Thursday, May 26, 2016

Battle of Avarayr (May 26, 451)

Every year we celebrate the Feast of Vartanantz (Վարդանանց տօն, Vartanantz don) on the last Thursday before the beginning of Great Lent, which falls sometime from early February to early March. Yet, it is traditionally accepted that the battle of Avarayr, which symbolized the ultimate sacrifice of Armenians in defense of their faith, was fought in May (some sources say June 2) and not in February or March. The reason for the change was ritual. The actual date of Avarayr fell between Easter and Pentecost, and no other saints—the fallen in the battle were canonized by the Armenian Church—could be celebrated in that period of time.

The kingdom of Armenia had been divided since 387 between Persia and Byzantium, becoming a vassal state of the Persian Empire. The ruling Arshakuni (Arsacid) dynasty came to an end in 428 with the deposition of the last king, Artashes IV, by the Persian king Bahram V, who belonged to the Sassanian dynasty. This action legally established Persian authority through a Persian governor. Armenia would not have a king for the next four centuries and a half.

While Armenians were initially allowed to freely practice Christianity, the situation changed drastically after Yazdegerd II (called Յազկերտ/Yazkert in Armenian) became king of Persia (439-457). In the late 440s, the new sovereign was concerned with the situation of the Armenian Church, which was within the orbit of the Orthodox Christian Church, aligned with Rome and Constantinople, rather than the Nestorian Church, which was Persian-backed and followed the teachings of Nestorius, which had been condemned as heretical by the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431 (the third and last ecumenical council recognized by the Armenian Church). He tried to force the Armenian Church to abandon Rome and Byzantium in favor of the Nestorian Church or either to compel conversion to Zoroastrianism, the official religion of Persia, which was rather preferable for him. He summoned the leading Armenian nobles to Ctesiphon (called Տիզբոն/Tizbon in Armenian) to convince them into following his way. On the other hand, he sent Zoroastrian magi (priests) to Armenia, who made attempts at demolishing churches and building fire-temples, with Persian troops backing them, as well as replacing Christian clergy.

However, Yazdegerd’s policies backfired, as they created a Christian rebellion. A mass revolt broke out when news about the Armenian nobles being compelled to convert into Zoroastrianism reached Armenia. Upon their return to Armenia, the nobility, led by the supreme commander of the Armenian army, Vartan Mamikonian, joined forces with the rebels. An attempt to obtain Byzantine aid was unsuccessful, and the Armenians had to face the Persian repression alone.

The Armenian-Persian confrontation took place on May 26, 451, in the plain of Avarayr, southeast of the currently Iranian city of Maku, which was part of the region of Vaspurakan at the time. The Armenian army, composed by veteran soldiers and popular battalions, was said to be 66,000-strong, while the Persian army, including war elephants, was said to be three times larger. Some Armenian noblemen, led by Vasak Siuni, went over to the Persians. During the battle, Vartan Mamikonian won initial success, but was later killed with eight of his main officers.

In the evening, the Armenian troops retreated. However, the Persian victory had been extremely costly, and their losses (3,544) were also said to have tripled Armenian losses (1,036 men). Following his victory, Yazdegerd exiled Armenian Catholicos Hovsep I and some of the more recalcitrant priests, and jailed some nobles, appointing a new governor for Armenia. However, he did not follow up with his plans.

Vartan Mamikonian was raised to the status of national hero; the 1,036 men fallen in battle were canonized by the Armenian Church, and Avarayr was turned into a moral victory. By a strange coincidence of history, a “second Avarayr” or a “new Avarayr,” as it is frequently called, was fought and won on May 26, 1918: the battle of Sardarabad.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Beginning of the Council of Nicea (May 20, 325)

The Council of Nicea (the first convened in that city) was an assembly of 318 Christian bishops gathered in that city of Bithynia (today Iznik, in Turkey) by Roman emperor Constantine I (306-337) in 325. This was the first ecumenical council, with the goal of attaining consensus through an assembly that represented all of Christendom. The attending bishops were only a fraction of the total number of bishops of the Church, approximately 1,800 (a thousand in the East and eight hundred in the West). Catholicos Aristakes, son of St. Gregory the Illuminator, was among the attending bishops as representative of the Armenian Church.

