ARMENIA FOUGHT A DESPERATE BATTLE FOR ITS CHRISTIAN FAITH
ARMENIA EMBRACED CHRISTIANITY early in the fourth century, and became the first nation to declare itself Christian. Leading scholars such as Mesrob translated the Bible into Armenian and sent out teams to evangelize and teach the people how to live as Christians. But Armenia also had two powerful neighbors: the Roman Empire and Persia. These two powers clashed constantly. In 387 they divided Armenia between them.
In the fifth century, the Persian monarchs, because of their power over surrounding nations, titled themselves “king of kings.” King of Kings Yazdegert II (438?457, also transliterated Hazkert) was a Zoroastrian who demanded that everyone in his territory worship the sun god and fire. He believed that a common religion would unite his diverse people. In 441, Yazdegert humiliated the armies of the weak Emperor Theodosius II, burned churches throughout the eastern Roman Empire, took many captives, and forced the empire to return Christian refugees who had fled west from Persian persecution.
The southern parts of Armenia had long been under Persian control. For several decades the Persians had tolerated Armenian Christianity and ruled the country through Armenian leaders, even allowing the Armenians to maintain armed forces led by their own generals. However, Yazdegert feared the influence Constantinople might have on Armenia through shared faith. Yazdegert demanded that Armenia rid itself of Christianity, turn its religious utensils over to Persia, and adopt Zoroastrianism. He commanded the Armenians to adopt Persian customs such as polygamy, to allow the marriage of close relatives (forbidden by the Bible), and to eat meat only after offering part of each slaughtered animal to the Persian gods.
Armenia’s council met and refused the Persian demands. They are supposed to have written a statement as follows, although scholars suspect this text is at least partly the invention of a later historian:
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. But should you require anything beyond this great testimony, here we are; our bodies are in your hands, do with them as you please. Tortures from you, submission from us; the sword is yours, and here are our necks.. . .We are no better than our forefathers, who, for the sake of this faith surrendered their goods, their possessions and their bodies. Were we even immortal, it would become us to die for the love of Christ. . .
The fifteen leaders who delivered the letter to the Persian king crumbled under severe threats and worshiped the sun. The triumphant king sent them home with presents accompanied by a number of Zoroastrian Magi to shut down churches and train Armenians in the Persian faith. However, peasants attacked the Magi in the first village they tried to convert. Subsequently, Armenian forces attacked the Persians and prevailed in a number of border skirmishes.
Yazdegert was not one to put up with such defiance for long. He sent an army to subdue Armenia. On this day 26 May 451 his forces met the Armenians in battle at Avarayr. The Armenians had about seventy thousand soldiers, the Persians around three hundred thousand.
Armenia was deeply divided between pro-Persian and anti-Persian factions. The anti-Persian forces had as their leader a valiant general, Vardan Mamikonian. However, forty thousand Armenians led by the pro-Persian Vasak Seuni actually joined the Persian ranks. Vasak himself had already done all he could to undermine the unity of the Armenians. He would do still more damage. In the midst of the battle, when Vardan was successfully routing a wing of the Persian force, five thousand Vasak allies deserted from Vardan to the Persians.
The betrayal cost the Armenians their capable general, Vardan, and about 1,040 of their finest men. Seven hundred and forty more were taken captive. Although the Persians won, it was at the cost of more than 3,500 men and many of their commanders. However, the Armenians considered their loss a victory, because after many more years of resistance, they wore down the determination of the Persians—until Sahag Bedros I agreed by treaty to allow Armenia to keep its Christian faith.
The anniversary of the battle is celebrated as a holy day among the Armenians. Its heroic leader, Vardan Mamikonian, is honored as a saint.
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For more background, read "How Armenia 'Invented' Christendom" in Christian History #85, Council of Nicaea: Debating Jesus’ Divinity