Oral folk tales told during long winter nights in villages, such as the Daredevils of Sassoun (an epic tale that would give Lord of the Rings a run for its money), were the earliest form of Armenian literature. Mesrop Mashtots’ creation of the alphabet in AD 405, for the purpose of writing religious texts, set in place the foundation of written stories. The first words written in the Armenian alphabet were allegedly ‘recognise wisdom and advice, heed the words of a genius’.
Written Armenian literature could clearly not develop until the creation of the alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the early 5th century and any early pagan oral tradition would almost certainly have been suppressed after the conversion to Christianity. Apart from the Bible, other theological works were soon translated from both Greek and Syriac after the creation of the alphabet. Some of Mesrop Mashtotss pupils also wrote original works: Eznik wrote a treatise on the origins of evil and the subject of free will called Refutation of the Sects while Koriun wrote a biography of Mashtots in about AD443. The Epic Histories were written in the 470s by an anonymous cleric and give an account of Armenian history between about 330 and 387 bringing together traditional stories about kings from Khosrov III to Arsaces II and patriarchs. The author sought to draw parallels between historic and contemporary events, and, when he wrote about a dying ruler urging his son to die bravely for their Christian country since by doing so he would be dying in the service of God and the Church, it was undoubtedly meant to apply to his readers.
This tradition of martial resistance and martyrdom was continued in the History written by Lazarus of Parp, abbot of the monastery of Vagharshapat (modern Ejmiatsin), which continues the story after 387, when the Epic Histories break off, as far as 485. In describing the events of 451, the author describes the Armenians finding the Persians unprepared at Avarayr and then holding off since they wanted martyrdom more than victory. He wrote that the face of one martyr was illuminated before his death as a sign of his imminent transformation into an angel. Widows of martyrs and women whose husbands were imprisoned by the enemy were considered to be living martyrs.
From the late 5th century onwards, translations from the Greek were made of secular works including the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato and of the medical writers Hippocrates and Galen. Meanwhile the writers of histories continued to stress martyrdom. In the History by Yeghishe, probably written in the late 6th century, the account of the revolt in 451 goes even further than had Lazarus of Parp in emphasising martyrdom and justifying armed resistance as well as giving the clergy a leading role. The Armenians are depicted as treating Persian promises of religious freedom as deceitful.
The period after the Arab conquest was a low point for Armenia generally and it was the 10th century before a literary revival took place. Competition between monasteries for endowments led to an interesting forgery. The History of Taron (Taron is the area north of Lake Van) was written sometime between 966 and 988 but claims to have been started in the 4th century by Zenob of Glak, the first Bishop of Taron, and then continued by John Mamikonyan, the 35th Bishop of Taron, in the 7th century. The book states that Glak was Gregory the Enlightener s first foundation, earlier even than Ejmiatsin, while the truth was that Glak was a new foundation in the 10th century. The supposed history includes a completely bogus story of Glak's possession of miracle-working relics of John the Baptist which had produced divine intervention in war. The purpose of all this monastic skulduggery was twofold. Firstly it was an attempt to show that Glak, being Armenia's oldest monastery, was worthiest of endowment, more so even than Ejmiatsin and Dvin. Secondly, and even more explicitly, in the book some ascetics pray that anyone who makes generous gifts to the monastery from their 'sinful' wealth should be delivered from tribulation; they are answered by a voice from heaven which assents. Rather more prosaic is the description of the cutting off of enemy noses: 24,000 on one occasion.
The 10th century produced several rather more reliable histories while the Book of Lamentations by Gregory of Narek (c950-1010), a book of simple, practical ways of prayer written when Narekatsi (951–1003) was ill. Book of Lamentations is a long poem comprising prayers about the wretchedness of the soul, the sinfulness of mankind and the certainty of salvation, remains a classic of Armenian literature. It is the earliest written work still to be widely read and was completed in 1002. Its author is usually considered to be Armenia's greatest poet and has been translated into 30 languages. Armenia's national epic, David of Sassoun, also dates from the 10th century although it was not committed to print until 1873. It recounts the story of David's family over four generations with Sassoun, its setting, symbolising Armenia. David in particular incarnated a symbol of the Armenians who fought foreign oppression in the 7th and 8th centuries. Classics also include Mkhitar Gosh's (1130–1213) the Book of Trials (a code of law) at Goshavank near Dilijan, the first collection of Armenian civil laws.
