Complicated Communities in Medieval Armenia: Christians and Muslims in Conflict and Cohabitation.

London –  (09.06.2021) — Dr Sergio La Porta gave a fascinating and nuanced lecture entitled Complicated Communities in Medieval Armenia: Christians and Muslims in Conflict and Cohabitation.  This talk was organised virtually by the Diocese of the Armenian Church on 9th June and Armineh Pogosian introduced and moderated the lecture on behalf of the Church.

This talk was the sixth in a series of lectures about Armenian religious and cultural heritage in Artsakh sponsored by the Diocese in the United Kingdom, under the auspices of the Primate, His Grace Bishop Hovakim Manukyan.

Dr La Porta is the Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies and Interim Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at California State University, Fresno. He received his PhD in Armenian and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2001 where he wrote his thesis on Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i’s Book of Questions. In addition to publishing a study on Armenian commentaries on the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, he has written articles on medieval Armenian intellectual history and cultural interactions with the Islamicate, Byzantine, and Latinate worlds.

Dr La Porta introduced us to the concept of religious identity in a C12th Armenian milieu, with a focus on martyrological texts. In contemporary spheres it is often erroneously assumed that identity, and religious affiliations in particular, are ‘monolithic and fixed’. However, Dr La Porta relayed that ‘identities can be more fluid and contextual’, and that although there were indeed tensions between Muslims and Christians during this period, strategies were identified in order to ‘reassert a modus vivendi’. 

We were introduced to three narratives, all of which give great insight into violence, reparations and notions of identity between Muslims and Christians in C12th Armenia. The stories were of Grigor the Claviger, Hovsep of Dvin and Khosrov of Ganjak. 

The first text can be found in Vardan Arewelc‘i’s Universal Chronicle (1268 CE). There are standard tropes to be found in this tale: Grigor is the keeper of the keys to the Cathedral of Ani and the local Muslim leader, Fadlun, wishes to covet the treasures from the Cathedral and so has Grigor arrested. In the traditional narrative Grigor is freed because Fadlun has a terrible vision and he begs Grigor to pray for him. This has strong literary parallels with Grigor Lusavorich/Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of King Trdat to Christianity in the C4th and it is clear that the author is attempting to liken Grigor the Claviger to Grigor Lusavorich. 

With further examination this story is not as simple as at first glance. Grigor the Claviger is in fact arrested by a group of Turkmen, as it may be that he was proselytising among them, and Fadlun was not the main actor in his subsequent imprisonment. Here we are aware of a tension between different groups of Muslims as Fadlun is a local Kurdish leader and not one of the Turkmen. It also transpires that Fadlun’s grandmother and great grandmother were Armenian Bagratunis and that his younger brother had converted to Christianity. Fadlun, therefore, has a complex and versatile identity that means he can ‘negotiate with different constituents in a complicated society’.

The other two martyrologies are respectively about a Muslim who is dissatisfied with his faith and converts to Christianity, with mixed responses from both Muslims and Christians in society, and a Christian boy who is accused of impregnating a Muslim girl. All these stories illustrate how Muslim and Christian identities variagated during the C12th but what is common to all the martyrologies is that the transgressive acts of the martyr heal the rifts within society. 

After the lecture the audience asked many questions following the main presentation. At the conclusion, Armineh Pogosian thanked Dr Sergio La Porta for his most erudite and multifaceted talk. 

The recording of the talk is available via this link