Ghazar P'arpec'i

Ghazar P'arpec'i
by Karekin Zarbanalian

Ghazar P’arpec’i flourished at the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century. It was a miserable period, after the dissolution of the Arsacid throne, when Armenia was under the political rule of the marzbans. Discord had started to rear its ugly head among the nakharars, putting the country in danger of destruction: “One could see [at the time],” says Ghazar, “goodness having left [the land of Armenia], wisdom lost, bravery dead and gone, and Christianity concealed.”

            As a boy, Ghazar condemned secular glory and grandeur, choosing to don the unpretentious habit of a monk rather than princely garb, which was not an unusual choice at that time. He already had the admirable example of his wise and saintly teacher, Aghan Artrsuni, who also looked up to the beloved great Mesrop Mashtots, who, “leaving behind worldly honors, sought the monastery”. “With a tunic,” says Ghazar [of Aghan], “he separated me from secular servitude, which became a great opportunity for salvation.”

            While we lack direct information about Ghazar’s date of birth, he says he was raised with Vahan Mamikonian, adding that he himself was slightly older, which we should take to mean that there was only a small difference in age between them.

            Ghazar appears to have been of noble stock, because in his letter to Vahan Mamikonian, he boasts—“you came in search of me, and finding me in that land [Syunik], you took me home, not as a pauper, not as a stranger, and not as some servant.” As a lad, Ghazar received his primary education from the Georgian bidaxš Ashusha, who was married to Vahan’s aunt (his father’s sister) Anush-Vram, as Ghazar recalls in his letter to Vahan: “in Ashusha’s court, your blessed mother and Anush-Vram devotedly raised me with you in the same way that they raised you.” And Ghazar, as a close friend of Vahan’s, used to carry his clothes while they played. From this, we may suppose that Ghazar was from a related azg to the noble line of the Mamikonian nakharars. And the reason he was called P’arpec’i (based on his birthplace in P’arpi village) was to distinguish him from others who shared his name (although some modern philologists have proposed other reasons for that naming as well).

            Having become Aghan’s student, as we mentioned, and after a long period of study, Ghazar went to Greece, where, as a student of Greek letters and wisdom, he dedicated himself above all to rhetoric. Returning to his homeland, he stayed with the head of the Kamsarakans, a relative of the Mamikonians.


            The times were sad and bitter. Being an eyewitness to the various miseries that had befallen Armenia, and being unable to tolerate them, Ghazar went to Syunik and stayed there for two years: “Wintering,” in his own words, “in a cave with a man named Moses, who was well-known among the inhabitants of the province for his monasticism. But the space was narrow, and in the summer, because of the heat, the chief-priest of the land, Lord Mushé took me with him to a cool place.”

            When Vahan was appointed marzban by Balash, and Armenia found some temporary peace, Vahan undertook to reform the country. And after building and restoring various martyr shrines, churches, and monasteries, and renovating the cathedral of Etchmiadzin at great cost, he went to Syunik to look for his old friend Ghazar. Ghazar had been with Vahan’s brother Vard, and others, including (former) Catholicos Giwt’s nephew, Hovhan Mandakuni, who at the time held the Catholicosal throne. When word reached Syunik about the rebuilding of Etchmiadzin, they wondered whom to put in charge of the monastery there.

            P’arpeci says, in his letter to Ghazar, that he was found weak-minded by accepting his appointment as prior of the monastery: “I did not take heed of the plot at the time; I should have swiftly fallen to your feet in tears and begged to be set free of the intendency of your place [i.e., monastery]. But at last I was delivered from the poisonous fangs of the brutes, who thereafter secretly laid traps and in their countless multitude and extreme wealth bought many whetstones, and sharpened their swords as they had sharpened their tongues, with poison beneath their lips, and who then aspired to obstruct my path and afflict me to death.”

