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Why we should read...

'The History' by Ghevond
Sovetakan Grogh, 182pp
Yerevan 1982

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 18, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Modern historians of ancient epochs, despite all the resources
available to them, in many ways merely reiterate, in embellished form,
enduring insights already provided by classical historians from those
very earlier times. This is certainly the case regarding the history
of the Arab conquest of Armenia from the 7th to the 9th centuries.
Ghevond's 'History', written in the 790s, records the Arab invasions
of the Middle East and Armenia from 632AD to 788AD. In so doing, this
slim volume casts substantial light on two factors that decisively
shaped further the development of Armenian history: first, how Arab
hegemony fatally weakened the ruling Armenian elite and secondly how
critically and irrevocably it altered the country's demographic and
political composition. Both developments were to contribute
significantly to undermining the prospects for any stable or
sustainable Armenian state in the future.


The Arab conquest was no easy, straightforward task. Internal Arab
discord, difficulties on external fronts and the level of resistance
in Armenia prevented rapid subjugation. The Arab crusade began in 640
but ended in success only 61 years later in 701. However each
successive assault caused huge destruction as invading military
commanders 'vowed not to return the sword to the scabbard before it
was thrust into the very heart of our land' (p28). Ghevond with vivid
prose writes that this devastation caused 'the people of our land to
become like burnt but still smouldering wheat trampled upon by pigs'
(p31). Eventually, unable to resist further. 'Armenia's princes
and Church leaders met and agreed to pay dues to the Arab tyrant' (p25).

Once in control, the prime aim of Arab power was to extract as much
wealth as possible from the country. A stringent tax regime was to be
the instrument of plunder. Throughout the volume, whether referring to
Armenia or other lands subjected to Arab tutelage, Ghevond reveals the
tremendously destructive role of this taxation regime. Besides serving
as a vessel for siphoning off Armenian wealth, it severely damaged
Armenia's economic foundations. Monetary taxes were to prove
particularly damaging. In the effort to raise money, both nobility and
Church were frequently forced to sell their estates bringing about a
long-term debilitating transfer of vast stretches of Armenian
territory to Arab control.

In the early period the rigours of Arab rule appeared tolerable. The
Arab treasury even sustained the cost of equipping Armenian armies
fighting alongside the Arabs. However this relatively benign period
was not to last.

Soon 'the level of taxation on the land rose to immense heights as the
ruthless enemy's hellish greed, not satisfied with devouring the
bodies of believers, drank their blood too, as if it was but water and
thus drove the whole land into intolerable penury.' (p110)

Some of Ghevond's descriptions of the population's suffering is
heartrending. Crushing taxes were raised, 'even on the dead' (p105).
Orphans and widows 'were subjected to ghastly punishments and
whipping, while priests and other servants of the church were tortured
until they revealed the names of the dead and those of their
families.' Taxes became so heavy 'that even if people gave over all
they possessed they were unable to satisfy the collector'. Inevitably
the major burden of taxation was sustained by the peasant and plebeian
classes. However, Ghevond underlines a significant fact - the
enormously heavy price that the Armenian secular and religious
nobility was forced to pay. Under Arab rule not just the lower classes
but the 'entire population' was impoverished as 'the land of the
Armenians was fastened with the ropes of poverty and all the noble
houses and the nation's grandees tasted of the furnace of
dispossession.' (p110)

Throughout the Arab period Armenia nevertheless remained a lucrative
source of wealth which no Arab ruler would willingly surrender.
Researchers, relying on contemporary Arab sources, calculate that from
the end of the 8th to the beginning of the 9th centuries, Armenia
supplied over 50% of the 13 million dirhem in taxes raised from
Arminia, the administrative unit comprising Armenia, Georgia and
Aghvank. To this vast outward flow of wealth must be added huge
quantities of other taxes or 'gifts' in kind - carpets, fish, cattle,
birds etc.


It is in Ghevond's exposition of Arab strategy to secure control of
Armenia that we can see the emergence of new and ultimately more fatal
forms of foreign domination. Reading Ghevond, it becomes clear that
Arab rule proved to be a decisive step in the eventual decomposition
of historical Armenia, destroying its potential as an integral
national territorial-political unit.

