Over the past two decades, Helen Evans, as curator of Byzantine art, has organized a series of stunning exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have revealed rich worlds unlike our own, yet bound to us by a family resemblance, as a result of a common origin in the Mediterranean societies of Late Antiquity. In these exhibitions Evans has presented the great alternative to the Catholic West: the Christian Orthodox world of Byzantium, the Balkans, and Russia. She has also reinterpreted the emergence of Islam, for the first time in a major exhibition, not as a brutal break in the flow of Middle Eastern history but as a moment of transition.1 In her latest exhibition, “Armenia!,” she has outdone herself. Here is the story of an Eastern Christian society that was creative, enduring, and, at many times, gloriously idiosyncratic.
The exhibition is based on a hitherto undreamed-of gathering of Armenian objects of high quality. The exquisitely illuminated pages of complete books—each volume heavy with a distinctive past—line well-lit walls. But less expected are the enormous decorative crosses carved in stone, known in Armenian as khachkars, that once sprouted like so many ranks of giants in the cemeteries and shrines of the Armenian uplands. Here the cross has become, in an Eastern Christian tradition whose roots lay deep in the imaginative world of the ancient Near East, a tree of life. The khachkar would have shimmered as light and shadow played on its lace-like surface, making the deep-carved stone appear as opulent as the woodwork and stucco of great palaces. Each one spoke of a person or a group whose memory, it was hoped, would last as long as the stone stood in its native earth.
The vibrant khachkars hit the eye in the exhibition’s rooms as the manuscripts do not. But they were both produced for the same reason. Behind each lies a heroic determination not to forget. Each manuscript volume carries a colophon—a final comment added by the scribe—that begs the reader to remember him (or her, for we know of at least one woman scribe) as well as the patron and family who had commissioned the book—usually a gospel or a hymnal. Like the khachkars, the manuscripts come from a society in which memory was not simply (as it often is with us) an attic of the mind—a neutral storage space of past events. Memory was loyalty, and forgetfulness was treason.
As we walk through the exhibition, somewhat bemused by the sheer beauty of bright color set on radiant gold leaf, we should remember the world revealed to us by those humble colophons. They were often written by scribes perpetually on the move across the uplands of what are now eastern Turkey and the Republic of Armenia (and on similar slopes in what is now northwestern Iran), against a landscape shaken by warfare and caught every year in the murderous grip of a mountain winter. As one scribe explains in a colophon to a copy of the gospels written in Erzincan, on the highway from Erzerum to Istanbul, which drops in a series of great slopes beside the quiet headwaters of the Euphrates:
Because of the bitterness of our times, I moved to five different places during the writing of this [manuscript]….
Oh brothers, do not blame me for the coarseness of the calligraphy and for the errors.
In 1338, he explains, Erzincan was besieged for four months in a civil war, and its countryside was ravaged:
And those who fled were devoured by the cold weather, and our land came to its last breath. And hearing all this and seeing all this, and grieving much, I could not write.
Such scribes are, in the words of one modern scholar, “the unsung heroes…of Armenian literature.”2 Not all of them were grand clerics and great monks. Many were married men from the minor clergy who passed on their skills within the family (sometimes to their daughters). Their stories, in the colophons, are part of a huge, silent war against forgetfulness.
Why such intensity in the work of memory? It was in part because the Armenians of the Middle Ages had more than one past to remember. We see in this exhibition the products of a clerical, Christian culture. But this culture drew strange vigor from existing side by side with a continuing epic world of pre-Christian customs and oral traditions.
Hence a paradox: Armenia may have been the first country whose ruler converted to Christianity. King Trdat IV did so before 312, thereby preceding Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. But this was a decision made at the royal court, and its principal beneficiaries were a narrow elite of Christian clergymen and unmarried ascetics. Armenian society continued to run on the richer, more explosive values of a pre-Christian society condensed in legend and song. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, one would have had to travel as far as the Atlantic, to early-Christian Ireland, or to the headwaters of the Nile in the mountain kingdom of Ethiopia, to find such a bracing combination of saints and warlords, of literate scholarship and tenacious loyalty to non-Christian oral traditions. We are looking at a remarkable phenomenon—the birth of an authentically non-Mediterranean Christianity. It was in this distinctive form that the Armenian Orthodox Church has survived up to the present day as a dynamic member of the wide spectrum of Christian communities known to us as the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
This was largely due to the geopolitical position of the ancient kingdom of Armenia as a buffer between the Roman Empire and the Parthian and, later, Sasanian Empires of Iran. Though perpetually in contact with Rome, Armenia looked eastward to Iran for its culture and social structure. Iran’s society was profoundly hierarchical, dominated by warrior clans whose greatest joys had always been hunting, feasting, and war, and whose memories (carried by minstrels) reached far back into the pre-Christian Middle East.
