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Why we should read... 'The Life of Mashtots' by Goryoun Armenian State Publishers, 180pp. Yerevan, 1962. Armenian News Network / Groong July 28, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian Without the Armenian alphabet that was developed by Mesrop Mashtots in the opening decade of the 5th century it is highly unlikely that Armenians would have survived with their distinct cultural tradition and national identity. This 'Life of Mesrop Mashtots' by his pupil Goryoun, written sometime between 443 and 451AD, is therefore a unique document. Besides being the sole contemporary account of Mesrop's work, containing most of what we know about him, it is also the very first extant original text composed with the new Armenian script. Mesrop Mashtots was a striking figure, a man of phenomenal talent and dedication. Prior to joining the ranks of the Church he was a highly regarded secular official with the Armenian Crown, respected for his 'grasp of the secular order' and 'admired for his military skills.' But only after becoming a priest did this evidently erudite and awesomely energetic man embark on his stupendous cultural, intellectual and educational mission that was initiated by the Church and endorsed by the then Armenian King Vramshabouh. Goryoun's dramatic descriptions of Mesrop's linguistic, translating and educational efforts convey well the man's vision, enthusiasm and determination. They also record the different stages of the hard, rigorous and demanding work that led to the formation of the alphabet and to the training of a group of professional translators and teachers. Whilst giving pride of place to Mashtots, Goryoun recognises the broad, collective nature of the venture and commends the contribution of other intellectual figures. The driving purpose behind the elaboration of the alphabet was the Armenian Church's attempt to create cultural and intellectual foundations for its independence. There was an urgent need for these. The leadership of the Armenian Church was engaged in constant battle to fend off the rapacious ambitions of Greek, Assyrian and Persian religious powers greedily eyeing the Armenian Church's wealth and status. Once fashioned, the results that flowed from the existence of an independent Armenian script had significance far broader than its initiators could ever have imagined. There is something quite striking however in Goryoun's biography. Both before and following Mashtots's work the Armenian Church was one of the foremost Armenian institutions vested with enormous political, economic and social power. In the absence of a powerful and centralised secular monarchy the Church remained the only genuinely national Armenian force with a strategy that defined clear state and political ambitions. Work on the alphabet was a critical component of this strategy. Yet there is little reflection of this in Goryoun's volume. It has a decidedly different emphasis to other works of the Golden Age of Armenian classical literature. Unlike Barpetzi, Khorenatzi and even the more pious Yeghishe, Goryoun gives little hint of the political or national concerns that inspired Mashtot's work. In Goryoun, Mashtots appears primarily as a passionate apostle of Christianity who dedicated his life to converting both Armenians and non-Armenian alike. Despite his experience in the Armenian Royal Court he is presented as more or less devoid of political views or national ambitions and seems to be motivated solely by the desire to 'secure a Christian salvation for the people'. He is propelled by 'the endless heartache and sadness' he feels 'for his brothers and nationals' whose faith is vulnerable for being administered in incomprehensible foreign languages. Ghazar Barpetzi in contrast frames his 'History of the Armenians' directly and explicitly in terms of political, state and national concerns. Here the creation of the alphabet is seen as part of the process of the Armenian Church affirming its national identity, its national independence and its readiness to resist foreign, external attempts to subordinate it. Barpetzi's Mesrop is a national and political activist albeit a dedicated Christian missionary too. In Goryoun the context appears at first sight exclusively religious. Mesrop battles to defeat not foreign or external threats but to annihilate internal Armenian foes. He does not shy away from resort to 'the painful whip' and to the 'use of severe measures', 'imprisonment', 'torture', 'beating' and humiliation.' But this is directed against Armenian religious dissenters, not foreign invaders. Goryoun can be read to suggest that Mesrop regarded his membership of the Armenian Church as incidental, his nationality secondary and his mission international. 'Throughout his entire life', through 'winter and summer, through night and day' Goryoun writes, Mesrop laboured 'unceasingly and fearlessly'. This labour was significantly dedicated to spreading the word of Jesus Christ to 'all regions', be it 'Armenia, Georgia or Albania (Aghvank)'. To facilitate this international evangelism Mesrop, according to Groyoun, even developed alphabets for the Georgians and Albanians. With the same passion and enthusiasm he established training centres - monasteries, schools and desert retreats - in Armenia, Georgia and Albania. Given that Mesrop was a conscious and militant activist of the Armenian Church propelled by the desire to resist foreign religious intervention, one is prompted to ask why Goryoun wrote the book in this apparently apolitical fashion. An answer is suggested by Manoug Abeghian in a lengthy introduction to his translation of the biography. Abeghian argues that whilst aware of the social and political significance of Mashtots's cultural work, Goryoun considered it, in the circumstances, unwise to be explicit about its broader national and political aims. During Mashtots's life-time, and Goryoun's, the Assyrian Church still wielded substantial power in Armenia. Openly declaring the Armenian Church's political ambitions before completing the work of creating an alphabet and an educated and conscious cadre would invite a head-on confrontation in which the Armenians could suffer disadvantage. So in the first period they worked away quietly, dedicated apparently to nothing more than the spread of the word of Christ. But this work, seemingly little more than to bring the word of Christ to the people, was ipso facto setting the foundation stones for an independent national Armenian church. In support of his argument Abeghian quotes Goryoun writing that he was 'unable to tell the whole story' and had to limit himself to 'the easy part' - that is, to Mashtots's purely 'apostolic work'. But a few decades later, with the task accomplished, Yeghishe, Barpetzi, Khorenatzi are confident enough to give explicit expression to the national and political dimension of the Armenian Church's endeavours. This thesis of course immediately prompts some other questions about the role of the Armenian Church and its leadership. If Mashtots's main concern was indeed the Armenian Church's national and political needs, how is one to then explain his passion for converting Georgians and Albanians? Was this perhaps an incipient expression of the Armenian Church's own ambitions beyond Armenian borders. Or perhaps Mashtots worked among Armenian communities in Georgia and Albania. Neither suggestion is beyond reason. The Armenian Church, despite its fragile foundations and despite the collapse of an independent Armenian secular state, remained a regional force, with its powerful ambitions that had to be reckoned with. Yeghishe, for example, in his 'History of Vartanantz' outlines imperial Persian concern about the strength and potential threat posed by the Armenian Church, arguing that it was precisely to destroy this power that Persian Emperor Hazgherd set upon that train of events that produced the Armenian resistance remembered as the Vartantanz War. Needless to say the work done by Mashtots and his colleagues in creating an educated and militant Armenian clergy contributed enormously to making the eminently political and national Vartanantz resistance that much more stubborn, confident and vigorous. Besides its enormous historical value, this little volume with its depiction of dedication and commitment to a cause and a collective aim offers a conception of intellectual activity that needs reaffirming in these days of individual narcissism. Both in opening and concluding his story Goryoun emphasises that it is 'not written for the sake of praise or glorification' but 'so that it serves as an example and rule' for others to learn from and emulate. -- 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.