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Language and Community from the Armenian to Iranian Plateaux

Language and Community from the Armenian to Iranian Plateaux

Armenian, Kurdish and Iranian Identities before Modernity


This one-day workshop was focused on speakers of the Middle East’s major Indo-European languages, and took an explicitly comparative approach to the strategies and modes by which actors and communities constructed resultant identities. The workshop was broken down into three sessions each containing an Armenian, Kurdish and Iranian specialist, addressing how processes of self-definition, socio-political mobilisation and group formation are reflected in their linguistic, cultural and chronological foci. Ranging from the First Millennium A.D. to the 21st Century, the exciting presentations demonstrated clearly the enormous value of a de-centred, nuanced, and critical approach to issues of identity, ethnicity and nationhood across time and place.


Ilya Afanasyev & Nicholas S. M. Matheou

(University of Oxford)

In the opening remarks Ilya first discusses the research network itself, outlining how it came about and its core aims. Nicholas then introduces the present workshop, discussing its concept and arrangement, and emphasising that this is not simply a matter of deconstructing ‘the past,’ but also the question of how best to equip ourselves for ‘the present’ and ‘future.’

Session 1

James R. Russell (presented in absentia)

(Harvard University)

Ashkenazim’: Notes on Armenian Identity

Professor James Russell opened proceedings with a broad and engaging paper, questioning the pre-determinative nature of addressing historical identities on the basis of their interrelated linguistic expressions, in this case ‘Indo-European.’ Noting that ‘Human affairs are fluid and the perception of identity is correspondingly complex and changeable,’ James went on to emphasise that no pre-determining characteristic, least of all language, can be used to circumnavigate, deny, or externally delineate a given people’s self-definition. Indeed, many ‘Indo-European’ identities have for centuries been conditioned in the context of ‘Turkic’ political frameworks – and vice versa – so that the Indo-European speaking Zazas are best understood in a ‘Turkish’ historical frame, and the Turkic-speaking Azeris in an ‘Iranian’ one.

Turning to the specific question of Armenian identities, James emphasised the formative nature of Christianisation in the fourth century and the birth of Armenian literature in the fifth, when self-identifying Armenians ‘discovered’ in the pages of the bible their ‘story.’ Although ‘Armenia’ itself does not appear in scripture, it was identified with Ararat-Urartu – a historical kingdom and key feature of modern nationalist narratives. However, the term is primarily geographic for pre-modern Christian Armenians, who constructed a number of biblical genealogies for themselves, particularly through Noah’s son Japheth (like the Ionian Greeks through Yavan and Medians through Madai), as well as the Anatolian Togarmah (= Armenian ‘T‘orgom’), the Irano-Scythian Sakas, and Ashkenaz (= Ask‘anaz). Thus these early constructions evoke ethno-linguistic distinctions, with most of Japheth’s descendants ‘Indo-European’ speakers, but are grounded firmly in scriptural exegesis.

James then shifted to the modern perspective, noting the development of the Indo-European linguistic theory from the eighteenth century onwards, with Armenian placed as a subset of ‘Iranian’ prior to Heinrich Hübschmann establishing its independence in the late nineteenth century. In this same period connections drawn between language and race encouraged Armenians to demarcate themselves on linguistic bases against ruling Islamic elites. Thus, marking its participants against inferior ‘Semites,’ Indo-Europeanness was instrumentalised in the formation of ‘Aryan’ theories of racial stratification, a constructed umbrella for peoples as well as languages. Such constructs were carried over with gusto into the twentieth century, with assorted racist paraphernalia like eugenics. This is reflected in Armenian writings from the first half of the twentieth century, which sought to establish common discourses of collective identity with western Europeans. Most strikingly, some of these even rejected the idea that Christ was a ‘lowly Semite,’ and emphasised the Armenians as members of the superior Aryan race.

