where the army of Vartan Mamikonian suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of the Persians. Yet this result was a Pyrrhic victory for the Sasanians and a moral triumph for the Armenians.
Numerous accounts exist describing the undying faith of the Christian Armenian warriors as they prepared for battle, including the recitation of the Psalms as St. Ghevont Yeretz, a notable church figure, held communion. On the battlefield, Vartan Mamikonian addressed his soldiers:
He who supposes that we put on Christianity like a garment, now realizes that as he cannot change the color of his skin, so he will perhaps never be able to accomplish his designs. For the foundations of our faith are set on the unshakeable rock, not on Earth, but above in Heaven, yet by faith we are established in Heaven where no one can reach the building of Christ not made by human hands.
During the battle, Vartan fell along with many other warriors who all became martyrs, but Armenia rose. In the years that followed, his nephew, Vahan Mamikonian, impelled the Armenians to remain staunch adherents to Christianity. As a result, Yazdegerd II and the Persians administered a much more lenient policy toward Christians and the Armenian Church, leading to the implementation of the Nvarsak Treaty in 484 that gave Armenians religious freedom. This history canonized Vartan, not only as a saint but also as a symbol of Armenian purity and resolve, helping to establish an Armenian identity that persists to this day. Even now, Armenians commemorate the Feast of Vartanantz on the Thursday preceding Great Lent. It is a symbol of the conscience, the faith, and the general rebellion of Armenians against tyranny to preserve their national and religious identity.
The Battle of Avarayr serves as the crux of what it means to be Armenian. Renowned Armenian writer Yeghishe recounts this event in his work the History of Vartan and the War, which is one of the quintessential works of the Armenian literary canon. This text outlines a root paradigm that has become the prism through which Armenians cast their struggles to survive and preserve their identity. This episode preserved and cemented Armenia’s place as a Christian nation, venerated and beyond reproach. The event also imparts a polysemic lesson describing an embattled community attempting to defend its autonomy, culture, fatherland, language, religion, history, and existence. Vartanank—the event named after the sparapet Vartan’s actions and the lore associated with his heroics, as a struggle and a cause—has been engrained in the Armenian psyche in the name of preserving and protecting the ancestral traditions and liberties of Christian Armenia. This is precisely why the battle is considered a moral victory despite a military defeat. According to Peter Cowe, the Narekatsi Chair of Armenian Studies at UCLA, the Battle of Avarayr has become the root paradigm for interpreting the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the widespread representation of its victims as martyrs.
For the Armenian nation, St. Vartan Mamikonian is among the most sacred and beloved figures, embodying and typifying the national spirit. Vartanank has become an event that applies to each Armenian generation that endures and struggles for its sacred cause of preserving their identity. Root paradigms are part and parcel of every people’s history and existence, and the Battle of Avarayr serves as the script for a distinct Armenian identity rooted in collective ideals that determine a unique Armenian culture. Highlighting the ideals of vasn Hayrenyats, vasn gronki (for fatherland, for religion—as in, for Armenia, for Christianity), this thread can be applied to later historical events, including the national liberation movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Armenian Genocide, the battles that led to the First Republic of Armenia in 1918, and the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) Wars. Concurrently, while a historically significant event for the Armenian people, the Battle of Avarayr represents a symbolic epitome of the spirit of Christian resolve when facing adversity, no matter how dire. Irrespective of the odds, the Christian faith has persevered, as it did and will continue to do for the Armenian people. In its own fundamental way, Vartanank laid the foundation for other subsequent battles in defense of Christianity on a global scale.