The siege laid by the Persian army to the impregnable Armenian fortress Artagers had already lasted for fourteen months, but it seemed that neither losses nor the generous promises or threats of the enemy and not even the extremely harsh winter of 367 could break the spirit of its defenders, the Queen Parandzem and her eleven thousand courageous companions.
However, the unforeseen happened: a sudden epidemic of plague plunged the besieged into horror, killing thousands of people.
Trying to conceal the desperation of her position from the enemy, the Queen herself visited all watchtowers every evening, inspiring the exhausted and wounded warriors and helping them to keep the lights on so that the Persians would not find out about their huge losses. All they could do was hoping for the help promised by Byzantium.
But it never arrived. To save the lives of those who survived, Parandzem ordered to open the gates of the fortress and surrender to the enemy. Then, it took nine days for the Persians to take out the untold treasures of the Arsacid dynasty hidden by the Queen in the fortress.
Parandzem was sent to the Persian Shah towards martyrdom… And immortality.
Sixteen centuries ago the life of the great Armenian Queen was ended. Her image praised by her people’s descendants and stained with unfriendly rumors still excites minds and raises unanswered questions.
Let us reinterpret the pages of her tragic life in an unbiased manner, and let our hearts tell us the conclusions.
The beginning of the life path of Parandzem did not seem to foreshadow anything bad. She was endowed with beautiful appearance and good temper. In addition, Parandzem, according to the chroniclers, was very modest. Rare for a girl of such noble origin.
The father of the future queen was the influential Syunik prince Andovk, whose possessions were inferior to the king’s property only. Her mother was from the famous Mamikonyan family, among whose worthy representatives was St. Shushanik, another renowned doer.
Her parents, of course, dreamed of a worthy one for their beautiful daughter. The one turned out to be a brilliant young prince Gnel, the nephew of King Arshak II. He grew up as a hostage to the Byzantine court and returned to his homeland thanks to a change in the political situation. Cheerful, sociable, with a touch of “European” gloss, he immediately attracted everyone’s attention.
He was admired. He was envied. After all, his grandfather, the king Tiran, gave up the future throne of his son Arshak by virtue of sorrowful circumstances and announced his beloved grandson Gnel as the heir to his vast possessions. But he was felt for as well because his father Trdat, the elder brother of King Arshak, was killed by Emperor Costandios.
The wedding of Gnel and Parandzem had a truly huge scope. In addition, Gnel generously rewarded the nakharars (a hereditary title of the highest order given to houses of the ancient and medieval Armenian nobility), which multiplied the ranks of his supporters and kindled the jealousy of his cousin Tirith, who considered himself undeservedly deprived of his destiny. Not only that their grandfather Tiran preferred his brother to him, the beautiful Parandzem was also married to Gnel as well, with whom Tirith was passionately in love.
Tirith patiently waited until the noose of a skillfully woven intrigue would wrap around his lucky rival’s neck as the latter was gradually drawn into political games.
According to Tirith’s plan, Gnel had to be inspired that he by law had greater rights to the Armenian throne than Arshak, who was also declared the culprit of the death of Trdat. Tirith, of course, did not fail to inform the king about Gnel’s ambitious statements and threats “to avenge his father.”
Gnel was also accused of having the audacity to settle in the domain of his grandfather, the Ayrarat province, which had long been regarded as the patrimony of only the direct heir to the throne. Angry Arshak II demanded him to leave the province and go to those regions allotted to other members of the royal family. Gnel had no choice but to obey the order and settle far away from the royal residence with its intrigues.
Another serious issue was Persia’s military victories and the strengthening of the positions of the pro-Persian nakharars inside Armenia.
Arshak II sensed the threat and decided to preempt the strike. As a sign that the king was no longer angry with Gnel, he invited the young couple to take part in the festivities organized in the king’s grounds in Shahapivani.
Gnel and Parandzem arrived there on Sunday, the day of commemoration of the beheading of John the Baptist. On the same day, by the order of Arshak II, Gnel was captured and beheaded. The king acted as if he was in inconsolable grief and ordered everyone around to cry and mourn for the murdered.
Pavstos Buzand wrote about it: “In tattered clothes, disheveled and distraught with grief, Parandzem loudly groaned, causing everyone to cry. Arshak decided to eliminate Tirith and marry the widowed beauty.”
She hated him as much as he loved her. One can only guess what flames worthy of the pen of Shakespeare raged in the soul of the unfortunate woman, who was forced to share the bed with the murderer of her beloved husband. But fate decreed in its own way, and in the prime of life and beauty, Parandzem acceded the Armenian throne.
After that, she continued her life path not as an Armenian woman but Armenian Queen. Her fate became inseparable from the fate of her country, her people. That was a difficult time for Armenia, a time when trouble and strife forced the state to maneuver between Persia and Byzantium and resist the raids of the Persian troops.
After the Armenian king Arshak was treacherously imprisoned (and then executed) by Shah Shapuh II, the threat of a Persian invasion hung over Armenia. Queen Parandzem courageously took responsibility and led the heroic defense. That’s why she is remembered as a model of the greatness of spirit and patriotism of a true Armenian woman.
Her image inspired multiple generations of freedom-loving Armenian women. In modern times, after her and her image, the female battalion “Parandzem” formed and battled in Artsakh.
And yet, as it is painful to admit, the bright memory of the Armenian Queen was still darkened by the shadow of a grievous and, according to a number of researchers, unfounded accusation. According to historians Khorenatsi and Buzand, she allegedly ordered a courtier named Mrjunik to poison the second wife of Arshak Olympia by mixing poison in the bread and wine.
However, can we rely on the story of the chroniclers if one of them considers Parandzem the first and the other one the second wife of King Arshak? Meanwhile, only the exact chronology of events can either confirm or refute the blames.
What do we know about Olympia? It is known that Arshak’s union with her (which lasted only 2-3 years) was purely dictated by political considerations and hardly made happy the noble arrogant Greek woman, the bride of the deceased brother of the Byzantine Emperor Costandios, forced to live among people who are alien to her in spirit and shared mutual hostility with her.
Having to share the throne and her husband with Parandzem, Olympia lived secretively and in constant fear for her life, (at the court, there were a lot of opponents of the alliance with Byzantium), only taking food from her devoted servants.
It should be noted that the fact of the short-lived bigamy of the king is unprecedented, especially for the Christian period of the history of Armenia. The situation was unbearable for both women. Could they be jealous and hate each other? Probably.
Could Parandzem decide to follow a path of murder, a way so blasphemous and inconceivable for a virtuous Christian? After all, she was such a Christian (according to the same historical sources). Probably, the answer to this question was the glory of her life and death that has not faded until today.
Unfortunately, now in Armenia, there are no streets or squares named after Parandzem. There aren’t even awards with her name. Meanwhile, Parandzem can be considered one of the first leaders of the national liberation movement in Armenian history. She could live a long and prosperous life had she recognized the supremacy of the king of Persia, but she chose to struggle for the freedom of her people. Parandzem attempted to smash the troops of the Persian king and liberate her country.