Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I was in Armenia in November and December, which afforded a chance to investigate my favorite mystery from Armenian history. The Mamikonian family arrived on the scene in the late-third or early-fourth century A.D., obscured by the fogs of antiquity. Edward Gibbon described a certain Mamgo who appeared “[a]mong the Armenian nobles [as] an ally” around 286 A.D., although the first Mamikonian lord of whom we have any definite knowledge was Vatche Mamikonian, active in the 330s.
Moses of Chorene, or Movses Khorenatsi, in his fifth century History of Armenia, claimed that back in the second century, two brothers named Mamik and Konak came to Armenia from China. They were half-brothers of “Chenbakir,” an emperor of the Han Dynasty. They had rebelled against their brother and, after defeat, fled to the protection of Parthia or Persia, which sent them to Armenia. The Mamikonians were descendants of Mamik.
Faustus of Byzantium, or P’avstos Buzand, another Armenian historian writing in the fifth century, concurred that the Mamikonians traced their origins to the royal family of Han China.
Gibbon also told a story of the forefather of the Mamikonians escaping the wrath of the Chinese emperor, although in his account Mamgo was Scythian and not related to the emperor. He and his horde
. . . had encamped a very few years before on the skirts of the Chinese empire, which at that time extended as far as the neighbourhood of Sogdiana [modern northern Afghanistan]. Having incurred the displeasure of his master [the emperor], Mamgo, with his followers, retired to the banks of the Oxus, and implored the protection of Sapor [Shapur I of Persia, r. 240-270 A.D.]. The emperor of China claimed the fugitive, and alleged the rights of sovereignty. The Persian monarch pleaded the laws of hospitality, and with some difficulty avoided a war by the promise that he would banish Mamgo to the uttermost parts of the West. . . . Armenia was chosen for the place of exile. . . .
Identifying Mamgo with Mamik, Gibbon’s account follows the same outline as Armenian tradition. Except now Mamgo merely served the Chinese emperor but was not related to him, and except that the chronology is off by a full century.
In the traditional account, the names of Mamik, Konak, and Chenbakir sound distinctly un-Chinese and correspond to no one in Chinese chronicles — indeed, the royal surname of the Han Dynasty was “Liu,” which you’d think would have survived the journey westward if Mamik and Konak were so proud of their lineage.
On the other hand, Gibbon’s account assumes the political background of second-century China, when Han power did in fact reach as far as Sogdiana, while setting the story in the latter half of the third century. By this time, the Han Dynasty had collapsed into the chaotic civil wars of the Three Kingdoms era, never mind reaching into Sogdiana or conducting foreign relations with Parthia.
My own guess is that Gibbon was correct in tracing the Mamikonians to a race that lived within China’s sphere of influence but were not Chinese — perhaps the Tocharians, now extinct, that once flourished around the Tarim Basin. Whether arriving in Armenia in the second or third century, they must have claimed descent from Chinese royalty to bolster their own prestige, just as other noble families claimed descent from King David or the royalty of Assyria. For that matter, it’s no different from the way endless streams of people in the Islamic world today claim to be “Sayyid,” indicating descent from the Prophet Mohammed.
Whatever their origins, the Mamikonians went on to play a pivotal role in Armenian history. In 451, Vardan or Vartan Mamikonian led the Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr against the Persians. Vardan was killed, but the battle ultimately led to a treaty with Persia that allowed Armenia to remain a Christian nation. Later the Armenian Church canonized St. Vartan. Many Armenian churches around the world, including the Armenian Cathedral on 2nd Ave. and 35th St. in Manhattan, are named after him.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."