Aug 2, 2006

Book Review: Armenia - Cradle of Civilization


Map of ArmeniaLang, David M.

London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980, 320 pages

Lang was a professor at the University of London specializing in Aremenian, Georgian, and Bulgarian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He was fluent in a dozen languages, and served as an officer in Iran during the Second World War; Lang wrote that, while stationed in Tabriz in 1944, he could see the dual peaks of Armenia’s Mount Ararat “with their majestic summits covered in perpetual snow.” The author conceived of Armenia: Cradle of Civilization as a work with value as both a research text and as historical literature for the general reader, and Lang’s artistry with the written word makes this an accessible and enjoyable book. Lang argued that, although Mesopotamian societies are most frequently credited as the sources of modern civilizations, Armenia was a civilization with that could make both literal and figurative claims to being the “cradle of civilization.”

The author was primarily concerned with developing a narrative of prehistoric, classical and early Christian Armenia. While not quite a 2-volume set, modern Armenia is given much more weight in Lang’s Armenia: A People in Exile. After sections on Armenian geography and archaeology, the author follows a chronological approach to the narrative. Lang added chapters on arts, literature, architecture, and education that give readers an excellent sense of Armenian culture.

Lang described the physical geography of Armenia as a “massive rock-bound island rising out of the surrounding lowlands, steppes, and plains.” The author argued that the relatively isolated terrain helped Armenians maintain a continuous cultural identity for several millennia, while the location of the Armenian highlands “at the crossroads of the Iranian, Greek, and Eurasian worlds” meant that invasion by outsiders was a frequent occurrence. Lang also argued that the unique language and physical features of the Armenians were the results of many centuries of intermingling with a wide variety of “interlopers.”

The author provided a great deal of archaeological evidence that demonstrated the presence of human habitation in the Armenian highlands, and primitive man arrived in Armenia between 500,000 and 1 million years ago. Neanderthalian cultures existed in the region between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, while homo sapiens groups appear to have continuously lived in Armenia as early as 40,000 CE. The extensive Western and Soviet archaeological evidence that points to the early presence of humans in Armenia, argued Lang, gives further weight to the concept of Armenia as the cradle of civilization, as does the rise of an Armenian metal-working industry that appears to date earlier than that of surrounding cultures.

Herodotus considered the Armenians to be colonists of the Phrygians, migrating out of the Balkans. Citing linguistic and archaeological sources, though, Lang debunks this theory, and argued that an Armenian culture and language existed centuries before any Phrygian migrations. Examples of Armenian petroglyphs date back to the Bronze Age, and the site of a primitive astronomical observatory near Metzamor has been dated to the third millennium BCE. Archaeological evidence points to use of Greek and Persian scripts by Armenians in the eighth century BCE, although a formal Armenian script was not adopted until 404 CE.
Tigranes the GreatLeft: Coin bearing image of Tigranes the Great

The author maintained that the height of Armenian imperial power occurred during the reign of Tigranes the Great (95-55 BCE). During the period of his rule Armenia annexed northern Mesopotamia, portions of Asia Minor, and Syria, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. The glory years of the Armenian empire, however, were short-lived, as Rome had asserted its rule over Tigranes after a decisive battle in 69 BCE.

The introduction of Christian beliefs into Armenia is the topic of considerable historical debate, as Armenian tradition holds that the nation was the first to establish Christianity as a state religion. The earliest scriptural accounts of the introduction of Christianity into Armenia date from the first century, when apostles St. Bartholomew and St. Jude (Taddeus) began to preach in the region. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 CE; St. Gregory the Illuminator converted monarch Tiridates III and members of his court to the faith. The Armenian Apostolic Church was well established by the middle of the fourth century CE, and is one of the oldest denominations in Christianity. Armenia’s status as “the first Christian state” thus provides yet another component of Lang’s “cradle” thesis.

St. Gregory the IlluminatorLeft: St. Gregory the Illuminator

During the rise of Islam, Lang argued, Armenians faced significant challenges to their ability to maintain a sense of cultural, religious, and political identity. Official suppresion of the Armenian church fostered the rise of heretical sects such as the Paulicians, Tondrakites, and various Manichean movements. Simultaneously, though, these religious offshoots became seen by Arab caliphs as subversive threats, and alliances between Armenian princes and their Islamic overlords led to the persecution and deportation of heretics. Armenia then entered into a lengthy period of relatively stable coexistence with Islamic rulers.

The artifical creation of Cilician Armenia in the tenth century is covered in great detail by Lang. Byzantium appointed Armenians to govern the territory, which occupies the northeast corner of the Mediterranean surrounding the Gulf of Alexandretta (Iskenderun Bay). These posts eventually became hereditary, and the hegemony of the Armenians was bolstered by alliances with Christian Crusaders in the Levant during the next two centuries. These alliance during its possession of Cilicia also gave Armenia a “door to the Western world” that caused Armenia to be forever perched, in Lang’s eyes, between East and West.

