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Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

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  • Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

    Հիշենք արաչին խաչակրական արշավանքը Ավարայրում:

    Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

    This week the Armenian Apostolic Church will commemorate a long lost battle fought upon a far away battlefield known as Avarayr and a battle known as Vardanank. The commemoration of a lost battle may at first glance seem a bit odd to non-Armenians. However, the battle of Vardanank fifteen centuries ago on the plains of Avarayr is one of the least recognized, yet profoundly important episodes within the history of Christendom. In 451 AD the Armenian nation led by a nobleman named Vardan Mamikonian engaged themselves in the first recorded struggle in the name of preserving nationhood and Christianity. The historic significance and the subsequent ramifications of this event, however, goes beyond its mere uniqueness within the history of Christendom. The profound historic repercussions of this first 'Crusade' that unfurled fifteen centuries ago would eventually impact the political events of Asia Minor and indirectly impact the development of western Christendom more than five centuries later.

    The seeds of Christianity was planted within Armenia soon after Christ’s resurrection by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew. By a decree of the Armenian King Trdat in 301 AD, Armenia became the first state to officially embrace the new faith. By the sixth century, the Armenian Church had evolved into an autonomous national establishment with its very own Patriarch that administered the ecclesiastical affairs of the nation, independent of the universal church at the time at Constantinople. As a consequence of this autonomy, Armenian kingdoms and principalities would find themselves fighting Pagans, Muslims and Christians alike for their very existence, within each and every century thereafter.

    With the official establishment of Christianity within Armenia, the close relationship Armenian kingdoms had previously enjoyed with their Zoroastrian cousins in Persia was soon to be severed forever. By the fifth century AD political strain and cultural animosity between Armenia and Persia had reached its zenith. This was partly due to the complete eradication of the Parthian dynasty in Persia that had previously administered the empire for centuries by the surging Sasanian dynasty. Armenian nobility, being partially of Parthian lineage, had thus become the last vestige of that ancient family and naturally looked upon the Sasanians with suspicion.

    Due to the strategic location of the Armenian highlands within Asia Minor, Armenian kingdoms and principalities had always been a serious bone-of-contention between superpowers of the time. With Byzantium frantically vying to get control over the strategic heights of the Armenian highlands, Persian Shahs saw the importance of subjugating Armenia politically and culturally. Moreover, the Persian Shahs began considering the emergence of Christianity within their empire as a direct threat to its security, primarily due to fears that its Christian population would side with Christian Byzantium in future conflicts. Thus, the Persian court believed the new faith had to be eradicated from within the empire and its adherents forced back to Zoroastrianism.

    Unfortunately, the political strains Armenia was having with her powerful neighbor to the east coincided at a time when Armenia was in a serious internal political crisis of her own. As a result of severe infighting amongst the Armenian nobility, the Armenian King was dethroned in 428 AD. Soon thereafter, the nation was partitioned between Persia and Byzantium. The nation’s political stability was further compromised as the ever restless nobility at the time became divided into two political camps, one being pro-Byzantine and other being pro-Persian, with both sides vying for absolute power. This internal political instability within Persian-partitioned Armenia was the encouraging sign the Persians needed in order to intervene on behal fof the pro-Persian camp within Armenia.

    It was at this pivotal point in history that Vardan Mamikonian entered the pages of Armenian history. Of noble descent, Vardan Mamikonian was the son of Sparapet (Senior Knight/commander-in-chief) Hamazasp Mamikonian of Armenia and was a direct descendent of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. The descendents of the ancient house of the Mamikonian clan hled the hereditary responsibility of administrating the military affairs of the Armenian Kingdom and, thus, was one of the most important and respected offices in the nation.

    With the intent of gaining the crucial allegiance of the Mamikonians, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) and the Persian Sassanian Shah Vahram V (421-438) had both bestowed the rank of Hazarapet “General” to Vardan Mamikonian. Vardan Mamikonian, being a devout Christian, was ideologically pro-Byzantine and had visited Constantinople on diplomatic missions many times. However, he was also a commander of the large Armenian military contingents within the Persian imperial army, within which he had an impressive service record of many combat engagements and where he had won acclaim in the campaigns against the Huns and other Turkic tribes that had been threatening the Persian Empire’s north-eastern frontiers.

    Shah Yazdgird II ascended the throne in Persia upon Shah Vahram’s death in 438 AD. However, soon thereafter Shah Yazdgird began having extreme difficulty managing his newly aquired vast multi-ethnic/multi-faith empire. Being a despotic man by nature, the new Shah began to take drastic and violent measures to consolidate the holdings within his empire. He also began a systematic campaign of imposing Zoroastrianism upon his subject nations in hopes of creating an easily manageable uniform state religion.

