Wednesday, 12 November 2008

early national consciousness

A phrase which, of course, brings to mind the Armenians.

In a fascinating study of early medieval historical writing, chronicles and antiquarian collections (‘The concept of “history” in medieval Armenian historians’, in Antony Eastmond, ed., Eastern Approaches to Byzantium [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001], pp.89-99) Robert W. Thompson describes a balancing act undertaken by historians before the coming of Islam. Armenia was a Christian nation, but politically it was aligned with the Shah of Persia, whose invasion and persecution of the Armenians had not shaken their devotion en masse to their faith and their church, despite many individuals who abandoned Christianity. One such writer, recording the revolt against the Shah in 450,

describes in detail the heroic feats of the leaders in battle and the martyrdom of important prisoners taken to Iran. But for Elishe virtuous conduct is not seen in terms of an early Christian martyrdom, where the salvation of an individual soul is at stake. Armenian moral virtue is linked to the survival of the nation. The Armenians are not fighting for Christendom, but for the survival of specifically Armenian traditions. They had an intense awareness of the dangers of apostasy – which was indeed frequent and often politically motivated, as in Georgia. (p.91)

Interestingly, at the point when Mongols from the east and crusaders from the West had damaged both the Muslim rulers of the Middle East and the weakened Byzantines (now largely restricted to the West of Asia Minor), Armenian royal iconography of the court at Cilicia demonstrates some pretty sizeable ambitions.

While Cilicia was in the end overcome by the Islamic powers on her eastern borders, the richly decorated manuscripts of the second half of the thirteenth century were an exuberant claim to be a new Byzantium. The treaties and marriage alliances between Cilicia and both the west and the Mongols must have made it seem possible, if not probable to the Armenians of Cilicia thatthey would balance east and west, link the Mongl dragon and the French fleur-de-lis and finally replace the Byzantine court as the great power in the east. Like Sargis Pidsak, we know that the end was very different but that does not negate the moment of the dream. (Helen C. Evans, ‘Imperial aspirations: Armenian Cilicia and Byzantium in the thirteenth century’, in Eastmond, ed. Eastern Approaches, pp.243-53 [p.253]).