One of the purposes of the council was to resolve disagreements over the nature of the Son of God in his relationship to God the Father. In particular, whether the Son had been “begotten” by the Father from his own being, which meant having no beginning, or else created out of nothing, and therefore having a beginning. The first position was held by St. Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria, while Arius, a member of the clergy of Alexandria, held the second position, which considered the Son of God a creature, instead of confessing him to be of one substance, power, and eternity with the Father.

The council was formally opened on May 20, 325, in the imperial palace at Nicea, with preliminary discussions of the Arian question. In these discussions, Arius was one of the dominant figures, with 22 bishops coming as supporters, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia. However, the reading of some of the more shocking passages from his writings made them almost unanimously seen as blasphemous.

The Nicene Creed was created in order to clarify the key tenets of the Christian faith, as a result of the extensive adoption of the doctrine of Arius, known as Arianism, far outside Alexandria. In the Creed, the divinity of Jesus Christ is proclaimed as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” He is said to be “begotten, not made,” asserting that he was the true Son of God, brought into being “of the substance of the Father,” and not a mere creature, brought into being out of nothing. Jesus Christ is also said to be “of one substance with the Father” (consubstantial). The Creed (Havadamk) of the Armenian Church, which is professed every Sunday during Holy Mass, is based on the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible. 
And we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of God the Father, only-begotten, that is of the substance of the Father. God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten and not made; himself of the same nature of the Father by whom all things came into being in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. 
Who for us, mankind, and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, became man, was born perfectly of the holy Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. By whom he took body, soul and mind and everything that is in mind, truly and not in semblance. 
He suffered and was crucified and was buried, and on the third day he rose again; and ascended into heaven with the same body and sat at the right hand of the Father. He is to come with the same body and with the glory of the Father to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end. 
We also believe in the Holy Spirit, the uncreated and the perfect, who spoke through the Law and the Prophets and the Gospels; who descended on the river Jordan, preached through the apostles and dwelled in the saints. 
We also believe in only one, universal, and apostolic holy Church; in one baptism; in repentance and in the remission and forgiveness of sins; we believe in the resurrection of the dead, in the everlasting judgment of souls and bodies, in the kingdom of heaven and in life eternal.

The text of the Creed is entirely taken from the Bible. An anathema was added at the end, specifically addressed to the Arian heresy, which says:

The universal and apostolic holy Church anathematizes those who say that there was a time when the Son was not, or that there was a time when the Holy Spirit was not, or that they came into being out of nothing, or who say that the Son of God or the Holy Spirit is of different substance, or that they are changeable or alterable.

Besides the settlement of the Christological issue, the Council of Nicea also established the uniform observance of the date of Easter and the promulgation of early canon law. The Council was the first of the three ecumenical councils recognized by the Armenian Apostolic Church, the others being the councils of Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431).

Friday, May 13, 2016

Death of Cardinal Gregorio Agagianian (May 16, 1971)

Cardinal Gregorio Agagianian was the foremost Armenian figure of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, and rose to world fame when in the papal elections of 1958 and 1963 he was about to become the first non-Italian head of the Church in almost 450 years.

Ghazaros Agagianian was born in Akhaltsikhe, in the historical region of Javakhk (now in Georgia), on September 18, 1895. His family was part of the local Armenian Catholic community. After studying at the seminary of Tiflis, he went to Rome, where he studied at the Urban College of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (now Pontifical Urbaniana University) and was ordained a priest in 1917 with the name of Gregorio (Krikor). He returned to Tiflis, where he did pastoral work from 1917-1921. Afterwards, he left Soviet Georgia and became a member of the faculty at the Pontifical Armenian College in Rome in 1921 and Rector of the same college from 1932-1937. He also taught at the Urban College from 1922-1932.

