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Why we should read... `The History of the Armenians' by Khazar Barpetzi 540pp, Armenian State University Library, Yerevan, 1982 Armenian News Network / Groong October 19, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian Khazar Barpetzi's `History of the Armenians' occupies a singular position in the literature produced during the Armenian Golden Age in the 5th and 6th centuries. It exudes a remarkable confidence for the future, despite being a record of the difficult and turbulent century that followed the 387AD division of Armenia between Persia and Byzantium. Barpetzi's exuberance is not misplaced. It reflects the stubborn confidence and vitality of the Armenian Church when, in an era of secular retreat, it takes up the challenge of national political leadership in the struggle to recover lost positions. Marking out Barpetzi's `History', from those of Agatangeghos and Puzant who preceded him, is its portrayal of a Christian Church that, though of foreign origin, is now thoroughly Armenianised. With Barpetzi Christianity has come of age as Armenian Christianity. When Barpetzi takes up the story in 387 the Church has become distinctly national. It is now an Armenian Church, with its own national customs and traditions. It now has its own national economic and social power base and pursues independent political goals that are animated by a powerful sense of national consciousness and national pride. Even more significantly, running through this account, giving it its anchorage and its enduring relevance is a trenchant affirmation that national revival can be attained primarily through reliance upon, development and utilization of domestic resources. This affirmation is reinforced in Barpetzi's descriptions of Church opposition to foreign powers acting as arbiters in internal Armenian affairs. National self-reliance bolstered by a sense of national consciousness and pride appear as the linchpins of a strategy that encompasses the religious, intellectual, cultural, political and military spheres. They are defining elements in recording the 392-412 creation of the Armenian alphabet, the Church's struggle to preserve the remnants of Armenian state autonomy, its leading role in the 451AD Vartanantz uprising and what Barpetzi regards as the first Armenian guerilla war against the Persian Empire in 480-484AD. At the outset it is worth remarking that a proper appreciation of the Armenian Church's role during this period, perhaps its most progressive and beneficial, requires an understanding of the then cultural and intellectual function of religion. Writing in the `English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution' Christopher Hill notes that: `By the seventeenth century the Bible was accepted as central to all (emphasis added) spheres of intellectual life: it was not merely a `religious' book in our narrow modern sense of the word religion...The Bible was...the foundation of all aspects of English culture.' The same can be accurately said about religion and the Bible in ancient Armenian history. Both provided the intellectual structure for dealing with secular problems of every day life - from the smallest individual issue to the largest national one. Religion did not reflect a total absorption with concerns of the afterlife. It was not fenced off into a spiritual domain with no purchase on earthly human concerns. Religion and the Bible were both integral to understanding and coping with problems of life here on earth. (In this context Henrik Gabrielian's `The History of Armenian Philosophical Thought' offers some excellent studies of Armenian classical thought, including that of Yeghishe.) I. THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT AND THE THREAT 387AD was a devastating year for the Armenian state and the Arshagouni dynasty in particular. The division of Armenia also lead to the effective end of an independent Armenian state. Catholicos Nerses the Great's dire warning, reported at length in Pavsdos Puzant's history, had come to be: `The Arshagouni dynasty, as a result of its inglorious behaviour and in accord with the predictions of Saint Nerses, fell from God's grace and was abandoned. Armenia was condemned to division between Persian and Greek kings. Between them they took into their servitude portions of this great land.' (p27) This was only a temporary compromise in that age-old tussle between the two empires for control of an economically and strategically vital region. It nevertheless afforded both an opportunity to transform their newly acquired territory into a buffer zone against the other. To this end both set about to politically decapitate the Armenian nation as a prelude to its total cultural, religious and national assimiliation. For the Persian empire Armenia was to be the core target of a project to subjugate not just Armenia but Georgia and Albania too. Barpetzi's `History of the Armenians' deals with the Armenian response in the substantially larger portion of Persian-controlled Armenia. Barpetzi