The Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center is pleased to announce the release of the first volume in a new publication series, entitled Sources from the Armenian Christian Tradition, which provides the Krapar text and English translation of Armenian Christian sources in an attractive digital e-book format.
Over a year and a half in the making, this volume brings to life a fascinating artifact from the early modern period: a talismanic prayer scroll known as a hmayil, which was a popular and widespread medium in use among Armenians from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.
This new e-book offers the reader the opportunity to digitally “unroll” this mesmerizing prayer scroll from beginning to end, thereby discovering a rich panoply of prayers, Scriptural passages, incantations, and illuminations.
The Zohrab Information Center, St. Leon Armenian Church, and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary are proud co-sponsors of a roundtable discussion around St. Gregory of Narek’s Prayer Book, with Dr. Abraham Terian, His Grace Bishop Daniel Findikyan, and Dr. Jesse Arlen, that will take place on Monday, September 12th at 7:00pm at St. Leon Armenian Church (Abajian Hall), 12-61 Saddle River Road, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410.
“The Warrior Saint Within: A Symbolic Interpretation of Vartanants” by Dr. Jesse S. Arlen
This talk was given in the Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium at the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in New York City on the Feast of Sts. Vartanants and name day celebration of St. Vartan Cathedral on February 24, 2022. I’m grateful to Diocesan Primate Bp. Daniel Findikyan and Cathedral Vicar Fr. Davit Karamyan for the invitation to speak on this occasion.
For many of you the number of times is past counting that you have come to St. Vartan Cathedral on this feast day. For others, you can remember a handful of times. For me, it is only the first time, but no less meaningful for that. Here we are on the Feast of Sts. Vartanants, underneath the mother cathedral dedicated to that warrior saint whose protection and guidance our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers sought, when their fortune saw them flung to the eastern shore of this country after they had endured a calamity even greater than that faced by St. Vartan and his companions. What was it they saw in a defeated and slain warrior from a millennium and a half ago that so inspired them?
For an event like the one we’re dealing with here to be worthy of remembrance, for it to turn into what skeptics might call ‘legend’ or ‘myth,’ but what we might better name ‘sacred history,’ it must be symbolically meaningful; that is, it must embody timeless, spiritual meaning. It is at that symbolic level that I’d like to focus my brief remarks this evening.
To do so, let me call your attention to a less celebrated passage in Ghazar Parbetsi’s History— but one that I think is key to uncovering the deeper meaning found in this event. Before the Battle of Avarayr, Vartan and the other Armenian, Georgian, and Caucasian Albanian Christian noble lords are called to the Sasanian Shah Yazkert’s court who presents them with the following choice: either abandon your Christian faith and accept Zoroastrianism or see yourselves, your wives, children, and nation annihilated. What do we expect these heroes and Christian saints will do? Surely, they will spit in the shah’s face and say they’ll never yield to such threats. But that is not what happened.
Ghazar tells us that Vartan deliberated in agony for a while, while remembering that saying of Christ, “Whoever loves his wife and children more than me, is not worthy of me.” But his companions quoted other Scriptures, not unlike how Satan once tempted Jesus in the wilderness. They reminded Vartan of what St. Paul had said, “I would make myself cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of saving my brothers and relatives” and urged him to do just that along with them, in order to save their wives and children and kinsmen: i.e., they asked him to renounce Christ (if only under pretense) in order to save the lives of those they loved. What do you think Vartan did? Surely, he refused them and that is why we remember him today as a Christian martyr, right? Wrong. On that occasion, he silenced the voice of truth within him, and along with his companions chose the way of deception, feigning abandonment of Christ and accepting Zoroastrianism, and thus lying his way out of the difficult situation.
It was a hard dilemma. If you’re brave enough to try such an experiment, look inside yourself at a quiet, solitary moment and ask yourself what you would do if given the same choice?
Well, Ghazar tells us that the nobles then returned to their land and when their wives and children along with priests chanting Psalms came out to greet them, they instantly began to weep and wail because they found that their husbands looked dark and half-dead, and the light that usually shone from their faces no longer did so. This refers, of course, to the beaming charisma that seems to glow from the faces and eyes of those who live truthfully and uprightly at all times, who always seek the highest good. It is the golden halo that iconographers paint behind the faces of saints. It shone no more from the faces of those men who were living no longer in the light of truth.
Vartan soon discovers that as a result of his deception, all goodness, beauty, and joy has been stripped away from his life. Neither his wives nor children, not even his servants can bear to be in his presence or sit with him at table. He himself cannot even endure being in his own realm any longer, and looking for a way to run from himself and his problems, he decides to flee to the Roman empire, where he can be safe and secure.
