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Why we should read... `The Story of Vartanantz' by Yeghishe 324pp, Housapper Printing House, Cairo, Egypt, 1950 Armenian News Network / Groong December 30, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian In recording the 5th century Armenian Church-led revolt against Persian imperial authority, Yeghishe's `The Story of Vartanantz' is simultaneously an inspired defence of the right to insurrection against illegitimate power. Though written after the decisive Armenian defeat at the Battle of Avarayr in 451, it reads as an uncompromising summoning to stand ground, as an invocation against demoralised surrender and as a proclamation of the righteousness of the rebels. Yeghishe drives his message home in an amalgam of science and art, fact and fiction, history and myth, politics and philosophy, poetry and prose. Deploying his intellectual and philosophical erudition and his talent for hyperbole, poetic exaggeration and awesome invectivem he produces an epic drama of defiance and rebellion. `The Story of Vartanantz' is not without its shortcomings and flaws, some of them serious. Most striking is the absence of that broad conception of nation and nationality that one finds in Barpetzi or Khorenatzi. Preoccupied with the immediate and narrower interests of the Church there is little explicit interest in the fortunes of the state and the nation as a whole. Flowing from this and from Yeghishe's generally more devout religious approach is the discernible tension between categorical affirmations of Christian duty to submit to secular authority and the defence of what is in effect a political revolt against it. These and other lapses, as well as some significant internal inconsistencies deny this work the same universal and enduring artistic and intellectual value of other contemporary classics. Yet the volume has a particular value and resonance besides containing many passages of artistic beauty and riveting narrative that can be read with pleasure and profit. 1. THE STYLE AND THE MESSAGE For the 5th and 6th century thinker the notion of art for art's sake was as remote as the most distant and invisible star. It didn't figure in their consciousness. The `Book', as a treasury and fountain of knowledge, was a guide to action. It served to inspire reader and listener `whether priest, prince or plebeian - to understand and cope with life's diverse problems be they political, social or individual. Khazar Barpetzi expresses best this classical and fundamentally valid conception of literature - one that is today the object of so much disdain. Barpetzi writes in order that: `the multitude hearing the story of the virtuous will seek to emulate him. The brave on hearing of the courage of his predecessors will multiply his endeavours, bequeathing memorable accounts of themselves and of their nation. As for the lazy and good for nothing such stories may inspire positive envy and urge them on to self-improvement.' Less precise, but with poetic colour Yeghishe claimed that the written work must offer `consolation for loved ones, hope for the hopeful and encouragement for the brave.' With such aims in mind and writing only some 50 to 70 years after the formation of the Armenian alphabet, it is understandable why Yeghishe and his contemporaries employed that combination of differing literary and intellectual forms which was to become a distinguishing feature of classical Armenian literature. The form of exposition was neither accidental nor was the choice of a particular one at any point in the text arbitrary. Yeghishe and his contemporaries were addressing a hugely uneven, intellectually and culturally varied, audience. The clergy would naturally have been their main readers, studying the book themselves and reciting it to prince and plebeian. Yet neither they nor their audience would be of the same educational standards, share the same cultural traditions or have the same grounding in philosophical and political matters. Many would still be only semi-literate, even more illiterate. Others would be inspired primarily by religious fervour or mere superstition, most would be totally unfamiliar with philosophic matters, and others still would have remained within the influence of pagan intellectual and popular beliefs that remained widespread. The written work had to meet the levels and expectations of all. >From such concerns flows the variagated style and structure of Yeghishe's `The Story of Vartanantz'. He was no `objective historian', no `ivory tower' academic or uncommitted artist and poet. He was a militant and dedicated ideologue of the 5th century Armenian Church, then at the apogee of its power and the sole national force in Armenian politics. His entire exposition is therefore a committed defence of this Church's traditional rights and privileges. In this sense the work is a passionately partisan political polemic, indeed a propaganda tract employing all persuasive devices. But at its foundation is a solid rationalism. Opening his account Yeghishe underlines the decisive importance of knowledge. Repeating the aphorism that `death that is not understood is truly death, that which is understood is immortality', he adds that the `evil and misfortune befalls us as a result of ill education.' Therefore it `is better to be blind of sight than blind of mind. As the soul is greater than the body so is the mind's grasp broader than the body's.' On basis of this rationalism Yeghishe develops a verifiable framework of historical and political analysis into which he weaves in a philosophical/theological polemic against Zoroastrianism (discussed well in Henrik Kaprielian's `History of Armenian Philosophical Thought', Vol. 1) as well as fiction, poetry, hagiography, declamation and invective to create additional levels in single tale of righteous resistance. Such an apparently eclectic method did not necessarily detract from artistic or intellectual merit. In skilful hands it could, and did, produce an integrated and outstanding work whose message in consequence was communicated with greater vigour and force. 