Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 10/23/2015

Why we should read...

    `History of the House of Ardzroun' by Tovma Ardzrouni
    (560pp, 1985, Yerevan, University Press)

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 23, 2015


A fractured and precarious statehood

Tovma Ardzrouni's 10th century `History of the House of Ardzroun' (see
Note 1) stands out among classical Armenian histories that usually
bear all-encompassing titles such as `History of the Armenians' or
just plain `History'. Here instead is a proud celebration of a single
aristocratic estate, written at perhaps its grandest moment. But this
is more than just a glorification of late 9th century Ardzrouni
prominence, more than the crafting of a noble and ancient pedigree to
legitimise and underscore present status. It is part of an Ardzrouni
ideological arsenal readied to contest Bagratouni Estate supremacy in
an Armenia emerging from two centuries of Arab rule.

As he works to enhance the status of the House of Ardzroun in prose
that is often dramatic and frequently striking, Tovma registers
essential truths about the unstable and unsustainable character of
post-Arab 9th/10th century Armenian statehood. The Bagratouni monarchy
established in 885, the first independent Armenian state since the
429AD collapse of the Arshagouni dynasty, proved to be little more
than a conglomerate of fractious estates totally unfitted to evolve
into a centralised, absolutist power that could offer secure
foundations for future development.

Despite exponential economic growth, the new Armenian State was
fractured at birth. Hostile 5th column Arab principalities now rooted
across historic Armenia and the plague of centrifugal ambitions and
ceaseless internecine conflicts between and within Armenian estates
combined to destroy defences against internal dissolution, great power
manipulation and unending foreign invasion. Among the most fatal
fault-lines here was the Ardzrouni-Bagratouni clash.

Yet, this epoch of political fragmentation generated nevertheless a
rich culture - architectural, literary, intellectual and artistic -
and a powerful pan-Armenian consciousness underpinned by a confident
narrative of a continuous Armenian history incorporating all Armenian
estates and reaching back beyond the Christian age. This was an almost
modern national sensibility born of the burgeoning 9th century
economic development and its accompanying cultural flourish that had
begun to knit a fragmented feudal land into a single whole. But the
newly empowered Armenian estates were spent forces from an old order
and failed to protect and nurture these powerful new foundations for a
future nationhood.


As if driven by the imperative of a national patriotism, whosoever
strove for primacy in the new 9th century Armenia felt obliged to
claim accomplishment in a pan-Armenian historical narrative. Tovma
certainly does so! Reflecting the tense 9th-10th century struggle
between the House of Ardzroun and the House of Bagrat, Tovma's intent
is to establish if not the superiority of his estate then at least its
equality! To elevate the House of Ardzroun in the 9th century, he
begins by balancing the ancient historical books so that they take
proper account of an Ardzrouni contribution to the wide arch of
pan-Armenian history!

Tovma's Ardzrouni history opens to a global backdrop with claims for
their princes deriving from an ancient and noble Assyrian royalty, in
fact from none other than the line of King Senekerim (p35-6).
Establishing its global reputation Tovma cites instances of Ardzrouni
service to the Great Powers of the day - Assyrian, Persian, Arab and
Byzantine. In fact early on in his tome he allocates scarcely any
space to Armenia, its native kings or its nobility. But this with
purpose! The House of Ardzroun's historical credits must be bound by
no obligation to any Armenian estate and especially to that of the
Bagratouni House.

Asserting ancient and non-Armenian Ardzrouni ancestry served to
emphasise independence from the more powerful 9th century Bagratounis
for whom they had no great love or loyalty. Placing their origins,
lineage and service first within the great powers of the age accords
them a legitimacy that would be diminished were it rooted in a
primarily Armenian context. It is worth a note that here Tovma
displays no narrow Armenian or estate worldview. Though not Armenian,
these regional great powers are not judged as alien or oppressive by
definition. Serving their realm was not humiliation. Yes, sometimes a
function of servitude, but at the same of being citizens of a wider
demise doing international service with honour.

