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Why we should read... `History of the Armenians' by Pavsdos Puzant Armenia Publishing House, Yerevan, 1988 Armenian News Network / Groong August 16, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian In the frequently bleak and disturbing 1700 year history of the Armenian Church, the 4th and 5th centuries stand out as an exceptional period when appalling vices were balanced out by grand ambitions and equally grand achievements. During these two centuries the Church features as one of the healthier and more vigorous forces in Armenian social and political life. It did not thereby cease to be feudal, and was stamped with all the backward traits of its times, its primary concern being, as always, to safeguard and enhance its own position at everyone else's expense. But for very particular reasons at this point in history its own sectional interest compelled it to act in the national interest, the requirements of its own survival prompting it to account for the needs of state and society. On the occasion of the Armenian Church's 1700th anniversary celebrations in 2001 it is worth it to revisit this earlier era. In doing so there is no better person to journey with than the brilliant 5th century writer Pavsdos Puzant. In 470 or thereabouts, we cannot be certain, Puzant composed his famous `History of the Armenians'. Parts of the book appear not to have survived. However what has reached us covers six turbulent and decisive decades from 319 to 384. Then, as today, the very existence of Armenian state and nation hung in the balance. Puzant's history ranges wide but centres on the response to this challenge by the two main and opposing forces then dominating the domestic political stage: the Church and the Arshagouni dynasty. The Church leadership in its struggle against the monarchy and secular nobility depicts as actis on the recognition of the need for a strong and independent Armenian national state. This being a condition for its own survival, the Church leadership is portrayed as striving to put in place the social and political foundations for such a state. The thesis is both persuasive and sustainable. A. The Church's national concern The Church's bitter struggle against the Arshagouni dynasty was driven by more than just theological concern. The Church was not merely a `spiritual shepherd' for the flock. By the middle of 4th century it had become one of the land's largest estates possessing enormous political, social and economic weight. With the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 301 (the accuracy of this date is a matter of some dispute. A useful summary of alternative suggestions can be found in Rouben Manasserian's 'Armenia From Ardavast to Drtad the Great') the Christian clergy inherited much of the property and landed wealth of the pagan church. Thereafter it continued to accumulate wealth and status at a staggeringly rapid pace. To defend all this it had little choice but to take an active role in all aspects of secular life where it emerged as the monarchy's main contender for supremacy in the realm. In some respects the institution of the Church was a `state within a state' ever ready to defy all secular and monarchic authority, driven by its own momentum to contest for the very position of sovereign of the realm. In Puzant's history we cannot fail to discern the sharp contrast between the Church's national political outlook and the narrow provincialism of the monarchy and secular nobility. The former's quasi-national, albeit elementary, political consciousness finds expression in numerous statements that Puzant attributes to his beloved clerical leaders. In one, Patriarch Vrtaness in repeated reference to an Armenian `home/land' makes clear that the term embraces not just the Church but the entire land and its population. Vrataness urges his followers to: `Trust in Christ, for those who died, died for our home/land. They died for our Churches and for our faith. They died so that our home/land is not enslaved and destroyed. They died so that our Churches are not abused and our martyrs humiliated. They died so that the property of the Church is not passed to corrupted hands, so that the faith is not lost, so that the Christened people are not enslaved and forced to worship false gods.' The great fear of the Church leadership was that this `home/land' was being endangered by the debauched and lawless behaviour of the ruling elite. Puzant describes a land where `justice and right' are being `trampled upon' and the population's fundamental God-given privileges sacrificed on the altar of the nobility's uncontrolled greed and corruption. The `King and the princes... (are) ...engaged in indiscriminate slaughter and the taking of innocent life alongside many of its other sins.' The list of sins is long and significant, indicating a socially decayed and disintegrating state: `lawlessness' `injustice' `bloodletting' `plunder', `expropriation' and `hatred for the poor' abound. The potentially disastrous consequences such internal disorder would have on the Armenian state, its territorial integrity and independence is dramatically alluded to in Nerses the Great's warning to the secular nobility: `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 collapse...you will become sheep without a shepherd...you 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.' This concern for the well-being of the national state flowed from the very shape of the Church's position in the secular world. Armenia as a whole, not just one portion of it, was the foundation for its social and political position. Its material wealth - its land, palaces, monasteries, churches and treasures - its spiritual and social influence and its authority, indeed its estate as a whole spanned the entire land irrespective of feudal boundaries. The Church's fiefdom was not provincial. Its limits were not defined by regional or local boundaries but by Armenia's national state borders. This reality dictated the Church's vigorous sponsorship of a state capable of defending Armenia's independence, unity and territorial integrity. Without a stable, powerful and ordered political power across the land, the Church would find it impossible to administer a fiefdom that spread across numerous bickering and feuding principalities. Its capacity to raise income, to levy taxes, collect tithes and engage in the political world would all be jeopardised. Furthermore, a weak and unstable state would leave the land vulnerable to foreign powers that sought to `conquer... and annexe it to their kingdoms'. For the Church this would be fatal. Without the support of a strong state its vast wealth would be easy target for the avaricious non-Armenian clergy enjoying the protection