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On the Chinese Origin of the Mamikonian Clan


The Mamikonian name is among the most beloved in Armenian history, due largely to the heroic role of its 5th century leader, Vartan, as the Armenian general in the Battle of Avarayr. Yet the Mamikonians were also the most powerful princely family in Armenian affairs for many centuries, rivaling even the king in influence. So it often comes as a surprise to people when they hear the theory of the Chinese origin of the Mamikonians—an idea that comes down to us in two varieties from the Classical Armenian sources themselves:

The first variety is recorded in Pavstos Buzand's History of the Armenians, when Manuel, a Mamikonian himself, mentions the Chinese origin of his clan in a letter to king Varazdat before their battle:

Then the sparapet of Armenia, Manuel, sent a letter to king Varazdat, saying:
"All the labors our azg [clan] had performed from the time of our ancestors in ancient times onward were loyally done for you Arsacids [Arshakunis]. We gave our lives, living and dying for you. All of our first ancestors fell in battle for you. Mushegh’s father, Vasak, died in battle for king Arshak, and we have always labored and worked for the kingdom of your azg [line]. Instead of giving rewards in exchange for their labor, you Arsacids destroyed those [Mamikoneans, who were] not killed by the enemies. Now that brave man Mushegh, my brother, from his childhood onward labored with his life for you. He defeated and destroyed your enemies, and the enemies were unable to kill him. But you seized him on his couch and strangled him. In fact, you are not even an Arsacid, but a bastard. Therefore, you do not recognize those who labor for the Arsacids. We are not your servants but your peers, and we are above you. For our ancestors were kings of the land of Chenk’. Because of a quarrel among brothers, [to avoid] bloodshed, we left that [land] and to find rest we stopped here [in Armenia]. The first Arsacid kings knew who we were and where we came from. But you, since you are not an Arsacid, begone from this land and do not perish at my hands."
King Varazdat  sent a reply to general Manuel, saying:
"If I am not an Arsacid, how did I put on the crown of my Arsacid ancestors, or take the land of my forbears or seek vengeance for my uncle [father’s brother] Pap from your evil-doing brother Mushegh? Since as you yourself said, you are not from this land, but from the country of the Chenac’ land (where you were kings naturally) and since you came here as exiles, do not die as your brother did. Because of my benevolence I am releasing you. Go to the Chenac’ country, stay there, and rule your country there as king. But if you do not want to go, you will die by my hand, just as Mushegh died."

P'awstos Buzand's History of the Armenians (Volume 1)

The second variety of the Mamikonian legend appears in the Primary History of Armenia (previously attributed to the Armenian historian Sebeos and included as an appendix to his History), which concludes with the following chapter on the origin of the Mamikonians:

For they [the Mamikoneans] are not sons of the progenitor, Aramenak; rather, they came from Chenastan in the days of Artavan, king of the Persians, and Xosrov the Great, king of the Armenians. Such is what I heard from a great man who came as an emissary from the king of the Chenk’ to King Xosrov. At the royal court I asked him: “There is a great clan in the country of Armenia which, they say, were emigrants from your land.” And he replied to me: “In their songs, the minstrels of our country mention Mamik and Konak as two brave and prominent blood brothers, sons of the lord Kar’nam, who was second in the kingdom of Chenastan. After the death of this man, their king took his wife as his own wife; and he had a son from her. Now [this son], after the death of his father, succeeded in sitting on the throne of his patrimonial kingdom. And they [Mamik and Konak], his two brothers from the same mother but not the same father, rebelled and withdrew from him. Uniting with themselves a part of the lords and the troops, they made an oath of alliance and devised a wicked plan, to kill their brother, Chenbakur, king of the land, and take over his kingdom. Mamik and Konak massed troops against him at one place in their land, and the troops of the land were divided in two. News of this reached Chenbakur, who also assembled the troops in his area, and went against them in war. They attacked each other, putting swords to work, and [Chenbakur] destroyed the rebellious troops. Fleeing, Mamik and Konak went to the Arshakuni king who sat in Bahl Shahastan in the country of the Kushans. And there was peace between those two kingdoms.

At that point, with great entreaties, Chenbakur sought them from the king of the Parthians, [saying]:

“Get rid of them. Otherwise, the oath of peace between us will be dissolved.” However, [the Parthian king] protected the men and did not hand them over. Instead, he wrote affectionately [to Chenbakur]: “May the oath of peace existing between us solidly endure, for I swore to them that they would not be killed. But I had them taken [to the West] to the edge of the earth, where the sun goes [home] to its mother.”

Then the king of the Parthians ordered his troops to take [Mamik and Konak] with great precaution, and with their women and children and all their household to the country of the Armenians, to his relation the Arshakuni king, who was king of the country of Armenia. There they multiplied greatly and became a great clan [deriving] from Mamik and Konak. The sparapet comes from them.”

Sebeos' History (Volume I)

These are considered to be among the two earliest surviving sources on the origin of the Mamikonian clan, which, despite their differences and legendary style, link the Mamikonian clan to China. Whether these legends are true or not is another matter, and has long been a topic of scholarship... For a summary of this scholarship, along with additional references to China in Armenian literature, see Robert Bedroian's important study, China and the Chinese according to 5-13th Century Classical Armenian Sources.