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 By EDDIE ARNAVOUDIAN 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. I. 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 Vartanants: `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. II. 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 (p203)'. 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 region. 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 in...in 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. III. 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 elites. IV. 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 financier. 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 transformed. V. 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 rule. `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 (p197)' 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. NOTE 2 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.
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 2015 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.