Future historians may proclaim 2018 an annus mirabilis for Armenia and Armenian studies. This year Armenia, a former Soviet Republic, made headlines by ousting former prime minister Serzh Sargsyan in non-violent protests called by now-prime minister Nikol Pashinyan a “velvet revolution.” This rejection of Sargsyan’s unprecedented attempt at a third term is remarkable in a time when autocracy is on the rise in so much of the world. By the end of 2018, Armenians overwhelmingly voted for an opposition journalist-turned-politician as their next prime minister in a decision which international observers and Armenian politicians heralded as paving the way to free and fair elections. It remains to be seen if this democratic revolution will take hold in Armenian society, or if it will prove a fleeting anomaly in something of a tide of current reactionary politics that has threatened to engulf other countries.
Although Armenia’s political turmoil may dominate media reports, the Armenia! exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art supports an assessment that 2018 is exceptional year for this country and its culture. While there have been other exhibitions of Armenian art at major museums, Armenia! is perhaps the most ambitious yet, one as bold as the exclamation mark in its name. This exhibition aims to showcase Armenia as an artistic civilization in its own right rather than a postscript to the more prominent and the better-known achievements of Byzantium or Near Eastern cultures. The driving force behind the exhibit, Helen Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Met, has assembled an astonishing collection of material culture in an exhibit audacious in both vision and its scope. Evans specialized in Armenian art, having written her dissertation on the art of Armenian Cilicia at NYU, and so is well-suited to bring Armenian art out of the shadows and into greater focus. The artworks displayed here collectively span fourteen centuries and are borrowed from museums and collections from Armenia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. In addition to her impressive scholarly achievements, Evans’ judicious and diplomatic temperament in working with these museums was clearly essential to the exhibition’s success. Among the genre of works included are illuminated manuscripts, maps, textiles, stelae, reliquaries, jewelry, and the uniquely Armenian khachkars or stone-crosses.
For scholars of late antiquity, the history of Armenia brings together the themes of multilingualism and intellectual exchange that marked Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean. With its traditions looking back to the apostolic age, Armenian Christianity brought together features of Syriac and Greek Christianity and produced a creative Armenian synthesis. In later centuries, Armenians came into greater contact with Latin-speaking Christians and adopted their practices and artistic styles. The visitor will see lappets worn by bishops with their Latin-style miters—inspired by gifts from medieval popes—as well a decorative vakas, a stiff collar worn during the liturgy by Armenian priests and ultimately related to the amice of traditional Latin clerical vestments.
Rather than depicting Armenia as a beleaguered and secluded island of Christendom in a sea of alien and hostile religions and nations, the curators show how Armenians embraced and critically adopted the achievements of its neighbors. Throughout the centuries, Armenians have shown themselves adept at blending a variety of influences and forging something new and distinct from them. In addition to the influence of other Christian rites, we also notice the appeal of the pre-Christian classical legacy. Most striking are two manuscripts of the Alexander Romance in Armenian translation. One, made by an Armenian bishop in the sixteenth century, portrays a giant crab attacking Alexander’s ship. The other, also sixteenth century, presents Alexander’s horse, Bucephalus, as a composite of a variety of fanciful animals. Also on display is a manuscript of the philosopher David’s Definitions and Divisions of Philosophy, an Armenian translation of a Greek introduction to the study of philosophy. This work was for centuries the philosophy textbook studied in Armenian monastic academies. The text bears no distinctly Christian content and scholars to this day debate whether or not David was a Christian. But no matter—the Armenians adopted him as one their own and even made him a saint, granting him the sobriquet “invincible” for his reputed argumentative acuity.
One thing we do know about this David is that he was an Alexandrian Neoplatonist, strongly influenced by his teacher Olympiodorus, a sixth-century philosopher and commentator. But David is just one of several Alexandrians who made deep impressions in Armenia. The exhibit does not include any of his manuscripts, but David’s fellow Alexandrian, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, profoundly shaped the tradition of biblical interpretation in Armenia. Armenians translated many of his works; some of these are today extant only in Armenian. A fifteenth century commentary on the psalms as well as some of the Old Testament manuscripts displayed here may very well carry glosses based on the Jewish exegete’s writings. Besides the intellectual legacy of Hellenistic Judaism, one can also discern some features of Armenian worship reminiscent of Jewish liturgical practices that entered Armenia mainly through Syriac mediation. A notable example in the exhibit is the altar curtain used to conceal the altar from the congregation during certain portions of the liturgy. It is comparable in function to the Byzantine iconostasis, but the Armenian and Syriac rites sought to assert a more pronounced continuity with Judaism by retaining a curtain to recall that of the Jerusalem temple.
