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The Critical Corner - 08/01/2004

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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.

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