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Chapter 20
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 22

 p153  Chapter XXI
Vahan Mamikonian and the Patriotic Uprisings

Guerrilla Warfare

The Armenian army was beaten in 451, but far from being destroyed. Guerrilla wars flared around strongholds and along impregnable heights. Mushkan's columns penetrated into the central regions of the country, but failed to crush the heart of the people. The blood of the great leader, Vardan "the Red," had cemented together the revolutionists and those who had hitherto been unconscious of the national peril. "Thereupon," says Yeghisheh, "they quitted their homes, their cities and boroughs; the bride left her couch and the bridegroom his chamber; old folk gave up their chairs and infants their mother's breasts; youths, maidens, all men and women arose and fled to remote fastnesses. Without murmuring, they lived upon herbs and forgot their accustomed meats. The caves they considered as the apartments of their lofty dwellings, and subterranean abodes were as frescoed halls. The songs they sang were psalms, and they read the Scriptures with a holy joy. Each was to himself a church, each a priest; their bodies served them for the sacred altars, and their souls were the offering. No one mourned despairingly for those who had fallen by the sword, and nor were any greatly troubled for their nearest friends. With peace of soul they suffered the loss of all their goods. Patiently they endured all fatigues, although they looked forward with no joyful hope, for the greater number of their most distinguished princes, their brothers, sons, daughters and many of their friends were scattered in various places of hiding."

 p154  Persians encounter resistance

The chief centers of resistance were in the north-western parts of Armenia, the dense forests of the "gloomy land of the Khaltiq;" the thickly wooded province of Artazakh on the east, in the South the impregnable recesses of Tmoriq, the southeastern regions of Korduq, the castles of the province of Ararat, the strong forts of the Kapouyt (Blue) Mountain. The Persian forces attempting to reduce these last two spots had been wiped out. The Persians suffered a crushing defeat at a remote village in the province of Taiq, on the frontiers of Khaltiq, where a large number of Armenian nobles, together with their families and fighting liegemen, had been collected. This battle cost the life of another patriot leader, Hmayak Mamikonian, brother of the martyred Vardan, but it had a decisive effect, for it put an end to Persian military operations in Armenia. The Commander-in‑chief, Mushkan Nussalavurd, reported to his imperial master that repressive measures would only result in the desolation of the country, in contravention of the Mazdean tenets, and that Vassak should be held responsible for all this bloodshed and misery.

Trial of Vassak

The Armenian leaders of the uprising, having lodged complaint with the royal court against the deceit and intrigues of Vassak, they were all summoned to Ctesiphon, the winter capital, in the early part of 452. Vassak, who must also appear, reached the city even before the great caravan, and was endeavoring to win the good graces of the courtiers. Because of their being brought in chains, it required eighty days for the priests to arrive. The court was held under the presidency of Mihr-Nerseh, and the inquiry continued for several days. During his alliance with his nationalist fellow-countrymen, Vassak had written to the Byzantine Emperor and to his general in Anatolia, to the rulers of Georgia and Albania, and to the princes of Andzevatsiq, Hashdeniq, Dzopq and Anghel-town, asking assistance in the struggle against Persia. His letters, all stamped with his own seal, were introduced, and together with other evidence, made clear his duplicity. Mushkan himself charged Vassak with treachery, declaring that even after the battle, he had betrayed many by false oaths and lured them from their strongholds, (of which he then took possession), executing or imprisoning not a few of them. It was  p155 also proved that he had been guilty of peculation with regard to state tributes.

Condemned to death

On hearing the sentence passed by the tribunal on these and other charges, the King announced that he would deliberate before deciding what to do with this great malefactor. Twelve days later, he commanded the assembling of all dignitaries. Vassak, also summoned, appeared in the full dignity and insignia of his high office as Marzban. He wore a golden tiara and a massive chain of gold, embellished with pearls and other rare ornaments, earrings, a collar around his neck, a robe of sables and all other marks of his rank. The Armenian princes who had of their own accord come from their homeland, as also the priests who were already there, were herded together in chains before the royal gate. Vassak entered and seated himself in the hall where public judgment was pronounced on the highest personages. A chamberlain of the court now appeared and questioned him, saying, "I come from the King to ask you: from whom and for what worthy service did you receive all these distinguished honors?" And he reminded him of all that had been said at the tribunal where he was condemned.

