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The Critical Corner - 05/26/2008

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Why we should read...

`The Chronicle' by Mateos Ourhayetzi
(376pp, Armenian University, Yerevan, 1973)

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

May 26, 2008

                         `That was the end of the land of the Armenians'
                                           (Ourhayetzi, Chronicles, p99)

Mateos Ourhayetzi's (circa1050 - circa1144) `The Chronicle' accounts for
nearly two centuries of Armenian history - 952 AD - 1137 AD - and
reconstructs an age of destructive transition from the collapse of the
Bagratouni dynasty to the subsequent ruination of historical Armenia.
Beyond this Ourhayetzi also traces the rise of new Armenian
principalities in Cilicia from which there emerged later a new Armenian
monarchy. Here he takes us aback with a unique and damning evaluation of
the role of Christian Crusaders against the Armenians and in the region
as a whole. The entire accomplishment is of the first order - accurate,
enlightening, written sometimes with artistic flourish and revealing a
profound modernity of political vision. 

The first major Armenian historian writing in the Diaspora, Ourhayetzi
is expert in his diagnosis of the internal Armenian degeneration that he
considered to be the primary cause for the crumbling of the Armenian
monarchy. He stuns us with a withering denunciation of Byzantine power
for its debilitating of an already foundering the Armenian State. But he
is refreshing for avoiding attribution of responsibility for Armenian
misfortune to foreign powers. In his exposition the success of foreign
aggression is not the cause but a consequence of the corrosion and decay
of the Armenian State and elite. He examines both in order to draw
lessons for the future.

Ourhayetzi was a man of the Armenian 12th century. His analysis, his
conclusions and his vision for the future are couched in terms of his
Christian faith and its dogma. But his theological categories are
without exception weighted with solid social and historical content. So
`The Chronicle' contains, besides a sure grasp of the inner causes of
Armenian failure, an authentically contemporary comprehension of the
essence of power, politics and war as they feature in the history of
nations and in international relations. `The Chronicle' attains a
pinnacle in the outline of political, military and social pre-conditions
that define what Ourhayetzi considered a virtuous political state, one
capable of withstanding domestic decay and resisting external threat.

Written in an age of endless war and of stubborn struggles for dynastic
or national survival, a forceful message still resounds from `The
Chronicle'. For Armenians to survive they must be self-reliant and
independent and the only path towards genuine self-reliance, power and
independence is the well-ordered, virtuous political state. 


The decline of imperial Arab power from the 9th century onwards afforded
Armenian feudal houses the opportunity to reassert a degree of
independence, to reduce the burden of Arab taxation and so enjoy greater
wealth and power for themselves. Among them the ancient Bagratounis
proved to be the strongest and emerged at the head of the new Armenian
monarchy. Thus when Bagratouni Ashot-Gagik ascended the throne `as the
first among the kings' (see note 1) of the Armenian nation:

    `There was great rejoicing throughout Armenia because people were
    witness to the re-establishment of the Kingdom of the Armenian
    nation as it had been in the time of their ancestors.' (p3)

Acutely aware of the relationship between political and military power
Ourhayetzi adds that:

`Their (the people's) joy was perfect because the crowned king was the
brave Gagik, an energetic and fighting man. On the day of his coronation
there took place the parade of his 100,000 most outstanding, brave and
vigorous soldiers who during war fought like the offspring of lions and
eagles'. Their reputation spreading through neighbouring lands, the
kings of all the peoples sent gifts and promises of friendship to the
Armenian king.' (p3)

This re-emergence of an independent Armenian state is placed by
Ourhayetzi in its regional and even global context that was however not
at all favourable. Also seizing the opportunity of Arab retreat was a
resurgent Byzantine state that was waging war to regain its predominant
influence in Asia Minor. Ourhayetzi quotes a letter from Byzantine
Emperor Chmshkik to Armenian King Ashot that charts the Emperor's
confident advance. Stretching relentlessly eastward the arm of Byzantine
power reached Armenia. Armenians may have been Christians sharing with
the Greeks a common interest in pushing back Arab power. But this did
not spare them the blows of the Byzantine military bludgeon or the venom
of its inquisitorial religious brigades. 

