Excerpts from “Countries and Gods” (1935-38)

by Gostan Zarian (excerpts translated by Azat S. Oganesian)



This is not simply a book of travel impressions.

To be more exact, not just that.

The time has passed when letters from Europe written by some educated student, filled with perceptive descriptions, reflected the strength of a great discovery and dreamy idealization.  Today the globe is an open book, whose pages can be lazily turned by anyone.  Ships cross oceans prosaically, and our impressions cease to wander indefinitely between mirages and the visions of far-away lands.  Today desires expand our wings above the places of varied gravitational attraction. 

And yet, the world seen from the inner eye appears so new and previously unobserved!  The complicated and fatalistic way of life in nations and individuals; the mysterious force in dying and at times reborn countries; spiritual adventures; ideas and gods.  And finally, the thing itself: our stern, generous and fierce century, passing through such an interesting and profound drama. 

A drama that did not leave anything to the sidelines: not individuals, not nations, not continents.  A drama with complicated and profound acts, with huge complaints, and with a great and synchronized pulse.  In which borders are wiped away, and concepts like near and far no longer exist.  Neither does “yours” or “mine.”  Who are we if not tragic actors, or at least silent performers, in some great play? 

Among them are also we, Armenians.  Especially us, Armenians.

Something previously unseen took place: the world suddenly widened and grew- and with it the life of humanity.  Vacuous for centuries, the hidden globe now stood tall before the human race and said: “Here I am, so as to measure the power of your sight, here I am…” And horizons moved, mountains became nearer, and far away steppes greeted each other with a living, tremulous, human voice. 

Life had obtained a global pace.

The existence of an ordinary person incorporates the whole planet.  Every person, whether he wants it or not, is greatly subjected to the rhythmic burden of universal existence.  What we assume is outside of ourselves, on the other shore of our “I,” on the edge of the vague contours of our imagination, is in reality permeating together with the pulsating musicality of our blood, is breaking into the dormant layers of our individualism and awakening such unimagined powers.

Without a doubt, this is the cause of the other, no less significant phenomenon: the modern individual, who is also suddenly growing in breadth and scope, and feeding into a fantastic faith in his creative possibilities.  His breathing has become much stronger, sight more penetrating and arms longer.  This is an irrefutable fact, but it is also irrefutable that this individual does not know how to use his surplus power and in what direction to aim his drunken and hurrying swing.

The tragedy lies in this.

A master of the material world, master of all things, yet he has not been able to master himself.  This creator of things; this powerful producer of exhaust, stone and steel; this great builder – is practically a spiritual slave.  Amid the riches of his own making he feels himself to be lost and abandoned.  He is rich in knowledge, endowed with unheard of technical abilities, but the world behind his eyes is tormented and experiencing suffering that was never experienced in times past, times that will never return.

Individuality, irrespective of its gigantic and great effort to finally conquer the whole world, feels itself miserable, utterly alone and chained to a single point on earth.  It understands that the old life is gone into oblivion, that in reality the old methods of approaching phenomena and things, no longer correspond to the new form of life, and that traditional spirits have fled into the darkness and the modus vivendi [form of life, way of existing] that is connected to the universe is no longer of any value.

There is no time to stop and think.  The wheels of history move nonstop, life flows out of its banks, and we who desire to pin down everything around us, feel ourselves to be pinned down to the darkness in chaos, by the creator of the big game. 

This is what we call modern anxiety.  One thing is clear – to look back as we have done, is impossible today.  We, as modern people – modern Armenians, need to resolve the tasks at hand, and not to run into the past for help.  To do it in broad daylight.  Not to look back to the past with tearful eyes, but without complaint, and without lying to others or ourselves.  Particularly, not to allow ourselves to be deceived nor deceiving others, but like a person who is lost in a desert, to take independent decisions of great importance. 

Without a doubt, the world into which we came appears like a part of our fate that is calling for us to create our life.  But this fate, and here is the main point, is not a purely mechanical stimulus, not a fatum forced upon us, as many people would like to think.  No, no, we are not a bullet fired from a pistol, whose trajectory is predetermined.  There are many directions, goals are varied, and the sacred and immovable right to choose belongs to our free will.

