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The Critical Corner - October 19, 2001

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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.)


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

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.'


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:

    ` 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


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.
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.


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
, 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.

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