Nerses Shnorhali ('Nerses the Gracious') (1100-73) was a great lyrical poet, musician, theologian and philosopher who became Katholikos Nerses IV in 1166. His greatest poem Lament on the Fall of Edessa (present-day Urfa in Turkey) records the capture of that city in 1144 by the Turks who slaughtered most of its inhabitants together with the archbishop. Nerses is also the author of several hymns still used in the Armenian communion service. By the late 13th century, poems on love and other secular themes began to appear and grow as an important force in Armenian literature. The greatest of these poets, Constantine of Erznka, wrote poetry of springtime, love, beauty and light, allegorically exalting the Christian mysteries. Constantine broadened the scope of Armenian poetry, moving away from religious terminology towards the imagery of the natural world. This was taken even further until in the 15th and 16th centuries pure love poetry came to Armenia. Its first great exponent was Nahapet Kuchak, who is thought to have lived near Lake Van in the 16th century but may have lived earlier and elsewhere. His poems have deep, often erotic, emotional passion, stunning imagery and wit, and are as vividly alive today as when they were written. Sayat Nova (1712-95) was perhaps the culmination of this tradition. Poet and composer in Georgian and Persian as well as Armenian, he wrote of courtly love and the beauty of his unattainable beloved.
The development of the novel throughout the Western world in the late 18th century inevitably impacted upon Armenia. The first great Armenian novelist was Khatchatur Abovian (1805-48). He was the first author to abandon the classical Armenian language and use modern spoken Armenian for his works. His most famous novel is Armenia's Wounds, set during the Russian conquest of Armenia from Persia in 1826-28 and dealing with the Armenian people's suffering under foreign domination. Abovian was also a noted translator of Homer and Schiller. Further impetus to the quest for Armenian identity was given in the novels of the other great 19th-century Armenian novelist, Raffi (pen name of Hakop Melik-Hakopian) (1835-88). The grandeur of Armenia's historic past was recalled in novels such as The Madman (1881), Samvel (1886) and The Spark (1887).
The writings of Hovhannes Tumanian (1869-1923) encompass fables and epic poetry. An admirer of Shakespeare and translator of Byron, Goethe and Pushkin it is regrettable that his work is not better known outside Armenia. He wrote patriotic verse with titles such as In the Armenian Mountains, Armenian Grief and With My Fatherland but also legends such as A Drop of Honey in which the eponymous drop is the cause of a war. The work, based on a medieval legend, concludes with the few terrified survivors asking themselves what caused the worldwide conflagration. Tumanian moralised without preaching, notably in works such as My Friend Nesso, a story about how the most handsome boy in the village turns into an evil, dishonest man and ends up dragging out a deprived life at the bottom of society. Similarly, The Capture of Fort Temuk traces the criminal path which leads from simple ambition to treason. Most Armenians consider that Tumanian's masterpiece is Anoush, a tragic story of village life in which Anoushs brother kills her lover for breaking a village taboo. The work is much more than a simple story, the author expressing his philosophy of life, his ideas about the existence of man and the world of human passions. His ardently expressed love for Armenia led to his being tried in 1908 for anti-Tsarist activities and he was later very active in seeking to help victims of the genocide.
