Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 07/02/2018


Armenian News Network / Groong
July 2, 2018

By Eddie Arnavoudian

The criticism of an unjust, iniquitous social order, of oppressing and
exploiting states and ruling elites is not a Marxist invention! The
intellectual critique of foreign and domestic states and elites forms a
solid axis in the cultural and intellectual legacy of every nation. Among
Armenians too, besides the sycophantic, self-serving glorification of
ugly elites, by hired pens of a kept intelligentsia, often priestly,
there is an ancient critical tradition worthy of recall and recovery.

From 5th century Moses of Khoren whose powerful `Complaint' against the
Armenian ruling establishment startles with contemporary relevance, to
20th century novelist Shirvanzade's denunciations of heartless Armenian
capitalists in Baku, the history of Armenian critical thought shines with
challenges to the devastation of community and national life by foreign
and domestic elites.

Today when every radical criticism of society (or indeed even the mildest
- by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain for example) is denounced or dismissed as
dangerous or irrelevant Bolshevism, a reminder of the history of Armenian
critical questioning of power can inspire us to hold firm as we battle
against forces that today destroy not just community and nation but the
very natural world in which these must exist.

Part I: The 5th Century `Golden Age'

From 5th century Armenian thinkers - ideologues of a newly triumphant
Armenian Christian Church - one cannot expect critical thought after the
fashion of the anti-feudal, anti-establishment 18th and 19th century
bourgeois and radical democrats. Commanding intellects of the age,
Agatangeghos, Pavsdos Puzant, Yeghishe, Khazar Barpetzi and Movses
Khorenatzi had little in common even with their later 10th century
Christian brethren such as Lasdivertzi and Narek who had rounded on
elites of their own times with acute profundity.

Yet with an unabashed frankness and a striking intellectual objectivity
these historians and chroniclers provide the foundation for a damning
critical indictment of an often misnamed 4th-5th century `Golden Age'.
For the Armenian common people, and indeed for its elites and for
independent Armenian statehood too, this age was anything but
golden. Looking back to the early 4th century Armenian Christian
`conversion' and right up to the late 5th century, among much else, our
`Golden Age' histories tell a tale of Christian tyranny and destruction,
of cruel, oppressive and exploitative social relations, of unending
internecine elite warfare, avarice and decadence, an early Christian age
in fact so rotten that within one hundred years it concluded with the
ignominious collapse of the Christian Armenian state (See Note 1).

Yet in this ugly landscape there are seams that enhance: Khorenatzi's
assertion of the rights of small nations against great power designs to
crush and eliminate them; Yeghishe's passionate affirmations of the right
of rebellion against unjust power; and critically, for politics bedeviled
by dependency on great powers, Barpetzi's ennobling self-reliance in the
execution of any great social or political project.

I. Christianity imposed by military force!

The first in the cycle of 5th century historians, the hugely readable
Agatangeghos is frank and forthright. There was no Armenian conversion to
Christianity. Christianity was imposed with military force, dehumanising
humiliation, terror and destruction. Those with illusions will blush on
paging Agatangehos's `History' - violence and military dictatorship
played a role immensely more important than the preaching of the priests!
Even Agatangeghos's account of King Drtad's spiritual `conversion' is a
tale of dehumanisation. Refusing to voluntarily `convert' Drtad is
condemned to a beastly, pig-like existence and restored to nobility only
on acquiescence to Christian dictate. His conversion has nothing to do
with `seeing the light' but with escaping the living hell to which he had
been consigned in his de-human existence (A411, 413, 429, 435 - See Note

While Gregory the Illuminator, the founder of Armenian Christianity is
depicted as playing a decisive role, the success of the entire enterprise
was based on his alliance with Armenian King Drtad's armed forces. During
the decade from 303-312 Gregory `relied on the King's terror and
instruction to secure obedience from all' (A443). Aware of this, Gregory
seems to have paid particular attention to fortifying the King's army,
the proven guarantor of Christian `conversion'. He laboured to
indoctrinate the armed forces `devoting one month to fasting and prayer'
(A463) and Christening `over 4,000 men, women and children' from the
King's military entourage.

