In the general history of the spread of Christianity, the most significant century was the fourth; it was the period when peoples and governments collectively and officially embraced Christianity.

It was in that century when, during the conflicts between those for and those against the new faith, many events and episodes took place that captured the attention and the recognition of the church.  For the sake of the new faith, and in support of its triumphs, magnificent demonstrations took place all over and they often led to martyrdom.

The Christian Church, in a conspicuously nondiscriminatory spirit, identified many in the class of “Witnesses.” (Forty Martyrs)
It was in that same period when, being first among all nations, Armenia embraced Christianity officially in the year 301 (some put it at 287).  Subsequently, the same action was taken by the Assyrians, by the Roman Empire, and by other peoples.  This transition, revolutionary in nature, brought about the emergence of numerous distinguished individuals who became beatified and sanctified, and also led to group actions in which all had the same vision and were of the same mind and faith, becoming martyred in one spirit, collectively.

Two such events of group martyrdom occurred in the fourth century.  Those involved were sanctified, and they are the revered objects of great esteem by the Armenian Church and people.  They merit being observed with great ceremony and popular memorialization.  They are the following.

• The Forty Brave Martyrs of Sepastia, and
• The Hripsime/Kayane Saints

(The Forty Young and Brave Soldiers)


Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Made in Constantinople, 10th Century

There are no reliable written records handed down to us to identify to which nation the forty youths belonged.  It is said, however, that they came from families of nobility.  And noting that they had gathered together from various cities of Pokr Haig (Lesser Armenia), it may be confidently assumed that some of them were Armenian, especially because Armenians throughout Medz Haig (Greater Armenia) had already been living in the revolutionary new faith for a decade or so.

The youths were brave soldiers; they formed a part of the Roman army, serving in the regions of Cappadocia.  During that time the Roman Emperor was Licinius.  Subject to him as Duke of Cappadocia was Liucias, governing in the capital city of Caesarea.

The emperor expanded his anti-Christian crusade and ordered that if there were any Christians in the army they would have to return to the previous pagan faith or be liquidated.

The general investigation started by Liucias very quickly disclosed that in Sebastia there was an elite military unit of soldiers who, along with the fame they had won as a result of their military prowess and successes, were Christian.

He ordered the judge of the region to conduct an investigation.

Forty youths of the unit confirmed the truth of their being Christians.  Courageously and unafraid, they claimed that the evidence of their successfully having accomplished all the missions assigned to them proved that they were loyal to the king, but they declared also that they had vowed to hold on to their faith in their heavenly king – faith that was vital to them as a source of hope, enthusiasm, and courage.

Considering that those youthful soldiers had until that time behaved in a creditable manner, and had been beneficial to the army, the Duke Liucias of Caesarea went personally to Sebastia in order to personally urge the youths to abide by the King’s orders.

A court was convened. Duke Liucias spoke both flattering and threatening words, but the youths became all the more bold and obdurate.  As a result of the situation so created, Liucias felt that his reputation and eminence were at stake.  His words, both friendly and menacing, were being rejected.

As a signal for meting out severe punishment, he cautioned the security guard to be ready for action.  He ordered stoning, and thus silencing those mouths that continued to defend the principles of the new faith.  And in order to be an example, he himself threw the first stone at the mouth of the youth who had most stubbornly spoken.

It was at that moment that a miraculous thing happened.  The thrown stone, instead of reaching its intended target, flew in exactly the opposite direction and wounded the judge’s face.  The men of the security guard also began throwing stones but, despite their will, the stones began to strike themselves, causing much harm to them only.

After that miraculous happening, the Duke Liucias decided to carry out the imperial order – death.

It was winter and very cold.  The Duke directed that they wait until night when the freezing conditions would be at their worst.  He ordered that the stubborn youths be taken, nude, to the lake near the city and be forced to spend the night in the lake.  The waters of the lake had frozen over in the intense cold.  It presented an obviously horrible situation for the youths.

The order was carried out.  All the time it was being made clear to the youths that if any of them should be ready to return to the pagan faith they would at once be given a warm bath and be rejuvenated with warm fluids.


St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Two Homilies on the Forty Holy Martyrs

The forty youths were being pushed to their destiny.  Of the forty, only one, unable to endure the torture, broke away from the freezing waters and ran to the nearby bath. However, he died immediately, at the first moment of contact with the warm water.

The thirty-nine companions were saddened and pained by the renunciation of faith by their comrade. They deplored the fact that he would be denied the good fortune of becoming worthy of the calling as a saint, and of receiving God’s grant of eternal life.

