Every year, on the Thursday preceding the Great Lent, the Armenian Church celebrates the anniversary of one of the most important events in her history. The event is the great battle of Avarayr between the Armenian soldiers of Christ and the mighty Sassanid Zoroastrian army in the year 451 A. D.
The great Commander of Avarayr was prince Vartan Mamikonian. Vartan and many princes, soldiers, women of royal families, farmers and priests battled bravely and sacrificed their lives in defense of their faith. 1036 martyrs fell in one day on the field of Avarayr and became the Defenders of the Faith of Armenia.
The cause of the great battle was religious. Armenia, which had proclaimed Christianity as its state religion in 301 A. D., lived cultural and spiritual progress. Especially, after the invention of the Armenian Alphabet by St. Mesrob Mashtots in 404-406 A. D., Armenia developed its own language and culture during the first half of the fifth century, which became to be known as the Golden Century. During that period, the Bible (Asdvadzashounch) was translated into Armenian under the guidance of Catholicos St. Sahag Partev and Christianity flourished in the country.
Before St. Gregory the Illuminator, although Christianity had been preached in Armenia by the two Apostles of Christ, St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, many were still worshippers of pagan idols. However, after the conversion of Armenia in 301 A. D., the invention of the Armenian Alphabet in 406 A. D. and the translation of the Armenian Bible by Saints Sahag and Mesrob and their students, Armenia became religiously and culturally independent. Politically, Armenia was divided into two states, between Persia and Byzantium in 387 A. D. In order to force the Armenians to revert back to the Persian-Zoroastrian religion, the king of Persia decreed that all Christians under his rule must abandon their new religion and accept Mazdeism. The Armenian leaders, clergy, and the ruling princes gave a bold answer to this royal decree, insisting that they had not the slightest intention of altering their Christian beliefs. They wrote a letter to the Persian king in which they said:
“Our religion is not like a garment that we might change according to the circumstances; it is part and parcel of our bones and blood and personality … We serve you loyally in your army and pay you taxes faithfully if you leave us alone in the matter of religion. If you try to force your will upon us, we are ready to suffer and to be tortured and even to die. However, you should know in advance that there is no power on earth, which can force us to change our religion because our covenant to be faithful is not with man but with the Almighty God.”
The Persian king became furious and countered this boldness with a heavy sword. He sent a mighty army of some 220.000 strong to crush the resistance and to convert Armenia to Paganism by force.
On May 26 of 451 A. D., on the field of Avarayr, near the river Tghmout, an army of 66.000 Armenian warriors, which included soldiers, farmers, priests, princes and even the wives and daughters of princes, under the leadership of Commander Vartan Mamikonian, armed with the “Helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), waited for the invading Sassanid army.
Vartan Mamikonian was the descendant of a noble Armenian family and the head of the influential Mamikonian House. From his mother’s side, he was the grandson of St. Sahag Catholicos, who helped St. Mesrop translate the Bible. The Commander knew well that the Persians outnumbered his army and that they were well equipped with their hordes of elephants against Armenians. However, he put his trust in God and preferred honorable death to paganism and slavery.
The day before the battle, the Armenian soldiers spent the night in prayer and devotion. The entire army prayed and took Holy Communion. The head of the Church, Catholicos Hovsep, was there together with his clergy. Priest Ghevont (Leontius), the most zealous among the clergy, together with Commander Vartan Mamikonian, encouraged the soldiers with inspiring words.
Towards the morning the Persian army made its move. The Armenians inflicted great losses on the enemy. The battle lasted only one day, and 1036 Armenians fell. The Persians lost over 3000 men. The battle of Avarayr came to an end with the fall of the Commander Vartan. Armenians withdrew to their castles and inaccessible mountains to carry on their battle. In Avarayr, Vartan and his comrades suffered a military defeat. They lost the battle but kept their faith and became true witnesses of Christ. The Persians eventually withdrew from their plan of converting Armenia to their pagan religion, when they realized they could not force Armenians to forsake their God. The military defeat of Armenians became the victory of their salvation through their unshakable faith in Christ.
Vartan Mamikonian has become one of the most loved saints of the Armenian people. Strengthened by the spirit of the Martyrs of Avarayr, many Armenians followed the example of Saints Vartanants throughout the centuries and laid down their lives for Christ.
Today, after many centuries, when silence has reigned on the field of Avarayr, the spirit of St. Vartan continues to bring us the sacred legacy of the Defenders of Faith whispering into our ears and saying, “Stand steadfast in your faith, do not be deceived by earthly kingdoms, idols or treasures, keep your covenant strong with God and be true soldiers of Christ.”