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Why we should read...

`The History of Taron'
by Hovhan Mamikonian
176pp, Khorhrtayin Grogh, Yerevan, 1989

Armenian News Network / Groong
August 7, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


`The History of Taron' is another ancient Armenian literary work whose
date of composition and authorship will remain forever shrouded in the
darkness of remote time. Written perhaps in the late 7th century, and
perhaps also added to by different authors in subsequent periods, it
is like no other in the canon of classical Armenian literature. It is
of limited historical value and has no universal or enduring artistic
content. Yet `The History of Taron' demands commentary - if only to
expose as underserved the substantial acclaim that is still accorded
it in Armenian literary and historical tradition.

We have no certain knowledge of the circumstances attending its
composition (who commissioned it and why, for example). Additionally,
containing no reliable historical information, it is virtually
impossible to place the book in any concrete historical or political
context. One must therefore consider it as a strictly `fictional' work
that express a certain perception of the origin of the Armenian Church
and its history. It is, in this respect, of some interest and provoking
of thought. Startlingly, the volume can be read as depicting the early
Christian Church in Armenia as a conquering colonial force. In
addition, `The History of Taron' is a disturbing reflection of the
readiness of a section of the clergy (in this case the authors or
those who commissioned the work) to applaud a policy of gruesome
violence in battles to defend Church wealth and property.


1. THE ARMENIAN CONVERSION TO CHRISTIANITY AS COLONIAL CONQUEST

Divided into two parts, Book One is an alleged eyewitness account of
the Armenian conversion to Christianity by one Zenob Klag. It is
remarkable for its portrayal of this conversion as a colonial process,
led and controlled by representatives of a new (foreign) religious
movement. Albeit in collaboration with (a subjugated and obedient)
section of the domestic nobility, this foreign Christian religion is
only imposed after fierce battles against the (native) pagan
leadership and its popular supporters. Once masters of the land, this
new Church moves to appropriate the choice portions of the nation's
property and wealth.

The story unfolds in the form of a correspondence between Gregory the
Illuminator in Armenia and his superior Archbishop Leo headquartered
in Ghessaria. Neither is native to Armenia. Yet they talk as if they
own the country and its population with some god-given power to do
with them as they wish. Their air of confidence is unmistakable, no
doubt sustained by religious righteousness. Preparing to consolidate
their spiritual conquest of the local population, Gregory urges Leo to
`send forth your (priests) in order to reap God's harvest'. (p21) The
harvest of course was not purely of souls. Control of people's
spiritual life was to be the fertile ground for raising vast amounts
of material wealth through all manner of religious taxes, dues and
gifts.

Gregory's request has an edge of urgency.  `We need bishops and
priests in all our (sic!) provinces'. The few that have been `gathered
from here and there' are insufficient to govern `Armenia's 630
lucrative' provinces. (p24) Grasping that the satisfaction of a
spiritual mission alone was insufficient inducement to the settlement
of foreign (Assyrian or Greek) priests Gregory plays to their more
material ambitions. Acting as if he and the newly formed Church have
sole authority over the land, Gregory entices them with the promise
that `if you come I shall put at your service the entire provinces of
Hark and Yegheghyatz' (p25).  For those willing to join in helping to
consolidate his grip Gregory, promises that `what (they) find pleasant
and desirable' in Armenia they `can have' (p25). He urges them to
leave behind `the dry and hungry land' they `presently inhabit' and
come to Armenia `where there is plenty', where `the air is sweet, and
the waters flow abundantly'. (p59)

The colonial aspect of the conversion is further underlined in
descriptions of the battles against the pre-Christian Armenian
establishment. Pagan Armenia, in Zenob Klag's account even more than
in that of Agatangeghos, did not lie helpless before the new
religious power. There was no passive succumbing or voluntary
subordination. To become masters of the situation and to impose its
alien religion, the new (foreign) Church had to wage war and inflict
`suffering and torture' until its native victims were `brought to
death's door' (p43).  The fighting may have been done by troops
belonging to the converted factions of the nobility, but it was the
Church which was in decided control and command.

