In 301 CE, the ruling circles of the Kingdom of Great Armenia decided to convert their entire nation to Christianity. This revolutionary break with the centuries-old pagan tradition was led by King Tiridates III (Trdat the Great, 287-330 CE), his sister Khosrovidukht, his wife Queen Ashkhen, and his closest associate Gregory the Illuminator, the Father and first Patriarch of Armenian Church (302-326 CE). Gregory was later canonized by the major Christian Churches, and all four of them were canonized by the Armenian Church.
Reasons for Armenia's Conversion to Christianity
Armenia’s pioneering conversion to Christianity was a move towards a more centralized state, at the expense of the increasingly powerful feudal houses. From King Tiridates' own political frame of reference, uniting his nation under the banner of one God was an ideological booster for an already strong Armenian ethnic identity in the face of the escalating geopolitical pressure from the two feuding superpowers of the time, the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia.
Furthermore, replacing polytheism with monotheism elevated the king above all nobility as a foremost propagator and defender of the faith, a direct representative of Christ in Armenia. Simultaneously, the new religious doctrine deprived both the king and the noble chiefs from their previously assumed divine origin.
Support & Resistance
As many Christian communities were already scattered throughout the country and because virtually all major feudal military lords of Armenia stood firmly behind their king in favor of this historic spiritual renewal, the swift triumph of the new creed was a foregone conclusion. In 302 CE, a physically disjointed armed resistance was attempted by the elements of the establishment who favoured the old religious system. However, only in the canton of Taron did the efforts to protect the pagan temples grow into a full-scale, though self-consciously hopeless, insurrection. Most of the rebel force was put up by the Armenian-Indian theocratic principality or, more precisely, a warrior temple association founded by the Indian tribes who migrated to Armenia some two centuries earlier, presumably, during the reign of King Tiridates I (63-88 CE).
Tiridates I had ordered them to settle in this strategically important area and supply his army with trained cavalry and infantry, which they did loyally. By the fourth century these Indians had grown to a population of up to 100,000, and they had already been partially assimilated into the Armenian society: in particular, they had become Armenian-speaking. Still, ethnoreligious distinctiveness had hereditarily been maintained. Judging by the idols of their worship as well as their markedly different countenance – a contemporary primary source describes them as “black, ugly and long-haired” – they were most likely the worshippers of Krishna (alias Gisane).
In any event, in 302 CE, Ardzan, the high priest of these Armenian Indians and an influential feudal lord in his own right, was killed in one of the initial encounters with the royal forces in Taron. The next day saw heavy fighting with 6,946 soldiers on the pagan side and 7,080 soldiers on the royal side (the vast majority of the royal forces were not in the area at that time). During the fighting, the balance of forces on the ground changed against the royal troops, when one of the Armenian commanders, the Prince of Hashtenk, together with his force of 700 men, switched camps and went to the idolaters only to be killed in a mounted duel with the Prince of Syunik.
The protracted battle came to an end when Demetr, the pagans’ commander and the son of Ardzan, was killed alongside a thousand of his troops. A surprisingly rapid reconciliation followed, as evidenced by the fact that the numerous dead were cooperatively collected and buried in a common grave. Likewise, a few days later 5,000 former rebel fighters, who had been allowed to return to their villages, being neither fully disarmed nor persecuted, agreed to be baptized of their own free will.
A monument was quickly erected on the spot of the battle, commemorating the fallen from both sides. Its mollifying inscription indicated the collective shock of ancient Armenians at the previously unheard of intense fratricidal conflict in the following terms:
This has been the first civil war. It was extremely ferocious.
Ardzan the High Priest, a chief commander at this battle, is buried here together with 1,038 of his men.
And we fought this battle for the deities of Gisane and for Christ.
The resistance against conversion to Christianity was defeated, and Armenia became one of the first kingdoms to officially adopt Christianity as state religion. As stated by the personal scribe of King Tiridates III, within a very short period of time, 4,150,000 people were baptized in Great Armenia, including “more than four million men, women and children” and 150,000 troops comprising the Army of Armenia. Respectively, “more than 400 senior clergymen” — one per every 10,000 people — were ordained to serve the spiritual needs of the Kingdom’s population.