It was only following the military pact between Christian leader and
secular monarch that Gregory `received sanction from the King, his
princes and lords' to `commence the task' of `demolishing, destroying,
annihilating and removing from the face of the earth the scandal' of
paganism (A437). With `peremptory instruction from the King' the `entire
royal army' proceeded to wage veritable war to `annihilate even the
memory of these false deities that dared assume the name of god'
(A437). The vast scale of this campaign is not only described in detail
but told with a measure of relish!

The Christian military campaign opened with a march on the town of
Ardashad there `to destroy the temple of the (chief) goddess Anahid'
(A437). On its way, in an ideologically significant move, the army `set
about destroying, wrecking and burning' the renowned pagan `centre of
learning and godly wisdom' said to have been established by Ormist
(A437). The Church eyed the wealth of pagan temples such as Vahevanyan
that `was rich with treasures, full of gold and silver and with many
other gifts donated by great kings (A453).' A tide of devastation and
looting raged across the land as every possible pagan temple and statue
was levelled and its land and wealth appropriated by the victorious
Christian Church.

A rich Armenian pagan civilisation and culture was destroyed with a
ruthlessness as total as the 21st century ISIS-style destruction of
Christian and non-Islamic temples and institutions in Afghanistan, Iraq,
Syria and elsewhere. The Armenian Church was as intolerant and as violent
as one could get, and perhaps more comprehensively so than anywhere
else. That such violence was the norm at the time is true. But it alters
not the savage character of the Christian conquest.

To consolidate its positions the Church did make concessions', one could
say bribes, to the common people. To secure a popular compliance it
initially distributed `gold and silver' to `the poor, the suffering and
the property-less' (A439, 441). But it made sure to retain monopoly
control of all immovable sources of wealth. The Church seized for itself
all pagan `land and buildings along with the resident serfs and pagan
priests' (A441). It was thus that on the same exploitative social
foundations as the old pagan regime the new religion was to emerge as a
dominant elite estate.

Puzant who does not detail the Christianisation of Armenia nevertheless
alludes to its violent imposition on the common people. He writes that
    `...was accepted by them against their will. They submitted to it as
    if it was a human deviation, without genuine, devout faith (PP91).'

Puzant indicates the fragile and unstable quality of early Armenian
Christianity. Only segments of the elite, `the literate minority', who
knew something about `Greek and Assyrian literature', understood
Christianity.  Among the `illiterate mobs, among the feudal lords and the
common people' Christianity was never secure. Teachers `may preach from
morning till sundown, they may pour their sermons upon the people as if
rain, but the mobs would retain not even an iota of instruction (PP91).'

Established through force, violence and destruction, through two
centuries the new Christian elite steadily amassed vast wealth and
status. Always insecure the elite defended its privileges with
inquisitorial style torture, violence and blood-lust. As if perfectly
acceptable morally and otherwise, Pavsdos Puzant records that in
371AD`General Mushegh destroyed (non-Christian) temples and ordered
captives to be roasted on a burning fire (PP231).' `He arrested nobles
who had received honours from the (pagan) Persians, skinned them and
stuffed their bodies with straw before hanging them along fortress walls
(PP231-2)'. Capturing the Persian Kings private tents `Mushegh ordered
the skinning and stuffing of 600 men so that he could present these as
gifts to Armenian King Bab (PP233).' Nothing changed with time.

Writing of the 451AD Armenian revolt against Persian power the devoutly
Christian Yeghishe displays a perverse delight in the tortured death of
Prince Vassak deemed traitor to the Armenian cause. With glee he reports
Vassak's `stomach swelling up and his waist being crushed as his firm
flesh melted and frayed.' All the while `worms boiled up in Vassak's eyes
and dripped down from his nostrils (Y130)'.  Yeghishe also rather
nonchalantly describes General Vartan's surviving forces attacking
Persian territories and `committing bloody deeds as they mercilessly
slaughtered their victims (Y120)'. Numerous other examples are ready at

All 5th century historians without exception glorify such war, violence
and torture and without a qualm record enslavement, plunder and
exploitation as legitimate means to defend and increase the wealth and
privilege of their Christian order, an order that in their own accounts
was sustained by the systemic exploitation of the peasant and artisan!