There can be no doubt about it.

Living means to be forced to exercise our freedom in a fatalistic way.  To make decisions and realize our desire to be somebody.  And to do so for the rest of our lives: every day and second, in every situation.  And if it were to happen that in moments of abandon and fatigue we say: let what is meant to happen, happen – it only means that we made a decision not to act. 

Therefore it is madness and shortsightedness to speak of “material conditions,” of unfolding events and historical materialism.  Conditions resolve nothing; on the contrary, they stand before us as continually shifting dilemmas that need us to make new decisions. 

The will to life.  The will to create and build.  Our will ignites a much-needed light in the utter darkness of chaos. 

Thus is life. […] 

The thing is, until today we primarily spoke about the political or the so-called cultural nature of history.  Today we are beginning to comprehend that these studies deal with history only on the superficial level.  We only see the observable aspects of existence, the transient and easily accessible.  Meanwhile the true essence of life is about something else: some biological power, some unsullied vitality that is unlike anything else; yet has something in common with primordial forces that induce the sea to turbulence, animals to copulation, trees to blossom and stars to glow.  

Naturally, to understand this power it isn’t sufficient to just throw the dragnet of our thoughts its way, but we need to bring to life all of our individuality without a hint of prejudice; to enter into delectable and dangerous contact with its spirits, to sense the strength in the center of our “I,” and while searching for our identity, to take part in the main thrust of this power towards self-manifestation. 

To understand Gods.

Only then will it be clear that what is determined for man is small compared to the reality of existence.  Behind the simplest of human acts hide varied phenomena that do not expose themselves before our conscious mind, but in which, as far as we can guess, lays our discontent.  This feeling should be considered as predominantly biological and should not be ignored without the risk of exposing our will and self-expression to serious danger.

If we would like to divide people by social class, which is always forced and artificial, then we can notice two psychological types.  We will find those who place before themselves great and hard goals; who overcome obstacles and the prevailing conditions, not fearing mental and spirituals trials; who know how to pass through fire, ignoring both accepted beliefs and that proverbial silence of cattle grazing under the oak tree, that goes under the name of public opinion.  And those, who don’t really ask much of themselves and who like to wait; life for them is just what it appears to be: a “combination” of conditions, accidental foam upon the crest of a wave. 

What is strange is that people of the last type always speak of the inexorable power of reality and facts.  They cite as evidence numbers, the chain of recorded events, and also history and statistics.  Being unable to see the inner driving force in life and unwilling to make an effort to understand all its complex unity, they are born blind and limited - and are therefore vulgar. 

A vulgar person feels no need to freely examine and understand life.  He is horrified by his limited abilities.  He is afraid to compare his individuality with that of another, because to compare – means to leave your skin for a moment, to go into the skin of another, to undergo mental and spiritual trials, to comprehend and accept, for a moment to feel oneself defeated.

The mediocre and vulgar person lacks the ability for transmigration [English in the original], that highest level of sport.  Shut-in, hiding behind walls of cheap ideas which he made no effort to create and practically lives off, he endeavors to impose on others his vulgarity like his sacred rights, and his rights – like sacred vulgarity. 

These two personality types are always in conflict.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the future will be a battleground upon which the domination of the one or the other will be decided.  And we Armenians – with what weapons will we go into battle, what values will we present, and what spiritual potential will we demonstrate?

For the most part, all those who understand that we are entering one of the most dangerous and crucial periods of our history are interested in these questions, and feel themselves responsible before history.

To be more precise, responsible before our country, because there can be no life outside of the country and there can be no history.  And when I say “country,” I mean a precise and specific plot of land, where the Armenian nation lives and acts, where irrespective of external conditions, the Armenian spirit is being forged once again, the nation is being rebuilt, a new historical myth is being born and a new Armenian personality.

I am convinced that tomorrow, when in our country, with which I feel myself deeply connected, will pass through an instinctively-economic period, a new generation with a great thirst will throw themselves upon these questions, in which we are interested today.  There are very encouraging things even now.  And the only aim of this book – is to one day be clear and helpful to those who will decide once again, to build a new spiritual power, held in unity, fatalistically.

