In January 1789, only a few months before the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution, the Abbé Sieyès, a prominent French thinker and clergyman, penned the essay, Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état? (What is the Third Estate?). Considered one of the earliest reflections on nationalism, Sieyès considers the independence of the historic third estate of France separately from either the nobility (the first estate) or the clergy (the second). He argues that the third estate constitutes a people in their own right—a nation. About a century later, the noted French historian Ernest Renan asked a similar question in a lecture entitled, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What is a Nation?). In Armenian, the tiny little word ազգ (azk/azg) can be translated as both people and nation. It appears in the Psalms, in 117/116, “Praise the Lord, all you nations!” “Օրհնեցէք զտէր ամենայն ազինք.” The little word can be found throughout Armenian historical sources, in psalms, and in sharagans—in short, nearly all the different kinds of sources we have looked at over the past months. It seems like a such an obvious, self-evident idea that we might at first be confused by the question Renan asks. Yet a closer look at our sources reveals some troubling differences in the way the little word has been used over the years.
Several factors lead to the confusion over the little word, azk. One is the natural ease with which we feel we can understand azk as “nation.” Nation, despite the inquiries of Sieyès or Renan, seems to be obvious, especially for the Armenians. Armenians are a single group of people speaking the same language who are from the same place, Armenia. Yet this begins to break down quite quickly: does one have to speak Armenian to be part of the Armenian nation? While many Armenians rightly prize the Armenian language, few would be willing to say that a non-Armenian speaker isn’t part of the Armenian nation. Besides, there are dialects of Armenian. Is only one the language of the nation? And how similar are different provinces and regions Armenians have called home, anyhow? Perhaps our idea of “nation” which we think straightforwardly translates azk is not so coherent or simple after all. The first factor, then, might be with the coherence of our idea of nation.
Second, there is the question of translation. We readily accept that azk can translate both “people” and “nation.” These two words, though, are not perfect synonyms. Arguably, a nation is a very specific group of people. Are the “Armenian people” the same as the “Armenian nation?” Who makes up the people? Who decides what are characteristics of the nation? Social scientists of all stripes agree on the primordial human effort at boundary-making, that is, that human beings have long been in the business of defining an “us” opposed to a “them,” determining who belongs in and out of a group. However, there is a major academic debate over the emergence of the idea of a “nation” as a specific kind of group. According to some scholars, a “nation” is the result of a very particular kind of boundary-making project which emphasizes ethnic homogeneity and territorial claims. Moreover, our contemporary concept of “nation” is no more than a few hundred years old. Humans have always been involved in defining groups of “people,” but the group “the nation” might be rather new.
This leads to a third factor in the confusion over the word azk: the way it has been used might have changed quite a bit over time. In the age of the nakharars and a social organization grouped around powerful families loosely bound together, who comprises the azk could be substantially different during the Ottoman era, when the so-called millet system organized non-Muslims through their ecclesiastical hierarchies. Both of those ideas of azk might be quite different from who the azk is in the age of democracies and independent republics. An entire life-world, a way of living and existing in the world, has changed around these major social transformations. Perhaps the boundaries for who is part of the azk have changed during those transformations as well.
Our comments today must be preliminary: while we can find the little word azk scattered through Armenian Christian sources, there is no systematic study of the use of the word across those sources. Similarly, there is a whole constellation of ideas and concepts related to azk: joghovurt and hayrenik, but also odar, aylazki, and other terms that express the out group. In this regards, it is worth nothing that aylazki, containing our little word azk, was used almost exclusively for several centuries to mean “Muslims.” In that case, for at least some time azk referred largely to religion—decidedly not the main way of grouping the contemporary nation. Azk, a little word with major conceptual ramifications, is perhaps not as clear-cut in use throughout our Armenian sources as it first appears.
