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An Introduction

University of California, Los Angeles

Introduction From Van/Vaspurakan. Ed. R.G. Hovannisian Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers. 1999.


It is not by chance that the first in the series of conferences at the University of California, Los Angeles, on Historic Armenian Cities and Provinces was devoted to Van/Vaspurakan and is now the first of these proceedings to be published. Van is the cradle of Armenian civilization, whether one wishes to accept the epic and biblical versions or the modern scientific, multi-disciplinary interpretations of Armenian origins. It was around the great basin of the highland lake and the enormous, craggy formation, the "Rock," at its southeast corner, that the proto-Armenians and Armenians developed their distinct civilizations, leaving impressive monuments of their material and spiritual culture.

Here in the land of Nairi arose the powerful kingdom of Urartu or Biainili (Van), which rivaled the omnipotent Assyrian Empire centuries before the Christian era. Here, too, in the natural setting of majestic mountains and shimmering waters, the people of the epical Armenian progenitor Hayk (Haik, Haig) persevered as the dominant element down through the centuries-until 1915. Generations of peasant farmers tilled the soil, which produced various grains and delicious aromatic fruit-apricots, pears, apples, grapes, bright red pomegranates, and grand walnuts. Herdsmen tended their flocks in the alpine pastures around the Valley of the Armenians (Hayots Dzor); townsmen crafted gold, silver, and precious stones, forged red-hot iron on anvils, and produced cloth and furniture of all sorts; women created delicate lace-work and silks and gradually revealed the beautiful, distinctive designs of carpets woven upon their looms; and architects conceived the plans and oversaw the construction of imposing temples and churches. Here it was that Armenian civilization interacted with those of neighboring peoples, selectively borrowing and adapting to its own needs and environment.

The Armenians of Van were frequently compelled to resist invading armies and sometimes subjected to brutal treatment from man and nature alike. The armies of the Achaemenid and Sasanid Persians, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Seljuks, Turkmen, Mongols, Turko-Tatars (Timur or Tamerlane), Persian Safavids, and Oghus (Ottoman) Turks wreaked havoc on the land, burning and looting, massacring and maim-ing, and carrying away countless people into captivity. And here, too, the ground often trembled mightily, challenging Armenian architects to discover the secret of the ways to withstand earthquakes. In due course, this region became known as the "noble land" or "land of princes"-Vaspurakan, which in the tenth and eleventh centuries enjoyed the status of a separate kingdom under the House of the Artsruni, contemporaries and competitors of the medieval kingdoms under the sway of the House of the Bagratuni. This decentralized Armenian political structure allowed for Van and Aghtamar to rival Kars and Ani and made possible a broad geographic distribution of architectural monuments and intellectual and spiritual centers with scriptoria and schools of illuminated miniature painting in monasteries such as those in Vaspurakan at Khizan, Kajberuni, Metsop, Artske, Arjesh, Varag, Aghtamar, and elsewhere. From the twelfth century onward, Vaspurakan even had its own local catholicosate or patriarchal see at Aghtamar.

Following the dynastic period in Greater Armenia in the eleventh century, Vaspurakan fell under the dominion of the Seljuk Turks, of the Mongols and the short-lived but horrendously bloody regime of Tamerlane, of Ak Koyunlu and Kara Koyunlu Turkmen (Turkoman) dynasties, and of Kurdish notables. Then, after a series of devastating wars between Safavid Persia and the Ottoman Empire, it was incor-porated into the Ottoman realm in the mid-sixteenth century. Once again, however, the Armenians demonstrated their recuperative powers, as periods of ruin were followed by rebuilding and economic revival and expansion. At the foot of the Great Rock of Van, the population of the walled city increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and gradually created the suburb of Aygestan-the Gardens, Orchards, or Vineyards-a new city with broad tree-lined streets, a church in each quarter, a merchant center and market place, and in time schools, foreign consulates, and German, French, and American missionary stations. But all was not well in Van/Vaspurakan. Under Ottoman rule, the administrative boundaries were frequently altered, the Kurdish element was encouraged to settle in Armenian strongholds, and beset by armed tribesmen many Armenian peasants either fell into a servile status to Kurdish chieftains or became witness to extortion and plunder of their native villages. Some Armenians left the region, especially for Constantinople and other large coastal cities, where they engaged in menial labor, such as that of a porter (hamal), and became the pandukht, the homesick exile so poignantly described in Armenian literature of the nineteenth century.