    In order to persuade the Armenians to re-embrace Zoroastrianism, the Persian Shah attempted to use diplomacy by the way of manipulating the pro-Persian camp in Armenia. However, the Shah’s political efforts soon failed as Armenians steadfastly refused abandoning their Christian faith. With diplomacy having been exhausted, the threat of a Persian military invasion became increasingly real. A general riot erupted throughout Armenia in 450 AD when the Persian Shah, with the reluctant consent of some bewildered Armenian nobles, sent hundreds of Zoroastrian priests into the nation in order to re-indoctrinate the Christian population.

    In the ensuing riots hundreds of Persian nationals and Zoroastrian priests were massacred by unruly Armenian mobs throughout the country. As a reaction to this audacious affront against the empire, a sizable Persian force attempted to enter Armenia from the Caucasus region. This invasion force was quickly and soundly defeated by Vardan Mamikonian who had by then taken charge of the Armenian rebellion. Immediately after the successful military encounter, Vardan Mamikonian, realizing he would not be able to stand up alone to the mighty empire he had struck first, dispatched a delegation to the Byzantine court for help. However, the Vardan Mamikonian delegation was met with bitter disappointment.

    Atilla the Hun was threatening Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor, unable to defeat Atilla the Hun in battle, had drained his treasury to purchase peace with the barbarian. As long as the Huns remained a threat at the very gates of the Byzantine capital, no emperor dared irritate the Shah of Persia. It soon became apparent that Armenians had to fend for themselves. By the start of 451 AD a full fledged war between Armenia and Persian was now inevitable.

    According to contemporary chronicles, on April 13, 451 AD, a massive Persian force arrived within Armenia at a location between Her and Zarevand (Khoy and Salmast in present-day Iran). The army's center was held by an elite division of 10,000 horsemen known as the "Immortals." Along side them was a herd of armored war elephants, each carrying an iron clad tower within which contained a contingent of Persian bowmen. The rear guard was likewise reinforced by a column of armored war elephants, on one of which sat the commander of the force Mushkan Nusalavurd commanding a full view of the entire battlefield, directing force movements.

    The Armenian volunteer forces led by Hazarapet Vardan Mamikonian comprised of a much smaller number of cavalry and infantry and was accompanied by a considerable number of the nation's nobility and clergy. This force advanced south and upon making visual contact with the Persian force, camped for the evening near the village of Avarayr in the Plain of Shavarshakan (modern Maku, in northwestern Iran). That evening, which was to be the night before their engagement, Vardan Mamikonian gave an emotional speech to his volunteer force as he pleaded with them to fight and, if need be, die with honor and to remain faithful to Christ regardless of their plight.

    Being under manned, under armed and with no troop reserves, surely these men that had gathered at Avarayr on that fateful day must have known they would not be able to defeat the massive imperial force sent by Persia. Nonetheless, their selfless determination to maintain autonomy for the Armenian nation and their unwavering commitment to Christ was to become a legend within the annals of Armenian history. Eghishé, a contemporary court chronicler of the Mamikonian family, described the battle of Vardanank, to which he was an eyewitness:

    "One should have seen the turmoil of the great crisis and the immeasurable confusion on both sides, as they clashed with each other in reckless fury. The dull-minded became frenzied; the cowards deserted the fields; the brave dashed forward courageously, and the valiant roared. In a solid mass the great multitude held the river; and the Persian troops, sensing the danger, became restless in their places; but the Armenian cavalry crossed the river and fell upon them with a mighty force. They attacked each other fiercely and many on both sides fell wounded on the field, rolling in agony."

    Upon seeing his left flank crumbling before the onslaught of the Persians, Vardan Mamikonian, on his white stead, led a fierce counterattack that cut-off and scattered the Persian right wing, putting them in flight. Mushkan Nusalavurd, however, rallied his troops and committed his vast reserves of which the Armenians had none. Soon Hazarapet Vardan Mamikonian and his comrades were surrounded by the main vanguard of the Persian force and went down fighting.

    When the battle finally ended, 1,036 Armenians and 3,544 Persians lay dead in heaps on the battlefield, and scores of others lay wounded. These losses were devastating for the Armenians because among the dead, wounded and captured were the nation’s finest nobility. Despite the heavier Persian casualties, Mushkan Nusalavurd had won the day. Vardan Mamikonian had fallen in battle and his comrades-in-arms taken to the Persian Capital Ctesiphon as prisoners.

