Conversion to Christianity and the Creation of the Armenian Alphabet

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

The conversion of Armenia to Christianity and the creation of the Armenian Alphabet are among the most important events in Armenia’s history.

At the end of the third century AD and the beginning of the fourth, Armenia was a buffer state between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia. Under such circumstances, unique and creative solutions are necessary to balance the interests of powerful neighbors.[1] Otherwise, the Armenian state could be overrun, lose its cultural identity and exit the world stage.

Following the loss of independence for an extended period of time, at the end of the third century, a representative of the Armenian Arsacid (Arshakuni) dynasty, Tiridates III [Trdat III, in Armenian] (r. 298-330), ascended to the throne of Greater Armenia, under difficult military-political conditions. According to Agathangelos, Tiridates had lived and been educated in a Roman environment for much of his life, and was closely acquainted with Hellenic culture: “So Tiridates went to a count named Likianes to receive instruction and education.“[2] The new monarch faced many problems in the spheres of economy, politics and culture. Armenia had been deprived of its independence for about a quarter century, having been ruled by Sassanid surrogates, who had tried to integrate the country into a pan-Persian world. Magus Kartir played a decisive role in Sassanid Persia in the 270s. He considered the strengthening of Zoroastrianism as a way to resolve problems in subordinate countries.[3] As a result, the statues of the ancestors and gods of the Armenian pantheon were destroyed in Armenian pagan temples, and the fire of Zoroastrianism was lit in their place.

Eventually, the Sassanid plans to end Armenia’s independence failed, and the Armenian-Roman troops were able to defeat and drive the Persian surrogates out of Greater Armenia. A 40-year treaty (298) was signed in Nisibis (Mtsbin in Armenian), which provided the opportunity for Armenia to restore its former state system, economy and army.

The issue of restoring cultural and religious harmony was especially acute. Discrete religions had become stronger among the different social classes, which was an additional obstacle to the development of the country. In order to win over the Armenian nobility, the Sassanids had granted them certain privileges in exchange for accepting Zoroastrianism. As a result, a broad section of Armenian ministers had become Sassanid Persia’s agents, and rejected the centralizing policy of the Arshakuni kings, both after and during the reign of Tiridates.[4]

It is obvious that, in parallel with the destruction of Armenian temples, the Persian court had tried to impose Zoroastrianism on the clerical elite of Armenia: the pagan priests. Of course, Tiridates could not create a new class of pagan priests in a short time. Consequently, this privileged class was also unreliable and could not become a reliable pillar of support for the monarchy.

Religious diversity was even more clearly manifested in the cities of Armenia, among the artisans and merchants. Here, Judaism had spread and strengthened alongside Hellenic and native beliefs. Rural peasants were more likely to remain faithful to the “old gods.”[5]

Thus, we can state that various religions existed in Armenia at the end of the third century, each of which was anchored in certain segments of society. At the same time, proselytizing Roman morals and beliefs would be viewed unfavorably. That religion would not only arouse the suspicions of the nobility, but also deepen the Armenian king’s dependence on Rome. Tiridates was waiting for the right moment to renounce the divine patronage of the Emperor.

Suren-Gregory the Parthian [Suren-Grigor Partev] had returned to Armenia together with Tiridates. The former had grown up in the Christian community of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and had adopted that religion. From the testimonies of Agathangelos, one can assume that, although Tiridates had persecuted Gregory for being a Christian, he had kept him as a servant and brought him to Armenia.[6] Most likely, anti-Christian persecution was not prevalent in Rome at that time, and Tiridates had had no reason to remove or isolate Gregory.

However, the situation changed when the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305) began a brutal persecution of Christians, as this religion was undermining Roman hierarchies and the system of slavery. Meanwhile, the new religion did not present as big a threat to Armenia, where the system of slavery was not developed and class antagonism was not as severe.

Nevertheless, Diocletian’s persecutions also left their mark on Armenia. One must assume that the imprisonment of Gregory and the martyrdom of the Christian virgins (led by Gayane) who came to Armenia took place within this context. Following the death of Diocletian, and taking advantage of the unstable situation in the eastern provinces of Rome, Tiridates initiated the Christianization of Armenia, assigning the task to Gregory the Parthian, who had been released from prison.

With the adoption of Christianity (traditionally in 301 AD, but the different sources quote dates between 299-314), Tiridates III was able to solve a number of problems: his country gained ideological and religious unity, distanced itself from Persian-dominated Zoroastrianism, and the Armenian king rid himself of the divine patronage of the Roman Emperor. In addition, Christian ideology would greatly contribute to the strengthening of the King’s authority and newly-establishing feudal system. According to Agathangelos, Gregory constantly justified himself before Tiridates by invoking the New Testament doctrine that “Servants should obey their earthly masters.”[7]

As was the case elsewhere, Armenia’s conversion to Christianity was not bloodless. The families of pagan priests and their armed detachments stubbornly resisted Gregory’s wooden crosses and Tiridates’ regiments, but the Armenian king was unwavering. All pagan shrines were destroyed and Christian chapels and temples were built in their place. Gregory and the Greco-Assyrian preachers who supported him started a program of denouncing pagan beliefs or adapting them to the Christian faith. Huge crosses began to rise in large settlements and at crossroads, announcing the victory of Christianity in the land of the Armenians.

Of course, the triumph of the new religion was not instantaneous. However, it is a fact that, despite the post-war difficulties, the ruling elite had succeeded and had found their answer to the internal and external challenges. A few years later, the Armenian army even managed to defeat the troops of Roman Emperor Maximinus Daia (311/312).[8] Naturally, this victory brought glory to the first Christian country, and allowed Tiridates and Gregory to intensify their reform, further strengthening the newly-established state and church order, and laying a foundation that would prevail throughout the centuries.

 

The Creation of the Armenian Script

In 387, the Kingdom of Greater Armenia was divided between the powers of the time: the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia. The Armenian kingdom continued to exist semi-independently within the territory of the latter. The Arsacid rulers and their political elite were looking for solutions in this new situation. According to the “Father of Armenian History” Movses Khorenatsi, King Khosrov IV (384-388) took some steps to restore the unity of the country. This policy triggered a harsh response from the Sassanids, while Byzantium refused to provide assistance. As a result, Khosrov surrendered to the Shah of Persia and was deprived of his throne. “And because Arkad refused to support Khosrov, he, finding no help from foreign nations, unable to resist or avoid Shapuh, went to him.”[9] After Khosrov left for Ctesiphon, they arrested him and appointed his brother Vramshapuh the new Armenian king. During the latter’s reign (388-414), the situation worsened as the Armenian king was subservient to the Sassanid kings.

The division of the country between east and west, Persia and Rome, had also interrupted the economic life of Armenia. Neighboring powers and their endless wars had caused great damage and exhausted the economy. It was imperative for the Armenian court to restore the economy and control over trade routes.

The division of the Armenian Kingdom would also lead to the weakening of the position of the Armenian Church. Catholicos Sahak the Parthian [Sahak Partev] (388-439) and his clergy were well aware of this fact. In addition to the loss of influence, the Armenian Church also faced another difficult problem: the century-old structure had not ensured the creation of religious literature in the mother tongue. Most likely, education was conducted in the Assyrian, Greek or Pahlavi (Middle Persian) languages. It was obvious that, with the weakening of the state, the church would also falter and give way to external pressures.

In effect, the Armenian state was facing political, economic, spiritual and religious challenges, which required immediate solutions. The Armenian elite of the time was looking for ways to overcome these difficulties. Under the circumstances, the most convenient sphere for the Armenian court to operate freely in was the cultural one, which would contribute to the solution of other problems. It was necessary to create a solid educational and cultural system, which would spread throughout the Armenian land, stay under the radar of foreign powers, and strengthen the position of the state and the church.

These were the thoughts running through the minds of King Vramshapuh and Sahak the Parthian when Mesrop Mashtots addressed them with the proposal of creating the Armenian characters.

Mashtots had received a Hellenic education and entered service in the Vagharshapat Royal Chancellery. According to Koryun, his student and attestant, Mashtots was a successful military man, well-versed in the books of the Christian faith, and simultaneously engaged in royal correspondence. “He reached the royal court of the Arsacid kings of Greater Armenia, dwelled in the Royal Chancellery, becoming a servant of the king’s order, during the Hazarapet rule of a ‘certain Aravan’ over our Armenian land. He was well versed and skilled in secular laws, and was esteemed by his men for his mastery of the military art.“[10] Essentially, Mashtots, who was familiar with military and secular disciplines, had entered service in this Chancellery, ​​where he had had the opportunity to get acquainted with royal affairs up close. It cannot be ruled out that Koryun mentions the name of Hazarapet Aravan to indicate his teacher’s involvement in economic affairs as well. According to Koryun, Mashtots became a clergyman after his service in the Chancellery.

From this testimony, we can conclude that Mashtots was an official vested with military, economic and religious powers. Therefore, it should not be surprising that he would frequently fulfil the special assignments and transactions of the Armenian King and the Armenian Catholicos.

