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Why we should read...

`The Story of Vartanantz'
by Yeghishe
324pp, Housapper Printing House, Cairo, Egypt, 1950

Armenian News Network / Groong
December 30, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian

In recording the 5th century Armenian Church-led revolt against
Persian imperial authority, Yeghishe's `The Story of Vartanantz' is
simultaneously an inspired defence of the right to insurrection
against illegitimate power.  Though written after the decisive
Armenian defeat at the Battle of Avarayr in 451, it reads as an
uncompromising summoning to stand ground, as an invocation against
demoralised surrender and as a proclamation of the righteousness of
the rebels. Yeghishe drives his message home in an amalgam of science
and art, fact and fiction, history and myth, politics and philosophy,
poetry and prose. Deploying his intellectual and philosophical
erudition and his talent for hyperbole, poetic exaggeration and
awesome invectivem he produces an epic drama of defiance and

`The Story of Vartanantz' is not without its shortcomings and flaws,
some of them serious. Most striking is the absence of that broad
conception of nation and nationality that one finds in Barpetzi or
Khorenatzi. Preoccupied with the immediate and narrower interests of
the Church there is little explicit interest in the fortunes of the
state and the nation as a whole. Flowing from this and from Yeghishe's
generally more devout religious approach is the discernible tension
between categorical affirmations of Christian duty to submit to
secular authority and the defence of what is in effect a political
revolt against it.  These and other lapses, as well as some
significant internal inconsistencies deny this work the same universal
and enduring artistic and intellectual value of other contemporary
classics. Yet the volume has a particular value and resonance besides
containing many passages of artistic beauty and riveting narrative
that can be read with pleasure and profit.


For the 5th and 6th century thinker the notion of art for art's sake
was as remote as the most distant and invisible star. It didn't figure
in their consciousness. The `Book', as a treasury and fountain of
knowledge, was a guide to action. It served to inspire reader and
listener `whether priest, prince or plebeian - to understand and cope
with life's diverse problems be they political, social or individual.
Khazar Barpetzi expresses best this classical and fundamentally valid
conception of literature - one that is today the object of so much
disdain. Barpetzi writes in order that:

      `the multitude hearing the story of the virtuous will seek to
      emulate him.  The brave on hearing of the courage of his
      predecessors will multiply his endeavours, bequeathing memorable
      accounts of themselves and of their nation.  As for the lazy and
      good for nothing such stories may inspire positive envy and urge
      them on to self-improvement.'

Less precise, but with poetic colour Yeghishe claimed that the written
work must offer `consolation for loved ones, hope for the hopeful and
encouragement for the brave.'

With such aims in mind and writing only some 50 to 70 years after the
formation of the Armenian alphabet, it is understandable why Yeghishe
and his contemporaries employed that combination of differing literary
and intellectual forms which was to become a distinguishing feature of
classical Armenian literature. The form of exposition was neither
accidental nor was the choice of a particular one at any point in the
text arbitrary. Yeghishe and his contemporaries were addressing a
hugely uneven, intellectually and culturally varied, audience. The
clergy would naturally have been their main readers, studying the book
themselves and reciting it to prince and plebeian.  Yet neither they
nor their audience would be of the same educational standards, share
the same cultural traditions or have the same grounding in philosophical
and political matters. Many would still be only semi-literate, even
more illiterate. Others would be inspired primarily by religious
fervour or mere superstition, most would be totally unfamiliar with
philosophic matters, and others still would have remained within the
influence of pagan intellectual and popular beliefs that remained
widespread. The written work had to meet the levels and expectations
of all.

>From such concerns flows the variagated style and structure of
Yeghishe's `The Story of Vartanantz'. He was no `objective historian',
no `ivory tower' academic or uncommitted artist and poet. He was a
militant and dedicated ideologue of the 5th century Armenian Church,
then at the apogee of its power and the sole national force in
Armenian politics. His entire exposition is therefore a committed
defence of this Church's traditional rights and privileges. In this
sense the work is a passionately partisan political polemic, indeed a
propaganda tract employing all persuasive devices. But at its
foundation is a solid rationalism.

Opening his account Yeghishe underlines the decisive importance of
knowledge.  Repeating the aphorism that `death that is not understood
is truly death, that which is understood is immortality', he adds that
the `evil and misfortune befalls us as a result of ill education.'
Therefore it `is better to be blind of sight than blind of mind. As
the soul is greater than the body so is the mind's grasp broader than
the body's.'  On basis of this rationalism Yeghishe develops a
verifiable framework of historical and political analysis into which
he weaves in a philosophical/theological polemic against
Zoroastrianism (discussed well in Henrik Kaprielian's `History of
Armenian Philosophical Thought', Vol. 1) as well as fiction, poetry,
hagiography, declamation and invective to create additional levels in
single tale of righteous resistance. Such an apparently eclectic
method did not necessarily detract from artistic or intellectual
merit. In skilful hands it could, and did, produce an integrated and
outstanding work whose message in consequence was communicated with
greater vigour and force.