    Though beaten, however, the Armenian rebellion was far from destroyed. Vahan Mamikonian, son of Vardan Mamikonian’s brother Hmayak, took initiative and led the Armenians in a guerrilla style war that raged within the Armenian highlands for the next 33 years. During that time, the Sasanid Persian dynasty underwent many political changes and also had to deal with external conflicts with Byzantium and a new wave of Turkic barbarians from the east. Eventually, the Persian Shah at the time reassessed the drawn-out and indecisive conflict within Armenia and sued for peace.

    Rebellion commander Vahan Mamikonian took advantage of this historic opportunity and sent a delegation to the Persian court with political demands, the primary one being freedom of worship. The Persian Shah accepted Vahan Mamikonian’s terms and in 484 AD a peace-treaty was signed in the village of Nvarsak. Subsequently, Vahan Mamikonian was appointed Marzpan (military governor) of Armenia by the Persian Shah. This victory of the freedom of worship that Armenians gained through sheer determination and self-sacrifice was the first of its kind in history.

    With the martyrdom of Vardan Mamikonian and his comrades-in-Arms, Armenia had regained her national and spiritual autonomy. For his valiant and selfless effort, Vardan Mamikonian was bestowed the title the “Brave” and was sanctified by the Church as a saint. Today, Vardan Mamikonian stands prominently within the vast military pantheon of the Armenian nation. Vardan the Brave is also one of the most important historical figures of Armenia, because in him Armenians see their age old national plight: A long turbulent history of constant warfare and subsequent survival, a perilous history of near annihilation and subsequent revival.

    It was through the heroic efforts of gallant men such as Vardan the Brave and many others like him throughout Armenian history that the seeds of nationhood would be planted time and again, through calamity after calamity. The historic significance of the battle at Avarayr cannot be underestimated. Had the noble endeavor at Avarayr in 451 AD failed and Armenia fully reintegrated within the vast Persian Empire, Armenia would not have been able to survive intact as a nation the subsequent tragedies that awaited the region. The embracement and the subsequent stubborn preservation of the Christian faith gave Armenia a unique national character that served as a catalyst for great cultural development and the formulation of a unique national identity that was previously undefined.

    Ironically, just two centuries after the battle at Avarayr, in 650 AD, the vast Persian Empire fell to the inroads of Islam essentially without a fight. With the emergence of Islam within the Near-East Armenian kingdoms and principalities would become an island of Christianity within the sea of Islam. Nevertheless, these warlike Armenian kingdoms and principalities would continue to act as an effective bulwark for western Christendom against the relentless stream of eastern barbarians until their eventual demise in the fourteenth century in part due to the treachery of Byzantium and the inescapable circumstances of the region’s long and turbulent history.

    From the first crusade at Avarayr, to the establishment of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom, to the near annihilation of the nation at the hands of the Turks, to the subsequent revival of the Armenian nation in 1991, the turbulent and bloody history of the Armenian nation can be accurately described as a continuous crusade in the name of Christ and nation.

    Պատիվ և հարգանք մեր հերոսներին ռազմիկներին և նահատակներին հնադարյան և այժմյան:

    Մեր ժողովուրդն արանց հայրենասիրութեան այն է, ինչ որ մի մարմին' առանց հոգու:


    Please visit me at my Heralding the Rise of Russia blog:

  • #2
    Re: Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

    Thank you, Armenian


    • #3
      Re: Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

      It was not a crusade. A crusade is an offensive action, we were merely defending ourselfs.


      • #4
        Re: Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

        Originally posted by Կարմիր Բ View Post
        It was not a crusade. A crusade is an offensive action, we were merely defending ourselfs.
        A Crusade, a Latin derived word meaning bearing the cross (Arm. խաչակիր), can be both offensive and defensive in nature. It's fighting in the name of Christianity, or fighting in the name of some higher ideal. No matter how one looks at it, Vardan Mamikonian's rebellion against the Persians was a Crusade, a struggle in defense of Christianity. It's just that Vardananq was fought before the word Crusade was officially coined, during the Frankish invasion of the Near East. Thus, a mere technicality. However, you would require a brain, not to mention a soul, to realize this.
        Մեր ժողովուրդն արանց հայրենասիրութեան այն է, ինչ որ մի մարմին' առանց հոգու:


        Please visit me at my Heralding the Rise of Russia blog:


        • #5
          Re: Remembering the First Crusade at Avarayr

          1600 years ago, Armenia dared to defy Persia, the mightiest power in the world. The story of Vartan Mamikonian and the rebels that he lead against Persia's t...

          This guys created a very nice animation in my opinion. It looks like its from a popular computer game called: "Rome Total War".