With its universal credits rolled out Tovma moves on to stud gems of
Ardzrouni magnificence into an account of Armenian history showing
their princes serving Armenia through the centuries. One sees them
with dignity and courage besides pre-Christian Armenian royalty.
Further along, they were among `the first to convert to Christianity'
(p79). A major role is claimed for them in two defining, 5th century
struggles against Persian authority. In the 450AD Battle of

    `Vahan Ardzrouni was at Saint Vartan's side, majestic and
    outstandingly brave, calmly wading through Persian ranks as if
    fire among the reeds (p.129).

Similar honour is bestowed upon Ardzrouni leaders in the Mamikonian
led 481-484 guerrilla war that secured autonomy after the 429AD
collapse of Armenian statehood and its partition between Persia and
Byzantine. At a critical turn when: `Brave Vahan (Mamikonian) was left
with but thirty men, there beside him were Mershabouh and Hashgour
Ardzrouni (p.135)'.

The inscription of Ardzrouni colours on the chief episodes of Armenian
history continues into the gathering 8th and 9th century battles
against ebbing Arab rule. The Ardzrouni contribution appears on a par
with that of the Bagratounis! In 849 it is an Ardzrouni, Prince Ashot,
who is shown to seize the initiative in defence of all Armenian
interests! Compelled to bend to Arab supremacy he insists on threat of
further resistance that all Armenians be treated with appropriate
decorum and governed by the rule of law (p179, 187). It would be
`indecent' writes Tovma `to pass over in silence or condemn' the
Ardzrounis `to be forgotten' for `the great victory' over Arab power
was possible only because of an `unbreakable unity of Ashot Ardzrouni
and Bagrat Bagratouni (p173, 175, 177)'.

Having registered Ardzrouni accomplishment on the wider historical
stage Tovma turns to his central concern - their role during the
mid-to-late 9th century Arab counter-offensive planned to subdue
reinvigorated Armenian estates. But prior to passing on, let us give
Tovma due credit for an approach that contrary to expectation is not
uncritical. Though heaping praise on the Ardzrouni estate, he does not
back off from denouncing some of its representatives for depredations
and treacheries.


Armenian estates that survived into the 9th century ruled over a land
that was undergoing radical economic development and becoming moreover
a hub of regional and global trade.  For a diminished and increasingly
impoverished Baghdad-based Arab Empire here was a rich source of
wealth - of tax and plunder - that it would not willingly abandon. So
between 849-899AD a quartet of infamous imperial commanders and agents
- Abouseff, Yussef, Pugha and Avshin - mobilised colossal forces to
crush Armenian elites manoeuvring for autonomy and refill their
masters' depleted coffers. Judging by the scale of mobilisation
(p195-199) Armenians were formidable opponents.

Telling a terrible tale of imperial slaughter, destruction, plunder,
slavery and forced religious conversion Tovma reserves his most
searing venom for Pugha who at the head a vast army of Turkish
mercenaries entered Armenia in 852. His offensives are described in
raging prose. This monster `forced out of the earth's depths in the
thaw of spring' comes to visit terror and death across the land
(p263-5). Pugha:

    `...issued instructions to his troops to flood ... into
    Armenia... to enslave, plunder, raze and destroy it. (He) ordered
    all male inhabitants of towns and villages to be put to the sword
    ... (whilst) women and children were to be cast into slavery

In these last-ditch counter-offensives Arab leaders were able to
exploit central structural weaknesses of an emerging Armenian
political and military power. They had at their disposal a 5th column
in the form of Arab principalities now entrenched in Armenia.
Occupying vast territories, forts, palaces and mansions snatched from
Armenian estates or previously the domains of now extinguished ones,
these local Arab Emirates' first loyalty was to Baghdad that had
conferred them their title to Armenian lands. Buttressed by compact
non-Armenian settler populations and a non-Armenian military force,
they proved to be launching pads and battering rams against their
Armenian neighbours.

As pretext for invasion Baghdad used `missives sent by Arabs settled
in Armenia' charging Armenian princes for `being permanently opposed
to and slandering' Arab kings (p173). In his campaigns Pugha was
readily joined by `the Arabs of Armenia who lived in different parts
of our land' (p207). Wherever he defeated Armenians, to reinforce
control, existing settlements were extended and new ones built. Arab
generals were promised that on success they would be permitted `to
thereafter inhabit the lands (they conquer)', `and bequeath these into
the future to you and your children (p199).'  Thus `Arab tribes, with
their families (were able to) spread across the land dividing it up
between them (p239)'. Triumphant commanders also attempted to convert
Armenian estates to Islam hoping to thus transform them into
additional allies against Armenian ambition.

