Tradition, in the South Caucasus, dies hard. With the ancient July festival of Vardavar, one small group of Armenians is seeing a chance to relive Armenia’s pagan past, and affirm the country’s national identity.
Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, thereafter destroying or converting its pagan temples. For most Armenians, this date represents the turning point for their nation, and one that would later distance it from Muslim neighbors in Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
But each year at Armenia’s only remaining pagan temple, at Garni, 32 kilometers east of Yerevan, a few hundred Armenians gather to celebrate Vardavar as an event that they consider represents Armenians’ true and original faith. The festival is perhaps the most popular of all traditional and religious events in the Armenian calendar, with youngsters and adults gleefully dumping water over hapless passers-by.
The celebration has now been absorbed into the Christian calendar, but was traditionally associated with Astghik, the Armenian goddess of water, beauty, love and fertility. The festival’s name is derived from the Armenian word for rose, "vard." Early observers of Vardavar offered Astghik roses and sprinkled water on each other, or feasted near water in the hope that she would provide rain in time for harvest.
Now re-invented to represent the transfiguration of Christ, the holiday is scheduled by the Armenian Church to be held approximately 98 days after Easter.
At Garni, pagan priests placed sacrificial knives in fire, as well as rose petals in earthenware jugs of water, before reading aloud from the Ukhtagir, a collection of pre-Christian folk stories and legends immortalizing Armenia’s pagan gods written by Slak Kakosian, the founder of the Pagan Covenant, one of Armenia’s main pagan organizations. Founded in 1990, the group now claims it has over 1,000 members.
In the group’s events, nationalism and paganism mingle equally. "We are pagans," said 43-year-old Zohrab Petrosian, Kakosian’s successor. "We are Armenians, but we don’t know our true religion. Simply lighting a candle in a church or wearing a cross around our necks does not make us Christian. I’ve been a member of this organization for 10 years, but as an Armenian I’ve been pagan since the day I was born."
At the Garni Vardavar observances, one of the highest-profile attendees was Armen Avetisian, leader of the ultra-nationalist Union of Armenian Aryans, who received a three-year suspended sentence in 2005 for inciting racial hatred against Jews. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Avetisian and his followers wore black t-shirts featuring the picture of Garegin Njdeh, an Armenian national hero who lived from 1886-1955. Njdeh was a skillful military leader and anti-Bolshevik activist who developed a philosophy that blended religious and nationalist elements. His ideas have been influential in shaping the political platforms of modern-day parties, including the governing Republican Party of Armenia, as well as its junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnakstutiun.
Until recently, many of those attending the pagan festivals were affiliated with the Republican Party, but now members of other parties are starting to join in. This year, for example, apart from members of the Union of Armenian Ayrans, most other people in attendance identified themselves as members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnakstutiun.
The appearance of ultra-nationalists, however, raises concern in some circles that the pagan movement could make a radical departure toward the extreme right. Armenian pagans tend to dismiss the concern, though. Many at the Garni observances said politics wasn’t a factor for them. Robert Garabedian, an ethnic Armenian astrophysicist from Germany, was