|The Armenians: Past and Present in the Making of National Identity||An introduction to Armenian history which explicitly acknowledges the difficulties around delimiting the “Armenian nation.” It emphasizes the work of selecting and determining the most salient aspects of the nation.|
|Inchʿ ě azgutʿiwnē?||By Garegin Khazhak, an early (1912) inquiry into the nature of nationhood or “nationality” and the question of what exactly is the azk. In Armenian.|
|Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History
|One of several important books by the historian Ronald G. Suny addressed Armenian historian. The first chapter is a discussion of Armenian nation and nationalism using the tools of contemporary social science.|
Why all this talk of nation, nationalism, and azk? This week, the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates Vartanantz, the Battle of Avarayr in 451 A.D. fought by St. Vartan and his Companions and supported by the priest St. Ghevont (Leontius) and his Companions. We celebrate St. Vartan and his Companions on Thursday and we celebrate St. Ghevont and his companions on Tuesday of this week. The basic outline of the story is well-known: St. Vartan Mamigonian, the sparabed (chief general, commander of the army) of Armenia fights a doomed battle against the Persian Empire, which had recently tried to force the Armenians to give up their new Christian faith and return to the Zoroastrianism of the Persians. While St. Vartan and his Companions die in the battle and lose to the Persians, the resolve of the Armenian troops eventually convinces the Persians to let the Armenians remain Christian.
The tale of St. Vartan, St. Ghevont, and the Battle of Avarayr is known entirely from two sources, both Armenian. More famously—and more directly about St. Vartan and the Battle of Avarayr—is St. Eghishe’s The History of Vartan and the Armenian War. The other source, the History of the Armenians, by Ghazar Parpetsi, includes other portions of Armenian history. Crucially for our purposes today, the two histories do not agree about all the details and the characterizations of different actors within the tale. In other words, while these two sources agree on the basics of the story of Vartan, the characterization, the meaning, the importance of the event is not as clear cut.
In our times, for about the last one to two hundred years, a dominant characterization of St. Vartan and the celebration of Vartanantz has emerged: St. Vartan is a national hero, a patriotic defender not only of the Christian faith, but of the autonomy of the Armenians, their ability to govern themselves free from Persian rule. Yet if we read Eghishe and Ghazar—who already disagreed about how to characterize the events of the Battle of Avarayr—we will see that the national or patriotic emphasis is not to be found. First, our little word azk is hardly used at all by Eghishe. So, even without our earlier difficulties over the meaning of azk in different sources and times, the question of the unity of the nation, the differences between being “a people” and being “nation,” it becomes very difficult to read Eghishe’s account as describing St. Vartan as a patriotic or national hero.
Instead of azk, Eghishe’s preferred word is հայրենի, hayreni, meaning “paternal” or “native.” He speaks of the hayreni yergir, “the native lands” or the hayreni orinatsn, “the ancestral faith.” Azk, though a word already in use and found in different places and sources, is not Eghishe’s usual way of speaking about the thing St. Vartan is fighting for. Even the word օրենք, orenk, which for Eghishe’s text is usually translated as “faith,” in modern Armenian means “law” or “rule,” and therefore has a different connotation than faith. According to Eghishe, though, the important thing is that St. Vartan is a defender first and foremost of Christianity, the “faith of the fathers.” As Robert Thomson notes in his introduction to his translation of Eghishe’s text, “the emphasis in the classical historians on the purely religious aspect of this war, on the thirst for martyrdom rather than compromise, was out of step with the more secular and political interests of nineteenth century writers anxious to provide their people with patriotic themes.”
Nonetheless, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century, St. Vartan became increasingly a patriotic or national hero. The tale of St. Vartan and his Companions inspired many writers to emphasize not only Christian conviction and martyrdom but also the fact that St. Vartan died for Armenian freedom. Writers like the noted Mkhitarist priest and Armenologist Ghevont Alishan, while still emphasizing the Christian martyrdom of St. Vartan, also began to characterize him in national terms in the poem The Nightingale of Avarayr. Narbey, another cleric who wrote about patriotic and national themes wrote a play entitled Vardan.
Today, we often encounter this national and patriotic interpretation of St. Vartan and his Companions. Yet, in Eghishe’s characterization of St. Vartan, he was ultimately a Christian martyr. It is for this reason that the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates him and his companions every February. It is also a reminder that sometimes, the concepts and ideas—like the little word azk—that seem the most transparent and clear, can actually be quite complex.
|History of Vardan and the Armenian War||The main source for the history of St. Vartan, composed by Eghishe Vartabed. This English translation by Robert Thomson includes an informative and wide-ranging introduction.|
|The History of Łazar Pʿarpecʿi||The other major source for the Battle of Avarayr and Vartanants, also translated into English by Robert Thomson.|
|Nvagner||A collection of poems by Ghevont Alishan, including The Nightingale of Avarayr, about St. Vartan. In Armenian.|
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