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Why we should read... 'The Universal History' by Asoghig (456pp, Armenian University, Yerevan, 2000) Armenian News Network / Groong December 31, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian 'So peace and prosperity reigned in our land of Armenia.' (Asoghig, The Universal History) Tenth century historian Asoghig, known also as Stepanos Asoghig of Daron, offers the reader a view of the peak of Bagratouni power and glory. Following Traskhanagerdtzi (The Critical Corner, 1 August 2004) Asoghig takes the story of this new Armenian royal dynasty to the start of the 11th century, to 1004. Like Traskhanagerdtzi Asoghig was also a renaissance man of great eruditionwith an intellectual grasp that was global. There is nothing about him that is provincial or narrow. He places Armenian history in its broader international and regional context that he reconstructs from the earliest times that Armenian and other records allowed. Researching the legacy of Armenian, Greek and other classical histories was for Asoghig akin to 'gathering colourful and aromatic flowers from fields and mountain valleys' for presentation to the 'questioning mind' of his reader. In this three-part history, Parts One and Two trace the flow of events to the end of the Arab occupation of Armenia. The third and most substantial section covers a 117-year period beginning when Ashot Bagratouni ascended the newly re-established Armenian throne in 887. Here Asoghig tells of the final triumph of Armenian power over an Arab Empire in retreat. He records unprecedented social development, economic prosperity and cultural bloom in an era that seemed to promise unending peace and stability, for the elites at least. In contrast to the turbulent and anxious tenor of historians who came before and after, Asoghig's account is stamped with a sense of contentment, even of complacency, that in view of the subsequent rapid collapse of the dynasty prompts critical inquiry. The easy and relaxed temper of 'The Universal History' reflects indeed the short sightedness of secular and religious elites that were blinded to the weakness of Armenian state foundations, perhaps by the shimmer of gold and silver. Asoghig's narrative highlights how early Bagratouni attempts to build a politically centralised state were abandoned by their successors. His work registers the transient, coincidental character of Bagratouni power that proved too weak to withstand the great assaults that were to come from the East. I. THE TRIUMPH OF BAGRATOUNI POWER Taking Traskhanagerdtzi's narrative forward from where it ends in 924 Asoghig shows how Ashot II, initially on the defensive and vulnerable to foreign ambition, having 'declared himself the King of Kings' went on to reverse faltering Bagratouni fortunes by finally 'driving Ismaelite forces from the land of Armenia.' (p220) His brother and successor King Abbas continued consolidating 'the foundations of peace and prosperity' by 'terminating Georgian and Sarmand expeditions into Armenian territories.' (p222) So the new Armenian Crown attained not just nominal but real independence. Hereafter and for a few generations more the Armenian state had at its helm men of calibre and substance. Ashot II who 'acquired the name Ashot Yergat (Ashot - Man of Iron) for bravery and daring' was in no 'need of generals, leading his own troops into battle.' King Abbas though 'of gentle demeanour' was also 'strong and courageous...' So effective was the quality of Armenian power and leadership that in unity with its Georgian peers it was able to fix regional fortunes, naturally to its own advantage, as when 'Armenian King Smbat in collaboration with Georgian Gyouraghabad David appointed Smbat son of Gourgen as King of Abkhazia.' (p311) In an equally significant manifestation of Bagratouni power Asoghig records the beginnings of a process to clear hostile Arab emirates from within Armenian territory when 'after the death of Emir Pad, Armenian Gyouraghabad David laid siege to the town of Manazgerd and deploying fire and sword captured it. He then expelled all the Arabs living there and taking the town under his authority populated it with Armenians and Georgians. ' (p326) Long gone were the days when as a result of foreign offensive Armenia was repeatedly: 'reduced to ruin and desert, with towns destroyed, villages reduced to rubble, the (people) dispersed, and other ... people speaking other tongues becoming native to our land.' (218) Now safe from external depredation Armenian social, economic and cultural life began to rise to new heights. II. THE AGE OF CONTENTMENT Virtually every chapter in Part Three of 'The Universal History' is laden with images of riches, of social progress, economic development and cultural flourish. The face of the land was altering and always for the better. During the reigns of Ashot I and Smbat I 'farms grew into villages and villages became towns supporting large populations and possessing untold wealth. Now even shepherds and cattle hands were dressed in silk cloaks.' (p211) Bolstered by the 'successful development of foreign affairs' this was an age of 'plentiful bread and wine' (p312) As an expression of elite wealth, status and ostentatious consumption throughout Armenia new churches were built using the most advanced technologies of the age. Church altars and religious vestments were embedded with luxurious gems, with silver and with gold. The Church built