Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner

Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2001 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.

Why we should read...

'The History of the Armenians'
by Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenatzi)
Armenian State University Library, 428pp
Yerevan, 1981


Armenian News Network / Groong
March 12, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Works of ancient literature acquire the status of 'classics', that is
they acquire a value and significance that endures, if they highlight
social or individual relations that distinguish a given period from
others; or if they reflect features of historical life that recur
through subsequent ages. It is by virtue of such consideration that
the wise of past epochs are able to address future generations.  Moses
of Khoren's (Khorenatzi) 'The History of the Armenians' ('History')
written probably sometime during the decade of 480-489AD is a work of
this order.

Despite its ancient genesis Khorenatzi's 'History' is marked by an
amazingly precocious, well-developed, indeed almost modern
consciousness of nationality and reflects issues in relations between
small nations and imperial powers that in various forms survive to
this day. However even if today's pundits of globalisation were
correct in trumpeting the end of nationality, this book would retain
relevance, and not for Armenians alone. For framed within the context
of its national, and particularly Armenian, preoccupations is a deeper
reflection on the heritage, the plight and the prospects of people
from small nations caught up in the whirlwind of great power politics.
While focusing on the Armenian experience it also brings into relief
some central features in the past and contemporary experience of many
small nations. Threaded through the narrative, furthermore, are
concerns for collective good and social justice that distinguish
genuinely great thinkers of all ages.

In recounting the vicissitudes of the Armenian nation, this 5th
century book can also be read as a rejection of super-power
pretensions to represent the only universal, and therefore the only
valid, principles of civilisation, morality and ethics. In 'History'
Khorenatzi labours to rescue the history, culture and civilisation of
the Armenians from the disintegrating effects of the then operating
great powers. In its content and central assumptions, 'History' is a
defiant affirmation of the humanity, the worth and the dignity of the
Armenian people. It is a defence of their contribution to human
civilisation and culture and a bastion for their future against an
unceasing process of assimilation, destruction and genocide.

It is for these reasons that it proved extraordinarily exciting to the
intellectuals leading the Armenian national revival of the 19th and
early 20th centuries. In striving to demonstrate that freedom and
dignity is an integral part of the experience of even a small nation,
such as the Armenians, Khorenatzi's endeavor reminds us of similar ones
undertaken by 20th century anti-colonial peoples whose own history was
also expunged or disregarded by the great powers that enslaved them
and their lands.


1. HISTORY IS NOT BUNK!

Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Corporation, insisted that 'history
is all bunk'. Representing a great power built on the bones of the
USA's native inhabitants who were subjugated and marginalized through
genocidal war, his disregard for history was naturally convenient.
However for peoples struggling to survive the onslaught of imperial
rule history has an entirely different significance.

>From the opening pages of 'History' Khorenatzi emphasizes his
conviction that for Armenians a knowledge of their history is of
incalculable value. 'In beginning my work' he writes 'I cannot pass
over in silence the reprehensible lack of wisdom' among 'our
ancestors', and our 'leaders and princes'. They are culpable 'for
their indifference towards knowledge' reflected in their failure to
'commission scholars of their time to record the history of our land.'
(p95) In contrast to this dismal record stands Prince Sahak Bagratouni
who commissioned Moses Khorenatzi to write the 'History'. For this,
Sahak 'should be considered the most noble of all those who preceded'
him and 'the one deserving of the greatest praise.' (p93).

Khorenatzi does not explicitly account for this enthusiasm for
history. But the reasons are registered unmistakeably. Khorenatzi was
no ivory tower academic, no neutral observer of events. Like almost
all Armenian historians, philosophers and intellectuals of old, he was
a political activist. 'History' was evidently written as a contribution
to the difficult task of restoring the freedom and dignity of an
Armenian state then beleaguered by hostile external forces and sapped
by internecine conflicts. That this was its purpose is evident even in
the most cursory reading of the book.

