This book review is from Volume XXXVI of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire (April 2001), pp. 209-211. The original pagination has not been kept intact and the paragraphing has been altered for web use. This web edition © 2001 Dennis R. Papazian.


The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, Volume I, The Dynastic Periods: From Antiquity to the Fourteenth Century, edited by Richard Hovannisian. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997. xii, 372 pp. $49.95 U.S.

The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II, Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century, edited by Richard Hovannisian. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997. xii, 493 pp. $49.95 U.S.

 

The history of the Armenian state and people spans over three thousand years and six continents. The Armenian homeland is located on the Armenian plateau, central and eastern Anatolia and southwestern Caucasia--the highlands which dominate the lowlands of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia to the south. The present Armenian Republic, which consists of perhaps a tenth of historic Armenia, is located in the South Caucasus on the eastern end of the historic "Armenian" plateau. The Armenian diaspora, which was created in stages following major invasions and devastations of the homeland, has grown to include colonies on the five major continents and now Australia. Interestingly, there are now more Armenians in the diaspora than in the Armenian Republic, which makes their history a world-wide phenomenon.

The Armenians lived at the crossroads of the ancient world, straddling the trade routes from China, Persia, India, and Arabia to and from Russia and Europe. Those who dominated the Armenian plateau were in a position to control these lucrative trade routes, to utilize the fertile valleys which stretch chiefly on the east-west axis, and to dominate the lowlands to the south. Accordingly, Armenia has been an area of perpetual war and its history determined by international circumstances.

Armenia has been rich and independent at times, particularly under the dynasties of the Ervandids (Orontids), the Artashesians (Artaxids), the Arshakunis (Arsacids), and, during the ninth and tenth centuries, the Bagratunis (Bagratids). At other times, when surrounded by powerful empires or invaded by militant peoples, such as the Mongols or the Central Asiatic Turks, Armenia found itself only autonomous, semi-autonomous, or completely under foreign dominion. Only recently has a second independent Armenian Republic emerged as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union.

Richard Hovannisian, the dean of Armenian scholars in the United States, brought together sixteen expert scholars from the United States and abroad to write a comprehensive history of the Armenians from earliest times until today using the most recent scholarship and resources. This two volume work, dealing with internal as well as external affairs, provides us with the most dependable general history of the Armenians written in the English language.

The earliest Armenian history was related to the Hittites and the Urartians as well as with the peoples of Mesopotamia. After that, Armenian history was intertwined for a thousand years with the Persian empire--in its various manifestations--with which it shared a dynasty and much of its high culture.

With the conquests of Alexander the Great, Armenia, although not conquered by Alexander or his successors, witnessed the Hellenization of its upper classes and a brief empire under king Tigran (Tigranes) the Great, circa 90 B.C.

With the expansion of Rome to the east, and the humbling of Tigran, Armenia became an area of contention between Rome and Persia, finally being divided between them in A.D. 387. During the early Christian period, Armenia received Christianity via Mesopotamia and Greater Syria, and later through the Greeks of Cappadocia, being the first state to establish Christianity as its official religion.

Armenia experienced complex relations with Byzantium, which sought to displace the native nobility and to control Armenia directly through the imperial bureaucracy, thus weakening Armenia's social structure and the determination of her people to defend the land against foreign invaders. This Byzantine policy was to have negative and finally fatal consequences for the Empire.

The invasions of the Arabs, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, various Turkmen tribes, all led in stages to a mixture of outsiders among the native Armenians and the dilution of their ranks on the plateau.

Branches of the Armenian nobility, the Hetumids and the Rubenids, established an Armenian kingdom in Cilicia, in the southern part of Asia Minor bordering on the Mediterranean, a kingdom which had close relations with the Crusaders who established minor principalities to the south and east. With the failure of the Crusades, and the rupture of Armenia's advantageous relations with the Mongols when the Mongols accepted Islam, the Armenian kingdom was overcome in the fourteenth century, and its last king, a Lusignan, journeyed to Europe seeking help. The Cilician kingdom, it should be noted, produced a high quality of art, architecture, and literature.

