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Why we should read... `The History of Taron' by Hovhan Mamikonian 176pp, Khorhrtayin Grogh, Yerevan, 1989 Armenian News Network / Groong August 7, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian `The History of Taron' is another ancient Armenian literary work whose date of composition and authorship will remain forever shrouded in the darkness of remote time. Written perhaps in the late 7th century, and perhaps also added to by different authors in subsequent periods, it is like no other in the canon of classical Armenian literature. It is of limited historical value and has no universal or enduring artistic content. Yet `The History of Taron' demands commentary - if only to expose as underserved the substantial acclaim that is still accorded it in Armenian literary and historical tradition. We have no certain knowledge of the circumstances attending its composition (who commissioned it and why, for example). Additionally, containing no reliable historical information, it is virtually impossible to place the book in any concrete historical or political context. One must therefore consider it as a strictly `fictional' work that express a certain perception of the origin of the Armenian Church and its history. It is, in this respect, of some interest and provoking of thought. Startlingly, the volume can be read as depicting the early Christian Church in Armenia as a conquering colonial force. In addition, `The History of Taron' is a disturbing reflection of the readiness of a section of the clergy (in this case the authors or those who commissioned the work) to applaud a policy of gruesome violence in battles to defend Church wealth and property. 1. THE ARMENIAN CONVERSION TO CHRISTIANITY AS COLONIAL CONQUEST Divided into two parts, Book One is an alleged eyewitness account of the Armenian conversion to Christianity by one Zenob Klag. It is remarkable for its portrayal of this conversion as a colonial process, led and controlled by representatives of a new (foreign) religious movement. Albeit in collaboration with (a subjugated and obedient) section of the domestic nobility, this foreign Christian religion is only imposed after fierce battles against the (native) pagan leadership and its popular supporters. Once masters of the land, this new Church moves to appropriate the choice portions of the nation's property and wealth. The story unfolds in the form of a correspondence between Gregory the Illuminator in Armenia and his superior Archbishop Leo headquartered in Ghessaria. Neither is native to Armenia. Yet they talk as if they own the country and its population with some god-given power to do with them as they wish. Their air of confidence is unmistakable, no doubt sustained by religious righteousness. Preparing to consolidate their spiritual conquest of the local population, Gregory urges Leo to `send forth your (priests) in order to reap God's harvest'. (p21) The harvest of course was not purely of souls. Control of people's spiritual life was to be the fertile ground for raising vast amounts of material wealth through all manner of religious taxes, dues and gifts. Gregory's request has an edge of urgency. `We need bishops and priests in all our (sic!) provinces'. The few that have been `gathered from here and there' are insufficient to govern `Armenia's 630 lucrative' provinces. (p24) Grasping that the satisfaction of a spiritual mission alone was insufficient inducement to the settlement of foreign (Assyrian or Greek) priests Gregory plays to their more material ambitions. Acting as if he and the newly formed Church have sole authority over the land, Gregory entices them with the promise that `if you come I shall put at your service the entire provinces of Hark and Yegheghyatz' (p25). For those willing to join in helping to consolidate his grip Gregory, promises that `what (they) find pleasant and desirable' in Armenia they `can have' (p25). He urges them to leave behind `the dry and hungry land' they `presently inhabit' and come to Armenia `where there is plenty', where `the air is sweet, and the waters flow abundantly'. (p59) The colonial aspect of the conversion is further underlined in descriptions of the battles against the pre-Christian Armenian establishment. Pagan Armenia, in Zenob Klag's account even more than in that of Agatangeghos, did not lie helpless before the new religious power. There was no passive succumbing or voluntary subordination. To become masters of the situation and to impose its alien religion, the new (foreign) Church had to wage war and inflict `suffering and torture' until its native victims were `brought to death's door' (p43). The fighting may have been done by troops belonging to the converted factions of the nobility, but it was the Church which was in decided control and command. In battle, the pagans are neither a small and isolated minority nor are they cowards. Forces are frequently evenly divided and anti-Christian resistance is strong and marked by courage. The offensive of the new religion is directed not just against the pre-Christian leadership but against broad sections of Armenia's population itself, against the nation as a whole. In Klag's own account the pagan forces are shown to