Azat Ordukhanyan

‘Ex Occidente Lux!’ Armenia and the West

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BOCHUM, Germany — “Since the early Middle Ages, since the invasion of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, the Armenians have been fighting for the restoration of their independence in their own land – with unshakeable hope. In this they have traditionally expected aid from the Christian West. Germany has had an important role in this context.”

Thus reads the text of an invitation issued for an event held recently in Bochum, a city in the Ruhr region. The timing could not have been more opportune; since last May, friends of Armenia abroad have been following the developments associated with the Velvet Revolution with keen interest. Where is the country going? What are the models – if any—that the new leadership looks to for inspiration? And for support? What will the response of friendly nations and trade partners be to the new course charted by Armenia?

Hosting the evening were Heide Rieck, author and spokeswoman of the Bochum Literati, and historian Azat Ordukhanyan, director of the Armenian Academic Society 1860, the oldest Armenian organization in Germany. Engaging in a wide-ranging dialogue, they reached back into history to review the relations between Armenia and the West, asking what expectations Armenians had from European powers, and how the latter responded. Thus the title, “Ex Occidente Lux! Armenia’s Visions of Liberty with Regard to Germany.”

 

The Prophecy of Nerses

Rieck, who has been active in promoting Armenian-German cultural exchange, is also co-author of a new translation of Paruyr Sevak’s poetry. She posed questions to Ordukhanyan, who illustrated his remarks with examples from various epochs of Armenian history. Tracing the notion back to the 4th century, that the “light” – lux – would arrive from the Occident, he cited an ancient document reporting on a prophecy articulated by Catholicos Nerses the Great, which foretold the future of his people for the subsequent centuries. What was the prophecy? Rieck asked. “The fall of the Arshakouni dynasty is imminent and the end of the house of the Patriarch Partev, also the separation of the Armenian Church from the universal Christian Church as well as the total decay of the country as a consequence of the internal strife among the princes. The successive entry of foreign rule over Armenia was also prophesied and finally salvation through Rome (i.e. through the West) and with it the inauguration of a Golden Age, an age of enduring peace.”

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If the idea was that salvation would come from Rome, it is no wonder that there were sympathies among Armenians for the Crusades launched by the Western Christian leaders, military campaigns against Islam and for the liberation of Jerusalem. Friedrich I, Barbarossa, was one example, Ordukhanyan noted; and there are testimonies from the 13th century documenting the expectations Armenians placed in the campaigns of the Frankish kings as well as the “Alamank,” short for “Alamanen,” as the Germans were called.

Though the hoped-for liberators from Europe failed to satisfy these expectations, there were several cases of Armenian nobility who launched initiatives inspired by that perspective. Ordukhanyan reported on examples related to Germany that paved the way, in a certain sense, to what would become known as “the Armenian Question.”

A Savior from Europe?

At the turn of the 18th century, one Israel Ori, a nobleman from southern Armenia, had a plan for mobilizing help from the West. The basic idea, Ordukhanyan explained, was that he would depict the suffering and need of his people, who, because they remained true to their Christian faith, were being persecuted by the Persians and Turks. Ori was confident that once liberated, the Armenians would return to the Roman Catholic Church. Any Western prince who would raise an army and appear on Armenian soil, he argued, would be hailed by the people, and immediately offered the crown. Ori acted as if he had been commissioned by Armenian nobility to seek out such a European savior, and his backers based their expectations on the authority of ancient documents and legends. Ori predicted that this enterprise would bring fame to the House of the Palatinate, above all other royalty in Europe.

The Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm did in fact receive a request from Armenia, in 1699, to lead an army to the land, free the Armenian Christians and in return receive the crown. At the time, the historical conditions were not ripe for the plan to be set in motion, Ordukhanyan said, but sources from all concerned parties document the existence of the initiative, and reveal the fascination that such dreams of power exerted on German princes at the time.

Ori did not implement his project, but Hovsep (Joseph) Emin (1726 -1809), a prominent personality in the Armenian national liberation movement, travelled through several European countries from 1751, seeking support for a campaign to free Armenia from the Persians and Ottomans — all reminiscent of the Ori adventure.

Odukhanyan related other tales of fantastic projects entertained by Armenian figures who would become prominent in Germany. Among them is the Aretin family, the name being a common abbreviation for Harutyun. The founder was the son of the Armenian Prince Baghdasar of Sünik in southeastern Armenia. In what reads like a wild adventure story, in 1706 (or 1710) when he was 4 years old, he was sent on a ship from Constantinople to Venice, by the French ambassador, and handed over, along with letters and riches, to Prince Max Emmanuel II of Bavaria from the Wittelsbach family, and his wife, the Polish princess Therese Kunigunde. The Wittelsbachs, living in exile, raised him there until 1714 when they all returned to Munich. Whether or not there were any repercussions on events in Armenia, here were the Armenian roots of the Aretin family, whose members were to occupy prominent positions in political, social and scientific life of the region.

To round out the evening’s presentation of such colorful escapades, Ordukhanyan and Rieck delivered a reading, in Armenian and German, of a poem by Sevak, “I am going crazy.” A lively discussion followed, with questions about the political climate in Armenia at present, and the perspectives for Armenians to shape their own future, according to the needs and desires of a sovereign people, and in harmony with friendly nations, both East and West.

 

 

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