Finally, James teased apart what is actually meant by ‘Indo-Europeanness’ in the Armenian case, noting the beneficial application of Indo-European philology to its study, as well as mythological substrata shared by the Indo-European speaking cultures of Ancient Greece, pre-Christian Armenia, and Vedic India. He emphasised, however, that much that seems ‘Indo-European’ in Armenian culture is specifically Iranian – whatever the protests of present-day Armenian nationalists. Indeed, ‘the Armenians’ throughout their history have not only been culturally and politically tied to successive Iranian polities, but have also been identified and identified themselves with Arameans, Urartians, and even Assyrians. Drawing comparisons with Russian and Soviet political and socio-cultural influences on Eastern Armenian culture and the only viable Armenian state of modern times, James emphasised that such processes continue into the modern day. Ultimately, therefore, our ‘redemption will never arrive until the day when every human being looks at another and sees a who, not a what.’


Boris James (Ifpo (Institut Français du Proche-Orient), Erbil)

Making Sense of Kurdish Identity During the Middle Ages: Political Factors and Cultural Crossroad

Since their inception Arabic and Persian historiographies have produced a relatively coherent set of information about the Kurds. Historians can read in these texts elements that defined the boundaries of Kurdish medieval identity. Although the latter was constantly constructed and reconstructed, this potentially infinite process was technically limited by a series of factors. I will focus on two historical situations each one highlighting one factor that contributed to the shaping of Kurdish medieval identity.

The first lies at the beginning of Arabic historiography (10th - 11th centuries) when Kurdishness was an implicit category defined in opposition or association with ‘arab or ‘ajam categories in the context of the domination of an Arab caliphate. Arab authors first tried to understand ethnic differentiation based on familiar tools existing in Bedouin societies; primarily the fragmentation into tribes and clans and membership of a lineage dating back to an eponymous ancestor. This limited range of analytical tools also possessed a political and ideological aspect – namely the need to maintain the cohesion of the early caliphate and its army.

The second period starts with the collapse of the Ayyubid dynasty and the beginning of the Mamluk regime (second half of the 13th century). Kurdish identity underwent then a specific reproduction due to the shift of its political and military role in the context of marginalization in Syria and Egypt and war between the Mongols and Mamluks. Mamluk policies were somewhat paradoxical, promoting both integration and differentiation. These policies reflected their desire to create a powerful coalition against the Mongols through reinforcing the notion of the Kurds as a distinct category, while at the same time territorializing it.

Arezou Azad

(University of Birmingham)

Multiple Identities in a Frontier Land: Balkh and ‘The Iranians’

In this paper Dr. Arezou Azad focused on the region of Balkh in the north of modern-day Afghanistan, ancient Bactria. Noting that identities are not static, but constantly shifting, she examined the interplay between processes of self-definition and memory. Thus the land of Balkh is approached as a lieu de memoire, a site of memory that provides a useful prism through which to view the construction of historical identities.

Emphasising the importance of Balkh’s geographical-topographical context as a broad and once-walled oasis, Arezou noted the land was a distinct and distinctly imagined space, a wealthy city of the medieval Silk Road. Forming part of historical Khorasan, Balkh is primarily remembered today as the homeland of the great Persian poets of the Middle Ages and the birthplace of Sufism, for example producing the mystic and poet known today as ‘Rumi.’ In these understandings ‘Balkhiness’ is Islamic and Persian, but not ‘Iranian’ – although in the current context of Tajik-Uzbek political rivalry this is changing. In pre-Islamic times, however, Balkh was only loosely governed by the Sasanian polity, a particular region with its own identified language, Bactrian, and religion, Buddhism. Yet this is only known through Chinese sources, since medieval Arabic and Persian texts merely evoke vague ‘Indic,’ Buddha-praising (botparast) or ‘Zoroastrian’ pre-Islamic cults. Certainly, the iteration of Buddhism practiced in the region was particular and unique, but the totality of the loss of memory remains striking.

Ultimately Arezou argued that in this multi-lingual frontier land the development of ‘New’ Persian – a language almost identical to modern Farsi – was constitutive of the reimagining of an Abrahamic and Zoroastrian past, crystallised in a Perso-Islamic historiographical tradition. Represented by such processes as the formalisation of the epic tradition that would become Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, it is this development which results in the ‘forgetting’ of Balkh’s Buddhist past.


