Armenian Literature

The Armenians have endured thirteen tumultuous centuries comprised of invasions, migrations, and displacements that have forced them to loosen their grasp on Armenian culture. From the beginning of their existence, Armenians had to concoct different ways to create nationalism and preserve their culture from afar. As a result, Armenian language and literature have featured crucial elements of national culture and identity for more than a millennium. The journey began in 406 AD with the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots.

Mesrop Mashtots began a new era with Christian Armenian literature. His goal was to translate Biblical books into Armenian. Only some works from the most ancient Armenian literary tradition preceding the Christianization of Armenia in the early 4th century survived because the Armenian Church eradicated the “pagan tradition.” The nature of literature ultimately changed as literature grew more popular among Armenian people. Eventually, literature became a way to promote nationalism and cultural pride among the millions of displaced and struggling Armenians.

For example, in the Medieval Era, when Armenia was under Arab control, the Armenian people desperately wanted a great hero who would liberate them and reestablish Armenian sovereignty. Thus, David of Sasun was created. He was the Armenian equivalent of Hercules. In the story, David comes in conflict with his Muslim father, kills him, escapes to Armenia, and becomes the founder of the heroic clan of Armenians against Arabs. Armenians were inspired by this story. They were unified, even under restrictions and displacement.

Later, when Armenia was under Persian rule, Armenians developed the Troubadour Tradition. Because many Armenians were now scattered all over Europe, they needed national pride more than ever. To overcome the divide between the Ottoman Empire and Persia, they established printing shops in places such as Venice and Rome. Then, a troubadour would go from village to village and recite his literature to the people. Successful troubadours would participate in competitions in the courts of Georgian Kings, Muslim Khans, and Armenian Meliks. This age of literature was actually different from the previous ages because the troubadours used popular language from foreign influences instead of Classical Armenian. This allowed their works to reach wider audiences. Armenian literature was getting stronger, even though they were struggling to maintain their culture. This literary history was influenced by foreign neighbors.

There is little to no history of Armenian literature during the early 1900’s. This was the time period in which the Armenian Genocide took place. Armenian intellectuals were unable to produce works of literature because the Turks were threatened by them. They believed that the Armenians were planning to rebel. Thus, Armenian intellectuals were the first to be attacked and ripped from their homes. The production of Armenian literature was halted and their culture took a hit, but that didn’t stop the Armenians from trying to maintain their cultural identity. Throughout their entire history, the Armenians were able to overcome threats to their cultural identity. Literature was just one of the ways they were able to connect with each other and keep their way of life intact.

3 thoughts on “Armenian Literature

  1. Sarah McNally

    In this entry on Armenian literature, I learned that Armenians as a culture needed to find creative ways of keeping their cultural literature alive during very tumultuous and dangerous times. This was only complicated by the fact that much of ancient Armenian literary tradition preceding the Christianization of Armenia in the early 4th century did not survive because the Armenian Church had eradicated the “pagan tradition” from all facets of Armenian life. It is definitely interesting to note how the Christianization had an inferred influence on the development of new heroes in Armenian literature, and the author of this post mentions David of Sasun, who was the Armenian equivalent of Hercules. However, it sounded a bit like the Biblical hero King David, since both David of Sasun and King David kill men who have power and influence over them (David of Sasun kills his Muslim father, King David murders the giant Goliath). It may be a small inference, but given that the character of David of Sasun was developed in the Middle Ages during the Arab rule of Armenia, during which there were most likely tensions between Christians and Muslims, it is probable that there was some biblical influence on Armenian adaptations of existing stories in order to create their own literature to promote nationalism and cultural pride among the millions of displaced and struggling Armenians. It was also interesting to learn about the Troubadour Tradition, who used popular language from foreign influences instead of Classical Armenian. This allowed their works to reach wider audiences, which was definitely a great way to enable Armenian writers to participate as an influence on global literature. The one thing that definitely didn’t surprise me about this post was the fact that Armenian literature did not make any serious advances during the genocide in the early 1900’s, and any literature from that time that was created did not survive because the intellectual class was eliminated first for fear that they would rebel. This could be compared to any other time period that was disrupted by a genocide or war- Germany and most of Europe, for example, lost a lot of intellectual and cultural talent during the war, and it certainly disrupted the lives and work of those who managed to survive.

