Armenia is so old that its early history only survived in the form of legends and myths. It often reminds me of the following line:
And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.― Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
A famous line from the opening narration of The Lord of the Rings spoken by the royal elvish lady Galadriel. Whose original name, f.y.i. was Artanis ( ‘ar’=noble, ‘nis’=woman) according to J.R.R. Tolkien.
That line fits well with what happened to the Armenian history. Back in the early 19th century Armenia was still occupied by the Ottoman empire for over 500 years. Its history long faded into obscurity and Armenian identity barely held together. Many would argue that without an early adoption of Christianity and the (re)invention of the Armenian alphabet, Armenian nation would have long disappeared, just like most of its historic neighbors. After all, where are the mighty Babylonians and Assyrians? The chariot riding Hittites, the amiable Caucasian Albanians, the adventurous Phrygians, goldsmithing Colkhinas or even the cultured Byzantines?
The result of the work of Isaac and Mesrob, was to separate for ever the Armenians from the other peoples of the East and to strengthen them in the Christian Faith by forbidding or rendering profane all the foreign alphabetic scripts which were employed for transcribing the books of the heathens and of the followers of Zoroaster. To Mesrob we owe the preservation of the language and literature of Armenia; but for his work, the people would have been absorbed by the Persians and Syrians, and would have disappeared like so many nations of the East”.― St. Martin (Histoire du Bas-Empire de Lebeau, V, 320)
During the early middle ages Armenia was experiencing a real cultural renaissance. Armenia became the first Christian nation, (re)invented the Armenian alphabet and fought a crucial battle against Sassanid Persia during the Battle of Avarayr (26 May 451 AD), affirming Armenia’s right to practice Christianity freely.
It was during this period that one Armenian bishop Movses Khorenatsi (Moses of Chorene) with an interest in history and a love for writing embarked on a monumental mission, at the request of Prince Sahak Bagratuni, to collect and preserve existing information, from available records, legends and myths about the history of the Armenian people. The fruit of his labor resulted in the book ‘History of Armenia’ (Patmut’yun Hayots).
This book became the earliest known historiographical work on the history of Armenia. Although other Armenians such as Agathangelos had previously written histories on Armenia, Movses’ work holds particular significance because it contains unique material on the old oral traditions in Armenia before its conversion to Christianity. Khorenatsi is considered to be the “father of Armenian history” (patmahayr), and is sometimes referred to as the “Armenian Herodotus.”
In his work Khorenatsi describes how the Armenian nation was established. Among other things Khorenatsi lists various names of ancient kings, noble houses, heroes and place names, recorded from oral traditions, songs, folk tales, and ancient records available at the time.
Movses uses various terms to describe the ancient stories and legends about the Armenian heroes:
- zroyts’ “story”; specifically, “unwritten” (angir), or “old” (hin).
- gusanakan “bard, minstrel”
- nuag p’andran “song on the lyre”
- erg “song” and other forms, nouns or verbs, derived from that stem.
- vipasan “teller of tales”
- araspel “fables”, from which the verb araspelabanel (“to tell fables”) is derived.
One interesting source Khorenatsi mentions are the Vannic cuneiform translations that existed in his time. These translations obviously have been lost since Khorenatsi recorded them, as the Assyrian cuneiform was only deciphered in 1850 and the Urartian in 1882 by A. H. Sayce.
“Chaldean” refers here to the Haldiean/Khaldiean Vannic inscriptions, as explained in the paragraph: Discovering the lost kingdom of Ararat
The forgotten kingdom of Ararat
Situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Middle east, it is not hard to imagine that this region was destined to become a battleground for competing empires. Out of necessity most of Armenian wars have been of a defensive nature, but at times Armenians rose up and actually conquered neighboring territories, establishing successful and lasting kingdoms. One such kingdom was Urartu, also known as the kingdom of Van, Ararat and in old Persian simply “Armina,”.
Urartu was an Iron Age kingdom famed for one of the finest examples of ancient art. Urartu at its zenith had a profound cultural influence on its neighbors reaching as far as Asia and Europe. It was so influential that even the Bible mentions its existence:
“In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark rested upon the mountains of Ararat.”– (Genesis 9:4)
However, just as most episodes from Armenian history, this beautiful and influential kingdom has long since been forgotten, until its curious rediscovery in the 19th century, inspired by the writings of Movses Khorenatsi.
While the kingdom was known to Khorenatsi, as is apparent from his writings, it was completely forgotten after Armenia was conquered by the Ottomans. The work of Movses Khorenatsi however, became the inspiration and the guide for the rediscovery of this kingdom.
Mark Chahin in his book The Kingdom of Armenia: A History describes how it came about.
The existence of Urartu was unknown, a ‘lost’ civilization, until 1823, when French scholar, Jean Saint-Martin, chanced upon a passage in the History of Armenia by the fifth century AD Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenats’i), which aroused his curiosity. It tells the well-known Armenian legend of the unrequited love of Queen Shamiram (the Semiramis of Greek legend) for Ara the Beautiful, a legendary king of Armenia. Her pride wounded, Shamiram went to war against Armenia, but in spite of strict orders to het warriors not to harm him, a stray arrow killed Ara. The distraught queen decided to remain in Armenia, the land of het hero.– The Kingdom of Armenia: A History by M. Chahin (2001)
Surprisingly, much of what Khorentasi recorded has actually been confirmed by later discoveries. He accurately described several rulers of this kingdom and locations of their capitols.
For example, Khorenatsi tells us that the kingdom was called ‘Ararat’ after its founder Ara the Beautiful, who was also known as Aram. He described accurately the location of the capitol of this kingdom in Van.
Interestingly, the name of the first Urartian king, as we later discovered from the deciphered inscriptions, was Arame of Urartu. Living at the time of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria (ruled 859–824 BC), Arame united Armenian tribes against the threat of the Assyrian Empire. His capital Arzashkun however was captured by the Assyrian Shalmaneser III as recorded on the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III and later moved to Van.
Arzashkun was the capital of the kingdom in the 9th century BC, before Sardur I moved it to Van in 832 BC. According to historians Arzashkun is the Assyrian form of an Armenian name ending in -ka formed from a proper name Arzash, which recalls the name Arsene, Arsissa, applied by the ancients to part of Lake Van. Arzashkun represents the historical Armenian Ardzik, west of Manzikert.
Another interesting name Khorenatsi revealed to us almost one and a half millennium before it was known to modern academia, was the name of the Urartian king Menuas.
Menuas or Menua (Armenian: Մենուա) was the fifth known king of Urartu from c. 810 BC to approximately 786 BC. He was famous for developing a canal and irrigation system that stretched across the kingdom. One of those canals was a 50 kilometre canal, which was named the Menua Canal (later known as Shamiram canal) after the king.
Movses in his writings calls him Manavaz and shortened Manaz. It is noteworthy to say that in classical Armenian the letter “u” was often replaced with “v”. For example “Samvel” as derived from Samuel.
The etymology of the toponym Manzikert (toady Malazgirt in Turkish) derives from Manavaz. The name Manazkert was shortened from Manavazkert (Armenian: Մանավազկերտ), adopted in Greek as Μαντζικέρτ. The suffix -kert is frequently found in Armenian toponyms, meaning “built by”. According to Movses Khorenatsi, Manzikert was founded by Manaz, one of the sons of Hayk, the legendary and eponymous patriarch and progenitor of the Armenians.
The lands around Manzikert belonged to the Manavazyans, an Armenian nakharar family which claimed descent from Manaz, until 333 A.D., when King Khosrov III Arshakuni of Armenia ordered that all members of the family be put to the sword. He later awarded the lands to another family, the Aghbianosyans.
Today this name has survived among Armenians in the form of Minas and surname Minasyan. An Armenian saint by that name has been venerated in Florence since the middle ages.
Thus the princely families of Armenia, such as the Rshtuni, the Manavaz, the Bznuni, the Ardzruni — who reigned over the Van country until the 11th century of our era, have kept the names of Rusas (son of Erimena), Menuas, Ishpuinis, Argistis, derived from the ancient kings of Ararat.
Inspired by these writings Jean Saint-Martin suggested to the French government to investigate these places for ancient settlements. For this purpose the French government commissioned a young German professor, Friedrich Eduard Schults, to visit Van and investigate. Schults went to Van and discovered, as Movses described, ancient cuneiform writings. He copied the writings and set out to depart for Paris. Unfortunately, he was attacked and murdered by Kurdish bandits, along with two army officers. The copied Vannic inscriptions however did reach Paris safely and were published in the Journal asiatique in 1840.
Upon successful deciphering the inscriptions revealed that Urartu was indeed once a great and powerful kingdom, which had for nearly seven centuries c. 1300 BC to 600 BC, successfully defied the might of Assyria, prevented its expansion northwards, and for a considerable time dominated Western Asia, including Assyria itself.
