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Why we should read... 'The History' by Ghevond Sovetakan Grogh, 182pp Yerevan 1982 Armenian News Network / Groong September 18, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian Modern historians of ancient epochs, despite all the resources available to them, in many ways merely reiterate, in embellished form, enduring insights already provided by classical historians from those very earlier times. This is certainly the case regarding the history of the Arab conquest of Armenia from the 7th to the 9th centuries. Ghevond's 'History', written in the 790s, records the Arab invasions of the Middle East and Armenia from 632AD to 788AD. In so doing, this slim volume casts substantial light on two factors that decisively shaped further the development of Armenian history: first, how Arab hegemony fatally weakened the ruling Armenian elite and secondly how critically and irrevocably it altered the country's demographic and political composition. Both developments were to contribute significantly to undermining the prospects for any stable or sustainable Armenian state in the future. 1. The Arab conquest was no easy, straightforward task. Internal Arab discord, difficulties on external fronts and the level of resistance in Armenia prevented rapid subjugation. The Arab crusade began in 640 but ended in success only 61 years later in 701. However each successive assault caused huge destruction as invading military commanders 'vowed not to return the sword to the scabbard before it was thrust into the very heart of our land' (p28). Ghevond with vivid prose writes that this devastation caused 'the people of our land to become like burnt but still smouldering wheat trampled upon by pigs' (p31). Eventually, unable to resist further. 'Armenia's princes and Church leaders met and agreed to pay dues to the Arab tyrant' (p25). Once in control, the prime aim of Arab power was to extract as much wealth as possible from the country. A stringent tax regime was to be the instrument of plunder. Throughout the volume, whether referring to Armenia or other lands subjected to Arab tutelage, Ghevond reveals the tremendously destructive role of this taxation regime. Besides serving as a vessel for siphoning off Armenian wealth, it severely damaged Armenia's economic foundations. Monetary taxes were to prove particularly damaging. In the effort to raise money, both nobility and Church were frequently forced to sell their estates bringing about a long-term debilitating transfer of vast stretches of Armenian territory to Arab control. In the early period the rigours of Arab rule appeared tolerable. The Arab treasury even sustained the cost of equipping Armenian armies fighting alongside the Arabs. However this relatively benign period was not to last. Soon 'the level of taxation on the land rose to immense heights as the ruthless enemy's hellish greed, not satisfied with devouring the bodies of believers, drank their blood too, as if it was but water and thus drove the whole land into intolerable penury.' (p110) Some of Ghevond's descriptions of the population's suffering is heartrending. Crushing taxes were raised, 'even on the dead' (p105). Orphans and widows 'were subjected to ghastly punishments and whipping, while priests and other servants of the church were tortured until they revealed the names of the dead and those of their families.' Taxes became so heavy 'that even if people gave over all they possessed they were unable to satisfy the collector'. Inevitably the major burden of taxation was sustained by the peasant and plebeian classes. However, Ghevond underlines a significant fact - the enormously heavy price that the Armenian secular and religious nobility was forced to pay. Under Arab rule not just the lower classes but the 'entire population' was impoverished as 'the land of the Armenians was fastened with the ropes of poverty and all the noble houses and the nation's grandees tasted of the furnace of dispossession.' (p110) Throughout the Arab period Armenia nevertheless remained a lucrative source of wealth which no Arab ruler would willingly surrender. Researchers, relying on contemporary Arab sources, calculate that from the end of the 8th to the beginning of the 9th centuries, Armenia supplied over 50% of the 13 million dirhem in taxes raised from Arminia, the administrative unit comprising Armenia, Georgia and Aghvank. To this vast outward flow of wealth must be added huge quantities of other taxes or 'gifts' in kind - carpets, fish, cattle, birds etc. 2. It is in Ghevond's exposition of Arab strategy to secure control of Armenia that we can see the emergence of new and ultimately more fatal forms of foreign domination. Reading Ghevond, it becomes clear that Arab rule proved to be a decisive step in the eventual decomposition of historical Armenia, destroying its potential as an integral national territorial-political unit. The level of initial Armenian resistance and subsequent revolts, in 747-750 and 