by Catholicos Khachig in the village of Arkina in 997 had a 'structure cut from stone ... with domedstatues...and with altars that were heavenly, beautifully and delicately decorated, covered with cloths woven in with golden thread and bearing all variety of gold and sliver ornaments....' (p237) In the same period 'the new protective wall' built around the town of Ani was 'both longer and higher than the old one' with its 'gates made from pine and reinforced with metal shafts... (p240) Being a substantial beneficiary of the 'plentiful bread and wine' the Church experienced a 'multiplication and expansion of its ranks', one that called for the construction 'in diverse places of many new monasteries ... ' (p224) Though the bulk of the clergy lived parasitically, its best elements contributed to the culture of the times helping to establish scores of new centres of learning that produced priests who 'possessing a mastery of the Lord's word' were able 'to preach the truth'. This age produced 'men such as Philosopher Samuel who was not just wise but also a gifted singer and musician'. In 'Kharpert province Father Moses built a monastery ... whose beautiful buildings housed a large congregation of learned men...' In these times too 'the monastery of Narek was built ... (also) inhabited by accomplished musicians and ... men of letters.' (p225-230) It was this monastery that was to produce the undisputed master of Armenian poetry - Krikor of Narek. The secular and Church nobility if only to secure plebeian reconciliation to the elite's flamboyant consumption offered something of a minimal social welfare service for the poorest. Ashot II 'peaceable by nature' 'excelled all his predecessors in his modesty and charity ... ' (p232) King Gagik was notonly 'wise and an expert in war' he was 'generous in giving and in numerous places relieved people' of taxes. The Church besides contributing through its regular welfare work also 'built places of rest for travellers and even for foreigners'. Asoghig must surely have felt that God was looking kindly on his Armenian flock for the time about which he writes was, as if 'according to the word of the prophet', a time when 'every person could rest easy beneath his grapevine and fig tree.' (211) III. THE ACHILLES HEEL OF BAGRATOUNI GLORY This enormous accumulation of wealth combined with relative peace and political stability served however to cover over a serious flaw at the foundation of the new Armenian state. In Asoghig there is no trace of the urgent plea for political unity around the Bagratouni throne that closed Traskhanagerdtzi's 'History'. Asoghig offers no accounts of Bagratouni struggles to centralisepower through the subordination of the other Armenian feudal estates. During his time there were none. With Ashot Yergat it appears that earlier efforts in that direction are abandoned. 'The Universal History' takes for granted the existence of independent Armenian feudal estates in Vasbourakan, Syounik and Kars. After a period of Bagratouni struggle to unify them Asoghig's narrative describes an era of harmony and collaboration as when King Smbat's forces 'along with those of Georgia and Vasbourakan, Syounik and Aghvank came together to confront Abkhaz troops.' (p312) With Asoghig the politically independent coexistence of several Armenian feudal estates, even though they belonged to the same Church, spoke the same language and shared a common history, is presented as a natural and even inviolable phenomenon that warranted no adverse judgment or moral stricture. For each leader of these principalities Asoghig offers criticism and praise with no comment on their relation to the Bagratouni Dynasty. Ashoghig's account of the principalities bordering the Bagratouni kingdom indicates that the era of peace and prosperity spread across the whole of Armenia. Speaking of Abbas King of Kars he writes that after a delinquent youth 'on becoming King, Abbas proved to be a talented and wise man, in fact the first among the wise.' 'Everywhere within his domain' he 'initiated charitable works and put an end to banditry and the slave trade.' As in the Bagratouni Kingdom here too people engaged in productive 'construction and labour' and were 'able to walk abroad, day or night, even in deserts ... as if they were in palaces.' (p249-50). In similar vein compliments are showered on King Senekerim of Vasbourakan who also 'eradicated looting and slavery and prohibited illegaltaxation' in his estate (p343) (Speaking of these independent Armenian principalities it is worth reiterating that a proper and comprehensive history of 9-11th century Armenia must account for the Kingdoms of Kars, Vasbourakan and Syounik in addition to that of the Bagratouni. Here 10th century Tovma Ardzrouni's 'History of the House of Ardzroun' and Stepanos Orbelian's 13th century 'History of Syounik' are immensely valuable primary sources. Tovma Ardzrouni's work is of particular value for its detail on the character, extent and role of Arab settlements in Armenia.) Renowned historian Hagop Manantian noting that Ashot I used 'both force and diplomacy in efforts to subordinate ... other noble houses' adds that his successors abandoned this policy. They were Manantian comments 'content to remain within their own territories where they worked to extend their moral authority. (Works, Volume B, p600-607). Here Manantian offers no explanation for this change but suggests elsewhere that Armenian political fragmentation