The Vartanank War Interregnum (428-861)

By Levon Zekiyan –

The joint action of religious and cultural factors in the preservation of the Armenian ethnos was to be confirmed, about half way through the fifth century, by an event that was so important that it was to remain a turning point in the political and religious history of Armenia. It was the so-called war of the Vardanank’, in which one sees crystallized in its heroes and renegades, both the epic virtues and the defects that in many ways characterized the national life of the Armenians. The war lasted for the whole latter half of the century. Indeed, although the main battle of Avarair (under the leadership of the Commander-in-Chief Vartan Mamikonian) lasted no more than a day, the second of June, 451, it was followed by year after year of tenacious passive resistance and bitter guerrilla warfare, wisely championed, moreover, by the wives of the princes that had died on the battle field or had been exiled. Then at last, in 485, the King of Persia, Valash, reluctantly had to grant the Armenians freedom of worship, conscience, and culture.
The peace conditions proposed by the Armenians at the end of this victorious guerrilla warfare constitute a lesson in civilization that goes well beyond the concept and practices prevailing in those times as regards human rights. This had very much to do with the condition of a people who simply could not aim at the domination of others, but merely desired to live undisturbed with due respect granted to their faith and identity. Peace was therefore concluded on the basis of three principles that the Armenians proclaimed they would not renounce, even at the risk of annihilation:

No one was to be forced to change religion
People were not to be judged on the basis of their social condition, but rather according to their actions.
No action based merely on hearsay was to be taken by the authorities against anyone.
These same objectives could well be pursued today in many places and circumstances It would by no means be superfluous to draw special attention to one point, obvious though it may be: the war of the Vardanank’ was not a religious war in the generally accepted sense of the term. On the part of the Armenians, it was fought with no intention whatever of imposing a belief, nor was it motivated by any desire to implement religious discrimination or intolerance: it was no more than a revolt against arrogance in defence of the religious freedom and identity of a people.

After the peace treaty drawn up at Nvarsak, Valash bestowed upon the commander-in-chief of the Armenian forces, Vahan Mamikonian, the title of marzpan, that is, plenipotentiary governor, and he effectively governed Armenia with full powers. This situation of relative tranquillity and prosperity lasted for forty years or so, after which Armenia became yet again the theatre of encounter between Byzantium and Persia and was to remain thus for nearly all the sixth century.

Halfway through the century, under the rule of Justinian, the Byzantine drive to Hellenize Armenia reached its peak. Justinian initiated a type of administration that was quite new for the territories under Byzantium, dividing them into four regions and entrusting their government to an imperial official, thus eliminating once and for all the power of the nakharar, who had until that time been the mainstay of the Armenian political system. The final anti-Chalcedon trends of the Church in Armenia ran parallel to these developments and certainly helped to trigger and organize ethnic defense mechanisms against the policy of assimilation the Empire surreptitiously pursued by religious means, among others.

The effects of the victory of Heraclius over the Persians in 629 were rather deceptive (the event led to a momentary reconciliation with the Greek Church, incidentally) in that the first Arab invasion occurred in 642. From that moment on, for almost 200 years, there reigned on Armenian soil a continuous stream of wars and bloody rebellions in which the Byzantine armies too were often involved. One of the most outstanding political figures of the time was T’eodoros Rshtuni, who managed to initiate a policy of compromise between the Arabs and the Byzantines.

The eighth century and the first half of the ninth marked a period of crisis and stasis for Armenian culture, since the Arab invasion and the subsequent events had cut short the marvellous artistic boom that had begun in an earlier period and had produced such masterpieces as the famous cathedral of Zvart’nots and the church of the Hripsimiank’, (for Hripsime and her companions, martyrs in the early sixth century).

The last stage of the kingdom of Cilicia began in 1342 with the advent of a new dynasty, that of the Lusignan Princes of Cyprus, who were of French origin and came to the Armenian throne through matrimonial ties when the last of the Het’umians, Levon IV, died heirless. This was the most turbulent period for the kingdom. Internal discord among the princes, aggravated by religious dissent and the Latinizing attitudes of Western missionaries, of certain Armenian milieux, and of the Lusignans themselves, did no more than aggravate an already precarious situation, which ended sadly in 1375 with the surrender of the capital city, Sis, to the Mamelukes of Egypt.
With the end of the kingdom of Cilicia, the national political unity of the Armenian people began to break up, and foreign domination ensued. Only in 1918, more than 500 years later, was it possible once more to set up a new, independent Armenian state, in a tiny portion of historical Armenia.

The kingdom of Cilicia distinguished itself for the many new developments it brought in. They were mostly the outcome of the new geographical position and immediate contact with other ethnic groups, with the Western world above all. The consequences of this economic, social, cultural, religious and political – were many and far-reaching. Of special importance was the reorganization of the Armenian feudal system along Western lines. While the old feudalism of Armenia had always been based on a subdivision of land, the system in Cilicia, especially with the reign of Levon I, was linked with the conception of donations made by princes, a far clearer affirmation of monarchical power than in the past.

The Cilician epoch was a period of great achievements in art, especially with the splendid miniature work of T’oros Roslin and many other masters. Particularly worthy of mention are the many fortresses that were built, rebuilt or reshaped by the Armenians. In literature, we note a greater variety of themes and a broader awareness of the ordinary people, their language and their problems. Profane poetry, little of which had endured from earlier periods, became the interpreter of all these ferments, revealing a new spirit, a new vision of society and of the world. In classical literature, two giants dominate the scene: St. Nerses (Narsete, 1102-1173), called Shnorhali, a term that denotes mildness along with a wealth of natural and supernatural gifts; and St. Nerses Lambronatsi (1152-1199) (a relative of the latter). Their religious stature is so great that they emerge from the whole context of medieval Christianity as the ante litteram precursors of ecumenical spirit and principles.


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