Dr. Armen Ayvazian’s Armenian Language and Military History Lecture to the AGBU YSIP

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On Thursday, July 3, Dr. Armen Ayvazyan, the Director of the ARARAT Center for Strategic Research, gave the AGBU Yerevan Summer Interns a lecture on the less-studied aspects of the history of Armenia, focusing primarily on theoretical, psychological, and geopolitical issues. He emphasized the importance of the Armenian language and the Armenian military in a historical and sociopolitical context, explaining the importance of the Armenian history while also comparing the development of Armenian nationalism and patriotism to Western European nations.

Dr. Ayvazyan began by defining the territory of historic Armenia and then defining modern day Armenia, which includes the internationally recognized Republic of Armenia as well as Nagorno-Karabakh and the liberated areas such as Artsakh. Dr. Ayvazyan went on to explain the most important historical determinants needed to make up a nation. He emphasized, especially in Armenia’s case, the overwhelming need to have a united people. This unity can exist only with a common language and a stable territory, both of which Armenia is currently fighting to protect. The state and its institutions, as well as a sophisticated education system and a unique mode of life and culture, have allowed the Armenian nation to survive when so many other nations have simply disappeared.

Even Armenian genetics have contributed to the preservation of the nation. The Armenians throughout history have assimilated in other nations to some extent, but very few mixed marriages have occurred in Armenia from the Middle Ages on. The Codex by Mkhitar Gosh written in 1183 had even a specific article strictly forbidding mixed marriages for Armenians. Similarly, neighboring nations too forbid intermarrying. These legalities also helped Armenians to preserve a culturally distinct Armenian group of people.

Dr. Ayvazyan proceeded to explain the development of the Armenian sense of nationalism. While nationalism swept through Western Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries, research by Armenians and non-Armenians alike indicates that the Armenians had a sophisticated and mature sense of themselves as one nation much earlier.

Dr. Ayvazyan spoke of the affection and value nations place on their languages. He noted that the English began to appreciate both the beauty and the use of their language in the 16th century. With the publication of an epistle on the excellence of the English language, the English declared their “sweet language” as the greatest and most useful of all languages. During that time period, the English were considered to have united as a nation, connected by a common tongue that was both revered and used by all people.

As early as the 5th century, Paustos Buzand declared that the nation of Armenia was in fact the entire area in the region where people spoke the language. He practically equates the country Armenia and the Armenians with their language. Movses Khorenatzi expressed similar sentiments, declaring, “And on the eastern side [of Armenia], along the perimeter of the Armenian language,” explicitly indicating that the Armenian nation’s border ends where the Armenian language ceases to be spoken.

Armenia’s linguistic nationalism, Dr Ayvazyan went on to say, is similar to the linguistic nationalism expressed later by Western European nations because linguistic pride goes hand in hand with nationalistic pride. When people value their common language as one united group, they are able to unite nationally as a whole as well.

The second major portion of the lecture focused on the uncharted terrain of Armenian military history. As early as the 5th century, the Armenian word for nation, “azg,” was already in use, thus showing a budding nationalistic pride. This pride for Armenia resulted in the creation of a strong armed force used to protect the nation Armenians held so dear. Because so little has been written about Armenia’s military, Dr. Ayvazyan said, many are under the false impression that Armenia had no substantial military. In reality, Armenia’s armed forces in ancient and medieval times were made up of extremely well-trained and experienced fighters. The military has always played an important role for Armenians in the protection of the state. In 428, the Armenian kingdom was lost, yet the Sparapetutyun, Ministry of War, continued to exist, showing the strength of the Armenian army and the amount of autonomy Armenians had even when under foreign rule.

In the 5th century, Commander-in-Chief Moushegh Mamikonian lay on his death bed and uttered, “Fight and offer your life for the Armenian world, just as your brave forefathers by consciously sacrificing their lives for this homeland.” This statement, coming from one of the greatest Armenian leaders of the time, is a display of nationalism that would not sweep through Europe for another millennia.

The soldiers of Armenia adhered to a very strict honor code, much like the knights of Europe and the samurai of Japan. Their honor code consisted of loyalty to the homeland above all else, with importance also placed on chivalry, loyalty to the Armenian king, people, and one’s family, and piety to the Armenian religious creed. While one’s own personal reputation and valor was of the utmost importance to both the knights and the samurai, the soldiers of Armenia had to value and remain true to their country, further illustrating the devout patriotism of the Armenian people hundreds of years before other European nations came into existence.

Despite little scholarly research done until this time on the Armenian military, the army by all accounts was large and extremely successful. For example, a little known fact is that in 331 B.C., at the Battle of Gaugemela, 47,000 Armenian soldiers fought beside Darius II against Alexander the Great. The army continued to exist in large numbers throughout most of Armenia’s history. In the 1st millennium B.C., the military accounted for 4% of the total population of 2.5-3 million people; by 13th century Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia’s army made up as high a percentage as 6% of the entire population.

When Armenia has fallen and their army has been defeated, it has been at the hands of superpowers that wiped out all other nations in the region as well. Falling to the Roman Empire or the Mongols does not show military inferiority; rather, it shows that other factors, like shear numbers or other, non-military factors, affected the outcome. Despite many invasions, the Armenian nation always survived. When the Arabs swept through the region, the Iranians affected gave up their language of Farsi and their practice of Zoroastrianism, instead converting to Islam. Armenians, on the other hand, survived the invasion practically unscathed.

After the presentation ended, Dr. Ayvazyan gave the interns opportunities to ask questions about what it actually means to be Armenian and what factors are necessary as Diasporan Armenians to be true Armenians. What followed was a heated debate on the many forms and manifestations “being Armenian” can take. We first discussed whether or not one can be both a true Armenian and a practicing Muslim.

