Creative, Religious and Historical Writings
The founding of the monastery of Tatev in the late ninth century was the beginning of intensive creative work. Here, for years to come, monks, painters and musicians would gather, doing parchment work. Manufacturing gilt bookbindings. And copying manuscripts. Indeed, monasteries were to play a large role always in the intellectual pursuits of the Armenians; often, secluded from the strife and turmoil of the world outside, those behind monastic walls were able to produce works of Christian art that would inspire others to carry on the fight for preservation of the faith against hostile invaders. In the words of Nerses the Grace-filled, "the monasteries have been the pillars of the country, the fortress against the enemy, and shining stars."
One of the most spiritual and creatively prolific of Armenia's monastics was Gregory of Narek. Whose Book of lamentations was written at the beginning of the eleventh century. Obviously the work of a mystic, it extols the great mercy and loving omnipresence of God while deploring the frailty and sinfulness of man. Who on his own merit is so unworthy of that divine benevolence. The book is regarded by Armenian Christians with a reverence almost equal to that accorded to the Bible, and for many centuries pious people would put it under their pillows at night as a guard against Evil. So well-known and loved is the book that it is often referred to simply as "Narek." Gregory also wrote songs. Homilies, canticles and melodies. Elegies and odes which hold a high place in the body of Armenian Christian literature and in the Church's liturgical texts.
In the latter half of the tenth century, the Byzantines reconquered Cilicia and Northern Syria. They settled many Armenian Christians in the land from which they had expelled the Muslims and so began the Cilician kingdom, which was to have much more direct contact with Europe than the mother country of Armenia. Through contact with the Crusaders, for example, the theology of Aquinas and Gregory the Great was introduced to the Armenians and translated. This was during the twelfth century. And it was also during this period that Nerses Shnorhali (grace filled) became Catholicos of the Armenians.
Nerses wrote some of the most beautiful poems of any church father. He was both poet and theologian, and his work reflects both the style of writing of the time and his sound understanding of Eastern theology. Some poems are written in couplets; in some each stanza begins with a succeeding letter of the alphabet, and so on. Underneath the outward effects of the poems lies a deep faith and reverence for God. One of Nerses' prayers is said during the Rest Service, the last of the daily services, said before retiring for the night. The prayers called "I confess with faith." Is in several verses. One is: "Heavenly Father, true God. Who did send Thy beloved Son to seek the wandering sheep, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee; receive me like the prodigal son, and clothe me with the garment of innocence, of which I was deprived by sin. Have mercy upon Thy creatures and upon me, a manifold sinner."
Not all those concerned with the problems of the Church wrote strictly theological works about it. The 11th century fabulist Mkhitar Gosh, for example, wrote a fable about the owl and eagle, who decided to marry but were unhappy later because the bridegroom could not see by day and the bride could not see by night. This fable was intended as a warning against marriages between Christians and pagans, an important factor at this time of contact with the Muslims. Mkhitar Gosh also compiled a code of church law and civil law, which was followed by Armenians throughout the Diaspora.
During the Middle Ages, troubadours wandered among the people, singing of the bitter problems of foreign occupation as well as the beauty of various ladies. Some of the clergy composed verses in imitation of the troubadours' style, and it is common that priests were often, like Nerses and many others, poets as well.
By the seventeenth century, the Armenians who had left their native land were spread all over Europe. At Venice, a learned churchman named Mkhitar founded the Congregation of St. Lazarus, which was to become a great center of learning. Here the works of the great European authors were translated and theological treatises written; a printing press facilitated the publication of periodicals and important books. The Mkhitarists began another such center at a monastery in Vienna which also, influenced by the enlightened Europeans, produced linguists, historians, scientists and scholars of every kind.
In Russia, under the influence of the great Russian novelists and inflamed by the sufferings of their countrymen, Armenians began writing in the demotic, or popular, language rather than the classical which had been used up to this time. Khatchatur Abovian wrote a realistic novel called the wounds of Armenia describing the suffering of the Armenians under the Muslims, and his example was followed by Michael Nalbandjian, Raffi, and many others. These writers reminded the scattered Armenians of their basic roots and inspired great feeling among them; the work of Raffi was translated into six languages.
The suffering of Armenians in Turkey at this time was great. Daniel Varoujan and Adom Yarjanian, both of whom wrote about the trials of their countrymen, were deported and probably killed. And yet it was the Patriarch of Constantinople, Malachia Ormanian, who despite his harassment at the hands of the Turks was able to write the exhaustive Askabadoom, a three-volume history of the Armenian Church and nation, which is the definite work on that subject.
Armenian writers of various styles and genres can be found in every part of the world today. Some are nationalistic; some are so Europeanized that their Eastern background is almost unrecognizable; some, like William Saroyan, have achieved popularity. Perhaps those who will be remembered many years hence will be the ones who understand most completely that the body of Armenian Christian literature which preceded them came out of hardship and uncertainty, able to be borne because of the writer's faith and hope in God.