enjoy substantial popular support. In more than one instance the peasantry/village population is described as joining in `efforts to trap and destroy' the Christian army. (p39) To permanently subdue its newly conquered population, the Church, like colonial powers in all ages, set out to destroy the intellectual and cultural heritage of pre-Christian Armenia so as to annihilate its historically developed independent national identity. As a final mark of arrogance it built its own Churches on `the very ground and with the very same masonry as that of the pagan temples' it destroyed, (p43-4) copying even their architecture. (p45-6) (This point may clearly be of relevance to literary critics and historians seeking to uncover and reconstruct aspects of pre-Christian traditions that survived embedded in subsequent Armenian literature and culture.) There is an element of historical truth in the presentation of the Christian conversion as colonial conquest. We are conscious of the destruction of a vast pre-Christian cultural/intellectual heritage. But for a more profound and more truthful account of the Armenian Church's historical role it would be necessary to record that decisive process of Armenianisation the Church underwent very soon after its establishment. So irrevocable was it, that the Church in certain subsequent periods became a pillar and guarantor for the survival of the Armenian nation. During this process of Armenianisation - from the incorporation of elements of pagan ritual into Armenian Christian celebration, through to the breach with Rome/Byzantium, the formation of the Armenian alphabet and the leading role it played in the 5th century struggle for political autonomy/independence - the Church demonstrated a remarkable degree of national consciousness. The oddity of Part One of `The History of Taron' is that it is totally blind to the process of Armenianisation, even though the volume was written well after the works of Agatangeghos, Pavsdos Puzant and Khazar Barpetzi all of whom in different ways and different degrees account for the absorption and adjustment of the Church into Armenian life. Perhaps in writing this volume its author(s), unlike our other Christian classical scholars, had in mind concerns much narrower than the interests of the Armenian nation as a whole. Yet it is the absence of this national political and cultural dimension from Hovhan Mamikonian's work that reduces it to the status of secondary source material. In his introduction to this volume Vartan Vartanian notes that the first part may have been fraudulently written as an eyewitness account only in order to supply theological legitimacy to the 7th century Church's efforts to protect its holdings against the greedy ambitions of local princes and foreign powers. What better stamp of ownership than an eyewitness claim that the St Garabed monastery and its surrounding farms, villages and serfs were given to the Church by Gregory the Illuminator himself (p22). Indeed the first part is littered with scores of assertions and suggestions of this order. If Part One sought to supply some ideological legitimacy to the Church's social and economic position, Part Two is a shocking endorsement of savage violence in defence of its status and property. 2. THE CHRISTIAN WARRIOR AS BARBARIAN The soldier of god is a frequently occurring character in Christian literature. But the image of the Christian warrior as sadist that appears in Hovhan Mamikonian's account is unique, in Armenian literature at least. It is ample proof that the pulp novel with its glorification of gratuitous violence and its revelling in blood lust is not a new, 20th century, phenomenon. Claiming to have been written by none other than a Bishop - Hovhan Mamikonian - the formal recounting of Armenian resistance against the Persians reveals a deeply grim image of humanity which forms an ugly contrast to the works of those nobler Armenian Christian scholars. Often spoken of as a stirring epic of national resistance the second part of `The History of Taron' is given over to descriptions of successive Mamikonian leaders in relentless pursuit and massacre of invading Persian forces. With virtually no losses of their own, employing the most cunning and devious of strategies and tactics, the Mamikonians repeatedly inflict heavy and devastating casualties on their opponents. At a superficial level they, and Vahan Mamikonian in particular (known as Vahan the Wolf), are pictured as true mythological figures - giants, fighting triumphantly well into their eighties and nineties, slaying left, right and centre and extricating themselves from situations which, for any others, would be inescapable death traps. But only in appearance is this a tale of resistance and courage in the face of some greater evil. In its substance there is no other Armenian history so suffused with anti-human sentiment and an alienated religious mysticism. In this account, unlike that of Khorenatzi's, Puzant's, or other great classics of ancient Armenian literature, human beings appear bereft of any nobility or grandeur. They are incapable of independent action and achievement, and display not an ounce of magnanimity or generosity of spirit. Hovhan Mamikonian's `heroes' have no national, social, political