Arab-Armenian Cross-Cultural Encounters during the Umayyad and early ‘Abbāsid Periods

A lecture by Alison Vacca, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Organized by the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair for Modern Armenian History [Established by the Armenian Educational Foundation].

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Duration: 43:34

The Arab province of Armīniya was established around 700 CE, soon after the Marwānid reforms. For over a century and a half, Arab governors resided in Dabīl/Dwin, collected taxes, minted coins, and oversaw the local élite. Arabs and Armenians fought side-by-side against the Khazars and the Greeks, and yet clashed with each other with relative frequency. There were clearly close relations between the leading élite of the two groups; nevertheless, we know very little of the day-to-day interaction between Armenians and Arabs.

This talk will review the extant evidence for Arab-Armenian cross-cultural exchange in the Umayyad and early ‘Abbāsid periods, focusing first on the development of ideas in Arabic texts. It will briefly address Arab knowledge of Armīniya in ‘Abbāsid-era Arabic histories and geographical treatises. Arabs described two different Armīniyas: one was the product of actual experience in the province and the other was an imagined Armīniya. While the former demonstrates limited knowledge about Armenians and the lived experience of Armenians and Arabs in Armīniya, the latter is a product of the sectarian milieu in the centers of the Islamic world, outside of Armīniya itself.

The second part of this talk will address the scanty evidence for Armenian – Arabic literary exchange in the Umayyad and early ‘Abbāsid periods. Three main works exist to suggest such exchange: the Arabic translations of Agat‘angełos, Łewond’s correspondence between ‘Umar II b. ‘Abd al-Azīz and Leo III the Isaurian, and the Armenian translation of Nonnus of Nisibis’s Arabic Commentary on the Gospel of John. By the tenth century, there are clear markers of Arabic-Armenian literary exchange, but the evidence from the eighth and ninth centuries demonstrates that Arabic and Armenian literatures followed very different trajectories. Medieval literary exchange was polyvocal and interconfessional, with little evidence for direct exchange between Arabic and Armenian sources. This talk therefore aims to place Arab-Armenian dialogue into the wider milieu of the sectarian Near East.