2. THE POLITICAL ANALYSIS Yeghishe's work opens not with religious declamation but with sober political analysis. It dissects Persian imperial strategy towards the Christian communities and nations within its domain. King Hazgherd II notes with discontent that `Christianity daily expands in all the areas that he passes through.' (p111) Previously tolerated, these communities now threaten to become a Fifth Column in the service of the perennial foe from the west - the hated Byzantium Empire. Hazgherd's advisers suggest therefore, that if the King were able `to convert to a single religion all the nations and people within (his) jurisdiction' he would not only secure his existing borders but also `succeed in subjugating even the land of the Greeks.' (p103). For Hazgherd therefore his campaign to eliminate Christianity from the Empire is a component of a political battle. Setting about the business he demands that `all peoples and nations living within my authority should henceforth cease false worship and come to kneel before the Sun God and without exception carry out all the required religious obligations.' (p11). Simultaneously Hazgherd `issued instructions to dispossess Christians living within Persia of all their `property and belonging'(p106). In the process of `this robbery' Yeghishe remarks that Christians were as a matter of course `also tortured.' (p102). While `all nations' were subjected to this `disorder' the Armenian Church was its main target. It was the `strongest' and included `the most devout', among whom stood out those `from noble houses.' (p110) Indeed despite the termination of the Armenian monarchy in 428, the Armenian Church remained an immensely powerful independent national force that continued to nurture grand political ambitions. To subdue the Armenian Church Hazgherd therefore launched a historically unprecedented assault hoping to deliver it a crushing blow. Intending to destroy this possible bastion for a resurgent, independent Armenian state, the Persian King first wisely removed from the scene the Armenian nobility. They could, in alliance with the Church present a potential military threat, for even though subordinated to Persian authority the nobility had retained control of its own military forces (p101). Having removed this obstacle Hazgherd and his religious advisors demanded Armenian acceptance of a set of proposals that effectively dislocated the economic, social and political power and authority the Church. If successful, Hazgherd's assault will `transform the Church's (previous) independence into servitude'. The economic foundations of the Church were targeted with the imposition, for the first time, of an enormous burden of taxation. The Church's social power was to be severely diminished by the withdrawal of its legal jurisdiction over internal Armenian affairs. Further, imperial edict required the disbanding of a wide network of monasteries and the subjection of the clergy to secular authority. To cap it all the Armenian head of government was replaced by a Persian, and a pagan high priest was nominated as `judge and jury in the land' in order to `thwart the glory of the Church.' (pp114-15) This is the context in which Yeghishe whips up the emotions and passions against Hazgherd and his religious associates. They are attacking the very foundations of the Church - the main guardian of Armenian custom and its newly formed intellectual, cultural tradition. They are therefore undiluted evil with which there can be no negotiation. Thus the Persian King and his allies are as poisonous snakes and savage beasts (p110), as the devil incarnate (p131) as violent and bloodthirsty warmongers (p103) full of bile and venom. Calumny has its rational foundation deriving from a sober examination of his opponent's role political and military actions. 3. THE ORGANISATION OF INSURRECTION In confronting such an opponent the Church's response was immediate, decisive and comprehensive. With its nationwide organisational apparatus it began organising a nationwide uprising. Following a number of general meetings: `The bishops returned to their sees and sent forth (emissaries) to all villages and farms and to the many fortresses in the mountainous provinces. They gathered together large crowds of men and women, plebeian and freeman, priest and monk. They explained and inspired and transformed all into soldiers for Christ.' (p141) Albeit Church-led, Yeghishe describes the resistance as a broad, popular, nationwide uprising and insurrection that involved whole swathes of the population irrespective of class or status. In the resistance there was `no differentiation between lord and servant, between delicate freeman and hardy peasant, and none appeared lesser in bravery.' All were `willing of spirit whether man or woman, old or young '(p149-50). As the organisation of the uprising progressed `all, not just brave men, but married women too - were ready for battle, helmets fitted, swords at their waste and shield on arms.' (p142) So vital did the Church regard this clash that later, on the eve of the Battle of Avarayr Ghevont Yeretz, the principle Armenian leader and main strategist and tactician of the revolt was to demand a radical break from tradition: `You all know that in previous times when you (the nobility) went to war you always retained the clergy within the army. But at the moment of battle you removed us to some secure place. However today bishops, elders, priests, psalm singers and readers, all according to established rules, are armed and ready and wish to join battle to destroy the enemies of truth.' (p186) Constituted of such mettle and confident of popular support the Church leadership launched its counter-offensive. Despite the fact that it `was not fully aware of the attitude of all Armenia's noble lords nor fully apprised of the strength of the Persian high-priests' the leadership directed the populace to `break the heads' of the Zoroastrian forces and `chase them back to their abodes'. Yeghishe describes in detail