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NEVARSAG

In the most decisive moment of the battle of Avarayr, Vasak Siwni took his 40,000 Armenian soldiers, by force, who were under his jurisdiction and went to join the pagan Persians for love of gold, prestige, power and the throne of Armenia. The Persians promised all these, if they won the war; which was never materialized.

Yes, it is true that the battle of Avarayr was lost, but the War of Vatarantz continued for almost thirty years, by Vahanian partisan (guerilla warfare) warfare. Vahan Mamigonian was the nephew of martyred Vartan Mamigonian.

In the year 484 AD, the Persian monarch was forced to sign the Treaty of Nevarsag, with the Armenians. Because the Persians had sustained very heavy economic and military loses, they had to sign the Treaty of Nevarsag, to appease the Armenians at any expense.

Just to give an example: In late Fall of 481, Armenians with only 300 warriors vanquished a Persian army of 7,000 men at the village of Akori, which is located at an elevation of 8,000 feet on the slope of Mt. Ararat. The knowledge of the terrain, experience in partisan warfare, and courage of the Armenian soldiers under the leadership of Vahan Mamigonian, were the deciding factors in this remarkable feat.

In the words of Yeghisheh, a fifth century historian, “The Treaty of Nevarsag is the first in history compelling a tyrant to yield to the principles of religious freedom. The ideal for which Vartanank made their supreme sacrifice had been vindicated”.

THE TRUE GREATNESS OF NEVARSAG

by Khatchig Teuleulian

The fact that few Armenians know about Nevarsag is a sad reflection on the state of history-teaching in our schools. Every child knows of the battle of Avarayr which was a defeat, albeit a significant one that later centuries have seen as a symbolic triumph. Yet that battle was but one stage of a longer struggle that ended with the victory of the Treaty signed at Nevarsag. The history of these events requires only a brief rehearsal here.

Divided between Bysantium and Sassanian Persia in 387, Armenia limped on as a vassal kingdom, achieving much in religion and literature while steadily losing political ground. In 428 A.D., with the death of the last king of the Arshagouni dynasty, Armenia came under more direct Persian rule. The marzbans who ruled Armenia, like ancient satraps or modern viceroys, were usually Armenian nobles who ruled in the Sassanid king’s name, and did so with at least the grudging consent of the Armenian nobility, which consisted of lords temporal and spiritual, of princes and bishops.

As the Persian presssure to abandon Christianity in favor of Zoroastrianism increased, and as those who leaned towards the marzban’s policies were increasingly favored over other nobles, revolt brewed: Avarayr and the martyrdom of the 1036 whom we call Vartanank was the result, in 451 A.D. What followed was thirty years of desultory war, a struggle that was both a guerrilla war conducted by some lords, some peasants and some bishops against the Persians, and also a civil war among the lords favored by Persia and the majority who opposed them. It was an inconclusive war in which many scions of the noble families, including Vartan’s brother Hemayag, were killed. But the resistance continued, sometimes sputtering, at others flaring out into a real battle. In 481, when Hemayag’s son and Vartan’s nephew, Vahan, took over, a combination of factors turned the tide in favor of the Armenians: first Vahan appears to have been a guerrilla leader of genius; second Vakhtang, king of the Georgians, revolted against Persian rule, as did some other princes of the Caucasus; third, the Kushans of the Central Asian frontier kept up the pressure of their border raids on Persia. Given a series of Armenian victories and the hard-pressed state of his forces, a new and unusually diplomatic Persian monarch, Vagharsh decided to grant the ArmeĀ­ nians what amounted to a kind of autonomy; the treaty was sealed at Nevarsag.

To understand the enormous and world-historical significance of Nevarsag – which, like so much else in Armenian history, is ignored by foreign scholars, let us look for a moment at the reasons given for the importance of the Magna Charta. Of course, the differences between the two are obvious: the subjects of the English King were able to build on the rights granted in their document; the Armenians were governed by them for some time, but much depended (much always depends) on the relative power of Armenian nobles and Persian kings. The treaty was not a constitution, but an agreement, a contract that was enforced in sporadic fashion until the collapse of the Persian empire and of old-style Armenian rule in the face of the Muslim onslaught of the 640’s.

Yet the similarities are more significant, and must not be ignored. Nearly 750 years before the Magna Charta, which is described in one standard textbook as “the first time … that the Crown’s relations with a group of subjects were laid down as a matter of law”, the Treaty of Nevarsag did just that: regulated relations between Crown and some subjects.

It is important to emphasize, of course, that the primary beneficiaries of both documents were the Church and the nobility, not the oppressed commoners. This creates no distinctions between the two. In fact, to Armenia as a whole, the document meant more than to England. King John had never threatened the actual religious existence of the Catholic Church – just some of its rights and privileges – whereas the Kings Yazdgerd and Feroz were in fact threatening the Armenian church with annihilation. Thus, the agreement that the Armenians would be free to practice Christianity, that all efforts to convert them to Zoroastrianism would cease, and that all forcibly established Zoroastrian altars would be removed from Armenia has immense significance. 33 Christological and symbolic years after Avarayr, it gave the Armenians what the death of Vartan and his fellows could not win.

But the parallels go further. Much of the Magna Charta was dedicated to ensuring that the nobles could go on enjoying their ancient freedoms and exercising their local, regional authority. In the words of Article 12 of the Magna Charta, “Recongnizances of several ancient laws pertaining to land ownership and judgments pertaining thereto “shall be taken only in their proper counties.” This affirmation of local laws amounted to a certain level of judicial autonomy for an old style of local custom and local nobles; its importance was not lost on other European countries. In 1291, the Swiss mountaineers demanded and received a form of self-government within the German-dominated Holy Roman Empire precisely on these principles. Eight centuries earlier, Nevarsag had guaranteed Armenia, ruled by a marzban who would be a local noble precisely on these rights.

These are not trivial facts, and it is a small pedagogic tragedy that Armenians everywhere, and in particular Armenian-American children, never learn of Nevarsag in its proper, world-historical context, even though every civics or history course pays due tribute to the importance of the Magna Charta as a first step regulating the relations between the king and at least some of his subjects. In a sense, Nevarsag was won against greater odds, for whereas King John and his nobles were all Anglo-Normans of the same race and religion, the Armenians won what they did from an Emperor of different nation, language and religion.

In fact, Nevarsag, which was a boon to Armenia’s prosperity and maturation as a semiĀ­independent entity, could have been and still can be a model for the sort of treaty that the multi-ethnic empires of the world so often need and so seldom grant. It acknowledges realistically the needs of the great powers for certain rights: the right to collect taxes, set foreign policy, and employ soldiers. It must be remembered that Armenian nobles maintained their private armies on their own land after Nevarsag, as did English nobles after the Magna Charta, and that Armenian nobles fought for the Persians in Central Asia, as English knights did for their King in his French adventures. No matter; such is real politic. But both Persia and Armenia gained from Nevarsag a measure of stability and amiability which was later disrupted largely for external reasons, such as the might of Byzantium in the next century.