The Khan and the Vardapet

The following passage, which comes from a 17th century work of Armenian history focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on happenings in the Safavid Empire, reveals some of the complexities of relations that could arise between the Armenian Orthodox minority and the majority Muslim populations in the Safavid and neighboring Ottoman polities. In this instance, an important early 17th century religious reformer, Vardapet Movsēs (a vardapet/վարդապետ is a type of teacher–scholar-clergyman in the Armenian Church, whose function, as in this case, might also shade towards preacher), forges a bond with the local Safavid governor, an Emir Gūna Khan. Movsēs would go on to build good relations with the Safavid shah himself, even as Movsēs found himself in bitter conflict with other members of his own church’s hierarchy.

In this story, excerpted from a much longer hagiographic account embedded in Aṛakʻel of Tabriz’s chronicle, we see Movsēs interacting with the khan and receiving him as a patron. This relationship allows Movsēs to pursue his goal of renewing the Armenian Church in the border region around Erevan (modern-day Yerevan, Armenia), a work of renewal and reform that simultaneously seems to have won him renown as a living saint and enemies threatened by his upsetting of the church’s status quo. What was ‘in it’ for the khan? Perhaps he saw in Movsēs saintly practice and power- many of the vardapet’s ascetic and devotional practices would have been quite familiar to an early modern Muslim as marks of sainthood, and so carried an ecumenical ‘charge.’ The khan probably also hoped that Movsēs’ work would help to stabilize the Armenian community and encourage its growth, especially since the region had long been contested between Ottomans and Safavids, the resulting warfare hardly being good for what we would now call ‘infrastructural’ development. At any rate, the vardapet and the khan’s mutualistic bonds point towards the dynamic range of relations- positive and negative and neutral- early modern Armenian Christians and Ottoman and Safavid Muslims could have with one another, something that is easily forgotten in the shadow of the tragedies of the modern period that would devastate Armenian communities in the region.

The Scribe Petros and his Pupils, 1386
The scribe Petros and a pupil, offering a good example of the sort of clothing an Armenian vardapet might have worn in the late medieval or early modern period. From a Gospel book completed in 1386 in the Lake Van region (J. Paul Getty Collection, Ms. Ludwig II 6, fol. 13v).

The prince and ruler of the city of Erevan and the Ararat province at that time was the great and mighty governor, Emir Gūna Khan, who somewhat accidentally met Vardapet Movsēs. The khan asked about him from the Christians who stood before him, who replied that who he was and where he came from. It so happened that the khan met the vardapet once again and, during their meeting and conversation, the khan was pleased with the vardapet, for God’s kindness made his servant appear agreeable in the eyes of the ruler. The khan did not let Movsēs go to the Western provinces [ie the Ottoman Empire] but kept him in the city of Erevan. Day after day the khan came, witnessed the liturgy and other church ceremonies, conversed with him about knowledge and religion, and listened to the vardapet’s replies, which were polite, pleasant, and bearing God’s graces. The khan grew fond of him because of his pious lifestyle; that is why he kept him in the city of Erevan. The vardapet stayed three years in the Kat’ohike church.

From olden days in the northern part of the city of Erevan, among the vineyards, stood a beautiful chapel, built on the grave of the holy apostle Anania. It was in ruins and uninhabited. The khan told the vardapet, ‘Do you see this church, which stands uninhabited? Pay heed to me and do not go to another province. Make it your home, settle here, so that we can be near and comfort each other.’ All the parishioners, citizens and merchants, begged and asked the vardapet to do the same. Their words pleased the saintly vardapet, and he undertook to build that place through the income and with the help of local Christians and merchants, who, because of their love for the vardapet, willingly gave alms for the construction, so that the vardapet would reside among them. That is why the surrounding fence, cells, chapel, sacerdotal, and other structures were quickly built, When all the construction was completed, the vardapet, together with his fellow monks, settled there and established the order and regulations practiced in the Great Hermitage. Many monks, hermits, and men who wished to study the scriptures and who were wise and led a saintly life, gathered there. They lived together, young and old, happily, based in cells, praying continuously and reading holy books.

His fame and truthful sermons, as well as word of his pleasant disposition spread to all the lands in Rum, Kurdistan, Georgia, and Persia, for merchants from all lands came there [to Erevan], met him, and spread the word.

Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy)  Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 217-218.

For as the Drunkard But Thirsts the More

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.

*

5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

They are Able to Garner the Words of Scripture into Their Hearts’ Store

His jaws, like dishes of incense, emit a fragrance of processed ointments. (Song of Songs 5:13, Armenian version)

This indicates the meticulous, deeply ruminated words of the teaching of vardapets [scholars and teachers of the Armenian Church]. They are guides of the Church, who by the continual, unwearied motion of their jaws sweeten the minds and thoughts of humanity with sweet, processed ointments. The things collected in pure hearts, as in a dish, they spread out before people, neither obscuring the incomprehensible things in great profundity, nor making the mysteries of God too plainly obvious. Instead, they dispense the knowledge of Scripture at an intermediate level of instruction, so that it may neither be despised as something negligible, by being too easily acquired, nor cause despair among those who desire to learn, by its unintelligibility. Rather, with a modest effort, they are able to garner the words of Scripture into their hearts’ store. As animals which graze and ruminate and regurgitate their food, so also do vardapets bring up again the words of the Holy Spirit gathered in their hearts. Regurgitating and ruminating on them, chewing them fine by the unwearying motion of their jaws, they dispense from their mouth the enlightenment of the sacred Scriptures, like processed ointment, into the minds of humanity.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 154-5.

A Kind of Hurt in His Spirit

Song of Solomon 5.6: I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word.*

‘See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of his knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that knowledge which I had received when I opened.

‘For that reason she says, my Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen that He at once withdrew, swift as the lightening. And my soul went out with his word; that is, “having obtained a small glimmering of his words my soul left me and pursed His words.” To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had attained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

‘I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: “Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain.” By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person who yearns after the meaning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.’

St. Gregory of Narek, Commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007)

* Note: you will notice even from this excerpt that St. Gregory’s text is somewhat different from either the Septuagint or Masoretic recensions; in lieu of ‘beloved’ this Armenian recension has ‘nephew,’ among other differences.