Gerard Jirair Libaridian
Gerard Jirair Libaridian (Armenian: Ժիրայր Լիպարիտյան, born 1945 in Beirut, Lebanon) is an Armenian Americanhistorian and politician. He served as Levon Ter-Petrosyan adviser during the 1990s.
He currently holds the Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He specializes in Armenia, the Caucasus, and the Near East. From 1991 to 1997, Dr. Libaridian served as adviser, and then senior adviser to the former President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, as First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (1993-1994). He is a founding member of the Zoryan Institute (1982) http://www.zoryaninstitute.org/ . He taught previously at a number of universities, and has lectured and written extensively.
Education: ◦1987 Ph.D., History, University of California, Los Angeles ◦ B.A. 1969, California State University, Los Angeles
Awards: ◦1999 Alumnus of the Year (Social Sciences), California State University, Los Angeles ◦ 2000 Man of the Year, Knights of Vartan
Grants: ◦1999 Arthur D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grant
Gerard speaks at Sara Chitjian’s In Service Program
I’m afraid of the challenge to present three thousand years of history in one hour. It’s beyond me, it’s beyond anybody I know. So what I will try to do is first to give you some general comments to trace the contour, that’s the frame within which the history developed. Then I will go very quickly over some of the important periods, the development of the Armenian people, the major problems in that history and finally I will come to the modern period (present time) to see whether we can make sense of the present in light of what we’ve talked about before.
Here is the map. This is not exactly a map; this is a sketch. This is the Black Sea. Here you have the Mediterranean Sea. This is the Caspian Sea. So, just to give you a general idea where this territory is located, here you will find the Caucasus Mountains. In terms of modern-day territories, to give you a general idea, this is the Eastern Mediterranean coast. This is Asia Minor, Turkey, Syria and then down Lebanon, Israel, North African coast, Egypt, etc. The Southern Coast of the Black Sea will continue to go straight to Constantinople or modern Istanbul. Russia would be the north of the Caucasus. And here, in the south, you will find Syria, Iraq and Persia. In this general region is located historical Armenia. Besides Armenians today you will find Georgians and Azerbaijani Turks. It is a High Plateau, and from the beginning it has been in contact with various continents and regions. It is not very easy to travel through (particularly in the old times) but nevertheless the people have found ways to get through it and over it. At times it is possible to see that when there has been peace in the region, this Armenian plateau does provide routes for trade. And in the past (for example, in the Achaemenid period, before the 2nd – 3rd century BC) there was one highway (known as the Imperial or Royal Highway) which stretched from the capital city of Susa (or Shusha) all the way to the coast. This was mainly for trade and military purposes. Other than that, trade has gone between the Mediterranean cities and the North Caucasus region: China, India, Persia, Armenia to the west.
In the ancient times the civilized world was the Mediterranean. So Armenia itself, is not right around the Mediterranean (although at one point there will be an Armenian Kingdom here, in middle ages) but it has always been on the outskirts of major civilizations. This being ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Armenia was right north of that, and it has participated in major events such as the Neolithic Revolution, the Urban Revolution, etc. The winters are quite cold and in the summer you have a very dry weather.
The second important element is that we’re dealing with a history that is really ancient and at the same time very modern in the sense that it goes back approximately thousand years before Christ, where we know these people, what they did more or less and of course as times goes on, we know more. As a political entity, its history is basically before 1080, so the first 2000 years Armenia is a state, a political entity – more or less strong, capable of defending itself or at least worthy of being an ally to the others and therefore it’s very much a part of history. This includes the two major periods and world civilizations of the ancient Imperial type of governments to the feudal type of society (that you find first in this region and then in Europe) and finally the modern period with all the problems that it has. So it really takes some cleverness to absorb anything that’s going on because we’re too used to understanding things within our own frame of mind. Therefore, as I go through this, I hope you remember some aspects of world civilization which I’m sure you all know.
It’s not only an academic issue. The reason why I stress this is not because I learnt it in college or that the professor requires that anybody wanting a PhD in Armenian history know the entire history. It’s just that 3000 years of history is a lot of weight on anybody who finds or feels himself or herself Armenian today. It also has a lot of implications for the type of nationalism that Armenians have which has often been confused with other types of nationalism. And it is very relevant because that type of nationalism is what is the basis of Armenians’ attitude toward integration in the American society or any other society or their attitude toward their own culture. So this whole period that we’re looking at is not only a quantitative development but also a qualitative one which explains not everything obviously but much of what Armenians feel and do today in terms of their association with a certain ethnic group.
