CSUF Professor Discusses Armenian Innovation As A Means Of Survival At The Keyan School

FRESNO—Dr. Sergio La Porta, Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies at CSUF, offered new historical perspectives while dispelling some common notions about how and why Armenians have maintained their identity over their 3,000 year old history.  Hosted by the Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School, the lecture took place at the school’s Kaspar Hovannisian Assembly Hall.

La Porta opened his talk by summarizing the possible origins of the Armenian people in the late 2nd or early 1st millennium BC and remarked that many of Armenia’s contemporaries at the time—such as the Luwians, Hittites, and Urartians—have long since been absorbed into larger cultures. That ability to survive is popularly cast in conservative terms—namely, that Armenians have warded off assimilation and remained distinct by clinging closely to their unchanging culture.   Porta contends, however, that closer examination of history reveals that this same end was achieved in quite the opposite manner.

“The problem is that there is this veer of conservatism. Especially in periods where we see radical changes going on, we see that both the Armenian literary and artistic traditions will try to make it look as if nothing has changed.  That conservatism is important because it allows changes to take place within a relatively stable environment, but as a result, when we look at Armenian culture we tend to emphasize that conservative nature and downplay the radical changes.”

La Porta presented an alternative view in which Armenian culture is seen as a changing and engaged entity by demonstrating how innovation, dynamism, and conversation with other cultures pervade Armenian language, religion, and social structure.

As a language whose roots extend into ancient times, Armenian preserves words from non-extant languages and thus serves as an invaluable comparative base for linguists tracing the development of Indo-European languages.  Nevertheless, the language is by no means static or isolated.

“We have this image that there’s such a thing as pure Armenian. Yet the great thing about Armenian—much like English—is the fact that it can easily incorporate foreign words and make them Armenian.  We have the constant integration of words … that constantly refreshes the language and makes Armenian one of the largest vocabularies of any language.”

By far the most significant development in Armenian history was the invention of the alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the early 5th century. Through the translation of the gospel into Armenian, the alphabet essentially solidified Christianity as the national religion.  For La Porta, along with the obvious implications to Armenian society, this innovation made the literary traditions of other peoples accessible to Armenians and essentially increased the ability to “converse” with other cultures.  As a result, the bible, an otherwise foreign manuscript, became intelligible and more readily embraced in its Armenian form.

From biblical and classical translations, it was only a short time until Armenians began producing their own original texts.  Among the first was the Life of Mashtots written by Koriun, one of Mesrop’s pupils.  It is notable that while several alphabets also emerged in the 5th Century throughout the Christian Near East, only the Armenians left a detailed record of their achievement.

By medieval times, Armenians had already established their own literary tradition. Much like the integration of foreign words, Armenian writers adopted aspects of the poetry of their Islamic neighbors and incorporated them into Armenian verse. La Porta provided several examples from the 11th and 13th centuries, including the tale of Hovhannes and Aša by Hovhannes Erzngatzi.  This poem tells the story of an Armenian deacon who becomes enamored with the beautiful daughter of the local mullah; ultimately, the couple must choose between their love and religion.   The narrative reflects a period when many Armenians converted to Islam—which by this time had become the dominant religion in the Near East—for political or economic reasons. Interestingly, says La Porta, despite the threat that Islam posed to Armenian identity, Erzngatzi did not close the door on foreign influences and confidently uses Islamic vocabulary and structure to express the charm and appeal of an infidel.  The poem concludes with Hovhannes’s reaffirmation of his faith, Aša’s conversion to Christianity, and the eventual union of the two—a happy ending that no doubt mirrored Erzngatzi’s own philosophical resolution of this very real issue in Armenian society.

“We not only have the physical marriage of Hovhannes and Aša, but on the artistic level, the marriage of Armenian language and—with the use of Islamic terms and a Turkish rhyme scheme—(Islamic influences), creating an entirely new composition, which, in and of itself, is Armenian but is able to take advantage of other beautiful things that are there.”

As underscored in the conclusion of Erzngatzi’s poem, Christianity is a fundamental part of the Armenian identity.  Yet, as La Porta points out, this was of course not always the case.

“It’s hard to remember this, but Christianity, a Semitic religion that comes from the Middle East around Jerusalem, is not the traditional or ancestral religion of Armenia… You have to remember that if you’re back in the 4th century, this is something radically different from anything you’ve ever known.”

