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Why we should read...

"The History" by Agatangeghos
(552pp, Armenian State University, Yerevan, 1983)

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 1, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Agatangeghos' "History" is always cited as the first among that
cluster of Armenian language classical histories that were written
immediately following the development of the national alphabet in
413. It is, according to Khazar Barpetzi, himself a 5th century
historian, "the first definite account" of the "conversion of the land
of Armenia from pagan ignorance to genuine knowledge of godliness".
Covering a period of some 154 years stretching from the ascension of
the first hereditary Arshagouni king in 186 to the death of Drtad III,
the first Armenian Christian King in 330, Agatangeghos' volume acquired
an impressive international reputation. Right into the 12th and 13th
centuries it was being read not only in an Armenian version but in
numerous Latin, Assyrian and Arabic translations too.

The reasons why Agatangeghos' tale so captivated the pious Christian
reader and listener are not hard to discover. What we are offered is
not a secular account of the conversion as an expression of a
strategic Armenian alliance with Rome to halt a steady Persian
encroachment on Armenia. We have instead a stirring hagiographic
account of the first saints and martyrs of the Armenian Church.
Gregory the Illuminator's stubborn endurance of appalling torture,
Hripsime's amazing beauty, her bravery and martyrdom as well as the
fantastic drama of King Drtad's conversion are described with verve
and passion. For the devout the book reads like an adventure story
with Christian heroes, their struggles, sacrifices and eventual
triumphs.

Despite its rather heavy burden of theological disquisition this
volume retains its importance for students of Armenian history in
particular and of Christianity in general. Within its essentially
devotional narrative one can glean the brutal military-political form
that marked Armenia's transition to Christianity; a form that reveals
the entirely secondary role of Christian preaching and sermonizing.
The advent of Christianity clearly heralded the emergence of a new
political order in Armenia with the new religion representing a new
form of state and politics.


THE TYRANNY OF THE CONVERSION

Even from Agatangeghos' account it is clear that the triumph of this
new force was assured only after a decisive period during which
Gregory the Illuminator "relied on the King's terror and instruction
to secure obedience from all" (p443). Preaching meekness and mildness
to his flock Gregory the Illuminator and his allies did not consider
such virtues appropriate to their own proselytising work. In the
Christian conversion force and war clearly played a role immensely
more important than the preaching of the priests! The Church evidently
cared less about the salvation of souls and more about attaining power
and wealth for itself.

While Gregory the Illuminator is naturally depicted as playing the
decisive role, the success of the enterprise was crucially dependent
on the Christian alliance with King Drtad and the subsequent
deployment of the royal army in the service of the new religion. It
was only after cementing this pact that Gregory "received sanction
from the King, his princes and lords" to "commence the task" of
"demolishing, destroying, annihilating and removing from the face of
the earth the scandal" of paganism. (p437). With "peremptory
instruction from the King" the "entire royal army" proceeded to wage
veritable war to "annihilate even the memory of these false deities
that dared assume the name of god". (p437) The vast scale of this
campaign is not only described in detail, but told with a measure of
satisfaction too.

The Christian war opened with the now Christian army marching on the
town of Ardashad "there to destroy the temple of the goddess Anahid"
(p437). On its way, in a strategically and ideologically significant
move, the army "first set about destroying, wrecking and burning" the
renowned pagan "centre of learning and godly wisdom" said to have been
established by Ormist (p437).  Thereafter the tide of devastation and
looting raged across the entire land as every possible pagan temple
and statue was levelled and its land and wealth appropriated by the
victorious Christian Church.

The Christian Church then set about consolidating its newly
established supremacy. It first sought to secure a degree of popular
acquiescence and support through the distribution of some pagan wealth
including much "gold and silver" to "the poor, the suffering and the
propertyless" (p439, p441).  The Church however made sure to retain
for itself monopoly control of the source of wealth. It seized all
pagan "land and buildings along with the resident serfs and (including
even) pagan priests", now no doubt transformed into servants of the
new religion (p441). Thus it ensured the population's permanent
subordination to itself as it emerged as a dominant political and
economic power in the land.

Agatangeghos records much of the nitty-gritty of the Christian
consolidation and organisation, describing its spreading institutions
and structures, the building of churches and the putting in place of
new Church personnel.  Gregory the Illuminator begins by establishing
the "laws and the commands" (p449) for the new order and travelling
"the length of the land to build Churches in all its domains,
provinces, districts, towns, and villages" (p467). On his return from
Cesaria where he was confirmed as leader of the Armenian Church, he
stops off in Sepastia to successfully persuade a large numbers of
clergymen "to return with to serve in the new priestly order."  (p453)
To organise and direct the Church's work he also anoints "over 400
bishops for the various provinces" of the land. (p477)

Underpinning the expanding structure of the Church was Gregory's
large-scale project of education and indoctrination. As if conscious
of the fragility of the new order he paid particular attention to
fortifying the army, the proven guarantor of the conversion. With
Drtad's agreement he laboured hard to indoctrinate the armed forces by
"devoting one month to fasting and prayer" (p463) and Christening
"over 4,000 men, women and children" belonging to the King's military
entourage.