Recognising the Emirate threat Bagratouni and Ardzrouni leaderships
retaliated whenever possible. As a function of its own expansionist
and hegemonic ambition the Bagratouni monarchy attempted to
subordinate and centralise not just Armenian but Arab estates too.
Ardzrouni Prince Gourgen also, when he `took into his hands the reigns
of his estate' `travelled through all the regions of Arab settlement
delivering them blows, slaughtering and razing them...(p307)'. Success
was rare and never consolidated. Non-Armenian settlements survived
Armenian independence and came to represent an irrevocable annulment
of a homogenous Armenian historical homeland. They were to block and
bury any chance of an exclusive Armenian national development in the

The position is summed aptly in A Ter-Ghevontian's valuable study of
`Arab Emirates in Bagratouni Armenia' (1965, 313pp):

    `Arab Emirates opened up a crack that grew larger and larger
    letting addition Kurdish and Seljuk forces whose emirates
    constituted important factors in rendering impossible the
    existence of an Armenian state in Greater Armenia...

    ...(The) Arabs in the wake of their departure left behind a mass
    of Arab settlers upon which the Arab Emirates rested. From then
    on, two distinct developments are notable in Greater Armenia: on
    the one hand the formation of foreign (Arab, Kurdish, Seljuk etc.)
    principalities on Armenian lands and, on the other the steady
    emigration of the Armenian population. This was to have decisive
    consequences on the entire future course of the history of the
    Armenian people (p258-9).'

Together with Arab emirates, imperial forces were able to exploit
endemic and debilitating antagonism between and within surviving
Armenian estates - the Bagratounis, the Ardzrouni's and the Syunis of
northern Armenia (p313-333) being the principal ones - all ceaselessly
battling each other for primacy. Blinded by narrow ambition they were
ready instruments, easily malleable agents, for any interfering
neighbouring state. Aware of the fragility of a fragmented Armenian
body politic Tovma opened Book the Third that treats of the late 9th
century, with an urging for unity among `all noble houses and
principalities', across Armenia. In the past when Armenians had acted
`in harmony and with single will' they had `delivered more blows than
they suffered'. Today alas, `in substantial ways the unity of our land
was being undermined (p195-197)'. Tovma's text then offers a catalogue
of Armenian estate selfishness and greed that made them playthings of
Pugha, Yusuf and Avshin.

A practised warrior, Pugha alternately curried favour or delivered
blows to opposing Armenian factions. In the spring of 853 when many
defied him and `retreated to their fortresses', Smbat, chief of staff
of Bagratouni forces, together with his son Ashot judging they had no
alternative `went forth to Pugha' to `guide him in his military
operations (p271).' Thereafter we read of Ardzrouni and Bagratouni
shifts and turns with each at different times siding with Arab power
against each other. As reward for their collaboration segments of
these estates were spared exile or death meted out others. Among the
Bagratounis `Pugha permitted Ashot...and his brothers Mushegh and Smbat
to remain masters in their domains', while `Prince Gagik was allowed
to `remain fast in post' in the Ardzrouni lands of Vasbourakan (p299).

As Arab power retreated, it was these surviving estates that seized
the moment to emerge as heads of the new independent Armenia - but
divided and squabbling heads remained fatally vulnerable not just to
Baghdad and other Arab emirates but to a now confident Byzantine
expanding eastward in the wake of vanishing Arab power. Warring
Armenian estates became easy prey to Byzantine cajoling and bribery as
it set off estate against estate and exploiting individual estate
ambitions fatally undermined the Bagratouni monarchy that could
threaten its regional ambitions.


