Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Birth of Ler Kamsar - October 24, 1888

Together with Nishan Beshigtashlian (1898-1972), Ler Kamsar (pseudonym of Aram Der Tovmaghian, wrongly recorded as Tovmasian) may be considered the worthy heir of Hagop Baronian and Yervant Odian in Armenian satirical literature after 1920. 

Ler Kamsar was born on October 24, 1888 in Van. His father was a priest. He received his elementary education in the local American school. He graduated from the Kevorkian Lyceum in Etchmiadzin (1909) and returned to Van, where he worked as an actor and then as a teacher in the school of the Holy Cross monastery of Aghtamar and the Yeramian School.

His first satirical piece appeared in the “Ashkhadank” newspaper of Van in 1909 that made him instantly famous. His literary pseudonym was born at this time. When he went to the editorial offices to deliver his writing, they asked him under what name they should publish it. As he was leaving, he nonchalantly said, “Krek ler kam sar” (write ler or sar).  Both words mean “mountain” in Armenian, and the editors turned the option “ler or sar” into Ler Kamsar.
In 1915 he participated in the self-defense of Van, during the days of the Armenian genocide. His home was one of the defense positions against Turkish attacks. After the evacuation of Van, he left for Yerevan, where he continued contributing to many newspapers of the Caucasus. Many of his writings had been lost on the road to exile. In 1918 he published a satirical piece on Lenin in the daily “Horizon” of Tiflis that became one of the causes for his disgrace during Soviet times. The piece was called “The Letter of Czar Nicholas to Ulyanov Lenin.”
After the sovietization of Armenia, Ler Kamsar was a regular contributor to the organ of the Armenian Communist party, “Khorhrdayin Hayastan.”  He published three works during this period: Apocryphal Deads (1924), National Alphabet (1926) and Wrongful Tears (1934).
In 1931, during the purge of kulaks (the so-called “bourgeois” of Soviet times), he was accused of being one, because he owned 40 beehives, from which he made no profit, yet paid 200 rubles in taxes. The persecution continued until 1935, when Ler Kamsar was arrested and incarcerated in Yerevan, charged of organizing an attempt to assassinate Stalin. A ludicrous trial followed and he was sentenced to three years of exile in Vorkuta, a coal-mining town just north of the Arctic Circle, and then seventeen years of internal exile in Armenia, in Basargechar (actual Vardenis), with no right to see his family or publish his writings.
He returned to Yerevan in 1955, after a general amnesty, and requested a review of his case by the Supreme Court of Armenia. The Court found him innocent. He noted bitterly, “A small error, but it is interesting they do not offer even a half-hearted apology for their enormous mistake, as elemental courtesy would require.” And he acerbically added: “What about those unfortunate people who learn of their innocence...after being shot?”
Twice his files were confiscated and destroyed by the KGB, and the flood of 1946 severely damaged his archives in Yerevan. Many of his works remained unpublished because they were unsuitable for the Soviet regime. He managed to publish one collection of articles in 1959 (Old People, 1959); another collection titled The Man in Home Clothes (1965) was censored because of one article. The resulting stress caused a heart attack that led to his death on November 22, 1965 in Yerevan. Some of his earlier works were published in two volumes in 1980 and 1988. With the independence of Armenia, more of his work is being published and his literary heritage is being reevaluated.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

First issue of the first Armenian newspaper, “Azdarar” - October 16, 1794

The small community of India, which was an offspring of the famous Armenian community of New Julfa (Nor Djugha), created in the early seventeenth century near Ispahan (Persia), went into history for two main reasons: the publication of the first draft of an Armenian Constitution (1773) and the birth of the first Armenian newspaper (1794).

Father Harutiun Shmavonian (1750-1824) was born in the city of Shiraz, in Persia. He studied at the local school and learned Armenian and Persian language and literature. Years later, he was sent to Madras, in India, to become the priest of the local church.

After long meditations and preparations, Shmavonian founded a print shop of his own in 1789, the second Armenian printing house in Madras. His publications reflected his interest in books which were able to satisfy the requirements of the Armenian communities. For instance, he published textbooks, such as Baghdasar Dpir’s Grammar of the Mother Language; the translation of Porphyry of Tyre’s Introduction to Categories, and David the Invincible’s Book of Definitions. His collaborator and friend, Fr. Samuel Ghaytmaziants, wrote later: “He always wished the common benefit and the flourishing of the nation; he left aside the care of his family and children, lived in foreign lands, and worked to this effect.”

Shmavonian decided to publish a monthly newspaper. The Armenian community was ripe for such a project. Despite its small size, Armenian intellectuals in Calcutta and Madras were in touch with British and French traders and officials, and read European publications. The publications of the Armenian printing house of Nor Nakhichevan, in the northern Caucasus, were regularly sold in Madras. He was also encouraged by Archbishop Yeprem, who had arrived in India as legate of the Catholicate of Etchmiadzin. 

Azdarar, unlike most of the press of the time, was not primarily coverage of commercial issues. The contents of the monthly were mostly cultural and historical. The print-run was 200 copies.

Many Armenian merchants wrote to the monthly from Madras, Calcutta, Basra, and as far as China and the Philippines. The publication printed news from Yerevan and Shushi, in Karabagh. Most of the articles were written in Classical Armenian (krapar), but some appeared in a mix of classical and vulgar language, which reflected the dialect of New Julfa.

Articles on political and patriotic issues were also included in the monthly, sometimes written by columnists who mostly signed with pseudonyms. 

