Feast Days

The Battle of Avarayr and the Feast of Saints Vartanants

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 war waged by the Zoroastrian Persia against Christian Armenia in the year 451 A. D.
The central figure of this war was Saint Vartan the great Commander, and all those who sacrificed their lives are collectively called Saints Vartanants.
The cause of the great battle was religious.  Armenia, the first country in the world to proclaim Christianity as its state religion in 301 A. D., lived peacefully, first, under its own kings, and then, under Persian rule.  Armenia developed its language and culture with great zeal during the first half of the fifth century.  During that period, the Bible (Asdvadzashounch) was translated into Armenian 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, 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 distinctive feature of which was the worship of the sun and fire.  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 very furious and countered this boldness with a heavy sword.  He sent to Armenia a huge army of some 220.000 strong, to crush the resistance and to convert Armenia to Paganism by force.
In May of 451 A. D. on the field of Avarayr, near Mount Ararat, an army of 66.000 Armenian warriors, which included soldiers, farmers, priests, princes and even the wives and daughters of prices, under the leadership of Commander Vartan Mamigonian, armed with swords and faith, waited for the invading Persian army. 
Vartan Mamigonian was the descendent of a noble Armenian family and the head of the influential Mamigonian 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 men and that they were well equipped with their hordes of elephants against Armenians, but 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 Mamigonian, encouraged the soldiers with inspiring words.
Towards the morning they saw the approaching Persian army.  The clash of the two armies was fierce, with swords glittering and blood running profusely.  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 great commander, Vartan the Brave.  Armenians withdrew to their castles and inaccessible mountains to carry on a guerilla war.
In this fierce battle, Vartan and his comrades suffered a military defeat.  They lost the battle but they 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 how steadfast the Armenians were in their faith and convictions.  The defeat of Armenians became their moral victory.
Vartan Mamigonian has become one of the most loved saints of the Armenian nation.  Strengthened by the spirit of the Martyrs of Avarayr, many Armenians followed the example of Saints Vartanants throughout the Armenian history and laid down their lives, so that, the coming generations of Armenians might worship their Lord Jesus Christ freely.
Today, after many centuries, when silence has reigned on the field of Avarayr, St. Vartan still brings us the sacred legacy of the Defenders of Faith who inherited the Kingdom of Heaven.  They sanctified the land of Armenia through the outpouring of their blood.  Their spirits watch over Armenia today and whisper into our ears: “Stand steadfast in your faith, do not be deceived by earthly kingdoms, keep your covenant strong with God and be true soldiers of Christ.”




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