That is why our country, our fire and our spirit have remained with me.  



Cruel, dry and sunlit land.

For many years Spain lived in my mind as a collection of literary characters, as those cheap clichés that come our way from songs, from the vibrating sounds of a guitar, and are a commonplace in history; a false stylization, an abundance of colorful fandango from the opera, reflecting lush bouquets of artificial flowers.

Whereas Spain is huge, deep, and rugged like her cliffs and her bloodied drama. […]

There are countries that appear to us in our waking hours as dreams, like a long awaited guest, whose hands are full of flowers and face smiling, brow clear, legs elegant and dance light.  Others exist too, appearing like theatrical decorations from historical plays, abandoned by their characters, yet so familiar that they still keep alive in our memory.

To take in these countries doesn’t take much effort; they are easily accessible to the mind and heart, are interesting, and we accept their beauty as a simple and pleasant gift. 

Italy is like this, and to an extent France.

Spain is closed-off, restrained, and concentrated on itself; the gestures are collected and her words few.

Polite, courtly, and hospitable; it does not sell itself, and its secrets are not easily revealed to travelers from strange lands.  It is harsh, dramatic, scorched by the sun and weary of the cold, knowing the value of forbearance and being a fighting race, whose poverty is eternally mixed with the inexorable presence of nature; and a soul like the tragedy of the country and the sky, it perceives life as a too serious and fateful a phenomenon, to take a beautiful stance in front of strangers, even for a moment. 

A Spaniard says hello and moves on.  He is not surprised by you, doesn’t look about.  He moves on indifferently, placing his face towards the sun, his look is focused inward, he is filled with a sense of dignity and simplicity – only peasants and princes can be so.

How like the Armenian living at the foot of Ararat!

In Barcelona, near the seaside square, an old man left an imprint on my memory.  He arrived in the city from the Catalan countryside and had long passed his eighth decade; this spirited, vigorous man with rosy cheeks and innocent eyes played the flute and danced.  Without a doubt, he was forced to do this by necessity.  But one had to witness his aristocratic and dignified bearing, the suppleness and beauty of his movements.  In beautiful and clean peasant clothes, with meticulously combed hair and beard, with a protruding chest, smoothly turned head, he looked more like an ancient knight, desiring to demonstrate to his guests skillfulness in dance, than a pauper in need of assistance.  Without a trace of a servile smile on his face, without any supplicant gestures, and without any pleading.

This happy pauper, without a doubt, embodied Spain.


How significant are the secrets and important the mysterious relationship between a country and ourselves!  They acquire an almost musical character, that happy harmony of form that encompasses our whole essence, digs into the fragile world of our subconscious, acquires wings, and gives the deepest meaning to new states of being. 

The soil itself!  Not like in Italy, where great masterpieces of art and architecture place us in front of already complete and incarnate complex psychological realities, and not like in France, where beautiful landscapes are defined and clothed through human force, as though trying to hide something; but as a boundless and expressive nakedness of the earth, light, and nature’s colors; in front of which our soul is forced to take a particular position and reveal its hidden virtues.

The soil itself!  Like in Armenia.

Like in Armenia: the scenery is more of the sky than earth.  And the earth is enveloped, overflowed by sunlight.  On a summer afternoon, when the earth takes on the perfect form in its essence, mountains and fields of Spain burn and cool under the veil of molten silver so firmly, that our tired, feeling organs begin to believe that never shall the sun set, and if it does, Spain will descend with it to the other side of the horizon.  For that rising shaking air is so filled with the bright liquids of the earth, that it seems as its indivisible fraction. 

A marvelous and harsh landscape- deserted, naked and profound.

A huge sacred plateau, upon which the godhead serves Mass for itself.  Sacrificing to the transparent, glittering and invisible liquids of the sky, the delicate, bright and aromatic liquids of the earth.  It consecrates the destiny of their union.  It loudly cries out about their indivisibility and asserts its immortality.  

