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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.