Vartanantz: What are we celebrating?

The Battle of Avarayr, Eduard Isabekyan. (Uploaded by: Irina M. Isabekyan/Wikimedia Commons)

Fort Anne, located in Maritime Canada, was built and held for some time by the French until it was attacked by the British. After a heroic defense by the French, the fort fell into British hands. On one of the walls of the fort, the British put up a bronze plaque to the memory of the brave French commander who finally surrendered the fort. The plaque reads: “In Memory of the French Commander of this fort. Honor to an unsuccessful valor.” 

What are we celebrating in the Vartanantz? A defeat or a victory? Are we paying tribute to an unsuccessful or a successful valor?

Had the Vartanantz heroic struggle in 451 A.D. ended with the battle of Avarayr, the observance of Vartanantz would simply be a memorial, by which we “honor an unsuccessful valor,” paying tribute to the memory of Commander Vartan Mamigonian and his comrades. But the Vartanantz war was more than a one-day battle. It began on May 26, 451 A.D. with the Battle of Avarayr, but it did not end with Avarayr. It did not end with the martyrdom of Vartan and his 1,035 comrades. Rather, the Vartanantz war lasted 33 years and ended with the victorious Treaty of Nvarsak in 484 A.D. Thus, this heroic war can be described as a chain of events beginning with the defeat on the field of Avarayr and ending with a victory at Nvarsak.

It was Mamigonian who led the resistance against the Persian army of 300,000 men, whose king Yazdegert (Hazgert II), demanded that the Armenians deny the Christian faith and embrace his fire-worshiping faith of Zoroastrianism.

The combined militias of several Armenian principalities had formed an army of 66,000 under the command of Vartan who tried to repulse the attacking Persian army. 

Although the Armenians suffered a military defeat, their relentlessness eventually scored a victory.

The indomitable and faithful Vartanantz spirit, as exemplified in the loyalty of the religious and lay leadership, eventually prevailed. Under the leadership of his nephew Vahan, Mamigonian was successful in getting Persia’s new monarch King Vagharsh to sign a treaty known as the Treaty of Nvarsak, granting the Armenians in his dominion religious freedom and national autonomy. The free, unimpeded worship of the Christian faith, the termination of forced conversions and the right of the Armenian people to live according to their ancestral and traditional laws were granted. Also, the autonomy of the Armenian people, under the sovereignty of the Persian Empire, was recognized.

The Vartanantz resistance became a pivotal point in Armenian history and a source of inspiration for succeeding generations.

Having said this, the following question comes up: What are we celebrating through Vartanantz’s heroic struggle?

First, we are celebrating a commitment to freedom. Freedom in all its forms is the cornerstone of a nation. The desire for freedom has always been, and will always be, one of the deepest longings of the human heart. Freedom for individuals and nations means to be themselves—to live their own lives, to think their own thoughts, to seek their own answers, and to decide their own destinies.

Mamigonian and his comrades known as Vartanank were the heroes who tolled the bell for freedom. And they paid a high price for it.

We, their descendants, observe the Vartanantz heroic struggle in grateful commemoration of those valiant souls who defied the enemy and who by their valor defended their faith, their homeland and their human rights.

Freedom can be kept only with great vigilance and sacrifice. 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 the wills of those who are determined to keep it.

Secondly, we are celebrating a commitment to living above the consensus. Living above the consensus is the capacity to say “no” to something that is not right and is against one’s conscience. Conscience is a gift endowed by God. It is an internal sense of right and wrong. It is the built-in “computer” within the human soul that will not allow a person to do wrong and to feel right about it.

Living above the consensus is the heroic dimension to reject that which is reprehensible to human sensibility and conscience. It is the moral courage to reject that which is expedient and to do what is right. 

In 451 A.D., the vast part of Armenia was subject to the Persian Empire. The Persian emperor Yazdegert demanded that Armenians renounce their Christian faith and adopt Zoroastrianism. The response of the Armenian people was, “From this faith [i.e. Christianity] no one can separate us, neither sword, nor fire, nor any other force.” This kind of defiance was the courage and determination to live above the consensus. 

It is not easy to live above the consensus. Sometimes it is very costly. Vartanantz resistance became a baptism of fire, but it eventually kept the Armenians a Christian nation. Christianity became firmly rooted in Armenia thanks to the Vartanantz heroic stance to live above the consensus.

Thirdly, we are celebrating a commitment to Christian faith. Vartanantz faith was more than a belief in the existence of God; it was trust and confidence. Mamigonian and his comrades were faced with a choice: survival without Christ or physical death for Christ. That saved the soul of the Armenian nation.

Mamigonian spoke eloquently about Christian faith. Referring to King Yazdegert, he declared, “He who had conceived that we wear Christianity as one does his garments, now finds that no one can divest us of it than he can of the color of our skin, and let us hope, never will be able to the end.”

Christian faith, for which the Vartanantz generation made the supreme sacrifice, became for the Armenian nation the matrix from which a distinct identity emerged. This identity has affected our nation in such a manner that today we can declare that our Christian faith is the assurance for our survival.

Vartanantz Christian faith, however, must be reborn in our generation, and we must come to grips with it in terms of our problems and challenges. It demands of us, in the words of St. Paul, “Standing firm in our faith, being courageous and strong.”  

Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

Rev. Dr. Vahan H. Tootikian is the Executive Director of the Armenian Evangelical World Council.
Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

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