II. `The common people build our world and feed the land!'

It was not just because of their numerical majority that radical democrat
Mikael Nalpantian described the common people as the foundation of a
nation. Crucially, it was because the entire social structure rested on
the productive labour of the peasant and artisan.  This truth runs as an
implicit thread through our 5th century histories.  Almost inadvertently,
at one point Pavsdos Puzant is explicit writing that `the peasantry
builds our world and feeds the land (PP121)'. Thus it was that there came
into existence the royal and princely mansions, the grand Churches, the
monasteries, the farms, the towns and villages, the roads, the bridges,
the royal hunting grounds, the very foundations for the reproduction of
social life. Yet this peasantry that built and fed the land's elites, its
aristocracy, clergy and monarchy, lived unremitting lives of misery,
oppression and exploitation.

The cruel relations that defined the social character of the early
Armenian Christian age are described at the very opening of
Agatangeghos's `History'. To explain the majesty of Christian spiritual
emancipation he turns to metaphors from the secular world he inhabited.

An artistically magnificent account of the courage of sea-faring
merchants battling storm and wave grasps something of the blighted and
bent lives of the common people. Merchants brave the seas to earn the
means to `free their suffering relations from debt bondage to unjust
princes (A9)'. They `use a portion of their gain... to free themselves from
debt' and from `the yoke of royal taxation'. It `is not greed' for profit
but `poverty, need and utter destitution' that `drives them to risk life
and limb (A9).' Spiritual emancipation Agatangeghos writes is akin to
`elevating the poor from the dung heap and making them equal with princes
(A13).'  But elevating them from the real `dung heap' the people lived in
would not occur to our honourable Agatangeghos or the Church elite that
lived off the labour of the poor.

Even as the chroniclers of the triumphant Christian age showed no
interest in the lives of the common people their classic `Histories'
demonstrate that the new Christian regime implanted itself as a vastly
privileged estate alongside secular allies with both thriving on
compulsory free labour, exorbitant taxation, tithes and the absolute
servitude of the land's working population. In an impressive 1957
`History of the Armenian Peasantry' Y Hagopian using 5th century
literature as a primary source reconstructs in some detail the class
structure, organisation, stratification and the system of exploitation of
peasant and artisan labour that sustained 4-5th century Christian

Yeghishe in a richly significant phrase speaks of `an ingredient' of
elite `wealth being the theft of the property of the poor (Y107)'. Not
infrequently an already intolerable burden of such domestic theft was
made even more intolerable by additional theft from Persian and Byzantine
powers. Yeghishe notes that for the peasant, new Persian taxation was a
threateningly fatal additional burden. `Collected, more in the manner of
plundering bandits than a dignified State' it would `annihilate the
plebeian farmer' throwing the population into `extreme poverty'.

As he focuses on resistance to Persian power, quoting from a speech
delivered by Ghevond, the religious leader of the 451 anti-Persian Church
uprising, Yeghishe underlines popular rage against both domestic and
Persian super-exploitation:

    `If we look down...what disastrous things do we see...the suffering
    of the poor and their countless tortures, the harsh pressures of the
    tax collectors, theft and plunder from tyrannous neighbours, hunger
    and thirst... An endless flood of fear from those outside and dread
    from those inside (Y107).'

Barpetzi too refers to widespread impoverishment caused by `the bitter
slavish yoke' of Persian tax collectors who `descended like locusts
gobbling up the land and causing much danger to the people.' (Hagopian
p342 p477)

III. `The fish stinks from the head down'

Sitting atop the 4th and 5th century Armenian Christian order was a
degenerate, selfish, centrifugal, debauched, hedonistic and philandering
secular elite. Puzant describes this caste as `trampling upon' `justice
and right' with:

    `King and the princes especially...engaged in indiscriminate killings
    and the spilling of innocent blood alongside many of its other sins

The long list of sins indicates a fragile and unstable state:
`lawlessness' `injustice' `bloodletting' `plunder', `expropriation',
`hatred for the poor' as well as `homosexuality' (sic) and `whoring
(PP90, 91,103) '.