Whilst bolstering the loyalty of the army Gregory the Illuminator also
attended to the business of creating a dedicated and educated cadre to
administer its new estate and supervise its captured flock. He
"persuaded the King to gather together and educate children from many
provinces" including "in particular the children of the incestuous
pagan priesthood".  (p467).  The Church even incorporated the educated
remnants of old priestly caste, assigning them the task of "studying
either Assyrian or Hellenic Christian texts". So as to make its
authority more palatable to a population for whom this new religion
was both alien and incomprehensible, it also made significant
ideological concessions. Among other things many pagan holidays and
celebrations were incorporated into the Christian calendar as
commemorations for their own martyrs.

With such an organisation, the Church's wealth, status and political
power grew rapidly during the course of the 4th and 5th centuries. So
much so that within 50-70 years it had become the main and most
powerful challenge to the secular monarchy dwarfing by far the
pretensions of the remaining feudal nobility.
 

THE PAGAN HERITAGE

Agatangeghos' "History" has other merits besides unwittingly revealing
the real process and content of the Christian conversion. In describing
the destructive Christian onslaught he preserves in some detail
significant aspects of the pagan order's culture and religion. Besides
naming a number of gods - Anahid, Asdghig, Vahakn, and Aramazt - he
describes some of their functions and the rituals associated with
their worship. He also notes places and sites of many monuments,
temples and centres of learning, at the same time indicating their
relative order of importance, noting those that served as burial sites
for Kings and princes and sometimes cataloguing their wealth too.

Even from Agatangeghos' hostile account one can understand the charm
that the pagan gods had for the intellectuals of the 19th and 20th
century Armenian national revival. Through the pages of the book one
cannot fail to note the sharp contrast between the asceticism and
misanthropy of Christianity and the philantrophy of the pagan
religions. For the latter, gods were strong, energetic and willing
assistants in people's striving to enjoy life here on earth. Their
worship was senseless unless they served to ensure a bountiful life,
unless, that is, they served the welfare of humanity. As part of his
effort to stem the tide of Christianity, one of Drtad's edicts refers
to the "peace", "plenty", "enjoyment" and "goodness" on earth that
flows from loyalty to pre-Christian gods. Seeking to persuade Gregory
to revere the traditional Gods Drtad refers to the "Great Lady
Anahid", as "the glory of our nation and its main provider". She is
"worshiped by all Kings" because she "is the mother of all our
feelings and emotions" and "the benefactor of all human nature".

The pagan religion that is depicted in Agatangeghos had nothing in
common with the life-denying mysticism that is the essential content
of speeches attributed to Gregory the Illuminator, Hripsime and
others. It may, incidentally, be of note that while these lack any
reference to Christianity's secular benefits, Agatangeghos' own
narrative alludes to some, albeit vaguely. Nevertheless the fundamental
asceticism of the volume remains undented though it is clear that the
privileged Church hierarchy made an exception for itself. Even in
histories penned by devoutly Christian priests we see them enjoying
the fullness of life here on earth whilst preaching abstinence of all
sorts to their flock. This double standard seemed not to diminish the
religious elite's prospects for eternal bliss.

 
PROGRESS OR REACTION?

Agatangeghos' account makes for riveting reading. Yet it is littered
with important but unanswered questions. It does contribute to filling
out a few voids in other accounts of the 3rd and 4th century clash
between the Armenian Arshagounis and Persian Sasanids and throws some
light on the relations between Drtad III and the Roman Empire. It
also stimulates consideration of the nature of early Christian history
and theology and about its long-term effect on Armenian history. But
it provides no reliable chronological, historical or social
information to deduce any of the causes behind King Drtad III's
conversion and the formation of the Christian-Royal alliance.  Neither
does it contain material which may help explain the ease with which
the old pagan order was vanquished.

It seems that the Anahids, Vahakns and other pagan gods who so
inspired our 19th and early 20th century poets lacked the power to
withstand the violence of the Christian onslaught. True the pagan
order was not defeated overnight, many of its rituals were incorporated
into the new religion, it survived for some time, albeit tenuously, in
remoter regions of the country and endured even longer in folk memory.
But it ceased to be a significant political, social or cultural force.

>From the swiftness and thoroughness with which Christianity triumphed
it is possible to tentatively conclude that in the Christian political
movement paganism confronted a far more energetic and determined force
than itself.  The consequences of this radical transformation for the
future course of Armenian history continue to be the subject of
intense debate. A convincing argument can be made however that it had
both progressive and regressive significance, both in political and in
cultural life. However only the most careful, meticulous and
historically defined examination, one that does not tar all centuries
with the same brush, can succeed in approximating the complexity of
historical reality.

In this context one thing is beyond argument. The pious and
sanctimonious speeches and declarations that accompanied most of the
1700th anniversary celebrations of the victory of the Armenian Church,
by failing to differentiate between its qualitatively differing roles
over the centuries, obscures the indubitably positive role it played
for example during the late 4th and 5th centuries and simultaneously
conceals its appallingly treacherous role during many other centuries.


--
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.

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