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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

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 will become sheep without a 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 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

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
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.

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