Puzant's colours may be lurid and exaggerated. But the depiction remains
essentially correct. This was the recognised behaviour of all feudal
elites and for Armenians at the time was confirmed by none other than
Movses Khorenatzi, the outstanding figure of early Armenian
historiography. In the `Lament' that concludes his `History' the early
Christian age is judged to be the lowest point of Armenian
history. Armenia appears as dark, blighted, nightmare land on the edge of
collapse. The entire elite - prince, priest, judge and teacher - all fail
to measure up to the standard implied in their titles:

    `Teachers - stupid and conceited, elected by money not saintly
    devotion', `priests - hypocrites who love status more than God',
    `judges - lazy and ignorant who prefer trading and drinking',
    `soldiers - cowardly, boasting, pillagers and drunkards, `princes -
    venal, rebellious, plundering, greedy', `judges - lying, cheating,
    bribe takers (MK315-316)

In the arc of Armenian history the Christian Khorenatzi gives pride of
place to the pagan order his own Church so brutally destroyed.
Khorenatzi `loves' the Armenian pagan kings `most'. He would have loved
`to have been born in their (pagan) times' so he could `revel in the
rule' of truly great kings (MK130). If Christian Armenia is to ever
recover Khorenatzi suggests then it must seek to emulate the most
exemplary pagan period.

Puzant's earlier narrative of monarchic successions after King Drtad's
death reinforces Khorenatzi's picture. The period is punctuated by
murderous and debilitating battles between egotistical Crown, Church and
estates. The Christian state from its very inception was weak and
floundering and in Khorenatzi's evaluation began to founder immediately
upon King Drtad's death (MK240-241, 244). Raging internecine conflict
brought it to its knees (PP103-110, 299).

Quoting Nerses the Great, Pavsdos Puzant warned of impending disaster:

    `Beware, for as a result of all your sins and corruptions the lord
    will withdraw from you your kingdom and your Church. You will be
    divided and dispersed and your borders like those of Israel will will become sheep without a will become
    victim to beasts, your will fall into the hands of foreign enemies
    and the chains of oppression shall never be loosened....As with the
    land of Israel which was torn asunder never to be reunited, you too
    will be dispersed and destroyed.'

Far-sighted segments of the Armenian Church, men such as Vrtaness and
Nerses the Great grasped the dangers confronting the new Christian
state. Puzant tells of a group of Bishops who `met to confer about
reforming the secular orders and defining the laws of the faith'. Nerses
the Great, a man of enormous energy and vision is said to have urged:

    `...the King, the grandees and in general all those who exercised
    authority over others to have mercy on their servants, inferiors and
    students, to treat them as family, and not to illegally oppress them
    with excessive taxes, remembering that for them too there is a god in

Of course the Church had no intention of releasing serfs from feudal
bondage. It did however understand that a degree of social harmony was
necessary to sustain the social order. But all was to no avail. The
elites paid no heed.

Heralding the collapse of independent statehood in 387AD Armenia was
divided between Persian and Byzantine empires. Never much more than a
vassal state used as a pawn in battles between Rome and Persia in 428, in
just over a century after the Christian triumph, the Armenian Christian
state was removed as a nuisance to both. Khazar Barpetzi writes:

    `The Arshagouni dynasty, as a result of its inglorious behaviour and
    in accord with the predictions of Saint Nerses, fell from God's grace
    and was abandoned. Armenia was condemned to division between Persian
    and Greek kings. Between them they took into their servitude portions
    of this great land.' (KB27)

The Christianisation of Armenia was part of a wider phenomenon that swept
Europe and Asia Minor. Judging the Persian menace greater than that of
Rome the Armenian King Drtad converted to Roman Christianity as a
tactical political rather than religious move. Dressed like a Christian
Roman he hoped he could scare off Zorastrian Persia. The project failed.