was an inevitable and almost insurmountable reflection of unbridgeable geographical fragmentation. Reminding one of some of the arguments advanced for the existence of so many separate Greek states in classical antiquity Manantian argues that the political boundaries of Armenian feudal principalities were similarly shaped by the fact of geographical/territorial units isolated from each other by insurmountable natural barriers. Reflecting these natural divisions, it was'only natural' he argues 'that Armenian feudal houses sought in every possible way to defend their particular territorial and princely prerogatives.' In these circumstances attempts to politically unify them 'confronted impossible difficulties.' (Manantian, Works, Volume C, p14-15) Natural conditions did contribute to the strength and obstinacy of centrifugal tendencies. But they do not explain historically why Ashot Yergat's successors chose to discard their predecessor's centralising ambitions. Here an important role was played by the decline of Arab power in Armenia and by Ashot Yergat's routing of the Adrbadagan Emirate. Now, in contrast to the early Bagratouni period, unity and centralisation did not impose themselves as pre-conditions for political survival and prosperity. The Armenian feudal establishments freedom from the immediate threat of plunder and devastation and the prospect of long-term peace and stability served to weaken the impulse for unity and centralisation. Underlining the abandonment of earlier policy was the fact that no systematic attempt was made to uproot hostile imperial Arab settlements within Armenia. In the 'Universal History' these are taken for granted, treated as permanent parts of the political and demographic topography. Even the Church, traditionally the most forceful proponent of Armenian unity found its voice muffled as it feasted on rich dishes at the table of plenty. In Asoghig one finds none of the traditional Church criticism of Armenian disunity that was historically deemed inimical to the fortunes state and Church. In conditions of relative peace and political stability the Church found it easy to administer its estate that stretched across feudal borders. So it too became indifferent to the project propounded so passionately by Traskhanagerdtzi. Only later, after the destruction Bagratouni Armenia, is the call for a centralised state taken up again by men like Mekhitar Kosh. For all its indubitable accomplishments, Armenian power in the 10 and 11th centuries remained only relative to Arab decline. It did not express an intrinsic, deeply rooted strength that would be capable of withstanding assault from vigorous and dynamic imperial forces. Division across four and more principalities arrested the development of a state that would be more powerful than all its separate individual parts, even in their moments of closest collaboration. Political fragmentation also impeded social cohesion and the consolidation of firm and broad economic foundations. Thus the Bagratouni dynasty and the other principalities remained open to internecine conflict and foreign manipulation. Bagratouni power may have been sufficient to withstand frequent assault from minor Caucasian antagonists but its foundations did not survive the pounding hooves of the cavalry from the further east. So it was that Asoghig's followers were to record the rapid decline and bloody fall of the Bagratouni dynasty. IV. A WEIGHTY ADDITION TO THE CLASSICAL CATALOGUE Asoghig's 'Universal History' offers a great deal more on the political, cultural and intellectual life of the time. Historians of Armenian architecture in particular, cannot but rely on Asoghig's sometime remarkably knowledgeable and detailed descriptions of Church structures and their internal and external ornamentation. 'The Universal History' is additionally a valuable primary source on the contemporary history of the Armenian Church containing a great deal on the genealogy of its leadership as well as its internal organisation andits theological outlook. Through the volume the reader can sense the author's pride in the consciousness and knowledge that Armenians - in this instance the secular and Church nobility - had their own long and continuous history. In Asoghig's vision the Bagratouni ascendancy was no accidental or arbitrary occurrence. This 'third of Armenian royal dynasties' was the honourable successor to the pre-Christian Haykazians and the Christian Arshagounis. Tracing the origins of the Bagratouni estate to the glory days of pre-Christian Armenian history Asoghig shows them ascending the dynastic throne in the 9th century carrying triumphal wreathsfrom their predecessors. Conscious of this Armenian heritage and identity (of course conceived theologically, and so substantially differently from our own) Asoghig expresses sharp disapproval of Byzantine policy that he considered full of contempt for the Armenian nobility. Condemning its unceasing efforts to bend the Armenian Church to Byzantine power he spoke for a clergy that was both confident and able to organise its own defence. Asoghig also has something to say about Armenian-Georgian state and Church relations, offering important hints about national tension despite accounts of their collaboration. For all this and even more Asoghig's 'Universal History' remains an ever-fresh and generous inhabitant of the rich library of Armenian classical writing. -- 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.