Vartan and Vartanank (On the Feast of Vartanantz)

Posted on February. 13. 2024


May 26, 451 A.D., is one of the most glorious dates in the history of the Armenian people. It is the date of the Battle of Avarayr, which took place in the Plain of Shavarshan (modern Maku, in the northwestern corner of Iran) at the banks of Dghmud (a tributary of the River Arax) when 1,036 Armenian soldiers, together with their commander Vartan Mamigonian, died in defense of their faith and freedom. The battle that involved 66,000 Armenian soldiers against the 300,000-member Persian army was a military disaster for the Armenian nation. Armenians lost militarily; their hero, Vartan the Brave, was killed.

The battle was lost, but not the war! In the next33 years, brave and bold Armenian souls took refuge in the hills, as they struggled, to organize an effective defense of their homeland, and secure the right to religious freedom and cultural and political autonomy.

Eventually, Vahan Mamigonian, the son of Vartan’s brother Hmayak, successfully led and won a guerrilla war against the Persians. Thereupon, the Persians signed a treaty with the Armenians in 484- -the famous Treaty of Nvarsak–whereby the Persian King Vagharsh granted Armenians religious freedom and cultural autonomy. Archaeologist Lori Khatchadourian is one of the founders of “Caucasus Heritage Watch”, a group of researchers monitoring the fate of cultural heritage in the region. In an interview with Hetq, Khatchadourian speaks about the biggest threats to Armenian heritage now and explains why it is so important to monitor all sites – Christian and Islamic. Armenian monasteries, churches and cemeteries in Nagorno-Karabakh have been under Azerbaijani control since last September. Have you documented any changes in their condition since then? Large-scale damage or destruction in the immediate aftermath of the region’s ethnic cleansing is unlikely. The threats will intensify when development and infrastructural works get underway. This is what we have learned from the past few years of satellite monitoring in the regions that were ceded to Azerbaijan in November 2020. Roadwork and development have been the primary forces behind the abuses of Armenian cultural heritage sites, particularly historic cemeteries. We just completed a monitoring mission and released our latest report last Caucasus Heritage Watch, St. Hovhannes Church of Dirnis/ Berdak, Nakhichevan

The fifth-century heroic struggle of the Armeniannation came to be called Vartanantz War, in honor of the main hero, Vartan Mamigonian. During the Middle Ages, Armenia’s Church Fathers moved the observance of Vartanantz War from May 26 to the Thursday preceding Lent. Vartan’s comrades– those who shared his profound faith in God and demonstrated loyalty to his cherished causes, came to be called Vartanank.

The crisis that developed and culminated inthe armed confrontation known as Vartanantz War began in the late 440s when King Yazdegird II of Persia (438-457), a fanatical Zoroastrian monarch, ordered all the subjects of his empire to adhere to his faith. The majority of the Armenian people were directly affected by Yazdegird’s royal edict, since a large section of Armenia was under Persian control after the unfortunate partition of Armenia by the Byzantine and Persian empires in 387 A.D. The official reply of the Armenian people to Yazdegird’s edict was formulated in a general assembly held in Artashat in 449–an assembly attended by the political and religious leadership of the country.

Not only did the elite of the Armenian nationrefuse to renounce their Christian faith, they proclaimed their loyalty to Christ to the death. They concluded their reply: “From this belief (Christianity) no one can move us; neither fire, nor sword, nor water, nor any other horrid tortures….” Thereafter, the Persian Empire embarked upon an armed invasion  of Armenia; and the Armenian army, under the leadership of General Vartan Mamigonian, engaged in a war of self-defense — the War of Vartanantz.

Although the Armenians suffered a military defeat on the battlefield of Avarayr,their relentlessness eventually scored them a victory. Thus the Vartanantz War became a pivotal point in Armenian history, and a source of inspiration for the succeeding generations.

For centuries Armenians have set aside the Feast of Vartanantz Day so theycould honor their heroic ancestors and pay tribute to their memory. But how can we really do that today? We could, of course, speak of our noble ancestors in glowing terms, praising them and celebrating their accomplishments in song and speech. But frankly, I believe Vartanank would care very little for our testimonies and accolades. However, I believe we could honor these heroes if we live by the principles, values, and causes for which they died. We could honor them if we hear their message, take it to heart, and apply it to our lives. We can honor them if our faith, like theirs, can stand the test–if we can serve the cause of the King of kings, Jesus Christ.

Certainly we can cherish Vartan and Vartanank, but the faith of our fatherscannot serve us and save us. The vital faith which accomplishes and sustains has always to be a contemporary faith. If the sacrifice and contribution of Vartan and Vartanank is to have any significance for us, their Christian faith has to be reborn in our generation, and we have to come to grips with it in terms of our problems and challenges.

Finally, Vartan and Vartanank were the heroes who tolled the bell for freedom.They paid a high price for freedom. That freedom can be kept only with great vigilance. It can be lost overnight by a generation that exploits its privileges and renounces its responsibilities. Freedom is a spiritual quality which lives in the hearts and wills of those who are determined to keep it.

Honoring Vartan and Vartanank demands of us, in the words of the ApostlePaul, “Standing firm in our faith, being courageous and strong.” Keep ringing the bell of freedom and living by those ideals and causes for which our noble ancestors died.

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