Meanwhile, he had been consecrated bishop on July 21, 1935, with a previous appointment as titular Bishop of Comana. The Armenian Synod elected him Patriarch Catholicos of the House of Cilicia on November 30, 1937, with the name of Krikor-Bedros XV.

In 1938, after an agreement of the French colonial authorities of Syria and Turkey, the sanjak of Alexandretta (later renamed Hatay) was annexed to the latter. The efforts of the Armenian community of Paris, Patriarch Agagianian, and the Vatican representative to Syria and Lebanon Remi Leprert allowed that many areas of Kessab inhabited by Armenians remained in Syria. In recent years, the Syrian government renamed one of the streets of Aleppo after Cardinal Agagianian to honor his efforts.

Agagianian was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Pius XII with the title of Cardinal-Priest of San Bartolomeo all’Isola in 1946. He participated in the papal conclave of 1958, following the death of Pius XII, and received a large number of votes, eventually approaching the majority needed for election. This was confirmed by Pope John XXIII, the elected pope.

John XXIII appointed Cardinal Agagianian as a member of the leading body of the Second Vatican Council, where he was a member of the presidency board from 1963-1965. Agagianian was Pro-Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith from 1958-1960 and full Prefect from 1960-1970. In 1962 he resigned from his position of Armenian Catholic Patriarch.

Pope John XXIII standing to the right of Cardinal Agagianian at the Second Vatical Council.

After the death of John XXIII, Agagianian participated in the conclave of 1963, which elected Pope Paul VI. He was rumored to have been actually elected, but declined to accept. In 1970 he was elevated to the order of Cardinal-Bishops as Cardinal-Bishop of Albano.

Seven months after this elevation, Cardinal Gregorio Aghagianian passed away in Rome on May 16, 1971, aged 75, from cancer. He was buried at the Armenian church of San Nicola da Tolentino, the same place where he was consecrated bishop thirty-six years earlier.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Death of Frederic Feydit (May 11, 1991)

French scholar Frederic Feydit was one of the most remarkable names in the field of Armenian Studies during the twentieth century, particularly because of his personal relationship and attachment to the Armenian people. In an interview in 1983, he declared to be “a citizen of the Diaspora.”
Frederic-Armand Feydit was born in Paris on April 15, 1908, and studied at the Lycée Hoche of Versailles. He became interested in linguistic studies at the age of sixteen; an Armenian family that had rented a room at his parents’ home had left to him, upon its departure, an Armenian elementary grammar and an Armenian-French dictionary.

He taught French at the school Samuel Moorat of the Mekhitarist Congregation, in Sevres, while he was following the courses of Armenian language and culture by Professor Frederic Macler at the Ecole des Langues Orientales, Father Louis Maries at the Institute Catholique, and Professor Antoine Meillet at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes from 1931-1933.

After obtaining his diploma from the Ecole des Langues Orientales, Feydit went to Venice and taught French at the Moorat-Raphael school from 1933-1936, while he pursued his Armenian studies with the fathers of the Mekhitarist Congregation. At the age of 27, in 1935, he published Grammaire de la langue arménienne - dialecte occidental, a grammar of Western Armenian. He was elected member of the Armenian Academy of San Lazzaro (the scientific body of the congregation) in 1937. In the same year, he married Hermine, an Armenian survivor of the genocide who lived in Milan.

In 1938 he published an article in Armenian about the medieval historian Hetum (Hayton) in the journal Anahid, directed by Arshag Tchobanian. This article made him known among intellectual circles. In 1941 he entered the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, one of the highest research institutions in France, which he left in 1949 to take the Armenian chair at the Ecole des Langues Orientales, replacing the distinguished Indo-European scholar Georges Dumezil. By then, he had published his Manuel de la langue arménienne (1948), which would have a second edition in 1969. He also published Considerations sur l’alphabet de St. Mesrop in 1964 (second revised edition, 1982). He taught at the Ecoles des Langues Orientales until 1978. In 1986 he published Amulettes de l’Arménie chrétienne, the best study available about Armenian prophylactic scrolls (հմայիլ – hmayil).

