Syunik in the 9th and 10th Centuries - a statelet in crisis
Armenian News Network / Groong
November 30, 2022
By Eddie Arnavoudian
‘Syunik in the 9th and 10th Centuries’ by H Utmazian
H Utmazian’s ‘Syunik in the 9th and 10th Centuries’ (380pp, 1958, Yerevan) will cast to the wind all notions of the 9th-10th century revival of Armenian statehood as a glorious accomplishment, when in the post-imperial Arab age, Armenian feudal principalities secured relative independence and the famed Bagratouni monarchy came into being. On the contrary, with Utmazian the entire history of Syunik and of Armenia too reads as a grubby tale of aristocratic and Church greed, backstabbing, treachery, and collaboration with foreign foes together with the intensified oppression of the Armenian peasantry by Armenian feudal estates; a grubby tale of elites recklessly squandering all potential for building secure foundations for future state and nationhood.
This was not initially the portrait Utmazian intended to present!
In line with often ahistorical and teleological Soviet era national historical Utmazian opens, eager to present Armenian revolts against Arab power as ‘popular liberation struggles (p21)’. But he is rapidly forced to acknowledge a truth: that ‘amorality, selfish ambition and self-aggrandizement’ was the ‘common characteristic of the Armenian aristocracy’ (p109) leading these revolts. ‘Enmity and division afflicted the Armenian princely estate’ (p110). Their struggle ‘was not common or united’. Theirs were ‘desultory engagements driven solely by narrow interests of individual estates (p114)’.
Syunik in this era registers no significant political, economic, or social achievements. Undergoing systematic fragmentation, weakening and disintegration the province was never to recover its condition as a unified political estate it had been during the Arshagouni dynasty that collapsed in the 5th century. Subdivided now into some 15-18 minor, egotistical fiefdoms, all engaged in endless feuds to enlarge possessions with none powerful enough to impose a single order and stable authority across the province. Nominally pre-eminent with its leader designated the senior prince, the fortunes of the Gegharkouni estate ebbed and flowed as a result of nefarious alliances by different estates with each other, with the Bagratouni monarchy and indeed the Arab emirates (p84-86)
In significant ways Syunik was a microcosm of 9-10th century historical Armenia where again no single estate, not even the Bagratouni Monarchy was powerful enough to subjugate and coalesce Armenian estates into a single durable political-military entity. Rapidly one after another Vasbourakan declared itself an independent kingdom as did Syunik and Kars. With no hegemonic aristocratic house Armenian feudalism failed to create a sustainable monarchical statehood as perhaps a first step towards future nationhood.
With a meticulous examination of meager references in classical histories and Arabic sources, combined with fine detective work and credible assumptions, Utmazian cogently reconstructs the class foundations of 9th-10th century Armenian principalities. Peasants and artisans were the foundation of secular and Church wealth and privilege resting as they did on the labor of their allegedly national ‘compatriots’! Peasant labor built secular castles and palaces, Churches, and monasteries, it fed the aristocracy and the clergy, while their artisan colleagues produced their armaments and weaponry as well as their luxuries.
By Alexander Naumov - Originally posted to Panoramio as Tatev Monastery, CC BY 3.0
A particularly gross manifestation of feudal privilege was the immense accumulation of land and wealth by the Church, and especially by the Datev Bishopric. Its holdings spread beyond its immediate monastic grounds with gifts or purchases of villages, lands, fields, mountains, and rivers across the entire province. In the 930-940 period Datev owned some 32 villages and had a clergy of 500 people fed by local peasants (p128, 164-166)’. Whilst secular estates shrunk, fragmented by inheritance subdivision, Datev grew to become the largest landholding estate in Syunik. This greedy and grasping Church played a significant role in the enclosure of common lands as well as prohibiting local peasants from using rivers it had acquired that were essential for irrigation.
The fortunes of the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the Armenian population, were intolerably miserable. They heaved beneath a massive burden of taxation – in labor, in kind, in cash and in Church dues. This was also an era of the extension and consolidation of the feudal bonding of serfs to land, economically and legally chaining them, purchasing, or selling them together with the farms and villages. Significantly grasping elites, and particularly the Church, also strove to seize ownership of those last remnants of communally peasant owned lands.
A string of peasant revolt and rebellion was to follow.
With a close reading of scanty sources Utmazian recounts three stages of peasant revolt in Syunik across the 10th century, in 908-915, the 930s and the 990s. The Church was a singular target. Armed peasants attacked the fabulously wealthy Datev Monastery, saw off Bishop and priest and broke into storehouses to recover agricultural produce that had been seized from them in the form of taxes. Critically they reclaimed title to their communal-family lands the Church had attempted to expropriate.
Telling of the third period of peasant revolt 13th century historian S Orbellian notes King Smbat coming upon a group of Datev’s priests cowering in hideout mountain caves. Presumably, Utmazian writes, they were fleeing the righteous rage of those whose labor they ruthlessly plundered. The assumption is credible, for at the time there is no record of any foreign assault on Syunik. Stunned by their audacity and denouncing peasant rebels as ‘godless’, ‘evil’, ‘lawless’, ‘thieving’ and ‘plague ridden’ ‘bandits’ the elites turned on them with the full force of arms, killing, imprisoning, or driving them from their homes.
A notable feature of Syunik’s peasant revolt that marks it off from others across Armenia was its independent character. Previous popular discontent had been channeled through dissenting, sometimes egalitarian inspired religious movements such as the Paulicians and the Tontrags. Here the common people had played an immense role, but the movement was generally led by segments of discontented secular and religious elites. In Syunik the peasants themselves led the revolt. Though it was defeated, the memory of audacity and bravery in the face of state oppression and especially the example of the independent initiative of the oppressed can inspire today.
It would of course be a disgrace to conclude a thought on 9th-10th century Armenia without reference to those well-known, stunning and magnificent cultural and economic accomplishments of the Bagratouni era. The fabulous City of Ani, the staggering beauty of Church architecture, the poetry of Narek, the music, the glorious manuscript-painting, as well as the intellectual legacy in history, the sciences and philosophy. However, in the absence of durable political statehood none of this proved to be brickwork for durable national development. In many cases these were akin to ephemeral conspicuous consumption. The legacy did however partially survive and was often, if not always, put to positive use in the 18-20th century Armenian national revival.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/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.