Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 04/17/2017

Armenian poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 17, 2017

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Besides being a fine literary study Hasmik Sahakyan's `Armenian Poetry
in the Late Middle Ages: 16th and 17th Centuries' (336pp, 1975,
Yerevan) is an important contribution to the intellectual and social
history of modern Armenian national development. Sahakyan opens by
quoting Manoug Abeghian, doyen of Armenian literary historians. `The
16th century and the first quarter of the 17th were' Abeghian writes
`the darkest periods in Armenian life and letters.' However he adds
that `a new period of revival begins' (p6) as the hundred-year
Ottoman-Iranian war, fought mainly on Armenian soil, comes to an end
in 1639. In literary life this revival was a veritable cultural
In an age of relative peace, economic development generated new social
forces, new merchant, trading and artisan groupings as well as a new
social and cultural life in their wake, headed by an emergent secular
intelligentsia. In art and literature, a secular sensibility, a
celebration of everyday life with folk wisdom and style singularly
prominent, emerge to contest a hidebound and ascetic Church-stifled
culture. In the best critical tradition poets denounce the greed and
avarice of the wealthy elites that also bent the knee to imperial
conquerors. As they strain against foreign occupying powers and their
Armenian Church agents, these poets herald the emergence of a modern
Armenian national sensibility. Significantly, a great deal of the
poetry of this period was written in an evolving modern literary
language understood by the common people. Albeit inchoate, a
renaissance spirit and a democratization of life was abroad.
Alas most of this yield was to fall foul of a Church led
counter-revolution. Desperate not to be displaced by a progressive
secular intelligentsia that heralded its demise, the Church jointly
with Armenian elites and its imperial protectors reformed and
re-imposed on cultural life its ossified ideology and dogma, as well
as its socially redundant classical language. In significant respects
we live with the consequences today, in the 21st century!

I. The 16th and 17th century literary yield

These two centuries witness a progressive emancipation of literature
from exclusive servitude to the Church hierarchy. A class of writers,
poets and artists, some of the Church, now create closer to the throb
of the everyday life of the common people. For the first time since
the 5th century formation of the Armenian alphabet, secular literature
was with telling effect invading the terrain of the written and
printed word hitherto reserved for Church affairs. Poets contest not
just the Church's monopoly of the written word but its disdain for the
lives of ordinary people and popular culture (p183, 187,188, 323).
At first however, seeking a footing in the ruined post-war literary
landscape, poets leant on the old, imitating past tradition with
religious poetry of penance and repentance, Biblical narratives,
dedications to Church rituals, funerals, marriages and births
(p22-24). With religious fervour in retreat this devotional verse
lacked the passion, the soul and the exaltation of earlier days. Yet
among better poets - Khasbek, Tavit Saltoretzi, Galoust Gayzag - new
styles, forms and images and a new language surface.
Religious narratives are infused with a worldly sensibility, with
images of contemporary life, with folk styles and wisdom. (p40).
Christ for example is humanised, shown to be vulnerable and crying out
for `his mum' (p28-30, 32). Sin is often depicted as greed for money
(p40). Hymns on death, rather than celebrating the transition to
paradise, regret the passing of the good life on earth. Moreover this
written, still classical, Armenian is now often coloured by vernacular
as it transforms into a language comprehensible to all.  Whatever its
aesthetic durability, a great deal of this verse that celebrated the
Church, its leaders, monasteries or martyrs are also rich stores of
data on 16th and 17th century social life not otherwise available.
But it was the flourish of poetry of love and life that was the
clearest expression of the new. Earlier abstract love poetry,
brilliantly powerful in its own way, now cedes positions to earthly
love between concrete, living, individual men and women possessed of
carnal and erotic desire (p175, 180, 181). Women here often feature as
subjects (p175). Recalling the youthful love of his wife who has died
a poet writes:

    It was dark when she appeared with joyous smile to say:
    Your love has borne fruit, your plea is answered.
    I come as your guest to pass the night with laughter
    Let us eat and drink wine and feed our burning love.
Songs in praise of revelry, of wine, of food and the good life abound.
And in these even priests partake (p240, 248-25)! More and more Church
and prayer are limited, consigned to set periods leaving time that
remains for fun and celebration (p238).
In a slowly burgeoning secular poetry, frequently laced with satire
and comedy, the experience of the common folk and of the lower orders
of the clergy comes to the fore. The most ordinary detail is deemed
worthy of poetic remark - a toothache or the death of a beloved horse
for example. Nature too is appropriated for men and women (p233, 237,
239). For many poets: `Nature is not just a manifestation of Divine
greatness and generosity. It is not just evidence of God's creative
powers that we must glorify. First and foremost it is the environment
in which man/woman lives and labours (p220-226).
Saltzoretsi's `In Praise of Flowers' is a wonderful example, a verse
encyclopedia of one hundred flowers, a botanical delight detailing
colours, aromas, the regions they flourish in and the uses to which
they can be put.
The secular sensibility reaches an artistic peak with Nakhash Hovnatan
who urges:

    `We know not what the morrow brings
    Life is like a wild flower
    It blooms today and gone tomorrow
    So let us drink brothers'.

II. The critical spirit and...

The new intelligentsia was not only interested in the good life. It
startles with fierce criticism of the Church clergy that controlled
Armenian communities, with criticism of the abuse of wealth, of the
hardships of migrant life and of forced assimilation, in the homeland
and the Diaspora! In poetry that incorporates opposition to foreign
oppression a new affirmation of national identity is also evident.
Simon of Poland, Hagop Seretzi, Martiros of Crimea, Kossa Yeretzi,
Stepannos Tashdetzi and Nakhash Hovnatan all took to task the venal,
ignorant and discredited clergy. Sahakyan cites poets who `lash the
senior clergy' for its `material greed, its money grubbing, its
two-faced hypocrisy, its ignorance and immorality' (p75). She quotes
them denouncing priests for `seeking bribes from the people' and when
denied `persecuting them'. One poet writes that priests often `had no
regard for the law' and `would twist it just for a bribe' (p77). The
lower echelons of the clergy are not spared:

    'They wear a white silk shirt
    And own sheep and cattle aplenty
    Love their wine and hate wise counsel
    In love with silver they are miserly
    And always turn away from the poor.' (p76)

Neither does the merchant class escape the poet's lance. Tashdetzi and
the most remarkable Yeremiah Kyumurjian are outraged by the excess and
decadence of the old Khoja merchant class (See Note 1) and its
collaboration with Iranian tyranny. `With harsh words and angry
epithets Kyumurjian `exposes their profiteering, deviousness,
selfishness and materialism (p137-138)'. Tashdetzi also `lays bare
their degenerate morals and individual decadence (p138)'. Ashot
Hovanissian, social historian and famed biographer of Mikael
Nalpantian claims in fact that Tashdetzi expressed the outlook of a
modern Europe orientated merchant class at odds with the old Armenian
commercial order integrated into and subservient to Ottoman and
Iranian empires.
Vrtanness Serengetzi and Tashdetzi mobilised reason, science and
education in the service of cultural and social advance battling to
vanquish ignorance, obscurantism and prejudice. Serengetzi has
contempt for those `who though possessing beautiful gold leafed books
could not read and moreover deny others the right to read (p90).' The
book was a treasure chest of knowledge he adds, a lantern. But alas:

    `As one lights the lantern and raises it high
    Another, foolish fellow, takes it down and locks it in a chest (p90).'
On a more practical level Steppanos Tashdetzi produced riddles in the
form of quartets to enlighten on the instruments, tools, wares and
weapons of the day also featuring the latest technology entering the
country - watches, mirrors, compasses, rifles (p93).