The level of initial Armenian resistance and subsequent revolts, in
747-750 and 774-775, determined an effort 'to remove from the scene
all the most powerful Armenian noble families and their armed forces.'
(p 31) This ambition was reinforced by fears that the Armenian
nobility would also 'act as agents for Greek armies' (p38). Perceiving
Armenians to be 'permanent obstacles to our rule' (p37) the Arab
conquerors set out to destroy the native feudal order. Unlike previous
colonisers they would not be content with subjugating the domestic
elite and then using them as agents for their rule. Instead they would
rely, to a greater extent than any previous conquerors, on their own
agents and on populations that they themselves settled in Armenia.

Ghevond describes the Arab project at length. Plots to gather together
and murder entire groups of the nobility first fail and are attempted
again until eventually, especially after the defeat of the 774-75

    'Having killed all of them, no heirs remained to the noble
    houses. With the land of the Armenians left without noble
    households, the people became as shepherdless sheep among the
    wolves.' (p40)

The Arab design was not entirely successful. But many feudal families
constituting the backbone of ancient Armenia were destroyed, among
them the famous Mamigonians and the Gamsaragans. Nor did Arab strategy
rest here.  Money taxes had inaugurated the process of transferring
Armenian land to Arab hands. The Arab rulers took this a step further,
establishing non-Armenian population centres within Armenia, and
especially in its urban centres. Ghevond gives one example which we
know was repeated elsewhere, again especially after the defeat of the
774-775 Uprising. He describes how when:

    'Yezid arrived in Garin, he imposed taxes on the land and put
    people to work to rebuild the broken city walls. He then brought
    Ismael's sons and all their families to rule over the town and
    control the enemy. He instructed that Armenians would also supply
    them with all necessary foodstuffs.' (p106)

These were the origins of what were later to become fully-fledged Arab
emirates within Armenia's historical territory. They developed at an
accelerated rate after 775 with a massive influx of Arab settlers
coinciding with a great Armenian emigration westward to Cilicia and
beyond. These emirates contributed both to Armenia's political
fragmentation and to the qualitative change in its demographic
composition. They not only destroyed its political homogeneity but in
the future acted as effective fifth columns within the restored
Armenian Bagratouni dynasty. Ready at a moment's notice to collaborate
with invading enemy forces they played no small part in the eventual
destruction of the Bagratouni Kingdom. The terrible social, political
and cultural consequences of this can be read off any page of Armenian
history from the 11th century onwards.


The Arab conquest could not, however, do without its Armenian
collaborators. So long as they were dealing with a primarily Armenian
population local Arab rulers required a network of Armenian
intermediaries to control the natives and reconcile them to their own
steady impoverishment and suffering. At various stages, in exchange
for retaining certain historical privileges, the Armenian nobility
undertook responsibility for collecting taxes, administering the law
and maintaining social order. But fractured and volatile, they were
deemed essentially untrustworthy, so the conquerors turned to another,
more influential and craven accomplice and collaborator. The Church.

The Church made the most abject and self-serving deal with the Arab
authorities. In return for the right to exercise its religious
authority, and, we should add, to preserve the material privileges
that accompanied this, it bent the knee not to God, but to Arab
rule. Its proposal to act as dutiful servant for the subjugation of
its own worshipers, the Armenian people, was explicit:

    'In the sphere of our faith, allow us the means to preserve that
    which we have always believed in, and let none of your people
    force us to abandon our faith. And if you respond to my requests,
    the lord will fortify your rule, will assure you your desires and
    will ensure obedience on everyone's part.'  (p36)

In carrying out its part of the accord, history records a grim legacy
of Church barbarism as it collaborated with the conquerors to
persecute, crush and destroy dissenting forces. In Ghevond's time and
in the period beyond, the Church leadership regularly called upon Arab
military force to fight the Tontragetzi's movement - a broad and
widespread egalitarian socio-religious reaction to the depredations
both of Arab and established Church domination.