Pugha's early campaign ended triumphantly with `none (in Armenia)
remaining to oppose him'. But tables turned in the wake of his
disastrous forays into the Caucuses that re-ignited resistance from
previously humiliated Armenian estates. In 858 imperial Arab power was
forced to grant Armenians limited autonomy (p309). Exiled elites
returned home with their lands restored (p315-319) and in 861 the
Baghdad Court recognised Ashot I Bagratuni as `Prince of Princes'.
After Pugha, Avshin and Yusuf in particular continued to torment
Armenians (p341, 345, p361 p367). But despite the immense damage and
ruin they caused they were unable to effectively restore Arab
authority that was delivered decisive blows. Twenty-five years after
he had been made `Prince of Princes' a weakened Baghdad was forced to
recognise Ashot as `King of the Armenians'! The central problem of
Armenian statehood, however, was to remain unresolved.

The Bagratouni dynsasty and the Armenian estates circling it existed
always on the edge of the abyss, on the brink of destruction, with
endless internal rivalries threatening implosion. This weakness was
readily seized upon by hostile powers. During King Smbat I's reign
(890-913) Armenia was targeted by Yusuf who using Armenian estates
humiliated and executed the king to become effective ruler of most of
Armenia.  A similar fate awaited Ashot II (915-929) who was hounded
out of his own capital, driven hither and thither and survived only by
virtue of an alliance with advancing Byzantine power. By 923 the
steady retreat of Arab power enabled Armenia to breathe easier. Ashot
II consolidated crown authority, drove out the last Arab soldier and
marking complete independence ceased to pay taxes to Baghdad. A
century of relative peace was to follow. But it failed to nurture the
new state that continued to lack monolithic core and axis.

The new Armenia never had an equivalent to the British `Wars of the
Roses' that would bring provincial Armenian estates and Arab emirates
to the will of a dominant dynasty. Here the Bagratouni monarchy
compared poorly with the earlier 4th century Arshagounis also subject
to centrifugal challenge. In the Arshsagouni era Armenian estates were
at least structurally bound into the monarchic state by defined roles
and obligations and by custom and tradition. The 9th century
Ardzrounis and Syounis were not at all beholden to the new `King of
Kings'. And driven by ambitions for wealth and supremacy they were
drawn into a marsh of manipulation by Arab and Byzantine power.

The Ardzrouni drive to enlarge territories at the expense of the
Bagratouni monarchy led Gagig Ardzrouni, and that with foreign
protection, to actual secession and to his enthronement as King of
Armenia (p439-447)! In one respect Tovma's entire text serves to offer
ideological justification for this move! Further north, the
independent spirited Syounis also threw down the gauntlet and `in 902
Prince Smbat of Syouni withdrew from subordination to the Armenian
King and ceased payment of taxes to him (p383).'  Other smaller
estates were to be granted greater autonomies in a process that saw at
least seven `kingdoms' in Armenian lands.

The century following 923 would be one of fragmented peace, of a
formalised unstable equilibrium between estates constantly striving to
secure increased privilege and power at the expense of the Bagratouni
Monarchy. Reconciled to centrifugal ambitions the Monarchy acquiesced,
even doling out new crowns so as to maintain the peace. Peace was
maintained, but the state that could secure this peace and the
economic development that paralleled it was not built.

It was to be undone internally, an undoing and collapse contributed to
and accelerated by the nature and quality of the Armenian ruling


As they cushioned themselves in their new thrones Armenian elites
already showed signs of decay and decomposition. In a tirade that
includes a vicious attack on homosexuality Tovma denounces `the whole
body of Armenian princes' for debauched hedonism. On their return from
exile, `mixing scandal into their already questionable habits' (p337)
they descended to the level of a `degenerate, drunken' elite stained
by `many perversities' that accompanied the new mercantile age (p359).

Indulging in extravagant displays of wealth they built palaces,
summerhouses, hunting grounds and of course Churches that measured the
scale of wealth and riches at the time. But building a Church was no
manifestation of religious dedication. It was more akin to our modern
billionaires buying luxury yachts or constructing high rise status
symbol buildings. Constructed with the most modern technology and with
religious artefacts embedded with precious stones, gold and diamonds
(p389-397) these were designed to honour not their god but the

Hedonist elites these were not bearers of a new energetic order that
could develop a political and economic core for survival and
development. Battered remnants of earlier epochs, incapable of
defending the then flourishing and wealthy mercantile economy, they
and the state they headed were destined for imminent historical
redundancy. Protected by no centralised state in less than 150 years
the entire Bagratouni order was dispersed with little difficulty as
invaders: `...devastated all the Christian estates, small or large,
subjected them to the sword, to famine and slavery and there was no
hope or help from anywhere (p475).'

