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Why we should read... 'The History - on the depredations visited upon us by foreign nations around us' by Arisdaghes Lasdivertzi (Hayastan Publishers, 155pp, Yerevan 1971) Armenian News Network / Groong April 3, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian Like the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Persians and other nations, the Armenians have also produced an ancient, classical literature composed by historians, chroniclers, poets, scientists and philosophers. Movses Khorenatzi, Agatangeghos, Pavsdos Puzant, Ghazar Barpetzi, Ghevond, Yeghishe, Goryoun, Ardzrouni, Anania Shirakatzi, Krikor Datevatzi, Hoavaness Imasdaser and Mekhitar Kosh are but the more familiar names in a longer list. Here outstanding accomplishments of great historical, intellectual and artistic merit share space with dry, sometimes repetitive and even dubious works. Yet each has an enduring value. Today the works of Armenia's ancient historians have a particular purchase. For post-modernist historians, preoccupied 'subjective discourses' and 'invented worlds' history is, of course, no more that yet another 'invented story' of little social or political import. However even a glance at the Armenian classics reveal certain uniformities suggesting a historical world beyond mere 'invention'. Some of these common features are so striking that reading our classics today affords us the opportunity to contemplate the abyss that now threatens or the heights that beckon the people of Armenia. One such work is 'The History- on the depredations visited upon us by foreign nations around us' by 11th century chronicler Arisdaghes Lasdivertzi. It is a brief, yet chilling, record of the events leading to the fall of the Bagratouni dynasty and the destruction of its glorious capital Ani. Assailed by 'the sword from the East, death from the West, massacre from the North and fire from the South' the Bagratounis, the last Armenian monarchic dynasty was unable to resist. Ani, that once proud centre of an Armenian cultural renaissance, the city of a 1001 churches, the city of fabulous architectural monuments and phenomenal wealth succumbed. It was reduced to ruins and its population slaughtered or expelled. Lasdivertzi does not have the intellectual or analytic scope of Khorenatzi nor the creative genius or the missionary zeal of Puzant, but he does have the ability to describe in vivid metaphor and colour the terrifying devastation that Byzantine and Seljuk-Turk invaders brought upon Armenia. Given the then dominant role of the Church in Armenian intellectual life, it is no surprise that Lasdivertzi explains the calamity that befell Armenia as an act of God. The Byzantine Greeks, Turks and Persians were but 'the whips to punish' a city 'that had reached perfection in sinfulness. But beneath the religious casing he opens up for our view a society so wracked by internal fragmentation and conflict, characterised by such extreme polarities of wealth and poverty and exploited by a leadership so selfish and greedy that it suffered a catastrophic erosion of social cohesion and lost all capacity to resist internal or external dangers. THE CHALLENGE At the turn of the 10th century, the Byzantine empire having for the moment settled matters to its west, attended to the business of centralising control over the eastern regions of Asia Minor and Armenia. To this end it set about to humble and destroy the Bagratounis and their neighbouring feudal principalities. Using a tactic favoured throughout the empire, Byzantian authorities expelled entire feudal families along with their serfs, relocating them in distant lands and replacing them with more reliable allies and functionaries. The slightest opposition to Greek designs invited military intervention so brutal that Lasdivertzi writes: 'When I recall these disasters I lose my mind, I am stunned by the terror, and my hands so shake that I cannot continue writing.' The Armeno-Georgian principalities of Daik were the first victim of a broad offensive in which Byzantine 'troops were sent to diverse regions of the country with the strictest instructions to spare no one, not the old, not the young, not children, not adults, not men and not women. The result was destruction and devastation across twelve provinces...and the enslavement of thousands that left the land empty of population.' Parallel to this Greek offensive Armenia also suffered the predatory ambitions of an emergent Seljuk-Turk power from the east. Lasdivertzi stands in awe of the Seljuk-Turkish military prowess, of their ferocity and their untiring drive to conquer. In the wake of their invasions whole towns and villages, palaces and churches, monasteries and domestic homes were burnt and reduced to rubble beneath which were buried tens of thousands of their inhabitants. Lasdivertzi piles detail upon detail to produce an image of the most horrific savagery. Yet he still feels the need to remark: 'I am unable to describe this terror in all its aspects. Those who wish to fill the gaps in our story have but to glance at the ruins that lie across the land. There are scenes so terrifying that even stones and other inanimate objects would be moved to tears....' To Lasdivertzi it seemed that foreign invaders: 'were not satisfied with plunder and loot. They have an unquenchable thirst for our annihilation.' THE FAILURE TO RESPOND TO THIS CHALLENGE The Bagratounis responded with a catalogue of cowardice, disunity, treachery, betrayal, bribery and disgrace. Lasdivertzi's references to the Armenian leadership are relentlessly negative and damning. In this 'History' we see not even the smallest hint, on the part of this leadership, of any strategic calculations for