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Why we should read... "The History" by Agatangeghos (552pp, Armenian State University, Yerevan, 1983) Armenian News Network / Groong May 1, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian Agatangeghos' "History" is always cited as the first among that cluster of Armenian language classical histories that were written immediately following the development of the national alphabet in 413. It is, according to Khazar Barpetzi, himself a 5th century historian, "the first definite account" of the "conversion of the land of Armenia from pagan ignorance to genuine knowledge of godliness". Covering a period of some 154 years stretching from the ascension of the first hereditary Arshagouni king in 186 to the death of Drtad III, the first Armenian Christian King in 330, Agatangeghos' volume acquired an impressive international reputation. Right into the 12th and 13th centuries it was being read not only in an Armenian version but in numerous Latin, Assyrian and Arabic translations too. The reasons why Agatangeghos' tale so captivated the pious Christian reader and listener are not hard to discover. What we are offered is not a secular account of the conversion as an expression of a strategic Armenian alliance with Rome to halt a steady Persian encroachment on Armenia. We have instead a stirring hagiographic account of the first saints and martyrs of the Armenian Church. Gregory the Illuminator's stubborn endurance of appalling torture, Hripsime's amazing beauty, her bravery and martyrdom as well as the fantastic drama of King Drtad's conversion are described with verve and passion. For the devout the book reads like an adventure story with Christian heroes, their struggles, sacrifices and eventual triumphs. Despite its rather heavy burden of theological disquisition this volume retains its importance for students of Armenian history in particular and of Christianity in general. Within its essentially devotional narrative one can glean the brutal military-political form that marked Armenia's transition to Christianity; a form that reveals the entirely secondary role of Christian preaching and sermonizing. The advent of Christianity clearly heralded the emergence of a new political order in Armenia with the new religion representing a new form of state and politics. THE TYRANNY OF THE CONVERSION Even from Agatangeghos' account it is clear that the triumph of this new force was assured only after a decisive period during which Gregory the Illuminator "relied on the King's terror and instruction to secure obedience from all" (p443). Preaching meekness and mildness to his flock Gregory the Illuminator and his allies did not consider such virtues appropriate to their own proselytising work. In the Christian conversion force and war clearly played a role immensely more important than the preaching of the priests! The Church evidently cared less about the salvation of souls and more about attaining power and wealth for itself. While Gregory the Illuminator is naturally depicted as playing the decisive role, the success of the enterprise was crucially dependent on the Christian alliance with King Drtad and the subsequent deployment of the royal army in the service of the new religion. It was only after cementing this pact that Gregory "received sanction from the King, his princes and lords" to "commence the task" of "demolishing, destroying, annihilating and removing from the face of the earth the scandal" of paganism. (p437). With "peremptory instruction from the King" the "entire royal army" proceeded to wage veritable war to "annihilate even the memory of these false deities that dared assume the name of god". (p437) The vast scale of this campaign is not only described in detail, but told with a measure of satisfaction too. The Christian war opened with the now Christian army marching on the town of Ardashad "there to destroy the temple of the goddess Anahid" (p437). On its way, in a strategically and ideologically significant move, the army "first set about destroying, wrecking and burning" the renowned pagan "centre of learning and godly wisdom" said to have been established by Ormist (p437). Thereafter the tide of devastation and looting raged across the entire land as every possible pagan temple and statue was levelled and its land and wealth appropriated by the victorious Christian Church. The Christian Church then set about consolidating its newly established supremacy. It first sought to secure a degree of popular acquiescence and support through the distribution of some pagan wealth including much "gold and silver" to "the poor, the suffering and the propertyless" (p439, p441). The Church however made sure to retain for itself monopoly control of the source of wealth. It seized all pagan "land and buildings along with the resident serfs and (including even) pagan priests", now no doubt transformed into servants of the new religion (p441). Thus it ensured the population's permanent subordination to itself as it emerged as a dominant political and economic power in the land. Agatangeghos records much of the nitty-gritty of the Christian consolidation and organisation, describing its spreading institutions and structures, the building of churches and the putting in place of new Church personnel. Gregory the Illuminator begins by establishing the "laws and the commands" (p449) for the new order and travelling "the length of the land to build Churches in all its domains, provinces, districts, towns, and villages" (p467). On his return from Cesaria where he was confirmed as leader of the Armenian Church, he stops off in Sepastia to successfully persuade a large numbers of clergymen "to return with to serve in the new priestly order." (p453) To organise and direct the Church's work he also anoints "over 400 bishops for the various provinces" of the land. (p477) Underpinning the expanding structure of the Church was Gregory's large-scale project of education and indoctrination. As if conscious of the fragility of the new order he paid particular attention to fortifying the army, the proven guarantor of the conversion. With Drtad's agreement he laboured hard to indoctrinate the armed forces by "devoting one month to fasting and prayer" (p463) and Christening "over 4,000 men, women and children" belonging to the King's military entourage. Whilst bolstering the loyalty of the army Gregory the Illuminator also attended to the business of creating a dedicated and educated cadre to administer its new estate and supervise its captured flock. He "persuaded the King to gather together and educate children from many provinces" including "in particular the children of the incestuous pagan priesthood". (p467). The Church even incorporated the educated remnants of old priestly caste, assigning them the task of "studying either Assyrian or Hellenic Christian texts". So as to make its authority more palatable to a population for whom this new religion was both alien and incomprehensible, it also made significant ideological concessions. Among other things many pagan holidays and celebrations were incorporated into the Christian calendar as commemorations for their own martyrs. With such an organisation, the Church's wealth, status and political power grew rapidly during the course of the 4th and 5th centuries. So much so that within 50-70 years it had become the main and most powerful challenge to the secular monarchy dwarfing by far the pretensions of the remaining feudal nobility. THE PAGAN HERITAGE Agatangeghos' "History" has other merits besides unwittingly revealing the real process and content of the Christian conversion. In describing the destructive Christian onslaught he preserves in some detail significant aspects of the pagan order's culture and religion. Besides naming a number of gods - Anahid, Asdghig, Vahakn, and Aramazt - he describes some of their functions and the rituals associated with their worship. He also notes places and sites of many monuments, temples and centres of learning, at the same time indicating their relative order of importance, noting those that served as burial sites for Kings and princes and sometimes cataloguing their wealth too. Even from Agatangeghos' hostile account one can understand the charm that the pagan gods had for the intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century Armenian national revival. Through the pages of the book one cannot fail to note the sharp contrast between the asceticism and misanthropy of Christianity and the philantrophy of the pagan religions. For the latter, gods were strong, energetic and willing assistants in people's striving to enjoy life here on earth. Their worship was senseless unless they served to ensure a bountiful life, unless, that is, they served the welfare of humanity. As part of his effort to stem the tide of Christianity, one of Drtad's edicts refers to the "peace", "plenty", "enjoyment" and "goodness" on earth that flows from loyalty to pre-Christian gods. Seeking to persuade Gregory to revere the traditional Gods Drtad refers to the "Great Lady Anahid", as "the glory of our nation and its main provider". She is "worshiped by all Kings" because she "is the mother of all our feelings and emotions" and "the benefactor of all human nature". The pagan religion that is depicted in Agatangeghos had nothing in common with the life-denying mysticism that is the essential content of speeches attributed to Gregory the Illuminator, Hripsime and others. It may, incidentally, be of note that while these lack any reference to Christianity's secular benefits, Agatangeghos' own narrative alludes to some, albeit vaguely. Nevertheless the fundamental asceticism of the volume remains undented though it is clear that the privileged Church hierarchy made an exception for itself. Even in histories penned by devoutly Christian priests we see them enjoying the fullness of life here on earth whilst preaching abstinence of all sorts to their flock. This double standard seemed not to diminish the religious elite's prospects for eternal bliss. PROGRESS OR REACTION? Agatangeghos' account makes for riveting reading. Yet it is littered with important but unanswered questions. It does contribute to filling out a few voids in other accounts of the 3rd and 4th century clash between the Armenian Arshagounis and Persian Sasanids and throws some light on the relations between Drtad III and the Roman Empire. It also stimulates consideration of the nature of early Christian history and theology and about its long-term effect on Armenian history. But it provides no reliable chronological, historical or social information to deduce any of the causes behind King Drtad III's conversion and the formation of the Christian-Royal alliance. Neither does it contain material which may help explain the ease with which the old pagan order was vanquished. It seems that the Anahids, Vahakns and other pagan gods who so inspired our 19th and early 20th century poets lacked the power to withstand the violence of the Christian onslaught. True the pagan order was not defeated overnight, many of its rituals were incorporated into the new religion, it survived for some time, albeit tenuously, in remoter regions of the country and endured even longer in folk memory. But it ceased to be a significant political, social or cultural force. >From the swiftness and thoroughness with which Christianity triumphed it is possible to tentatively conclude that in the Christian political movement paganism confronted a far more energetic and determined force than itself. The consequences of this radical transformation for the future course of Armenian history continue to be the subject of intense debate. A convincing argument can be made however that it had both progressive and regressive significance, both in political and in cultural life. However only the most careful, meticulous and historically defined examination, one that does not tar all centuries with the same brush, can succeed in approximating the complexity of historical reality. In this context one thing is beyond argument. The pious and sanctimonious speeches and declarations that accompanied most of the 1700th anniversary celebrations of the victory of the Armenian Church, by failing to differentiate between its qualitatively differing roles over the centuries, obscures the indubitably positive role it played for example during the late 4th and 5th centuries and simultaneously conceals its appallingly treacherous role during many other centuries. -- 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.