Tumanian appears on the AMD5,000 banknote while the figure on the AMD1.000 note is the poet Eghishe Charents (1897-1937). Born in Van, then under Turkish rule, Charents was involved in anti-Turkish activity as part of the Armenian self-defence corps as early as 1912. His early work reflects this in pieces such as Three Songs to a Pale Girl (1914) and Blue-Eyed Homeland (1915). In 1915, he moved to Moscow to continue his education at the university thereby witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution and becoming greatly influenced by its ideology. In 1918, he joined the Red Army. Returning to Yerevan an enthusiastic supporter of communism in 1919, at this stage of his life his writings covered topics such as civil war in Russia and Armenia, world communism, famine, poverty, World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. From the mid 1920s there is a gradual change in his work as he became disillusioned with communist rule and increasingly nationalistic. His satirical novel Land of Nairi (1925) starts to reflect this but his last published collection of poems, Book of the Road, published in 1933 was to make him notorious. One poem called 'The Message', ostensibly in fulsome praise of the genius of Stalin, contains a second message hidden in the second letter of each line: Oh! Armenian people, your salvation lies only in your collective power. Inevitably deemed nationalistic by the Soviet authorities he was arrested shortly afterwards by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB). He died in prison, an early victim among the tens of millions killed at Stalin's behest, although it was claimed by the Soviet authorities that he had committed suicide while on hunger strike. All his works were banned until his rehabilitation in 1954, the year after Stalin's death.
Later Armenian writers could inevitably have no personal experience of a pre-Soviet world or even of the genocide. Hovhannes Garabedian (1915-84), however, came much closer than most since his mother was widowed by the genocide shortly before his birth. Growing up in considerable poverty, he attracted attention when his first work Beginning of Spring was published in 1935. He acquired the name Hovhannes Shiraz because one writer commented that his 'poems have the fragrance of roses, fresh and covered with dew, like the roses of Shiraz'. (Shiraz is a town in Iran.) His work includes parables and translations as well as a great deal of poetry and is immortalised for Armenians by such lines as: 'Let all nations reach the moon, but Armenians reach Ararat.' A critic of Armenia's corrupt Soviet government, his protests included publicly urinating one evening on the statue of Lenin in Yerevan.
Gevorg Emin was born in 1919, slightly later than Shiraz. Qualifying as a hydraulic engineer in 1940, his knowledge of the technological world of dams, pipelines and power stations is reflected in the concrete images and complex relationships between people and technology which he employs metaphorically. Subtle and witty, his work was translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak. A more establishment figure than Shiraz, his book Land, Love, Era was awarded the Soviet State Prize for Literature in 1976.
Paruyr Sevak (1924-71) was another staunch critic of the corrupt Soviet government to the extent that most Armenians believed that his death was murder at the hands of the KGB rather than the result of a road accident - and certainly the spot where the alleged accident took place is a straight unobstructed section of road with little traffic. The tenor of his writings is conveyed in titles such as The Unsilenceable Belfry (1959) and Let There be Light (1971).
Not all Armenian writers spoke Armenian as their native language. The novelist Gosdan Zarian (1885-1969) was the son of a staunchly Armenian father who was a general in the Tsarist army and he was brought up speaking Russian and French but not Armenian. His youth was spent in various Western countries where he frequently ate with Lenin in Geneva and knew Picasso in Paris. He started to learn Armenian only in 1910, studying with the Mekhitarists on the island of San Lazarro in Venice. He moved to Constantinople in 1913 and two years later was one of the few Armenian intellectuals who managed to escape the genocide, in his case by fleeing via Bulgaria to Rome. He returned to Istanbul in 1920 and in 1922 moved to Yerevan. Thoroughly disappointed with the Soviet regime, he left in 1925 and spent a nomadic existence including spells in the USA and Lebanon before returning to Armenia in 1961. His poem The Bride of Tetrachoma, first published in Boston in 1930, was republished in Yerevan in 1965 while a bowdlerised edition of his novel The Ship on the Mountain, first published in Boston in 1943, appeared in Yerevan in 1963.
Probably the best-known Armenian writer outside Armenia is William Saroyan (1908-81). Born to Armenian parents at Fresno, California, he sprang to fame in 1934 with his first book The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. His first successful Broadway play My Heart's in the Highlands was first performed in 1939. He was awarded both the Drama Critic's Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Time of Your Life (1939) but he refused to accept the latter since he believed that 'Commerce should not patronise art.' A prolific writer, Saroyan acknowledged Armenian culture as an important source of his literary inspiration and his work gave international recognition to Armenia. A year after his death, half of his cremated remains were interred in the Pantheon of Greats in Yerevan, while the other half remained in Fresno.
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