Dr. Zara Pogossian at the Fortress of Smbataberd in the region of Vayots Dzor in the Republic of Armenia in 2018 (photo Armen Shahparonyan)

Study of Medieval Armenian History in Global Context Boosted by Prestigious Five-Year European Grant


FLORENCE, Italy – Armenian studies generally is an individual scholarly pursuit in the West, with specialists coming together periodically for conferences and workshops. In Europe, this is suddenly about to change due to a major grant from the European Research Council (ERC), one of the most important funding bodies in the world, particularly vital for the humanities. Dr. Zara Pogossian has won support for a five-year collaborative project under her leadership focusing on medieval Armenian history in a global perspective. This appears to be the first time that a research project with a strong Armenological component has received such a prestigious grant from an internationally recognized body, as opposed to funding from Armenian institutions and sources. This will increase the overall visibility of Armenian studies in academia.

The ERC’s scale is very large. Its budget for 2019 was over 2 billion Euros. ERC grants are allocated through open competitions, and only approximately 12% of applicants are successful, with this percentage even lower for women. In Pogossian’s category of consolidator grants (for people who received their doctorate a maximum of 12 years prior to the application) in the social sciences and humanities, in 2019 out of 674 submitted proposals, only 78 were selected.

Pogossian’s grant is for two million Euros and she will be able to hire up to 9 researchers to work together. The project is entitled Armenia Entangled: Connectivity and Cultural Encounters in Medieval Eurasia, 9th – 14th Centuries (ArmEn), and will begin on October 1, 2020. ArmEn will be based at the University of Florence, Italy, where Pogossian  is about to take up a tenured position as Associate Professor.

Dr. Zara Pogossian, left, with her Italian colleague, archeologist Dr. Elisa Pruno, at the Caravanserai of Selim, in 2018 on a field trip to Vayots Dzor in the Republic of Armenia in 2018

This position in essence, Pogossian said, would be an addition to the centers of Armenian studies in Europe. Even after the project’s end Dr. Pogossian will pursue her research and training of students at the University of Florence, continuing her already important contributions to Armenology in a most propitious academic environment.

To indicate the scale of Armenian studies in general, she noted that when you have a conference of Byzantine studies, you can expect more than 1,000 participants, and when you have a conference in Islamic medieval studies, you can easily go beyond 2,000. Yet in the whole world there are only at the most several hundred specialists of Armenian studies in all time periods. Nonetheless, she stressed that this is a very important and strong field, even if it is a small one, with Armenian sources vital for topics in her period like the history of the Crusades, the Byzantine Empire, the history of Georgia, the Mongols, the Seljuks, and the Ottoman Empire.

The importance of the grant is multiplied when recent difficulties in academia are taken into consideration. Pogossian said that in the last 10-20 years it has been very hard to pursue small, sophisticated but highly specialized fields, find students, and then find funding for these students. Entire departments are scaled down by universities who say there are not enough students. This is true, she said, not only for Armenian studies but also for other Oriental Christian studies.

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Pogossian expressed the hope that the recognition by ERC of the importance of Armenology may inspire more Armenians to support the existing chairs in Europe and donate to create new ones to allow Armenian studies to continue to grow in the future.

Project Goals

ArmEn will examine the geographical area of the Armenian Plateau and the surrounding regions as an area rarely subject to centralized political, cultural and religious control during the period studied. This perhaps facilitated the great cultural exchange there between various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. Pogossian stated, “The project intends to tackle precisely this polycentrism and test whether it enhanced, or on the contrary, prevented fluidity, and boundary-crossings, cross-pollination between multiple and shifting elite cultures, including agents and locations of these interactions or conflicts. Articulated in texts, depicted on artifacts, and minted on coins, the intensive circulation of ideas, goods, images, and mental constructs south of the Caucasus mountains, east of Anatolia and north of Mesopotamia (CAM) has thus far not been studied systematically for this period of time. The goal of ArmEn is to fill this gap and position CAM in a wider scholarly debate on entanglements in Eurasian history.”