In the astonishing 'Complaint' that concludes the book Khorenatzi
details the dire condition of the land. Corruption permeates 'every
sphere of life'.  Princes have become 'rebellious' and judges 'venal';
the clergy have become 'hypocrites'; teachers 'ignorant and
opinionated lovers of gold' and 'generally all have forsaken love and
modesty'.  He summarises the plight thus:

    'I weep for you, oh Land of Armenia, I weep for you the noblest of
    northern nations because your kingdom has been removed as have
    your priests and your advisers and your teachers. Your peace has
    been disturbed, disorder has taken root, orthodoxy has
    disintegrated and ignorant worship has evolved. Now from within
    there are wars, from without terror; terror from the pagans and
    wars from the dissenters and there are no advisers able to guide
    and prepare for resistance.' (p313-314)

Khorenatzi is convinced that his 'History' can act as an 'adviser' to
'guide' and 'prepare' such resistance. In one of the its most quoted
passages he remarks that:

    'Though we are only a small people, limited in numbers and
    frequently oppressed by foreign kings, nevertheless even in our
    land there have been great acts of courage that are deserving of
    memory and record. (p96)

Elsewhere, throughout the volume, Khorenatzi comments on the then
great powers' genocidal policies, their attempts to assimilate smaller
nations and to write them out of history. An early example features
King Ninos of the Assyrians. In order to exact revenge against Haig,
the founder of the Armenian nation, Ninos plans to 'annihilate every
last offspring of Haig's tribe.' (p117) A 'proud and selfish man' he
also 'sought to present himself the only King touched by courage and
perfection.' (p117) During his reign 'the histories of other nations
were not regarded as important', and so he 'ordered the destruction of
vast numbers of volumes that told of these and other achievements '
(p119).

Recalling the desperate contemporary conditions in which Khorenatzi is
writing we can guess why in his view 'great acts of courage' are
'deserving of record and recollection'. A knowledge of history shows
that Armenians far from being cowards destined to eternal slavery have
a proud and brave ancestry, which on many occasions successfully
surmounted devastating setbacks and overwhelming odds. History shows
that Armenians do have destinies different to those mapped out by the
great powers or decadent domestic leaderships. So with boundless and
contagious enthusiasm Khorenatzi sets out on his journey to recover
and reconstruct stories of past resistance and to unearth acts of
valour and nobility. The result is a book marked throughout by sharp
contrasts between present ignominy and the possibilities of grandeur
revealed through a critical knowledge of the past.


2. THE BOOK

Moses of Khoren's 'The History of the Armenians' offers the first ever
chronological account of the origins and development of the Armenian
people and the Armenian state from the earliest times to the beginning
of the 5th century. In beginning his work he confronted awesome
problems. With no written Armenian records in existence, - what there
was having been destroyed by the Church of which he was a member, -
Khorenatzi had to start almost from scratch.  He began by piecing
together a mass of incidental information and detail supplied by
foreign historians. This proving clearly inadequate, he also turned
surviving myths and folk tales, wisely asserting that despite
centuries of popular embellishment these can 'harbour a core of true
historical developments'.

The result, though just over 200 pages long, is so vast in content
that a brief commentary can note only some of those features that
reveal its overall ambition. The most striking is Khorenatzi's
consciousness of nationhood and his privileging of the collective
national good as he assesses the record of kings and leaders. Going
well beyond narrow feudal definitions that then prevailed his
conceptions are almost modern. The nation or the homeland is not
limited or reduced to identification with, or loyalty to, this or that
royal or princely domain. It binds together all feudal domains and
people who share a common language, culture and history and values all
who live within its boundaries, whether noble or serf.

Within the terms of such a conception Khorenatzi regards as great
those historical figures who act not for narrow feudal, personal or
private gain but for the national and social good. Great leaders are
not self-serving. Their achievements are judged primarily in terms of
their social not individual significance. In 'History' truly great
figures are possessed of a passion for the welfare of the nation, for
the collective, and are dedicated to a notion of social justice however
historically determined this may have been. Great leaders serve the
'nation' and the 'Armenian people'. They are 'lovers of freedom', and
'patriots' who are 'ready to die for the homeland'.

>From its inception the Armenian state was beset by external challenge
and ravaged by imperial plunderers. Attesting to the strategic
importance of the territories the Armenians inhabited, Khorenatzi
shows the land was frequently a battlefield for neighbouring
super-powers urgently seeking to control it. So besides mapping the
'genealogy of Armenian kings and nobility', and recording their
domestic accomplishments, 'History' also shows them successfully
resisting foreign, colonial powers. In some respects the book is a
history of resistance and nation building with all the turns of
fortune such endeavours entail.

Haig, the founder of the Armenian nation strove for freedom and
liberty in all that he did. Living in an era of internecine violence
where tyrants sought to expand their frontiers, this 'giant among
giants' 'proved himself courageous and worthy' when he 'took up arms
against the tyranny of Bel'  (p116) and 'resisted those who sought to
dominate others'. His successor Aram is glorified as a 'hard worker
and a patriot' who was also 'ready to die for the fatherland rather
that see it trampled upon by foreign nations.' (p116).