With an eye on Armenia's wealth, its strategic position and fearful of
an Armenian state as a competitor, no Byzantine Emperor would ever
countenance an independent Armenian monarchy. In the case of one
Emperor, Monomakh, Ourhayetzi writes that having obtained the
collaboration of Armenian notables:

    `The seed of evil budded in his heart - the elimination of the
    Armenian monarchy.' (p62)

The removal of Armenian secular power alone would not however suffice
for the Greek Empire. It would still have to contend with a substantial
challenger in the form of the Armenian Church possessing impressive
status and authority, vast wealth and estates and lead by a stubborn and
educated cadre. So: 

    `Emperor Toukitz took a nefarious decision: he determined to
    remove and destroy Saint Gregory's holy seat from Armenia.'(p90)

In 1040 Byzantine Emperor Michael `mobilised his forces, passed
through Armenia and by means of sword and enslavement wrecked it.'
(p56) `Lacking military leadership' many Armenian provinces `had
little choice but to submit to the Greeks.' (p57) But at the gates of
Ani the Bagratouni capital, Michael suffered a terrible defeat.
Nevertheless the ceaseless Byzantine assault eventually exhausted the
Armenian monarchy. Waiting ready to pounce were invaders from further
east who:

    `...ere convinced that under Byzantine domination the entire land
    of Armenia would be leaderless and defenceless as the Greeks had
    removed the brave and the powerful men from the east and hoped to
    rule Armenia and the whole of the East with minor forces.' (p68)

And so began an assault that `step by step, from year to year destroyed
and reduced East to ruin (p69) and led to `the destruction of the
Armenians'. The description of the attack on the city of Ardzn defines
the character of the devastation. `Tears prevented' Ourhayetzi telling
of `the slaughter of princes and priests who remained unburied, their
corpses becoming feed for beasts' while noble women and their children
were driven into slavery in Persia.' (p69). Arjesh, Meledina, Sebastia
(then home for the Armenian Ardzrouni estate that had relinquished to
Byzantine its historical Vasbourakan province), Baghin, Ani and
Manazgerd all fell victim to ferocious Persian, Arab, Turkish and other
military offensives. 

In 1064 `the entire land of Armenia was flooded with blood, put to the
sword and enslaved.' (p96) Conquerors `mercilessly slaughtered the
entire population' of one city `mowing it down like fresh grass and
heaping bodies as if piles of stones. (p99). `Men from the noble orders
were stacked like forest wood (p88)'. `Everything was dipped in blood'
as `the hooves of Turkish horses wore down the hills and the mountains'.
`Putrid odours from vast numbers of corpses spread and enveloped the
land' (p92). The killing was followed by the `looting of gold, of silver
and of other precious stones'. Then there was the `enslavement of men
women, boys and girls' (p89) who were driven off `in flocks, like masses
of birds' (p93) while yet more dead `priests, monks, church leaders and
princes' `became feed for beasts and birds' (p95). Then

    `At the beginning of 1080... the Christian world was afflicted by
    a terrible famine. The reason for this was the bloody and vicious
    Turkish population that spread through the whole area leaving not
    a single province in peace. The lands of all the Christian
    (nations) were subjected to the sword and the people reduced to
    slavery. The land's agricultural equipment was destroyed, bread
    became in short supply, the labourer and the artisan were either
    slain or driven into slavery... Many provinces were depopulated...
    as thousands and tens of thousands got up and left...' (p142-143)

Thus was eliminated the very condition and infrastructure of social
life: the land's productive capacity and its labour force either
slaughtered or driven into exile. With the last Armenian monarch dead in
the same year (p145) this was also the end of the reign of the
Bagratouni Monarchy. Describing this Ourhayetzi rages against the
Byzantine Empire. The Greeks are condemned as `brothers' of Turks who
also inflicted `terrible punishments' on Armenians (p74-75). In one
outburst he writes: 