Hence the strange eddies in the story of the conversion of the kingdom. In the traditional account, Trdat IV had been cursed by Gregory the Illuminator, the apostle of the Armenians. He was changed into a wild boar who would appear in church as a penitent, weeping copious tears. We see this boar-headed man when we enter the exhibition, on a great square column from fifth-century Armenia, as well as in a late manuscript from Lake Van, where he kneels among the worshipers.
The legend is so deeply embedded in the Armenian tradition that it is easy to forget that, at the time, it was stunningly singular. For Christians of the Mediterranean, it was unheard of for a miracle to breach the boundary between the human and the animal world in this way. Only in distant Ireland was Saint Patrick said to have turned the British warlord Coroticus into a fox, who fled into the wild where his savage, non-Christian heart belonged.
But in Armenia, such a transformation was exceptionally meaningful. In becoming a wild boar, Trdat became the incarnation of the wild strength of a king as it was imagined in Zoroastrian mythology. The god of victory, Verethragna, was regularly identified in Sasanian stucco and rock carvings with a wild boar crashing through the reeds. Here was the true heroic self of a pre-Christian king, fully revealed for a moment, only to be tamed by Christianity.
In reality, the kings and nobles of Armenia lost little of their heroic panache. An epic element, strikingly different from the otherworldly and profoundly civilian tone of most Christian historians in the Roman Empire, runs like an electric charge through the great Armenian histories of the fifth century. The invention of Armenian writing by the learned monk Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD made the Armenian clergy men of the book. But many of the themes on which they lingered came straight from the heroic oral world of old Armenia.
The conflicts that were generated by the tension between Christianity and an ever-present non-Christian past were revealed in one of the greatest and most memorable moments of Armenian history—the war between a Christian section of the nobility, led by Vardan Mamikonian, and the army of the Zoroastrian king of kings, Yazdigerd II, which culminated in the tragic Battle of Avarayr of 451. Yazdigerd had wished to impose Zoroastrianism on the Christian Armenians as a way to consolidate the loyalty of the region whose nobility, in all other respects, was already highly Iranized in its social structure and lay culture. The conflict was therefore all the more bitter, and apostasy and betrayal were rife. The Battle of Avarayr had to be presented by clerical writers as a straightforward conflict between good and evil, Christianity and paganism. As we might see it, this was a battle with the pagan, Iranian past of the nobility itself.
Avarayr would never be forgotten. Heavily stylized, it was depicted as late as 1500, in manuscripts from the war-torn region of Lake Van. In one on view in the exhibition, the Persians advance behind a row of war elephants. This evoked a deep, pre-Christian past, for the original account of the battle drew heavily on the description of the confrontation between the war elephants of King Antiochus Eupator and the Jewish hero Judas Maccabaeus in the Book of Maccabees from the second century BC. Both battles were remembered as manifestations of heroic courage. Both showed a nation at war in defense of its religion. By following the Book of Maccabees, the Armenian writers found a way to express, for the first time in Christian history, the idea that an entire group of warriors could die in battle as martyrs for the faith.
Ancient Armenia was idiosyncratic, but it was far from insular. The Armenian plateau was not a mountain fastness like the Caucasus. Rather it was the meeting point of a series of ridges that stretched southward on either side, like strands of rope knotted in the middle, toward the west into Roman Anatolia, and, toward the east, along the Zagros range, into Iran and Mesopotamia. The roads from the highlands descended gently, most of the way, in a series of wide mountain valleys. For Armenians of the Middle Ages, before the drawing of modern borders, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean lay closer than one might think. Even within recent memory the two worlds would meet in the upland valleys of eastern Turkey. Scattered across the summer meadows, one could see the white felt yurts of the “cold desert” nomads of Central Asia mingling with the black camel-hair tents of the “hot desert” nomads of Syria and Mesopotamia, within view of the majestic white cone of Mount Ararat.
Throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Armenia was like the Scottish Highlands of the eighteenth century—an overbrimming reservoir of military manpower and skilled adventurers of every kind. As soldiers, Armenians fought with equal vigor in the armies of Eastern Rome and Iran. They were not only military men. In the fourth century, the Armenian Prohaeresius was a leading professor of rhetoric in Athens. In the tenth century the engineer Trdat, who reinforced the supports for the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, was also an Armenian. The most remarkable evidence of this constant drift of a hardy and enterprising mountain people into the Mediterranean world was found on an Egyptian papyrus. It was a conversational handbook in which Greek phrases were transcribed into Armenian letters, so that the owner could discuss, in perfect Greek, the pithy sayings of Diogenes the Cynic, among others.3
To Armenians of the sixth and seventh centuries, their mountain homeland was by no means the end of the world. Rather, it was the top of the world, from which it was possible to view the fates of two great empires. Two churches—the Church of the Holy Cross in Mren (built in 631–639) and Zuart‘nots‘, the Church of the Vigilant Powers in Vagharashapat (Etchmiodzin) (built in 643–652)—show this rare balance between the local and the universal. Only Zuart‘nots‘ is shown in the catalog of the exhibition, but both churches tell a tale that is confirmed by many of the smaller objects on view.
For a modern traveler, nothing could seem as remote as Mren. It is now in Turkey near the border with the Republic of Armenia, in the middle of what appears from a distance to be an endless flat plateau. In fact, Mren is perched on a tongue of land fissured by deep ravines, which are quite invisible until zealous travelers come upon them, edging their rental cars down one side, across a stream, and up the other side to reach the ruined but still-magnificent church. Yet in the seventh century Mren was far from isolated. It was built by an Armenian ally of the emperor Heraclius to celebrate his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in 628, carrying the relic of the Holy Cross, after his spectacular victory over the Sasanian Empire. The Armenian nobility—shown in their great fur robes—had been major participants in this, the last great Greco-Persian war of ancient history.
It is the same with Zuart‘nots‘, the Church of the Vigilant Powers, built by the patriarch Nerses III, known as the Builder. As Christina Maranci has pointed out in a brilliant study, this great circular church was intended to place Armenia on the world stage. With its Greek monograms, its capitals carved with Roman eagles, and the echo, in the circular colonnade of huge pillars, of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, it was a triumphant statement of the link between a highly particular Armenia and a universal Christian order.4
Nerses the Builder constructed on a grand scale. But in a sense every Armenian church joined the particular to the universal in a similar manner. In the words of the Armenian liturgy, the act of consecration of any church, great or small, brought the immensity of God into a small space. Hence the detailed carvings of models of churches, placed in the constructed buildings, which are such a striking feature of medieval Armenian art. A limitless God was thought to come down among the faithful to a holy place of any size, from the most grandiose to the most humble.
This brings us to the last phase in the history of medieval Armenia—the relocation of Armenians toward the south. Taking advantage of the vacuum of power caused by the collapse of the eastern frontier of Byzantium in the eleventh century, Armenian warlords moved into northern Syria and the Mediterranean at the same time as the Crusaders did. In the thirteenth century, these Armenian warlords actually created a kingdom for themselves in Cilicia, on the far eastern edge of the Aegean. It was, in many ways, a model feudal order. As in old Armenia, a warrior elite were the leaders of society. They perched in castles that dominated the passes of the Taurus Mountains.
It was in or near these forbidding fortifications that Armenian artists produced refined, courtly volumes that brought a touch of high Byzantine taste to the Crusader kingdoms and absorbed in return something of the new religious sensibility of the Catholic West. In the Gospel Book of Marshal Oshin, made in Sis (an eagle’s nest of a place perched on a spur of the Taurus Mountains) in 1274, the Virgin is no longer shown as the remote empress of Byzantine art. She throws her robe in a gesture of intimate protection (reminiscent of the many Madonnas of Mercy in Gothic Europe) over the crouching figures of the marshal and his family (see illustration on page 40).
