Exploring Emperor Heraclius and Armenia in Tel Aviv and Fribourg

Emperor Heraclius (610-641) is a singular and in many ways a tragic figure in Byzantine and more broadly Near Eastern history. One of the, if not the main, Byzantine military leaders of what is known as ‘the last world war of Late Antiquity’ (603-630) Heraclius fought and came out victorious against the Sasanian Iranian Empire. This victory was sealed, and Heraclius became the stuff of legend, when he brought back ‘from Persian captivity’ what was believed to be the holiest relic of Christianity – the True Cross, allegedly placing it again on the Golgotha hill in Jerusalem in 630. Yet, only six years later Heraclius witnessed the Islamic conquests of the Near East and Byzantium lost (forever as it would turn out) some of its vital provinces, such as the Empire’s breadbasket Egypt, the Holy Land with Jerusalem, Syria. The Armenian origin of Heraclius’ family, these dramatic events that shook the eastern Mediterranean world and Asia Minor, including Armenia, in the 7th century and the religious dimension of the wars that imbued them with further legendary significance made Heraclius a very particular and popular figure in various Armenian sources, among others. The legends connected with Heraclius, the True Cross, the apocalyptic significance that was attributed to the events that involved the emperor were the topics that the Prof. Pogossian discussed on two occasions. She spoke at an international workshop What Happened in the Seventh Century? Socio-Religious Transformations and Apocalyptic Discourses held on 12-14 June, 2023, at the Tel Aviv University. She delivered a paper “Emperor Heraclius, the Cult of the True Cross and Apocalyptic Discourses in Seventh-Century Armenia”. Then, she took part at a workshop on Spaces, Landscapes and Social Lives of the Cross in Medieval Armenia and Georgia where she explored hagiographical, legendary and apocalyptic texts on True Cross relics in Armenia. The creation and diffusion of these texts, as well as the veneration of the True Cross in Armenia was intimately linked with the image of Emperor Heraclius and his passage through Armenia during the wars with Sasanian Iran.

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