In Medieval Armenia, Everyday Life Was Cosmopolitan

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BELMONT, Mass. —  The headline above may be a simplification of the new book, Everyday Cosmopolitanisms: Living the Silk Road in Medieval Armenia, by Dr. Kate Franklin. However, the idea that everyday life can be cosmopolitan or, to hew closer to Franklin’s perspective, the idea that everyday life is an integral part of what are often thought of as overarching worldwide systems, was one of the takeaways from her October 31 talk, sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and London’s Armenian Institute.

Dr. Kate Franklin

Franklin is an archaeologist and professor in the Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birbeck, University of London, where she is the director of the Master’s Program in Medieval History, as well as the director of studies in the Department of History, Classics and Archeology, and lecturer. The Zoom lecture, coordinated by Marc Mamigonian of NAASR and with Dr. Nik Matheou of the Armenian Institute as discussant, focused on the themes in her new book.

Franklin, she explained, has been interested in the stories of the fabled Silk Road since she was young. A network of trade routes that links China with Europe in the Medieval era, the Silk Road has been the subject of romanticized accounts since the time of Marco Polo, and gained popularity as an academic subject in the 19th century as Western Europeans travelled the world in the era of Imperialism. The traditional narratives often depict intrepid travelers (European or otherwise) trekking to exotic lands; generally males from an elite class. Franklin’s goal seems to be to show that women and lower socio-economic classes were part of the Silk Road story as well, even if they weren’t making trips from Venice to Inner Mongolia, and aspects of everyday life like meals were just as important to the international silk trade as the silk itself.

Side view of the Orbelian Caravanserai

Franklin opened her talk with a story that will resonate even with Armenians that have never set foot in Armenia; while on a journey to a small village inspecting medieval ruins, she came across a middle-aged Armenian woman who insisted she come into the house and eat, even to the point of unwrapping small chocolates and putting them on her plate. The story exemplified Franklin’s realization of the importance that food, hospitality, and the lives of women must have had to anyone travelling long distances in the Middle Ages. By the same token, the lives of people who lived along trade routes could be just as cosmopolitan as that of the merchants and travelers, due to the cultural interchange that was constantly taking place.

Both Franklin and Matheou touched upon the prevalence of “World Systems Theory,” an overarching paradigm for world history which emphasizes the “world system,” particularly in an economic role, rather than nation-states. Franklin expressed her wish to provide a counter to that kind of analysis, not to refocus on the nation-state, but to emphasize the local and particular.

Much of Franklin’s attention has been directed to the role of caravanserais (roadside inns) which served as accommodations for trade caravans. The best-preserved caravanserai in Armenia today is the Orbelian Caravanserai in the Vayots Dzor region, which graces the cover of Franklin’s book. However, in her talk, she focused on Arayi-Bazarjik Caravanserai, in the Kasakh Valley region north of Yerevan (near Abaran). This structure was built by the princely Vachutian family. Travelers to Armenia will likely have visited the family’s seat of power, Amberd Fortress.

The church at Saghmosavank, built by Vache Vachutian in 1215, overlooking the Kasakh Gorge

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The story of the Vachutians, as Franklin tells it, shows the changing identifications and cultural influences of medieval Armenia, as well as shedding light on the realities of the Silk Road. At one point, the churches built by dynasty founder Vache Vachutian were rebuilt by his son Kurd, who mentions in an inscription that this rebuilding takes place after the invasion and destruction wrought by the “Nation of the Archers” — the Mongols, who invaded the Near East, including Armenia, throughout the middle of the thirteenth century. (Notably, Vache’s wife Mamakhatun and Kurd’s wife Khorishah are mentioned along with their husbands in the inscriptions.) The Mongol invasion was seen in near-apocalyptic terms by medieval Armenians, said Franklin, and the Vachutians saw themselves as survivors of this catastrophe, rebuilding for their descendants. Yet, only a few decades later, the Armenians had begun to view the Mongols with respect and admiration; numerous Armenian leaders noted the honor they were shown by the Great Khan in positive terms, while others even depicted themselves in artwork with stereotypical “Mongol” facial features. The understanding of what was native and what was foreign was thus “cosmopolitan” and much more complex than many today believe, who are fixated on a homogenous picture of ethnic history described in nationalist terms, she said.

 

Amberd Fortress, seat of the Vachutian princes

Franklin’s presentation provoked questions about cultural exchange and influence, which as she has shown, has been a part of daily life in Armenia going back at least to the Middle Ages. The issues she raises should serve as a bit of a corrective to those fixated on “pure” ethnic artistic and cultural expression. Historically, her work sheds light not only on Armenia’s role in the international community of medieval times, but also the importance of average people in a society that is increasingly viewed in terms of overarching economic, political, and social frameworks. Economically, the work questions what she calls the neoliberal narrative that free trade leads to peace. Franklin also delivered a lecture at the University of Michigan on Thursday, November 18, that evidently touched on the same themes from her recent book, which is available in hard copy from the NAASR bookstore as well as in a free e-version from the OAPEN Open Access library (https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/50279).

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