These topics are brilliantly covered in the first volume, chiefly by Nina Garsoian, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, who reaches the highest standards of the use of primary resources and lucid writing. Other topics in this first volume include Armenian literature, art, and society.

The fall of the Cilician kingdom left only isolated pockets of semiautonomous Armenian life--in Zeitun in the mountains of Cilicia, in the mountains of Sasun in central Anatolia, and in Mountainous Karabagh (Artsakh in Armenian) along the eastern border of the highland. These areas, plus the diaspora, were to be the cradles of the Armenian independence movement.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are the dark ages of Armenia. It was completely devastated by Turkmen tribes, the hordes of Tamerlane, and the Persian Safavids. Finally, the Ottoman Turks, who having conquered Constantinople and part of the Balkans, marched eastward to conquer an already devastated historic Armenia.

In analogy with the Muslim system, the Ottomans established the Armenians as a millet, a civil-religious minority governed by the Armenian Church under the aegis of the ruling Muslims. As the Ottomans declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Muslim rule became more heavy-handed and unbearable. European ideas of the enlightenment, constitutional government, and the rights of man influenced both the Armenian and the Ottoman elites, causing even more dissatisfaction with the corrupt and autocratic system.

From the European point of view, what to do with the rotting Ottoman Empire became the Eastern Question, and in 1879, when the Armenians appealed to the advancing Russians at San Stefano for succour, the Armenian Question reached the world scene. Widespread massacres of Armenians by Sultan Abdul Hamid 11 in 1894-1896 were followed by the Cilician pogroms of 1909, and culminated in the Armenian Genocide from 1915-22 in which the Armenian plateau was essentially denuded of Armenians. The complexities of the Eastern Question and the Armenian Question are well-covered by Professor Hovannisian, who has written many volumes on this topic.

The Russians, from the time of Peter the Great, began incursions into the Caucasus encouraged by the indigenous Christians of Georgia and Caucasian Armenia. The Russians under Catherine the Great in two Turkish wars took the north coast of the Black Sea and advanced into the Balkans and into Caucasia. Soon, the Russians annexed Georgia and eastern Armenia, which had been weakened by the depredations of Agha Mohammad, the founder of the Qajar dynasty. The fear of Russian expansion into the Ottoman Empire was the root cause of the Crimean War. When the Russians reached the gates of Constantinople during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and signed the Treaty of San Stefano granting Armenians security in eastern Turkey, the European powers intervened and forced the Russians to sign the Treaty of Berlin, which denied the Armenians Russian protection.

The outbreak of World War I provided the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire with a cover to settle the Armenian Question once and for all. The result was a genocide which all but wiped out the Armenian population of Anatolia.

Following the Armenian Genocide, a small independent republic was established in the territory which lay within the Russian Empire. That republic was to last for only two years until, attacked from the west by the Nationalist Turks and from the North by the Bolshevik Russians, it succumbed to Soviet rule.

Volume II ends with chapters on Soviet Armenia, Armenians in America, and Armenians in the general diaspora. It is a pity that the present independent Republic of Armenia and the struggle of the Armenians for Mountainous Karabagh, which currently draw attention in the headlines, do not fall into the purview of this study. One will have to turn to other books for a treatment of these topics.

Those seeking a scholarly and dependable overview of the history of the Armenians, and not just Armenia itself, will find this work a treasure trove of information and explanation. These books should find a home in any library which has a collection on world affairs. It will be useful to scholarly non-specialists, students of all levels, and the educated public. Its extensive bibliography will prove useful to those who would like to do further research on particular topics. Professor Hewsen, of Rowan College, has provided excellent and original maps throughout. These two volumes should stand the test of time and will not be easily replaced by any general history.

The University of Michigan-Dearborn
Dennis R. Papazian

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