FRESNO—Dr. Sergio La Porta, Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies at CSUF, offered new historical perspectives while dispelling some common notions about how and why Armenians have maintained their identity over their 3,000 year old history. Hosted by the Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School, the lecture took place at the school’s Kaspar Hovannisian Assembly Hall.
La Porta opened his talk by summarizing the possible origins of the Armenian people in the late 2nd or early 1st millennium BC and remarked that many of Armenia’s contemporaries at the time—such as the Luwians, Hittites, and Urartians—have long since been absorbed into larger cultures. That ability to survive is popularly cast in conservative terms—namely, that Armenians have warded off assimilation and remained distinct by clinging closely to their unchanging culture. Porta contends, however, that closer examination of history reveals that this same end was achieved in quite the opposite manner.
“The problem is that there is this veer of conservatism. Especially in periods where we see radical changes going on, we see that both the Armenian literary and artistic traditions will try to make it look as if nothing has changed. That conservatism is important because it allows changes to take place within a relatively stable environment, but as a result, when we look at Armenian culture we tend to emphasize that conservative nature and downplay the radical changes.”
La Porta presented an alternative view in which Armenian culture is seen as a changing and engaged entity by demonstrating how innovation, dynamism, and conversation with other cultures pervade Armenian language, religion, and social structure.
As a language whose roots extend into ancient times, Armenian preserves words from non-extant languages and thus serves as an invaluable comparative base for linguists tracing the development of Indo-European languages. Nevertheless, the language is by no means static or isolated.
“We have this image that there’s such a thing as pure Armenian. Yet the great thing about Armenian—much like English—is the fact that it can easily incorporate foreign words and make them Armenian. We have the constant integration of words … that constantly refreshes the language and makes Armenian one of the largest vocabularies of any language.”
By far the most significant development in Armenian history was the invention of the alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the early 5th century. Through the translation of the gospel into Armenian, the alphabet essentially solidified Christianity as the national religion. For La Porta, along with the obvious implications to Armenian society, this innovation made the literary traditions of other peoples accessible to Armenians and essentially increased the ability to “converse” with other cultures. As a result, the bible, an otherwise foreign manuscript, became intelligible and more readily embraced in its Armenian form.
From biblical and classical translations, it was only a short time until Armenians began producing their own original texts. Among the first was the Life of Mashtots written by Koriun, one of Mesrop’s pupils. It is notable that while several alphabets also emerged in the 5th Century throughout the Christian Near East, only the Armenians left a detailed record of their achievement.
By medieval times, Armenians had already established their own literary tradition. Much like the integration of foreign words, Armenian writers adopted aspects of the poetry of their Islamic neighbors and incorporated them into Armenian verse. La Porta provided several examples from the 11th and 13th centuries, including the tale of Hovhannes and Aša by Hovhannes Erzngatzi. This poem tells the story of an Armenian deacon who becomes enamored with the beautiful daughter of the local mullah; ultimately, the couple must choose between their love and religion. The narrative reflects a period when many Armenians converted to Islam—which by this time had become the dominant religion in the Near East—for political or economic reasons. Interestingly, says La Porta, despite the threat that Islam posed to Armenian identity, Erzngatzi did not close the door on foreign influences and confidently uses Islamic vocabulary and structure to express the charm and appeal of an infidel. The poem concludes with Hovhannes’s reaffirmation of his faith, Aša’s conversion to Christianity, and the eventual union of the two—a happy ending that no doubt mirrored Erzngatzi’s own philosophical resolution of this very real issue in Armenian society.
“We not only have the physical marriage of Hovhannes and Aša, but on the artistic level, the marriage of Armenian language and—with the use of Islamic terms and a Turkish rhyme scheme—(Islamic influences), creating an entirely new composition, which, in and of itself, is Armenian but is able to take advantage of other beautiful things that are there.”
As underscored in the conclusion of Erzngatzi’s poem, Christianity is a fundamental part of the Armenian identity. Yet, as La Porta points out, this was of course not always the case.
“It’s hard to remember this, but Christianity, a Semitic religion that comes from the Middle East around Jerusalem, is not the traditional or ancestral religion of Armenia… You have to remember that if you’re back in the 4th century, this is something radically different from anything you’ve ever known.”
Armenia’s conversion to Christianity again demonstrates its readiness to accept foreign concepts. Because the change was mandated by King Drdat, making Armenian the first Christian nation, the new religion was quickly made to conform to Armenia’s power structure and other aspects of its culture. The adoption of Christianity eventually brought Armenian into conflict with neighboring Persia. The Armeno-Persian War in the mid-5th century is the first instance of a holy war in Christian history as well as an early of example of a smaller people’s struggle to gain religious freedom from a reigning power.
La Porta also discussed how innovation and continual change characterized social structure, particularly after the break-up of the nakharar (feudal) system in Greater Armenia and Cilicia. As early as the 13th century, a merchant class emerged, most notably in the city of Ani. Beginning in the early 17th century, New Julfa became the hub of a trading and information network that extended from Europe to Indonesia.
“Armenians were able to develop this system by creating various bases such as in Tibet, all through China, into Russia, and Eastern Europe. By writing letters, they stayed in contact with each other and were kept abreast of the price of goods in various areas and thus able to take advantage of opportunities. In those days, if you (could anticipate market conditions) a few days in advance, it was actually worth a lot of money.”
La Porta concluded by answering questions from the audience. Barlow Der Mugrdechian, coordinator of the CSUF Armenian Studies Program, and scholars Robert Hewsen and Abraham Terian attended the lecture along with parents and community members. Vache Wassilian, CKACS board member, hopes the talk will be the first of many such events hosted by the school.