Earlier this month, as it has for many centuries, the Armenian Church commemorated the Feast of St. Vartan and His Companions. Although the feast is virtually unknown to other Christians, it serves as a reminder of the long and often bloody history of their co-religionists in the Middle East.
If people in the West think about Armenia or the Armenian Church, they tend to think of the genocide against Armenians that took place in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. As important as that event is, it should not obscure Armenians’ much longer history. The Armenian Church dates to apostolic times. Along with the Coptic, Ethiopian, Indian, and Syrian Orthodox Churches, it is a member of the so-called Oriental Orthodox communion. These churches became separated from the Western Church during the Christological controversies of the fifth century¯controversies that happily show signs of resolution in the present day . Between eight and ten million Armenians live throughout the world, roughly three million in Armenia itself. Large communities exist in Russia, the Middle East, and France. Roughly one million live in the United States.
Armenian kings declared Christianity the state religion early in the fourth century. By the fifth century, the country had fallen under control of the Persian Sassanid Empire, the predecessor of what we would today call Iran. (Sassanid art is currently the subject of a magnificent exhibition at New York’s Asia Society ). The Persians were Zoroastrians, and they viewed Christianity with deep distrust: Christianity provided a link to the Byzantine world and thus posed a threat to Persian dominance. Accordingly, the Persians attempted to force their Armenian subjects to renounce Christianity in favor of their own religion.
Some Armenian nobles did convert. But others, led by Vartan Mamigonian, organized a revolt. In 451, at the Battle of Avarayr, Vartan led a vastly outnumbered force against the Persian army. In a letter to the Persian commander before the battle, the rebels explained that they were willing to resist¯and die, for they could hold no illusions about their chances of success¯in order to remain Christian:
From this faith no one can shake us, neither angels nor men, neither sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any, nor all horrid tortures . . . . If you leave to us our belief, we will, here on earth, choose no other master in your place, and in heaven choose no other God in place of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God. But should you require anything beyond this great testimony, here we are; our bodies are in your hands . . . . Do not, therefore, interrogate us further concerning all this, because our bond of faith is not with men to be deceived like children, but to God with whom we are indissolubly bound and from Whom nothing can detach and separate us, neither now, nor later, nor forever, nor forever and ever.
The Persian army crushed the Armenians at Avarayr; Vartan and eight of his generals died. The revolt continued, though, and the Persians eventually concluded that their campaign of forced conversion was too costly and gave it up. The Armenian Church has viewed Avarayr as a moral victory and has honored Vartan and his companions as Christian martyrs to the present day.
Contemporary commentators sometimes depict Avarayr as a battle for freedom of conscience , but it is anachronistic to project Enlightenment values back to late antiquity. Vartan and his companions died as Christians, not Dissenters. Our commemoration of their valor reminds us that the clash of civilizations in the Middle East goes back a very long way, and that life for Christians in that part of the world has been hard for a very long time.
Mark L. Movsesian is the Max Schmertz Distinguished Professor of Law at Hofstra University.