    `In consequence of being left leaderless by their supposed
    protectors, those spineless and a-moral Greeks...(the Armenians)
    suffered at the hands of the infidel and bloodthirsty Turkish
    soldiery. The Greeks systematically removed brave soldiers from
    Armenia, cut them off from their homes and their provinces and
    destroyed the Armenian monarchy.  They destroyed the bastions of
    the land - its soldiers and its generals.  Flight never to return
    became the hallmark of Greek...courage. They were like the bad
    shepherd who flees on seeing a wolf. The Greeks succeeded in one
    thing.... They destroyed Armenia's powerful battlements...' (89)

So incensed is Ourhayetzi that he never misses an opportunity to
attack Byzantine, in relation to Armenia and Armenians or otherwise
(p74, 77, 90, 145 et al). But this is only the preliminary, solid core
of this outstanding Chronicle: its depiction of essential components
for a strong and stable state and a healthy social organism.


Ourhayetzi wrote his chronicles to draw lessons from history `for the
benefit of future generations'. He had glimpsed signs of Armenian
recovery, though not in historical Armenia. In Cilicia Armenian estates
were successfully holding their own in a melee of war, conquest and
expropriation. Ourhayetzi felt it necessary to caution the new leaders
so that: 

    `...when the good times come, when God in times to come gives the
    believers that which he has promised, gifts them joyful days...
    this generation will not forget the terrible consequences of the
    disastrous sins of our fathers.' (p183-184)

Knowledge of history can help prevent such forgetfulness. It enables one
to `constantly recall and think about the terrible punishment' that will
be meted out if we transgress. But to avoid `punishment' it is also
`imperative' that we `heed God's advice, always and without exception'.
Heeding God's advice was the living of a virtuous life. 

Being a devout Christian Ourhayetzi draws historical lessons from
history conceived of as a relationship between man and his maker.
History is a complex of events that flow from human obedience to or
defiance of Divine will. Obedience has its reward and defiance its
inevitable punishment. But these concepts are not narrowly metaphysical
or exclusively theological. Obedience, defiance, reward and punishment
appear also as categories that describe social and political advance or
retreat, flourish or decay. They become synonymous for historical cause
and consequence. Ourhayetzi believed in life after death, in eternal
paradise for the virtuous or hellfire for the sinner. But he also
believed in social vice the punishment for which is social catastrophe,
a living hell on earth. Obedience on the other hand also consisted of
keeping a well-ordered state and is rewarded by stability, peace and
prosperity on earth.

As he goes about his historical diagnosis of Armenian sin and his
prescription for virtue Ourhayetzi's work is at its most perceptive
and modern. Here Byzantine treachery and the destruction of Armenia
appear as a consequence of, a `punishment' for the `innumerable flood'
of Armenian sins (p74, 127) that is detailed as the social and
political degeneration of the Armenian secular and religious
leadership. It is this leadership's corruption and irresponsibility
that is the primary cause of the political debility that left the
Armenian State so vulnerable to external aggression. Ourhayetzi's
diagnosis achieves most condensed expression in two prophetic speeches
by Hovanness Gouzern.

In his first speech made in 1023 Gouzern had predicted a plague of
corruption and degeneration among the Armenian elite. 

    `Princes shall unite with thieves, bandits and plunderers. Judges
    will become venal and receive bribes and issue unjust
    sentence... There will come to the fore those who hate learning,
    the windbags, the denigrators and the accusers... Monks will
    abandon their refuge and their monastery and indulge in worldly
    life wandering the streets and mingling among women...' (p35)

Secular and spiritual leaders stand accused of preparing to abandon
social and spiritual responsibility for selfish gain and private

    `The princes in addition...will travel along the incorrect
    path. Leaving to one side the task of keeping the home in good
    stead and abandoning the worries of completing a job successfully
    they will become drunkards....The fathers of the Church, the
    Bishops, priests, monks will be more money loving than
    god-loving... and will deliver deeper wounds to Lord Jesus than
    the Jews who tortured and crucified him. (p35)

The second speech, delivered seven years later, repeats these charges
claiming further that `kings, princes and spiritual leaders will sully
the land' and will:

    `Trample over the rights of the labourer...(They) will unjustly
    seize the labourer's property and pass merciless judgement against
    them.' (p47)

Albeit indirectly, albeit by their opposite Ourhayetzi here advances in
clear terms qualities that define a virtuous political state, qualities
not possessed by the Armenian leadership. The Armenian State lacks
upright and incorruptible political leaders. It lacks an educated and
enlightened intelligentsia or an honest judicial system. Armenian
leaders do not possess commitment to a minimal degree of social
solidarity necessary for the cohesion of the entire state. 

Always conscious that political power rested on military might
Ourhayetzi also takes the Armenian elite to task for lacking the will
and ability to sustain an effective and disciplined military force. It
displays stubborn refusal to undertake the modernisation of military
technique (p31) and after King Ashot's death it even `began to hate the
art of war'. This hatred in turn manifested itself as loss of
independent spirit and an `acceptance of servitude to Byzantine' (p53).
Indifference to military matters in Armenia was an element of a wider
and `steady decline of military capability among the believers
(Christian)' throughout the region (p183). Ourhayetzi in addition
reveals the Armenian elite's lack of loyalty to the land. Though it was
Byzantine policy to expel the nobility from Armenia, the latter happily
accepted transfer to foreign pastures' (p32-3) so long as these offered
them a modicum of material luxury.

The positive implied in these passages is underlined by other explicit
definitions of virtuous leadership as qualities of `justice, bravery,
generosity, assistance for widows, orphans and the poor (p3, p43) as
well as military chivalry and courage. Greed for private gain,
uncontrolled exploitation of the population, indifference to military
affairs and disregard for laws for social solidarity would surely sap
state power and social cohesion. It would undermine the inner strength a
nation or state needed in times of perpetual wars and foreign
aggression. Without such inner strength, without independent power,
without the ability to fend for itself no state and especially no
Armenian State could survive.

Ourhayetzi had reason to warn his contemporaries. The new Armenian
monarchy in Cilicia would have to resist Arabic, Persian, Turkish or
Kurdish emirates. But even though Christians, Armenians could never
depend upon Christian powers, among them the recently arrived Crusaders
from Europe who proved as avaricious and anti-Armenian as any other


Ourhayetzi's `Chronicle' does not contain a finished evaluation of the
Crusades. His appreciation fluctuates as he follows their trail through
Cilicia and the Middle East. But the overall verdict is unmistakable `
initial illusions of the Crusaders as Christian saviours is shattered by
their violent and conquering behaviour and by their plunder of all
irrespective of nationality or religion. 1097 was a year of illusion:

    `The whole of Italy and Spain, from Africa to deepest France all
    moved...  Each (Crusading European prince) with their armed forces
    journeyed to help the Christians, to free the holy city of
    Jerusalem from the hands of foreigners, and to liberate the tomb
    of Christ (p166).'

However as time passed judgement becomes stern and damning. The
Crusaders, as predatory as any other Christian Byzantine or Muslim power
appear as a calamity. `Instead of coming to the aid of believers they
became the cause of their destruction (p210).' 

The latter part of `The Chronicle' is a catalogue of Crusader greed,
plunder, torture, maiming and slaughter. With `huge forces they went to
Samossad and looted homes that were outside the city walls' (p171).
Attacking the town of Serouj they `slaughtered all its inhabitants,
looted the city and drove countless boys, girls and women to Ourha.' As
Crusade controlled territories were `filled`by the men and women they
had `enslaved' Serouj itself `was flooded in blood.' (p182). Besides its
wars against Muslims the Crusaders `ruthlessly exploited Christians,
subjecting them to poverty and plunder (p188).' Frequently their
brutality drove local Christians into alliances with Muslim powers.
(p201) After a period of competence the leadership of the Crusaders
`passed into the hands of good for nothings' who `driven by an intense
lust for money' set about `the persecution and robbery of Christians

