31 May 2008

2481) "That Was The End Of The Land Of The Armenians"

Why we should read... `The Chronicle' by Mateos Ourhayetzi
(376pp, Armenian University, Yerevan, 1973)

`That Was The End Of The Land Of The Armenians' (Ourhayetzi, Chronicles, p99)

Mateos Ourhayetzi's (circa1050 - circa1144) `The Chronicle' accounts for nearly two centuries of Armenian history - 952 AD - 1137 AD - and reconstructs an age of destructive transition from the collapse of the Bagratouni dynasty to the subsequent ruination of historical Armenia. Beyond this Ourhayetzi also traces the rise of new Armenian principalities in Cilicia from which there emerged later a new Armenian monarchy. Here he takes us aback with a unique and damning evaluation of the role of Christian Crusaders against the Armenians and in the region as a whole. The entire accomplishment is of the first order - accurate, enlightening, written sometimes with artistic flourish and revealing a profound modernity of political vision.

The first major Armenian historian writing in the Diaspora, Ourhayetzi is expert in his diagnosis of the internal Armenian degeneration that he considered to be the primary cause for the crumbling of the Armenian monarchy. He stuns us with a withering denunciation of Byzantine power for its debilitating of an already foundering the Armenian State. But he is refreshing for avoiding attribution of responsibility for Armenian misfortune to foreign powers. In his exposition the success of foreign aggression is not the cause but a consequence of the corrosion and decay of the Armenian State and elite. He examines both in order to draw lessons for the future.

Ourhayetzi was a man of the Armenian 12th century. His analysis, his conclusions and his vision for the future are couched in terms of his Christian faith and its dogma. But his theological categories are without exception weighted with solid social and historical content. So `The Chronicle' contains, besides a sure grasp of the inner causes of Armenian failure, an authentically contemporary comprehension of the essence of power, politics and war as they feature in the history of nations and in international relations. `The Chronicle' attains a pinnacle in the outline of political, military and social pre-conditions that define what Ourhayetzi considered a virtuous political state, one capable of withstanding domestic decay and resisting external threat.

Written in an age of endless war and of stubborn struggles for dynastic or national survival, a forceful message still resounds from `The Chronicle'. For Armenians to survive they must be self-reliant and independent and the only path towards genuine self-reliance, power and independence is the well-ordered, virtuous political state.

I. The crushing of the state and the destruction of the nation

The decline of imperial Arab power from the 9th century onwards afforded Armenian feudal houses the opportunity to reassert a degree of independence, to reduce the burden of Arab taxation and so enjoy greater wealth and power for themselves. Among them the ancient Bagratounis proved to be the strongest and emerged at the head of the new Armenian monarchy. Thus when Bagratouni Ashot-Gagik ascended the throne `as the first among the kings' (see note 1) of the Armenian nation:

`There was great rejoicing throughout Armenia because people were witness to the re-establishment of the Kingdom of the Armenian nation as it had been in the time of their ancestors.' (p3)

Acutely aware of the relationship between political and military power Ourhayetzi adds that:

`Their (the people's) joy was perfect because the crowned king was the brave Gagik, an energetic and fighting man. On the day of his coronation there took place the parade of his 100,000 most outstanding, brave and vigorous soldiers who during war fought like the offspring of lions and eagles'. Their reputation spreading through neighbouring lands, the kings of all the peoples sent gifts and promises of friendship to the Armenian king.' (p3)

This re-emergence of an independent Armenian state is placed by Ourhayetzi in its regional and even global context that was however not at all favourable. Also seizing the opportunity of Arab retreat was a resurgent Byzantine state that was waging war to regain its predominant influence in Asia Minor. Ourhayetzi quotes a letter from Byzantine Emperor Chmshkik to Armenian King Ashot that charts the Emperor's confident advance. Stretching relentlessly eastward the arm of Byzantine power reached Armenia. Armenians may have been Christians sharing with the Greeks a common interest in pushing back Arab power. But this did not spare them the blows of the Byzantine military bludgeon or the venom of its inquisitorial religious brigades.

With an eye on Armenia's wealth, its strategic position and fearful of an Armenian state as a competitor, no Byzantine Emperor would ever countenance an independent Armenian monarchy. In the case of one Emperor, Monomakh, Ourhayetzi writes that having obtained the collaboration of Armenian notables:

`The seed of evil budded in his heart - the elimination of the Armenian monarchy.' (p62)

The removal of Armenian secular power alone would not however suffice for the Greek Empire. It would still have to contend with a substantial challenger in the form of the Armenian Church possessing impressive status and authority, vast wealth and estates and lead by a stubborn and educated cadre. So:

`Emperor Toukitz took a nefarious decision: he determined to remove and destroy Saint Gregory's holy seat from Armenia.'(p90)

In 1040 Byzantine Emperor Michael `mobilised his forces, passed through Armenia and by means of sword and enslavement wrecked it.' (p56) `Lacking military leadership' many Armenian provinces `had little choice but to submit to the Greeks.' (p57) But at the gates of Ani the Bagratouni capital, Michael suffered a terrible defeat. Nevertheless the ceaseless Byzantine assault eventually exhausted the Armenian monarchy. Waiting ready to pounce were invaders from further east who:

`...ere convinced that under Byzantine domination the entire land of Armenia would be leaderless and defenceless as the Greeks had removed the brave and the powerful men from the east and hoped to rule Armenia and the whole of the East with minor forces.' (p68)

And so began an assault that `step by step, from year to year destroyed and reduced East to ruin (p69) and led to `the destruction of the Armenians'. The description of the attack on the city of Ardzn defines the character of the devastation. `Tears prevented' Ourhayetzi telling of `the slaughter of princes and priests who remained unburied, their corpses becoming feed for beasts' while noble women and their children were driven into slavery in Persia.' (p69). Arjesh, Meledina, Sebastia (then home for the Armenian Ardzrouni estate that had relinquished to Byzantine its historical Vasbourakan province), Baghin, Ani and Manazgerd all fell victim to ferocious Persian, Arab, Turkish and other military offensives.

In 1064 `the entire land of Armenia was flooded with blood, put to the sword and enslaved.' (p96) Conquerors `mercilessly slaughtered the entire population' of one city `mowing it down like fresh grass and heaping bodies as if piles of stones. (p99). `Men from the noble orders were stacked like forest wood (p88)'. `Everything was dipped in blood' as `the hooves of Turkish horses wore down the hills and the mountains'. `Putrid odours from vast numbers of corpses spread and enveloped the land' (p92). The killing was followed by the `looting of gold, of silver and of other precious stones'. Then there was the `enslavement of men women, boys and girls' (p89) who were driven off `in flocks, like masses of birds' (p93) while yet more dead `priests, monks, church leaders and princes' `became feed for beasts and birds' (p95). Then

`At the beginning of 1080... the Christian world was afflicted by a terrible famine. The reason for this was the bloody and vicious Turkish population that spread through the whole area leaving not a single province in peace. The lands of all the Christian (nations) were subjected to the sword and the people reduced to slavery. The land's agricultural equipment was destroyed, bread became in short supply, the labourer and the artisan were either slain or driven into slavery... Many provinces were depopulated... as thousands and tens of thousands got up and left...' (p142-143)

Thus was eliminated the very condition and infrastructure of social life: the land's productive capacity and its labour force either slaughtered or driven into exile. With the last Armenian monarch dead in the same year (p145) this was also the end of the reign of the Bagratouni Monarchy. Describing this Ourhayetzi rages against the Byzantine Empire. The Greeks are condemned as `brothers' of Turks who also inflicted `terrible punishments' on Armenians (p74-75). In one outburst he writes:

`In consequence of being left leaderless by their supposed protectors, those spineless and a-moral Greeks...(the Armenians) suffered at the hands of the infidel and bloodthirsty Turkish soldiery. The Greeks systematically removed brave soldiers from Armenia, cut them off from their homes and their provinces and destroyed the Armenian monarchy. They destroyed the bastions of the land - its soldiers and its generals. Flight never to return became the hallmark of Greek...courage. They were like the bad shepherd who flees on seeing a wolf. The Greeks succeeded in one thing.... They destroyed Armenia's powerful battlements...' (89)

So incensed is Ourhayetzi that he never misses an opportunity to attack Byzantine, in relation to Armenia and Armenians or otherwise (p74, 77, 90, 145 et al). But this is only the preliminary, solid core of this outstanding Chronicle: its depiction of essential components for a strong and stable state and a healthy social organism.

II. The lessons of history and the necessity for a virtuous state

Ourhayetzi wrote his chronicles to draw lessons from history `for the benefit of future generations'. He had glimpsed signs of Armenian recovery, though not in historical Armenia. In Cilicia Armenian estates were successfully holding their own in a melee of war, conquest and expropriation. Ourhayetzi felt it necessary to caution the new leaders so that:

`...when the good times come, when God in times to come gives the believers that which he has promised, gifts them joyful days... this generation will not forget the terrible consequences of the disastrous sins of our fathers.' (p183-184)

Knowledge of history can help prevent such forgetfulness. It enables one to `constantly recall and think about the terrible punishment' that will be meted out if we transgress. But to avoid `punishment' it is also `imperative' that we `heed God's advice, always and without exception'. Heeding God's advice was the living of a virtuous life.

Being a devout Christian Ourhayetzi draws historical lessons from history conceived of as a relationship between man and his maker. History is a complex of events that flow from human obedience to or defiance of Divine will. Obedience has its reward and defiance its inevitable punishment. But these concepts are not narrowly metaphysical or exclusively theological. Obedience, defiance, reward and punishment appear also as categories that describe social and political advance or retreat, flourish or decay. They become synonymous for historical cause and consequence. Ourhayetzi believed in life after death, in eternal paradise for the virtuous or hellfire for the sinner. But he also believed in social vice the punishment for which is social catastrophe, a living hell on earth. Obedience on the other hand also consisted of keeping a well-ordered state and is rewarded by stability, peace and prosperity on earth.

As he goes about his historical diagnosis of Armenian sin and his prescription for virtue Ourhayetzi's work is at its most perceptive and modern. Here Byzantine treachery and the destruction of Armenia appear as a consequence of, a `punishment' for the `innumerable flood' of Armenian sins (p74, 127) that is detailed as the social and political degeneration of the Armenian secular and religious leadership. It is this leadership's corruption and irresponsibility that is the primary cause of the political debility that left the Armenian State so vulnerable to external aggression. Ourhayetzi's diagnosis achieves most condensed expression in two prophetic speeches by Hovanness Gouzern.

In his first speech made in 1023 Gouzern had predicted a plague of corruption and degeneration among the Armenian elite.

`Princes shall unite with thieves, bandits and plunderers. Judges will become venal and receive bribes and issue unjust sentence... There will come to the fore those who hate learning, the windbags, the denigrators and the accusers... Monks will abandon their refuge and their monastery and indulge in worldly life wandering the streets and mingling among women...' (p35)

Secular and spiritual leaders stand accused of preparing to abandon social and spiritual responsibility for selfish gain and private pleasure:

`The princes in addition...will travel along the incorrect path. Leaving to one side the task of keeping the home in good stead and abandoning the worries of completing a job successfully they will become drunkards....The fathers of the Church, the Bishops, priests, monks will be more money loving than god-loving... and will deliver deeper wounds to Lord Jesus than the Jews who tortured and crucified him. (p35)

The second speech, delivered seven years later, repeats these charges claiming further that `kings, princes and spiritual leaders will sully the land' and will:

`Trample over the rights of the labourer...(They) will unjustly seize the labourer's property and pass merciless judgement against them.' (p47)

Albeit indirectly, albeit by their opposite Ourhayetzi here advances in clear terms qualities that define a virtuous political state, qualities not possessed by the Armenian leadership. The Armenian State lacks upright and incorruptible political leaders. It lacks an educated and enlightened intelligentsia or an honest judicial system. Armenian leaders do not possess commitment to a minimal degree of social solidarity necessary for the cohesion of the entire state.

Always conscious that political power rested on military might Ourhayetzi also takes the Armenian elite to task for lacking the will and ability to sustain an effective and disciplined military force. It displays stubborn refusal to undertake the modernisation of military technique (p31) and after King Ashot's death it even `began to hate the art of war'. This hatred in turn manifested itself as loss of independent spirit and an `acceptance of servitude to Byzantine' (p53). Indifference to military matters in Armenia was an element of a wider and `steady decline of military capability among the believers (Christian)' throughout the region (p183). Ourhayetzi in addition reveals the Armenian elite's lack of loyalty to the land. Though it was Byzantine policy to expel the nobility from Armenia, the latter happily accepted transfer to foreign pastures' (p32-3) so long as these offered them a modicum of material luxury.

The positive implied in these passages is underlined by other explicit definitions of virtuous leadership as qualities of `justice, bravery, generosity, assistance for widows, orphans and the poor (p3, p43) as well as military chivalry and courage. Greed for private gain, uncontrolled exploitation of the population, indifference to military affairs and disregard for laws for social solidarity would surely sap state power and social cohesion. It would undermine the inner strength a nation or state needed in times of perpetual wars and foreign aggression. Without such inner strength, without independent power, without the ability to fend for itself no state and especially no Armenian State could survive.

Ourhayetzi had reason to warn his contemporaries. The new Armenian monarchy in Cilicia would have to resist Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Kurdish emirates. But even though Christians, Armenians could never depend upon Christian powers, among them the recently arrived Crusaders from Europe who proved as avaricious and anti-Armenian as any other invader.

III. The Crusades through Armenian eyes

Ourhayetzi's `Chronicle' does not contain a finished evaluation of the Crusades. His appreciation fluctuates as he follows their trail through Cilicia and the Middle East. But the overall verdict is unmistakable ` initial illusions of the Crusaders as Christian saviours is shattered by their violent and conquering behaviour and by their plunder of all irrespective of nationality or religion. 1097 was a year of illusion:

`The whole of Italy and Spain, from Africa to deepest France all moved... Each (Crusading European prince) with their armed forces journeyed to help the Christians, to free the holy city of Jerusalem from the hands of foreigners, and to liberate the tomb of Christ (p166).'

However as time passed judgement becomes stern and damning. The Crusaders, as predatory as any other Christian Byzantine or Muslim power appear as a calamity. `Instead of coming to the aid of believers they became the cause of their destruction (p210).'

The latter part of `The Chronicle' is a catalogue of Crusader greed, plunder, torture, maiming and slaughter. With `huge forces they went to Samossad and looted homes that were outside the city walls' (p171). Attacking the town of Serouj they `slaughtered all its inhabitants, looted the city and drove countless boys, girls and women to Ourha.' As Crusade controlled territories were `filled`by the men and women they had `enslaved' Serouj itself `was flooded in blood.' (p182). Besides its wars against Muslims the Crusaders `ruthlessly exploited Christians, subjecting them to poverty and plunder (p188).' Frequently their brutality drove local Christians into alliances with Muslim powers. (p201) After a period of competence the leadership of the Crusaders `passed into the hands of good for nothings' who `driven by an intense lust for money' set about `the persecution and robbery of Christians (p202).'

In Ourha the Crusaders resorted to `blinding' people `and readily spilt innocent blood.' They even had the temerity to `attempt to gouge out the eyes of the Armenian archbishop. (p20)' In 1113 they brought `huge trials upon the people of Ourha. `There was not an evil deed' that they `did not commit against the populace (p218).' Their behaviour was marked in addition by petty and vicious nastiness. In an `unworthy act' Crusaders `mix excreta into bread' that they then offer to their enemies. In Jerusalem they attempted to remove Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and Georgians from their sites worship. (p182) Ourhayetzi also displays a quiet contempt for the Crusaders' military incompetence. Certainly there are brave men among them, but arrogance has made them overconfident and so easy prey for their enemies.

There is in addition to all this the description of Crusader violence against Armenian, a striking instance being when:

`Count Bakhtin declared war against Armenian prince Vassil who had inherited Gogh Vassils principality...(Bakhtin) brutally tortured and murdered the brave man and mighty warrior and seized control of this entire province removing the Armenian principality. (p225)'

`He eliminated all the Armenian principalities, more consistently than the Persians. Remnants of those Armenian princes who had survived the violence of the Turkish nation he transformed into persecuted refugees. (p226)

The mark of guilt that Ourhayetzi stamps on the Crusaders is underlined by the contrasts between detailed and concrete descriptions of their violence and the virtual absence or at best tepid recommendation of their virtue, a virtue furthermore that pales before the fulsome praise that is on occasion extended to various Muslim princes.

Ourhayetzi's work could supply fine supplements to Amin Mahlouf's comprehensive and damning indictment in his `The Crusades Through Arab Eyes'.

IV. The objective chronicler of power, politics and war

Mateos Ourhayetzi was unquestioning in his Christian faith and was loudly proud of his Armenian identity. He delights in the erudition and intellectual prowess of Armenian philosopher-priests who uphold the canon and defend the Church against Byzantine. He narrates with glad enthusiasm cases of Armenian revenge against Byzantine humiliation of Armenians that had become habitual. Yet he was above any petty, ignorant or fundamentalist blindness to reason and truth. He did not judge with ready-made opinions. Neither did he utter prefabricated denunciations. He treated history seriously, approaching it with a rational and investigative mind. For his Chronicle, he undertook `taxing and time consuming research' `critically scrutinising' `eyewitness accounts and studying the works of the ancient historian' and then `submitting his' results `to exacting examination' by those more learned than himself. (p74 and 185)'

The result is an account free of religious or national prejudice. It is free equally of the hypocrisy that oozes from our contemporary politicians and mogul media. War, whether undertaken by Christian or Muslim leaders, is violence, destruction, slaughter and enslavement to acquire power and wealth through plunder, robbery and looting or an imposed order of extortionate taxation of subjugated peoples. Ourhayetzi's vision of the virtuous state is independent of the religious faith of the ruling prince or monarch. Arab King Sherab-Dohl was `good and gentle towards Christians' and it was `impossible to express ... the good he did for worshippers of the cross (p159)'. Ourhayetzi further affirmed the possibility of Christian and Muslim or Armenian and non-Armenian coexistence and passes no negative judgement on Armenians who allied with Muslims or who served them as soldiers.

Ourhayetzi notes that Armenian Christians are wracked in equal measure by both Christian and Muslim conquerors. But he also shows that Armenian leaders can be as virtuous or vice-ridden as any other. Where their princes have the opportunity, they too slaughter and plunder. Ourhayetzi does not prettify the process of how `remnants' of the Armenian nobility established themselves in Cilicia through conquest and expropriation (p225). The Armenian elite like any other medieval rulers treated the land and its wealth as their personal property and had cruel disregard for the plight of their subjects, a disregard that on occasion, as Ourhayetzi shows, incited popular revenge.

Ourhyatzi's `The Chronicle' has an intellectual integrity and a clarity of political thought which certainly inspires modern readers to think more broadly and positively about the trouble and strife of their own time.

--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.

Armenian News Network / Groong, By Eddie Arnavoudian, May 26, 2008