Azdarar was published for eighteen months until it folded in March 1796 due to economic difficulties. Father Shmavonian continued his activities in community life. He was active as a book publisher until 1817. He passed away in 1824, submerged in poverty.
Father Harutiun Shmavonian’s tomb at the Holy Virgin Armenian Apostolic Church in Chennai (formerly Madras), India

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Battle of Tigranakert - October 6, 69 B.C.

During the reign of Tigran II the Great (95-55 B.C.), Armenia became an empire that extended from the Caspian Sea to Palestine. The Armenian king moved the capital of his reign from Artashat, in the plain of Ararat, to the newly built city of Tigranakert, in the region around the modern city of Diarbekir.
Mithridates VI Eupator (111-63 B.C.), King of Pontus (the area to the north of Armenia, on the shore of the Black Sea), had engaged in two wars against Rome. He was defeated for the third time in 71 B.C. by the Roman army, headed by Lucullus. Mithridates fled to Armenia and asked for asylum at the court of his son-in-law, Tigran. 
Tigran had managed to stay neutral in the war. Lucullus wanted to get Mithridates at any price and take him to Rome as a trophy and proof of his major victory. Hence he sent a delegation to the court of Tigran II and demanded the extradition of Mithradates. 
Tigran refused to comply with Roman demands, since Mithridates was his guest and it would have gone against the principles of hospitality to surrender him to the enemy. However, at the same time Tigran made it clear that he wished for continued peace and friendship between Rome and Armenia, and assured the delegates that he did not have any plans to expand westward, neither towards Asia Minor nor Pontus. 
War between Rome and Armenia was inevitable. Only the Roman Senate had the authority to declare it. But the Senate was doubtful, since the war against Pontus had been going on for eighteen years and Romans were afraid that history would repeat itself in Armenia. Besides that, Rome had regarded Armenia as a friendly major power who indirectly acted as an ally against their former enemy, the Seleucids of Syria, but also as a shield against their potentially greatest enemy, Persia. Therefore, Armenia had proven herself as a shield for the West.
With the Senate unable to decide whether to start a war against Armenia or not, Lucullus took matters into his own hands and begin preparations for war himself. Thus, he violated the laws of the Roman Republic which gave the Senate the exclusive right to make decisions on warfare and foreign policy. 
Shortly after receiving Tigran's response, Lucullus began to prepare his army, a task that took him the entire winter of 70-69 B.C.
The Roman general left a legion behind in Pontus in order to maintain the order and began to march towards Melitene (Malatia) with the rest of his army in the spring of 69 B.C. Without declaring war, Lucullus marched over the high land and crossed the Taurus Mountains before the Armenians had had a chance to set up a defensive position in the pass. The Roman army was able to go all the way to Arghana and then move on to finally surround Tigranakert. Tigran was completely surprised by the beginning of the war and by what he probably termed a treacherous attack. After the defeat of a cavalry army of 3,000 he sent to contain Lucullus, Tigran left Tigranakert and hurried to Mush to gather his forces. Meanwhile, the royal palace, highly-walled and well-defended, withstood the Roman siege.
Tigran marched his army from Mush through the Taurus Mountain towards Tigranakert and was able to cover the distance between the two cities, which lay 200 kilometers apart, within ten days. There are different accounts about the size of the two armies, but most claims by Roman historians that Tigran’s army had between 200,000-300,000 soldiers are definitely exaggerated. It may be assumed that Tigran’s army had around 80,000 men, which doubled the size of Lucullus’ army.
Lucullus left 6,000 of his men behind to continue the siege of Tigranakert, while he, together with the rest of his army, began to march towards the Armenian army. 
Mithridates had sent one of his best commanders, Taxiles, to Tigran's aid. He suggested that Tigran should refrain from a direct confrontation and let his light cavalry irritate Lucullus' army with sporadic attacks, thereby cutting off contact between the main forces and their supply and ammunition. This way he would starve Lucullus' army – a move that came to be the classical and successful strategy of the Persians. But Tigran, who had noticed the numerical inferiority of the Roman army, answered: "If these are supposed to be an army and are here to fight, then they are too few; if they are messengers to discuss peace, then they are too many."
Since the ground on the other side of the river, where Tigran had his camp, was too steep, Lucullus had chosen to move his army downstream and had taken position in a flat area by the side of the river. The Armenian king thought that the Romans were retreating. However, as soon as the Romans came to a suitable place further down by the river, they crossed it. The Armenian army, mostly composed by non-Armenian forces, had taken position on the opposite side of the river. Tigran was in the core and personally lead the famous heavily armored Armenian cavalry, which was positioned at the rear end of the right flank. This was a fatal mistake, since it exposed such a heavy-moving unit to a grave danger.
The skillful Lucullus realized that if he could take out the famous Armenian cavalry, then he would paralyze the entire Armenian force. Therefore he attacked the Armenian army from the side with his special cavalry and from the rear with two infantry legions. The Armenian infantry was made for attacking and not for defense. In order to regroup and to make more maneuvering space, the army forces started to rotate to the only side which was free from attack, i.e. to the left, where Tigran's other forces were positioned, and this resulted in total chaos in the entire Armenian army. This was the seed for a catastrophic defeat for Tigran.
The battle ended with the fall of Tigranakert shortly afterwards. The city was plundered and looted; Lucullus was able to capture the enormous treasures of the Armenian court, and also 10,000,000 cubic meters of wheat to provide his hungry army with food.
Despite the defeat, Tigran chose to continue the war and put together a new army; the harsh Armenian winter and the continuous attacks of the army finally triggered a mutiny in the Roman troops and forced Lucullus to withdraw from Armenia in 68 B.C. The Roman general was recalled by the Senate.