Dikran the Great not only freed Armenia from subservience to outside
powers, he raised it to new imperial heights. Additionally he was
'just and even-handed in everything' that he did.  Judging 'all men by
the measure of his mind' he did not 'privilege the superior nor
disrespect the inferior.'  Instead he worked 'to spread the cloak of
his care over all the people.'  (p133) Ardashes the Great brought
science and industry to the land and 'it is said that during his
reign' it 'was developed to its limits so that one could find no
uncultivated spaces either in the highlands or the lowlands.' (p202)
Ardashes 'developed the lakes' and 'water transport', and 'introduced
new agricultural and fishing techniques' (p203) hitherto unknown in
Armenia.

The first Christian King Drtad, besides being a man of noble virtue,
is also gifted with technological skills. During his reign he employed
the most advanced metallurgical technology to construct the Castle of
Garni which was in addition decorated by 'wonderful ornamental
sculptures' (p237-8).  In Khorenatzi's record next to the pagan kings
Nerses the Great is accorded a special position. This great social
reformer is praised for bringing about a massive social welfare
programme to help the poor and the needy. Noting that there were no
refuges for the sick and the poor he 'ordered their construction on
the Greek model.' He also instigated the 'construction of inns to
welcome travelling strangers' and 'established institutions to care
for orphans, the elderly and the poor.' (p257-8)

'History' however does not indiscriminately heap praise upon all kings.
Only those who act for the good of the state, for the benefit of the
nation are glorified. Others are ruthlessly criticised for their
hedonism and their indifference for the common weal. Ardavast, whether
justly or not, is condemned for being 'enslaved to his stomach' so
that his only function was 'to enlarge garbage sites'. (p169)
Khorenatzi does not romanticise Armenian history. Depicting periods
and leaders deserving of emulation he also records the miserable
retreats and collapses, the internecine wars, the treacheries and
deceits of those whose example must be avoided. Neither was Khorenatzi
a narrow-minded chauvinist. Whilst highlighting the grand achievements
of native Armenians, he commends the positive role of kings who are of
foreign ancestry and welcomes into the fold those such as the
Mamigonians and the Bagratounis who he claims are of Chinese and
Jewish origin.

Khorenatzi's enormous effort not only produced a critical account of
Armenian history but simultaneously preserved for posterity precious
samples of pre-Christian poetry, literature and mythology. Without
Khorenatzi we would have nothing of those wonderful tales about the
fiery God Vahakn springing to life from smoking reeds in times 'when
the heavens were in pain and the earth was in pain'. We would have no
recollection of Ara the Beautiful victim of Assyrian Queen Shamiram's
uncontrolled lust, or of Dork the Ugly (Ankegh) blessed by superhuman
strength who sank ships miles from the shore by hurling whole
mountains at them. A rich vein that has inspired so many artists and
intellectuals would have been bled dry by Christian vandalism had it
not been for the efforts of this courageous Christian historian.

Commensurate with his intellectual and political ambition Khorenatzi's
style is simple and clear, but not without colour, literary flourish
and sometimes even poetic flight. Writing when he was already an old
man fearing an impending death, he reveals a brilliant talent for
expansive expression in the most laconic of paragraphs as he strives
to complete what is a stupendous task. Throughout the volume we also
encounter dozens of international historical comparisons as well as
literary, historical, Biblical and mythological allusions as he
presses home his point about the dignity and pride of the Armenian
people.


3. THE HISTORICAL METHOD

Throughout most of his life Khorenatzi was forced to live in abject
poverty and was relentlessly persecuted by the Church. The reasons are
not difficult to divine. Almost all commentaries on Khorenatzi refer
to his severe logic, his critical approach to evidence, Christian or
non Christian, his reasoned sifting and selection of contradictory
sources and his meticulous scrutiny of fable and myth. Indeed 'History'
is peppered throughout with the author's expositions of his approach
as he seeks to emulate the Greek historians whom he regarded as
embodying the highest existing standards of scholarship. Such a
rational and secular approach to his subject was naturally inimical to
ecclesiastical faith that demands blind submission before
unsubstantiated dogma.