The precipitate, almost overnight collapse of Armenian statehood
across two decades, from 1021 to 1042, was brought about directly by
Christian Byzantine bent on the destruction of Bagratouni Armenia. The
condition for its success was the fractious reality of Armenia.
Seizing on this, from the middle of the 10th century Byzantine worked
energetically exploiting the selfish, egoist ambitions of scores of
Armenian princes so as to weaken and seize control of Armenia. It
succeeded and absolutely so!

In the face of Byzantine machination, manipulation, intrigue and
invasion first the Ardzrounis and then the Bagratounis abandoned their
homelands to settle further west in Anatolia as servants to the
Byzantine state. In 1024 the entire Ardzrouni estate `left the land of
their fathers for the land of the Byzantine' and in 1041 `the
Bagratounis too departed their homeland (p479)' to be followed by
smaller estates leaving behind only pockets of `isolated Armenian
principalities secured in inaccessible forts and caves(p475)'.
Armenia became a Byzantine border province. But only for the shortest
period before it was overcome by aggressive forces from the east.

The crumbling Armenian order was part of a wider regional order across
the Arab world and Byzantine also in terminal decline. None proved
able to withstand or absorb the hurricanes of Mongol, Seljuk and
Turkish invasion. The landscape of the region was irrevocably


Ironic as it may appear, this so unpromising `Bagratouni Age (850-1050)
was an era of tremendous economic and cultural life. Despite endemic
domestic turmoil, a devastating famine in 918 and continued external
aggression the land prospered. As a super exploitative Arab regime was
gradually pushed out:

`Our land was released from chaos, it began to recover, Churches were
renovated with magnificent decoration. Those dispersed returned, each
one to their proper place and they rebuilt and planted, forgetting
their suffering and their sadness (p319).'

The century of Bagratouni peace witnessed huge economic growth with a
vast increase in agricultural productivity, in artisan production and
international trade. Towns flourished - Ani had near on 100,000
inhabitants - with prosperous urban centres housing not just royalty
and aristocracy but a new class of hated urban usurers. Economic
growth and urban development generated substantial social
transformation marked by features of a modern humanist, secular
world-view. The lifestyles of the elites sketched in glossy colour by
Tovma describe this increasingly secular age. Paintings and etchings
feature scenes of wild life, hunting, popular festivals, martial arts,
dancing girls and drama (p391-397). On none other than an altar in a
royal palace Tovma tells of:

    `A king sat in magnificent luxury surrounded by beaming youth and
    happy servants. There too are the troubadours and the singing
    girls deserving of our wonder, the swordsmen, the boxing fighters,
    there too the packs of lions and other beast and flocks of
    different coloured birds (p459).'

The surfeit of wealth allowed in addition expenditure on a minimum of
social welfare with help for the poor, for the orphans, for widows and
all others who were suffering (p391, 437). No doubt charitable
donation helped reduce the risk of uprising by the poor and so enabled
the rich to continue with their lives of excess. This was after all
also an age of popular discontent frequently channelled through the
struggle of the Tontragetzi movement challenging the power of the
mainstream Armenian Church, itself a vast landholding feudal estate!

This age produced a rich cultural and intellectual heritage. Krikor
Narekatzi's masterpiece `The Lamentations' comes to mind immediately,
a poetic epic that remains unsurpassed in artistic brilliance,
humanist depth and modernity. There are the string of historians and
poets too among them Traskhanagerdtzi, Gaghangadvatzi, David the
Lyricist, Asoghig, Arisdages Lasdivertzi, Grigor Magistros, Shabouh
Bagratouni and many others. All worked with or within monastic
establishments that were academic centres, universities, hubs for
manuscript publishing, miniature painting, musical creation, poetry
and science. Significant among these, are the schools of Narek,
Akhtamar, Ani, Kars, Sevan and Sanahin-Aghpad. A great deal of this
legacy has been destroyed, including a great deal of the architectural
marvels of the age, the glorious remnants of which can be seen in the
ruins of Ani, that famous `city of a 1001 Churches'.