Ghevond's 'History' is not however just a catalogue of defeat,
collaboration and betrayal. As Arab rule attained impossible levels of
harshness it became intolerable even to the nobility and precipitated
a genuine national rebellion drawing in all classes of society.
Ghevond tells that in 774, seizing on growing internal conflicts and
weaknesses within the Arab empire 'all the princes of our land thought
to hurl aside the yoke of obedience, to revolt and free themselves
from subordination to the Arabs.' (101)

Unfurling the banner of national rebellion against foreign oppression
was never a dominant virtue of the Armenian nobility. Even Ghevond's
account is replete with instances of the feudal rulers' cowardice and
collaboration. That in the 770s sections of the nobility mustered
sufficient confidence to challenge Arab rule must be seen as a
function of immense pressure from below. Reduced to abject poverty,
living always on the edge of violent death, sold of as slaves, forced
often to flee the land of their birth, the peasant and plebeian class
harboured a deep hatred of Arab rule. To overthrow these shackles they
became willing, active and dedicated participants in any anti-Arab
rebellion. Ghevond focuses on the deeds of 'great men' but remarks
also that 'many serfs and labourers' readily 'joined the fighting
forces' (p114) even though they were 'unskilled in war and lacking
arms' (p118). This mass enthusiasm for revolt combined with the
nobility's perception of a weakening Arab empire and its own inability
to continue enduring Arab rule created a powerful concoction to propel
the uprising.

The initiative was taken by the Mamikonians when a notorious Arab tax
collector was slayed by Ardavasd Mamikonian. With their tried and
tested battle reputation the Mamikonians soon won to their side a good
portion of the nobility and with high levels of support they were able
to field an army of some 5,000. There was of course internal opposition
from the Bagratounis, but recognizing the breadth of support and
fearing political isolation they reluctantly joined rebel ranks.

The leadership possessed a clear strategic vision. One of its main
aims was to destroy the strongholds of Arab rule in Armenia - the
settlements of Tvin and Garin. However despite instances of great
heroism and many victorious military encounters, the Armenians were
defeated. On 15 April 775 they lost over 1500 men in the Battle of
Arjesh and ten days later, Mushegh and Sahak Mamikonian, Smbat
Bagratouni, Vahan Knouni and other eminent nobles were killed in the
Battle of Bagrevand. Throughout the land 'there was great grief and
sorrow' for, as Ghevond testifies, 'in an instant the entire Armenian
leadership was destroyed.' (p121)

The failure was disastrous for the future Bagratouni dynasty. Leaving
the Arab fifth columns intact, and expanding, within its territory,
the Bagratouni restoration started off on the weakest possible
footing, lacking even a reliable military ally, for the defeat of the
uprising also marked the end of the history of the House of the
Mamikonians in Armenia proper.

Some would argue that the revolt was untimely and in itself a cause
for many subsequent misfortunes. The hand of the intemperate,
uncompromising and militarist Mamikonians should have been stayed.
Instead the wiser, moderating counsel of the Bagratounis should have
been heeded. History has no time for such speculation: the revolt
happened as it did. All we can say with 20/20 hindsight is that, had
there been no uprising, the ultimate effect of Arab strategy with its
intensifying plunder and devastation risked leaving no trace of an
Armenia let alone a Bagratouni dynasty. Indeed it was the Uprising,
even as it was defeated, that persuaded a faltering Arab empire to
consider Armenian autonomy as a way of securing what remained of the
Armenian nobility as an ally against the greater threat now emerging
from the Byzantine west and also from the increasingly centrifugal
autonomous Arab emirates in the region.

Ghevond's account of the 774-775 Uprising bequeaths to us one of the
more heroic chapter's in Armenian history. What grand sentiments fired
the popular imagination we may never know, but Ghevond's account makes
clear that theirs' was a fight for very survival. When they:

    'saw the deadly threat hanging over them, they were prepared to
    give their lives even though this was an enterprise which could
    not succeed because they were few in number. But preferring to die
    with dignity and courage rather than live a miserable life, they
    refused to submit to Ismael and prepared the revolt. (p111)

There is certain honour in the willingness to challenge fate, to rise
up against the odds, to defy all caution in defence of what is
perceived as just. What appeared as a hopeless endeavour was in fact
an urgent and immediate necessity. Despite its failure it also became
an inspiration to future generations that continued striving for
freedom and justice. Indeed 775 was not the end of resistance.  Well
into the next century, popular revolts burst out across the land. They
were marked by episodes of heroism so memorable that their tales
survived through the bleakest centuries of oppression. To this day
they live with us in the inspiring and ever relevant epic of David of
Sassoon, which so majestically portrays human aspirations for freedom,
equality and justice.

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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