or even individual dimension or ambition. They are little more than vicious, violent militarist robots devoted to preserving Church property. In military combat, and we see them primarily in such combat, the Mamikonians delight in torture, wanton maiming and murder. Cutting off the noses of their prisoners, (p76/7), castrating them (p104), using their heads as footballs (p107 and 81), forcing them into marshes there to die (p104), chopping of heads (p89), suffocating people with pillows (p100) are all depicted with relish. The central character, Vahan the Wolf, is particularly sadistic. He burns alive captured Persian soldiers (p79) revelling in their suffering. Beheading a Persian prince, he treats the incident as sport (p81). He is also vulgar and without moral standards in his dealing with his opponents (p83). Moushegh, Vahan, Smbad, Diran, Stephan are all described by the same deviousness, blood lust and violence. So extremely one-sided and so dominant are the descriptions of their violence that they lose any possible dramatic or cathartic potential. The wanton violence is not contrasted to or set alongside any nobler aspects of human endeavour. It is not even portrayed as a military necessity. Instead in a string of unrelentingly enthusiastic descriptions Part Two of this book becomes a grotesque glorification of the negative, the barbaric and the destructive in human life. As literary creations the Mamikonian `heroes' are uniformly the same, one-dimensional caricatures lacking any depth or authenticity. In critical situations, on the point of defeat and annihilation, they survive not by human endeavour, ingenuity, skill or daring, but by divine intervention alone. Whatever the scale of their victories it is St. Garabed who takes all the credit. (p94, p102, p103). Of course in all religions and at times calls on god and saints for assistance is common currency. The genuinely inspiring of such calls however serve to release and strengthen some innate human resolve and courage, to bring out and inspire latent energy and strength for the attainment of some essentially positive social or political ambition. They are exhortations to summon up additional will and determination. Not so with Hovhan Mamikonian. Here calls on god and saints corrupt and diminish man for they only reinforce his brutal instincts which are then put into the service of a Church intent only on defending its own narrow interests. To measure the depth of the alienated religious mysticism that we encounter in `The History of Taron', we can compare it to the inspiring appeals in Khrimian Hayrig's two little volumes Haykouzh or Vankhouzh. Written some 12 centuries later these are still suffused with profound and passionate religious sentiment. But they have human need, human welfare and human action at their core. They are exhortations to men and women to mobilise their own energy, intelligence and determination in the pursuit of their own dignity and freedom. Here appeals to god do not encourage violence and brutality nor are they made at the behest of a selfish Church. As historical personages Hovhan's Mamikonian leaders reveal nothing of the age and its concerns beyond that of a clergy greedy to retain its wealth. In contrast to Khorenatzi , `The History of Taron' contains no concept of freedom, however narrowly or historically defined. It contains no noteworthy conception of nation, or even of any entity worth defending that is broader than the St. Garabed monastery. Thus the volume reduces the House of the Mamikonians to the level of an abject servant of an avaricious Church and nothing more. In doing so it leaves us in ignorance of the more worthy national/political ambitions that were sometimes embodied in the alliance of the Church and the Mamikonians. As a tribute to the Mamikonians, `The History of Taron' may have served an ephemeral purpose in presenting them as invincible warriors. But by doing so in its particularly brutal and inhuman manner it loses any possible enduring human or universal value. In this sense it cannot compare with the tributes that are contained in works of truly classical quality such as Khazar Barpetzi's 5th century `History of the Armenians' or Ghevond's 10th century `History' . Unlike other works by Christian authors, it is impossible to extract any rational, historical core from Hovhan Mamikonian's volume. We get an idea that taxation is an issue in the clash between Armenians and Persians, but nothing more. Having featured as supporters of the pagan forces in the first part, in the second the ordinary population disappears completely. Rare are any references to national or international context or events, to political developments, social realties or social mores. Even while accepting its paucity as a historical document, eminent literary historians vouch for its supposed artistic/cultural value. Manoug Abeghian, for example, claims that it is `with its plebeian language, its simple and common style and content, a collection of popular folk-tales'. Yet the portrayal of broad and profound human experience, common in the best of folk tales, are absent from this volume dominated by abhorrent encomiums to blood and gore. -- 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.