His fellow Christian nobles come to him again, this time urging him to stay and fight with them in the wars with Iran that are sure to come, once their deception has been found out. Once again, Vartan is faced with a hard dilemma. Should he run to another realm where he can practice Christianity safely, protect his family, and so escape death? Or, should he accept his own mortality, and honestly and courageously face the difficult lot he has been dealt? It is this inner battle that was the most difficult one that Vartan fought, the war he waged within himself. And after the initial defeat at the Persian court, it is from this inner battle that he emerged victorious, when he decided that no matter the cost or outcome he would follow the way that he knew deep down within him to be right, which meant accepting his own mortality, facing death in battle.
For the last couple weeks, I’ve meditated on the sculptural relief of Vartan that stands on the south-facing wall above the entrance of our cathedral. One might have expected Vartan to be depicted standing tall and proud in full armor, sword in hand, ready to wage war. But that is not at all what the inspired artist, Bogdan Grom, depicted. Call the image to mind if you can.
Notice his posture. He is there on bended knee, helmet off beside him, face resolute, holding the cross in his left hand at his chest, and pointing upwards with his right hand. What does all this mean? To take off your protective armor and grip the cross at the center of yourself is to honestly accept your own mortality, the inescapable death sentence that is placed on every one of us that comes into this world. To fall on one knee and point upwards is to submit yourself to Reality as it is, to the lot that you have been dealt, and despite that to work for the highest good you can conceive given the limitations of your self and the circumstances of your life, leaving the outcome of your efforts entirely in God’s hands. You cannot choose the circumstances you will face in life, and there are many forces working against you that will always remain outside of your control. All you can control is your own self and how you will respond to them. Vartan overcame the deceptive, inner desires that urged him toward self-preservation and self-protection, that urged him to seek his own advantage at the expense of the highest good. And because of that decision, that inner victory that Vartan won, the halo glows again behind his head. It is there on the sculpture on the cathedral wall.
Meanwhile, Vasak, prince of Siwnik, took advantage of the unfortunate circumstances in Armenia to advance his own interests, caring little that it required treachery and betrayal to do so. He colluded with the Iranian shah and worked behind the scenes to betray Vartan and the other Christian nobles. Vasak sought upward mobility and personal reward at the cost of honesty and loyalty. He compromised his highest ideal and betrayed his companions. This is corruption at its very worst— taking advantage of a bad situation for personal benefit to the detriment of those dependent on you. Vasak tried to trick reality through deceit, lies, and treachery. However, soon after the Battle of Avarayr, the tables were turned on him, and falling out of favor with the shah, he was imprisoned and died in ignominy.
And so, this story presents us with two paths that we may pursue in life. We can choose to shun lies and deception and follow the voice within us that speaks the truth, or we can try to twist reality to our own ends through lies, deception, and deceit. In this life, one thing is certain: we will face difficulty, calamity, crisis, unfavorable external circumstances that lie entirely outside of our control, which we did not ask for and do not want. When that happens, a voice within us will bring up every excuse and reason why we should give up or lie or cheat our way out of the difficult circumstance, perhaps even using Scripture as justification. But there is another voice always inside you: it is much quieter but it always tells you what is right and speaks the hard truth you need to hear. We can call it our conscience or the “spirit of truth.” If you follow that first voice, you take the path of Vasak, trying to twist reality to your own end. But reality has a way of snapping back into shape and crushing the one who tried to bend it. If you have the courage to listen to that second, quieter voice and follow it no matter the cost, leaving the outcome entirely to God, you choose the way of Vartan, and God only knows what unforeseen good may come of it, still having its impact a millennium and a half from now.
We fight this inner battle every day, with each hurdle and challenge we face, no matter how large or small. Every time we listen to the first voice and take the easy path, like Vasak, we corrupt ourselves and the world, making bad things worse. But when we listen to the second voice, we strengthen ourselves and if we act thus consistently, we soon find that we become capable of facing any difficulty, any peril, even death with courage. And by so doing, we hold open the possibility that by our honest actions and self-sacrifice, we can help to repair a broken world. This is what it means to pick up your cross and follow after Christ.
