Dashdondog Bayarsaikhan lecturing

Dashdondog Bayarsaikhan: ‘Armenian Sources Are Very Important for Mongol Studies’


By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/ULAAN BAATAR  — Prof. Dashdondog Bayarsaikhan teaches history at the National University of Mongolia, specializing in the Mongol Empire and Mongol-Armenian historical relationships. She studied at the Department of Armenian Language and Literature of Yerevan State University and defended her doctoral dissertation (“Mongol-Armenian Political Relations (1220-1335)”) at Oxford University (UK).

Bayarsaikhan worked on the section on Armenian sources for the Cambridge History of the Mongol Empire. She is the author of The Mongols and the Armenians (Leiden: Brill, 2011) and The Essays on the Ilkhans: From Hülegü to Abu Sa’id (Ulaanbaatar, 2016), both monographs in English, the translation from Armenian into Mongolian ofThe History of the Nation of Archers by Grigor Aknerc’i” (Antoon Mostaert Centre for Mongol Studies, Monograph series, v. 4, Ulaanbaatar, 2010), as well as many articles and papers in international conferences in Mongolian and English.

Bayarsaikhan often travels to Europe, Asia and the US to lecture and participate in conferences and projects along with her colleagues working on the Mongol Empire.

My interview with Dashdondog Bayarsaikhan was conducted via email.

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Dear Bayarsaikhan, I remember your report on Mongolian words in medieval Armenian sources at the international symposium on medieval Armenian literature back in 1986.

That paper was based on the work I did on my bachelor’s degree. There are many Mongol words mentioned in medieval Armenian sources: in Kirakos Gandzaketsi’s work alone, there is a glossary of about 70 Mongolian words and their Armenian meanings. These Mongolian words stand uniquely, since they shed a light on Middle Mongolian and deserve close study from linguistic point of view.

The Armenian sources mention Mongols as ‘azg netoghats’ — the nation of archers — and provide much information about them. As a specialist on this matter, how reliable do you consider the Armenian sources on the Mongols?

Only in Armenian sources are the Mongols called the Nation of the Archers, which deserves much appreciation from modern Mongols. The majority of the Armenian sources on the Mongols are written in the 13th-14th centuries, meaning that the historians were eyewitnesses, so the reliability of the sources is undeniable.

Seven years ago, your book The Mongols and the Armenians (1220-1335) was published in Leiden. It is the result of your long years of study. What is the importance of Armenian sources for the history of the Mongolian people and for Mongol studies?

The Armenian historical sources make me proud. When I was accepted to Oxford University to pursue my doctoral thesis on the Ilkhans, the Mongol rulers in Middle East and the Caucasus in the 13th-14th centuries, some of professors were sceptical about my contribution to the topic, which was already well addressed in academic circles.  However, I convinced them that the Armenian sources on the Mongols is a special subject that deserves fuller attention. Here, I have to mention Prof. Theo van Lint, who was one of my supervisors at Oxford University. As a result of hard work, the book was published.

The Mongols built the largest land empire in the world history. In order to study this subject, one has to read sources written in many languages, including Mongolian, Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Syriac, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Turkic, Uyghur, Tangut and even Hebrew. Among them the Armenian sources are listed not only as important, but also as written in many genres: historical compilations, chronicles, hagiography, colophons, inscriptions and poems. This fact stands unique among the sources written in other languages about the Mongols.

In the aforementioned symposium, the whole audience was impressed hearing your fluent Armenian. Your knowledge of our language became even more striking when after you a lady from Yerevan delivered her report in… Russian. How did it happen that you became a student at Yerevan State University?

My fluency in Armenian by that time was not sudden. I lived in Armenia for six years studying at Yerevan State University from 1975-1981. I came to Armenia according to an agreement between the Academy of Sciences of Mongolia and Armenia. The former president of the Armenian Academy of Science, the late Prof. Victor Hambartsumyan, and the former president of Academy of Sciences of Mongolia, Prof. B. Shirendyb, decided to open a position at Yerevan State University for Mongolian students for Armenian Studies. In 1975, I was graduating from the general education school in Ulaanbaatar. Since I had very good scores, I was given the priority to choose the subject of my further education. I was looking for universities where Oriental studies, whether in Turkic, Persian or Arabic, was taught. However, in that year there were only Japanese and Chinese studies and Armenian. With the great excitement of my parents, especially of my father, who was a theater critic, and who had visited Armenia previously in 1969 for Hovhannes Tumanyan’s 100th anniversary, I chose Armenian Studies.

When I was a student at the Department of Armenian Language and Literature at Yerevan State University, our late Professor of linguistics Hovhannes Barseghyan, sometimes being unhappy with us, would give the example that the students from Mongolia excelled the locals. I also remember an acquaintance of mine, who was your classmate, once said she used to copy Barseghyan’s lectures on the history of Armenian language from you. So how did you gain this level of mastery of the language?

I do cherish the sweet memory of my teachers at the Yerevan University. I very much loved Professor Barsegyan’s lectures on the history of the Armenian language. It was a period during which I was getting involved in the subject, and obtaining my insights about the history and language of the Armenians.

I do owe much appreciation to another teacher of mine, Professor Suren Avagyan, who taught me grabar [Classical Armenian] and who was my supervisor for those years. He was the one who introduced me to the Armenian historical sources and who brought me to the Matenadaran, where I had spent much of my time during my study. I realised, though only later, that he also introduced me to the scientific secretary of Matenadaran, Levon Ter-Petrosian, a former President of Armenia. I was very thrilled getting emails and even books written by the latter from Ter-Petrosian last year.

So what happened to the other Mongolian students who studied in Armenia?

There were several students from Mongolia studying at the Yerevan conservatory. They became successful musicians in Mongolia. Some of them are in contact with me. They are all so nostalgic about Armenia. They can still talk in Armenian as well. The other girl who studied with me, Batsukh, unfortunately, never pursued Armenian studies.

Have you succeeded in maintaining your knowledge of Armenian after so many years while living in a country with very few Armenians?

Of course, speaking practice does not exist. But I was reading in Armenian and working on the history of the Mongols through Armenian sources.

What can you tell us about the Armenian inhabitants of Mongolia?

Unfortunately, I have no direct contacts with Armenians in Ulaanbaatar, but I do know there are some Armenians living in Mongolia engaged in small businesses.

Do you continue your research on Armenian-Mongolian relations?

Yes, my research on Mongol-Armenian relationship continues. I am writing on the Armenian sources, on Armenian historians of Mongol period as well as on cultural interactions of the Mongols with the Armenians. Some of my works are accessible in English and some are in the process of being published. Very recently I submitted a paper on Kirakos Gandzaketsi, on his experience working with the Mongol Noyan by the name of Molar during his imprisonment.

As far as I know you have not returned to the city of your student years of many years ago. When we will meet you again in Armenia?

Very good question. I really miss Armenia, I have not been there since the late 1980s. If such a chance arises, I would love to visit Armenia and Yerevan. I have two master’s degree students to whom I teach Armenian. It would be nice to bring them with me to

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