The jailor now led him to prison, stripped him of his robes and clothed him with the garb of death. So rigidly did the royal officers claim the return of misappropriated tribute from his family that, although he brought in compensation all the goods of his parents and all those of the women, the State claim could not be liquidated. And after all, the sentence of death seems to have been commuted. Yeghisheh says that Vassak fell violently ill in prison; melancholy bore him down, his body shrivelled, and finally "a secret death smote him." "The King commanded," he adds, "that because of his offenses against Armenia, the place of his burial should not be made known. His name is not listed among the faithful, and he is unmentioned at the holy altar of the Church."

Martyrdom of the Ghevondians

The troubles in Armenia had given the Kushans an opportunity to make incursions into Persia, and Yazdegert II for the third time led a punitive expedition against them, but suffered a humiliating reverse. The disaster was for the most part due to sedition in the army, but the Magi attributed it to the insults which the Armenian  p156 priests had put upon the gods, by destroying the fire-altars and quenching the sacred fire, thus committingº unforgivable offenses. The monarch, furious over his defeat and fearful of incurring the enmity of the Magi, proceeded to take vengeance upon the Armenian priests, who had been exiled to Nushapur Castle, in far-off Hyrcania (Mazandaran). Den-Shapuh, the Imperial High Commissioner, was accordingly sent to accomplish their punishment, after "due process of law." In cold blood, he ordered the execution of the Katholikos Hovsep and the Priest Ghevond, then the Bishop Sahak of Reshtuniq and the remainder of the dauntless champions of the Christian faith. The Church has dedicated a feast day to the memory of the Ghevondians, as well as of the Vardanians.

Effects of the Persecution

The persecutions spelled material and physical ruin for Armenia. She lost on the battlefields or in captivity the major part of her younger generation, of her scholar­ly clergy, her wealth and industry. On the other hand, however, her losses fanned the spirit of resistance in defense of inalienable human rights. The results were not less detrimental to the suzerain power, depriving it of the valor of the Armenian warriors and of an abundant flow of revenue from that country. Yazdegert bitterly regretted the failure of the whole enterprise, the loss of Vardan and the destruction of the Jor Gate. In the hope of regaining the good will of his subjects, he now curtailed taxes and declared national faiths free. In a final decree, he ordered all those who had unwillingly accepted Mazdeism to turn back to Christianity. The execution of this edict he entrusted to the new Marzban, Adr-Ormizd-Arshakan.

Repatriation of Armenian Nakharars

Thirty-five nakharars of Armenia, all in chains, were sent in 452 to Hyrcania, south of the Caspian Sea. Later, they were transferred eastward, to the castle of Nushapur, in Khorassan. In 460 King Peroz (Firuz) son of Yazdegert II, sent them still further east, to Hrev (modern Herat) in Afghanistan, to join the Aryan cavalry force, then engaged in fighting against the Kushans of Bactria. And at last, in 463, they were liberated and returned home after twelve years of exile.

 p157  Policy of Peroz

As fanatical a Mazdean as was his father, Peroz cherished the design of bringing the Armenians into the fold of the state religion; but instead of taking oppressive measures, he resorted to gentle persuasion, through gifts and promotions. This policy led to a spiritual decadence. Religious enthusiasm and patriotic zeal, once characteristics of the sturdy highlanders, now seemed to yield place to ignoble allurements, to a scramble for power and gain. "Virtue and wisdom vanished from Armenia," says Ghazar Parbetsi (Lazarus of Parbi). "Valor was dead, Christianity in hiding. The famous Armenian cavalry which — always under renowned and victorious commanders — had constituted the real strength of the Persian army, had now become an object of scorn and derision for all."