774-775, determined an effort 'to remove from the scene all the most powerful Armenian noble families and their armed forces.' (p 31) This ambition was reinforced by fears that the Armenian nobility would also 'act as agents for Greek armies' (p38). Perceiving Armenians to be 'permanent obstacles to our rule' (p37) the Arab conquerors set out to destroy the native feudal order. Unlike previous colonisers they would not be content with subjugating the domestic elite and then using them as agents for their rule. Instead they would rely, to a greater extent than any previous conquerors, on their own agents and on populations that they themselves settled in Armenia. Ghevond describes the Arab project at length. Plots to gather together and murder entire groups of the nobility first fail and are attempted again until eventually, especially after the defeat of the 774-75 uprising: 'Having killed all of them, no heirs remained to the noble houses. With the land of the Armenians left without noble households, the people became as shepherdless sheep among the wolves.' (p40) The Arab design was not entirely successful. But many feudal families constituting the backbone of ancient Armenia were destroyed, among them the famous Mamigonians and the Gamsaragans. Nor did Arab strategy rest here. Money taxes had inaugurated the process of transferring Armenian land to Arab hands. The Arab rulers took this a step further, establishing non-Armenian population centres within Armenia, and especially in its urban centres. Ghevond gives one example which we know was repeated elsewhere, again especially after the defeat of the 774-775 Uprising. He describes how when: 'Yezid arrived in Garin, he imposed taxes on the land and put people to work to rebuild the broken city walls. He then brought Ismael's sons and all their families to rule over the town and control the enemy. He instructed that Armenians would also supply them with all necessary foodstuffs.' (p106) These were the origins of what were later to become fully-fledged Arab emirates within Armenia's historical territory. They developed at an accelerated rate after 775 with a massive influx of Arab settlers coinciding with a great Armenian emigration westward to Cilicia and beyond. These emirates contributed both to Armenia's political fragmentation and to the qualitative change in its demographic composition. They not only destroyed its political homogeneity but in the future acted as effective fifth columns within the restored Armenian Bagratouni dynasty. Ready at a moment's notice to collaborate with invading enemy forces they played no small part in the eventual destruction of the Bagratouni Kingdom. The terrible social, political and cultural consequences of this can be read off any page of Armenian history from the 11th century onwards. 3. The Arab conquest could not, however, do without its Armenian collaborators. So long as they were dealing with a primarily Armenian population local Arab rulers required a network of Armenian intermediaries to control the natives and reconcile them to their own steady impoverishment and suffering. At various stages, in exchange for retaining certain historical privileges, the Armenian nobility undertook responsibility for collecting taxes, administering the law and maintaining social order. But fractured and volatile, they were deemed essentially untrustworthy, so the conquerors turned to another, more influential and craven accomplice and collaborator. The Church. The Church made the most abject and self-serving deal with the Arab authorities. In return for the right to exercise its religious authority, and, we should add, to preserve the material privileges that accompanied this, it bent the knee not to God, but to Arab rule. Its proposal to act as dutiful servant for the subjugation of its own worshipers, the Armenian people, was explicit: 'In the sphere of our faith, allow us the means to preserve that which we have always believed in, and let none of your people force us to abandon our faith. And if you respond to my requests, the lord will fortify your rule, will assure you your desires and will ensure obedience on everyone's part.' (p36) In carrying out its part of the accord, history records a grim legacy of Church barbarism as it collaborated with the conquerors to persecute, crush and destroy dissenting forces. In Ghevond's time and in the period beyond, the Church leadership regularly called upon Arab military force to fight the Tontragetzi's movement - a broad and widespread egalitarian socio-religious reaction to the depredations both of Arab and established Church domination. 