Ironically, the growing insecurity for the Armenian villagers of Vaspurakan was paralleled by the spread of literacy and political awareness among the Armenian population worldwide. Located near the frontiers of Persia and the Russian Empire, Van assumed a sig-nificant role in this revival. In the 1850s the priest Mkrtich Khrimian (Hayrik), returning from Constantinople to the monastery of Varag (Varagavank), founded Artsvi Vaspurakan (the Eagle of Vaspurakan), the first journal published in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Schools for boys and for girls sprang up throughout the region, and it was not long before Armenians were questioning and even challenging their second-class status, vocalizing their protests against the predatory practices of the tribesmen, expressing displeasure with the structures and strictures of their confessionally-based Armenian communal life, and calling for both internal and external reforms.

Small circles of intellectuals coalesced as early as the 1870s under names such as Union and Salvation (Miutiun ev Prkutiun) and Black Cross (Sev Khach) society, with programs aimed at enlightenment and self-defense. These were the harbingers of the emancipatory movement that emerged in the aftermath of failure of the Ottoman government and the European Powers to honor their commitments (San Stefano and Berlin treaties in 1878) to bring about reforms to safeguard the lives and properties of the Armenian population. Under the inspiration of Mkrtich Portugalian, the Armenakan society, organized at Van in 1885, became the first Armenian political party with an active intel-ligentsia and men prepared to take arms for the defense of their community. Shortly thereafter, the broader-based Hnchakian Revolutionary (later, Social Democrat Hnchakian) Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Hai Heghapokhakan Dashnaktsutiun) were founded in Geneva and Tiflis, respectively, and established branches in Vaspurakan. Although these groups were sometimes able to conceal enough weapons and gain adequate training to resist the raids of one or another tribe, they were no match for the power of the state, its regular armies, and its semi-regular mounted Kurdish Hamidiye regiments, created by Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (1876-1908/09). Following the Sasun massacre in 1894 and the general massacres throughout the Turkish Armenian provinces in the winter of 1895-96, the Armenian defenders at Van were able to hold the attackers at bay in June 1896 until, hard-pressed, they yielded to a mediated arrangement whereby the armed men would be given safe passage to the Persian frontier and an amnesty would be granted to the civilian population with assurances regarding its safety. The pledge was dishonored, however, and many of the departing Armenian defenders were killed in ambush, while several Armenian quarters in Van and Aygestan were looted and put to the torch.
Even after the calamity of 1896, the Armenians of Vaspurakan displayed their recuperative abilities by rebuilding and improving parts of their ancient city and garden suburb and strengthening their positions as merchants, goldsmiths and craftsmen, interpreters (dragomans), and as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. They hailed the Young Turk revolution in 1908 as the dawn of a new era and were encouraged by the fact that Van was permitted to elect its own Armenian deputy to the Ottoman Parliament. But the optimism soon dimmed because of new massacres of Armenians in Cilicia in 1909 and the increasing manifestations of exclusive nationalism within the Committee of Union and Progress or the Young Turk organization, the extreme wing of which seized power at the beginning of 1913. It was under the Young Turk dictatorial clique, headed by Minister of War Enver, Minister of Interior Talaat, and Minister of Marine Jemal, that the Ottoman Empire plunged into World War I in 1914 as an ally of the German Empire.

The world conflagration was to provide the opportunity for the Young Turks to pursue their ideological goal of transforming the Ottoman Empire from a multi-racial and multi-religious plural society to a modern nation state based on one people and one religion. Those who could not or would not conform to the imagined new Turkey were to be eliminated. The war provided a convenient cover to conduct a ruthless campaign against the Armenian people, seen as a major obstacle to the realization of the Young Turk program. The result was genocide. The Armenian defense at Van and Musa Dagh, together with the doomed attempts in more isolated places such as Shabin-Karahisar and Urfa, stand out as exceptions to the decimating deportations or outright slaughter of the defenseless Armenian civilian population from the shores of the Bosporus eastward to the headwaters of the Euphrates River. The bold-spirited resistance at Van, proudly commemorated by the natives of Vaspurakan and their descendants, nonetheless ended in tragedy, as the people were ultimately forced to abandon their home-land, never to return. Armenian Van and Vaspurakan were no more, kept alive only in the nostalgic and melancholy poetry, music, folklore, and, for one generation, by the distinctive Vanetsi dialect. "Van in This World; Paradise in the Next" might still be recited, but no longer by Armenians.

The long, colorful, multi-faceted, and ultimately tragic story of Armenian Van/Vaspurakan is presented in the following thirteen chapters of this volume. It is obvious that collectively the authors can present only a general overview of that story, for the subject of each chapter could easily be expanded into one or more volumes, and many aspects of the daily and spiritual life of Van-miniature painting, church history, music, the creative genius of illustrious figures such as Grigor Narekatsi (Gregory of Narek), and the diasporan history of the Vanetsis-are only mentioned in passing. Still, this collection is noteworthy as an innovative endeavor to draw together the history and culture of Van/Vaspurakan in a single English-language volume. For decades, the severance of the link between a lost homeland and a diaspora still reeling in a state of shock was so absolute that it was not possible to pick up the strands and make meaningful, effective connections between past and present. That, too, is one of the consequences of a denied and unrequited genocide.
The essays in this volume cover a time span from antiquity to the twentieth century. Robert Hewsen offers a survey of the historical geography of Van/Vaspurakan, presenting its physical and anthropological characteristics, the composition of its principalities, and the progression of political and military powers under which the Armenians had to endure. Professor Hewsen notes that recently some Armenians have begun to rediscover Vaspurakan, "which for all the misfortunes that have taken place there retains its natural beauty." James Russell recounts the preservation of historical memory through epic and myth and how this holds true for both the Urartian and Armenian epochs at Van. Ancient Anatolian myths and biblical stories sometimes
took on Armenian vestments, whether in the form of the god Vahagn and the fearsome sea creatures in Lake Van or the national epic, Sasna Tsrer, the dare-devils or wild men of Sasun, in the cycle from Sanasar to Pokr Mher with his lightning sword. Professor Russell concludes: "The mythology of Van is a deeply-rooted tree whose leafy branches shade all the Armenian tradition and stretch out to touch neighbor and invader."

Robert Thomson and Peter Cowe focus on the medieval Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan, established by Gagik Artsruni in 908 A.D. The tenth-century historian Tovma or Thomas Artsruni has recorded the heroic and biblical origins, the noble virtues and deeds, the religious fidelity, and the military prowess of this illustrious family in order to provide it with the desired legitimacy and glory. But Tovma also laments the disunity of the Armenian princes, their individual ambition and gullibility. Professor Thomson discusses the historian, his models, and his place in Armenian historiography, concluding that the work "remains the prime source for Artsruni traditions and an eloquent witness of noble life in Armenia before the Turkish invasions." Professor Cowe examines the relations of the Artsruni kingdom with the Bagratuni kingdom to the north in Ani. He provides a historic review of the two houses and compares their policies toward the Arabs, the caliphate in Baghdad, the Sajid emirs of Azarbayjan or Atrpatakan (northern Iran), and the Byzantine emperors. The Church of the Holy Cross (Surb Khach) on the isle of Aghtamar is but one of the impressive feats of King Gagik Artsruni and his successors.

