The Passion of Saint Shushanik



According to letters exchanged between the early seventh-century prelates of the Armenian and Georgian churches, the martyred Princess Shushanik was the object of veneration in Tsurtaw, the capital city of Gugark, itself the marchland between Armenia and Georgia. Though Gugark had been appended to Georgia since the fourth century, services in the chapel where the princess was buried were conducted in Armenian. The population of this region was predominantly of Armenian and Georgian origin, and Armenian was a commonly spoken language alongside Georgian. The grave of the princess attracted many pilgrims from various parts of Armenia (according to these same documents), who annually arrived in Tsurtaw to venerate the princess' grave.

[x] The above letters leave no doubt that the story of Shushanik predates the seventh century, and that her Passion—which exists in several versions and forms, both in Armenian and Georgian—is derived from a very early original. All of the versions in Armenian and Georgian agree that St. Shushanik was the daughter of St. Vardan Mamikonean. The latter was the renowned commander-in-chief of the Armenian forces, who led his people in a rebellion against the Iranian King of Kings in defense of the Christian faith, and fell on the battlefield of Awarayr on May 26, AD 451. On her father's side, Shushanik was descended from St. Gregory the Illuminator, who converted the Armenian court and people to Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century.

Shushanik was married to Vazgen ("Varzken" in Georgian), the margrave (or march-lord) of Gugark and son of the margrave Ashusha, Vardan Mamikonean's close associate. In 450 Ashusha had accompanied Vardan and the other nobles of Armenia, Georgia and Albania who were summoned to the Iranian [xi] court in Ctesiphon to confront the King of Kings. He had been with Vardan and the Armenian nobles when they rejected the king's offer to convert to Zoroastrianism. Their refusal aroused the king's wrath, and he threatened punishment on the princes from the three countries in the Caucasus. The nobles in turn, deeply concerned about the consequences they might suffer, agreed among themselves to pretend acceptance of the king's offer, and to exploit their supposed conversion as a ploy to save their lives. Vardan at first refused to join in the deception, and expressed a willingness to be martyred. Thereupon the nobles commissioned a prince named Artak and the margrave Ashusha (described as a wise man by the late fifth-century historian Ghazar Parpetsi) to persuade Vardan to acquiesce in the pretended apostasy. Ashusha was presumably chosen because of his special relationship with Vardan: they were in-laws through the marriage of Vardan's daughter to Ashusha's son, and the family relationship between the two princes went back even further. Ashusha's wife was an [xii] Armenian princess of the Artsruni family and the sister of Dzuik, the wife of Vardan's brother Hmayeak. Ashusha's word obviously carried weight with Vardan, who complied with his advice.

When the Iranian court successfully contained the Armenian rebellion in 452 and exiled its leaders, the wives and children of the latter found safe haven in the court of the margrave of Gugark. Chief among these were members of the Mamikonean family and their relatives. Princess Dzuik in particular sought refuge in the home of Ashusha, her sister's husband. While in Gugark, Dzuik had taken upon herself the education of the children of the Mamikonean clan, among whom were her own son Vahan, the future commander-in-chief and governor of Persian Armenia, as well as a young attendant, Ghazar Parpetsi, the future historian of the events of the fifth century.

Princess Shushanik's earlier years of marriage were presumably spent in Gugark. We must assume that she was given in marriage to Vazgen, son of the margrave Ashusha, some [xiii] time prior to 451—that is, before her father's death. Marrying a Mamikonean princess after the rebellion of 451 would have aroused the suspicion and anger of the Persian overlords. We learn from the Passion that at the time when Vazgen went to Ctesiphon (the capital of the Iranian empire) and forsook his Christian faith, the couple had three sons and a daughter. The children were obviously of age and baptized as Christians, since the father promised the King of Kings to convert them to Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, the daughter must have been of marriageable age, since Vazgen himself had intentions of marrying her, in accordance with the dynastic practice in the Persian court.