The third point is that being at the crossroad of the main civilizations, Armenian culture has come into contact with other cultures. Throughout history we find that in ancient times you had the Assyrian Kingdom and Kingdom of Urartu in the North. Armenians were not Armenians yet and they didn’t call themselves Armenians; they called themselves something else. But this whole region was in conflict with the most powerful nation in the world at that time – Syria. Right after that, it is possible to see the development of the civilized world as a struggle between the East and the West; the East being various Persian dynasties that came and went and the West being first the Greek world, and then the Roman world, and then the Byzantine world and then Western Europe. Therefore the development of Armenian culture is not something that is explained in itself but it has to be explained by the adjustments it makes, the adaptations it has because of various cultures with which it comes into contact.
Before I go into a more chronological approach I would like to give you an idea of what we use to know what happened to Armenia as sources. Like any other people first you have rock cave decorations, cave drawings from 30,000 and 40,000 years ago that still exist and are being explored today. Secondly, you have rock inscriptions during the Mesopotamian civilizations whether it’s a cuneiform or different symbolic signs. These are important sources for our understanding of the period, for example, from 1000 BC onto the time of Christ. Not only inscriptions that are made by people in Armenia itself but also neighboring people who came and conquered or didn’t…whatever… Then we come to the written sources. These written sources include Persian, Roman and Greek sources. The Greek sources have descriptions of life in Armenia, of rural communes, of what people eat, drink and who was governing there. Later on, Roman historians will delve on Armenia because it becomes an important boundary for the Roman Empire in its struggle with the East, that is Persia. So they do write about who is in Armenia, what these people are doing, etc. Then, of course, for the middle period in Armenian history (let’s say from 5th century onto the 16th century) we rely on Armenian chroniclers – Armenian monks in monasteries who sat down and wrote the history of their times, often Armenian princes paying the bishops to sit down and write the history of their own family. These are sources which are used of course but none of these sources are acceptable as they are. You have to understand, as in any other history, what you can take and what you have to be more careful about. And then of course, in the 16th and 17th centuries we have printed matter – first the Bible and then journals, newspapers, etc.
The first period of the Armenian history is actually the pre-Armenian history. On the land that was known as Urartu excavations are still going on. This Urartu Kingdom existed from approximately 9th to 6th century BC. These are people, mostly local, basically a tribal organization, and it is called a ‘’kingdom’’ because at one point one of those tribal chiefs is able not to organize a state (as we know it today) but to bring those tribes together, allow them local autonomy but then take care of foreign affairs and military establishing so that it is not a totally integrated society. There are valleys and mountains that are separated from each other and often you have language barriers (the language that is not the modern Armenian). Eventually, during this period (and starting quite earlier than that) some of the European people, who were coming from the North and the West, moved to the Armenian plateau. They were conquered militarily by the Urartian kings, yet the language and the level of culture of the incoming people was slightly higher so they were able to put imprint on the local culture. And it is in the 6th century BC, for the first time, that we find the name ‘’Armenia’’ mentioned in the Persian rock inscription. So from the 6th century on, we have people that are known as ‘’the Armenians’’ and the land that is known as ‘’Armenia’’.
In parenthesis I should say that Armenians don’t call their land ‘’Armenia’’; Armenians call their land ‘’Hayastan’’. And they call themselves not ‘’Armenian’’ but ‘’Hay’’. One of the reasons for this is that the incoming people were mostly ‘’Armens’’, and the land became to be known by the name ‘’Armen’’, while the local people call themselves ‘’Hay’’. So both of these names survived in history.
As I said, Urartian Kingdom is a group of tribes actually, almost forced into the domination of one single king. It is in a constant battle with, as I said earlier, the Kingdom of Assyria, that has taken over the ancient city states of Mesopotamia (quite strong, quite brutal). And we find practically hundreds of Assyrian inscriptions saying ‘’Such-and-such king went to the land of the North (the people of Van and the people of Urartu), and conquered the land’’. And often this has been taken as an actual conquest by Assyria, except that logically speaking, it is difficult to see why you would have to reconquer a land a year after you conquered it once. When this happens regularly, mind easily goes to other deductions that is these were not actual conquests; there was a continuous battle going on. Although the Assyrians had supremacy, the people of Urartu developed a ‘’guerrilla warfare’’ tactic. They were ambushed by the Assyrian troops at their own will in the land they knew better than the Assyrians did. They also had spies in Assyria as Assyrians had spies in Urartu, and they would send messages to their kings as to the movements of the Urartian and Assyrian forces. So it was a quite developed warfare which lasted till both were exhausted and both dynasties collapsed.
These dynasties were replaced by, what is known in history, a major Persian dynasty – the Achaemenids that not only ruled over what was Assyria but all the way to the Mediterranean coast and to the Aegean Sea. These people governed their lands differently; they divided it into provinces and they had local governors ruling over different places. By this time it is Armenia already, Urartians don’t exist. Different races were mixed to produce the Armenian people. This region is divided into two parts with two different governors. And it is in the 2nd century BC, around 198, that as a result of the rise of the Roman Empire we find the Achaemidian rule almost destroyed. An Armenian king declares independence, and this is the first independent state of Armenia around in 198, which brings us to the next period of the Armenian history.
Attendant: The original tribal people of Armenia – were they people who came from the Roman, Greek or Mesopotamian world? I don’t understand who these people were.
Answer: The people who were here have been here to the best of our knowledge as far as we know. We see no movement of people; as far as history takes us back, this land has been inhabited by the local people. Only starting, what is called in the history, with the people of the sea (in the 12th century BC), you have different smaller tribes coming and establishing and mixing up with the locals and then evolving into the Armenian people.
Two centuries before Christ we have an Armenian state with very important kings – quite powerful, able to compete at some points with the Roman Empire and even fighting it. This is the strongest period of Armenian history in terms of its political and international value. One of the important kings of Armenia was known as Tigran or in Latin sources as Tigranes. In beginning of the 1st century BC this king had become an Emperor on his own. He had conquered not only Armenia itself, gotten rid of all the small tribal chiefs as political powers, created a centralized government with complete authority but he had also extended his borders to include parts of Persia, most of this Caspian coast, all the way to the Caucasus Mountains to the Black Sea down to what is today Israel, Lebanon, Syria. So it was a huge Empire. This happened only when the Romans were quite weak and they had their own internal wars. The Persians were weak too. So during one of those battles with the Romans it is said the Emperor Tigranes, who used to mount on his horse with four kings at his service, looked at the Roman soldiers coming in the field from atop of the fortress and said, ‘’If these are messengers it’s too large a group, and if these are soldiers, then it’s too small an army’’. He hadn’t been exposed to the concept of the Roman legions that were quite well organized and he lost the battle and his empire, although the kingdom survived in the basic circle that I mentioned at the beginning. After the loss of this kingdom, we have the rise of another one, which becomes the victim of the Roman and Persian Imperialism.
Attendant: Why was this kingdom lost?
Answer: It was lost as a result of the fight between these people as both Empires, the Persian and the Roman, tried to control it. They tried to control the throne itself, and who was going to be sitting on the throne. So there was a period of instability as a result of which the throne itself was lost. That instability continued for another 50 years till the Romans and the Persians came to an agreement; the agreement was that the Persians would appoint the king and the Romans would have to approve it. So a new type of political system evolved – a kingdom whose right to the throne was not from his own people but from foreign powers. This kingdom was not very strong.
But by this time, since the central authority was not strong, you have local nobility (generals and other families) that acquire such importance that by the 5th century Armenia is a feudal state. The Romans and the Persians, again coming into conflict, divide Armenia totally. There is no more Armenian state; half of it goes to the Romans (and of course it is the Byzantine Empire by this time in the West) and the other part goes to the Persians. So the kingdom is lost, the state is lost although the culture continues to exist. And more importantly, in the 5th century it produces, what is known in the Armenian history, the Golden Age. Two things happen: 1) with the loss of political independence there is more emphasis on culture, 2) at the end of the kingdom itself (around the beginning of the 4th century) the king accepted Christianity as the state religion of Armenia. This is approximately about 10 years before the Emperor Constantine in Rome made Christianity a tolerable religion. In Armenia it was a state religion – obligatory. This changed the whole outlook of Armenia and it had serious repercussions in the sense that eventually this whole region became Muslim. When the Turks took over Asia Minor by the 15th century, this whole region became Muslim and most people became Muslim – the Azerbaijanis became Muslim, the Persians became Muslim and the Mesopotamians became Muslim. So Armenia was left as the only Christian population in the region. Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire and conquered as a religion all of the West. So a very strong attachment was developed between Armenians and Westerners. From the 4th century on, and particularly in the 5th century, Armenians looked to the West to improve their own knowledge of the world and everything else.
In the 5th century another important event occurred. With the loss of political independence, as I said, there was an emphasis on the cultural development. One of the priests, very close to the king (the last king) decided that Armenians needed an alphabet of their own if they were going to survive as a cultural unit and if they were going to claim anything other than just a tribal unit. And this monk developed an Armenian alphabet, consisting of 36 letters. For this he went through local sources and all major learning centers that existed at the time, including Alexandria, which was an important bishopric and Asia towns in Asia Minor where there were universities. He came up with 36 letters which are still used as the alphabet of the Armenians. So all these things came into fruition in the 5th century when basically you have the beginning of the Armenian culture (the translation of the Bible). Armenians started writing the history of Armenia. When people start writing the history of their own, it reflects consciousness of their own importance. This was done by the Armenians, for the first time, in the 5th century, AD. The facts brought by this particular historian, Moses Khorenatsi, are disputed and have been disputed for the last hundreds years. The image of Armenians of themselves is very closely tied to that 5th century first Armenian historian who thought about writing the history of the Armenian people since the beginning of time.
In the 7th century the power of Islam rose and eventually became a challenge to the Byzantine Empire. And we have the Islamic Arab Empire fighting the Byzantine Empire. They both wanted to take control over Armenia. So eventually Armenia was taken under the Arab’s rule and remained under their rule for about 200 years. The local nobility often tried to revolt against the Arabs. Every time they lost, the Arab Caliph decimated the nobilities of the region. With the weakening of the Arab Empire we have three-four major families who are able to create a new kingdom in the 9th century.
From the 9th to the 11th century you have the revival of the new kingdom. More importantly, this kingdom was moving from the feudal structures into, what is recognized, as an urban development. It is centered in the cities that have churches, markets and even labor unions for the workers to defend their own rights.
The audio gets cut off at this point. It is soon resumed but the topic of discussion is a little changed.
We find that the Armenian society was able, because of its history, to come out of the state of slavery that it had accepted throughout centuries to become a revolutionary force. This is, generally speaking, a second type of interpretation which starts looking from the inside to the outside, along with the attitudes, for example, toward the oppressing power, that is the Ottomans. We find that the Armenian society changed internally as well. When the kingdoms were lost (that is the Armenian state was lost), what remained of Armenian political value was the church. The Armenian church was a very national church and it had no legal ties with outside churches. And the Armenian clergy became those who kept the culture going and provided unity among Armenians when the land itself was divided, when there was not enough economic and social development to bring all of them together in any way. The church remained the only one that did that.
Attendant: IS the church connected with other churches?
Answer: No, it is not legally, or in any way, connected with other churches. It is a separate church. It accepts the dogma of the Eastern Church, not the Russian Orthodox but the Ethiopian Church, the Coptic Church in Egypt. There are four Eastern churches that have the same dogma but the organizations are separate.
Attendant: They broke away from Rome at the same time?
Answer: Yes, they broke away not from Rome but the church itself in 451, at the Council of Chalcedon where the major tenants of the church itself (the Universal Church) were set. There were some things that the Armenians couldn’t accept so from then on they separated.
By the 18th– 19th centuries the Armenian society was a religion-oriented society. It was defined as a religious community by the Government, it understood itself to be a religious community and Armenian was considered anyone who belonged to the Armenian national church. But eventually, through the activities of European and American missionaries,the Protestant and other churches started making inroads among Armenians. Furthermore, because of the extended educational facilities that Armenians provided for themselves in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Armenians began to define themselves not by church but by culture and language. And consequently, the Armenian community that has been organized around the church, started organizing itself around political parties and eventually, revolutionary parties, which became the most important force in the Armenian community.
After 1915, after the First World War, that changed again. Armenians had to move out and the only thing that united them was the church, and it’s possible to say that today the church has a primary position in the Armenian community.
We need to realize that we’re not dealing with a group of people that are thrown right and left by major powers, that have no life of their own, that have no evolution of their own. Eventually they learnt to live and survive and create their own world and their own values. What I will be doing is going over those two thousand years with a little more detail than I did so that we have a clearer picture.
The major period of formation of the Armenian nation is down to the 6th century BC. There are signs in Armenia (all kinds of archeological proofs) that people had been living in those lands in an organized way for at least 40,000 years. It was basically a tribal society. By the 12th century there were ethnic coalitions or groups of tribes (not necessarily mixing with each other racially) working together against common enemies, coalescing against common dangers. In the 12th century BC we find that there are some people that move from the Balkan area into Asia Minor, Greece and start spreading in the civilized world. It is these people that are known as the ‘’people of the sea’’ in Egyptian wall carvings. Some of these people end up in Armenia itself where they bring with them a more complex system of social organization than what existed in Armenia. And although they are not powerful enough to militarily conquer the locals (the Urartians), culturally they seem to be superior. And eventually it is the mixture of various local tribes – the Urartians and the incoming tribes (the Armens) that mix together to produce culturally, ethnically and racially, what is known, as the Armenian nation. You might be interested to know that Armenians don’t call themselves ‘’Armenians’’. They call themselves ‘’hay’’ (in Armenian) and the land of Armenia is called ‘’Hayastan’’. Possibly the reason for this is that there was, right under the Black Sea, a region where there was a very strong kingdom known as the ‘’Kingdom of Hayasa’’. This kingdom survived long enough and must have had quite an impact culturally on the surrounding Urartian tribes, because eventually the local people started identifying themselves as ‘’Hays’’, ‘’Hayasa’’ which became ‘’Hayastan’’ through linguistic changes, while foreigners or non-Armenians recognized that land as the land of ‘’Arminia’’ or ‘’Armena’’ or ‘’Armenia’’. We are dealing with the same people but the components of this new nation had their impact on what Armenians call themselves and what non-Armenians call themselves. The formation process indicates to the future culture of the Armenian people. There were many similarities between the Armens and other smaller tribes that came into the Armenian plateau and those, that went, for example, into Greece, into Asia Minor. Their arts, their dresses often coincide very closely and, therefore, there was from the beginning a natural sympathy for what was in the West. Number one: down to the 1st century BC this formation process is coming to its end. Number two: Armenia seems to be very much a part of the Iranian world under the Persian Empire. But as the local governors of Armenia try to get away from the Persian rule, they find a natural ally in the West that comes in the form of the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire. And it is these local rulers, that for the first time in 189 declared their independence and started the Armenian state as we know it. The kings of this dynasty (which is an important dynasty), who were educated in the main learning centers of the world (that means either Odessa, Urfa or Alexandria in Egypt) ruled over Armenia for about 200 years. During this period Tigran or Tigranes was able to use the time, when the Romans had slavery revolts on their hand and the Persians were fighting each other for the throne, to himself. He started conquering and creating an empire for himself, and Armenians are quite proud of this fact. I don’t know why but an empire was too much for any Armenian leader to hold at that time. Anyway, reviving the history having such an emperor makes us proud. But this emperor was not fighting for Armenia, obviously; like all other emperors, he was fighting for his dynasty, for himself, for his power and for his harem, and believe me he had it. I mean, unfortunately, not all Armenians are saints.
The second interesting man during this dynasty is Artavazd. He is interesting not because he conquered but because he spent his time, fortunately or unfortunately, writing poetry, tragedies and watching plays being performed. Once in a while he went to wars but this he enjoyed most. And it is this king who got in trouble with (you won’t believe this but) Cleopatra because of the Roman conquest, etc. The Roman General Antony was very upset because the General that preceded him couldn’t conquer Armenia or Persia. He had to go back to Cleopatra with something. So he told Artavazd that he was going to come to Armenia to talk about future plans. He did and then he got Artavazd and his wife and family to come to Egypt, Alexandria where he put him in prison. Antony, having considered himself the emperor of the world now, decided to parade the conquered kings. Supposedly, king Artavazd was chained in golden chains with his family. Everybody who passed in front of Cleopatra was supposed to bow to her. Artavazd refused to do so (he might be dazzled by her beauty), and he was beheaded. This dynasty was not able to survive a very strong, harsh competition for the control of the civilized world, as I said at the beginning, between Persia and Rome.
The next important period is the period of confusion, where Rome and Persia tried to control the throne of Armenia, sometimes allowing no king and sometimes trying to force their own candidates in the kingdom. Anytime Armenians didn’t like one, they could get rid of him, but they didn’t have enough force to put their own man till finally the two empires became tired and came to an agreement. According to this agreement the Roman Empire would appoint the Armenian king and the Persian Empire would have to give their approval to that decision. Eventually, a new dynasty comes up and rules in the 5th century. We talked about the rise of the feudal system in Armenia, where the king had less and less power and regional wars required more and more power. One of the reasons is that both Rome and Persia tried to get a weak king so that he couldn’t fight their own plans. Looking from the 20th century, we find that the feudal system was extremely damaging one for national unity and for the state. In the feudal world there is no concept of nation, as we know it today. They only had recourse to it when they wanted all the people to participate in a war that is led by the feudal lords. The feudal lords were not there for the people; they were there for their own family, for their own lands. Armenian lords as the feudal lords in Europe preferred to be vassals of the Persian king who was hundred miles away rather than a strong Armenian king who is next door.
Another important development from the 1st to the 5th century is the acceptance of Christianity as a state religion. It is very difficult to assess the impact of this at the time or today. There are various criteria which can be used to do this. For example, the acceptance of Christianity by a nation sitting in the mountains here was obviously a beneficial factor because of the crumbling world in which they were living; the state was losing its power, the kingdom was lost. A new religion was an important factor that would provide some collectivism for all Armenians and would help to resist oppressors.
In the beginning of the 4th century BC we have most of the civilized world being invaded by Christians. So eventually it became a very strong cultural link with the West, and a channel was established between Armenians and Westerners to develop ideas, do develop identity and to create this sympathy for Western people (Western culture, Western civilization). But at the same time, when you look at it from the point of view of the 15th century (16th century), what has happened by this time is that in the 7th century (8th century) Islamic religion started ruling. With the coming of the Turks to Asia Minor, this region became controlled by Muslims. Muslim religion, particularly after the 13th and 14th centuries, became a stagnant religion (not the religion but the way people looked at it). It was a very lively, strong and moving religion till they decided that it shouldn’t be so. In the Islamic religion the state and the religion are not separate; it is the same man, it is the same concept. Muhammad started as a prophet, and he built a community. Then, for the protection of his community he had to have an army. Therefore, he was both a religious and secular ruler. The Islamic mentality and philosophy did not accept the separation of these two functions. Early in a Christian world we find the same thing, except the Christian society in the Roman Empire which had the Emperor and where religion was downplayed. So by the 13th or 14th century you find people like Dante putting the Popes in the eighth floor of heaven, and this is telling that politics is not the business of the church – eventually, the church will be set aside, and it is the secular rulers who will take over. But this didn’t happen in the Islamic society, and they still had a hard time in the countries to come into terms with the secular authority separate from the religious authority. When we consider that we have Islamic societies both in Persia and the Ottoman Empire that cannot accept the state that doesn’t have a dominant religion, then we realize that anybody, Christian or Jew (these are the two major religions that are in the Ottoman Empire, and in the case of Persia we have fire worshippers) are not regarded as part of the society. There are special taxes for them, there are special disciplinary laws against them, and therefore the fact that Armenians were Christians worked against them. I don’t know what to do with this fact. Perhaps Armenians should have been Muslims but this may not be a respectful expression to use. Most importantly, we need to realize that when we’re trying to understand what happened in history, it is not by our own likes and dislikes that we have to decide what people had at that time.
The acceptance of Christianity was also accompanied by the development of the Armenian alphabet, which comes from the 5th century towards us. It is the same alphabet we use today with a few additions. The basic alphabet has 36 letters. The chroniclers talk about the creation of the alphabet because it was a vision on a part of the monk, and that’s what is giving the alphabet a divine origin. Armenians did with their alphabet what other people have done with their states and kings, giving them divine origins. After all, there must be some more legitimacy in this world than just the only existence. And because throughout the centuries the alphabet became an extremely important part of the tools by which you keep yourself going while you’re facing all kinds of dangers and threats and oppression, it was elevated to the level of something that is divine.
What makes this period important (the 5th century, let’s say) is a new dynasty that is known as Arshakuni dynasty. It’s the most important period in terms of the sub-concept of the Armenian history. Here we have an ethnic and racial formation. Here in the 5th century (4th century) we have the cultural revolution of the Armenian basic values that will lead Armenian culture and civilization for centuries to come. In the 5th century, for the first time, a monk, by the name of Moses, tries to write the history of the Armenian people. Writing one’s history takes a lot of consciousness and a lot of self-detachment to put oneself beyond one’s life, to look back, to feel the need for that kind of history, to define oneself ‘’what are we?’’. One famous statement by this Moses that is still used was ‘’although we are small in number but we have done deeds that are worthy of being written’’. What are these great things? Although he talks about Tigran’s exploits, it wasn’t what he was proud of. He was proud of him having accepted a new religion, of having developed a new alphabet, of having translated the Bible, of having developed social values for the society that supposedly brought stability and harmony. These are the values that Khorenatsi was talking about. And, despite the fact that he was supported by the nobility, (otherwise no one could afford to write a book in that century) he was critical of that same nobility for having put their own dynastic families above the interests of the nation, so that we have a larger concept of the nation which becomes important.
After the 5th century we have the coming of other empires and particularly, in the 7th century, the Arab Empire. In the beginning, from the 7th to 8th centuries the situation was not too bad. They just sent governors. However, it was not too bad and they got along. But eventually, as the Arab Empire started losing its income in wars, the taxes were increased. Then a lot of soldiers who started giving trouble to the Arab Caliphs (because they had nowhere else to go and fight) were sent to Armenia and were settled there. And this became troublesome. The Arab rule was interrupted by many intermittent revolts on the part of the nobility. Almost every 25 years there was a revolt against the Arabs. Every time the Arabs tried to enforce Islam or higher taxes, Armenians revolted. But every time they revolted they might succeed for a month, they might succeed in a region but the Arab armies came still harsher.
These new forces that came to take care of the Armenian nobility, decimated the whole family every time the nobility rose. In the 5th century one could count almost 400 major families of which 50 were great landowners, had great wealth, had their own armies, and at any time of the year they could provide from 1000 to 5000 soldiers ready to go. It might not seem big to you but believe me, in those years, to have 1000 soldiers all year around was a great feat. Some of them could provide 5000 soldiers at any time. In the 9th century only 3 were left out of these 50 major families. The rest have been decimated or taken out of circulation. So part of the problem is that, following the conflict between the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Empire, Byzantine has taken some of Armenia. The Byzantine emperors wanted Armenia, they wanted Armenians there but they didn’t want to have the Armenian nobility there. So what the Byzantine emperor did was reforming the laws of inheritance. First of all, he decreed that the Armenian lands were under military rule, and it was not the Armenian nobility that was going to be in charge of the protection of those lands. Secondly, the Armenian law was as follows; when the nobleman died, the eldest son took over the lands and the other sons either became bishops or generals of the army but the land was not divided. Now, according to the new law, the lands were to be divided among all the kids equally including women. A lot of Byzantine historians view this as a very progressive step for a six-century emperor but the fact was that this was not required from the Greek families – this was required only from the Armenian families, so that in three generations there was no single family that was in charge of those large lands. If there was one man, let’s say in the year of 536, and he had six kids, after his death the land was divided in six. In the second generation if each one of those kids had two kids, it was divided again. So in three generations there was no nobility. At that time, the nobility was the ruler of the society. Furthermore, they invited a lot of these Armenian noblemen, who were the generals of their army, to go to Constantinople and to fight for the Greek army. There are families and there is one line of Byzantine emperors who are Armenian; they have Armenian names but they are in the Byzantine army now, and after a few generations they are serving the Byzantine Court and State.
By the 9th century only three major families are left as the nobility of Armenia, and it was one of these families, by the name of the Bagratunis, who perhaps were smarter than the others and didn’t revolt against the Arabs every time there was a chance. They played it cooler, and eventually, when the Arabs became weak, they were able to ask for the crown of the Armenian Kingdom for themselves. When the Arabs procrastinated, the Bagratuni prince said, ‘’I will get the crown from Byzantium’’. So the Kingdom of Armenia was reformed; there was a new kingdom that lasts from the 9th to 11th centuries, and this is the Kingdom of Bagratuni of which you saw this last film: The capital was eventually the city of Ani.
From the 11th to the 15th centuries we have invasions, demographic changes, which totally weakened the Armenian basis of all the land of Armenia. Later on, you will find that the Greeks and the Serbians revolted successfully. Although they were massacred during the revolt they were still be able to succeed. The why didn’t Armenians succeed? One of the main reasons is that their land was not inhabited in homogeneous manner by Armenians. By the end of the 19th century through massacres, forced migrations, land confiscations, settlement of Muslim elements from other parts of the country in Armenia, Armenians were a minority in their own land. This presents not only legal problems but logistic problems as well. When you try to organize a revolution or an uprising, who are you working with? Your next-door neighbor is not one of you. That also presents problems for a lot of Armenians who said, ‘’Revolution doesn’t work, because we are not united, we’re not single and we’re not powerful’’.
Going back then from the 11th to the 15th century, the nobility is gone, and this is one of the tragedies of the Armenian society. I’m not a fan of nobility as such except for the normal evolution of the society you go from rulers, kings to the nobility and then power starts filtering down to the middle class and eventually to the whole people. But you continuously have a system through which power is expressed and exerted and which is regarded as legitimate by everybody. The king of the kingdom was regarded as legitimate by all, although you might argue that it was not a good system. The rule of the nobility was regarded as legitimate so it was the nobility that defined what was good for Armenians, and people followed because that was the system. But from the 11th century to the 15th centuries the people lost the nobility, and you didn’t have an urban class, the middle class, the bourgeois society which could take the place of the nobility like it happened in European countries (in France). The French revolution was exactly that; the middle class came and said, ‘’The king and the nobility can longer define our needs and interests. We’re not an agricultural society anymore, we are an urban society. Who knows better the urban society than the middle class? Therefore, we will define our interests’’. And they did. What happened in the Armenian society? There was no longer a state ruled either by kingdom, aristocrats or nobility that had any degree of legitimacy in the eyes of people. It took three-four centuries for the low or middle class or the peasant to start defining himself and his own interests. And the revolution of the 19th century is primarily a revolution of peasants. These are the peasants who find that whatever they’re getting from their lands and their own labor is taken over by the tribal society of the Kurds who are encouraged by the state to roam around the countryside and compensate everything they seek. So the peasants are oppressed by roaming tribal groups, such as the Kurds. On the other hand, the Armenian city-dweller, who wants to use the relative stability they have to develop commerce, to develop manufacturing, was not only not encouraged by the state but he had so many taxes to pay and so many bribes to make to get anything done, that he was unable to develop resources. And consequently, in the 19th century, when we find intellectual students come and start organizing the Armenians, it is not intellectuals who are having the revolution. The intellectual’s job is just to define and formulate the problems that existed. The peasant doesn’t need to have gone to a European University to know that his wife is being taken away. You don’t need to have all kinds of philosophical arguments to say that ‘’when I’m working and I’m harvesting, why is he eating and my kids are not?’’ And this is the kind of revolution that started in the 19th century accompanied by the revolution of the middle class that could not take it anymore—not being able to put together what it had, not being able to trade what it had. So it is these two lower classes of the society that started the revolution against the Ottoman state which was run by the Ottoman nobility. And, it is this revolution that tried first to function within the Ottoman system. When in the 19th century some of the Ottoman rulers (Sultan is being the Emperor of the Ottoman Empire) started making some reforms such as equality of religions, equality of rights for all citizens, Armenians were extremely happy about this. But then, immediately after they went back on their word. Life continued as it was. International treaties were made to improve the life of the Armenians particularly in the provinces. They often said that Armenians lived very well. Armenians lived very well when they were not in their country. They were allowed to develop trade and commerce in Europe, Constantinople (the capital of the Empire) but not in Armenia itself. When they got no solution from the Ottoman State they realized that the Ottoman State is only interested in keeping its Empire going. They got no recourse coming from international treaties that were signed for the Armenians. There was no recourse from the Russian Empire, which at one point was advancing and then decided to step back because England said ‘’we don’t want the Russians to go more’’.
