Mkhitar (Mxit'ar) Gosh was a major intellectual figure in Armenian life of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. At the time of his death in 1213, he had authored more than a dozen works, including the codification of Armenian law (the Armenian Law Book), the Fables, a number of prayers, sermons and theological works, and a short chronicle; he twice had received the title of doctor of the Church (vardapet); had served as confidant and advisor to many of the most important Armenian princes of the day; and as a teacher had inspired a generation of students, many of whom became prominent theologians and historians of 13th century Armenia. Biographical information about Gosh is found in the History of the Armenians written by Kirakos of Gandzak (d. 1270/71), and in the colophon or postscript of Mkhitar's own Law Book. Beyond the historical facts, it is possible to learn even more about this man, especially about his worldview, from the morals advanced in the Fables.
According to Kirakos of Gandzak, Mkhitar was born in the city of Gandzak (modern Kirovabad) in Azerbaijan. No birth date is provided by Kirakos, but judging from the fact that he was said to have died in deep old age in 1213, scholars have placed Mkhitar's birth between 1130 and 1140. He received his early education in his hometown, which was a center of Armenian population, though under Muslim control. In his early teens, Mkhitar was ordained a celibate priest and began his scholarly studies with the learned vardapet Hovhannes Tavushets'i It was from this teacher that Mkhitar himself earned the degree of vardapet. But still his restless mind was not satisfied. He decided to go to the Armenian monastic community located on Black Mountain in Cilicia. How long Mkhitar remained there is not known, but it must have been several years, since he was awarded the degree of vardapet there as well. According to Kirakos of Gandzak, the modest Mkhitar never revealed to his Cilician teachers that he was already a vardapet when he came to them. Leaving Cilicia, Gosh travelled north to the city of Erzerum where he was befriended by Prince Kurd Artsruni who had been exiled by the king of Georgia. This wealthy prince later was to become one of Mkhitar's influential patrons. Mkhitar returned to Gandzak and remained there a few years, teaching and writing. But eventually he left that city because of persecution by envious clerics. Gosh went to the district of Khachen in eastern Armenia where he enjoyed the hospitality of Prince Vakhtank and his brothers for several years.
Around 1184, Mkhitar learned that his friend and patron, Prince Kurd, had been reinstated in his holdings in the district of Kayen in northeastern Armenia, and he went to him. Gosh remained there at the monastery of Getik until it was destroyed by an earthquake some years later. However, Mkhitar built a new monastery called Nor Getik (also Goshavank) with the assistance of his prominent supporters: General Ivane Zakarian, the princes of Khachen and the Artsrunis. Mkhitar was an ascetic and lived some distance from the monastery in a secluded retreat. Little is known about the details of his remaining years. In 1196 or 1198 he went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. In 1205 and 1207 he participated as the senior vardapet in the assemblies called by the commander-in-chief of the Armeno-Georgian armies, Zakare Zakarian, whose father-confessor Mkhitar was. Both Gosh and Zakare died in 1213.
The era of Mkhitar Gosh was one of great promise for the political aspirations of the Armenian people. A demographic map of the Middle East for the 12th and early 13th centuries would show Armenian communities in a variety of locations. Important centers of Armenian life included the independent Christian states of Georgia in the Caucasus and Cilician Armenia on the Mediterranean. Between these two poles stretched a belt of Armenian communities enjoying varying degrees of political and cultural autonomy. For example, the three major Seljuk states of central and eastern Asia Minor (the Danishmendid state of Sebastia/Sivas; the Sultanate of Rum; and the state of the Shah-Armens at Khlat) all had important communities of Armenian Christians. Furthermore, Armenian conversion to Islam—be it forcible or voluntary—was a feature of life in the 11th and 12th centuries. Consequently some of the Seljuk states had populations in which ethnic Armenians (Christian and Muslim) were majorities or large minorities. This circumstance is attested to in Seljuk epic literature, coinage and architecture. With the passage of time, an Armeno-Turkish community came into existence through intermarriage, such that by the 13th century there were few Seljuk sultans of eastern Asia Minor lacking an Armenian, Georgian or Greek parent or grandparent.