Pogossian thinks that Armenian sources are important for two interrelated reasons: “1) The Armenians constituted the group most widely dispersed and integrated in the space of CAM, and engaged intellectually, politically (including via mixed marriages), militarily, religiously, and commercially with Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, subjects of the Byzantine Empire (Greek-speaking or not), Syriac Christians, Georgians, Caucasian Albanians, a number of Turko-Muslim dynasties, Kurds, Iranians, Western Europeans, and Mongols; and 2) Armenian sources reflect the dynamic connections between all these cultures synoptically and diachronically, covering regions for which no other evidence exists.”

An example of medieval cultural interaction: trilingual 14th century gravestone inscription from Yeghegis, Vayots Dzor, Armenia (Photo and photographic reconstruction: Dr. Lapo Somigli, University of Florence)

The project will integrate the information from Armenian sources with Arabic, Syriac, Greek, Georgian, Turkish, and Persian material. Furthermore, it will, Pogossian stated, create tools for research such as an online source base and interactive map. It will apply interdisciplinary methods combining analysis of textual and material evidence with a digital humanities approach.

Based on the aforementioned, it will, Pogossian said, “develop a theoretical framework for the study of cultural entanglements under conditions where there was no overarching hegemonic power, single elite culture, or one unifying religious message/tradition.”

Pogossian added as an aside that she chose the project to focus on Armenia’s connections with the East rather than with Western Europe for various reasons. Among them, she mentioned that Armenian-European relations have been much more extensively explored. One reason for this is that 19th century scholarship tended to be Eurocentric, as Dr. Nina Garsoïan had pointed out many years ago when she started her ground-breaking studies on the Iranian factor and connections in Armenian culture. Dr. Pogossian’s project will continue this type of research for the medieval period.

Project Participants, Advisors and Products

Although as a European grant, all participants in the ERC project must spend at least 50 percent of their time in Florence, they can originate from anywhere in the world. Pogossian said that there will be two colleagues in Germany, two or three American collaborators, and two to four participants from Armenia who will be working with manuscripts and artifacts there. All will be selected competitively through an open search by a university committee. There are no limitations on nationality, but those who work in Armenia most likely will be Armenians, as they are the ones who know the Mashtots Matenadaran (Institute of Ancient Armenian Manuscripts) in Yerevan inside and out, Pogossian said.

In all, there will be nine to ten people, but not all will participate for the full five years. Some may work for two and others for three years.

While Armenian is one of the primary languages of the project, naturally, there must also be specialists in Georgian, Turkish, Arabic and Syriac. Furthermore, most scholars know Greek and Latin as working languages.

Though most research will be carried out on textual sources, the project specialists will not only deal with manuscripts and written materials. Pogossian said that material artifacts will also be studied. There is an important archaeological component in the project. The University of Florence has already been working with archaeologist Prof. Hamlet Petrosyan of Yerevan State University for almost a decade, and this relationship may allow participation in excavations of Dvin led by Prof. Petrosyan.

When asked how potential difficulties of access to sites due to political obstacles might affect research, Pogossian replied that there are no archaeological surveys planned in such areas but that fortunately, when in situ surveys are not possible, publications and prior descriptions can be used. The focus will be more on written sources for Turkey, Syria and northern Mesopotamia. An advantage is that many manuscript sources have been digitized.

An art historian will participate in the project, and aside from the art historical component numismatics will be included. There is also a small side project involving collaboration with Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture Christina Maranci at Tufts University in Massachusetts. It involves tracing medieval Armenian travellers’ stories as part of research on the mobility of Armenians between Asia, Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages.

Some of the project members already on board include Dr. Barbara Roggema, a leading specialist in Early Islam, as well as Christian Arabic literature and Syriac, and Prof. Alexandra Cuffel, specialist in medieval Judaism, as well as Jewish-Christian-Muslim interactions in the Middle Ages. They will be both based at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, while Prof. Michele Nucciotti at the University of Florence is the archaeologist working with Hamlet Petrosyan.