Yeghishe's work opens not with religious declamation but with sober
political analysis. It dissects Persian imperial strategy towards the
Christian communities and nations within its domain. King Hazgherd II
notes with discontent that `Christianity daily expands in all the
areas that he passes through.' (p111) Previously tolerated, these
communities now threaten to become a Fifth Column in the service of
the perennial foe from the west - the hated Byzantium Empire.
Hazgherd's advisers suggest therefore, that if the King were able `to
convert to a single religion all the nations and people within (his)
jurisdiction' he would not only secure his existing borders but also
`succeed in subjugating even the land of the Greeks.'  (p103).

For Hazgherd therefore his campaign to eliminate Christianity from the
Empire is a component of a political battle. Setting about the
business he demands that `all peoples and nations living within my
authority should henceforth cease false worship and come to kneel
before the Sun God and without exception carry out all the required
religious obligations.' (p11).  Simultaneously Hazgherd `issued
instructions to dispossess Christians living within Persia of all
their `property and belonging'(p106). In the process of `this robbery'
Yeghishe remarks that Christians were as a matter of course `also
tortured.' (p102). While `all nations' were subjected to this
`disorder' the Armenian Church was its main target. It was the
`strongest' and included `the most devout', among whom stood out those
`from noble houses.' (p110) Indeed despite the termination of the
Armenian monarchy in 428, the Armenian Church remained an immensely
powerful independent national force that continued to nurture grand
political ambitions.

To subdue the Armenian Church Hazgherd therefore launched a
historically unprecedented assault hoping to deliver it a crushing
blow. Intending to destroy this possible bastion for a resurgent,
independent Armenian state, the Persian King first wisely removed from
the scene the Armenian nobility. They could, in alliance with the
Church present a potential military threat, for even though
subordinated to Persian authority the nobility had retained control of
its own military forces (p101). Having removed this obstacle Hazgherd
and his religious advisors demanded Armenian acceptance of a set of
proposals that effectively dislocated the economic, social and
political power and authority the Church.

If successful, Hazgherd's assault will `transform the Church's
(previous) independence into servitude'. The economic foundations of
the Church were targeted with the imposition, for the first time, of
an enormous burden of taxation. The Church's social power was to be
severely diminished by the withdrawal of its legal jurisdiction over
internal Armenian affairs. Further, imperial edict required the
disbanding of a wide network of monasteries and the subjection of the
clergy to secular authority. To cap it all the Armenian head of
government was replaced by a Persian, and a pagan high priest was
nominated as `judge and jury in the land' in order to `thwart the
glory of the Church.' (pp114-15)

This is the context in which Yeghishe whips up the emotions and
passions against Hazgherd and his religious associates. They are
attacking the very foundations of the Church - the main guardian of
Armenian custom and its newly formed intellectual, cultural
tradition. They are therefore undiluted evil with which there can be
no negotiation.  Thus the Persian King and his allies are as poisonous
snakes and savage beasts (p110), as the devil incarnate (p131) as
violent and bloodthirsty warmongers (p103) full of bile and
venom. Calumny has its rational foundation deriving from a sober
examination of his opponent's role political and military actions.


In confronting such an opponent the Church's response was immediate,
decisive and comprehensive. With its nationwide organisational
apparatus it began organising a nationwide uprising. Following a
number of general meetings: `The bishops returned to their sees and
sent forth (emissaries) to all villages and farms and to the many
fortresses in the mountainous provinces.  They gathered together large
crowds of men and women, plebeian and freeman, priest and monk. They
explained and inspired and transformed all into soldiers for Christ.'

Albeit Church-led, Yeghishe describes the resistance as a broad,
popular, nationwide uprising and insurrection that involved whole
swathes of the population irrespective of class or status. In the
resistance there was `no differentiation between lord and servant,
between delicate freeman and hardy peasant, and none appeared lesser
in bravery.' All were `willing of spirit whether man or woman, old or
young '(p149-50). As the organisation of the uprising progressed `all,
not just brave men, but married women too - were ready for battle,
helmets fitted, swords at their waste and shield on arms.'  (p142)

So vital did the Church regard this clash that later, on the eve of
the Battle of Avarayr Ghevont Yeretz, the principle Armenian leader
and main strategist and tactician of the revolt was to demand a
radical break from tradition: `You all know that in previous times
when you (the nobility) went to war you always retained the clergy
within the army. But at the moment of battle you removed us to some
secure place. However today bishops, elders, priests, psalm singers
and readers, all according to established rules, are armed and ready
and wish to join battle to destroy the enemies of truth.' (p186)

Constituted of such mettle and confident of popular support the Church
leadership launched its counter-offensive. Despite the fact that it
`was not fully aware of the attitude of all Armenia's noble lords nor
fully apprised of the strength of the Persian high-priests' the
leadership directed the populace to `break the heads' of the
Zoroastrian forces and `chase them back to their abodes'. Yeghishe
describes in detail assaults in which Armenians `wrecked and
destroyed' many of the `fortresses and towns that the Persians had
taken control of' (p150) thus `reducing to nothing the orders of his
imperial majesty'.