            Yet P'arpec’i proved himself worthy of the marzban’s trust, for in a short time, he brought great reform and splendor to that monastery. People came to study there from all corners of Armenia, and those who were already educated came to lead [i.e., instruct]. Even the philomathic and pious princes at the time, Vahan’s brothers, Nerseh and Hrahat Kamsarakan, Hamazasp Mamikonean, Vahan’s nephews, and Gazrik, lord of the Abegheank, did not hesitate to provide assistance.

            The good keeping of his monastery further stirred up the envy of the monks against Ghazar; they exercised all their efforts to try and knock him down and tarnish his good name.

            P'arpec’i was disturbed, and he did not know how to put an end to the unhinged mouths that spoke against him. Speaking with his adversaries and appeasing them seemed like a futile endeavor. They harbored so much hatred toward him that P'arpec’i, with all his knowledge and holiness, would not have been able to prove his innocence.

            So he decided to turn to (the chief-priest) Hovhan Mandakuni and to request, in the midst of his troubles, the help he needed. He sent a sepuh from a noble family to the chief-priest, and full of pain and distress, he described his situation: “Hurry, come and help; I have been struck by many arrows; I am mortally wounded and death is upon me; you must prescribe me the cure and heal me; and, if I should die, you must take me to the cemetery and bury me.” But the chief priest, with an unfathomable infirmity, did not even want to see him, let alone to listen to him and serve justice: “I am not even able to come and see you out of fear; You say I should come and cure you, or else bury you; but if someone find out they may bury me with you!”

            When Ghazar’s enemies saw that he had been ignored, they no longer feared. They cruelly drove him away from the monastery, seized all his belongings, and did not even let him keep in his possession the Greek books that were there. He says: “they became food for worms. But by reading those books would those who live there [have even been able to] become enlightened, or enlighten others?”

            Broken-hearted and hopeless, he left the monastery and went to Amida, whence he wrote a letter to Vahan Mamikonean justifying himself, and had it delivered by Hamazasp Mamikonian. In it, he takes stock of all the accusations that were levelled against him, eloquently responding to each one. And, his innocence prevailing, he turns to scolding the unruly conduct and nescience of his slanderers.

            It seems that this letter had its intended influence upon Vahan, who at once called for Ghazar; and it seems likely that it was at this point that Vahan proposed that Ghazar compose his History of the Armenians.



Ghazar P'arpec'i's History of the Armenians
(Translated by Robert Bedrosian)

The Subject of Ghazar P'arpec’i’s History of the Armenians. At the beginning of his History, P'arpec’i cites the historians who preceded him and takes legitimate stock of their contributions. These historians are Agathangelos and P’awstos Buzand, and he sees his History as a continuation of theirs, having been induced to write it by the demands of princes and the words of his holy teachers:

“Compelled by the command of princes and the words of the blessed vardapets we committed ourselves to this important task, not daring to refuse. [For we] recalled the threatening of the disobedient children in the Holy Bible, and that the obedient and acquiescent are forgiven. One by one we arranged the events, deeds and diverse occurrences taking place in the land of Armenia[, such as] the division [of Armenia between] two kingdoms. In the sector falling to the infidel [Iranians] were brave men from the line of the Armenian naxarars, countless numbers of whom gave their lives in martyrdom for the covenant of the holy church, while others withstood shackles and prison for a long time out of divine expectation. [We describe] the beheading of God’s chosen priests and upright shepherds who shed their blood for the chosen rational flock of Christ; and those comrades of the naxarars and other azats who turned their backs on the covenant of holiness becoming tinder for the inextinguishable eternal fire which is awaiting Satan and his satellites. We wrote about all the events until the start of the marzpanate of Armenia of Vahan, lord of the Mamikoneans, the great general and marzpan of Armenia. Our history ends there.”

