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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.


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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.

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