Rival parties

The pro-Persian party's ascendancy seemingly procured through corruption, could not long remain unchallenged. Once more, party lines asserted themselves. The "Loyals," or "Faithful," as Lazarus distinguished the Pro-Romans from the "Apostates," acknowledged the Katholikos Gute as their leader, supported by the Mamikonians and Kamsarakans. The rival party was headed by Cadisho​1 Khorkhoruni, patronized by the Marzban himself, Adr-Vshnasp, a Persian, whose mission was the peaceful penetration into Armenia of the worship of sun and fire.

Dethronement of the Katholikos

In the hope of averting the fatal effects of this bloodless penetration, the Katholikos secretly sent messengers to the Byzantine Emperor, Leo I, soliciting military aid. This appeal unfortunately placed the Katholikos in a perilous position. Spied upon and betrayed by Cadisho, he was summoned to Ctesiphon. He was able to confute a charge of treasonable acts but was divested of his patriarchal authority (475).2

Vahan Mamikonian

At this point, the simmering discontent of the Armenian masses  p158 almost reached the boiling point. A revival of the nationalist spirit was in evidence. The vast majority of the peasants, townsmen and aristocrats were interested only in the liberation of the homeland. They were unanimous in the selection of their new leader — Vahan Mamikonian, son of the great Vardan's brother Hmayak and of the Lady Tzwik, a daughter of the prince of Vassak Ardzruni. In boyhood Vahan and his younger brother had been kidnapped by Vassak, the Marzban, and sent as hostages to Ctesiphon. A grand-uncle of the children, Ashousha, the power­ful Bdeshkh (Viceroy) of Georgia, succeeded in obtaining the release of the young hostages in 455 and restoring them to their mother, who was then residing in the province of Goukarq, as a guest in the mansion of her sister, Anoush-Vram, wife of Ashousha. Lazarus speaks of Tzwik as "far excelling in virtue and wisdom all other women of the Armenian homeland."

The martyred General Vardan Mamikonian and his wife Dstrik had left two daughters, Shoushan Vardeni and Vardanoush. The first died unhappily, because of the cruelty of her apostate husband, Vazken, the son of Prince Ashousha. The second became the bride of the valiant Arshavir Kamsarakan. Vahan inherited his uncle Vardan's rights and title as the head of the Mamikonian house, Vardan having left no male issue.

Persian King distrusts Vahan

To the brilliant family traditions, to an excellent education under his mother's care and to a thorough training in the military science, Vahan added the natural gifts of sagacity, sound judgment, energy and calmness. King Peroz, well aware of Vahan's high qualifications, wished to entrust an exalted position to him, but always hesitated to do so, because of the fervent nationalism of the Mamikonians. The king's caution was well grounded, and served the purpose of the villainousº Cadisho, who, not satisfied with the Loyalist defeat in the fall of the Katholikos, had been plotting against Vahan. He repeatedly reminded the Persian government of the Mamikonians' leading role in previous revolutionary movements. "It would be impossible," he frequently declared, "for Vahan to remain in Armenia without instigating a rebellion."

Vahan's politic compromise

Deeply grieved by such vile attacks, and unable to endure the  p159 calumnies any longer, Vahan set out for the Persian capital, where, heeding his high-ranking friends' advice, he subjected himself to soul-torture, and in the words of the historian Lazarus, "faltered in faith;" which merely means that he attended the Mazdean ritual service. Such a demonstration appeared to be the only way for him to baffle his enemies and return home in triumph. Soon after this, he was rewarded with an enviable appointment — the post of Inspector of the Gold Mines.​3 The promotion of their dreaded rival fanned the jealousy in the breasts of the pro-Persian leaders into a raging flame. An accomplice, Vriv by name, son of an Assyrian who held a position in the office of the mines, was dispatched to Ctesiphon to report that Vahan had been secretly hoarding large quantities of gold, with intent to organize an armed force from among the Greeks and the Huns. Vahan, hearing of this, promptly hastened to the capital to lay at the feet of the sovereign so large a quantity of the precious metal that the court was amazed. He invited investigation, called attention to the simplicity of his life and convinced the King that his course had been entirely upright.