A prolific author, he contributed to many scholarly publications in Armenian and in French on issues related to Armenian language, literature, and history. He translated the Armenian epic David of Sassoun into French (1964) under the sponsorship of UNESCO, as well as Comrade Panchoonie by Yervant Odian. He had also embraced the Armenian cause from the very beginning: in 1937 he rebuffed anti-Armenian attacks by fascist writer Lucien Rebattet, and he published a groundbreaking article on the Armenian genocide on April 24, 1965, in Le Monde.

Frederic Feydit passed away on May 11, 1991, in Paris.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Death of Spiriton Melikian (May 4, 1933)

It is usual to speak about Gomidas Vartabed’s five students, of which Parsegh Ganachian (the author of the arrangement for the Armenian anthem Mer Hayrenik) is the better known. However, his eldest student is frequently left in the shadows.

Spiriton Melikian was born in Vagharshapat on December 1, 1880. He lost his parents at an early age and lived with his paternal and maternal uncles. He entered the Kevorkian Seminary of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin in 1893 and soon became the focus of Gomidas’ attention. He followed on the traces of his teacher and dedicated himself to record popular songs. To that aim, he spent his summers in the villages of Etchmiadzin and Aparan.

In 1902 Melikian graduated from the seminary and was ordained a deacon. He worked for two years as a singing teacher and assistant to Gomidas in the direction of the seminary choir. After two years of work, he went to Berlin to continue his musical education, following his teacher’s advice. He studied at the private conservatory of Richard Schmidt. Gomidas warned him, however, not to follow the scholastic orientation that prevailed in German musicology at the time. To that end, he loaned him his huge collection of Armenian popular songs to copy and take with him. That providential decision saved the collection from complete loss. Melikian published the only extant copy of Gomidas’ collection in 1931.

In Berlin, he studied ancient and modern music history, cultivated his voice, and deepened his knowledge of choral art. He returned to Armenia and decided to dedicate himself exclusively to music. As a result, he severed his links with the Armenian Church and renounced his order of deacon. After a year teaching in Shushi (Karabagh), in 1909 he settled in Tiflis, becoming music teacher and choirmaster at the Nersessian School. In the same year, he published a small book, The Issue of Music Development among Us. He was particularly adamant about the need to dedicate space to Armenian popular songs in school programs.

In 1912 he founded the Armenian Musical Society of Tiflis that did prolific work in the promotion and collection of Armenian music during the early 20th century. Melikian and another musician, Anushavan Ter-Ghevondian, published a collection of folkloric music in 1916, The Songs of Shirak.

In 1921, after the sovietization of Armenia, Melikian moved first to Etchmiadzin and later to Yerevan in 1923. He became a professor of choral art at the newly founded Music Conservatory, and also taught theoretical subjects, and retrained teachers. He directed the 75-member choir of the conservatory, which also performed in Moscow.

In those years, Melikian continued collecting samples of folkloric music and publishing. He became a member of the Institute of Science and Art of the republic in 1926. He organized several campaigns in different areas of the republic from 1926-1932 and published two booklets of Armenian Popular Songs and studies on Gomidas Vartabed. He worked on a book, Outline of History of Armenian Music, posthumously published in 1935. It is said that he collected more than a thousand samples of Armenian song and dance melodies, becoming the most prolific in this field after Gomidas.

Spiriton Melikian became director of the State Conservatory from 1930-1933, and was rewarded with the title of Emeritus Art Worker of Armenia in 1933. He passed away shortly thereafter, on May 4, 1933, victim of cancer. He was buried at the Gomidas Pantheon in Yerevan.