          This is the subject of Ghazar P'arpec’i's History of the Armenians, which he prefaces by explaining how the worthy historian Agathangelos narrated the astonishing event of Armenia’s turning toward God, and the history of its main figurehead, St Gregory the Illuminator. But after him, he says, when political changes in Armenia brought about all sorts of confusion, ignorant and audacious people composed frivolous and improper writings, and mixed them into the writings of knowledgeable and wise persons. It is as a caution against this absurd state of affairs that Vahan Mamkonian presses P'arpec’i to write about contemporary events. Ghazar considers even the work of P’awstos Buzand to have been subjected to these unfortunate circumstances, as discussed in the previous article.

            Ghazar begins his History proper with the division of the Arsacid kingdom, when political transformation subjected western Armenia to Byzantine sovereignty, and the eastern part to the Iranian king. At around that time, the Armenian nakharars in the Iranian sphere asked the king to install an Arsacid vassal over the country. Shapur fulfilled their wishes and installed Khosrov king, because before that, Arshak [III], seeing the disunity of the Armenians, and fearing that this would terminate in the destruction of the whole land, had left Ayrarat province in the hands of the Persians in the interest of lasting peace. Here (Chapter 7), P'arpec’i praises the province of Ayrarat, which can be considered one of the most excellent parts of his narration.

            After some time, some of the Armenian nakharars turned hostile toward their king and complained to the Iranian king that he be not fooled by Khosrov’s false friendship, for his sole motivation was to harmonize with the Byzantine king. Shapur listened to their accusations, then summoned Khosrov and punished him. He then agreed to appoint another king chosen by the nakharars, and enthroned Vramshapuh.

            Vramshapuh’s reign can be treated as a special chapter in Armenian history, which is why Ghazar abundantly relates all the good deeds of our nation throughout his reign with the assistance of Patriarch Sahak and Mesrop vardapet. But after Bahram’s death, his brother, Yazdegerd, became king of Iran, and did not want an Arsacid to become king of Armenia. Thus, he sent his son Shapur [IV] to reign over Armenia. But the Armenians were dissatisfied with his authority and had him replaced with Khosrov [IV’s] nephew (Vramshapuh’s son), Artashes [IV], during the reign of Yazdegerd’s son Bahram [V].

            Artashes became hated by everyone because of his unworthy conduct, and the nakharars thought to have him deposed by the very hand that helped him to power. They tried to recruit St. Sahak to partake in this effort. That godly man did not consent, despite finding their protest to be just on account of the king’s unworthy conduct. But on that occasion, he addressed them in a fine talk, included by Ghazar (Vol 1, pp. 65-72). But the nakharars did not listen, and betrayed the king…

            With this event began Armenia’s misery. And when the nakharars regretted their mindless undertaking, they hurried to St. Sahak so that he might find a cure for that calamity with his God-given wisdom; and though they wanted him to ascend the patriarchal throne again, Sahak did not consent. Instead, with teary eyes, he told them about his vision to make them understand how they themselves—albeit with divine permission—lost their power and hastened their destruction. Shortly afterwards, Sahak and Mesrop passed away, following which the nakharars fell into further disunity, falling out with each other and trying to seize power from each other’s hands. Chief among those was Varazvaghan, who, seeing his son-in-law Vasak’s rise to power, apostatized and began to make accusations against him, wanting to take his place, and promising that if he were granted his position, he, too, would be much obliged to the Iranians, and convert all of Armenia to their religion.

            This promise brought great happiness to Mihrnerseh, who was Yazdegerd [II]’s highest ranking official: He began exhorting the king to spread his dominion by increasing the sphere of his religion rather than using military force. He wrote a letter on behalf of the king to the Armenians to renounce their religion and to accept the faith avowed by the Iranian king. When the Armenians did not consent, the king invited the leading nakharars to his court and condemned them to the darkness of his prisons, to force them to obey his command. Then, when some of them openly, and others privately, accepted the Iranian religion, the king sent them back to Armenia with great honors.