Most probably, one of the first such assignments was a trip to Goghtn. At the time, this province was characterized not only by its pagan customs, but also by its important commercial and economic position. The Treaty of 387 also regulated trade relations between Sassanid Persia, the Roman Empire and Arsacid Armenia. Under the agreement, merchants from these three countries would refrain from trading in each other’s territories and would trade in predetermined cities. According to the agreement, the former capital city of Artaxiata [Artashat] was to become a joint trade center in Armenia.[11] Taking into account that one of the main roads leading to Artaxiata passed through Nakhichevan-Goghtn, the Armenian king would establish direct control over that road; while, the influence of the followers of the ancient religion, or rather Zoroastrianism, was strong there.[12] Under these conditions, Persian merchants could gain influence in this province by receiving the support of their fellow believers in Goghtn. Therefore, it should not be ruled out that Mashtots, who was well aware of military, economic and cultural affairs, had left for Goghtn to neutralize potential rebels.

Apparently, Mashtots was given great authority, and he could also resort to harsh measures.[13] Even with the support of the Prince of Goghtn, Mashtots failed to achieve his desired results. This shows that Goghtn had become dangerous not only for the Armenian Church, but also for the Armenian Kingdom.

In reality, not having any good news for the Armenian King and Catholicos, Mashtots was forced to look for other solutions. It was necessary to embrace the local population, especially the merchants, into the orbit of the Armenian kingdom, which was only possible through the strengthening of Christianity. It was useless to rely on powerful royal support. It was necessary to leverage soft power. First and foremost, it was necessary to campaign in the Armenian language, thus it was necessary to have one’s own script.

Returning to the capital, Mashtots expresses his concerns to Sahak the Parthian and King Vramshapuh. Effectively, the political, religious and cultural elites of Armenia had come to an agreement, sharing the vision of creating their own script and a new Armenian educational tradition.

King Vramshapuh and Mashtots learned of an ancient Armenian script preserved by Bishop Daniel of Edessa. Upon studying it, Mashtots realized that it was necessary to clarify the phonetic composition of the Armenian language first. After two years of hard work, he established an Armenian phonetic system consisting of 36 sounds. After carrying out this difficult task, Mashtots created the corresponding characters.

After the invention of the letters, it was necessary to create one’s own educational tradition. It is clear that this school was to be rooted in Christian ideology. It was necessary to translate the Bible and the religious-ideological literature created by other Christian nations, especially the Assyrians and the Greeks. For this purpose, Mashtots and his students set off for Christian educational centers (Edessa, Samosata) to get acquainted with the art of translation and update their own repository of manuscripts. In order to have a national literary culture and to translate the Bible into Armenian, one had to obtain the consent of the sister churches, as well as their supporters in Armenia.[14] According to Koryun, Mashtots was received with open arms in these centers, and his and Sahak the Parthian’s initiative to establish an Armenian school was met with approval. Returning to the homeland, Mashtots established the first schools in Goghtn and the neighboring provinces. According to Movses Khorenatsi, he “established schools in all the provinces and taught in all sides of the Persian part.“[15] Besides opening schools in Arsacid Armenia, neighboring Georgia and Aghvank (Caucasian Albania), it was a priority to establish new schools in the Armenian territories under the rule of the Byzantine Empire.

Mashtots headed to Constantinople and to personally meet with Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450), obtaining permission from him to open Armenian schools. Reaching an agreement with the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Mashtots also successfully carried out this task.

Not only the clergy, but azats (a class of Armenian nobility) and ministers also received education in the schools. A young generation educated in their mother tongue was being nurtured – a generation that would better understand the plight of their homeland and be ready to defend it.

Thus, we can affirm that the secular, religious and cultural elites of what became Armenia’s Golden Age were able to turn challenges into a catalyst, to set in stone (often literally) the Armenians’ mark over their territory that would last for centuries.

 

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1-Toynbee A., A Study of History, London, 1989, pp. 97-127.
2-Agathangelos, History of the Armenians, Yerevan, 1981, p. 33.
3-Boyce M., Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London, Boston and Henley, 1979, p. 114-116.
4-Manaseryan R., Armenia From Artavasd to Tiridates the Great, Yerevan, 1997, pp. 137-201.
5-Ibid.
6-Agathangelos, pp. 35-39.
7-Ibid, p 39.
8-Eusebius Phamphili, Ecclesiastical History (Books 6-10), Washingthon, 2005, pp. 220-221.
9-Movses Khorenatsi, History of the Armenians, Yerevan, 1981.
10-Koryun, The Conduct of Mashtots, Yerevan, 2005, p. 39.
11-Manandyan Y., On the Trade and Cities of Armenia in the Context of Global Trade in Ancient Times (V century BC – XV century AD), Works, vol. 6, Yerevan, 1985, p. 76-81.
12-Martirosyan A., Mashtots, Yerevan, 1982, p. 172.
13-Ibid, p. 170.
14-Ibid, pp. 176-199.
15-Movses Khorenatsi, p. 293.
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