The architectural heritage of Vaspurakan is presented by Nairy Hampikian, who views the medieval churches and monuments as a memory layer, which needs to be respected and preserved by whoever may presently be in control of the region. She examines the "built environment" that was intended to persist against the mountainous nature of the terrain, the uncontrollable movements of the earth, and the ferocity of invasions. Hence, a "regional memory" has evolved to discipline the environment, while each successive group has added its own vision, thereby also creating layers of "cultural memory." Dr. Hampikian examines the style of several churches in Vaspurakan, pointing out and explaining their key characteristics. She demonstrates how the Armenian dome or gmbet was passed upward to the next layer through the Seljuk gumbats and concludes that "multi-cultural regional memories are an indispensable part of our full understanding of the architectural heritage of the region."
Dickran Kouymjian contributes two chapters. The first of these presents a survey of Van/Vaspurakan between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries under a succession of non-Armenian overlords: Mongol, Turko-Tatar, Turkmen, Persian, and Ottoman. He draws upon Armenian chroniclers and scribes to relate the horrors of invasion, conquest, and subjugation, the gratuitous cruelty of Timur Lang (Tamerlane), and the desolation and famine caused by the incessant wars of competing empires. Yet even in the midst of ruination the Armenians found ways to cope and even to gain some favors from their overlords, while the Armenian monastic complexes continued to foster art and learning. He concludes: "As adversity regularly followed prosperity during these centuries, the tenacity and determination of Van's inhabitants were forged with the strength of its famous Rock." In his second chapter, Professor Kouymjian brings Van to life with visual perceptions from nineteenth- and twentieth-century travel ac-counts. The "Great Rock," upon which the Urartians chiseled their cuneiform-like inscriptions, has fascinated writers since the time of Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenatsi) and has long been the subject of wood engravings and pictorial representations by Italian, French, German, British, Armenian, and Turkish travelers and scholars. Al-though Van was destroyed between 1915 and 1918 and a new city has risen nearby, the old, vanished city and its expansive garden suburb become vivid through these pictures, a few of which are reproduced in this volume.

Nineteenth-century themes are developed by Rubina Peroomian and Sarkis Karayan. Thanks to the endeavors of Mkrtich Khrimian and Garegin Srvandztiants, Van became an important center of Armenian provincial literature. Dr. Peroomian examines the lives and works of these clerics, the prevailing conditions of the time, the underlying themes of Artsvi Vaspurakan, Artsvik Tarono (Little Eagle of Taron), and other publications of the two native sons. She regards this provincial literature as a source of inspiration and an innovative influence in the formal literature of the Western Armenians. It was intended "to revive Armenians from their torpor of servitude and ignorance, to inspire them with national pride and self-awareness, and to exhort them to strive for a better future." Dr. Karayan draws together and analyzes various sets of statistics and censuses relating to the Armenian and non-Armenian population of the province of Van. Statistical controversies become all the more relevant in view of the denial of the Armenian Genocide and attempts of some writers either to minimize or to exaggerate the number of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and each of its provinces. Karayan assesses the impact of the gerrymandering of provincial and county boundaries and the less-than-convincing calculations of certain historians.
Turning to the twentieth century, Anahide Ter Minassian has contributed two chapters. The first of these, written in the present tense, describes Van and its people at the turn of the century. We visit the walled city backed up against the "Rock," its government buildings, bazaars, distinct quarters, churches, mosques, and schools before moving on to the garden or orchard district, Aygestan, with descriptions of its streets and houses, exterior and interior, educational establishments, foreign consulates and missionary compounds, and even its renowned cats with mismatched eyes. She concludes: "In this lazy eastern town, where certain inhabitants have almost a European living standard, the drama awaits." The drama, of course, is World War I and the events at Van in 1915, the subject of Dr. Ter Minassian's second chapter. The saga of the Armenian defense of Van in April-May 1915 is presented in considerable detail with a sense of immediacy. Aside from key figures such as the governor Jevdet Bey (Enver Pasha's brother-in-law) and Armenian leaders Aram Manukian and Armenak Ekarian, many individuals who have faded from memory come back to life. The period of struggle, from April 20 to May 16, 1915, is divided into three phases with parallel but separate developments in the city and in Aygestan, which were isolated from each other. The deliverance and exhilaration prompted by the arrival of the Russian army and Armenian volunteer regiments from the Caucasus were short-lived, however, as an abrupt Russian withdrawal in July forced the Vanetsis to flee toward the Russian Armenian provinces and Iran, where they fell victim to the terrible deprivations that await refugee populations. Ter Minassian concludes that there is no validity to the charge of an incipient Armenian nation-wide rebellion against the Ottoman government but concedes that the Armenians "may occasionally have been guilty of refusing to be massacred without offering resistance."