           It is here that Ghazar relates the astonishing history of Vartanantz (the martyrdom of the St. Vartan and his companions), which Yeghishe had already penned before him. From there, he reviews the history of the Ghevontiants (the martyrdom of the priests, St. Ghevond and his companions) – basically in the manner of Yeghishe, but in more pithy style – until the death of Yazdegerd and the conversion of the nakharars.

           Then Ghazar goes beyond this (Volume II), continuing from the days of Catholicos Giwt, describing how his enemies slandered him at the Iranian court, and how he went there and justified himself. The Iranian king did not want to put him back on the patriarchal throne, but bestowed him with honors. And Giwt returned after remaining a long time in the Iranian court.

            It was at this time that Vahan Mamkonian began to shine. Gadisho Makhaz and a few of the apostate nakharars became envious of him, and wanting to oust him from power, they accused him of being a rebel, and said that Iran could not remain safe from rebellion as long as he was in power.

            Vahan went to Iran to try to exculpate himself, and seeing that he would not be able to silence their envy and that it would be impossible for him to find peace, he lost faith. Thus did he become famous in Armenia. There, repenting for his apostasy, he united the faithful nakharars and waged war on Iran. And after thoroughly defeating them several times, he agreed to a truce with them. He liberated Armenia, rescued its religion, and was honored with great glory. Thus was he justly chosen the lord of the Mamikonian clan, sparapet of Armenia and marzban.

            The Armenians were astonished at this miraculous and unexpected change, and were delighted with their worthy vardapet Hovhan Mandakuni, who delivered the good news of the country’s freedom to his faithful and exhorted them to give thanks to God.

            It is with that eloquent oration that P’arpec’i concludes his History.

            The sources of P’arpec’i’s History. — At the beginning of his History, P’arpec’i cites two historians who preceded him, as mentioned: Agathangelos and P’awstos Buzand. Here and there he also mentions Koriwn. Thus, philologists and literary critics supposed that the works of two of his primary contemporaries—Yeghishe and Khorenatsi—were unknown to him, or that, for whatever reason, he had not come across their works. New works of philology and comparative literature (and especially the work of Krikor Khalatian), do not comport with this view. They demonstrate with examples that Ghazar was not only familiar with Agathangelos, Buzand, and Koriwn, but also with Khorenatsi and Yeghishe. Thus, P’arpec’i’s sources are distinguished by two types: First, those whom he referenced by name; and second, of greater importance than those and for reasons unknown to us, are those whom he did not mention.

            From Agathangelos, Ghazar captured information about St. Gregory the Illuminator’s vision, as well as another long excerpt from him from the vision of the Illuminator, which P’arpec’i adapts to the war of Vartanantz when making a comparison between the faithful and apostate nakharars. From Buzand, Ghazar borrows St. Nerses’ detestation of King Arshak, and the capture of the Armenian throne by the Arsacid clan. And from Koriwn’s biographical work, he borrows information pertaining to Mesrop’s life, the discovery of the alphabet and what was written about St. Sahak’s death.

            But according to recent literary critics, more important sources than these have been Khorenatsi and Yeghishe. From the former he has borrowed information about the intervening period of 62 years between the end of P’awstos’ history until the death of Sts. Sahak and Mesrop. And Yeghishe is P’arpec’i’s only source about the Vartanantz war (although he sometimes diverges from Yeghishe, and perhaps not without good reason). But Yeghishe, as a contemporary historian and eyewitness of the events he was describing, is a trustworthy historian.

            As for P’arpec’i’s literary value, he is not unworthy of his old epithet of “orator”: He possessed a vigorous style with powerful explanations, an acute vision, and he used his pen to hit back against those who unjustly slandered him. And his elegant Armenian, while worthy of being from the century of the school of the Holy Translators, at times lapses into vulgate. However, this is also very useful for those of us, in later generations, who wish to understand how Armenian was spoken at the time.

Lecture by Dr. Jesse Arlen on Ghazar P'arpec'i's History at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary: