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Worth a read Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... THE ART OF BOOK PRINTING THE CHURCH AND ARMENIAN NATION-FORMATION Armenian News Network / Groong October 18, 2010 By Eddie Arnavoudian Rafael Ishkhanian was an immensely controversial figure in Soviet era Armenian intellectual circles with his views on the origin and development of the Armenian people remaining subject to bitter, but sometimes still fertile, dispute. `The Armenian Book' (154pp, 1981, Yerevan) however, that is a valuable brief history of Armenian printing from 1512-1920, lies outside disputed territory. Armenians are proud that their first printed book appeared in 1512 ahead of the Russian in 1517, the Estonian in 1535 and the Georgian in 1629. Puerile boasting aside however, there is a great deal in the history of the Armenian printing to evoke legitimate admiration. Ishkhanian's story captures the tremendous dedication and determination, the selfless sacrifice as well as the initiative, enterprise and adventurous spirit that the first printers and publishers brought to their endeavours. That Hagop Meghabard, Sultanshah - of the unlikely Armenian name, Abkar Tbir, Oskan Yerevantzi, Hovanness Derzntsi and others were men of the cloth does not diminish their monumental accomplishment. Today we may not accept their faith but we are compelled to acknowledge that they contributed decisively to building foundations for the development of modern language and literature that was to be at the core of 19th and 20th century Armenian nation-formation. The first steps in Armenian printing were taken by Churchmen, funded significantly by Armenian merchants and traders. To Church activists this new revolutionary method of book production proved impossibly attractive. At the turn of the 16th century Armenia had seen three centuries and more of devastation by foreign occupation. Many of its centres of learning had been destroyed and its education system crippled further by the emigration of intellectuals and skilled pens. The Church in historic Armenia could no longer produce manuscript books in the quantities required to meet its still effective, and now indeed almost global organisational, network. To meet demand printing could not be beaten. Four hundred bibles could be printed in the time it took to produce a single manuscript! So printing was seized upon and its early history is yet another manifestation of that instinct for survival that reproduced itself within the elites of the Armenian Church like a dominant gene, century after century. The first printed Armenian book appeared in Venice under the shadows of the Roman Catholic Church, an imperial institution then waging more than just theological war to subjugate and assimilate the Armenian Church. In parts of Europe Papal power was immense and Armenian publishers were required to obtain its licence for their printing ventures. Unwilling for long to tolerate Vatican restraints they travelled beyond its reach to Holland, Livorno, Paris, Marseille and elsewhere. It was in Holland in 1668 that the indefatigable Oskan Yerevantzi printed the first Armenian Bible, crowned the `queen of early Armenian printing' that now sits alongside the 5th century translation of the Bible acknowledged as `the queen of translations'. Though initially dominated by the Church Armenian printing emerged in an era of a flourishing secular Armenian merchant capital. This found expression in early print runs that evidently catered to a secular and scientific market in addition to that of the Church. A book on mathematics and accounting, and this in the then contemporary Armenian vernacular as opposed to classical Armenian, appeared in Marseille in 1675 stamped upon its front page being a declaration reading that it was for `the edification of merchants in particular'. 1695 saw the first printed Armenian map, produced by the famous Vanantetzi printers. Publications on medicine stood alongside volumes of Narek and medieval Armenian poetry as well as horoscopes and other astrological oddities we are so familiar with today. There was in addition, it should be noted, material for teaching Armenian and easy reading too for travelling merchants. The history of the printed book, so closely associated with the development of a unified mass language and the process of nation-formation, mirrored the particularities of Armenian national development. Printing in the first instance was, like the Armenian commercial elite and substantial segments of the Armenian Church, a Diaspora phenomenon. It was born in Venice and took its first steps in Europe and returned again to Venice again with brilliant flourish long before it reached Armenia proper. Even as publishing moved nearer home it was to densely populated Diaspora communities in Istanbul, Tbilisi, Baku and Smyrna where achievements however were indeed phenomenal. Through the 18th century, Armenian presses in Constantinople published ancient 5th century authors such as Pavsdos Puzant, Yeghishe, Khorenatzi, Barbetzi, and others and these, many for the first time. The next century saw more than 350 periodicals published in the city with another 50 in Smyrna. The first Armenian bookshops also opened in Constantinople. Yet in the course of the first three hundred years of Armenian printing, the homeland, west and east remained a deprived cousin. `During the first half of the 19th century the centres of the printed Armenian book remained outside Armenia. Even during the second part of the century no town in Armenia could compare with Venice, Vienna, Tbilisi or Constantinople. (p109) The first press in Armenia proper appeared in Etchmiadzin in 1771. Ravaged by Persian occupation it did not flourish until much later. Some 50 years on a second press was established in Shushi in 1820 and it took a further 56 years for another to be opened in Yerevan and Cyumri (Leninakan) too. Ottoman occupied Armenia was even further behind. Khrimyan Hayrik's efforts to bring printing to Van in 1863 fell afoul of an Ottoman state increasingly dominated by a chauvinist Turkish nationalism that understood well the danger Armenian publishing posed to its imperial domination. The effect that the Diaspora development of printing had on Armenian culture is evident in 19th and early 20th century literature. Depictions and considerations of life in the homeland are overshadowed by preoccupation with Diaspora, by life in Istanbul. Where the homeland appears, it is in many cases maimed by an ossified romanticism that Bedros Tourian, himself from Istanbul, was to eventually find so useless and distasteful. Ironically, despite the savagery of Ottoman occupation in the heart of Armenia, it was in the Ottoman Diaspora, in Constantinople that publishing in modern literary western Armenian paced ahead, and indeed far ahead of literary eastern Armenian. Of the 1720 titles published from 1800-1850, 1400 were still in the dominant classical Armenian. But of the 320 appearing in modern variants, 280 were in the western with only 40 in the eastern. By the second half of the century modern literary Armenian registered its total triumph. But western Armenian was fatally wounded by the 1915 Genocide. Here another peculiarity of Armenian national development is to be observed: the emergence of two remarkably sophisticated and versatile forms of the same language that in normal course of things should have merged into a single tongue. Though he does not consider it, Ishkhanian's account that ends in 1920 does set the context for an initial evaluation of the Soviet Armenian printing and publishing. It was only in the post-1920 period that Armenia became the dominant centre for printing and publishing. This it did on a vast and unprecedented scale. Whatever the overall judgement on the Second Soviet Armenian Republic, and even when accounting for the catastrophes of the Stalinist purges and the damage done to national, cultural and linguistic development, Soviet Armenian printing has left a durable legacy. With many Soviet Armenian print runs in the thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands almost the entire body of ancient and medieval Armenian literature was made available to the common man and woman and that in modern Armenian translation. Classics of 18th, 19th and 20th century literature - eastern and western - and a huge body of translations also regularly rolled off Yerevan's presses. Despite the deadening weight of censorship and the damage to linguistic development Soviet Armenia also produced a substantial body of scientific, literary, historic and other journals that contained besides the mounds of rubble, gems of the highest order. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the post-Soviet Armenian elites to offer it adequate state support the Armenian publishing industry and the Armenian language itself has been terribly undermined. In an age where communication is supposed to be everything the Armenian state refuses to support the most vital, the most essential and indispensable element of effective communication - the language that is spoken by the people and that defines a people. Current government legislation to enable the re-introduction of foreign language schools - historically instruments of colonial domination in Armenia - represents only its latest irresponsibility. -- 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.