    In comparing this work to my own, I see the same kind of struggle in the works of Irish literature that were present in those originating in Armenia- both are small countries that have struggled to create, maintain, and recreate their cultural identities over the years during which they have both been controlled by larger countries’ forces. At various points, Irish playwrights struggled to sell their works to larger audiences overseas because of the fear that an authentic Irish story, which was usually different than what international audiences thought was authentically “Irish”, wouldn’t do well in international theaters. Thus, playwrights and poets would occasionally borrow certain aspects of other cultures in order to reach a broader audience, while still slipping in authentic Irish phrases and references just enough to keep Irish audiences engaged.

  2. Evan Sarmanian

    Might I commend you on your efforts, this is an excellent piece on Armenian literature. I had a good amount of background information, but I did learn quite a bit regarding how the Armenian population was able to maintain and preserve their culture through the use of literature and the Troubadour Tradition. I realized that this minority group, a small subculture within the Ottoman Empire, faced much adversity in their history and became scattered as a result. That being said, I had no idea about the printing shops across Europe and that the troubadours would travel to recite their literature; effectively connecting Armenian people separated by different countries. In addition, I didn’t know about David of Sasun, the Armenian Hercules. This character was deeply reminiscent of David and Goliath from the bible. In the face of defeat, control and domination, the people find a leader to put their hopes in and stand united. It was heartening to hear about the traditions they utilized in order to band together and maintain their sense of nationality and pride in their culture. You even touched on the Armenian Genocide, which was obviously correlated to the decline in Armenian literature.

    Thanks Obama. [] It’s unfortunate that they were such an oppressed people and that they actually continue to face hardship; not even receiving the recognition that they deserve. I am personally engaged with this issue and follow it avidly; many of my Core papers have revolved around the Armenian Genocide. Despite the fact that the wide majority of the states in this country have officially recognized it, the current leader of our nation is unable to properly acknowledge the genocide; breaking a promise he made to the Armenian community during his campaign. This is because he considers Turkey to be a more important ally than Armenia, most likely because their army is the 2nd largest in NATO, behind only the United States. It’s unbelievable that such a prevalent issue that affected an entire culture of people has been swept under the rug for over a hundred years. Turkey won’t say the G-word because it undermines the legitimacy of their authority and stains the history regarding the foundation of their nation. But until the United States is able to fully recognize it, Turkey won’t budge on it.

    This is connected to own my work in that, Irish literature often depicts a similar level of struggle and sense of banding together in order to overcome unjust treatment. Both Ireland and Armenia have found trouble finding a sense of cultural identity and being able to conquer external threats that threaten their nationalism. In a way, they can be compared as survivors; resilient people who have fought for a free, independent cause under the peril of annihilation. While Ireland was under England’s thumb for centuries, Armenia faced threats from the Arabs, Persians and Turks. They each had to fight for their own culture to survive. Unfortunately, both nations are still recovering in some way from the brutal treatment they received.

  3. John Salagaj

    I thought your post was really interesting Kathryn, especially the idea of literature and culture being so interconnected. It’s always refreshing to take a look at the things that shape a culture to what it is today and what the times were like that created the necessity for that change. For instance, you mentioned the need for an Armenian hero during the Middle Ages and thus David of Sasun was created. Or how because of the huge distance between the Armenian people the creation of the troubadours was necessary to connect them once again. I think that when a culture goes through hardships or instantaneous and drastic changes it creates necessity for distractions and connectivity within itself. I wrote about something similar for my COR 330 class Vienna: Bridge from East to West. I mainly focused on Austria’s broadcasting history, but in a similar event with Armenian culture, Austrians created a need for broadcasting in order to shape their culture. The best example I can think of is the time period from the 1920’s to the late 1930’s. After the first World War, Austria lost its empire status and many of the territory it had for centuries. Following that, political unrest gripped Austria as there was a power struggle between the two major political parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Social Party. Eventually fighting broke out and a period of violence engulfed Austria showing not only to its people but to the world that Austria was weak and could not stand on its own. Then in 1938 the Nazi’s annexed Austria and either destroyed stations or forced them to only play Nazi propaganda. There is a similarity to what the Turks did to the Armenians and their literature and what the Nazi’s did to the Austrian Radio stations in the sense that an oppressive culture wanted to silence any possibility of revolution through media, be it literature or broadcasting. Besides the obvious technological differences between our posts, I think that the main difference between the two cultures was that the Armenian Literature did more of a part to shape the culture and define it whereas the Austrian broadcasting was more of a modifier on the culture to keep it contemporary and more up on current events with the rest of the world. Regardless of what medium the culture uses to create a distraction or tool for connectivity, the fact remains that as the world changes and so must the cultures of the world, and as long as that happens there will always be a need for distractions.


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