Armenia and Europe


Armenia and Europe

A history of long centuries in eight episodes

Armenia and the Armenians have been playing an important part in the European cultural, social and political life since the beginning of their history. By Europe we mean not a mere geographic term, but first and foremost an idea a. Europe has its roots in Ancient Greece, expanding into East and West thanks to the invasions of Alexander the Great and the Romans, and Armenia was among the most affected by those movements. Armenian-European contacts in culture and politics of the recent period are known to many, however it would be interesting to unearth some less known facts and details referring to this topic.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan

Which team are you in at Troy?

Homer’s classical poem Iliad, which tells the story of conquering Ilion or Troy by the forefathers of the European civilization – the ancient Greeks – was one of the bases of the classical and medieval European identity. A story on the Roman genealogy suggests that Aeneas, who was fighting among the defenders of Troy was the forefather of Romulus and Remus, who founded the Eternal City. This story became popular and spread wide in medieval Europe giving birth to a number of pseudohistorical genealogies or alternative narration in places as remote as Iceland, for instance. Even William Shakespeare was among those who adopted this topic, portraying in his play Troilus and Cressida the Troyans as the “good guys” versus the Greeks, and particularly Achilles as a repulsive figure.

All this is know, but did you know that the Trojan war was also reflected in old Armenian mythologized historiography as recorded in early medieval Armenian manuscripts. And guess what – Armenians there also play in the team of Trojans. Unfortunately only a small part of an originally substantial story was preserved, thanks to the “father of Armenian history”, Movses Khorenatsi, who mentioned a certain Zarmair in service of the Assyrians and commanding a regiment of Ethiopians, who fought and was killed at the hand of the “brave Hellenes”, as the text says.


Non-identical copies of conference transcripts

In 325 CE, Roman emperor Constantine held a clergy conference at the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor (Today’s city of Iznik in Turkey). The agenda of the conference was to establish the holy Trinity as we know it today and excommunicating all those who opposed that idea. The Council called “Universal” included lots of clergy representatives from various parts of the Christian world then, including for instance Alexander of Alexandria (funny name, isn’t it?) and some representatives from Armenia, namely Aristakes, brother of Gregory the Illuminator, as well. The final documents adopted by the Council, called as Nicene Creed, which later became the cornerstone of many traditional churches, including the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox is preserved in three somewhat different versions, including one in Latin, another in Greek and the third one in Armenian.

First Council of Nicaea


Qui langue a, à Rome va (literally from French: the one knowing the language goes to Rome)

Philosophy was one of the attributes of the European culture throughout centuries. While being born in Ancient Greece it spread throughout the Roman empire during the classical period, involving others who made part of the first universalistic culture. Among the well-known philosophers of the late Roman period was Paruyr Haykazn (or Prohaeresius in Latin version, ca. 275 – ca. 367). While the details of Paruyr’s biography are somewhat known, no manuscript of his has survived to our days.

Paruyr, a son of an influential Armenian family was able to reach his dream of studying with the renowned philosophers of his time. First he studied in a major cultural and economic hub of the eastern Mediterranean Antioch, after which he moved to Athens where he reached fame and renown. Although he was Christian and remained so even during temporary persecutions of the Christians during the short-lived reign of emperor Julianus (The Apostate, as the later Christian chronographers liked to call him), he was an organic continuer of the philosophers of the late antiquity, and had a quality that could be called “broadmindedness” these days. Make no mistake, he taught in his school to both Christians and “heathen” alike.

When Paruyr-Prohearesius died at the age of about 90, a bronze statue of the philosopher was erected in Rome, with an inscription in Latin “Regina rerum Roma, Regi Eloquentiae” (From the Queen of the cities to the King of Eloquence).


Religious tourism from Tsortsor to Santiago de Compostela

In the medieval period the range of purposes for travel was not too wide: trade, diplomacy, sometimes diluted with religion and things alike. The presence of Armenian clergy in European “club” was marked since long.

Just an example – Armenians were mentioned among the pilgrims to the famous Shrine of St. James in Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, who also had a hospice in the city called Jerusalem. It was no coincidence, since it was believed that the Armenian Church of St. Hakobos (the Armenian version of the name James) in Jerusalem is the site where the Apostle James was decapitated and his head was buried.

Among the famous Armenian pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela was a theologian, Hovhannes Garnetsi (John of Garni), who first visits Rome, then with a reference letter from the Pope, continues his travels through France, Germany, Flanders, England and finally, Spain. According to chroniclers, he worked “miracles” along his way, in one case, for instance, saving the life of a young man falling down from a high tower.

The religious tourism was not one-way though. There were ecclesiastics who visited Armenia in the later period of the medieval era. They even had an established center in Armenia in the province of Artaz in modern-day Iran, from where they were engaged in translating religious texts from Latin into Armenian, transforming it into a center of spreading Catholicism among Armenians. In 14th century the renowned abbey of Tsortsor was a major center of such an enterprise with certain prominent figures such as Fra Poncius (corrupted from ‘Bonifacius’) from the region of Aragon in Spain, whose fluent translations into Armenian are kept in our days in the Matenadaran in Yerevan.