In the intense cold the youths began to freeze, becoming numb, and gradually giving up their lives.  It was in that heart-rending wretched situation that another miracle suddenly occurred. Luminous halos, in the right number for the condemned zealous youths, came down from heaven and rested above the bowed heads, illuminating the entire area.  The security guards were thrown into confusion.  One of them, unable to conceal his wonderment at this miraculous event, declared on the spot that he would embrace Christianity and follow those true ones.  He at once threw himself into the lake, and in so doing replaced the apostate youth. Shortly, his body too froze, and the number of those faithful rose to forty once again.

forty_martyrs_pictureThat night of freezing horror and death came to an end.  For the sake of faith and conscience those forty braves sacrificed their lives and gave rise to miraculous events.  It was now dawn.  A large and curious crowd of people gathered at the lake.  The security guards removed the frozen bodies from the ice-bound lake. According to law it was required first to verify that each of them was dead.  Then after a heavy blow with a club to the neck, the corpses were thrown into carts and taken away to be cremated, with ashes to be thrown into the river.

It was found that only one of the braves, named Meliton, the youngest of the forty, was still alive.  But the soldiers, following their rules, laid the body in the cart and started off.

A devout Christian woman from among the crowd, the mother of the youth still alive, went to her unconscious son.  With astonishing strength she lifted her son’s body and carried it along with the guards carting the corpses away.  The woman felt certain that her son would quickly give up his soul.  She herself was wishing for his death, because she looked upon what was occurring as the result of a God-pleasing and honorable self-imposed death.

That Christian mother wanted very much for her much tortured son to become worthy of God’s grace and eternal life, along with his companions. And in truth, her son did indeed die along the way.

The guards carried out their assigned duty.  They cremated the forty corpses.  The remains were given over to the rushing waters of the river, and the guards returned to the city.

These events lasting over several weeks – interrogation, trial, sentencing, etc. – pointed clearly to what the eventual outcome would be.  Knowing that, the Bishop of Sebastia had pre-arranged for the remains of the martyrs to be brought to him secretly, because he felt that it would bring comfort and consolation to the families and would reinforce belief in the faithful.  The secret arrangements had been successful.  It became possible to remove the remains from the river and to be taken to him.


This important event occurred during the winter of 316.  The injustice of it and its barbarity became widely felt.  The people of the region became remorseful, and the contagion of that emotion spread into nearly all the cities and peoples of the Middle East.

Some of the greatest figures of Christian history – Patriarch St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ephrem the Assyrian, and the Armenian priest Sisian of Sebastia – wrote panegyrics on those innocent youths.  Not long later, a magnificent church with forty belfries was erected in Sebastia in memory of those immortal witnesses.  It is called the Church of the Forty Braves (Srpots Karasnits Mangants).

The famous church remained popular and active until about the year 1400, when one of the world’s greatest conquerors, Tamerlane (1336-1405) traitorously captured Sebastia and wiped out virtually the entire city with a population of 120,000, including of course the Church of the Forty Braves.

After that, the site of the church was used as a graveyard, wherein a chapel was built in memory of the forty braves.  That memorial chapel and graveyard remained in use until the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when nearly all hallowed sites of the Armenian world were once again destroyed.

The Armenian Church, starting from its earliest times, celebrates the enduring memory of the forty martyrs who willingly sacrificed their lives for their faith, doing so in order for truth and the principles of the Gospel to vanquish over despots who assail just faith and conscience.

The memory of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia is celebrated each year during Lent on the Saturday following Mid-Lent (Michink).  A ceremonial Divine Liturgy is celebrated on the following day, Sunday.

The Armenian people have built churches in many cities in memory of the Forty Martyrs. Special celebrations of the Divine Liturgy and blessing of madagh take place in those churches, with the presence of great crowds.

The day set aside in the Armenian Church calendar in memory of the Forty Martyrs is taken as the “name day” for those who are named Manoug.  It is a time for friends and relatives to join them in warm celebrations and good wishes.

(Concerning Tamerlane in Sebastia and surrounding villages)

After having laid waste to many villages and cities around Sebastia, Tamerlane’s horde reached one particular village to the south of Sebastia.

It was beginning to darken into the evening.  The men of the horde paused there and said to Tamerlane, “Bu kalte,” which means “This is all that’s left.” Thus, the village became known as Kalte, or Ghalti.

Word reached Tamerlane that the unannounced killing and destruction of Sebastia was completed, and that a few crazed people had begun to laugh and giggle as they danced on the ruins of the city.  Tamerlane, becoming fully content with that report, gathered up his troops and left Sebastia.


FEAST OF THE FORTY MARTYRS: Feast of the forty brave youths. (Manoug, see below)

MANOUG:  The meaning of this word has changed in the modern popular (askharhapar) Armenian.  At present it means a “young boy.”  In the classical Armenian (krapar) it means “young man,” or “youth.”  Hence, the Armenian name of the Feast of the Forty Brave Youths, “Karasoun Mangants.”