assaults in which Armenians `wrecked and destroyed' many of the `fortresses and towns that the Persians had taken control of' (p150) thus `reducing to nothing the orders of his imperial majesty'. Bolstered by such successes, and aware of the persisting Persian ambitions, the Church rightly rejected as deception a desperate compromise proposal which whilst granting Armenians freedom of worship did not restore the church its prior power and independence. The dye was cast for a decisive conflict between an insurgent Armenian Church backed by the people and a determined Persian empire. Despite numerical inferiority and `despite having neither King as leader' nor `any hope of outside (Byzantium) help' the insurgents `did not stand in dread' of the final battle being confident in the knowledge that `with God's help a few can do the work of many.' (p154-155) It is of significance that in his account of resistance and rebellion Yeghishe repeatedly underlines the critical role played by the plebeian population. But what would have possessed an educated member of the feudal elite to treat the lower classes with evident respect? Perhaps by so telling the tale he hoped to bind potentially hostile future generations of plebeians closer to the Church. Perhaps it was an aspect of a theological war against a resurgent paganism. It could also have been an attempt to secure the loyalty of a substantial, independent, spirited free peasantry or part of the clergy's affirmation of its social power against that portion of the secular nobility not always faithful to Christian dictates. Whatever the verdict, Yeghishe records clearly the reasons why the population at large would have supported a campaign orchestrated by a Church that was little more than another oppressive feudal estate. Persian authority was detested even more. Their burdensome taxation was already `collected more in the manner of plundering bandits than a dignified state'. New ones now threatened to `annihilate the plebeian farmer' throwing the population into `extreme poverty'. Thus there was a confluence of interest between the Church and the peasant/plebeian population in resisting the Persian encroachment that enabled the Church to emerge as a formidable force in the national revolt against foreign authority. 4. VASSAK SYOUNI AND NATIONAL UNITY For Yeghishe the defeat of the Uprising was neither predestined nor the result of any unfavourable political-military balance of forces. Victory could have been secured despite the odds had the Armenians retained national unity. Until Vartanantz Yeghishe had `no fear of telling the story of the blows that were heaped upon our nation (by) our external enemies. Few of them succeeded in defeating us, whilst we defeated them many times because we then remained united and equal.' (p167). But during the Vartanantz uprising Armenian unity was destroyed by Vassak Syouni, the Persian appointed Governor of Armenia who broke ranks by accepting imperial compromise proposals. Vassak's unpardonable, mortal sin was that he acted as spy, informant and fifth columnist. It is this, rather than Vassak's religious apostasy that is primarily held against him. He `separated himself from Armenian ranks' and `gathered corrupted elements into an (oppositional) military force'. By informing the Persians of this he exposed `the disunity and division in the Armenian army.' (p170) These and his other actions `destabilised and spread confusion throughout the land of Armenia sowing division and discord between brothers, between father and son and causing upheaval in a once peaceful land. (p172) Vassak also communicated more detailed critical military intelligence to the Persian commanders. He supplied information about `numbers of troops aligned with Vartan (Mamikonian)', the Armenian armed forces state of readiness, their morale, their armaments, the numbers possessing armour, the numbers of infantry and whether they are armed with bows and arrows or protected by shields (p172-3). All this enabled the Persians to take appropriate counter-measures and defeat the insurgents in the decisive Battle of Avarayr. Thus Yeghishe's visceral hatred for Vassak. He actively assists absolute evil. He too therefore is condemned as a venal sycophant deserving to `die like and dog and rot like a donkey'. Alone the invective would not be ineffective. But with Yeghishe, Vassak's hateful nature is not an abstract moral vice but a direct expression of his political treachery. In opposition to the men of evil are the virtuous and faithful Ghevont Yeretz, Vartan Mamikonian and the scores of martyrs who fought and died arms in hand at Avarayr. Refusing to make the slightest concession in the face of the most horrendous torture and inevitable death they are embodiments of valour, courage, nobility, intelligence and wisdom. Presented as leaders of an entire people up in arms it is easy to see how their story came to be a defining feature of modern Armenian national identity. In the 19th century Armenian revival, revolutionary intellectuals enthusiastically encouraged the celebration of the Vartanantz Uprising and against a hidebound Church sought to make it the property of the emerging secular nationalist and democratic movement against Ottoman and Tsarist colonial oppression and injustice. Many commentators, failing to appreciate the essential unity of its diverse forms, have missed the central message of `The Story of Vartanantz'. Eminent historian Hrant K. Armen, focusing on the religious dimension, presents Yeghishe as something of a wild fanatic bent on demonising all opposition in defence of theological dogma. Hagop Oshagan criticises Yeghishe for `not possessing the seriousness we expect from a historian'. Others have narrowed Yeghishe's work down to any one of its particular features: a history, an epic poem, an impassioned moral fable, a devout Christian hagiography etc. `The Story of Vartanantz' is of course all of these. But as a unity, with all its strengths and weaknesses, it is also much more. -- 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.