Session 2

Djene Bajalan

(American University of Iraq Sulaimani)

Ethnicity and Politics in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire: The Kurdish Case

Dr. Djene Bajalan focuses in his presentation on the use of Kurdish ethnicity for political mobilisation in the early modern period, particularly within the Ottoman Empire. In the last fifteen to twenty years, with the partial liberalisation of the Turkish political space and the comparative success of Iraqi Kurdistan, there have been certain revisions of the old primordialist narrative that traced ‘the Kurds’ back to ‘the Medes’ – and even posited unitary Kurdishness at the time of the Indo-European migrations. Rather, younger scholars have argued that modern Kurdish nationalism is fundamentally ‘modern,’ a product of the socio-economic, political, and intellectual environment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, even in these recent revisions what ‘it meant’ to participate in Kurdishness prior to the age of nationalism has been ignored or treated as irrelevant. Thus, we are told, this is not nationalism – yet the question begs, what then is it?

In this presentation Djene gives an overview of the contexts in which Kurdishness was mobilised in the early modern period, and asks several specific questions:

1)      What were the political implications of Kurdishness?

2)      What do manifestations of Kurdish ethnic awareness signify?

3)      Is it possible to speak of an ethnic Kurdish solidarity?

4)      Is it useful or meaningful to talk of continuities between pre-modern and modern iterations of Kurdishness?

In answering these questions Djene utilises variety of approaches. The first is a ‘top down’ state perspective, analysing how imperial systems and – perhaps more importantly – imperial administrators perceived the Kurds as a group and incorporated this image into state policy. The second is an internal Kurdish perspective, delineated in three contexts: Kurdishness as an element of distinction in socio-economic and political hierarchies; Kurdishness as revealed by the Sharafnama, a literary history of Kurdish principalities written in 1597; and Kurdishness as revealed by myths of origin. In these three contexts Djene takes us through the many socio-economic, cultural, and political factors which coalesced into particular understandings of ‘being Kurdish.’ Ultimately, he demonstrates that these understandings are always contingent on the particular constellation of factors present in any given instance.


Ahmad Ashraf

(Columbia University)

Factors Affecting Iranian Identities from the Early Islamic Era to the Sixteenth Century

In this presentation Professor Ahmad Ashraf discusses the formation of the traditional Iranian and Persian historical narrative, focusing particularly on the period from the Islamic conquest to the Safavid era. The origin of Iran’s traditional history, a mixture of fact and fiction concerning the pre-Islamic era, can be traced to traditions relating to ancient Avestan ideas on the formation of man, the creation of kingship, and social order. These traditions were transmitted orally until the last decades of the Sassanian Empire in the seventh century, when they were formalised into a set of now-lost literary texts. Their reception in the Islamic era was conditioned by factors of random survival and particular use, notably instrumentalised during the Persian cultural revival from the tenth century onwards, when the political context of regional Iranian polities favoured such developments. Elaborating the internal variations while highlighting the comparatively early formalisation of this tradition, Ahmad notes the remarkable fact that this medieval understanding remained the commonly shared historical vision of ‘Iran’ and ‘Persianness’ all the way to the late nineteenth century. Most striking are the things left out of this vision, notably the Achaemenid shahanshahs, a point that emphasises the multiplicity of possibilities in even the most reified and apparently fixed of historical narratives.


Tim Greenwood

(University of St. Andrews)

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.

Session 3

Bert Fragner

(Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna)

Iranian ‘Identities’ in Pre-Modern Times – Reality or Myth?

It seems to me that any definite judgement on awareness of “Iranian identity” in pre-modern, historical periods and conditions is hardly feasible. The assumption of a continuous development or master narrative concerning any kind of “Iranian identity” from antiquity until contemporary modern times cannot be corroborated by historical evidence and source material. But there are a great amount of potentially efficacious elements, cultural brick-stones and modules, which may contribute to the construction of such concepts. Although I do not see the concept of “identity” within a longue durée perspective, in the Iranian case I recognize nevertheless many cases of amazing longue durée elements of surprising, unexpected and almost stubborn continuity throughout historical periods. These elements can be easily proved by source investigation, and may influence the creation of narratives which impact upon the imagining of aspects of pre-modern identities.