The falsity of Cadisho's testimony having thus been exposed, Vahan returned to his home with fresh laurels of distinction. Yet he was suffering, day and night, because of the stain of apostasy which he yearned to wipe away. Fortunately, the opportune moment was not long in presenting itself. A formidable revolt against Persia broke out under King Vakhtank in Iberia (Georgia), thrilling the Christian population of the Caucasus and Armenia with the hope of gaining some advantage. The Armenian nakharars approached Vahan and urged him to take the lead in immediate action. "Vakhtank is power­ful," they say. "By joining our forces to his own, we can withstand the Persians."

Vahan's reply, as quoted by Lazarus, is characteristic of the man. "You may be right," said he, "and reflecting on the uncertainty of life, I dread quitting this world with the name (apostate) fastened upon me. I wish my mother had never given me life. Still, I cannot take part in your project. I well know the power and arrogance of the Ariq (Persians), as well as the indolence and deceitfulness of the Horoms (Romano-Greeks). As to the Georgians and the Huns, the former are weak, having only a few horsemen, while the latter  p160 are not yet in sight; their coming is uncertain. But above all, you should distrust your own selves, because you are a false and unreliable people."

The nakharars, undaunted by this plain speaking, met the chief's argument with the following retort; "We place our confidence neither in the alliance of the Horoms nor in the cooperation of the Huns; but first of all, in the mercy of God, in the intercession of St. Gregory, in the death of our ancestors, and finally, in our own deaths. For we all prefer to perish at the same time, rather than witness, day after day, the humiliation of the Church and the desertion of the faithful."

Vahan joins rebellion

Impressed by these resolute utterances, Vahan gave his assent to their proposal, and was seconded by his brother Vassak, who was among the group. With their hands upon the Gospel, they all took a solemn oath in the presence of the priest Athik of Betchni. The meeting had been held in secret, but rumors of the proceeding leaked out that same night. The Persian Marzban fled precipitately. The Armenians pursued him, but succeeded only in overtaking his treasure-laden mules and in catching the arch-traitor Cadisho.

Armenian Government set upº

An Armenian government was set up in 481. The possible of Marzban was entrusted to Sahak Bagratuni; the army was put under the command of Vahan Mamikonian. The marvelous deeds of valor achieved by the troops of Vahan during the following four years remind us of the heroic era of ancient Rome. Many a time they skilfully retired from battle-fronts or escaped through blockade lines; thrice they seized the city of Douin, and four times they won battles against greatly superior forces. The first victory, that of an Armenian squadron of only 300 rebels against 7,000 regulars, took place in front of Agori, a village on the slope of Massis. The Persian Marzban, Adrvshnasp, was slain in that engagement. The second victory was gained near Nersehapat, a village in the very plain of historic Avarair, where Vardan Mamikonian had fallen, thirty-one years before. The third triumph was that of a handful of men at the village of Erez, district of Arsharuniq, the modern Vartov; and the fourth and most brilliant of all was a defense by a mere forty daredevils against 4,000 assailants in the village of Shdev, where Cdihon,  p161 the renegade Prince of Sewniq, a giant in stature, perished.

Guerrilla warfare was still being carried on by Armenian bands under Vahan in the mountain fastnesses of Taiq, and by the Georgian rebels under King Vakhtank, in the forests of Aphkhazia, when a fortunate occurrence brought them relief. King Peroz having been slain in his war against the Hephtalites in 484, his brother and successor Vagharsh (Valash) decided to settle the Armenian question in a peaceful manner. He sent a high commissioner, Nikhor-Vshnasp, to Armenia for negotiations. When he reached frontier, Nikhor informed Vahan through envoys, of the object of his mission. After listening to the deputation, Vahan sent messengers to Nikhor with these proposals as a basis for negotiation:

I. Religious worship in accordance with Christian doctrines and rites to be declared free. No Armenian to be appointed as a Magian officer. No public position to be given as a reward for conversion to Mazdeism. Fire altars to be removed from Armenia.

