Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2004 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
Why we should read... 'History of the Armenian People' by Hovanness Traskhanagerdtzi (400pp, University of Yerevan, 1996, Armenia) Armenian News Network / Groong August 1, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian Hovanness Traskhanagerdtzi (c850-929AD) was an altogether remarkable historian of an altogether remarkable age - the 9th and 10th century re-establishment of an independent Armenian feudal state after nearly four centuries of statelessness. As well as being an erudite scholar, Traskhanagerdtzi was also the leader of the Armenian Church and an energetic politician centrally involved in the life of the times, working to repair inter-Armenian dissension or seeking to stay the hand of renewed Arab aggression. For his pains, he frequently had to abandon his accustomed life of luxury. He experienced periods of solitary confinement shackled in dark dungeons, was forced to flee for refuge to islands in Lake Sevan or to hide in the fastness of some deep caverns dug into mountain rocks. Traskhanagerdtzi's 'History of the Armenian People' written in the twilight of his life is as remarkable as the man and retains its purchase to this day. Befitting its age, it is the story of a state-building endeavour. Traskhanagerdtzi describes it as a 'counsel for unification' that he thought essential to overcome the dangers and difficulties faced by the new Armenian state. Detailed accounts of the reign of the first three Bagratouni kings - Ashot I, Smbat I and Ashot II are prefaced by a significant synopsis of Armenian history from the earliest times. Setting the context and defining his criteria of excellence Traskhanagerdtzi highlights work that served to establish the geographic, social, military and political structures and institutions of a strong centralised political state that could secure prosperous development for the feudal nobility. The entire volume is framed with evident pride but with no bombast. Traskhanagerdtzi is profoundly realistic when describing damaging internal weaknesses or the awesome threats of external foes not yet reconciled to Armenian independence. Whether original, Biblically inspired or directly borrowed his images and metaphors give numerous passages an artistic vigour that, besides reflecting on issues of state-building, contain exciting accounts of the author's own adventures, of political and diplomatic intrigue and deception as well as haunting descriptions of the suffering caused by war and upheaval. I. STATE BUILDING AFTER THE AGE OF ARAB OCCUPATION Like his predecessors and followers Traskhanagerdtzi recalls with horror the age of Arab rule that for nearly two centuries was like a 'burning wind from the South' that destroyed 'the power of nations and tribes' and 'reduced the gardens of the land to cinders.' (p89). Armenian 'noble houses vanished and those that remained were subjected to the yoke like slaves'. (p115) The whole process was marked by sharp cultural decline and so 'from those times there are few details of what our nobles did.' (p115). Yet Traskhanagerdtzi's account of Arab occupation does not have that crushing burden of utter despair manifest in Lasdivertzi's 'History', for Traskhnagerdtzi was witness to how, despite its reduced state, the Armenian nobility survived to mount a new challenge for statehood. Among the feudal estates was the House of Bagratouni that growing conscious of its strength and alert to the ebb of Arab power, took the helm to contest for greater autonomy and political independence. Traskhanagerdtzi's account of their accomplishments, in depicting an endeavour that was not dependent upon or beholden to foreign powers reminds one of Barbetzi, that grand 5th century historian for whom national self-reliance was a matter of intense pride. Ashot Bagratouni, the future King of Armenia, Traskhanagerdtzi tells us, was a man of talent, who 'disdained disrespectfulness and sought always to improve himself.' An accomplished diplomat 'he did not wage war or seek confrontation with his enemies, but with diplomatic skill brought them round ... to his side.' (p135) In 875 such qualities inspired Armenian 'princes and nobility to come together and request of Arab power that Ashot be proclaimed their King.' Ten years later, in 885, in an obviously reluctant move, the Arab Emir 'sends Ashot the Royal Crown' (p141). So emerged the first relatively independent Armenian state since 387 when Armenia had been divided between Persia and Byzantium. Proudly Traskhanagerdtzi notes that once again an Armenian royal dynasty works to 'raise the nation of Torkom'. (p143) Ashot I's reign inaugurated an epoch of immense reform, setting in place some of the essential structures of an independent state. Even before his official crowning, together with his brother Abbas, the Comander-in-Chief, Ashot centralised political power by 'subordinating all' the main Armenian estates 'to (royal) authority' (p139). Thereafter, within the expanded 'realm of his authority' he put in place: 'grand and noble orders, restored and reordered the structure of estates, regions, towns, villages and farms. He established