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Arab Invasion of Armenia |
For the defiant, Islam spells misery

Arab Invasion of Armenia is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 260, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

To the Christians of Armenia, the Muslim conquest becomes one more ordeal in a long history of pain and suffering which continues into the modern era

Arab Invasion of Armenia  - For the defiant, Islam spells misery

Arab Invasion of Armenia - For the defiant, Islam spells misery
A ninth-century church stands on the shore of Lake Sevan, Armenia, amid the ruins of a larger building. In 701, in a similar church at Nakchivian, most of Armenia’s nobility perished at the hands of their Muslim conquerors.

That Armenia’s Muslim conquerors should want to confer with the nation’s former leaders had seemed in all respects understandable. After all, those leaders had long been running the country. So some four hundred Armenian noblemen obliged–along with their retainers, and according to one account, their families. The meeting, they discovered, was to be held in a church. That was odd–yet reasonable, too. Armenia was the oldest Christian nation in the world. So into the church they went, most of them anyway. And they waited.

The scene that ensued can be imagined. A distinct uncertainty settles on the crowd. The women huddle up to the church walls and attempt to soothe their children, who, seemingly aware of peril, whimper fearfully. The men stand. They speak in hushed, uneasy voices. Then, from outside the open doors, comes the audible trot of horses. Then voices. The language is not at all familiar.

Suddenly, there is a crash of activity. The church doors are slammed shut. Locks clank. Windows are barricaded. “That’s smoke!” someone shouts. With a piercing cry, the Armenians realize in horror that the church is being set ablaze around them. A stampede ensues. Women scream. Babies cry. Men hopelessly heave themselves against the doors with all their collective might. Soon, people without further strength collapse. Others trip and trample over them. The screaming turns to convulsive coughing, then to gasping, finally to a strange and eerie silence. The church has become a mass tomb.

The rest is history. The church that night in Nakchivian, an Armenian city close to modern Azerbaijan, was burned to the ground by the Muslims. How many died is unknown. Most of the four hundred Armenian nobility perished. Those few who had decided to wait outside the church were rounded up, tortured and crucified. One question, it seemed, had been answered. Life under the Persians had often been a horror of brutality and bloodshed. Though the Muslims tolerated those who surrendered without resistance, this would never include the Armenians. They always resisted. So for them, under the Muslims, nothing would change.

Suffering was scarcely a novel experience to the Armenians. They had struggled to retain their Christian faith against Persian persecution since their conversion in 301. They had invented an alphabet, forged a written language, translated the scriptures, composed a liturgy, built hundreds of churches, and trained their priests and monks who taught their people to read. Then came an ultimatum. In 450, the Persian king Yazdegerd II, discerning their Christianity as evidence of weakness, with its concept of “turning the other cheek,” decided to crack down. All Armenians must convert to Zoroastrianism, Persia’s state religion, or face exile, torture, even death, he ruled. He erred. The Armenians did not turn the other cheek, and in the resulting showdown, sixty thousand defiant Armenians faced two hundred and twenty thousand heavily armed Persians at the Plain of Avarayr. The Armenian leader, Vardan Mamikonean, addressed his men in words that would echo far beyond Armenia through all the Christian centuries:

Do not be afraid of the multitude of the heathen. Do not turn your backs to the fearsome sword of a mortal man. For if the Lord puts victory in our grasp, we shall destroy their power, so that the cause of truth may be exalted. And if the time has come to end our lives in battle with a holy death, let us accept it with joyful hearts–provided only we do not mingle cowardice with valor and bravery.

In the realm of heroic mythology, such an appeal should be followed by an Armenian victory. It was not. After a vigorous fight, the Armenians lost the battle, and Vardan lay dead. But Armenia’s faith was not dead. The indefatigable little nation patiently, painfully, and very effectively continued to resist until Persia learned an elementary lesson: you cannot defeat a mountain people in the mountains. By 484, as Persian casualties rose and Zoroastrian fervor fell, cooler heads prevailed. If the Armenians wanted to be Christians all that much, why not let them? That year, the Treaty of Nvarsak guaranteed religious freedom to Armenia.

It didn’t last a century. In 572, another Persian king, Chosroes I, goaded into war by Byzantium, turned on the Armenians and demanded they abjure their faith. When the Persian governor began building a Zoroastrian fire-temple, a clear breach of the treaty, rebellion brewed anew. The governor reacted violently. He had a bishop publicly clubbed, called in two thousand troops, and then found them confronting even more seditious Armenians, all proclaiming: “As long as one Armenian remains alive, no fire-temples would go up in Armenia.” So Chosroes dispatched fifteen thousand more. He would “exterminate all who dare resist,” he warned. Twenty thousand Armenians took the dare. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” they roared, and proceeded to decimate the Persian force. They reported their victory to Constantinople, enclosing the governor’s head by way of documentation.

Victory, however, did not mean peace. Quite the reverse. Armenia became the battleground between the two gigantic belligerents, alien to the Persians because it was Christian, alien to the Byzantines because it was Monophysite, the wrong kind of Christian. “A knavish and indocile nation,” fumed the Byzantine emperor Maurice, “a source of constant trouble.” He ordered many Armenians transported to Thrace. “If they die there,” he declared, “it will be but the death of so many enemies.” The Armenians saw the irony, as many fled into Zoroastrian Persia for refuge.

When, twenty years later, the emperor Heraclius offered the Armenians a doctrinal compromise on Monophysitism, they rejected it firmly, bringing on Byzantine persecution so severe that when the Arabs arrived in 640, the Armenians saw them as liberators. So at first they were. But in 701, with the Byzantines finally driven out and the Arabs in charge, things changed. How drastically they had changed became evident that night in the church at Nakchivian. Vulnerable little Armenia seemed destined to play the pitiable role of the buffer state, perpetually placed between empires as hostile as they were powerful. Surrounded by Islam, Armenia’s plight as a minority religion would last into the twentieth century, when one and a half million Armenians perished for their faith in a holocaust to be described in a later volume.

This is the end of the Arab Invasion of Armenia category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 260, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Arab Invasion of Armenia from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at