In attempting to reconstruct the chronological sequence of these events, one must depend on the Georgian version of the Passion, from which it is possible to conjecture that Vazgen's apostasy took place in the eighth regnal year of the Iranian King of Kings Peroz, which corresponds to AD 466. Shushanik's suffering lasted over a period of seven years and she died in the eighth year, which would correspond to AD 474. [xiv] Eight years after that, in 482, Vazgen himself was slain by Vakhtang Gorgasal, the king of Georgia. In his narration of this event, Ghazar Parpetsi mentions Vazgen's name with disdain, calling him "the impious" margrave. Why Ghazar Parpetsi's History contains no further reference to the martyrdom of Shushanik remains unclear. The omission is curious because Shushanik was the cousin of Vahan Mamikonean, Ghazar's patron, who was the nephew of Vardan and the governor of Persian Armenia after 484. Nevertheless, Ghazar's use of the otherwise unaccountable adjective "impious" suggests that the historian knew exactly what Vazgen had done, and may be taken as an indirect reference to Shushanik's tragedy.

The reader will notice that this volume presents several versions of the Passion of Shushanik. This is because the full story of Shushanik's martyrdom can only be reconstructed by pulling together the strands of evidence found in the various versions and their related texts. Although an English translation of the longer Georgian version was published some time ago [xv] by David Marshall Lang in his Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints [St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1956; second revised edition, 1976], the Armenian version has until now been inaccessible to the English reader. The importance of such an early hagiographical source led the present translator to urge its inclusion in a new anthology of Armenian literature [A. Hacikyan et al.., ed., Heritage of Armenian Literature, from Oral Literature to the End of the 5th Century (Wayne State University Press, 2000) ], and to this end I provided the anthology's editors with the Armenian text published in Venice in 1853. Subsequently, the renowned Armenian and Georgian specialist, Professor Paruyr Muradyan of Yerevan, published a diplomatic text of the longer version and its related texts in Armenian and Georgian, under the title Surb Shushaniki vkayabanutyune [The Passion of Saint Shushanik] [Yerevan, 1996]. This new edition became available to me in January of 1997, and persuaded me of the merit of making the material available to a wider audience within the Armenian church. Shortly thereafter I [xvi] published a preliminary English translation in Sion, the official journal of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem [Sion, Nos. 7-12, 1997].

The longer Armenian version of the Passion differs considerably from the Georgian. The former has a more hagiographical structure and includes details absent from the latter. Professor Muradyan is of the opinion that both the Armenian and the Georgian versions derive from a lost archetype. In the longer Georgian version, the author of the Passion is identified as Hakob, the priest who was Shushanik's father confessor. The Armenian version knows of him but does not identify him by name. At present it is difficult to say whether the priest Hakob wrote in Armenian or in Georgian. In a personal correspondence with me, Professor Muradyan has stated that some of the dialogues in the longer Georgian version—which Georgian scholars insist on identifying with the original—bear traces of an early fifth-century Armenian translation of the Life of St. Thecla, an account of the pupil of St. Paul.

[xvii] The present volume contains translations of the following texts:

(a) The longer Armenian version of the Passion, based on P. Muradyan's diplomatic text;

(b) The shorter Armenian version of the Passion;

(c) The story of the Holy Cross of Nune, authored by an eleventh-century priest named Aharon, from whom we learn that a fifth-century monk named Andreas had also written about Saint Shushanik;

(d) An excerpt from the History of the tenth-century Armenian historian Bishop Ukhtanes;

(e) A number of minor passages from late medieval Armenian menologia.

The translations themselves are not intended for scholarly or literary purposes. For that reason I have avoided using diacritical marks in the transliterated forms of names. I have likewise avoided extensive footnotes, textual [xviii] criticism and discussion of the contents. Scholars with deeper interests should consult Professor Muradyan's work, which synthesizes most of what has been said on matters of text and content of the Passion during the past century and a half. I have attempted to render English equivalents for the various technical terms found in the Armenian, and have provided a glossary to which readers may refer for simple explanations of personal and place names. Readers may also consult the map at the end of the book for an idea of where the important medieval sites mentioned in the texts are located.

There are several debts to acknowledge in the completion of this book. I would like to thank Professor Paruyr Muradyan for allowing me to translate the texts in his Armenian edition of the Passion. I am also grateful to the Harvard University Press for permitting me to quote three passages from Professor R. W. Thomson's translation of [xix] Movses Khorenatsi's The History of the Armenians (Harvard University Press, 1978). I have given full credit to the above works under the relevant passages in the translation.

Other people who helped to put this volume together are: Christopher Zakian, the public relations director of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, who edited the text and designed the publication; Aram Arkun, assistant director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center; and Dr. Robert Hewsen, of Rowan College, who provided the map.

Fr. Krikor Maksoudian
Arlington, Massachusetts
June 1999

[A Note on the Translation]

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