Culturally the Bagratouni age has been defined, though not without
debate, as an age of early or pre-Renaissance flourish. Tovma's
`History of the House of Ardzroun' is an outstanding exhibit from this
era reflective of its rationalist, secular trends, its economy and its
culture. One detects even a certain democratic sensibility, albeit
very limited, in the sympathetic colourful record of the hardy daily
lives and courage of the common people of Sassoon and in the
acknowledgement of the role of common people in the fight against Arab

`The History of the House of Ardzroun' is an unrivalled primary
source, a record of much that was accomplished and of much that has
been lost. Besides its historical narrative, its detail on the
topography of ancient urban centres, its minute descriptions of
architectural structures, of mural designs, paintings and etchings
summon something of the cultural attainment of the age. Other detail
on military equipment, on strategy and tactics, used by friend and
foe, as well as the observations on Sassoon make this volume
indispensable to the political historian, the historical novelist as
well as historians of art and science, architecture and war.

Here furthermore is preserved a striking record of that emerging sense
of Armenian national identity that was a critical definition of the
age. Though penned in the 10th century as the story of a single estate
it is throughout framed by a pan-Armenian sensibility significantly
fashioned from moments of totality of Armenian history, not just
Christian but pre-Christian too! The term `fatherland' and `Armenia'
is frequently used to refer to a single national entity combining all
Armenian estates. Describing the 7th century Arab invasions Tovma
writes for example:

    `Here the weeping and the wailing was not just for one house or
    one estate, but for all the houses and all the estates of Armenia

Armenia appears as a single entity that though always menaced by
foreign powers still resists (p43-49, 63). Tovma is proud of
`triumphant Armenian braves' described as `Haig-hearted' (p211) after
Haig, the mythical founder of the land of Armenia. Armenian monarchs
are shown to possess the power `to cause others difficulty (p93)'.
Armenians without estate label see off `100 enemy soldiers... with but
10 men' (p215) or defeat 15,000 with 900 soldiers (p235).

Reminding us of Khorenatzi, Tovma too protests against the Great Power
treatment of smaller nations denouncing their rewriting of history and
their book burning designed to erase the accomplishments of smaller
nations (p45). Recording the Ardzrouni refusal to endorse the edicts
of the 5th century Conference of Chalcedon that would subordinate the
entire Armenian Church to Byzantine he is indignant that `none even
judged it necessary for Armenians to be present at this conference to
unite the faithful' (p133).

This legacy, all in a distinctly Armenian linguistic, literary and
cultural tradition was to be used in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries
to fashion a modern Armenian national identity then necessary for the
struggle against centuries of foreign domination.

				* * *

Tovma researched and wrote with erudite application. Cherishing human
capacity for reason, admiring of the natural sciences, in command of
all the wisdom of the day, his composition is discerning and fluent.
For all the temptation of distortion on behalf of those who
commissioned him he remains scholarly. Leaning on a global cultural
heritage, on classical Armenian, foreign and pre-Christian sources,
Greeks included, among whom he refers to Herodotus and Ptolemy, and of
course the Bible (p13, 43, 49) too, Tovma produces an enduring tome
(See Note 2).

Valuable beyond its service to Armenian historiography, philosophy,
art and culture, it offers in addition, for future consideration,
fertile terrain on which to discuss more fully the historical
relationship between religion and science, the role of the Church
intelligentsia in Armenian history and the development of an Armenian
national identity.

NOTE 1: 
This edition of Tovma Ardzrouni's work is published together with the
`History' by the Unknown Chronicler', that also focuses on the
Ardzrouni estate but reaching to the end days of independent Armenian
statehood. For the purposes of this comment and its central argument,
I have treated the two works as a single whole. Another discussion
could of course benefit from considering them as discrete entities.

For all the rather painfully embarrassing puerile patriotic sentiment
that flows steadily through its pages, H A Haroutyounyan's `Armenia
During the IX-XI Centuries' (1959, 356pp) serves to fill in much of
the wider background of Bagratouni Armenia underlining the role of
internal estate feuding and warfare in debilitating and bringing down
the Bagratouni Monarchy. He offers also a neat summary of the cultural
accomplishment of the era.

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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