What marks Khorenatzi out from almost all other Armenian classical
historians, however, is a rationalism so consistent and rigorous that
it terminates in a rejection of any Christian or other teleological
conception of history.  From a reading of Khorenatzi's 'History' it is
clear that for him historical development is not pre-ordained by an
omnipotent God. Most Armenian classical historians, before and after,
explained historical evolution as an act of god in which human tragedy
or triumph was but celestial punishment or reward. Not so for Moses of
Khoren. In his book, God's role and omnipotent providence does not
feature centrally in affairs, in human dramas, tragedies and
accomplishments.

Khorenatzi is no fatalist. History is to be grasped not in the actions
of the Divine but the 'character and action of men'. Historical
development is a consequence of human attributes, of human vices and
virtues. It is people themselves, and not God, who fashion their own
history. In 'History' Khorenatzi's judgement shows that the greatness
of historical figures resides not in any religious devotion but in
national and social achievements. Their virtue and morality are
recorded not in their acts of worship but in their deeds that improved
the life of the state, the nation and its people.

But perhaps the most extraordinary and wonderful demonstration of
Khorenatzi's historical method is in the pride of place he gives to
the pagan era of Armenian history. Despite belonging to a Church bent
on destroying every memory of that pagan era, Khorenatzi examines the
evidence and having done so he judges it to be the most outstanding,
the most exemplary in the whole of Armenian history. Indeed so
enraptured is Khorenatzi with the period that he regrets not being
born then so he could 'revel in the rule' of truly great pagan kings.
(p130) On the other hand, it is notable that he displaysa marked
indifference to recording Christian legend covering himself by
claiming this has been done by others. What courage must such an
approach have required! What more convincing evidence that for
Khorenatzi matters of state interest and the future of the nation were
infinitely more important than the Church or its obscurantist
theology.

Underscoring his consistently secular appreciation of history
Khorenatzi constructs his historical leaders not as disembodied and
lifeless agents of abstract godly virtue but as people of flesh and
blood. They are great political and national actors. But they are also
figures of great physical beauty who are possessed of all human
passions including carnal desires. Haig was a beautiful curly-haired
giant. Dikran the Great was 'well built with a strong back' his face
was full-blooded with the 'sweetest look' while his 'calves were
powerful and his feet beautiful'. Dikran enjoyed his food and drink
albeit in 'moderation and was 'sensible' in satisfying his physical
desires. (p133) The Christian King Drtad was also a man of enormous
physical power. An outstanding sportsman, he too demonstrated excellent
skill in war, so much so that Khorenatzi 'cannot describe the speed of
his arms has he slew countless (enemy) soldiers'. (p230)


4. THE VANISHING CONTROVERSY

Contemporary commentators speak highly both of author and of book.
Typical is Hrant K. Armen, a quality Diaspora historian who expresses
a common view when remarking that 'we are Armenian only by virtue of
Moses Khorenatzi'. Put differently, homeland based commentator A. K.
Abrahamian writes that 'the father of Armenian history has played an
enormous role in cultivating and reinforcing the Armenian people's
sense of identity and national consciousness.'

However 'The History of the Armenians' has not escaped controversy and
criticism. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries many a
commentator questioned its 5th century origin some casting it to the
9th. Others charged its author with wanton and dishonest fabrication,
accusing him of a total disregard for historical veracity. Moses of
Khoren was found guilty of 'senility', 'fabrication', 'ignorance',
'plagiarism', 'cheating', 'thoughtlessness' and a host of other sins.

It is true that the work is in many aspects uneven. Taking into
account the vast scope of 'History', the paucity of sources available
to Khorenatzi and the intellectual isolation in which he had to
compose his work, it is hardly surprising that the book contains much
that is questionable. A great deal of his chronology and a good
portion of his evidence has rightly been challenged and set aside. It
is also true that the Second and Third Books do not read with the same
adventure and excitement as the first. However, bearing in mind the
circumstances of its production, the most amazing, - almost
miraculous, - aspect of the work is how much of it stands up to the
sharpest scrutiny of the most modern and most critical investigation.

None of its defects detract from what is in fact an extraordinary
accomplishment. Disputes about dating and evidence pale into
insignificance when we consider the role this book has performed. In
salvaging from eternal darkness vast periods of Armenian history,
culture and civilisation it stands forth as a proud and reasoned
proclamation of the civilisation and culture of people from small
nations. Who will dare contest the value of such a proclamation in the
contemporary world order?


--
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.

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |