Few havens in mixed past

The Armenians
May 12, 2000

William Gladstone and Woodrow Wilson were prominent advocates for Armenia at the close of the 19th century and after the first world war respectively, though such support proved worthless in practice. It is with Gladstone's last great public speech (September 24 1886) that Anne Redgate begins her monograph. However, far from concentrating on the Armenians' latter-day tragedies ("genocide" and territorial loss in Turkey; post-revolutionary wars, starvation and loss of land in the Caucasus; post-Soviet hostilities with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh), this volume instead takes us back to the dawn of Armenian history.

Though such forms as Old Persian "Armina" and Greek "Armenioi" are not attested before 600 BC, 2nd-millennium BC Hittite references to a "Hayasa" people recall the Armenians' self-designation "Hay(k')" "Armenian(s)". Since the Urartian kingdom of the 9th to 6th centuries BC was centred on the later Armenian town of Van, Redgate plunges into an account of Urartia on the grounds that, if not precisely there, proto-Armenian speakers must have been somewhere nearby.

Indeed, if the original Indo-European homeland lay within Anatolia, the Armenians, speaking an Indo-European language (with large-scale lexical borrowing from Persian), may be presumed never to have moved far from it. With Armenians roughly in place at the fall of Urartu, the survey continues with details of developments in the areas historically occupied by Armenian speakers. The vicissitudes visited on them in their various kingdoms and principalities under the Orontid, Arsacid and Bagratid dynasties resulting from both internal intrigues involving the royal households and/or leading aristocratic families and the influence exercised at different times by such foreign powers as Media, Persia, Rome, Arabia, Byzantium, Seljuk and Ottoman Turkey, Mongolia and finally Russia often make demanding reading. The author's assessment that the book "is intended for non-Armenian readers interested in the ancient and medieval histories of Europe" is reasonable.

Familiar with classical Armenian histories (in translation) and much secondary literature, Redgate takes no fewer than 229 pages to reach the decisive defeat inflicted on Byzantium in 1071 by incoming Seljuks at Manazkert, when many Armenians fled to diverse havens, including the outpost of Cilicia, which flourished until 1375. Only 49 pages remain to accommodate the past 1,000 years of Armenian history. Alternative commendable introductions to this long-suffering nation, emphasising less the early and medieval periods, are Christopher J. Walker's Armenia: The Survival of a Nation (1990) and David Lang's The Armenians: A People in Exile (1988).

Two seminal events for the Armenians were the adoption of Christianity and the invention of their unique script, though phonetic divergence between modern eastern and western dialects is ignored. Redgate devotes some space to these and other major aspects of Armenian civilisation. The conversion she dates to AD 314 (not 301), interpreting it perhaps more as a political than exclusively spiritual phenomenon. The Armenian tradition that Bishop Mesrop invented (c. 400) not only the Armenian but also the Georgian (and Caucasian Albanian) alphabets is accepted, whereas many doubt that one individual could have devised such perfect and visually distinct vehicles for such contrasting languages as Armenian and Georgian. Rivalries over Orthodox doctrine (monophysitism vs dyophysitism) and orthographic antiquity have probably been constants in Armeno-Georgian relations since Georgia abandoned monophysitism in 607, although, if his compatriots shared Thomas Artsruni's disdain of urban life in 893 Duin ("teeming with commerce and all kinds of impurity"), then Armenian attitudes must here have shifted radically.

George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Armenians

Author - Anne Elizabeth Redgate
ISBN - 0 631 13472 6 and 22037 2
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00
Pages - 331

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