It was Professor M. Stanislas Guyard of Paris who, in 1880, realized that the phrase at the conclusion of many of the Vannic texts represented the imprecatory formula found in the same place in their Assyrian and Achaemenian counterparts, on stelae and other monuments reading:
‘Whoseover damages the inscription, overturns it, destroys it; whosoever does these things for another, let the gods, Khaldi, Teshub and Ardini, wipe him out of the sight of the Sun.’
Guyard’s discovery enabled A.H. Sayce, Professor of Philology at Oxford, and others gradually, to decipher Layard’s copies of the Vannic inscriptions after which it was possible to piece together the history of Urartu.
Only several years after this discovery systematic excavations at Van were undertaken, revealing countless artifacts, illustrations and inscriptions.
Of all the gods of the Urartian pantheon, the most inscriptions are dedicated to a God named Haldi also spelled as Khaldi. He has been identified with the principal Armenian patriarch Hayk also described by Movses Khorenatsi.
Hayk, the legendary archer, has been part of Armenian culture and history since time immemorial. He was the primary god of the most prominent group of Urartian tribes, which eventually evolved into the Armenian nation. Hayk is considered the patriarch of the Armenians, and is indeed for this reason that Armenians call themselves Hay (pronounced haï). Hayk derives from the Urartian deity Khaldi, whose divide attributes he originally assumed with the constellation Orion. The well-known epic of Hayk’s fight against Bell provides substantial proof that Hayk and his people stood up against Bel and halted the unrestrained influx of Semitic peoples from the south.The heritage of Armenian literature. Hacikyan, A. J. (Agop Jack), 1931-, Basmajian, Gabriel., Franchuk, Edward S., Ouzounian, Nourhan. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 2000–2005. p. 65.
His shrine was located at the holy city of Ardini and his wife was Arubani, the goddess of fertility and art. The name of this principal deity has also been recorded at Behistun in the inscription of Darius I. There, Darius tells about defeating a rival claimant to the Babylonian throne. An Armenian man by the name of Arakha, son of Haldita.
A certain man named Arakha, an Armenian, son of Haldita, rebelled in Babylon. At a place called Dubâla, he lied unto the people, saying: ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.’ Then did the Babylonian people revolt from me and they went over to that Arakha. He seized Babylon, he became king in Babylon.Behistun inscription (522 BC – 486 BC)
Arakha is clearly an Armenian name, it translates from Armenian as ‘crown prince’ and a variant Ara is still a popular name in Armenia. Perhaps more interesting is the name of his father ‘Haldita’ as described by Darius’s inscription at Behistun. It clearly bears the name of the Vannic supreme deity Haldi. The suffix –ta possibly derives from the Armenian “tal” –“to give”. Just as today one would say “Astvats-ta” meaning “God give”, in the olden days when Armenians worshiped Haldi, they would most likely say “Haldi-ta”. Which makes Haldita a “God’s gift”, a familiar name in many languages, f.e. a Slavic variant is Bogdan (God given) or the Armenian variant Astvatsatur.
One surprising and perhaps the most recent evidence for the validity of some of Khorenatsi’s accounts came from the field of genetics. An extensive study into Armenian genetic makeup revealed that Armenians remained a genetic isolate for the past 4000 years. But perhaps more interestingly is the fact that before that age the Armenians have experienced quite an extensive amount of admixture. This strongly suggests that Armenians were in the process of ethnic formation which finalized during the Bronze Age. It also shows that henceforward Armenians remained an isolated ethnic unit.
This evidence supports well with Khorenatsi’s account of the formation of the Armenian nation during the Bronze age, dated to 2492 B.C.
This astonishing discovery was reported even in the New York Times science section in 2015, titled: Date of Armenia’s Birth, Given in 5th Century, Gains Credence
“Movses Khorenatsi, a historian in the fifth century, wrote that his native Armenia had been established in 2492 B.C., a date usually regarded as legendary though he claimed to have traveled to Babylon and consulted ancient records. But either he made a lucky guess or he really did gain access to useful data, because a new genomic analysis suggests that his date is entirely plausible.”New York Time (march 10, 2015), by Nicholas Wade
Against all odds Armenians managed to survive as a nation and revive even a portion of their historic land. This might be an incredible achievement, but its history still remains largely untold.
History became legend. Legend became myth. Yet there is still truth to be found in these legends and myths. A 5th century historian is perhaps no match for modern academia when it comes to a scientific method. However, the work of Khorenatsi should still be revered as he managed to record and extract history out of ancient folk tales and songs that are now long forgotten. Khorenatsi also claimed to have read Greek translations of Vannic inscriptions long before the modern world had laid eyes on them. It seems he was able to preserve some of it for generations to come.