In Ourha the Crusaders resorted to `blinding' people `and readily
spilt innocent blood.' They even had the temerity to `attempt to gouge
out the eyes of the Armenian archbishop. (p20)' In 1113 they brought
`huge trials upon the people of Ourha. `There was not an evil deed'
that they `did not commit against the populace (p218).' Their
behaviour was marked in addition by petty and vicious nastiness. In an
`unworthy act' Crusaders `mix excreta into bread' that they then offer
to their enemies. In Jerusalem they attempted to remove Armenians,
Greeks, Assyrians and Georgians from their sites worship. (p182)
Ourhayetzi also displays a quiet contempt for the Crusaders' military
incompetence.  Certainly there are brave men among them, but arrogance
has made them overconfident and so easy prey for their enemies.

There is in addition to all this the description of Crusader violence
against Armenian, a striking instance being when: 

    `Count Bakhtin declared war against Armenian prince Vassil who had
    inherited Gogh Vassils principality...(Bakhtin) brutally tortured
    and murdered the brave man and mighty warrior and seized control
    of this entire province removing the Armenian principality. (p225)'

    `He eliminated all the Armenian principalities, more consistently
    than the Persians. Remnants of those Armenian princes who had
    survived the violence of the Turkish nation he transformed into
    persecuted refugees.  (p226)

The mark of guilt that Ourhayetzi stamps on the Crusaders is underlined
by the contrasts between detailed and concrete descriptions of their
violence and the virtual absence or at best tepid recommendation of
their virtue, a virtue furthermore that pales before the fulsome praise
that is on occasion extended to various Muslim princes. 

Ourhayetzi's work could supply fine supplements to Amin Mahlouf's
comprehensive and damning indictment in his `The Crusades Through Arab


Mateos Ourhayetzi was unquestioning in his Christian faith and was
loudly proud of his Armenian identity. He delights in the erudition and
intellectual prowess of Armenian philosopher-priests who uphold the
canon and defend the Church against Byzantine. He narrates with glad
enthusiasm cases of Armenian revenge against Byzantine humiliation of
Armenians that had become habitual. Yet he was above any petty, ignorant
or fundamentalist blindness to reason and truth. He did not judge with
ready-made opinions. Neither did he utter prefabricated denunciations.
He treated history seriously, approaching it with a rational and
investigative mind. For his Chronicle, he undertook `taxing and time
consuming research' `critically scrutinising' `eyewitness accounts and
studying the works of the ancient historian' and then `submitting his'
results `to exacting examination' by those more learned than himself.
(p74 and 185)' 

The result is an account free of religious or national prejudice. It
is free equally of the hypocrisy that oozes from our contemporary
politicians and mogul media. War, whether undertaken by Christian or
Muslim leaders, is violence, destruction, slaughter and enslavement to
acquire power and wealth through plunder, robbery and looting or an
imposed order of extortionate taxation of subjugated peoples.
Ourhayetzi's vision of the virtuous state is independent of the
religious faith of the ruling prince or monarch. Arab King Sherab-Dohl
was `good and gentle towards Christians' and it was `impossible to
express ... the good he did for worshippers of the cross (p159)'.
Ourhayetzi further affirmed the possibility of Christian and Muslim or
Armenian and non-Armenian coexistence and passes no negative judgement
on Armenians who allied with Muslims or who served them as soldiers.

Ourhayetzi notes that Armenian Christians are wracked in equal measure
by both Christian and Muslim conquerors. But he also shows that Armenian
leaders can be as virtuous or vice-ridden as any other. Where their
princes have the opportunity, they too slaughter and plunder. Ourhayetzi
does not prettify the process of how `remnants' of the Armenian nobility
established themselves in Cilicia through conquest and expropriation
(p225). The Armenian elite like any other medieval rulers treated the
land and its wealth as their personal property and had cruel disregard
for the plight of their subjects, a disregard that on occasion, as
Ourhayetzi shows, incited popular revenge. 

Ourhyatzi's `The Chronicle' has an intellectual integrity and a
clarity of political thought which certainly inspires modern readers
to think more broadly and positively about the trouble and strife of
their own time.

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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