In addition to Armenians living under foreign domination, there were a few areas in historical Armenia which enjoyed independence or semi-autonomy. For the most part this was due to their inaccessible locations. Such areas included mountainous districts in southern, southwestern, northern and northeastern historical Armenia. With the transformation of Georgia into a major military power in the 12th century, the political situation for Armenians in the Caucasus improved decisively. Under the competent leadership of two Armenian generals, the brothers Ivane and Zakare Zakarian, the Georgian army swelled with Armenian volunteers and surged southward, recapturing from the Turks all of what is today Soviet Armenia as well as parts of Azerbaijan and parts of central and southern historical Armenia.
The late 12th and early 13th centuries are considered a time when three societies—Georgia, Rum, and Cilician Armenia—were at the pinnacles of their development. A situation of military balance obtained, and with it came increased opportunities for trade among the three, and with the Crusaders, the Italian city-states and the East. Revenues from trade fueled a renaissance of building activity from Cilicia throughout Asia Minor and the Caucasus, as wealthy merchants erected religious edifices and patronized the arts. This was a period of cultural interaction and dynamism, when Muslims and Christians of the area borrowed from each other, and even intermarried. This heterodox milieu was later to nourish mystical Sufism. The Middle East then embraced Armenians living under Muslim domination, as well as Muslims living under Armenian domination. The late 12th-early 13th centuries was a period of restoration and expansion of Armenian political rule and of the strengthening and further development of Armenian culture. During this period in monasteries from Cilicia through central historical Armenia to the Zakarid lands in the northeast, thousands of clerics were copying the old Armenian histories, illuminating manuscripts of the Bible, and forging ahead with original historical and theological works, and translations.
Such was Gosh's world. His travels introduced him to many of the Armenian communities in the Middle East. His years of study in a variety of locales acquainted him with the ideas of the greatest theologians. His years as a teacher produced a generation of competent intellectuals for many far-flung Armenian communities. In addition, Gosh was a most valued advisor to the successful general Zakare Zakarian, and shared the latter's dream of reuniting the Armenians and Georgians doctrinally. Gosh also tried to resist Armenian assimilation by Muslims, including the tendency of Armenian Christians to seek redress of grievances from Muslim judges, following Muslim conventions. Gosh was asked by a prince of eastern Armenia to compile a set of legal guidelines (the monumental Armenian Law Book) which was subsequently used by the Armenians of Cilicia, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.
To some extent the Fables are a popular version of the concepts expressed in Gosh's Armenian Law Book. Mkhitar Gosh, twice a doctor of the Armenian Church, stood for order. The world of his fables reflected his real world. Whether he is describing plants or planets, animals, birds, fish or insects, he really is describing the world of his day. In addition to admonishing the poor and weak to obey the rich and strong, he is telling Armenian Christians how to behave under Muslim domination, he is condemning mixed marriages and conversion to Islam. With endless variation the Fables stress the fact that one's essential nature cannot be altered, and that to attempt this not only courts ridicule, but disaster. In Gosh's ideal world the servant obeys the master, the master obeys the king, and the king is a pious, honorable Christian sincerely interested in the well-being of his subjects. The Fables describe the consequences of any of these components not performing properly, as well as what may happen when rebels attempt to alter the foreordained order.
During the summer of 1978 I translated Gosh's Fables from the classical Armenian text of Venice (1854), the Pivazyan edition (Erevan, 1951) not being available. I published a selection of fourteen of the Fables in issue #83 of the magazine Ararat (1980) with a brief introduction. The present volume evolved from the interest of Elise Antreassian who took my literal translation and turned it into readable English. She also edited many of Gosh's lengthy allegorical explanations, making his point more direct to a modern reader.
Mkhitar Gosh, who made an impact on his own and subsequent eras was a product of his times. He was a medieval cleric, and not a social revolutionary. Still many of the morals he propounds remain interesting and relevant, though some might startle the modern reader. We would do well to recall what Gosh says as he concludes his tales: "If the fables are agreeable to some, thank the Lord. Otherwise, out of love for Him forgive us."
New York, 1987
A version of this work was
published by Ashod Press as The Fables of Mkhitar Gosh
(New York, 1987), translated with an introduction by R.
Bedrosian, edited by Elise Antreassian and illustrated by Anahid
Janjigian. The present version, which is a literal
rather than a literary translation, retains the original introduction
and adds a new index.
New York, 2002
Index to the Fables
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