survival or of any determination to organise systematic resistance. The passivity and impotence of both king and local principalities is startling. When the enemy is laying siege to Yerzenga: 'The glare of countless enemy sword and the whistle of innumerable arrows were as chains shackling a terrified population... but ...there was no prince or leader to urge and inspire resistance as should be the case for those leading in war. The sacking of the capital Ani presents no substantial problem as the city's 'princes and defenders were torn asunder by disagreement and conflict and when the offensive began they fled the field of battle, forgetting friends and even close relatives.' Throughout the volume we find no affirmation of a common interest or common destiny. Glimmers of an Armenian consciousness do appear but are overwhelmed by sectional, provincial, regional or local ambitions. Those few isolated incidents of courage that are cited contain no potential for nation-wide resistance. In this respect one cannot but compare this passive succumbing, this helpless collapse, with the response of the Vartanantz generation in 451 when they faced a critical challenge from Persia. In one respect little had changed from the last decades of Arshagouni dynasty. With the exception of the shortest interludes, no Armenian monarchy has had the means and the will to impose its hegemony over the numerous feuding Armenian principalities and mould a stable and powerful state. So, too, in the 10th and 11th centuries. The feudal principalities continue to behave in the old provincial fashion, willingly selling themselves to the highest foreign bidder. But in another decisive respect something had changed fundamentally. In the 5th century the Armenian Church, even while pursuing its own particular, feudal interest, had become a formidable national force not to be easily vanquished. It nurtured significant nation-wide political and indeed state ambitions and was, by uniting with the Mamikonians, able to provide a backbone for the Armenian resistance against the Persians. But in 1075 there was no force which measured up to that of the Church in 5th century. Reading Lasdivertzi confirms that the Bagratouni dynasty like the earlier Arshagouni one, lacked any inner, native strength. Both were fundamentally dependent on neighbouring imperial powers. The Bagratounis and the Armenian feudal princes of the time were so beholden to the Byzantine empire, that upon their deaths they were required to will their estate to the emperor. As with the vast stretch of our history the Armenian state as a political, economic or social entity has had only a very fragile, tenuous existence. One can even reasonably assert that with the exception of one or two centuries there has never been a truly independent Armenian state. This was certainly the case in Lasdivertzi's age. Armenia was bereft of any healthy and vigorous internal leadership. The Armenian state and the Bagratouni dynasty totally lacked the resources to resist and was characterised only by: 'the chaos and disintegration that arises from the absence of a single dominant authority'. THE ROTTEN CORE The grandeur of Ani concealed a rotten core. Lasdivertzi lays bare Armenia's social foundations so decrepit that they were to collapse at the first blow. Armenia was then living through an age of transition. The old edifice of feudal obligation in which it was 'the duty of the king to care for his people' was disintegrating. It its stead there was emerging a new type of king and elite little concerned with state building and moved only by an unrestrained selfishness and a greed for the accumulation of wealth. In this new age: 'The law of justice has been replaced with injustice. The love of silver is now more valued than love of God. Money not Christ is the object of worship. As a result all sense of order is replaced by chaos. Princes became the accomplices of thieves and the servants to money. They became vengeful. Judges became venal and in return for bribes abused justice and did not defend the rights of orphans. Once hated and prohibited 'usury and interest were legitimized whilst the needs of orphans were overlooked... The rich have accumulated wealth by appropriating the fields and lands of their neighbouring poor, merchants grew rich on the back of usury and interest.' Behind Ani's brilliant fagade was a society with no common or collective interest. It was driven by the narrow interests of an elite which flourished at the expense of the nation as a whole. It was too enfeebled and lacking in cohesion to meet the Greek and Seljuk-Turkish offensives. Lasdivertzi puts it well when explaining that the terrible destiny visited upon Ani: 'is the fate of all cities built with the blood of the poor. It is the fate if all cities grown sumptuous through the sweat of the poor. It is the fate of cities whose noble houses have been fortified with usury and injustice and whose owners have no compassion for the poor or the homeless and care only for their hedonistic pleasures.' It is said that we study history not to learn about the past, but to undersand the present. Those who seek to discourage us from studying history blind us to our present. Reading Lasdivertzi can help open our eyes. It is impossible to conclude any consideration of Lasdivertzi's history without remarking on something akin to perversity in his vision. Lasdivertzi attributes to God acts of indescribable barbarism, in which Turks and Greeks are asserted to be no less than divine agents. Yet there is not a hint of protest, let alone rebellion, against a God who would so destroy a people and a nation! In this perhaps he reflected the hopeless despair of his age. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.