In addition to the actual participants, the project has a board of advisors, including Professor Stephen Rapp, Jr. of Sam Houston State University, a Georgian specialist, Michael Pifer of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Edda Vardanyan of the Matenadaran (Yerevan) and the Centre d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance (Paris), and István Perczel, professor of Byzantine and Syriac Studies, from the Central European University (Budapest/Vienna). Pogossian explained that these are senior scholars who volunteer to take part in the project due to its overall scholarly interest and expected new and exciting research. As Pogossian is not a specialist in all the fields covered in the project, for example Georgian or Arabic, she will collaborate with the members of the advisory board for work connected with these languages and cultures, among others.

Pogossian already had to propose a plan for work for each year on the project, and she said that while she will not dictate the exact topic or direction of individual researchers involved in the project, she will provide a set of themes and ideas that should guide the research of all the participants. While the exact form of interaction and collaboration will depend on the situation with COVID-19, she said that if there could not be personal meetings, there certainly would be Zoom or mixed meetings every two or three months to see where people stand on their topics and what they have discovered. Junior scholars may need more guidance.

Various conferences and publications are planned that will disseminate the results of the project to the wider scholarly world. A website will make sure that interested non-academic audiences receive information on the project, and its results and discoveries are made available to the general public as the project moves on.

Pogossian’s Academic Work

Pogossian’s educational background is impressively wide ranging. Born in Armenia, she received her undergraduate education at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, a master’s degree in international development from American University in Washington, D.C. (1994), a second master’s degree in medieval studies from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary and finally her Ph.D. from the latter institution in 2005. She said that she would call herself a philologist-historian, since in order to do research on medieval Armenian history, philological skills are indispensable, not least for reading numerous unpublished manuscript sources.

She has taught as adjunct professor at the American University of Rome (2006-8) and John Cabot University at Rome (2006-15) and at the Rome Center of Loyola University (2014-17). Meanwhile, from 2015 to the present she has been serving as a research fellow and project coordinator of an ERC-funded project, JewsEast, at Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany.

Aside from many articles, she is the author of two books: The Letter of Love and Concord: A Revised Diplomatic Edition with Historical and Textual Comments and English Translation (Medieval Mediterranean vol. 88; Leiden: Brill, 2010) and The Church of the Holy Cross on Ałt‘amar: Politics, Art, Spirituality in the Kingdom of Vaspurakan (Leiden: Brill, 2019), co-edited with Edda Vardanyan.

Pogossian said that her approach in the current project has its roots in her past research and Armenian history itself. Her first book, she related, was about a source from the Cillician period of Armenia that claimed that the Armenians and Romans have been allied for centuries and St. Gregory the Illuminator was an equal colleague of the pope. She tried to read it between the lines to understand to whom the author was appealing, what he knew about Armenian history and how he presented it. This text has numerous words in Latin, Greek, Persian, Mongolian and Turkish, so she had to deal with all these cultures to understand the specifics of the Cilician Armenian culture and the sources it produced. This type of approach was dictated by the medieval texts that were the result of the particularly entangled circumstances of Armenian history.

At present, she has various ongoing research projects that will merge into the larger project she is running. She is interested in the cult of saints, and in particular that of Saint Sergius or Sargis. She wants to see not who he was but how and where he was venerated, and what beliefs were associated with that veneration. There is evidence of shared practices when it comes to the veneration of St. Sergius among the Armenians and that of al-Khidr among Muslims of medieval Anatolia, with similar types of fasts and rituals. Exploring the background of such exchanges will be one of her research tasks.

Another topic she is interested in is to explore the role of women as intercultural brokers. What happens, she wonders, in mixed marriages? How do women represent themselves and appear as cultural in-betweens? When an Armenian woman married a Muslim potentate, and sponsored the building of a mosque or a monumental structure, can the inscriptions she left tell us anything about shared practices? Are they comparable to inscriptions on Armenian churches left by other contemporary female founders? Such topics go to the heart of questions on cultural exchanges and need further exploration.

Aside from all her own academic work, Pogossian intends to continue to call attention to the importance of Armenian studies for medieval history in general and the crucial information that Armenian sources can provide for Eurasian history. This is a task she intends to pursue will beyond this ERC project. She exclaimed, “This is my bigger goal for the rest of my career: to get Armenian studies out of its bubble and become an integral part of studies on Eurasian history more than it has been thus far.”

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