Islamic art has a profound effect on Armenian creativity as well. For example, the exhibition displays miniatures likely influenced by the styles of Ilkhanid Iran. That influence, moreover, may have been mutual, as suggested by a manuscript of the Persian Jami’ al-Tawarikh (lit. Compendium of Chronicles, often called “The Universal History”)depicting Muhammad and a figure dressed as an Armenian monk pointing at him. This illustrates an episode present in early Muslim histories by Ibn Hisham (d.833), Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi (784-855), and Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839-923), and mentioned by John of Damascus (d.749). According to this narrative, a Christian monk named Bahira recognizes that the young Muhammad would become a prophet. In an intriguing confluence of iconographic traditions, this Persian portrayal is based on an Armenian exemplar depicting Christ’s baptism. A less obvious instance of Islamic influence on Armenia is a manuscript of St. Gregory of Narek’s Book of Lamentation, represented in the exhibit by a twelfth-century manuscript produced at the monastery of Skevra in Cilicia. The Book of Lamentation, a series of ninety-five prayers written and then compiled by its author around the beginning of the eleventh century,is a masterpiece of medieval sacred poetry distinguished by its innovative literary style and figures, some of which were inspired by the rhythms of Arabic folk poetry and perhaps even the cadences of Quranic recitation.
Through their close connections with Persia, Armenians also managed to gain control of the empire’s Asian trade routes. Several items in the exhibit reveal the influence of Indian and Mongol art. An especially striking example is the figure of a dragon on a twelfth-century Central Asian silk tapestry, whose likeness also appears on the vestments of a bishop depicted in an Armenian manuscript. Armenians made their way to cities as far to the east as Hanoi, Singapore, and Manila, where they established settlements, churches, and stations along their extensive trade routes.
Through highlighting intellectual and artistic exchange, therefore, this exhibition brings to the fore the distinct role of Armenia as a crossroads throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Yet the curators’ efforts to present a comprehensive and diverse collection of Armenian art has been the object of some controversy among scholars of Armenian studies. Several Armenian scholars have criticized the exhibit’s claim to represent the totality of Armenian artistic expression rather than just the art of medieval Christian Armenia. For Armenia also had a rich pre-Christian culture that the exhibit does not directly tackle beyond some of the classical artefacts mentioned above. In addition, the latest works displayed within the exhibit are from the eighteenth century. There was a clear intention on the part of the curators to offer an in-depth portrait of medieval Armenia. However, the living artistic traditions and productions of the last two centuries would have enriched the collection and conveyed a greater sense of continuity between the past and the present.
Moreover, a museum visitor unfamiliar with Armenian history may be curious to learn about the location and current status of monasteries like Narek and Skevra, both of which were in one way or another responsible for some of the works in the exhibit. That patron would exit the gallery doors without knowing that these monasteries were in Ottoman territory, that they were seized at the start of the First World War, and that they were subsequently destroyed in a concerted effort to uproot evidence of an Armenian presence in Eastern Anatolia. There may be advantages to not disturbing an exhibit’s aesthetics with contentious events of modern history and divisive politics. Nonetheless, one may argue that museums bear a moral responsibility to acknowledge the precarious state of so much cultural heritage.
Instead of focusing on the exhibit’s neglect in situating its artifacts within a broader historical context, I would like to revisit the concern that the Christian art in the exhibit are a selective representation of Armenian culture. Though these works all arise from a decidedly Christian milieu, strike just beneath the surface and one will discover a diverse array of late antique religious, intellectual, and institutional influences that have shaped Armenia over the centuries. Indeed, one of Armenia!’s triumphs is its success in conveying the openness of Armenians through the centuries to learn from other cultural traditions.
In my assessment, Armenia! Offers visitors the opportunity to appreciate the cosmopolitanism of Armenian culture. In contrast to depictions of Armenia as an inward-looking nation focused on narrow ethnic concerns, Armenia as presented here is a civilization that has embraced world cultures in all their myriad of riches and contradictions. This is the spirit of Armenia that the MET exhibit so deftly presents. Along with the political events unfolding in Armenia, this 2018 exhibition has brought attention to this often-overlooked nation and its history. The MET Exhibit treats Armenia not as an afterthought of Late Antiquity, but as an artistic and scholarly crossroads in which diverse cultural and artistic forms were embraced and shaped. Armenia! showcases some of the artistic beauty and historical breadth that Armenia has to offer.
 For example, the Armenia Sacra exhibition at the Louvre in 2007.
 SeeEvans, Helen C Evans, 2001. “Imperial Aspirations : Armenian Cilicia and Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century.” Eastern Approaches to Byzantium, Antony Eastmond, ed, Ashgate Variorum243-256.
 Armenian text with English translation and introduction is B. Kendall and R.W. Thomson, Definitions and Divisions of Philosophy, Scholars Press, 1983.
 The “Hellenizing School” that was responsible for the translation of Greek philosophical texts into Armenian was active from the 6th to 8thcenturies. An Armenian tradition holds that David translated his own works into Armenian.
 This information can be accessed here
 English translation of St. Gregory’s Book of Lamentation is T. Samuelian, 2001. Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayer Book of St. Gregory of Narek, Vem Press. A good overview of St. Gregory’s life and signficance is the introduction to R. Ervine, 2008, The Blessing of Blessing: Grigor of Narek’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, Cistercians Publications
 One example of this assessment may be found here
 For an account written by a Turkish historian, see T. Akcam, 2007. A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Picador. Also P. Balakian, 2009. Burning Tigris, Harper Collins.
Michael Papazian is a professor of philosophy at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His book on the theology of St. Gregory of Narek, will be published by Liturgical Press later this year.