III. The revival of the nation

Features of political and national renaissance accompanied the
literary and cultural with poetic reflection on the plight and the
possible future of Armenian communities whether in the homeland or in
a growing, prospering and highly organised Diaspora. As narrative
verse describes the wars, the strife, the uprooting and the
destruction that had befallen Armenians, at its centre appears a
consciousness of the damaging fact of Armenian statelessness.
What is remarkable is the force with which poets proclaim loss of
statehood as the cause of the calamities of foreign oppression, by
Christian states too! Simeon the Pole perhaps protesting against the
Polish Catholic Church's forced assimilation of the huge Armenian
community in Poland writes:

    `We have no anointed Kings
    We have no state
    And so are oppressed by every nation
    By Christians and others'

Hovanness of Mush reiterates:

    `Our kings died and so did our princes across the land
    Thus we are left leaderless with wolf and beast controlling the land (p158)'
More exciting still is the critique of imperial domination that
appears in two of Kyumurjians historical epics - `A Brief History of
Ottoman Kings (p115) and `History of Istanbul (120). Written in common
language in an almost folk tradition (p140) they reveal a hatred for
the barbarisms of the Ottoman state and a consciousness of its
oppression of all nationalities within the empire. Sahakyan writes

`Kyumurjian's anti-state dispositions are clear in the facts he
supplies on the oppression and persecution of non-Turkish peoples in
the Ottoman Empire. He details their suffering, records the huge
burden of taxes and fines that rested on their shoulders. He records
religious persecution and the destruction of monasteries, churches and
towns (p116-7).
Kyumurjian depicts the awful polarisation of wealth and poverty with
the latter sustaining the former. An extensive segment describing a
royal hunt highlights the privilege and luxury of the hunters on the
one hand and the wretched, freezing conditions of their servants on
the other.  `In the same vein' Sahakyan writes `Kyumurjian also
describes the state of slaves at the slave market (p121)
Whilst consciousness of Armenian social and national oppression was
acute, unfortunately its visons of liberation had been deformed by
centuries of stateless political impotence. The rot of dependency
politics, a reliance on foreign powers for national development, had
rooted itself in Armenian life and was present in this era too. It is
expressed at its clearest by Steppanos Tashdetzi. An ardent Roman
Catholic he urged Armenian unity with Rome as a step in securing
European allies in the battle to free Armenia from Ottoman and Iranian
rule. Ashot Hovanissian whom Sahakyan quotes writes that:

    `Tashdetzi dreamed if not of independent statehood, at least of an
    Armenia within the realm of a western European Catholic dynasty

As they mark out elements of a modern Armenian national sensibility
these poets simultaneously register a defining historical moment in
Armenian nation formation - the growing status, wealth and influence
of the Diaspora as centres for the emergence of Armenian nationality.
Poems speak of a class of powerful and wealthy merchants in the
Diaspora (p69, 70), of trade practiced by priests (p68), as well as of
virtuous priests battling against corruption, greed and usury in their
midst (p62-63). Well into the future the Armenian Diaspora that they
depict coming into its own will have a decisive but also a deforming
effect on national development (See Note 2).
As the 17th century closes the Armenian Church was in retreat on the
cultural front. The modern age was beckoning. But the old order was
not about to cede its post peacefully. Among the Church's dominant
conservative elites this entire movement - written vernacular, the
stamp of folk imagery and wisdom in poetry, the evocation of the
everyday life primarily of the common people, even in religious poetry
and an modern national consciousness - all this was regarded as
satanic degeneration. So a reaction, a veritable cultural
counter-revolution was to take place.

IV. The destruction

Hasmik Sahakyan does not consider the religious reaction in any detail
only hinting at it with reference to poet Galouste Amassiatzi. He
`comes onto the stage in the 18th century as a representative of an
influential wing of `narrow-minded religious poetry (p261)'. Amassiatzi
`not only retreated only from (the late 17th century) Hovanness
Nakhash but from (the earlier) Mardiros of Crimea and his predecessors'.
Sahakyan depicts him `distressed' because `wine was causing people to
be forgetful of God' (!) and that those still attending Church did so
only `to pray that God granted them wine' (p261)!

A broad formulation of the cultural counter-revolution is offered by
Manoug Abeghian in his `Critical Overview of Ancient Armenian Poetry
(Note 3). He argues that in the 16th and 17th centuries for the first
time since the pagan era there was the prospect of a dominant secular
poetry. But this promising development was once again undermined by
the Armenian Church determined to preserve its feudal privilege by
obstructing all advance in Armenian life. In the late 17th and early
18th centuries undergoing a revival of its own the Church consolidated
its religious traditions and entrenched classical Armenian against the
burgeoning secular poetry that had the spoken language as its medium.
With significant and worthy exceptions, it went on to dominate
Armenian cultural life into the mid-19th century.

