Many of us are beginning to think that February is an empty month in the Armenian calendar. Or that Saint Valentine’s Day is the only significant holiday. However, the idea that this is traditionally an Armenian festival is incorrect. In fact, for those unaware, the Armenian equivalent for celebrating love and affection between companions takes place on February 4th, under the Saint Sarkis (Սուրբ Սարգիս) name. More to the focus of this article though, is the commemoration of the Battle of Avarayr (Ավարայրի ճակատամարտը) on February 16th.
This battle came to be out of necessity for continuity as a People: the Persian Empire wanted Armenians to abandon their faith. Their king, King Yazdigerd II, loathed Christianity and wished to destroy their individuality on the whole.
Those who grew up going to an Armenian school have undoubtedly heard of Vartan Mamigonian (Վարդան Մամիկոնեան), and the epic battle during which he led the Armenian forces against a vastly outnumbering Persian army. Vartan, who was later canonised, was of noble lineage whose family tree includes Saint Gregory the Illuminator (Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ). His father, however, was General Hamazasp (Սպարապետ Համազասպ) and, like him, Vartan became a soldier. He was a highly respected soldier at that, with integrity and wisdom: in addition, he had a strong Christian belief. The fact that he had Holy Communion with his soldiers; prayed, recited the 23rd Psalm and shared food with them, all prior to the commencement of battle, can attest to these.
It was in this period immediately before the battle when Vartan was quoted as saying “We have served until now mortal kings… now it is time to serve the immortal king”. Vartan’s speech instilled inspiration and stimulated his troops towards defending not only their religion but also, in the wider scheme, their culture and entire way of life. Finally, the battle commenced on May 26th, 451 AD, on the Avarayr Plain (Ավարայրի Դաշտ). Vartan Mamigonian led 66,000 Armenians against an army outnumbering them almost 4-to-1 and consisting of war elephants too.
Many Armenian martyrs were made that day – Vartan Mamigonian included – but, while the battle was lost, their sacrifice was not in vain. The Persian king, astounded by the valour of his opponents and acknowledging that this could only stem from their passion for their beliefs, developed a great respect for Armenians and put an end to his attempts at converting them. In this way the Armenians of the time lived on in relative peace, their traditions safeguarded for another period.
We’ve suffered countless episodes such as this where, for one reason or another; our rights, customs, traditions, faith, freedom and uniqueness have been challenged. We’ve endlessly endured stiff oppression, but, as a brilliantly proud and zealous People, we’ve largely staved off assimilating.
1600 years have since passed, our identity all the while maturing, and we’ve spread across the globe achieving many things. As a persevering people we must continue to uphold our identity in whichever corner of the world we find ourselves. Wherever we may be and whatever we pursue we all share a common history: a story of constant struggles for peace which unites us and enriches our lives. As Hrant Dink, Serj Tankian and Monte Melkonian (to name a few) have done, by digging deep towards our roots we can find and adopt the same spirit with which Vartan’s soldiers fought in defending our heritage.