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The Critical Corner - 11/12/2007

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Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

November 12, 2007


In 2005 on the occasion of the 2100th anniversary of Tigran the
Great's (born c140BC - died c55BC) ascension to the Artashessian
throne in 95BC, various conferences were organised to discuss the
historical significance of what was the only Armenian imperial
experience. Emperor Tigran's domain at one point stretched from
northern Armenia and beyond to include swathes of Asia Minor, the
Middle East and territories along the Mediterranean Sea. Hrant K
Armen's own Armenian rendition of his `Tigran the Great' (248pp, 1957,
Cairo, Egypt), that was first published in English in 1940, despite
its sometimes lumbering language frequently dissonant with anglicisms,
offers an opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

Setting the historical context, Armen argues that Artashes I, the
founder of the Artashessian dynasty, was the first Armenian leader to
attempt the establishment of a genuinely independent Armenian state.
He seceded from the Selvekian throne in 195BC, declared himself King
of Armenia and worked to weld the numerous and factious Armenian noble
estates into a single political unit. In addition he decreed that
Armenian be the official national language to replace the more
widespread and popular Persian. To extend the state's territorial base
Artashes attempted to annex neighbouring regions that though they did
not contain an Armenian majority included a significant Armenian

Hrant K Armen's presentation of these efforts as an expression of a
grand patriotic project is debatable, especially as he passes without
a definition of his concept of patriotism. It is possible for example
to argue that Artashes was engaged in a dynastic enterprise, with
little regard for the interests and welfare of the majority of the
Armenian people that would define an acceptable concept of patriotism.
His linguistic and expansionist projects could have been prompted by
requirements of state security given that his initial power base in
the Arax-Ararat region was too small for a self-sustaining state,
especially one threatened by neighbouring great powers. So followed
the project to root a more viable state by bind together lands with
substantial Armenian communities and linguistically homogenising them.

It is Hrant K Armen's argument that Tigran the Great takes up the
project that Artashes failed to bring to fruition.

Tigran was a man of immense ambition and immense ability. Though
already 45 when he ascended the throne in 95BC he still dreamt of
imperial glory and worked tirelessly to attain it. The third
Artashessian Monarch, he moved decisively to reinforce his position
immediately invading and annexing Dosb, that large segment of
historical western Armenia that Artashes I had failed to incorporate.
Going about the business of centralising power Tigran bound Armenian
lords to himself by appointing them to important posts within his
monarchical domains. He simultaneously strengthened his state
apparatus - his army, cavalry and infantry - giving priority for the
first time in Armenian history to the cavalry.

Ambition then turned the King's gaze further afield, to his south and
south west. He eyed lands beyond Armenian borders tempted by their
taxable wealth as well as their enterprising Greek traders, merchants
and artisans. From the latter this new imperial power received support
hoping he would restore commercial security and re-establish
profitable but now broken trading routes. Before commencing on what
became an imperial war of conquest and control of other lands and
other nations Tigran first secured his flank through agreements with
King Mithradates of Pontus to his west, another regional power
harbouring imperial ambitions. By means of deft political manoeuvring
Tigran also neutralised the Persian crown by forcing it to acknowledge
him as King of Kings. In all this preparation he remained
single-mindedly determined to avoid any contest or conflict with Rome.
Then Tigran unleashed his military force on Syria and beyond. He
conquered relatively easily, seizing opportunity in the face of
indifferent Rome and enervated Persia.

Having consolidated his domestic and imperial position Tigran's main
endeavour seems to have been to Hellenise Armenia, amongst other
things also importing and amalgamating a host of Greek gods into the
Armenian pantheon. The paucity of reliable historical material does
not allow definitive judgements about the purpose behind these
Hellenising policies. Hellenisation was nevertheless clearly a useful
element in a political orientation to the west that could balance and
counter a possible Persian threat from the east. It also served as a
means of binding to the Emperor a large and wealthy Greek population
within his imperial domain. But in this Hellenising mission Tigran was
opposed and particularly so by the native Armenian pagan church
incensed at his embrace of foreign gods.

Though he presided over an empire for some decades Tigran failed to
totally subdue opposition, externally or at home and had to constantly
overcome internal opposition and to wage wars against rebellion at the
edges. Never fully confident of the loyalty of the Armenian nobility
he resorted to one of the greatest forced population movements in
history invading Cappadocia in 78BC and transferring tens of thousands
of people to Armenia. These communities he hoped, by owing first and
sole allegiance to him would not fall prey to conspiracies and
temptations from other feudal estates. But this did not prevent
internal strife.  Within Armenia proper, his second wife who was the
daughter of Pontus's King Mithradates nurtured ambitions for her
second son to succeed Tigran to the throne in place of Tigran's elder
son from his first wife. She thus conspired with recalcitrant Armenian
nobles, albeit unsuccessfully.

Accumulated discontent within the empire became fodder for Roman
generals who all aspired to conquer Asia Minor regarding it as one of
the richest and most rewarding regions for imperial expansion. So they
whipped up discontent and sent in armies that rapidly reached Tigran's
capital in 69BC and there vanquished his forces. Tigran however
recovered and in alliance with his one time foe Mithradates commenced
a counter offensive with an energy and enthusiasm that defied his 70
plus years and impressed Plutarch so much that he felt compelled to
comment on it.

The latter part of Armen's book - the account of Tigran's defeat at
Roman hands, of the conspiracies against him by his son Tigran Junior
and his audacious recovery that secured him an honourable accord with
Rome are written with flair and a sense of adventure. Unlike
Mithradates, Tigran was too powerful for the Romans to crush and
destroy. Indeed he was even considered a potential ally against the
Persians. So he survived albeit stripped of his empire. But dramatic
narrative cannot disguise defeat at Roman hands nor the failure of the
project that Armen attributes to the one-time emperor - the
unification and consolidation of an Armenian state. After Tigran's
death, whatever may have been his aims, his western orientation was
reversed and internecine feudal conflict once more reduced the
Armenian state to an easy target for its neighbours.

Tigran was unquestionably a remarkable character. But his story can
occasion no patriotic pride. He was a man of his times and a
successful one at that, an absolute Monarch with the power of life and
death over his subjects and a slave-owner and a colonialist to boot.
In a region carved out into competing dynastic entities, he was
temporarily the more successful one among others who aspired for
dynastic power and prosperity. Even if we were to disregard the fact
that he was a slave-owning feudal monarch engaged in constant wars of
conquest and oppression of other nations, we cannot escape the fact
that he failed to consolidate and bequeath to the future a firm and
enduring Armenian state.

Tigran's Armenian Empire was born of the combination of propitious
regional circumstance and Tigran's will, determination and audacity in
taking advantage of these.  The alteration in the regional balance of
power and the resurfacing of Roman and Persian ambitions and those of
the centrifugal Armenian nobility rapidly put an end to the empire.
The state Tigran presided over and left behind never acquired that
inner, self-sustaining force and dynamism that could in a distant and
more democratic future safeguard the needs of the Armenian people.


Yervant Shahaziz's short history of `Old Yerevan' (271pp, Moughni
Publishers, Yerevan, 2003) is fantastically informative and enormously
valuable, especially for being written by an Armenian. It has indeed
become a classic. For those unaware, Shahaziz unearths a surprising
and remarkably honest picture of this modern Armenian capital city.
Until the Soviet era, Yerevan was a minor outpost with none of the
historical glamour that attaches to cities such as Van, Ardashat, Ani,
Vagharshapat and other Armenian capitals. By the time of the Russian
occupation in the 1820s, when statistics first began to be collected,
the town's population was no more than 12,000.

Yerevan's comparatively lesser development prior to the 19th century
seems not at all surprising. It is situated on some of the most
inhospitable territory in the region with a water supply that was not
just inadequate, dependent on artificial canals but also dangerously
contaminated with disease from surrounding marshes. The wonder is that
Yerevan actually came into being so early in the region's history. For
though not in the least glorious it has a pedigree that stretches back
perhaps to Urartian times when it was a fort or military encampment of
sorts. In this instance, given that it even then required advanced
canal construction, it is testimony to the engineering skills of the

Whatever its venerable age attempts to attribute great historical
significance to Yerevan requires tampering with available evidence.
Yerevan is not mentioned in classical Armenian historians until the
7th century and then only once, and thereafter from the 13th century
onwards it appears as a `rural town/village. Up to its emergence as
the modern Armenian capital city, the most significant, and one must
think wilfully ignored, aspect of Yerevan's history is the Persian and
Turkish contribution. The town played an important role as a local and
provincial centre of Turkish and Persian control of the Ararat region
`the Yerevan Khans being the most renowned. Indeed if the town
developed at all it was as a result of these Khan's efforts - building
water reservoirs, gardens and solid structures. Shahaziz underlines
these contributions.

A vital aspect of Yerevan's history, until modern times is in its
demographic diversity. Non-Armenians, Turks, Persians and others,
constituted at least 50% of the city's population, if not more right
through its medieval history and perhaps right up to the Russian
conquest and beyond. Though tensions and clashes occurred between its
Armenian Christian and non-Armenian Muslim communities who lived
largely separate lives there was some sort of osmosis with Muslims
attending Armenian Churches, socialising in Church gardens, and taking
their disputes to Armenian dignitaries for arbitration.

Yervant Shahaziz's `Old Yerevan' of course contains much, much more,
and is miles away from the myths, misconceptions or fabrications of
Yerevan as an essentially homogenous Armenian town. Unquestioned
acceptance of these myths, misconceptions or fabrications serve to
conceal a darker aspect of Yerevan's early 20th century history - the
effective cleansing of the city that gave it its present Armenian
ethnic homogeneity. The publishers are to be congratulated for
reprinting this book that first appeared in the 1930s.

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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