Here infinity is unclean, an abstract metaphysical idea, but the visible, mixed with the celestial light of reality, radiates atmosphere, in which man walks, from head to foot bathed in the sun. […]

Cultures may be characterized by their relationship with nature.  These relationships thus create gods.

Culture is created when the spirit of the nation returns to the nuptial bed of the country, the land.

Culture cannot be bought and brought from the outside, as one buys and brings in goods or some intellectual values.  Ideas and ideals are not worth a penny, if they are not tightly connected with the country, with the native features of development.  In this sense one poplar, grown in the Ararat valley, is more important, than ten cultivated in Paris by Sorbonne-ized intellectuals. […]


These landscapes are nude, rocky and desolate, and just the same, they do not bring out sighs of sorrow, because they are full of invisible entities, that one Spanish saint called “spiritual gardens.” 

Here the real and final victory of man over the harsh and mighty nature means not the subjugation of the elements and vegetation to oneself, but the union and manifestation of the highest qualities of the race.  That primarily spiritual, that deep and primordial vitality, by which the race intends to fulfill its destiny, here miraculously copulates with the material world and rises powerfully and forcefully.  This, without a doubt, is the reason why Spain can be felt from afar.  The earth will hold within itself the spirituality of man, but man will hold within himself that bright clarity of the earth and that maturity of internal forces that, without a doubt, exist on the other side of the external world.

You feel that when bereft of aristocracy and deep spirituality, a people could not live there.  Only a race with a powerfully concentrated nature could not only withstand the full horror of history’s events, but would imprint on these events its own spiritual qualities; not only survive in an unrelenting corner, but weave from this inexorable deluge a marvelous wreath, and with it decorate ones human dignity and will to life.  […]

Oftentimes, meandering about at sunset on the endless jarales [park of eternally green trees] or tomillares [bushes], I felt like at every moment nature was transformed, that she lost clear outlines, entered the volatility of transparent light, dimed the reality of the landscape, stepped back and softened the presence of mountains, oddly blended with the illumination and thus abandoned herself and quietly, slowly, slid into a certain other reality.

All this is Spain, I told myself, this heavenward ascending light, turning her soul and history into such a magnificent and great mirage; a light and enigma of tragedies experienced in the name of that light.

Here is the greatness of Spain and the key to her soul.

Here also lies hidden, due to various conditions and different spiritual yearnings, the greatness of our race, the key to our soul.

The only difference being that Spain was able to grasp her spirit and thanks to her incomparable poetry, elevated it to the level of mighty universal human values, at the time when our spirit still remained a mountain top, covered by clouds, and groaning into the abyss, full of deaf sounds.  


On Death and Love

I found a little square at the eastern walls during the time of my wanderings.  From there an expansive and sad picture opened up.  I sat and looked.

A dry desert, winding between lines of barren hills…  A bright-yellow space during this nighttime hour looked like a huge lamp, burning behind cereous glass. 

No one was around.  Just at that moment on a bench nearby, crouching, sat a hunchback.  With sad and dreaming eyes he looked on the same landscape, but when I sat down, he got up and walked away, limping, hunchbacked, falling apart at each step, tripping, jerking his arms and legs sideways, jerking them up, then down, like scales possessed. 

Such a landscape should be approached only by such a person.

A broken being, that endeavors to gather together his body.

And I am thinking of a thousand different things…

Alone in this unfamiliar city, looking on an unfamiliar landscape, I felt myself a stranger.  That desert and that melancholy solitude did not evoke any fear or sadness.  How come?  It often happens that in big cities where life is booming, where the air is filled with voices, a person has no place to fully retreat into himself; there where the enticing music and your curious eyes run all around, you feel yourself eternally lonely, a timid stranger before the power raging all around.

A person is afraid of the unknown that can swallow him up, that suddenly bursting and mechanically moving life which does not belong to him, does not appear as the immediate expression of his soul, is not bound to him directly, but binds him, that forcefully inhibits his will and subjugates to itself.

Here things just don’t seem right.  The landscape seems to be imprinted upon me, connected to me with some form of ancient memory; it is a part of a certain complicated essence that lives only in unity with another essence. 