This strange mixture of Byzantium and Camelot was made possible by a Eurasia-wide commercial revolution that followed the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 1240s. For the first time, the entire length of the Silk Road, from China through Central Asia to Iran and the Mediterranean, was under the rule of a single stable empire. Both in Iran and Anatolia, the invasion of the nomadic Mongols proved devastating to the settled populations. It ground old Armenia into the dust. But once stabilized, the Mongol Empire made the fortunes of Armenian Cilicia. For the port of Ayas, at the eastern end of the kingdom, was where the Silk Road ended. It became one of the great commercial hubs of the medieval world.
The catalog of the exhibition is vague on the importance of the Silk Road as a factor in the rise and fall of the Armenian kingdom. What did silk mean to medieval people? It was not just a rare fabric. Bales of silk were “charismatic goods.” Silken robes made those who wore them different from everyone else. They stood out from their compatriots in drab clothing like birds of paradise among starlings.5 As a result, silks played an essential part in the increasing social stratification of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. More significant than most luxuries, they were the emblems of a high-pitched feudal order.
By the seventeenth century, silk had come even closer to Europe, and it had done so through the Armenian merchants forcibly settled by Shah Abbas in 1605 in Isfahan, in the middle of Iran. The colony was named New Julfa, after the merchants’ hometown in the Zagros Mountains. Because of its unique climate, northern Iran emerged as the home of the silkworm. Gilan and Mazandaran, beside the Caspian Sea, receive all the rain denied to the Iranian plateau by the high mountain ranges that lie along its edge. The bright emerald green of the foothills of Gilan still astonishes the traveler who comes to them from the dry plateau. By the middle of the seventeenth century, these slopes were covered with mulberry trees, which produced some two thousand pounds of raw silk a year.
It was through the Armenian merchants of New Julfa that these silks arrived in Venice and elsewhere in Europe. We can see this last sunburst of “charismatic” splendor among the elites of Europe in the billowing, shimmering silk robes painted by Titian, Van Dyck, and Tiepolo.
How did the merchants manage this trade? They did it through the most precious and the most vulnerable of all human virtues—trust. As Sebouh Aslanian has shown in a brilliant study of the Armenian merchant circuits that radiated from New Julfa as far east as Tibet and Manila, and even across the Pacific to Mexico, these circuits worked on a commenda system, which put maximum strain on the reliability of both parties. The master (khwaja), a big merchant in New Julfa, would entrust large sums of money to less established younger merchants, which they would use for trade in distant places. In circuits that reached halfway across the globe, it would be easy to disappear with the master’s capital or to cook the books in the final division of profits. Yet the Armenians developed a remarkable level of trust between master–merchant partners and between masters and their humbler, ever-active agents. As a result of their shared religion and strong family ties, the Armenians emerged (in the words of a Spanish observer of their activities elsewhere in Asia) as the “most capable and astute businessmen in all of Asia.”6
We have come a long way, in distance and in time, when we reach the end of this exhibition. Yet what is remarkable throughout is the emphasis on active memory as the basis of trust. Trust in commercial transactions (a sine qua non in the gilded age of seventeenth-century New Julfa) was only a small part of a wider trust—trust in the family; trust in the homeland; trust in the religious tradition passed down, at the cost of ceaseless labor on manuscripts in chilly rooms in dangerous times; trust that the great arm reliquaries would bring the blessings of long-dead heroes of the faith into the present. These differing fibers of trust were deemed by Armenians of the Middle Ages to have gotten them through. It is good to see, in this exhibition, at least some of the more beautiful and recondite objects that helped them in the long, fraught business of remaining themselves.
See the catalogs of the exhibitions: The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, edited by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixon (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997); Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557), edited by Helen C. Evans (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004); Age of Transition: Byzantine Culture in the Islamic World, edited by Helen C. Evans (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015). ↩
Avedis K. Sanjian, Colophons of Armenian Manuscripts, 1301–1480 (Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 41, 80. ↩
See James Clackson, “A Greek Papyrus in Armenian Script,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Vol. 129 (2000). ↩
Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015), pp. 67–77 and 158–189. ↩
See my “‘Charismatic’ Goods: Commerce, Diplomacy, and Cultural Contacts Along the Silk Road in Late Antiquity,” in Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity, edited by Nicola di Cosmo and Michael Maas (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 100–102. ↩
Sebouh Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (University of California Press, 2011), p. 63. ↩