II. The rights and privileges of the nakharars (the satrapalº houses) to be restored.

III. The King himself to direct the investigation and render judgment, whenever an Armenian nakharar shall have been charged with some offense.

Treaty of Nuvarsak

Agreeing to these proposals, Nikhor extended an invitation to Vahan to visit him. Vahan set out for the Persian headquarters of Nuvarsak, after having eight Persian noblemen delivered to the Armenian camp as hostages. When Vahan approached Nikhor's tent, he ordered his men to sound the trumpet. Persian officials objected that the Aryan Commander-in‑chief alone had the right to be announced by trumpet. Vahan replied that he would act according to the Aryan regulations only when he had entered the Aryan King's service. His interview with Nikhor was cordial. The Commissioner conveyed to Vahan his master's greetings, commended his courage and wisdom and exculpated him for his acts.

Nikhor's commendation

"For a brave man," said he, "it is much better to die after demonstrating his merit, even for one day, than to live long by enduring continuous blows. You and your companions did not fear death, but performed valorous deeds. For the blood of those from among you  p162 who died because of the foolish pride of Peroz, the gods will demand retribution. As for you who have survived, you are not guilty, and shall remain unharmed." After the exchange of more such words of courtesy — as quoted by Lazarus — and mutual agreement on the basic points of peace, a banquet was set in honor of Vahan and his party. On the following day Vahan promised, at Nikhor's request, to send a cavalry regiment to Persia, to fight the enemies of Valash.

Vahan appointed Marzban

Vahan's crowning success was still ahead. He now journeyed to the Persian capital, and was granted the favors requested by him, among them restoration of the Mamikonians and Kamsarakans to their feudal ranks and rights. Vahan's elevation to the Marzbanic dignity took place soon after his return to Armenia. These happy events were celebrated in the cathedral of Douin, under the presidency of the Katholikos Hovhan Mandakuni. The service was one of thanksgiving and joyous festivity. "The church was crowded to its capacity," says Lazarus, "with every class of people — nakharars, azats (freemen), ostaniks (nobility) and plebeians, male and female, old and young, even the newly-wed brides, who for joy had for a moment forgotten their bridal shyness." The multitude packed the streets and all near-by open spaces.

In his sermon, the Katholikos stressed the beauty and necessity of charity, harmony, reconciliation and forgiveness. Having the leaders of the pro-Persian party in mind, the venerable prelate desired to urge a gracious moderation upon the winning side.

Armeniaº regains autonomy

The treaty of Nuvarsak was a compromise between the court of Ctesiphon on the one side, and the Armenian clergy and nobility on the other. Armenia, through the success­ful resistance of the Vahanian band, had regained her autonomy and freedom of National church and culture. The treaty afforded, also, opportunity for progress in the economic growth, intellectual development and feudal stabilization of the country.

"Vardan and Vahan," says Kevork Aslan, "whose memory as symbols of liberty and bravery has been kept bright by posterity, occupy a distinct place in the history of the Armenian people. Their passionate love of freedom, their fearlessness in danger, their inflexible will power, impressed upon the minds of the great ones as well  p163 as the masses the ideas of nationalism and independence. Their patriotic zeal saved Christianity in Armenia, which Persian persecutions had threatened with total destruction."

Vahan's benign rule

Vahan ruled for twenty years — 485 to 505. He was succeeded by his youngest brother Vard, who, suspected of pro-Greek tendencies, ruled only four years. However, during the rule of Vahan and almost all of the following marzbans, Armenia enjoyed peace and economic progress. The Persian government during that time was absorbed in the problems of internal unrest and in armed conflict against Byzantium, mostly waged outside the Armenian frontiers.

The Author's Notes:

1 Dadisho is the correct form, according to Father N. Akinian.

2 Released from Ctesiphon, he retired to his native village, Othmus, where he died in 478.

3 These were in the western part of Persian Armenia, on the frontier of the Greek section. The historian Strabo says the district of Spir (Sber) in Armenia was rich in auriferous ore (XI.14).º

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