Source references to ethnic diversity (e.g. “tork-o-tâjîk”) can also not serve as proofs of any “ethnic” Iranian identity in the pre-modern past. I do not trust in the capacities of hegemonial leadership by intellectual elites of any countries, nations or whatever the subject of “identification” might be, throughout history. Identity, as well as other matters of “mentalities”, is coined at least as much by continuous and changing collective experiences – existential, societal, political and last not least, visual, acoustic, sensual experiences, all of them rather less “heroic” than spirit, refinement, style and thought  – as by, e.g., literary discourses due to controversial textual interpretation. As proofs for permanent or broken identities I prefer manifest, material and factual evidence to the speculative proof of ideas. This does not at all mean that I deny or even reject the importance of ideas and intellectualism in the historical process. But we must neither not neglect the weight of aspects of power, dominance and hegemony in which ideas and literary concepts and matters of ethics and consciousness are embedded. As examples I try to analyse changing and recurrent concepts of territory: whilst the during the Caliphate the territorial concept of former Sasanian Iran had been abrogated, it was reanimated under the Mongol Il-Khâns, in strong opposition to the Chaghatayid concept which separated Khorâsân from Western Iran. Moreover this debate is even seen to extend to the eighteenth century!

Another aspect of wide-spread “identity” might have been supported by the surprising continuity of the currency system which was – following Chinese models – established under Il-Khanid rule. What once had been a ten-thousand multiple of the standard silver-dînâr  (called “tümän”, i.e. Mongol for 10 000), still exists as a denomination for the value of 10 modern Riâls!

Christine Allison

(University of Exeter)

Framing the Past through Suffering and Victimhood – Kurdish Discourses of Identity

This paper arises out of a monograph I am writing on how the Kurds talk about the past. The ideas of Kurdish suffering and Kurdish victimhood are fundamental to the way Kurdish identity is constructed, both in the Kurdish homelands and the diaspora. This is also the case for Kurdish collective memory (which is intimately linked to Kurdish identity). Clearly Kurds have indeed suffered many violent events over the past century, but this is not at issue – what I examine here is how events of the past have been mediated into discourse. Kurdish narratives of the past tend to emphasise Kurdish suffering and victimhood, rather than Kurdish victories and achievements, and in this paper I will outline how this discourse of memory is formed, who is forming it, and why – what social and political purposes does it serve to frame the past in this way?

S. Peter Cowe


Shifting Patterns of Ethno-Religious Identity in the Medieval and Early Modern Period

This final presentation from Professor S. Peter Cowe ranges widely across late medieval and early modern Anatolia, Caucasia and Iran – a period relegated to the margins of Armenian historiography for lack of ‘Armenian’ statehood – to explore interconnectivity in processes of ethno-religious self-definition, identification, and mobilisation. Despite sharing common linguistic and regional roots, by the late medieval period ‘Armenian,’ ‘Kurd’ and ‘Persian’ as categories represented very different kinds of ethno-religious identification. Peter highlights how these collective identities were subject to continual negotiation and reinvention, with the early modern era forming another long period of structural and socio-cultural change. Thus our models must be subtle, able to deal with realities that are contingent, complex, and ever fragmenting and regrouping – dynamic models for the highly dynamic states and societies that they treat.

Peter emphasises that the key problem with developing such approaches for the Armenian case is the ecclesiastical, and particularly monastic nature of most of our source material. Moreover, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in particular there is a relative dearth of internally produced histories. For this reason it is paramount to look for evidence in other kinds of Armenian literary texts, to use ethnographic approaches in the study of folk narratives, and to incorporate wherever possible non-Armenian literary material. Here Peter demonstrates the value of one particular kind of text, martyrology, a genre that by its nature provides abundant detail on everyday life in the region and period, providing flesh and colour to the bare bones of history. Enumerating several captivating examples that span the Armenian, Kurdish and Iranian socio-cultural worlds, the paper provides a more than fitting endpoint to the workshop, clearly illustrating how the deconstruction of these essentialised categories and fixed narratives is not only critically vital, but endlessly fascinating.