The majority of the YSIP group argued that you can in fact be a good Armenian and a good Muslim, with many people citing examples of Armenians who converted to Islam who are, in their eyes, just as Armenian as they would be as a Christian Armenian. Dr. Azvazyan said that the two are mutually exclusive – the duties and strict law Muslims must adhere to are in direct conflict with the responsibilities of being a real Armenian.
Coming from a society where any comment, even a neutral comment, on as heated a subject as Islam can be taken as an insensitive, biased statement, I understood why the most outspoken interns were so upset by Dr. Azvazyan’s statement. Some of the interns felt the point itself was backwards and stereotypical, while others felt that our past persecution at the hands of, in particular, Muslim Turks should be forgiven and forgotten.

As a young second-generation American-Armenian, I cannot fathom the justification for any support of the possibility of being a practicing Muslim and an Armenian. Those who argue that we should simply forgive and forget our “past” strife with Muslims, specifically Turks, should simply look at Armenia’s current political situation. We are currently in danger of a physical attack, not to mention the current blockades, from Azeris and Turks, the same Muslim people who have persecuted us in the past. The Armenians’ past historical problems with Turkish Muslims is in fact not a thing of the past, but an ongoing threat that continues to face our homeland and will face us into the future.

The sentiment expressed by some interns about how religion can be separated from politics and culture are idealistic at best. While possible in theory, the actual separation of Islam, which has many strict laws dictated by the Koran, from any culture, especially from one like Armenia’s, is impossible in practice. One’s culture or one’s religion will be minimized; in this case, Islam would wipe out whatever it is that is truly “Armenian” about the convert in question. From the religious values and morals written as law in the Koran to our never-ending history of persecution by Turkish Muslims, one cannot be an Armenian concerned with the future and culture of their homeland and a practicing Muslim.

The importance of knowing the Armenian language also led to a heated debate. While no interns denied the importance of knowing, or at least trying to learn, Armenian, they did feel that a lack of knowledge of Armenian does not automatically disqualify you from being a true Armenian.

As a non-Armenian speaker, I recognize the importance that a language can have for a people. It enables them to communicate in a tongue that they can call their own, but, I think more importantly, it gives Armenians a great sense of pride and unity. The love for the Armenian language goes beyond simple communication – it allows us to be proud, as a connected body of people, of our heritage, our culture, and our ancestors. The value of the Armenian language is undeniable. I, though, feel that language is not enough. An interest in the politics, both past and present, of Armenia is crucial; if you do not care about the future of Armenia, speaking the language is not enough to truly be a “good Armenian.”

The most important, and ultimately most controversial, point made was on the requirements listed by Dr. Azvazyan on what it takes to be Armenian, which included understanding of the importance of the Armenian language, having an interest in politics and political action, considering Armenia your one and only homeland, and feeling a personal responsibility for the fate of Armenia. Each intern felt that if they were missing one part, whether it was political activism or fluency or something else, they were being accused of being a non-Armenian. The real point that I derived from our discussion on the necessity of being Armenian in all aspects of your life was that just because you may be raised in an Armenian family does not mean you are a perfect Armenian. You need to put in energy, time, and dedication to truly become the best Armenian you can be. You are not born as a true Armenian – you must take an active role and must have a conscious interest in truly becoming a dedicated advocate for your homeland.

With the lecture ending more than half an hour later than scheduled, each and every intern came away with both new facts and ideas to consider as they continued their extended stay in Yerevan. Even after we left the lecture hall, we continued our discussion for the rest of the night. Every intern’s opinion changed in some way, thanks to the points brought up by both Dr. Azvazyan and the fellow students during and after the lecture. The lecture provoked a depth of thought and discussion that had not been attained and has since not been reached during our time in Armenia. Whether each intern ended up agreeing with every point discussed, everyone was forced to confront tough issues about his or her own place in Armenia as a Diasporan.

Narine Atamian
New York, NY
Intern, AGBU “Yerevan Summer Internship Program”
Yerevan, August 2008

One response so far

One Response to “Dr. Armen Ayvazian’s Armenian Language and Military History Lecture to the AGBU YSIP”

  1. Karenon 21 Aug 2009 at 10:48 am

    Currently the state of our nation is very disturbing. I am searching for a constructive criticism for Armenia. I did not see so far a criticism that is constructive regarding to the
    aspect that is chronic in our nation = that is the fear… There is a fear in all Armenian from Muslims…I have that fear implant since the childhood. The fear of loosing the land is a 1000 years old disease.Therefore Armenians on inaction’s level have to over react and over show a confident and ego in order to cover up and/or to quiet down that fear.
    The Armenian soul is in a pain.Our nations spirit is thirsty for a harmony and for a balance.
    I think the constructive approach to the problem is the understanding that there is traditionally known fact and a Universal law, that the sufferring of the souls brings humans life’s to a blessings.
    This mechanism is not yet achieved to the contemplating state in our nation.
    I hope that the time will arrive for Armenians , when the long time pregnant Mother Armenia will give a birth of the child of Forgiveness. The birth of the Forgiveness Child will bring the balance to the Mother Armenia and the Forgiveness Child will bring a harmony and the Forgiveness Child will bring a love to our neighbours regardless of their religion and regardless to the historical events.
    The loving Energy of Armenian soul is very unique , because it is very powerful, it is like the Sun.
    Imagine what will happen when this Loving Energy get fertilized with Forgiveness energy.
    Thanks for opening me up Sash jan to this conversation

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Կայքի մոդերատորներն իրավունք ունեն հեռացնելու այն գրառումները, որոնք պարունակում են անձնական վիրավորանքներ, բռնության կոչեր, թեմայից դուրս գրառումներ, գովազդային նյութեր։ Նաև չի խրախուսվում շատախոսությունը (flood):

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