In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Recently, the Armenian Church celebrated a feast dedicated to a national hero and his moral victory. Ten days ago was the “Feast of St. Vartan the General and his Companions.” This feast is known as “Vartanantz” in the Armenian tradition. For the next twenty minutes or so, we are going to look into the legacy left to us by Vartan Mamigonian through music, a message and photographs to help us all better understand how what he did in the year 451 A.D. still impacts our lives.
Let me share a little bit about the story behind this great Armenian warrior, who fought the first battle in defense of Christianity in the history of the world. In the middle of the 5th century, the Persian Empire had their sights set on dominating the known world by defeating the great Roman and Byzantine Empires and eventually rule the entire civilized world of that day.
To reach that goal, it planned to convert all neighboring peoples, including Armenians, to the Zoroastrian religion of “fire worship” and gradually integrate them into the Persian Empire. Armenia was in the way of these expansionist plans.
So the Persian King issued an ultimatum to the Armenians demanding that they renounce their Christian faith. This created a great crisis in the Armenian nation. The Armenian leaders wrote a bold letter to the Persian King saying that they have loyally served him over the years; however, they had no intention of ever renouncing their Christian faith. They ended this powerful letter with these words: “And from this faith no one can move us—neither angels nor men, neither fire nor sword, nor any horrid tortures.”
Knowing that this letter would enrage the Persian King—for no one defies a king—Vartan Mamigonian was called out of retirement to command the army once again. Vartan knew that their army of 60,000 poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers were no match to the mighty Persian forces. But because of his dedication to the Christian faith and because of his love for his homeland, he accepted the role of army commander.
On May 26, 451 A.D., the inevitable finally came to pass. The Persian and Armenian armies collided on the fields of Avarayr. The battle lasted only a day. The historian Yeghishe tells us that 1,036 Armenian soldiers, together with their Commander Vartan, died that day in defense of their Christian faith.
I have been asked many times over the years as to why we commemorate the Feast of Vartanantz? I think the best answer is that we commemorate Vartanantz Day in grateful remembrance of Vartan Mamigonian and his daring soldiers, who defended their Christian faith, their homeland, their ideals and their values during one of the most crucial periods of Armenian history. This moral war became a turning point in our history. It was a “baptism of fire” that would teach generations of Armenians to live triumphantly in the face of trouble with courage and trust founded only in our Christian faith.
Today, as we celebrate the spirit of these brave men, we are called to bind ourselves to their legacy—a legacy handed down to us through the generations. Let me end by sharing this one story about St. Vartan. Apparently, there were several smaller battles before the famous one for which he is best known and during one of those battles, St. Vartan led his troops to the Persian / Armenian border to again defend their historic lands. After defeating the Persians, Vartan led his troops back home and along the way, they stopped in an area known today as Aknabur, Armenia. Exhausted, hungry, thirsty and tending to their wounded, they rested by a spring later known as “Vartan’s Spring.” At that spring, Vartan Mamigonian did something that would outlive him by 1,500 years. He planted an acorn in the ground at that spring to celebrate the recent victory.
This simple gesture symbolized the hope found in the heart of all Armenians who believe in the future of our homeland. Vartan Mamigonian was politically savvy. He knew that the odds for Armenia were grim and as a soldier, he knew that he would not live long enough to see that acorn grow into an oak tree. Over time, that acorn did grow into a mighty oak and it survived for more than fifteen centuries before it was struck in a lightning storm in 1960.
Vartan Mamigonian’s oak tree is a famous pilgrimage site in Armenia. For generations people have travelled to drink from Vartan’s Spring and pray next to Vartan’s tree. The Armenian soldiers and armies over the centuries did so and even the soldiers of today did so recently before going to the front lines of the Artsakh War. They did so to honor St. Vartan and to hope for a free Artsakh.
In 1976, a military marshal named Hovaness Baghramian visited the site and planted three new oak trees. Those trees now reach up to the sky in the same way that Vartan’s oak tree did for countless generations.
May the words and faith of this band of soldiers speak to us every day saying, “From this faith, no one can shake us.”