A Bavarian knight’s journey across time and space

The life of the protagonist of this chapter, Johann Schiltberger, who was born in Bavaria and lived in the end of the 14th and the first half of the 15th centuries resembles very much a Chivalric romance, a genre still in vogue in medieval Europe of the time. He was first captured by Ottoman Turks in a battle in the Balkans and enters into service of Sultan Bayazet, who in turn was captured by victorious Lenk Temur (Tamerlane) in 1402. Schiltberger, once again changed his master and had an opportunity to travel across his last capturer’s empire from Asia Minor to Iran, southern Russia and Central Asia crossing Armenia several times. In his memoirs he gives somewhat mythologized and embellished picture of Armenia of that period, just like the other travelogues of his time did. He described the “benign attitude of Armenians towards Germans” (though it was hardly possible that Schiltberger had an opportunity to see many Germans treated one or another way by Armenians) and gives a rather odd version of the story of Gregory the Illuminator travelling all the way to Rome and meeting the emperor Constantine and receiving blessing from the Pope Silverster which was a clearly inaccurate tale, invented probably by the Catholic Armenians to underline their link to Rome and Western Europe.

What shocked the Bavarian knight and could come as a surprise to many “traditionalists” nowadays in Armenia, was Armenian women’s freedom, who unlike their peers in Catholic Europe could chose to divorce from their 

Johan Schitlberger in Alexandria


Armenian kings, who are neither Armenian nor always kings

To most of Armenians the last dynasty name of Cilician Armenia – Lusignan sounds just like Petrosyan or Poghosyan and there are no few jokes among Armenians, that d’Artagnan, the famous fourth musketeer of Dumas, was Armenian too. The fact is … yes, both d’Artagnan and Lusingnan are easily recognizable French surnames, which initially having their ancestral domains somewhere in the western-central part of France in Poitou, later during the crusades came all the way to the Middle East, becoming kings of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Cilician Armenia. The reign of the last dynasty of Cilicia was short-lived (1342-1375) and ended with taking the last king Levon (Leo) VI prisoner by the Egyptian mamluks. After spending several years in captivity the king was ransomed and left to Europe, ultimately being buried in Paris, along with the French royals.

The title of “King of Armenia” was transferred to the Lusignans in Cyprus, who carried it as long as the end of the 15th century.

The further fate of the title remains somewhat arguable, however after a while it could be found among the Italian House of Savoy’s titles, who were the ruling dynasty in the united Italy until the abolition of monarchy in 1949. Well, in fact the Savoyard royals could be considered just as much Kings of Armenia, as the Austro-Hungarian emperor-king was the “King of Jerusalem”.


The quirky ambassador of Sweden

Ignatius Muradgea d’Ohsson, behind this kaleidoscopic name of Latin, Turkish, French and Swedish components stands Armenian Muradjan Tosunyan (1740-1807). Being born into a catholic family and studying in the local catholic institutions in the Ottoman empire, he started his career in the Swedish embassy in Constantinople, in 1784 becoming charge d’affaires and being bestowed a Swedish nobility rank. He was a keen connoisseur of not only a whole bunch of eastern and western languages, but also of the Ottoman empire’s internal life, including his own nation, the Armenians. The work of his life was the 7-volumed book called “Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman” (Panorama of the Ottoman Life) the publishing of which was intermitted by the French Revolution of 1789, and resumed only two decades after, when its author had already passed away.

By the way his son Abraham Constantin Muradgea d’Ohsson who established himself in Sweden since his young age, followed the footsteps of his father becoming a diplomat, historian and being awarded membership of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


Sing Armenian, sing European

To reproduce an Armenian traditional melody in a song or acoustic piece does not mean to be outside of the European musical tradition – this was a main point which theoretically and practically argued for and proved the father of the modern Armenian music, Komitas (Soghomon Soghomonyan). Studying in Berlin in 1896-1899 where he familiarized himself with various types and traditions of classical and folkloric European music, he became famous and interesting for the local public with his presentations and lectures on Armenian folkloric and ecclesiastical music. He became the first non-European member of Berlin’s Internationale Musikgesellschaft (International Music Society).

Komitas became a popular and his talent was much appreciated by people like the French composer Claude Debussy, novelist Romain Rolland, musicologist Louis Lalois and other prominent figures of his time.

Through his deep association with the European musical traditions, Komitas ushered a new age in Armenian music, extracting the essentially Armenian elements from the folkloric music and developing it, in the meantime excluding from it more recent oriental themes, considered as non-genuinely Armenian.

Komitas’s musical legacy was so significant that the great soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachatryan later said that he and other Armenian composers owed first of all to Komitas for the presence of Armenian national themes in music they created.

Trojan war was also reflected in old Armenian historiography


A backdoor across the Iron Curtain

The Soviet totalitarianism and the Iron Curtain which isolated it from the rest of the world severed some vital links of political, cultural, scientific, human and so on between different parts of Armenians living across the world. If political links were a most taboo thing, some cultural ties, interestingly were not so as more an exception than a rule. One of such prominently exceptional cases was that of Yervand Kochar, painter and sculptor who was always perceived as a White Crow in the Soviet Union. In fact he was indeed a personality of international consequence, who has left a deep trance in the history of modern art. After establishing [as a young artist] in Paris in 1923 then young artist drew very quickly the attention of the artistic community and connoisseurs of art. In 1925 he took part in the international exhibition “L’art d’Aujourd’hui” (Contemporary Art), where works of Picasso, Miro and other modern artists were exhibited.

In 1936 he moved to Soviet Union never returning to Paris. His background were more than enough to be accused of promoting “bourgeois art” and indeed he was charged of it in 1941, however thanks to interventions from high ranking officials and some fortunate turn of events he was released and even permitted to pursue a professorial career, but his access to public through his “politically faulty” works was strictly limited. His first personal exhibition took place only in 1965, after 30 years of residence in the Soviet Union.

Kochar in his works strictly differ from the so-called socialist realism, which was announced to be the orthodox way of art in Soviet Union. He was both an innovator, revolutionary as well as deeply national. His famous sculptures of the epic hero Sasuntsi David and historical figure Vardan Mamikonyan are currently part and parcel of the familiar city landscape of Yerevan.