equal and stable structures for those living in mountain regions or plains. In the plains he founded farms and cattle centres and fructified the orchards and gardens. And he did not stint on anything that was deserving for a Kingdom...' (p143) Despite unrelenting Arab hostility, successive Bagratouni Kings remained stubborn in their ambition to enhance their territorial boundaries and strengthen central power. Smbat I continued his father's work 'extending the borders of his kingdom and subjecting (all) to royal taxation. (p165). Ashot II followed the same path and 'in a short while recaptured (those of) his father's fortresses' that had been seized by Arab commanders. (p245) Together with such military, political and economic work ran measures to guard social harmony that Traskhanagerdtzi believed to be 'the foundation for peace and development' (p31). Ashot I contributed to this by charitable work that 'distributed no little sums of gold and silver to the poor and homeless.' (p143) So followed a period of prosperity and development as: 'the Lord visited Armenia, protected and brought success to all good works. Each person took occupation of his inheritance and appropriating the land built on it. They sowed the fields and reaped a hundred fold ... (T)heir wheat stores were full as were the containers for their wine ... And the mountains were merry for upon them roamed flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.' (p203) An idea of the tremendous wealth of the time can be gleaned from descriptions of lavish gifts tendered to foreign powers, to Arab emirates, Byzantine princes or by the King to other nobles and the Church (p201). Besides the nobility and an increasinlgy independent merchant class, the Church was one of the greatest beneficiaries of this accumulation. Whilst alms were dispensed to the poor, fabulous riches pour into Church coffers. Ashot for instance 'ensured that ... the contents of treasure chests were full to the brim, as well as herds of horse and cattle and flocks of sheep were all distributed to the orthodox churches as gifts for the holy mass ... '(p145). For Traskhanagerdtzi all this work marks a restoration of continuity with ancient Armenian accomplishments that had been buried by the centuries of enslavement. In his descriptions of the Bagratouni accomplishments the parallels that Traskhanagerdtzi draws with ancient glories are all too evident. The synopsis of early Armenian history, whilst lauding valour, includes state building as its defining dimension, underlining the 'work of construction, of town building and establishing good order' (p9) that was undertaken by Haig the founder of the Armenian nation, Ara the Beautiful, Vagharshag, Dikran the Great and by that phenomenal man of energy Catholicos Nerses the Great. To these great people the Bagratouni are deemed meritorious successors. II. RESISTANCE TO ENDLESS WARS OF RE-CONQUEST The transition to full Armenian independence was not to be a smooth one. Though forced to recognize Armenian independence the Arab empire had never abandoned hopes of restoring its rule. After some two and a half centuries of subjugating Armenia and its people, after bleeding it of its wealth and siphoning off tens of thousands of its people as slaves, this elite regarded Armenia as its own property. Additionally the steadily growing political and economic fortunes of the newly independent Bagratouni dynasty came to pose new and serious dangers to Arab regional influence and revenue. Arab Emirs feared an Armenian alliance with its traditional Byzantine enemy. Hearing of Smbat's treaty with Byzantine Emperor Leo, Abshin was 'deeply wounded' and thought 'that they could plot against him'. (p163) He, and the Arab elite generally, was also concerned about possible economic loss if Smbat was to 'refuse to submit to the tax demands put on him. (p171) So Abshin's successor Yussef 'issued severe proclamations insisting on payment of royal taxes and reminding ... (the Armenian King) of his subject status. (p207-209) Throughout his record Traskhanagerdtzi registers again and again the debilitating wars of re-conquest waged against the new Bagratouni dynasty by neighbouring Arab powers and their allies settled in Armenia. Abshin 'guided by evil thoughts' moved 'like a roaring flood to drown Armenia in terror and pour his bitter poison upon the King's head. (p181) Intent on Smbat's destruction he 'appears ... in the province of Shirak ... to entrap' him (p189) Yussef was equally ferocious 'growling like an un-caged lion' as he 'prepared to hunt Smbat down.'