Our forebears who survived the Genocide to come to this country had every reason in the world to abandon their faith and curse the God who, judging by all external appearances, had forsaken them. Many, in fact, did just that. But some fell on their knees, held the cross to their chest, and looked upwards, building this cathedral as a testament to their faith, in the name of the warrior saint who stays true despite all external calamities. They won the inner battle, clinging to their faith against despair and against all odds built a beautiful life in a strange, new world that soon became home to their children and grandchildren. Their chapter is now written and finished, but ours is still open. We stand here now the beneficiaries of their sacrifice, under the protection of that warrior saint, who wins the inner battle against the self. So, on this Feast of Sts. Vartanants, let us ponder what our lives could be like if each one of us always chose the way that Vartan chose, obeying that small voice within us that speaks the truth. What might we become if we did so? What might our nation become? What might the world become?
May the blessings of this Feast Day be on us all and may each one of us become the warrior saint who wins the inner battle.
 The episode I reflect on here and in the following paragraphs is found in the second part of Ghazar’s History. In the standard English edition, The History of Łazar Pʿarpecʿi, trans. by Robert W. Thomson (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991), see pp. 75–157, especially pp. 86–106.
Dr. Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus of Armenian Patristics and Theology at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary will present his new book at the Zohrab Center on Monday, March 20 at 7PM.
The book is entitled, The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies and Encomia.This is the first English translation of these poetic works.
Less known than St. Gregory’s celebrated Book of Prayers (or Book of Lamentations as it is sometimes called), the great tenth-century mystic’s jubilant poems on the life of Christ and the great saints and feasts of the Armenian Church are filled with the joyful exuberance of the Christian message. In penetrating theology, masterful poetry and lavish Biblical imagery, St. Gregory summons the reader into his staggeringly intimate experience of God’s goodness and the Church’s holiness.
DR. ABRAHAM TERIAN is Professor Emeritus of Armenian Theology and Patristics at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. A recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in the Humanities award and Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, he has extensive publications in the fields of Hellenistic, early Christian, and Armenian religious literature.
Dr. Terian’s book includes English translations of more than fifty substantial compositions spanning hundreds of pages of text. As beautifully engaging as Terian’s renditions of the texts are his profuse and learned annotations, which accompany each work. The scholar provides Biblical references (the volume’s Scripture index spans 11 pages of triple columns); generous cross-references with other works in the collection, as well as patristic references, and echoes in Armenian theological and devotional literature.
The book presentation is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served and books will be available for sale following Dr. Terian’s opening remarks. For further information contact the Zohrab Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 686-0710.
The Zohrab Center will feature two extraordinary opportunities for Armenian learning, enrichment and conversation next week.
Saints and the Armenian People
On Tuesday, May 24 Dr. Marianna Apresyan, Instructor of Theology at the Gevorkyan Seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin, will lecture on the Saints in the Life and Worship of the Armenian People [Սուրբերը հայ ժողովուրդի կեանքին ու պաշտամունքին մէջ]. She will lecture in Armenian but a printed text of her talk in English translation will be provided.
Also participating will be His Eminence Abp. Yeznik Petrosyan of Holy Etchmiadzin, who is a long-time member of the Armenian Bible Society. He will speak about the work of the Bible Society in Armenia to translate the Bible into Modern Armenia and to disseminate it.
Three Early Armenian Churches and their Message
On Thursday, May 26, Professor Christina Maranci, Arthur H. Dadian and Ara T. Oztemel Associate Professor of Armenian Art at Tufts University, will deliver a talk entitled, Vigilant Powers: Ethics, Art History and Preservation of Armenian Churches.
Dr. Maranci, returns to the Zohrab Center to present her new book, Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Medieval Armenia. The leading historian of Armenian art and architecture in the West today, she will present the case of three iconic Armenian Churches built during the “global wars” of the seventh century: Mren, Zvartnots and Ptghni. Examining the meaning of their unique designs, she will show how Armenian architects were closely engaged with both Byzantine imperial interests and with contemporary events in the Holy Land, as she uncovers Christian Armenia’s vibrant visual culture, its message, and its precarious state today.
Copies of Dr. Maranci’s book will be available for sale.
To inaugurate its Autumn program of learning opportunities, the Zohrab Information Center will host the release of a new audio CD entitled, Forty Martyrs: Armenian Chanting from Aleppo on Friday, September 18 at 7PM in the Kavookjian Auditorium of the Armenian Diocese in New York.
Forty Martyrs is the latest release of the Sacred Voices of Syria series produced by Jason Hamacher. Over six years the musician has documented the ancient prayers, hallowed rituals and sacred spaces of the Sufi, Armenian, Syriac and Assyrian musical traditions of Aleppo. Hamacher recorded Armenian Church hymns sung by V. Rev. Fr. Yeznig Zegchanian inside the 600 year-old Armenian Church of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the old city of Aleppo.