and enouragement of the powerful Persian or Byzantine states. The position of Armenia's secular nobility was entirely different. It lacked any significant nation-wide foundation. The monarchic dynasty, the Arshagounis, for historical reasons never posessed the wherewithal to develop a strong centralised state. It did not have sufficient wealth or power to arbitrate between disputing fiefdoms or subdue recalcitrant ones. More significantly it was not strong enough to defend principalities within its jurisdiction from each other or from foreign aggression and plunder. >From the outset therefore there were few overriding bonds of loyalty or obedience between monarchy and feudal principality. These were further loosened as a substantial percentage of principalities held their land and wealth by right of inheritance rather than royal gift. As a result most feudal houses, circumscribed by local, provincial, landed wealth and with no major dependent ties to the monarchy, had no foundation for a national perspective. Feudal princes were happy to bargain and accommodate with anyone, including foreign powers, so long as they secured some satisfaction for their particular need. The Armenian Church, a relatively new and still vigorous force on the national scene was not about to let its position be threatened by the vagaries of such a secular nobility. Conscious of the structure of its national interest and its power it took energetic and determined steps to defend its position. B. The Church's social programme Outstanding and politically astute men such as Vrtaness and Nerses the Great not only grasped that at strong state was in the Church's direct interest but that a critical condition for this was a degree of internal social harmony. The reckless depredations of the king and nobility were threatening to tear the land asunder by generating internal dislocation, religious dissent and popular rebellion. It was the fear of such a prospect that led to the internal life of the Armenian nation becoming the site of the Church's most important battle against the Arshagouni's. Puzant tells us that a group of Bishops headed by Nerses `met to confer about reforming the secular orders and defining the laws of the faith'. They formulated a extensive social and legislative programme that covered all aspects of civic and domestic life. There can be little doubt that these moves were inspired by the Church's urgent recognition of the need to restore some internal cohesion to the state. They suggest that the Churche's main preoccupation was to control and moderate the nobility's reckless rule and ameliorate the extreme social tensions this must have created. To this end the Church not only proposed but embarked on the enormous enterprise of building what amounted to a wide welfare system to cater for the most elementary needs of the population. Many of these accomplishments are credited to Nerses, a man of enormous energy and vision. During his leadership he is said to have `...helped the distressed and those who had fallen into poverty and become their defender and protector...he urged care for the poor...built accommodation for the homeless...hospitals for the sick and...homes for the deranged.' Nerses furthermore 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 heaven.' Even in its religious work the Church weaved in its social concern. Nerses `preached love, hope, faith, gentleness, and moderation' and `rebuilt altars and churches that had been damaged and destroyed'. But whilst so doing he always `took particular care to establish firm laws of charity'. The Church's concern for the poor was, of course, not motivated by any humanitarian concerns. It had no intention of releasing serfs from feudal bondage. It did however recognise their indispensable function in society as the class that `builds and feeds the world'. It recognised that all feudal estates, including its own, were dependent on the serfs' dues, their taxes, their labour and their services. By moderating and controlling the exercise of arbitrary feudal authority over the population, the Church hoped to cement the social harmony on which could rest a state capable of meeting external challenge. C. After Puzant The Church failed in its enterprise and Nerses' warning came to be. Puzant grieves that `many provinces of the land were detached and from that time thereafter the Armenian Kingdom was divided, dispersed, diminished and fell from its previous glory.' In 387 Armenia ceased to exist as an independent state and was partitioned between the Byzantine and Persian empires. As was expected the Byzantine and Persian sponsored clergy moved quickly to realise long nurtured ambitions of eliminating their Armenian competitor and appropriating its wealth. However the setbacks of the secular collapse had not dented the Armenian Church's supreme confidence nor destroyed its broad national foundations. Despite being divested of state protection it met this new challenge with ilan, and in doing so, registered some if its finest achievements; ones that decisively contributed to the survival of the Armenian nation and its culture. To stem the threat of colonisation by the Byzantine, Assyrian and Zoroastrian clergy, the Armenian Church had first to reorganise and consolidate its own ranks and apparatus. Its first step was to initiate work to formulate an Armenian alphabet; an apparently innocuous move, but one of momentous consequence. Until the development of the Armenian alphabet in 405, the language of Christian religion in Armenia was Greek or Assyrian. The entire apparatus of the Church therefore was porous, vulnerable to penetration by Greek and Assyrian clergy. Making the language of religion Armenian would Armenianize the entire edifice of the Church and block it to foreign penetration. It would create an educated and professional cadre with a direct and independent means of communication within the clergy and with the population at large, thus walling off both from foreign proselytising efforts. More significantly an Armenian language religion would strengthen the Church's national character by defining it against non-Armenian neighbours in more than just theological, doctrinal and geographical terms. Through its newly acquired linguistic - and the resulting cultural - particularity the Church would acquire the elements of an independent national identity. One need not overlook the initially narrow purpose behind the creation of the Alphabet - the defence of the Church's estate - to appreciate its truly enormous historical, political and cultural significance. The vast educational, cultural and literary work that followed did indeed create an impressive army of enthusiastic, committed and super-confident Church militants possessed of a sense of