After 428 a Christian Armenian state was only to be re-established in the
9th century. But this Bagratouni dynasty too endured for just a
century. Nearly 800 year into the future, in 1918 when Armenian statehood
was once again re-established it was then on the tiniest, most
unsustainable remnant of a historic Armenia that Christianity had utterly
failed to protect. This miserable experience contrasts sharply with for
example the Persian Islamic conversion that was also brought about by a
foreign global socio-political and military tidal wave. The Persian
Iranian order, its ruling classes and its state, despite coming
repeatedly to the edge of disintegration and disappearance managed,
endured and recovered as an independent power despite the defeat of

IV. Self-reliance and the right to revolt!

Despite its defining darker sides, it would be wrong to bypass the
uplifting moments of the 5th century literary legacy. Within often
magnificent literary- cultural accomplishments three of the five main
historians-chroniclers set out certain fundamental principles of
progressive thought relevant to our own day today.

For as long as imperial nations have oppressed and exploited small
nations there has been and will be resistance. Movses Khorenatizi offers
an early Armenian affirmation of this truth, one that resonates in
contemporary experience. In one aspect his `History' is a defence of the
rights of small nations and of their contribution to human civilisation
and culture. In a much quoted passage Khorenatzi remarks:

    `Though we are only a small people, limited in numbers and frequently
    oppressed by foreign kings, nevertheless even in our land there have
    been great acts of courage that are deserving of memory and
    record. (p96)

He goes on to condemn the great powers for their genocidal policies, for
their attempts to assimilate smaller nations and to write them out of
history. To exact revenge against Haig, the founder of the Armenian
state, Assyrian King Ninos plans to `annihilate every last offspring of
Haig's tribe.' (p117) A `proud and selfish man' he also `sought to
present himself... as the only King touched by courage and perfection.'
(p117) During his reign `the histories of other nations were not regarded
as important', and so he `ordered the destruction of vast numbers of
volumes that told of these and other achievements...' (p119). It was in
part as inspiration to struggle against such annihilation that Khorenatzi
wrote his grand `History'.

Yeghishe's brilliantly written `The Story of Vartanantz' goes on to
uphold the right of revolt against unjust political power and that in a
very `un-Christian' manner. Though written after the 451 Armenian defeat
at the Battle of Avarayr Yeghishe reads as an uncompromising summoning to
stand ground, as an invocation against demoralised surrender and as a
proclamation of the righteousness of the Armenian revolt against Persian

Yeghishe portrays what was as a broad, popular, nationwide insurrection
that embraced whole swathes of the population irrespective of class or
status. There was `no differentiation between lord and servant, between
delicate freeman and hardy peasant, and none appeared lesser in bravery.'
All were `willing of spirit whether man or woman, old or young...
(Y149-50).' As the organisation of the uprising progressed `all - not
just brave men, but married women too - were ready for battle, helmets
fitted, swords at their waste and shield on arms (Y142) .' Aggressive
Persian power was detested by all classes. So a temporary confluence of
interest between the Church, albeit itself an exploiting force and the
peasantry to resist Persian power!

Yeghishe's affirmation of the principle of the right to rebellion is not
voided by the opportunist character of the Church revolt! Since the
termination of Armenian statehood the Church adjusted happily to foreign
rule. It did not resist so long as it was permitted to remain free of
taxation and retain its powers to govern and live off the Armenian common
people's labour. Things only changed in 450 when Persian power proposed
to remove the Church's economic and social privileges. As soon the real
material interests of its class were threatened, the Church elite without
second thought discarded the Christian injunction to submit to secular
power, to `render unto God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's'.
The political imperative of revolt and resistance in defence of class
interest prevailed over all other considerations. Thus Yeghishe albeit
indirectly, affirms a fundamental principle of political struggle in all
phases of history for all social classes and forces.