is decidedly the more secular of the early Armenian historians. Despite frequent and lengthy theological disquisitions, he offers an acute analysis of the reasoning behind the Persian onslaught. To the Persian emperor who is `concerned for his interests and his taxes' Armenia is `large and profitable.' (p95) Barpetzi's artistically brilliant description of a bountiful nature in the province of Ararat suggests an immense source of wealth for any posessor. Armenia is fabulously rich, with fertile soil, plentiful rivers, variegated vegetation and plentiful wild life. It is additionally gifted with rich seams of mineral wealth. It offers its inhabitants all they could possibly expect. But it is also an irresistible temptation to outsiders. However, Armenia was not just of value economically, it was strategically `absolutely fundamental'. Persia's religious elite, when persuading King Hazgherd to force an Armenian conversion to Zoroastrianism, appeals to his strategic sensibilities. `If Armenia is closely bound to us, then unfailingly Georgia and Albania will be ours too.' (p95) Further, Armenia `large and beneficial as it is, lies adjacent to the Greek Empire and shares that empire's religion.' (p95) The possibility of Armenians turning `to serve those with whom they share a common religion' (p97) looms as a permanent danger to Persia. If Armenians are converted and assimilated then `the Kingdom...would live in permanent peace and security'. Failing that, the King's advisors `fear for (Persia's) future'. (p97). The Persian state therefore once again embarked on a ruthless war of religious, cultural and political assimilation. Forcing Armenians to abandon Christianity was only a first stage. Initially the authorities would deploy peaceful means. Rewards for converts would be `so glorious' that to share of the same it was hoped that all others would `willingly accept' the King's `instructions'. Peaceful means failing, imperial power held in reserve the threat of war and genocide. The Armenian Catholicos is warned that in the event of refusal the King will `count for nothing' all that he has acquired from him and will `annihilate (you) all, women, children, indeed your entire estate.' (p111) II. THE ARMENIAN RIPOSTE AND THE RESORT TO SELF-RELIANCE The humbling of the once proud Arshagouni dynasty left the Armenian Church as the only effective national force in the country. Far from demoralizing it, the 387 debacle was to spur it to unprecedented audacity as it steeled itself to confront its powerful antagonist and fight to restore a genuine Armenian statehood. The Armenian Church's concern for the independence of the national state flowed from the very shape of its position in the secular world. It did not cease to be a feudal estate parasitically founded on the free labour of its serfs. Neither was it free of all the backward features of feudal life. But at this point in time its particular interests coincided with Armenian national and state interests. The Church's fiefdom was not provincial. Its limits were not defined by regional or local boundaries but by Armenia's national state borders. Armenia as a whole, not just one portion of it, was the foundation for its social and political position. Its material wealth its land, palaces, monasteries, churches and treasures - its spiritual/social influence and its authority spanned the entire land irrespective of feudal boundaries. This reality dictated a vigorous sponsorship of a state capable of defending Armenia's independence, unity and territorial integrity. A weak and unstable state would leave the land vulnerable to foreign powers that sought to `conquer...and annex it to their kingdoms' as Pavsdos Puzant put it. Without the support of a strong state its vast wealth would be easy target for the avaricious non-Armenian clergy enjoying the protection and encouragement of the powerful Persian or Byzantine states. In preparing to do battle for the recovery of Armenian statehood after 387 the Church, in a qualitatively new direction and in contrast to the age old traditions of the secular nobility, rejected a strategy of primary dependence on foreign forces. It worked instead to develop Armenia's native strengths and talents. Whilst not excluding foreign alliances these would not be allowed to determine strategy. So in a display of immense political maturity the Church knitted into a single overall endeavour the religious, cultural, intellectual, political and military dimensions of Armenian national life. a. Intellectual and cultural independence Despite its accumulation of vast wealth and power in the decades preceding 387 and despite its nationwide organizational apparatus the Armenian Church was far from stable. The absence of an independent Armenian intellectual tradition, expressed starkly in the use of Assyrian and Greek as the official language of the Church, was proving disastrous. Preaching and delivering religious services in an alien tongue was weakening the bond between Church and people. `The people of this great land understood nothing and gained nothing either from the use of Assyrian in Church services or when reading the Holy Book in Church or in the monasteries. Unable to `understand the Assyrian language' the work of `religious officials and the efforts of the population came to nothing' (p31). As `masses of people' `drifted away...empty-handed', church officials and priests `could only sigh and bemoan their wasted effort.' (p37) To consolidate and strengthen its own organisation and create an educated and confident cadre capable of confronting the Persian challenge was therefore the Church's first priority. This work was synthesized in the amazing effort to create an Armenian alphabet as the foundation for an independent Armenian intellectual and cultural tradition (one that would replace that which the Church itself had destroyed). Its most dynamic elements appealed to Catholicos Sahak for support for a project that would help `the people of this great land (to move) away from a condition of miserable dependence to one genuinely beneficial knowledge that would bring real honour to the Church.' As Barpetzi unfolds his story one notes an outpouring of wounded national pride. No more can the Church rely on Greek or Assyrian. These are `humiliating languages' that have `been borrowed'. The Armenian Church needed `its own voice' with which `to preach profitably to men and women and to the population as a whole.' (p31) A unique national, Armenian alphabet was required that `communicated with precision and completeness the entire phonetic range of the Armenian language' (p33). Only this would free the Church of `miserable beggarly' dependence. Spurred by immediate practical considerations the Church was also deeply conscious of the immense historical significance of its enterprise. It assured King Vramshabouh that his support for the creation of a unique national script will: `...secure you unforgettable fame on earth and benefits in heaven far greater than any of your contemporaries or any of your ancestors.' (p39) The successful accomplishment of this task, the subsequent incredibly rapid translation of the treasury of world literature and the setting up a large network of schools and educational institutions created a large literate, educated and self-confident Church cadre. Thus was one bastion secured against the Persian campaign. b. The defence of the political realm The Armenian monarchy that the Persians retained after 387 and until 428 was a much reduced entity more akin to a second rate vassal. Nevertheless, against the irresponsible nobility the Church battled to preserve this last vestige of political autonomy regarding it as a potential barrier against further Persian encroachment. So Catholicos Sahak categorically turns down proposals to invite Persian powers to remove the despised King Artashes the Second. Under no circumstances will he `agree to accuse a believer before an unbeliever'. To betray the Christian Armenian King to the Persians would signify the final surrender of any semblance of political independence. So even though the King may be `sinful' and ineffectual, betraying him to the Persians would lead to `these wretches becoming the judges of our Church' and thus place Armenian fortunes in foreign hands. Fending off further Persian intervention in Armenian affairs Sahak pleads for loyalty to the native Armenian leadership: `My sons, for God's sake, do not harbour such intentions, do not act as some of your ancestors acted, in a manner that will destroy your native leaders.' Sahak did not prevail and in 428AD Artashes II was removed and Armenia transformed into a protectorate governed a Persian official (marzban). Having thus disposed of the Armenian throne the Persian powers prepared their decisive assault on the one remaining institution that could seriously obstruct their designs. In 449, in one fell swoop King Hazgherd the Second struck at the very foundations of the Church's economic and social power. Besides demanding that Armenians cease worshiping their Christian God, Hazgherd's edict for the first time subjected the Church to taxation, lifted its broad legal jurisdiction over Armenian domestic affairs and emptied its monasteries that acted as training schools for religious cadres. Pushed through, these measures would have fatally weakened the economic and social foundations of the Church's power and eased the path to eventual Armenian assimilation. c. The Vartanantz Uprising The Armenian Church did not quietly concede. It initiated that great resistance known as Vartanantz, a revolt that combined mass popular uprisings and drawn out military skirmishes all much more significnt that the terminating episode of the 451 Battle of Avarayr. The Church was well prepared for this political-military confrontation. Besides its cultural and political work, it had through the preceding decades also developed an alliance, cemented by marriage, with the Mamikonian family, the doyen of Armenia's military forces. Catholicos Sahak, having no male offspring, had married his daughter to Hamazasb Mamikonian and of this union was born the military commader of the Armenian forces in the Battle of Avarayr - Vartan Mamikonian. Barpetzi's account of the Vartanantz episode is unsatisfactory, replete with significant contradictiions, ambiguities and gaps. It is overwhelmed by theological descriptions of people defending the faith, enduring untold suffering and yearning for an early martyrdom. As a result, and in contrast to Yeghishe's account, the national social and political factors that underlay the conflict rarely surface with any clarity. Yet even in its limited form certain things stand out. Armenian aims are described in essentially spiritual, theological terms. Nevertheless in the early passages of the book Barpetzi has established the political character of the conflict when he explicitly attributes political end to Persian policy. The wider politics of the confrontation are again revealed in the Persian response after the defeat at Avarayr when Hazgherd charges the Church for being: `...the cause of countless ills and responsible for the death of many. If...(it)... had been responsible for the deaths of just two or three people...(it)...would not deserve to survive, let alone...responsibility for the destruction of that great land that is Armenia.'(p233) Ghevond Yeretz, its most vigorous, defiant and uncompromising leader is `the real force behind every one of Vartan's actions and (all) the events that took place in Armenia at the time.' (p243) Indeed without Church prompting and cajoling, Vartan would in imperial estimation have remained a loyal and valuable imperial military commander. But cajoled by the Church he has become a rebel. As retribution Ghevond Yeretz is subjected to the cruelest of tortures. His captors drag `his naked body across rugged and sharp rocks...tearing all skin off his body and chest....separating flesh and bone.' The Persians had good reason to fear Ghevond and his allies. As the uprising in Armenia grew more threatening the Persian state sought a compromise by granting Armenians the freedom to worship. The Church, unlike large portions of the secular nobility, refused to accept what it correctly regarded an essentially shoddy deal. Those rights and privileges that had enabled the Church, despite the termination of the Armenian monarchy, to remain an independent national political power in Armenia had not been restored. So in opposition to a substantial faction of the nobility and despite the collapse of any hope of assistance from Byzantium, the Church leadership persevered with its insurrectionist plans. It had no choice. To submit would have destroyed it as an independent national force transforming it into a Persian-dependent agent of foreign control. d. The guerrilla wars of Vahan Mamikonian Following the Armenian defeat at Avarayr there was no let up in the Persian offensive. Now ruled by corrupt and self-seeking Persian-appointed officials, conditions in Armenia went from bad to worse as `decency vanished, wisdom was lost, bravery was dead and gone and Christianity went into hiding and the once famed Armenian army became an object of ridicule and laughter.' (p269) But in 481 with the land in disarray and amid great chaos Vahan Mamikonian, in alliance with the Church, enters the stage to lead yet another and unprecedented rebellion against the Persian throne. This time conditions were more propitious. Seizing on Persian weakness and on an uprising in Georgia, Vahan Mamikonian launches what can be regarded as the first Armenian guerrilla war against foreign occupation. Barpetzi lionizes Vahan Mamikonian depicting him as both a courageous fighter and brilliant guerrilla tactician. But central to his account is the image of a leader posessed of a powerful sense of national pride and conscious that Armenian aims will best be served by reliance on Armenian forces. Prior to raising the flag of rebellion Vahan Mamikonian in a masterly strategic assessment of Armenian positions advises caution and careful calculation. The revolt is fully justified but Vahan does `not have the confidence to say that it will be successful.' (p289) The Persians are `powerful and audacious' while reliance on Byzantium would be tragic self-deception. Vahan knows well the `deceit of the Greeks' who `swearing solidarity with our forefathers went on then betray them.' (p289) The rebellious Armenian camp nevertheless urges Vahan to take up the mantle: `Having heard all that Vahan Mamikonian had to say...they responded in unison: `All that you said, in a manner that befits your wisdom, you said truthfully and justly. Therefore we do not place our hopes on the Greeks or the Hons...but first and foremost on God's will...and then on pain of our own lives.' (p289). After three years of guerrilla war Persian military commander Shabouh accepts that his forces have been battered as `never before'. Armenian forces frequently consisting only `of ten fighters after attacking 3000 elite imperial soldiers vanish unharmed.' (p375). Even Persian King Beroz acknowledges that `the tactics employed by Vahan are unknown to us today. We recall such accomplishments only in the stories of ancient warriors.' (p379) During some hard-knuckled negotiations Vahan reiterates that these achievements were acts `by Armenians alone'. `No one else' he says `helped us, neither Greek, nor Hon nor any other foreign forces.' The Persian throne therefore seeks an end to the war and an arrangement that will secure as a friendly ally someone capable of doing them such damage. Acknowledging Armenian power, the Persian King in 485 first installs Vahan Mamikonian as leader of all Armenian military forces and subsequently as Governor of Armenia. Thus Armenia reaps the first fruit of self-reliance as it attains a degree of Armenian political autonomy that could become a platform for greater things. III. NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND NATIONAL PRIDE Barpetzi's `History' for all its theological preoccupations reveals a remarkably conscious grasp of nationality and of national dignity. As with Khorenatzi, he offers a conception of nationality that is far broader than the feudal or family domain. Representatives of Armenia's diverse feudal rebellious families when urging Vahan Mamikonian to lead them stress that he stands in the presence of people who are `of your own nation and your own blood'. (p137). While at one level the entire book is cast in terms of a religious conflict pitting Christian against Zoroastrian communities, Barpetzi in a more significant way decidedly subordinates the community of faith to the community of nation. His descriptions and portrayals repeatedly highlight concern with the fortunes not so much of Christians but as of Armenian Christians. The objects of his praise or vilification are not Christians or Zoroastrians but Armenians and Persians. In descriptions of war and battle the combatants are repeatedly defined in terms of their nationality and religion. But then frequently the religious affiliation is discarded. (pp 309, 317, 327). Furthermore, when accounting for Armenian setbacks and defeats Barpetzi points to the Christian Georgians as one of the culprits. (p329) Vahan Mamikonian, needless to say, is also presented as a Christian warrior fighting in defence of faith and Church. But his stature and grandeur are assured primarily through his role as a national, patriotic Armenian warrior. When picturing Armenia in its post-Vartanantz dissarray and decay Barpetzi quotes Beroz repeating a now common slur against Armenians: within the King's empire `the most useless and backward soldiers are the Assyrians...but much worse and more useless are the Armenians.' Barpetzi remarks that `hearing this is enough to make one sigh and to weep'. Vahan Mamikonian responds saying `it would be preferable to die than to hear such remarks from a king.' (p333) In Vahan's wars his daring, his audacity, his enterprise and the risks he takes are designed to secure military and political victories but they also restore Armenian pride and reputation. IV. A BITTER END Despite the victorious conclusion of 481-484 guerrilla war Armenian fortunes faltered and eventually collapsed. The international balance of forces remained deeply unfavourable despite the weakening of the Persian Empire. By the end of the 6th century Armenia was also to confront the expanding Arab imperial ambitions. These were indubitably important factors contributing to the failure of the project of national recovery and revival that the Church inspired in the era of Barpetzi's history. But that which contributed most critically to the collapse of the enterprise is touched on in Vahan Mamikonian's address to the Persian King during their peace negotiations. Rejecting any suggestion that Armenian accomplishments were due to foreign assistance, Vahan stresses additionally that `where we suffered blows and setbacks these were results of our own internal divisions and treacheries.' (p333) Treachery and divisiveness motivated by the sordid struggle of individual feudal estates irrespective of their effect on national fortunes was but one aspect of internal division and weakness. A more debilitating dimension is revealed in the moving accusatory testament that accompanies Barpetzi's actual `History'. It is evident that the progressive and enlightened national, political, cultural and intellectual trend of which Barpetzi was a spokesman did not attain a dominant position within the Armenian elite whether secular or religious. On the contrary. Barpetzi and those who shared a similar outlook were frequently persecuted, prosecuted and hounded from public and intellectual life. Reminding one of the `Complaint' that concludes Khorenatzi , Barpetzi's `Accusation' exposes the enduring power of backward and ignorant internal forces that, in pursuit of their own narrow ends, were ready to bend the knee and collaborate with future oppressors. So a tradition took root that was to be repeated disastrously in the centuries to come right up to the internal life of the Third Armenian Republic. -- 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.