John Mamikonean's

History of Taron


Translator's Preface


Among Classical Armenian sources, the History of Taron attributed to the otherwise unknown Yovhannes (John) Mamikonean, is a peculiar work. The author of this medieval romance claims to have compiled it in 680-81 from shorter, earlier accounts written by the abbots of the monastery of Glak in the district of Taron (in southwestern historical Armenia, to the west of Lake Van). Actually, scholars are convinced that the work is an original composition of a later period (post-eighth century), written as a deliberate forgery.

The History of Taron, despite its name, is not a history. Rather, it is a relatively short "historical" romance in five parts, purporting to describe significant events occurring in the district of Taron during the Byzantine-Iranian wars when the shah of Iran was Xosrov II (590-628). During Xosrov's reign Taron was frequently invaded by the Iranians. The History describes the actions of five generations of Mamikoneans (Taron's princely house), in defending and avenging the district. Each section or cycle of the story is devoted to the exploits of one of the defenders: Mushegh, Vahan, Smbat, his son Vahan Kamsarakan, and the latter's son Tiran. The heroes are at times superhumanly brave or duplicitous, wise or cunning, humble or bombastic, humane or brutally merciless as the situation requires. Above all, they are the holy warriors of St. Karapet (their patron saint), and they zealously defend the monastery of Glak as well as all the churches and Christians in the district. Much of the narration describes battles fought and the cunning tactics used by the Taronites to defeat the invading Iranians.

Despite some recent, unsuccessful attempts to rehabilitate the History and to substantiate the author's seventh-century claims, there are compelling reasons for suspecting a later date. First, it is apparent that the author made use of a number of Armenian sources composed after the end of the seventh century. In addition to the works of P'awstos Buzand (fifth century) and Sebeos (seventh) from whom he drew inspiration, John Mamikonean was familiar with Movses Xorenac'i (eighth ?) and Ghewond (eighth), and wove into his History identifiable episodes from each. Second, the work contains chronological impossibilities; and few if any of the Mamikonean heroes are historically identifiable personages. Third, women in the society described by John Mamikonean apparently did not enjoy the right of church attendance along with men (see episode #1). This circumstance seems to place John in an era of strong Islamic influence (eighth to twelfth centuries)—though to my knowledge none of the authentic early Armenian historical sources makes any mention of the segregation of women in church in any period. The religion of the Mamikonean heroes also points to a late date. Theirs is a vengeful and fanatical Christianity of the borderlands, akin to the religion of the Islamic ghazzi warriors. Their prayers are addressed not to God or Christ directly, but to their patron saint, Karapet, who appears among them and literally fights their difficult battles.

John Mamikonean wrote in a pseudo-historical style, attempting to emulate P'awstos and Sebeos. He frequently provides purely imaginary figures of the combatants' troop strength and casualty figures. He provides homey—and incorrect—etymological information about the place names of Taron. There is, moreover, a marked tendency on his part to revel in the gory details of war's cruelties. To John, the enemy is barely human. He would have us believe that the Armenians are fighting the Zoroastrian Iranians, but John most likely was describing the invaders of his day, Arabs or even Saljuqs. The author's obsession with acts of vengeful brutality may provide a clue to the work's date. One senses that John Mamikonean wrote this romance as wish-fulfillment literature for the beleaguered Armenians of a difficult time.

Some scholars—having adjudged the work a medieval forgery, finding it neither historical nor particularly fine literature—dismiss the History of Taron as valueless. However, if this romance belongs to the ninth to twelfth centuries as we believe, then it would be profitable to analyze it in connection with other epics of the same period: the Byzantine Digenes Akrites, the Iranian Shahname, the Armenian David of Sasun, and the Turkish Danishmendname and Book of Dede Korkut. Admittedly, the History of Taron is a poor relation compared with these international classics. But in point of fact its composition may have preceded the others.

John Mamikonean was self-conscious about his work and was afraid that future scribes would try to change his composition or ridicule it. Thus he wrote in his concluding colophon: "When you make a copy of this, let nothing appear ridiculous to anyone. Instead, rewrite my exemplar fully and without deletions..." Today, many centuries later, despite changed literary tastes, John still has an audience, and with good reasons. First, the History of Taron remains the sole extant example of an original medieval romance in Armenian. Without a doubt there were others, though, regrettably, none has reached us. Most significant is the fact that the History of Taron contains a rare example of medieval Armenian folk poetry ("Beasts devoured..." see episode #3), another genre for which we possess few specimens. Yet the real reason John Mamikonean still has an audience is his ability to entertain.

The so-called "critical edition" of the Classical Armenian text of the History of Taron was published by Ashot Abrahamyan (Erevan, 1944), but because of its many errors has not won acceptance from scholars. Much preferred is the older Mxitarist edition [Yovhannu Mamikoneni episkoposi Patmut'iwn Taronoy (Venice, 1823, repr. 1889), from which the present translation was made in 1975. For additional bibliography see M. Abeghyan's Erker I (Erevan, 1966, repr. of 1936 ed.) pp. 188-89, 303-24 (in Armenian); K.V. Aivazian, Istoriia Tarona i armianskaia literatura IV-VII vekov (Erevan, 1976); and L. Ter-Petrosyan's "K voprosu o datirovke 'Istorii Tarona,'" in Banber Erevani Hamalsarani 3(1977) pp. 143-59. This translation uses a modification of the Hübschmann-Meillet-Benveniste transliteration for Armenian.

Robert Bedrosian
(New York, 1985)

A Note on Pagination



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