In battle, the pagans are neither a small and isolated minority nor are
they cowards. Forces are frequently evenly divided and anti-Christian
resistance is strong and marked by courage.  The offensive of the new
religion is directed not just against the pre-Christian leadership but
against broad sections of Armenia's population itself, against the
nation as a whole. In Klag's own account the pagan forces are shown to
enjoy substantial popular support. In more than one instance the
peasantry/village population is described as joining in `efforts to
trap and destroy' the Christian army. (p39)

To permanently subdue its newly conquered population, the Church, like
colonial powers in all ages, set out to destroy the intellectual and
cultural heritage of pre-Christian Armenia so as to annihilate its
historically developed independent national identity. As a final mark
of arrogance it built its own Churches on `the very ground and with
the very same masonry as that of the pagan temples' it destroyed,
(p43-4) copying even their architecture. (p45-6) (This point may
clearly be of relevance to literary critics and historians seeking to
uncover and reconstruct aspects of pre-Christian traditions that
survived embedded in subsequent Armenian literature and culture.)

There is an element of historical truth in the presentation of the
Christian conversion as colonial conquest. We are conscious of the
destruction of a vast pre-Christian cultural/intellectual heritage.
But for a more profound and more truthful account of the Armenian
Church's historical role it would be necessary to record that decisive
process of Armenianisation the Church underwent very soon after its
establishment. So irrevocable was it, that the Church in certain
subsequent periods became a pillar and guarantor for the survival of
the Armenian nation. During this process of Armenianisation - from the
incorporation of elements of pagan ritual into Armenian Christian
celebration, through to the breach with Rome/Byzantium, the formation
of the Armenian alphabet and the leading role it played in the 5th
century struggle for political autonomy/independence - the Church
demonstrated a remarkable degree of national consciousness.

The oddity of Part One of `The History of Taron' is that it is totally
blind to the process of Armenianisation, even though the volume was
written well after the works of Agatangeghos, Pavsdos Puzant and
Khazar Barpetzi all of whom in different ways and different degrees
account for the absorption and adjustment of the Church into Armenian
life. Perhaps in writing this volume its author(s), unlike our other
Christian classical scholars, had in mind concerns much narrower than
the interests of the Armenian nation as a whole. Yet it is the absence
of this national political and cultural dimension from Hovhan
Mamikonian's work that reduces it to the status of secondary source
material.

In his introduction to this volume Vartan Vartanian notes that the
first part may have been fraudulently written as an eyewitness account
only in order to supply theological legitimacy to the 7th century
Church's efforts to protect its holdings against the greedy ambitions
of local princes and foreign powers. What better stamp of ownership
than an eyewitness claim that the St Garabed monastery and its
surrounding farms, villages and serfs were given to the Church by
Gregory the Illuminator himself (p22). Indeed the first part is
littered with scores of assertions and suggestions of this order.

If Part One sought to supply some ideological legitimacy to the
Church's social and economic position, Part Two is a shocking
endorsement of savage violence in defence of its status and property.


2. THE CHRISTIAN WARRIOR AS BARBARIAN

The soldier of god is a frequently occurring character in Christian
literature. But the image of the Christian warrior as sadist that
appears in Hovhan Mamikonian's account is unique, in Armenian
literature at least. It is ample proof that the pulp novel with its
glorification of gratuitous violence and its revelling in blood lust
is not a new, 20th century, phenomenon. Claiming to have been written
by none other than a Bishop - Hovhan Mamikonian - the formal
recounting of Armenian resistance against the Persians reveals a
deeply grim image of humanity which forms an ugly contrast to the
works of those nobler Armenian Christian scholars.

Often spoken of as a stirring epic of national resistance the second
part of `The History of Taron' is given over to descriptions of
successive Mamikonian leaders in relentless pursuit and massacre of
invading Persian forces. With virtually no losses of their own,
employing the most cunning and devious of strategies and tactics, the
Mamikonians repeatedly inflict heavy and devastating casualties on
their opponents. At a superficial level they, and Vahan Mamikonian in
particular (known as Vahan the Wolf), are pictured as true
mythological figures - giants, fighting triumphantly well into their
eighties and nineties, slaying left, right and centre and extricating
themselves from situations which, for any others, would be inescapable
death traps.

But only in appearance is this a tale of resistance and courage in the
face of some greater evil. In its substance there is no other Armenian
history so suffused with anti-human sentiment and an alienated
religious mysticism. In this account, unlike that of Khorenatzi's,
Puzant's, or other great classics of ancient Armenian literature,
human beings appear bereft of any nobility or grandeur. They are
incapable of independent action and achievement, and display not an
ounce of magnanimity or generosity of spirit. Hovhan Mamikonian's
`heroes' have no national, social, political or even individual
dimension or ambition. They are little more than vicious, violent
militarist robots devoted to preserving Church property.

In military combat, and we see them primarily in such combat, the
Mamikonians delight in torture, wanton maiming and murder. Cutting off
the noses of their prisoners, (p76/7), castrating them (p104), using
their heads as footballs (p107 and 81), forcing them into marshes
there to die (p104), chopping of heads (p89), suffocating people with
pillows (p100) are all depicted with relish. The central character,
Vahan the Wolf, is particularly sadistic. He burns alive captured
Persian soldiers (p79) revelling in their suffering. Beheading a
Persian prince, he treats the incident as sport (p81). He is also
vulgar and without moral standards in his dealing with his opponents
(p83).

Moushegh, Vahan, Smbad, Diran, Stephan are all described by the same
deviousness, blood lust and violence. So extremely one-sided and so
dominant are the descriptions of their violence that they lose any
possible dramatic or cathartic potential. The wanton violence is not
contrasted to or set alongside any nobler aspects of human
endeavour. It is not even portrayed as a military necessity. Instead
in a string of unrelentingly enthusiastic descriptions Part Two of
this book becomes a grotesque glorification of the negative, the
barbaric and the destructive in human life.

As literary creations the Mamikonian `heroes' are uniformly the same,
one-dimensional caricatures lacking any depth or authenticity. In
critical situations, on the point of defeat and annihilation, they
survive not by human endeavour, ingenuity, skill or daring, but by
divine intervention alone. Whatever the scale of their victories it is
St. Garabed who takes all the credit. (p94, p102, p103). Of course in
all religions and at times calls on god and saints for assistance is
common currency. The genuinely inspiring of such calls however serve
to release and strengthen some innate human resolve and courage, to
bring out and inspire latent energy and strength for the attainment of
some essentially positive social or political ambition. They are
exhortations to summon up additional will and determination. Not so
with Hovhan Mamikonian. Here calls on god and saints corrupt and
diminish man for they only reinforce his brutal instincts which are
then put into the service of a Church intent only on defending its own
narrow interests.

To measure the depth of the alienated religious mysticism that we
encounter in `The History of Taron', we can compare it to the
inspiring appeals in Khrimian Hayrig's two little volumes Haykouzh or
Vankhouzh. Written some 12 centuries later these are still suffused
with profound and passionate religious sentiment. But they have human
need, human welfare and human action at their core. They are
exhortations to men and women to mobilise their own energy,
intelligence and determination in the pursuit of their own dignity and
freedom. Here appeals to god do not encourage violence and brutality
nor are they made at the behest of a selfish Church.

As historical personages Hovhan's Mamikonian leaders reveal nothing of
the age and its concerns beyond that of a clergy greedy to retain its
wealth. In contrast to Khorenatzi
, `The History of Taron'
contains no concept of freedom, however narrowly or historically
defined. It contains no noteworthy conception of nation, or even of
any entity worth defending that is broader than the St. Garabed
monastery. Thus the volume reduces the House of the Mamikonians to the
level of an abject servant of an avaricious Church and nothing
more. In doing so it leaves us in ignorance of the more worthy
national/political ambitions that were sometimes embodied in the
alliance of the Church and the Mamikonians.

As a tribute to the Mamikonians, `The History of Taron' may have served
an ephemeral purpose in presenting them as invincible warriors. But by
doing so in its particularly brutal and inhuman manner it loses any
possible enduring human or universal value. In this sense it cannot
compare with the tributes that are contained in works of truly
classical quality such as Khazar Barpetzi's 5th century `History of
the Armenians'
 or Ghevond's 10th century `History'
.

Unlike other works by Christian authors, it is impossible to extract
any rational, historical core from Hovhan Mamikonian's volume. We get
an idea that taxation is an issue in the clash between Armenians and
Persians, but nothing more. Having featured as supporters of the pagan
forces in the first part, in the second the ordinary population
disappears completely. Rare are any references to national or
international context or events, to political developments, social
realties or social mores.

Even while accepting its paucity as a historical document, eminent
literary historians vouch for its supposed artistic/cultural
value. Manoug Abeghian, for example, claims that it is `with its
plebeian language, its simple and common style and content, a
collection of popular folk-tales'. Yet the portrayal of broad and
profound human experience, common in the best of folk tales, are
absent from this volume dominated by abhorrent encomiums to blood and
gore.


--
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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