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Constructions of Armenian Identity in the Early Medieval Period

Pre-modern identities are situational, specific to the time and the context in which they are constructed and deployed. They are also oppositional, constructed in response to surrounding communities. The ‘other’ takes many different forms but when it loses its ‘otherness’ the identity begins to collapse. In Late Antiquity, Armenianness was constructed in terms of an imagined community of Christians and devised in opposition to an impious, ‘ash-worshipping’ Persian shahanshah and his empire of Eran. This was depicted by Ełišē but continued to hold meaning into the ninth century. T‘ovma Arcruni based his descriptions of the caliph Ja‘far al-Mutawakkil and the Sajid emir Afshīn on Ełišē’s shahanshah Yazdegerd II. Yet T‘ovma was clearly struggling to fit contemporary realities to the historical template. If prominent Arcruni princes were seeking to profit from establishing ties with the Sajids, they could not easily be represented as oppressed and persecuted for their faith. An anonymous continuator confirms that the ‘otherness’ of the Persians was fast receding. Yūsuf b.Abi’l Sāj and Gagik Arcruni are portrayed discussing profound questions and aspects of kingship. This passage evokes contemporary Persianate salon culture. Evidently a process of political and social transformation was underway, with traditional loyalties and identities breaking down. Armenian identity was also constructed in opposition to that great imperial ‘other’ to the west, the Byzantine Empire. Disdaining Byzantium is a feature of earlier historical compositions but three tenth-century works attest a major shift. The History of Tarōn offers a radical retelling of the conversion of Armenia, in which relationship with Caesarea in Cappadocia is stressed. The History of Uxt‘anēs attests a renewed interest in Armenian involvement with the classical Roman past. The Universal History of Step‘anos Tarōnec‘i attest an author searching for new ways of projecting and preserving Armenian identity in the face of an expanding Byzantium, no longer distant or ‘other’ but present and familiar. This is the context in which a radically different sense of Armenianness, rooted in urban communities, emerged briefly in the eleventh century.