The last recourse was a revolt to try to force the Ottoman State to do something about their situation. At the same time, they attempted to relate to the younger generation of Turks who seemed to have some better systems in Europe and who were feeling that the system of the Sultan was not a good one. When the Young Turks, as you know, ended up having a revolution in the 19th century to get rid of the Sultan, Armenians were encouraged to do the same. They were told, ‘’You have to make a revolution to reform your society’’. But eventually, the same Young Turks, who had promised all kinds of reforms for the society, decided to go back and continue the policy of the Sultans. And finally, in the 1914 the Young Turks decided that they wanted to go into the war on the side of Germany against France. By now the Armenians were already divided right between Western Armenia (which is Turkey) and Eastern Armenia (under Russia). The Young Turks wanted the Armenians in Western Armenian to convince the Armenians in Eastern Armenia who were under Russian rule, to revolt against the Russians so that the Turkish-Armenians could occupy Russia.
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In the case of Romania, Armenians formed a small community there. Although I think a couple of schools existed there for some time, for a long time there have been no Armenian schools in Romania allowed by the Government. So you have families that have kids who have not gone to Armenian schools; they have gone to Romanian schools, Romanian clubs, watch Romanian TV. Eventually they might have been assimilated, to some extent over there, into the Romanian society, and then because of the opportunities given to Armenians they started moving out. You will find the same thing in American-Armenians. Some of them will say, ‘’I’m American’’ and to varying degrees they will accept the Armenianism. Some will accept this as a kitchen phenomenon (Armenian food is enough) and others will go to Armenian schools, will be involved in Armenian organizations (political, religious, cultural, social or whatever).
Attendant: Is the alphabet related to Russian?
Answer: No. It is related, to some extent, to ancient Greek. In that sense, as to the extent that Russian is related to Greek, you will find some similarities but not any direct ties. Some of these letters don’t even exist in other languages,
Attendant: They used Cyrillic letters?
Answer: Oh no. That’s exactly what I was saying. Some of the letters are variants of the ancient Greek alphabet, which was the basis for the Cyrillic, right? But you put the two together and you find very few similarities. You will find some but you can’t say that it’s Cyrillic or close to Cyrillic.
Attendant: One of my friends said that there are different classes of Armenians coming from Russia. The first class are the wealthy people but the class that is coming over now is the lower class, the poor people.
Answer: It’s the first time I hear that explanation. There have been no studies to indicate to any reliable data that that’s the case. It might or might not be. To the best of my knowledge, considering the people I know who are coming, that’s not the case but I cannot make a judgment on that. I was in the Soviet Union last year (as a matter of fact, last November 29). At this time, I entered Soviet Armenia (after 5 days in the train, through Russia) and spent some time there to do research. And, the people who were interested in coming, as I said earlier, were those who migrated after the Second World War. So, it is not a class problem, it’s a limited number anyway. So I don’t know if you can relate it to class. It is a very logical explanation but human affairs are not always logical. I mean it is a hypothesis that perhaps should be investigated, perhaps there is some truth in it. I don’t know, I can’t give a definite answer to that.
Attendant: Who are the people who are coming now?
Answer: The people who are coming now…I don’t know…They belong to the middle class in the Soviet Union. And, I’m not saying there is a class division as we understand it here.
There is no research as to how Armenians are behaving today and whether they are behaving any different from Armenians before or they are behaving differently from non-Armenians in the society. I don’t know. There are all kinds of rumors but I still have to see anything concrete.