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The Critical Corner - 07/28/2003

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Why we should read...

'The Life of Mashtots' by Goryoun
Armenian State Publishers, 180pp.
Yerevan, 1962.

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 28, 2003

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Without the Armenian alphabet that was developed by Mesrop Mashtots in
the opening decade of the 5th century it is highly unlikely that
Armenians would have survived with their distinct cultural tradition
and national identity. This 'Life of Mesrop Mashtots' by his pupil
Goryoun, written sometime between 443 and 451AD, is therefore a unique
document. Besides being the sole contemporary account of Mesrop's
work, containing most of what we know about him, it is also the very
first extant original text composed with the new Armenian script.

Mesrop Mashtots was a striking figure, a man of phenomenal talent and
dedication. Prior to joining the ranks of the Church he was a highly
regarded secular official with the Armenian Crown, respected for his
'grasp of the secular order' and 'admired for his military skills.'
But only after becoming a priest did this evidently erudite and
awesomely energetic man embark on his stupendous cultural,
intellectual and educational mission that was initiated by the Church
and endorsed by the then Armenian King Vramshabouh.

Goryoun's dramatic descriptions of Mesrop's linguistic, translating
and educational efforts convey well the man's vision, enthusiasm and
determination.  They also record the different stages of the hard,
rigorous and demanding work that led to the formation of the alphabet
and to the training of a group of professional translators and
teachers. Whilst giving pride of place to Mashtots, Goryoun recognises
the broad, collective nature of the venture and commends the
contribution of other intellectual figures.

The driving purpose behind the elaboration of the alphabet was the
Armenian Church's attempt to create cultural and intellectual
foundations for its independence. There was an urgent need for
these. The leadership of the Armenian Church was engaged in constant
battle to fend off the rapacious ambitions of Greek, Assyrian and
Persian religious powers greedily eyeing the Armenian Church's wealth
and status. Once fashioned, the results that flowed from the existence
of an independent Armenian script had significance far broader than
its initiators could ever have imagined.

There is something quite striking however in Goryoun's biography. Both
before and following Mashtots's work the Armenian Church was one of
the foremost Armenian institutions vested with enormous political,
economic and social power.  In the absence of a powerful and
centralised secular monarchy the Church remained the only genuinely
national Armenian force with a strategy that defined clear state and
political ambitions. Work on the alphabet was a critical component of
this strategy. Yet there is little reflection of this in Goryoun's
volume. It has a decidedly different emphasis to other works of the
Golden Age of Armenian classical literature. Unlike Barpetzi,
Khorenatzi and even the more pious Yeghishe, Goryoun gives little hint
of the political or national concerns that inspired Mashtot's work.

In Goryoun, Mashtots appears primarily as a passionate apostle of
Christianity who dedicated his life to converting both Armenians and
non-Armenian alike.  Despite his experience in the Armenian Royal
Court he is presented as more or less devoid of political views or
national ambitions and seems to be motivated solely by the desire to
'secure a Christian salvation for the people'. He is propelled by 'the
endless heartache and sadness' he feels 'for his brothers and
nationals' whose faith is vulnerable for being administered in
incomprehensible foreign languages.

Ghazar Barpetzi in contrast frames his 'History of the Armenians'
directly and explicitly in terms of political, state and national
concerns. Here the creation of the alphabet is seen as part of the
process of the Armenian Church affirming its national identity, its
national independence and its readiness to resist foreign, external
attempts to subordinate it.  Barpetzi's Mesrop is a national and
political activist albeit a dedicated Christian missionary too.  In
Goryoun the context appears at first sight exclusively religious.
Mesrop battles to defeat not foreign or external threats but to
annihilate internal Armenian foes. He does not shy away from resort to
'the painful whip' and to the 'use of severe measures', 'imprisonment',
'torture', 'beating' and humiliation.' But this is directed against
Armenian religious dissenters, not foreign invaders.

Goryoun can be read to suggest that Mesrop regarded his membership of
the Armenian Church as incidental, his nationality secondary and his
mission international. 'Throughout his entire life', through 'winter
and summer, through night and day' Goryoun writes, Mesrop laboured
'unceasingly and fearlessly'. This labour was significantly dedicated
to spreading the word of Jesus Christ to 'all regions', be it
'Armenia, Georgia or Albania (Aghvank)'. To facilitate this
international evangelism Mesrop, according to Groyoun, even developed
alphabets for the Georgians and Albanians. With the same passion and
enthusiasm he established training centres - monasteries, schools and
desert retreats - in Armenia, Georgia and Albania.

Given that Mesrop was a conscious and militant activist of the
Armenian Church propelled by the desire to resist foreign religious
intervention, one is prompted to ask why Goryoun wrote the book in
this apparently apolitical fashion.  An answer is suggested by Manoug
Abeghian in a lengthy introduction to his translation of the
biography. Abeghian argues that whilst aware of the social and
political significance of Mashtots's cultural work, Goryoun considered
it, in the circumstances, unwise to be explicit about its broader
national and political aims.

During Mashtots's life-time, and Goryoun's, the Assyrian Church still
wielded substantial power in Armenia. Openly declaring the Armenian
Church's political ambitions before completing the work of creating an
alphabet and an educated and conscious cadre would invite a head-on
confrontation in which the Armenians could suffer disadvantage. So in
the first period they worked away quietly, dedicated apparently to
nothing more than the spread of the word of Christ.

But this work, seemingly little more than to bring the word of Christ
to the people, was ipso facto setting the foundation stones for an
independent national Armenian church. In support of his argument
Abeghian quotes Goryoun writing that he was 'unable to tell the whole
story' and had to limit himself to 'the easy part' - that is, to
Mashtots's purely 'apostolic work'. But a few decades later, with the
task accomplished, Yeghishe, Barpetzi, Khorenatzi are confident enough
to give explicit expression to the national and political dimension of
the Armenian Church's endeavours.

This thesis of course immediately prompts some other questions about
the role of the Armenian Church and its leadership. If Mashtots's main
concern was indeed the Armenian Church's national and political needs,
how is one to then explain his passion for converting Georgians and
Albanians? Was this perhaps an incipient expression of the Armenian
Church's own ambitions beyond Armenian borders. Or perhaps Mashtots
worked among Armenian communities in Georgia and Albania. Neither
suggestion is beyond reason.

The Armenian Church, despite its fragile foundations and despite the
collapse of an independent Armenian secular state, remained a regional
force, with its powerful ambitions that had to be reckoned with.
Yeghishe, for example, in his 'History of Vartanantz' outlines
imperial Persian concern about the strength and potential threat posed
by the Armenian Church, arguing that it was precisely to destroy this
power that Persian Emperor Hazgherd set upon that train of events
that produced the Armenian resistance remembered as the Vartantanz
War. Needless to say the work done by Mashtots and his colleagues in
creating an educated and militant Armenian clergy contributed
enormously to making the eminently political and national Vartanantz
resistance that much more stubborn, confident and vigorous.

Besides its enormous historical value, this little volume with its
depiction of dedication and commitment to a cause and a collective aim
offers a conception of intellectual activity that needs reaffirming in
these days of individual narcissism. Both in opening and concluding
his story Goryoun emphasises that it is 'not written for the sake of
praise or glorification' but 'so that it serves as an example and
rule' for others to learn from and emulate.

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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