Shaping the Landscape or Invisible Landscapes? Some Medieval Armenian Monastic Complexes between Past and Present

Zaroui Pogossian, Associate Professor of Byzantine Civilization, University of Florence

Presented by Center for Armenian Studies, University of Michigan


Room 555, Weiser Hall
500 Church Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Date: March 16, 2022, 5pm EST

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This talk discusses the significance of medieval Armenian coenobitic monasticism in the shaping of medieval landscapes and identities, as well as looks into the present-day destruction of this cultural heritage and the creation of ‘invisible landscapes’ as a strategy of obliterating the memory of the Armenian presence and part of this identity. Dr. Pogossian will start by introducing the first period of the flourishing of coenobitic monasticism in Medieval Armenia from the 9th to the 11th centuries and explore this religious-cultural phenomenon in light of historical-political processes taking place at this time. She will present the connection between changes in the dynastic system of Armenia of this period and the foundation and diffusion of monasteries supported by the very same princes or kings who were the primary agents of this process.

Pogossian suggests that the expansion of certain noble families (nakharars) into new territories, or the efforts of certain branches within an extended family to highlight their presence in a specific area, were paralleled by the establishment, re-establishment, and patronage of coenobitic monastic complexes by these élites. This is particularly evident in the case of the Bagratids, Artsrunis, and Syunis. Sources allow us to trace the various strategies adopted by some princes/kings for controlling newly acquired territories or consolidating their presence in other long-held lands. These strategies included the shaping of the landscape and inscribing a given noble family’s or its specific member’s presence therein via such massive landmarks requiring major investments as monastic complexes, among others. The monasteries and the saints to whom they were dedicated, not least some holy relics, also became crucial identity markers. Some of these markers were mobile. When a great number of Armenian princes and their following migrated to the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, they often took with them such tangible or intangible identity markers as the devotion to a certain saint or his/her relics to Cappadocia and, subsequently, to Cilicia. Others, however, were by their very nature immovable and were meant to perpetrate the memory of their founders and of the Armenian presence on the landscape ‘forever’. Yet, it was this desired permanence that unfortunately could spell the demise of these monuments with a concomitant destruction of that memory.

The lecture will then close by looking into the modern and contemporary phenomenon of shaping the landscape yet once more by rendering it ‘invisible’ and what one may do to contest this phenomenon.

Zaroui Pogossian is a specialist in medieval Armenian history, culture, and religion, especially in relation to other peoples, cultures, and religions in the Near East and Asia Minor. She is Associate Professor of Byzantine Civilization at the University of Florence, and the PI of the ERC Project ArmEn: Armenia Entangled: Connectivity and Cultural Encounters in Medieval Eurasia 9th-14th Centuries (Consolidator Grant). In her research, Dr. Pogossian has explored such diverse topics as female asceticism and ascetic communities in early Christian Armenia, the role of women in the spread of Christianity in Armenia, monastic establishments, and territory control, as well as monasteries in an inter-religious perspective. She has contributed significantly to the study of apocalyptic traditions in Armenia, especially between the 11th and 13th centuries, including a focus on inter-religious polemic hidden in these texts.

Her critical edition, with comments and a thorough historical study of Agat‘angel, “On the End of the World,” an anonymous Armenian apocalyptic text, is forthcoming. Pogossian is the author of a book acclaimed by reviewers, “The Letter of Love and Concord” (Brill, 2011), as well as numerous articles and book reviews. She has been the recipient of several prestigious fellowships, such as from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (University of Tübingen), Käte Hamburger Collegium at the Center for Religious Studies: Study of the Dynamics in the History of Religions (University of Bochum) and the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities: Fate, Freedom and Prognostication – Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe (University of Erlangen). She is on the editorial board of the online journal Entangled Religions and is one of the co-founders and general editors of a book series Eastern Christia Cultures in Contact (Brepols editors).

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