Khazar Barpetzi rounds off Movses Khorenatzi's proclamation of the rights
of small nations and Yeghishe's affirmation of their rights to rebel with
an urging to self-reliance in the struggle against imperial
powers. According to Barpetzi following the defeat at Avarayr conditions
in Armenia went from bad to worse. `Decency vanished, wisdom was lost,
bravery was dead and gone and Christianity went into hiding as the once
famed Armenian army became an object of ridicule and laughter (KB269).'
But in 481 one Vahan Mamikonian emerges and in alliance with the Church
prepares to lead yet another and this time unprecedented guerrilla
rebellion against the Persian throne.

Vahan Mamikonian is portrayed as a courageous fighter and a brilliant
inventive military tactician. But central to his image is that of a
leader conscious that Armenian aims can best be served by reliance on
Armenian forces alone, by a refusal to trust foreign imperial forces even
if they like the Byzantine powers shared the same Christian religion!
Prior to raising the flag of rebellion Vahan Mamikonian advises
caution. The revolt is fully justified but he does `not have the
confidence to say that it will be successful.' (KB289) The Persians are
`powerful and audacious' while reliance on Byzantium would be tragic
self-deception. Vahan knows well the `deceit of the Greeks' who `swearing
solidarity with our forefathers went on to betray them.' (KB289) The
rebellious Armenian camp nevertheless urges Vahan to take up the mantle:

    `All that you said truthfully and justly. Therefore we do
    not place our hopes on the Greeks or the Hons...but first and
    foremost in God's will ...and then on pain of our own lives.'

Three years of guerrilla war and Persian commander Shabouh accepts that
his forces have been battered as `never before'. Persian King Beroz
acknowledges that `the (guerrilla) tactics employed by Vahan are unknown
to us today. We recall such accomplishments only in the stories of
ancient warriors.' (KB379) During some hard-knuckled negotiations Vahan
reiterates that these achievements were acts `by Armenians alone'. `No
one else' he says `helped us, neither Greek, nor Hon nor any other
foreign forces.'  So the Persian throne sought an end to the war and an
arrangement that would secure a friendly ally someone capable of doing
them such damage.

* * * * * * *

The Armenian people not only gained nothing from the 4-5th century
imposition of Christianity, they lost a great deal! For the people the
exploitative social, economic and political relations remained in place
and indeed began a transition to more severe feudal exploitation and
servitude. Throughout the Christian age, during brief periods of
independent Christian Armenian statehood and longer centuries foreign
rule over Armenian Christian communities there was an acceleration of
peasants being bonded to the land as serfs to a degenerate aristocracy!

But still, amid the generalised muck and grime that `Golden Age'
histories reveal about 4-5th century Christian Armenia are principles of
political struggle, of strategic and tactical vision, that albeit born of
the experience of feudal elites remains, to this day as relevant to every
national, democratic and progressive force.

Note 1: The term Golden Age, always a label of hindsight is perhaps
better attached to the 5th century cultural and literary legacy - the
creation of the unique Armenian script and the birth of a magnificent
Armenian historiography alongside the prolific translation of works of
world culture including the Bible. Yet the literary and cultural `Golden
Age' proved an impotent ally in the Armenian elites' battle for the
survival of Christian statehood.

Besides their uninhibitedly critical exposure of the darker side of
4th-5th century Armenian society ruled by irredeemably decadent elites
the `Golden Age' classics have other tremendous, historical, literary and
intellectual qualities For a glimpse of the five authors referred to you
can visit Groong at: -
1 May 2001; Pavsdos Puzant - 16 August 2000; Yeghishe - 30 December 2001;
Khazar Barpetzi - 19 October 2001; Movses of Khoren - 12 March 2001)

Note 2: Sources are indicted with author initials followed by page number
thus - Agatangeghos - A000. The volumes from which extracts are borrowed
are: Agatangeghos, Armenian State University Press, 1983; Pavsdos Puzant,
Armenia Publishing House, 1988; Yeghishe, Housaper Printing House, Cairo,
1950; Khazar Barpetzi, Armenian State University Press, 1982; Movses
Khorenatzi, Armenian State Univerity Press, 1981

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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