Modern Armenia, unfortunately, is given a scant eight pages in the text, and the horrors of the massacres of Armenians by the Turks receive only a brief mention. Some 300,000 Armenians were killed during the systematic campaign in 1895 by Abdul-Hamid’s Hamidiyya, created for the sole purpose of ethnic cleansing. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered in the 1915 atrocities, initiated by leaders of the Young Turk movement. The arrival of the Red Army in 1920 found an Armenia in no position to resist, and the nation became integrated into the Soviet Union as the Armenian SSR in 1922.

Lang occasionally permitted himself the luxury of sweeping generalizations, and some of these stretch into the realm of fallacious induction. Armenians, noted Lang, are “sober and industrious” people who “will work without respite for long hours,” and who have a “truly Scottish regard for thrift and honesty.” The author praised Armenian scholars as people who combine “exceptional brilliance with the dogged perseverance which has enabled their race to survive so many perils right up to the present day.” While there are undoubtedly a great many Armenians who have achieved brilliance in their respective fields of academia, Lang’s ethnic effusion crosses the boundaries of detached research.

Still, the text was written first as an introduction for non-specialists, and this reviewer is reluctant to criticize the author for any scholarly failings. One leaves this work with a greater appreciation for the history and culture of Armenia, and Lang made a convincing argument that Armenia was, indeed, a “cradle of civilization.” The book includes beautiful color photography, detailed maps, and a lengthy bibliography, and readers will find that Lang has produced an enjoyable text that reads like a historical travelogue.


Dariush said...

In looking at maps of ancient Armenia you see that it wasn't just confined to the Caucasus, but consisted of much of present-day Turkey.

Iranians tend to think of Armenians as just Christian Iranians. The Armenian language itself doesn't belong in the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages, but so many of their traditions and customs do. For one, they were a Zoroastrian people before the advent of Christianity, and for another many of them (even outside of Iran) still celebrate Norouz.

Ethiopia has a competing narrative which proclaims it to be the first Christian nation.

I believe it was Syrian monks who travelled there in the third or fourth century and established what is now the Ethiopian "Coptic" Church.

Great series of posts/book reviews Mike, dealing with the history of the Caucasus and Central Asia -- two of my own areas of interest as well.

historymike said...

Good point about the Ethiopians, Dariush.

You're welcome on the reviews. I've been doing a lot of reading on Central Asia, the Caucasus, and imperial Russia this summer.

Posting these gives me a chance to help drill this information in my head; I'll be taking my doctoral comps in a year or so.

Geoff Powers said...

I have purchased a number of Prof. Lang's works over the years and am currently re-reading 'Armenian - Cradle of Civilisation'. After I had read through only a few pages I had the sensation that Lang's writing is now beginning to sound somewhat dated - unsurprising, I suppose, for a work first published in 1970. (My copy is the Third Edition revised in 1984.) One cannot doubt the underlying scholarship, and on the purely historical front - Urartu, the Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods - the work is a an authorative reference. However, the background information contained in the book on geographic, botanical and zoological data, the prehistoric periods, and similar factual aspects in which Lang is not a specialist, now sounds very dated.(Much of this is in any case a re-hash from some of Lang's earlier writing). So in these respects this work is of limited value for the reader who is unfamiliar with the historical context of these 'far away places and times'. It would be interesting to learn of specialist works written in English which might go some way to making good these perceived deficiencies, in my own case particularly on the subject of archaeogenetics and linguistics.

alex said...

(to geoff powers: try the books "Armenia, Subartu and Summer" by Dr Martiros Kavoukjian)

since a few years, there were many archeological discoveries in Armenia, reinforcing the thesis that it was a place of early civilization

Anonymous said...

the ship of Noah parked on the Armenian mountain of Arrarat by that time should be around 6000mtr/high on the year 2600-2450BC,The severe nature disaster drove the mountain people of Armenia to the south seaking worm weather and escaping from the flood, to many villages and even civilizations disapeared a cause of the flood, the tripes went to the south east landed on elam, the rescued tripes gatherd under the command of one leader Sherruken, Sergon the 1st and went to Iraq .The Akkadian, the people who went to the south east went to Turky Hattie, still the power of mother nature went cruel years 1990-1800BC the Hayk tripes went down to the eastern side of the big sea Mediteranian Aramia and went down to Egypt who named them by the name of their 1st king Hayk sos (shephards)vwho they met the early tripes the AMU same language..which the met the Hibrrow their cusines as well 1800BC, whom they lived to gether at the holy city of the Hayk Avaris, east side of the Nile delta, and have been thrown out from the land of GEB (Egypt) by Ahmes the founder of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt..1550BC..the 3 primary esblished civilzations Illam(iran)Posemenia (Irak) and the Hyksos are Armenian the garden of Eden are in Armenia.