Armenia’s conversion to Christianity again demonstrates its readiness to accept foreign concepts. Because the change was mandated by King Drdat, making Armenian the first Christian nation, the new religion was quickly made to conform to Armenia’s power structure and other aspects of its culture. The adoption of Christianity eventually brought Armenian into conflict with neighboring Persia.  The Armeno-Persian War in the mid-5th century is the first instance of a holy war in Christian history as well as an early of example of a smaller people’s struggle to gain religious freedom from a reigning power.

La Porta also discussed how innovation and continual change characterized social structure, particularly after the break-up of the nakharar (feudal) system in Greater Armenia and Cilicia.  As early as the 13th century, a merchant class emerged, most notably in the city of Ani. Beginning in the early 17th century, New Julfa became the hub of a trading and information network that extended from Europe to Indonesia.

“Armenians were able to develop this system by creating various bases such as in Tibet, all through China, into Russia, and Eastern Europe.  By writing letters, they stayed in contact with each other and were kept abreast of the price of goods in various areas and thus able to take advantage of opportunities.  In those days, if you (could anticipate market conditions) a few days in advance, it was actually worth a lot of money.”

La Porta concluded by answering questions from the audience.  Barlow Der Mugrdechian, coordinator of the CSUF Armenian Studies Program, and scholars Robert Hewsen and Abraham Terian attended the lecture along with parents and community members.  Vache Wassilian, CKACS board member, hopes the talk will be the first of many such events hosted by the school.

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9 Comments

  1. Haro Mherian, PhD Mathematics/HySpell said:

    Most of the assumptions in La Porta’s knowledge are based on old and outdate version of archeology. New discoveries and methodology now has a much more accurate aspect of the Armenian history. In this new methodology, certain issues become more reasonable. For example, Christianity was not foreign to Armenians, rather they were the originator, even Jesus of Nazarene becomes a follower of this religion. Most of the old testament in the Bible comes from the mythologies of old Armenian religion, while the New Testament is the story of Jesus.
    The second assumption of La Porta is that the words in Armenian language have borrowed from Persians and Arabs. This is not quite true. Most of the Persian words were originally borrowed from old Armenian language, and since the old Armenian hieroglyphic became obsolete, it looks like Armenians have borrowed from the Persian (which is the other way around). Concerning the Arabs, the Arabic language has large part of its vocabulary borrowed from Farsi (Old Persian).
    Finally, let me ask La Porta, why Armenians are the first Christian nation? Just because, they did not write the first account of Holy Bible does not make Judas the originator of Christian faith, nor were the Greeks nor the Coptic. We really don’t know what language was the first Bible written, perhaps it was in Armenian Hieroglyphic, and Jesus learned from it. Perhaps Jesus was a follower of Mihr (considering Tigran the Great, who was much respected in Middle East back then, this makes a great sense).

  2. stepan sargsyan said:

    Since we’re on the topic of falsifying the Armenian history, I may as well go ahead and drop a link for the following article, which discusses the difference between the names “Anatolia” and “Western Armenia.” Unfortunately, even the Armenian media continuous to proliferate with its use of “Anatolia” the Turkish ploy of intentionally erasing all Armenian toponyms from memory.

    Here are the links: http://www.hayq.org/upload/files/aa-EO4.pdf

    Here is a more extended discussion of the same topic: http://blog.ararat-center.org/?p=370

  3. stepan sargsyan said:

    Here is a scholarly research supporting some of Haro Mherian’s assertions: http://www.noravank.am/file/article/207_am.pdf

    The core concepts of Christianity were not as foreign to the old Armenian religion and the Armenian population as some may claim. Please refer to the link above for an Armenian scholarly article on the subject.

    In addition, the adoption of Christianity did not bring Armenia into conflict with Persia. The dynastic change in Persia had already laid the foundation of enmity between the two countries, because the new Sassanid dynasty of Persia came to power after the overthrow of the Persian cousins of the Armenian Arshakuni kings. Thus, Christianity was only one, and not the primary reason of the recently created conflict.

    Second, Mr. La Porta ignores recent research in Armenia, which contradicts his claim of Urartians and Armenian being different ethnicities. As always, the false school of American Armenology is spreading its distorted and often false interpretation of Armenian history. Just the mere presence of Robert Hewsen is indicative of the kind of “Armenian history” presented at the event.

