This week we celebrate the brave sacrifices of two of the earliest female martyrs honoured by the Armenian Apostolic Church, St Hripsime and St Gayane. In the late C3rd AD the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, was persecuting Christians throughout the Empire. A small community of nuns, led by their abbess, fled to the distant Kingdom of Armenia as Christianity had gained a foothold amongst some of the Armenian people. Generations earlier the Apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, had brought the Christian faith to the Kingdom.
This community of nuns took refuge in a vineyard outside the city of Vagharshapat (Echmiadzin) and lived a simple life there as devout followers of Christ. However, Armenia was ruled at that time by King Trdat, who was already an avid persecutor of Christians. Trdat was indebted to the Emperor Diocletian as the latter had helped the former to recover his throne. Thus, once King Trdat was informed that these Christian women were within his kingdom he had them brought before him. He became obsessed with Hripsime due to her beauty and offered to make her one of his wives and his Queen, but she rejected him as she had already made her sacred vows as a bride of Christ. The historian, Agathangelos, writes that Hripsime fought and ‘vanquished the king who was renowned for his incredible strength” and that this was done “through the will and power of Christ’.
When Hripsime would not relent, Trdat had Abbess Gayane tortured to death. Although Hripsime was very afraid she still did not succumb and this led to her death as well as the rest of the community of nuns. The bodies of all the women were left to rot in the vineyard outside Vagharshapat but they were discovered by fellow Christians who had them interred at that site. Due to the wrathful actions of King Trdat, legend has it that he turned into a wild boar who tore at his own flesh. Priests from Pagan and Zoroastrian temples alike tried to cure him but to no avail. Eventually, at his sister’s urging, Trdat appealed to St Grigor Lusavorich/ St Gregory the Illuminator to heal him from his condition, despite the fact Trdat had had the priest locked away in a dark pit for thirteen years prior. St Grigor performs a miracle and King Trdat, returning to his human form, converts to Christianity and declares Armenia to be a Christian land.
Over time the nuns’ place of burial became a pilgrimage site and these shrines eventually became the churches of St Gayane and St Hripsime that we see today in the Holy complex of Echmiadzin. Catholicos Komitas I was the person behind the project of building St Hripsime and in 618 AD he also composed a hymn, Andzink Nviryalk/Devoted Persons, in dedication to the church. Andzink Nviryalk is sung as the Orhnutyun Sharagan on the morning of the commemoration of St Hripsime. St Gayane is also of great importance in the Armenian tradition because, as an abbess, she was the precursor to all nuns and women ordained in the Church. Interestingly, the first ever saint and martyr of the Armenian Church was also a woman: St Santukht. Without the actions of these brave and faithful women the Armenian Church would not be what it is today.