CAPPADOCIA:  Known also in history as Gamirk.  It is comprised of the central regions of Turkey today, Asia Minor – villages of Samson, Amasia, and Malatia.  To the south was Cilicia; to the east was Medz Haig (Greater Armenia), Pokr Haig (Lesser Armenia), and Assyria.  Its central city was Caesarea (Kayseri today).

In 1065 King Gagik Abasian of Kars, recognizing the imminence of the Seljuk invasion, consigned his lands to the Byzantine king in exchange for which he received the Cappadocian city Caesarea. At that time many Armenians migrated to Cappadocia.  Armenians had lived there in larger numbers from earlier times.

Dikran the Great had occupied it totally.  He was defeated by Rome in about 80 B.C.  It later became an eastern region of Rome, and also an important cultural center of Byzantium.

It has always been notable for its churches and temples, before and after Christianity.

CAESAREA:  Historical name Mazhak; today, Kayseri.  Central and administrative city of Cappadocia.  In 1022, the Byzantine Emperor Basil V. granted the city to David Ardzruni.  In 1084 it was occupied by the Seljuk’s.  In 1243 it was destroyed by the Mongols.  In 1471 the Turks claimed it for Turkey.

Armenians have lived there in large numbers for centuries.  During the fourth century the Armenian Catholicoi went there to be ordained and anointed.

In 1915 the city had a total population of 60 to 70 thousand, of whom about 20,000 were Armenian.  Armenian rugs from there are famous.  Caesarea had many Armenian churches and schools. Famous were St. Mary (Asdvadzadzin), St. Gregory the Enlightener, and St. Sarkis.

During the Hamidian massacres of 1895, 1,000 Armenians were martyred.  In 1915, 20,000 Armenians of the city and 50,000 Armenians from surrounding villages were deported and massacred. The important surrounding Armenian villages were Aziz, Gergshehir, Dere, Vank, Everek, Tomarza, Kemerek and others.

A 1938 census showed that there was a total of about 2,000 Armenians in Caesarea and all of the surrounding villages.

SEBASTIA:  Also known as Sivas or Svas.  Early Greeks called it God’s city.  During the Middle Ages its population was nearly all Armenian.  Literary works and art flourished there.  The city had many churches and schools.  In 1915 virtually all of the Armenians were deported and massacred.

EMPEROR LICINIUS:  Roman emperor who reigned contemporaneously with Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337).

During the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great worship of Christianity was allowed.  He not only defended the faith, but also promoted it, being a zealous believer.  He had succeeded his father Constantius.  He defeated his adversaries and required his soldiers to wear a cross on their sleeves.  Then he had the Greek letters X and P (Chi, Rho) put on their uniforms, meaning “Christ the King.”

He chose Licinius to rule in the eastern empire.  They ruled jointly for ten years.  During that time each tried to increase the range of his sovereignty.  Finally, in 324, their altercation led to the end of Licinius’ reign, and Constantine the Great became the sole ruler over the extensive land of all the Roman Empire, West and East.

Thus, Licinius, as a ruler of the Easter Roman provinces, and rival of Constantine, emerged as a supporter of the pagan faith and persecutor of Christians.

ST. BASIL (PARSEGH) OF CAESAREA (329-379).  A Greek.  Was educated first in Caesarea, then in Constantinople and Athens.  Became ordained in 364.  He travelled into Lesser Armenia, Assyria, Palestine and Egypt.  In 370, he was chosen as Archbishop of Caesarea.

As a prominent clergyman, author, and savant, he left a rich heritage of creative works in the form of homilies, sermons, essays and about 250 letters.  Nearly all of his works were translated into Armenian in the fifth century.

ST. GREGORY OF NYSSA (335-394):  A Greek born in Caesarea, brother of St. Basil of Caesarea.  He was a great scholar, theologian and philosopher.

Around 371 he was chosen as Bishop of Nyssa, and later Metropolitan of Lesser Armenia and Sebastia.  He played an important role in the Second Ecumenical Council, in Constantinople, in 381. He left a rich heritage of works, essays, theological tracts, eulogies, and numerous letters.  His important writings such as “On the Nature of Man,” have been translated into Armenian.

ST. EPHREM THE ASSYIRAN (or Khouri):  Born in Nisibis and worked there.  Died in 373. When the Persians occupied Nisibis he moved to Edessa.

He was a highly intellectual clergyman, savant, theologian and philosopher.  He wrote essays, sermons, eulogies and commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, which have been translated into many languages.  Some of his works are now extant thanks to the Armenian translations,  for example; a commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul, 51 anthems, and essays.

Some Armenian scholars believe that the works of St. Ephrem (Yeprem) the Assyrian have had a definite influence on Armenian hymns and theological literature.

Courtesy of “Feasts of the Armenian Church and National Traditions” by Garo Bedrosian, 1993