a historic role and ready to do battle against any odds. The first fruit of this enterprise was in preparing to meet yet another, and this time decisive, Persian offensive that lead to Vartanantz and the Battle of Avarayr in 451. The kingdom may have ceased to be what it was, but the Church remained a substantial force. Indeed, with its new cultural armoury, it was growing in strength and influence. This institution, with its nation-wide foundations, its wealth and authority, was eyed with growing concern by Persian rulers. It had the means and the potential to restore and preside over an independent Armenian state. So the Persian monarchy embarked on its project to eliminate those economic and legal privileges that underlay the Church's continuing independent status. For the first time ever it was proposed to levy taxes on the Church and withdraw its rights to administer the judicial system throughout Armenia. Royal edict also commanded the closure of monasteries claiming that they were denuding the land of working men and the army of fighting hands. By means of these measures the Church would lose its special social, legal and economic privilege. It would be reduced to one among many feudal estates, subordinate to, and dependent on Persian royal authority. As a result of the edict a substantial portion of Church income would be drained off into Persian coffers. The withdrawal of its juridical powers, in addition to cutting its income, would undermine its social and political authority, and the closure of monasteries was tantamount to folding the training centres for its militants. The economic and social foundations of the Church's power were thus to be terminally eroded. In this context it is easy to see that the right of Christian worship alone, which in the popular mind has become the central issue of Vartanantz, was entirely secondary. For Ghevont Yeretz and his comrades there could be no compromise. They were conscious of the broader issues. For those not part of the Church apparatus, restoring the right to Christian worship alone may have appeared a significant and adequate concession from Persian authority. But the Church could not settle for a compromise which would have left the foundations of its national powers qualitatively undermined. For them it was a matter of life and death. Only the total restoration of its special status could satisfy the clergy. Thus followed their alliance with the Mamikonians, their insurrectionary appeals to the population and their role in the Battle of Avarayr. Their tactics, their strategy, their timing may all be called into question (as has been the case), but the stand they took could not have been otherwise. A trend of historians, Hrant K. Armen outstanding among them, have sought to deny the national significance of Vartanantz arguing that the Church was pursuing no more than religious and sectional aims, and doing so with great folly and danger to the nation. In this account Vasak Suni emerges as the moderate and reasonable voice of the Armenian national interest. It does not require us to join that vitriolic chorus damning and cursing Vasak's perceived role in Vartanantz to recognise the falsity of the argument. One point alone, the issue of taxes, suffices to underline the national, popular significance of Vartanantz. The flow of resources from the country in the event of inevitably Persian taxation on an institution as wealthy as the Church would be enormous and damaging. To make up for taxes lost to the Persians, the Church would inevitably increase the burden on its own people, it was after all not a charity organization but a mighty feudal estate. But historically more important even than the issue of taxation is that, the removal of the economic and legal foundations of the only truly national Armenian institution would put into question the very future of the Armenian nation, state and people. The Church-Mamikonian alliance was defeated in 451. Yet in the short period remaining to the close of the 5th century, the Church continued to produce cultural monuments which served the nation well into to future. These monuments provide an historic definition of the Armenian people that is far superior to the chauvinist and tawdry jingle that passes these days for patriotic sensibility in many circles. Puzant's work is one of these monuments. D. Puzant's artistry The `History of the Armenians' is a truly magnificent piece of historical and artistic writing. By modern standards there is much that is questionable (as there is with the Greek and other ancient historians and many modern ones too. It is not vain patriotism that compels one to note this bracketed truth). It contains much exaggeration and makes generous use of poetic licence, for example when referring to numbers of Armenian troops fielded in battle or the number of enemy ones felled. However, all the necessary reservations aside, Puzant's weaving of historical fact, fictional representations of historical personalities, ancient fables and mythology brings to life some of the important conflicts, achievements and failures of the age. Puzant writes with passionate zeal, driven by an urgent sense of religious and political purpose. But his exposition does not conceal the motives of human action in the fog of religious or ideological falsification so common to later historians. Here we witness history as naked ambition for power, authority, land and wealth. Here we see the perennial conflict of human vice and virtue, courage and cowardice, honesty and deceit, generosity and greed, nobility and villainy. In this case the drama is played out by Armenian men and women. Yet the profound humanity of the protagonists, and even those of the secondary characters, many composed in vivid colour, detail and depth, assures them a universal and enduring significance. Reading Puzant today, we can appreciate the sense of pride the Armenian in the decaying Ottoman empire must have felt when first encountering him and other 4th and 5th century Armenian historians. The oppressed, degraded, enslaved and humiliated Armenian has good and ancient reason for national pride. The Armenian is not predestined to slavery, passivity and humble obedience before a vicious oppressor. The ancient historians record the Armenians' ability and will to struggle, to build states, to register military victories and create amazing cultural monuments. For our own days of national trauma and disintegrating statehood, Puzant, like all our other great writers, can supply much inspirational light. The message is there, but are there any who would pay heed? ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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 Haratch in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.