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The Critical Corner - 12/31/2004

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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.


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. '

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.


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

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)


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.


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.

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