Bolstered by such successes, and aware of the persisting Persian
ambitions, the Church rightly rejected as deception a desperate
compromise proposal which whilst granting Armenians freedom of worship
did not restore the church its prior power and independence. The dye
was cast for a decisive conflict between an insurgent Armenian Church
backed by the people and a determined Persian empire. Despite
numerical inferiority and `despite having neither King as leader' nor
`any hope of outside (Byzantium) help' the insurgents `did not stand
in dread' of the final battle being confident in the knowledge that
`with God's help a few can do the work of many.' (p154-155)

It is of significance that in his account of resistance and rebellion
Yeghishe repeatedly underlines the critical role played by the
plebeian population. But what would have possessed an educated member
of the feudal elite to treat the lower classes with evident respect?
Perhaps by so telling the tale he hoped to bind potentially hostile
future generations of plebeians closer to the Church. Perhaps it was
an aspect of a theological war against a resurgent paganism. It could
also have been an attempt to secure the loyalty of a substantial,
independent, spirited free peasantry or part of the clergy's
affirmation of its social power against that portion of the secular
nobility not always faithful to Christian dictates.

Whatever the verdict, Yeghishe records clearly the reasons why the
population at large would have supported a campaign orchestrated by a
Church that was little more than another oppressive feudal estate.
Persian authority was detested even more. Their burdensome taxation
was already `collected more in the manner of plundering bandits than a
dignified state'. New ones now threatened to `annihilate the plebeian
farmer' throwing the population into `extreme poverty'. Thus there was
a confluence of interest between the Church and the peasant/plebeian
population in resisting the Persian encroachment that enabled the
Church to emerge as a formidable force in the national revolt against
foreign authority.


For Yeghishe the defeat of the Uprising was neither predestined nor
the result of any unfavourable political-military balance of forces.
Victory could have been secured despite the odds had the Armenians
retained national unity. Until Vartanantz Yeghishe had `no fear of
telling the story of the blows that were heaped upon our nation (by)
our external enemies. Few of them succeeded in defeating us, whilst we
defeated them many times because we then remained united and equal.'

But during the Vartanantz uprising Armenian unity was destroyed by
Vassak Syouni, the Persian appointed Governor of Armenia who broke
ranks by accepting imperial compromise proposals. Vassak's
unpardonable, mortal sin was that he acted as spy, informant and fifth
columnist. It is this, rather than Vassak's religious apostasy that is
primarily held against him. He `separated himself from Armenian ranks'
and `gathered corrupted elements into an (oppositional) military
force'. By informing the Persians of this he exposed `the disunity and
division in the Armenian army.' (p170) These and his other actions
`destabilised and spread confusion throughout the land of Armenia
sowing division and discord between brothers, between father and son
and causing upheaval in a once peaceful land. (p172)

Vassak also communicated more detailed critical military intelligence
to the Persian commanders. He supplied information about `numbers of
troops aligned with Vartan (Mamikonian)', the Armenian armed forces
state of readiness, their morale, their armaments, the numbers
possessing armour, the numbers of infantry and whether they are armed
with bows and arrows or protected by shields (p172-3). All this
enabled the Persians to take appropriate counter-measures and defeat
the insurgents in the decisive Battle of Avarayr.  Thus Yeghishe's
visceral hatred for Vassak. He actively assists absolute evil. He too
therefore is condemned as a venal sycophant deserving to `die like and
dog and rot like a donkey'. Alone the invective would not be
ineffective. But with Yeghishe, Vassak's hateful nature is not an
abstract moral vice but a direct expression of his political

In opposition to the men of evil are the virtuous and faithful Ghevont
Yeretz, Vartan Mamikonian and the scores of martyrs who fought and
died arms in hand at Avarayr. Refusing to make the slightest
concession in the face of the most horrendous torture and inevitable
death they are embodiments of valour, courage, nobility, intelligence
and wisdom. Presented as leaders of an entire people up in arms it is
easy to see how their story came to be a defining feature of modern
Armenian national identity. In the 19th century Armenian revival,
revolutionary intellectuals enthusiastically encouraged the
celebration of the Vartanantz Uprising and against a hidebound Church
sought to make it the property of the emerging secular nationalist and
democratic movement against Ottoman and Tsarist colonial oppression
and injustice.

Many commentators, failing to appreciate the essential unity of its
diverse forms, have missed the central message of `The Story of
Vartanantz'. Eminent historian Hrant K. Armen, focusing on the
religious dimension, presents Yeghishe as something of a wild fanatic
bent on demonising all opposition in defence of theological dogma.
Hagop Oshagan criticises Yeghishe for `not possessing the seriousness
we expect from a historian'. Others have narrowed Yeghishe's work down
to any one of its particular features: a history, an epic poem, an
impassioned moral fable, a devout Christian hagiography etc.  `The
Story of Vartanantz' is of course all of these. But as a unity, with
all its strengths and weaknesses, it is also much more.

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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