Armenians have chanted in Aleppo’s Forty Martyrs Armenian Church (Քառասուն մանկանց – Karasoon Mangants) since it was constructed in 1429. An ancient rest stop along the Christian pilgrimage route from Western Armenia to Jerusalem, Aleppo hosted hostels, churches, and a small but well-anchored Armenian community.
During the Armenian Genocide, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were deported to Aleppo before many were pushed to the killing fields of Der Zor. By the 1920’s 100,000 Armenian refugees had settled in Syria, most of them in Aleppo. The ancient city would become a safe haven for the Armenians, who prospered there. (CLICK HERE for one Armenian’s tribute to the city and its hospitable inhabitants). The 15th century Armenian Cathedral of the Forty Martyrs was the Christian home for tens of thousands of Armenians who would later immigrate to the United States.
The bloodshed in Syria today has reduced the Armenian population of Aleppo by half and and placed this historic, prolific and prosperous community in peril.
Mr. Hamacher will share personal experiences of the people, places and events that changed his life in Syria before the eruption of war. He will tell stories, play vinyl records, and show photographs from his forthcoming book and explain how he, a punk drummer from Washington DC, ended up with an archive of Syrian and Armenian history.
This event marks the premiere of the Forty Martyrs CD in the New York area. Copies of the CD and the elegant and informative booklet that accompanies it will be available for sale. The presentation is free and open to the public. A reception will follow. For further information contact the Zohrab Center at email@example.com or (212) 686-0710. #40Martyrs.
Today is the Feast of St. Voski and his Companions, a group of priests who were among the first Christians to be martyred on Armenian soil just decades after Christ. Followers of St. Thaddeus the Apostle, St. Voski and his priest-companions dared to bring the news of a new god—indeed, the only true God—to a people who were quite content to follow the pagan status quo.
Two thousand years later, 1.5 million native Armenian Christians would lay down their lives on their native land out of their deepest conviction that in that same True God, Jesus Christ, the end of this earthly life was merely the turning of the page of a divine and eternal book of life.
Today the Armenian Church in its native homeland and throughout the world pushes on, inspired by that same faith, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world that so desperately looks for true peace, true meaning and true hope.
CLICK HERE to see the new and exciting missionary work inspired by St. Voski and His Companions.
Christopher Sheklian, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago, will be the featured speaker at the annual commemoration of St. Vartan and His Companions (Վարդանանց / Vartanants) on Thursday, February 12 in the Kavookjian Hall of the Armenian Diocese in New York.
The Zohrab Information Center is co-sponsoring the event with St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, with the participation of the Mid-Atlantic Knights and Daughters of Vartan.
Competing Memories of Saint Vartan
Anthropologists study culture and since the adoption of Christianity, the Christian faith and the institutions of the Armenian Church have become part of the very fabric of Armenian culture. But if the Armenian Church is reduced merely to one element of Armenian culture among others, what is the place of faith, devotion, and liturgy? Nowhere, perhaps, is this conundrum most obvious than in competing memories over St. Vartan and the Battle of Avarayr. Was St. Vartan fighting for the existence of the Armenian nation? Or was he a consummate defender of the faith? Can we separate these two things? Moreover, the way we remember and commemorate St. Vartan speaks to the way we ourselves think about the connection between faith and nation. How we remember St. Vartan is not merely a historical matter. To fully grapple with the memory of St. Vartan is to take on the fundamental question of the Armenian nation: its relationship to its Christian faith in the salvation of Christ Jesus.
The Armenian Minority and Secularism in Turkey
An ordained deacon of the Armenian Church, Christopher Sheklian is currently completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago entitled Theology and the Community: The Armenian Minority, Tradition, and Secularism in Turkey. His dissertation is based on two years of intensive research and fieldwork in Istanbul and Diyarbakir, Turkey within the Armenian Church and community. The first fruits of his research were recently published in a book chapter entitled, “Venerating the Saints, Remembering the City: Armenian Memorial Practices and Community Formation in Contemporary Istanbul.”
Deacon Shekian is a native of California, having been raised in St. Mary Armenian Church in Yettem, in the Central Valley. He spent the 2011-2012 academic year at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary studying Armenian theology and Armenian Christian culture. Several of his current scholarly projects stem from the instruction he received there.
Deacon Sheklian will speak during a commemorative banquet to which the public is invited. Donation for the dinner is $25 for adults and $10 for children 10 and under. Guests are also warmly encouraged to participate in the Divine Liturgy, which will be celebrated at 6:00PM.
For further information contact the Diocese at (212) 686-0710 or firstname.lastname@example.org or