  4. Haro Mherian, PhD Mathematics/HySpell said:

    To complement Stepan Sargsyan’s literary listing, here are two volumes of the mathematical and concise prove that Urartian language is precisely the Old Armenian language:

    http://noravank.am/am/?page=news&nid=1637

    Urartians were Armenians as much as Spartans were Greeks.
    I have read these books, and using only mathematical logic and linguistics proved even further details (which will be released in near future in a documentary movie format).

  5. Armenian4life said:

    Having attended the Lecture by Dr. La Porta, I can tell you that the basis of his lecture was “How and Why the Armenians have Survived” This lecture has more in-depth information in the Armenian Reporter and it’s implications for the future of Armenians.
    We are very blessed to have someone of Dr. La Porta’s credentials and background. He is fresh from the Hebrew University in Istrael where Dr. La Porta taught the Armenian Studies. La Porta is also fluent in 10 languages and speaks better Armenian (East and West) than the majority of Armenians.
    I always get the feeling there is Armenians that are jealous of those that are educated and dedicated to our culture.
    Dr. Mherian you are a Phd in Mathematics, while the Armenian Community appreciates your theory’s we also appreciate the knowledge and educational background of Dr. La Porta.
    http://micro5.mscc.huji.ac.il/~armenia/laporta2a.htm

  6. Norin Radd said:

    Excellent work and beautiful citations both Stepan and Haro. Some scholars have the arrogance to automatically assume that their account on Armenology is the end all be all of our people’s history merely because their theories come out of American universities. In the however, it is our responsibility to set the record straight with sound logical principles on matters regarding our own history in order to prevent any perversion of our ancient origins.

    The much touted “3000 years of history” is ludicrously short when considering other factors that clearly imply Armenian existence and history presence much further back, easily achieving 6000 thousand years of history. Separating the Hitites, Urartians, etc. as distinct and “non-Armenian” ethnic groups is western historians’ way of marginalizing Armenian ancient influence and historic significance while simultaneously ramping up their own ethnic historic importance.

    If you observe carefully, Armenology for the past 20 years had headed toward a direction by European and American sources that tries to show that “Armenians are only 3000 years old and not that ancient after all” while they themselves continuously try to push their own “indo-european” origins to match that length of historic lineage. In the end its difficult for them to come to terms with the notion that nearly all of them originated from Armenians at a cradle of civilization known as ancient Armenia.

  7. Haro Mherian, PhD Mathematics/HySpell said:

    Mr Armenian4life, nobody is attacking La Porta’s resume, title or person. It is his assumptions about Armenians, Armenian Language and Armenian History that has great flaws. If I as a mathematician proclaim that Galois Theory is nonsense, then although I may be a great personality and benevolent man, but I would be a complete idiot in Algebra and Ring Theory. So, please don’t assume the tactic of personal attack, and don’t perform personal attacks on my true identity (see my link-name. And why are you hiding behind an alias?). And please don’t assume such things as “… Armenians being jealous of La Porta…”. Who can be jealous for “ignorance”? Certainly not a mathematician like me.
    If you are courageous enough, then reveal your identity, and please write in Armenian for God’s sake. How can we talk about Armenian History and Language when we are commenting in bloody English?
    Incidentally, being a mathematician, I am also an expert in more than 20 fields, including Physics, Linguistic, Archeology, Armeneology, Computer Science, Cryptology, Music Composition, Art, Architecture, Philosophy, Cinematography, Biology, Cosmology, Civil Engineering, Aviation, Political Science, to name a few.
    I know 5 natural alive languages, 2 dead languages, and 12 computer science languages. I have even invented a completely new artificial human language of my own for my security use (much like Leonardo Da Vinci). So please don’t post resumes here, put it on Dice.com or Monester.com instead.
    We would like La Porta himself to attend to his defense… And try to disprove us if possible. In the end: “Numbers don’t lie, people do…”

  8. odarman said:

    Haro, anyone claiming to be an expert in so many fields is always a red flag.
    What us surprising to me is that a google scholar search returns zero results
    on your last name. Very odd in view of the fact that even my Master’s thesis
    from a podunk state college shows up.

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