For its reactionary business the Church had huge material and
financial resources - monastic wealth, Church taxation of the common
people, gifts from the secular merchant class. Furthermore the Church
had the support of Ottoman and Iranian state power equally hostile to
the emergence of new national and possibly secessionist forces. But
perhaps the heaviest blow to the new forces came from Armenian trading
wealth that was bonded with both the Ottoman and Iranian states and an
expanding European imperialism.

With a reforming Church producing a conservative, traditional but
educated stratum to act as organisers of Armenian communities, the new
merchant class for the moment abandoned the secular intelligentsia. It
judged the historically entrenched and now reforming Church with its
extensive organisational and economic network crossing Diaspora and
homeland as a more reliable ally (See Note 4). Moreover, the new
intelligentsia's challenge, however misty, of renewed statehood, did
not chime well with wealth - old or new -integrated into Diaspora,
Ottoman and Iranian imperial states.

In conditions of Armenian life the Church counter-revolution was
almost inevitable. Against the bulwark of reactionary Church power
modern national development weak - fragmented across an occupied and
oppressed homeland and a more prosperous but unstable Diaspora. In
historic Armenian homelands Ottoman and Iranian oppression continued
to grind down the very foundation Armenian life. Simultaneously the
Diaspora, despite greater security and wealth, underwent steady
integration and assimilation into host societies, voluntarily in some
cases but frequently forcibly.

The battle between the old and the new was unequal and was to prove
costly. It is easily arguable that the renewed mid-19th century
challenge led by those such as Odian, Sevajian and Nalpantian and
others was too late.


NOTE 1: See Leo's hard to come by `Khoja Capital: the social &
political role of merchant capital among Armenians' (373pp, 1934,
Yerevan, Armenia). You can read a comment on this volume at: and
NOTE 2: Many of the themes and preoccupations of the poets of this
period appear in Arakel Tavrizhetzi's (c1590-1670) `History'. The last
in the cycle of the great classical Armenian historians Tavrizhetzi
was also our first modern historian. For a discussion of the historian
you can go to -
NOTE 3: Abeghian's 1917 essay is a noteworthy attempt to explain the
continuities and discontinuities in Armenian poetry over some two
thousand years. It is an excellent taster to his immense and immensely
valuable and sometimes hugely controversial oeuvre collected in 10
large volumes. This essay is from Volume 7, published in Yerevan,
Armenia, 1966).
NOTE 4: On the relationship between Church, religion and national
development Within hostile occupying Ottoman and Iranian imperial
states, for centuries Armenian communities survived as discrete and,
to a degree, internally self-organised Christian-Armenian entities.
Survival was a function of the services Armenian communities provided
the imperial economy - the supply of a vitally necessary trading and
artisan class. Within the Armenian community a partly autonomous
Church was permitted, acting as it did as an internal domestic
authority and administration. As quid pro quo the Church was also
allowed to retain a significant portion of its wealth and its command
of rural tax paying parishes.

The religious demarcations and organisation of Armenian communities
was to shape the first forms and structures of Armenian national
development. New social and economic forces emerge and exist in the
first instance within the bounds of a discrete Christian Armenian
community. In the first instance their striving for greater social,
economic and cultural autonomy takes the form of demands for greater
independence for their particular Christian community, now defined
increasingly as a national community. This it is that leads into
`nation-building', in the first instance based within religiously
defined Armenian communities. There was in addition a certain
theological logic to this process!

The Armenian experience of the relation between religion and national
development is historically specific. Unlike Europe, the Armenian
Church in its ideology, literature and history contains memory and
reference primarily to a single cultural-linguistic group - that of
the Armenian community. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church crossed
many linguistic-cultural-economic entities - Spain, Britain, Italy,
Germany, France, as did the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thus in Europe
national development required a more decisive secular break from the
old Church, a process of nationalising its apparatus and canon to
serve the emerging nation. But in the Armenian case, in the early
period national development, religion and nationality appear more
closely and organically connected, something many believe had nothing
positive about it!

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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