(p219). Besides direct warfare Arab emirates exploited and deepened divisions within the Armenian nobility, playing off different princedoms against the Bagratouni Dynasty. Here they succeeded in splitting the Vasbourakan province and its leading estate, the Ardzrounis, from the Armenian monarch, a measure that did much to weaken the newly formed Armenian state. (p213) In this endless assault the land was brought to the verge of collapse. Together with internecine clashes they 'destroyed prosperity and peace and put in their stead wreckage and decay.' (p261). As the 'Ismaelite storm rolled forth like a hurricane bringing death and bitterness and driving us out of our homes' (p223) Armenians 'became objects of derision to our neighbours and together with flocks of sheep ... were abducted ... , driven into slavery and sold.' (p225) In some spirited writing Traskhanagerdtzi contrasts the prosperity and wonder of what was, with the terrible plight of the present. So terrible, that it drove people to cannibalism. (p261-265). Yet the Bagratounis hung on to their new state with amazing stubbornness. Through extended and bitter battle Ashot II restored his father's shrunken borders. But as Traskhanagerdtzi concludes his narrative circa 924, we see even Ashot II in retreat and facing possible defeat. Traskhanagerdtzi did not live to write of the greater independence that Ashot did eventually secure for the new state. But his History ends with a powerful plea for what he saw as an essential ingredient of success - the unification of the Armenian nobility around the royal dynasty. III. THE CALL TO UNITY In his epilogue Traskhanagredtzi wanted: 'to convey to you my readers the hope that instead of once again falling victim to these sufferings ... (you) listen with care and interest to my pleading and counsel for unity so that you become better sons of the martyred Set and be recorded in the list of God's children and not in the tree of that cursed fratricide Gain. (p363) So he urges his audience: 'not to follow the delusions of the deceivers nor to deviate to the left or to the right of the sure path of the royal house for on both sides scoundrels are concealed and the fate of those who fall in their hands is death.' (p365) Traskhanagerdtzi had a great fear of internal dissension. He notes in his synopsis of ancient history that if 'each person (read here noble estate) does (only) as he wishes' 'peace is jeopardised and decency diminished'. (p61) He suggests further that it was such centrifugal forces that caused the collapse of the Arshagouni dynasty. Further he writes that the 7th century Arab conquest of Armenia was only successful because of 'the lack of unity among the noble estates of our land and the absence of anyone to lead the armed forces.' (p85) This vice surfacing again during the Bagratouni dynasty obstructs the work for complete independence. King Smbat in the absence of 'harmony and solidarity from the nobility' was unable to 'find any other resolution' was thus forced to bend 'to the will' of the Arab emir. (p185) Through such internecine warfare that compromised the state's independence, the feudal nobility 'shed more of each other's blood than that of the enemies' and destroyed their own 'homes, towns, villages and cities with their own hands. (p261) It was as a result of such an appreciation of history and of his own contemporary observation that Traskhanagerdtzi arrived at his emphasis on the urgency for political unity around the royal house. Such calls that form a constant refrain in many classical and medieval Armenian histories require explanation rather than dismissal for they are more than a meaningless mantra or impotent moral invocation. Historically they were advanced by members of a relatively united Church and were addressed to an essentially fragmented secular order. They say a great deal about the relations between the Church and secular nobility that are fundamental to understanding classical and medieval Armenian history. Traskhanagerdtzi's "History' provides much material to ponder such issues. The re-emergence of the new Armenian state was a tremendous boon for the Armenian Church. Besides direct donations of packs of horses, flocks of sheep and cattle, entire villages and other movable wealth (p145) there was a massive investment in the Church apparatus. Leading feudal houses now 'free and secure from depredation by bandits' building 'Churches of stone ... in monasteries, urban centres, villages.' (p203). In this context there is nothing extraordinary in observing that the Church would have a direct interest in the unification of the nobility around the monarchy. This would not only render the new state more powerful and stable but as a result enhance the position and glory of the Church. Neither is there anything original in noting that such a centralised state would facilitate the Church's administration of its own properties that stretched across individual secular fiefdoms. Thus in the face of the fractious nobility the Church's call for unity contained and expressed a certain strategic political vision. This call for unity by the Church was yet more than a realistic and calculated expression of the interest of one, albeit powerful, parasitic feudal estate. That the Church was parasitic - surviving through the labours of the Armenian peasant and gifts from the secular nobility or the merchant class - is beyond debate. But it was at the same time more than this. It represented and expressed the broad political and social interests of Armenian feudalism as a whole in a manner that the secular nobility did not. It did so not just by virtue of the fact that its domain and its interests extended across the multitude of secular fiefdoms. The Armenian Church, though stripped of its 5th and 6th century grandeur remained an integral and essential part of the Armenian