4. Ghevond's 'History' is not however just a catalogue of defeat, collaboration and betrayal. As Arab rule attained impossible levels of harshness it became intolerable even to the nobility and precipitated a genuine national rebellion drawing in all classes of society. Ghevond tells that in 774, seizing on growing internal conflicts and weaknesses within the Arab empire 'all the princes of our land thought to hurl aside the yoke of obedience, to revolt and free themselves from subordination to the Arabs.' (101) Unfurling the banner of national rebellion against foreign oppression was never a dominant virtue of the Armenian nobility. Even Ghevond's account is replete with instances of the feudal rulers' cowardice and collaboration. That in the 770s sections of the nobility mustered sufficient confidence to challenge Arab rule must be seen as a function of immense pressure from below. Reduced to abject poverty, living always on the edge of violent death, sold of as slaves, forced often to flee the land of their birth, the peasant and plebeian class harboured a deep hatred of Arab rule. To overthrow these shackles they became willing, active and dedicated participants in any anti-Arab rebellion. Ghevond focuses on the deeds of 'great men' but remarks also that 'many serfs and labourers' readily 'joined the fighting forces' (p114) even though they were 'unskilled in war and lacking arms' (p118). This mass enthusiasm for revolt combined with the nobility's perception of a weakening Arab empire and its own inability to continue enduring Arab rule created a powerful concoction to propel the uprising. The initiative was taken by the Mamikonians when a notorious Arab tax collector was slayed by Ardavasd Mamikonian. With their tried and tested battle reputation the Mamikonians soon won to their side a good portion of the nobility and with high levels of support they were able to field an army of some 5,000. There was of course internal opposition from the Bagratounis, but recognizing the breadth of support and fearing political isolation they reluctantly joined rebel ranks. The leadership possessed a clear strategic vision. One of its main aims was to destroy the strongholds of Arab rule in Armenia - the settlements of Tvin and Garin. However despite instances of great heroism and many victorious military encounters, the Armenians were defeated. On 15 April 775 they lost over 1500 men in the Battle of Arjesh and ten days later, Mushegh and Sahak Mamikonian, Smbat Bagratouni, Vahan Knouni and other eminent nobles were killed in the Battle of Bagrevand. Throughout the land 'there was great grief and sorrow' for, as Ghevond testifies, 'in an instant the entire Armenian leadership was destroyed.' (p121) The failure was disastrous for the future Bagratouni dynasty. Leaving the Arab fifth columns intact, and expanding, within its territory, the Bagratouni restoration started off on the weakest possible footing, lacking even a reliable military ally, for the defeat of the uprising also marked the end of the history of the House of the Mamikonians in Armenia proper. Some would argue that the revolt was untimely and in itself a cause for many subsequent misfortunes. The hand of the intemperate, uncompromising and militarist Mamikonians should have been stayed. Instead the wiser, moderating counsel of the Bagratounis should have been heeded. History has no time for such speculation: the revolt happened as it did. All we can say with 20/20 hindsight is that, had there been no uprising, the ultimate effect of Arab strategy with its intensifying plunder and devastation risked leaving no trace of an Armenia let alone a Bagratouni dynasty. Indeed it was the Uprising, even as it was defeated, that persuaded a faltering Arab empire to consider Armenian autonomy as a way of securing what remained of the Armenian nobility as an ally against the greater threat now emerging from the Byzantine west and also from the increasingly centrifugal autonomous Arab emirates in the region. Ghevond's account of the 774-775 Uprising bequeaths to us one of the more heroic chapter's in Armenian history. What grand sentiments fired the popular imagination we may never know, but Ghevond's account makes clear that theirs' was a fight for very survival. When they: 'saw the deadly threat hanging over them, they were prepared to give their lives even though this was an enterprise which could not succeed because they were few in number. But preferring to die with dignity and courage rather than live a miserable life, they refused to submit to Ismael and prepared the revolt. (p111) There is certain honour in the willingness to challenge fate, to rise up against the odds, to defy all caution in defence of what is perceived as just. What appeared as a hopeless endeavour was in fact an urgent and immediate necessity. Despite its failure it also became an inspiration to future generations that continued striving for freedom and justice. Indeed 775 was not the end of resistance. Well into the next century, popular revolts burst out across the land. They were marked by episodes of heroism so memorable that their tales survived through the bleakest centuries of oppression. To this day they live with us in the inspiring and ever relevant epic of David of Sassoon, which so majestically portrays human aspirations for freedom, equality and justice. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.