The Turkish version of these same events paints a very different picture. Clive Foss reviews a number of books written by Turkish authors, some of them from Van itself, to show how the Armenians are portrayed. He notes that these works advance "a point of view that may not be familiar or seem rational to the readers of this volume." Most of them discount the significance of Armenia and of Armenians in history until suddenly in the nineteenth century they appear on the scene as a major threat to the tolerant state that has allowed them to live in peace and harmony. The Armenians become terrorists, prodded on by the Russian and British imperialists and by their revolutionary priest Hrimian (Khrimian) and other troublemakers, conducting unspeakable atrocities against the Muslim population. Professor Foss observes that, in contrast with these publications, recent works written in or adapted and translated into English are more effective as they are made to seem "cool and scientific-looking."
The final chapter combines literary, historical, political, and philosophical themes, as it deals with the historical novel, Ayrvogh Aygestannere (The Burning Orchards) by Soviet Armenian writer Gurgen Mahari, himself a child of Van who fled to the Caucasus in the mass exodus of 1915. In a radical reevaluation of the lore surrounding the defense of Van, Mahari toppled the Armenian heroes, ridiculing the delusion of self-styled revolutionaries and intellectuals who believed they were truly engaged in an emancipatory movement. Publication of the work in 1966 stirred a violent storm of protest, and Mahari was ultimately forced to recant and to make major revisions for a new edition. Marc Nichanian presents this episode with caustic words for Mahari's censors and deplores the "methodical destruction of the novel." Lurking everywhere just beneath the surface is the Armenian Genocide. Ironically, what popular pressure unwittingly drove Mahari to do by conforming to the theme of heroism, Professor Nichanian concludes, was actually "to renounce the Catastrophe, the very idea of Catastrophe."

In the preparation of these conference papers for publication, the editor has selected and included a number of related photographs to make the descriptions in the text all the more vivid. He has also attempted to standardize the spelling of proper names and the style of transliteration from the Armenian script to the Latin alphabet. Because pronunciations in Western Armenian and the Van dialect often vary from Eastern Armenian pronunciations, which serve as the basis for the simplified transliteration system used in this volume, the possibly more familiar form, for example, of "Vasbouragan" is standardized as "Vaspurakan," and the personal name "Krikor" is rendered as "Grigor." Some exceptions have been allowed to stand, such as "Arjesh" rather than "Archesh." This simplified form of transliteration does not allow for a reconversion from the Latin alphabet to the Armenian script, as, for example, the letter "e" may stand for any one of three Armenian characters, but the system should be more readable for those conversant in the Armenian language yet unfamiliar with the technical transliteration symbols requiring diacritical marks. The same word, however, may be transliterated in slightly different forms because of the variance in spelling between the traditional orthography used in the Armenian diaspora and the reformed orthography that was adopted in Soviet Armenia and used throughout the former Soviet Union. Hence, the word for "history" may appear as patmutiun or as patmutyun, depending on the orthography in which the work was published. Turkish and Kurdish names are usually given in the form commonly used before the alphabet reform of 1928 in Turkey; thus, Jevdet rather than Cevdet, and Shakir rather than ‘akir. Foreign-language terms such as vilayet and pandukht are italicized only the first time they appear in any given chapter. The editor has chosen not to require absolute consistency when certain discrepancies in statistics or other information seem to exist in chapters by different authors. 

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Dr. Simon Payaslian, who spent countless hours helping at each stage of the long and complex process of editing, and of Mr. Papken Sassouni, who made the initial translation of the two chapters by Anahide Ter Minassian, In a gracious gesture of support and appreciation, the General Society of Vasbouragan in the United States has contributed toward the publication of the volume. It is my intent to bring to fruition the publication of subsequent volumes in this series, paralleling the sequence of semiannual conferences at UCLA on Historic Armenian Cities and Provinces: Baghesh/Bitlis and Taron/Mush; Tsopk/Kharpert; Karin/Erzerum; Sebastia/Sivas; Tigranakert/Diarbekir and Edessa/Urfa; Cilicia; and others that may follow. The conference series is sponsored by the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History and organized by the editor of this volume. These publications will appear as a part of the UCLA Armenian History and Culture Series.

Let us now turn to a time when it was still possible to boast with pride and confidence: "Van in This World; Paradise in the Next."

Copyright © R. G. Hovannisian, May 15,  1999. Armenian Van.
Not to be reproduced without the express consent of the author.