state and political apparatus. It was, in Traskhanagerdtzi's age, as essential to the secular order as the secular order was essential to the Church. It was one side of the coin, the other side being the Bagratouni dynasty that together formed the backbone of the new Armenian state. The Armenian Church was the civil service of the Armenian political state producing the literate class who functioned as officers, secretaries, treasurers and chroniclers for the Armenian royal dynasties and other nobility. It provided the state's legal structures and services, codified its laws and its moral and ideological principles and operated the educational system. It also played a vital role in sustaining social peace including offering a minimum of social welfare in the form of hospitals and others services for the needy that were necessary to prevent social dislocation. The Church's call for unity that resounds across many centuries expresses a consciousness of this reality. It also condenses into this call its long held strategic political vision for a centralised and powerful Armenian state that could secure not just its own interest but those of the entire feudal system. In his own calls for unity Traskhanagerdtzi was not merely repeating a meaningless slogan borrowed from his predecessors. He was giving expression to the political interests of the new Armenian state in an era of tremendous transition towards the first stages of a modern nation state. (It is worth noting here that through Traskhanagerdtzi's work, whilst the term 'nation' is frequently used to denote single feudal estates, it is also used to describe the broader collection of those estates that are identified as Armenian by virtue of their religion.) Traskhanagerdtzi and other Armenian thinkers who followed share much with European thinkers who, during later European feudalism, also sponsored absolutist monarchy and a centralised state as a first step towards the development of the modern nation. IV. RENAISSANCE SCHOLAR, NATION-BUILDER AND HISTORIAN Traskhanagerdtiz's 'History' does not and could not attain the artistic excellence of its 5th century Golden Age predecessors. But it is erected upon the rich heritage of the past and has with it a degree of continuity. Fashioning his 'counsel for unification' and expounding his argument for a centralised state, Traskhanagerdtzi draws not just on his contemporary experience, but like a true Renaissance scholar relies on human reason and the accomplishments of the classical age of Armenian history. An intellectual of a new Armenian order Traskhanagerdtzi takes pride in the abilities of human reason and the capacities of the intellect. Believing that the ultimate 'truths and possibilities' of nature and life remain 'remote from human comprehension' he yet thought that with 'God's help' and: 'with commendable and moderate audacity men (have been able to) present with a virtuous rationality ... the changing order of history ... (and) with these riches of their mind they hoped to carry out good works for the land. (p7) Traskhanagerdtzi also displays a respect for science and for Armenian achievements in particular. Writing that Armenian 'artists and scientists' developed an Armenian calendar, he is proud that this 'relieved us of borrowing like beggars from foreign nations.' (p69) Elsewhere, speaking of the development of an Armenian calendar he writes that it eliminated 'our reliance on the Roman calendar. (p95-97) This combination of pride in human reason and his Armenian identity gave Traskhanagerdtzi the confidence and boldness to make an extraordinary correction to what he regards as an inadequacy in the Bible. He claims that: 'the Bible represents and defines the story up to our Torkom in a rather unworthy way. It does not say from why, from where and how or who ruled the land of Armenia, or from where their nobles or their kings descended.' (p17) So he sets about filling in this gap with his detailed account of Armenia from the earliest times. He does so by returning to the classics, 'to the fathers' (p9). He refers directly to Mesrop the founder of the Armenian alphabet, and repeatedly to Khorenatzi the 5th century founder of Armenian historiography, as well as to historians such as Agatangeghos, to Shabouh who preceded him more closely and to others from the Armenian intellectual cultural tradition. (That Traskhanagerdtzi was able to draw on the work of his ancient predecessors testifies to the immense and enduring endeavours of those who copied and preserved these ancient records, often in the most horrendous conditions of war, persecution and massacre. This is a subject for another tale of human accomplishment!) Appropriating the accomplishments of the past, propounding the virtues of reason, and urging the emulation of past Armenian grandeur, Traskhanagerdtzi personifies a new age of Armenian history that was born with the Bagratouni dynasty, an age of renaissance and recovery that was to produce remarkable marvels of culture and civilisation, that alas did not have the opportunity to flourish and develop to fullness. For those who wish to learn from history, this volume offers much. -- 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.