That…is us.

Even Armenia is present here.

And in my thoughts are our deserted fields, our majestic and dried out cliffs, the ridges of our copper mountains and those lost in the mists of their peaks become one with these mountains and barren hills.

That…is us.

Us and not us.  We say that it’s not us.  We cover our eyes desiring to see something else in the darkness.

We, Armenians, in accepting, do not accept.  To such a degree that we prefer to lie to ourselves.  We desire to exchange our country for another.  We do not reject her, but also do not accept her as she is.  We do not want her as she is.  Ah, we do not want her as she is!  We suffer, struggle, groan, carry upon our shoulders for centuries the horrible poverty of our land, but when speaking of the country, we raise our voice to the highest pitch and with the full force of our lungs cry out: “A land of paradise!”

We Armenians are realists.  We do not search for paradise there, beyond the clouds, in the next life, in the world unknown to symbolic spirituality, but want it here.  We do not think in eternities, but present ourselves the nudity of our land and say: patches of flowers, nightingales, murmuring brooks, trees and grass growing, and the rivers roaring…

Armenia was fostered by the common repertoire of cheap poetry. 

Mekhitarian Turkish delights mixed with grabar, today the “building” pathos of communists, and the poetry that repeats the same old words.

For a Spaniard, his country with her outward appearance and inner reserve is one unending drama.  This reality that he accepts with his whole being merges with her.  He intertwines with her his religious vision and worldview.

Spain - it would be more correct to say Castile as a land, as a country, as an original reality and Spanish thought as an understanding of life and death being a part of a single whole.  Not understanding one of these parts, one cannot understand the remainder.

For us death is a fatal end.  And the dream of every Armenian is to lie down into the native soil where it is “delightful.”  “Near our wellspring, under our tree, on the top of our hill…” It could very well be true that this wellspring is but a pile of wet stones, where one has to wait two hours so as to fill a jug; that the tree is a growing crib for stunted apple trees; and the hill is burnt by the sun and is a wind-beaten small hill.  But this is of little importance.  An Armenian embellishes his death, because besides this land, he instinctively does not see any other eternity and does not suffer in the name of a personal immortality.

For a Spaniard, this dry, hard, infertile, pitiless desert prophetically imposes a horrible bodily end and decay.

To die means to descend to Gehenna.  To die means to be physically destroyed, to rot, and dissolve.  To assimilate with the earth.  To become a corpse.  To decay and be eaten by worms.  And no matter how strong the idea of personal immortality is in a Spaniard, the conception of bodily destruction never leaves him.  Just to think, there is the end of the beauties of life; just to think, that this cannot be cheated…

From this comes his tragic effort to overcome death, and consequently, the reminiscence of death in this earth.  How to overcome?  By adjusting to the thought of death, taking in its reality, trying to wonder about it, to physically attach oneself to it, to gradually clothe oneself in the inexorable conception of it. 

To see death everywhere.  To be accustomed to its grimacing mask. 

Life is death.  And death is life. 

Raimundo Llul, prior to reaching sainthood, was a poet and a great lover.  He courted one of the most beautiful women in Spain, called Ambrosia.  “Leave me,” said Ambrosia, “as I am nothing but a piece of clay that gained the beauty of a rose.”  But the young Llul, full of life and passion, followed her everywhere.  He sang under her window, sent burning letters and love poems, and one day, crossing the line of decency, he rode on her trail into a church on a snorting horse, plunging into confusion the gathered believers.  Finally Ambrosia sent him her maid and set an assignation at her home.  Llul is in rapture.  He puts on his best set of clothes and buckling a bejeweled sword, he sets out to his beloved.

What wondrous beauty does he see before him!  Large, expressive, velvety eyes; arched brows; burning, pomegranate-like lips; and rosy cheeks.  Llul takes two steps forward so as to fall beneath her feet and (oh horror!) he stops in fear.  Beneath Ambrosia’s beauty, another face emerged: one covered with festering sores, with falling chunks of flesh, hollowed eye-sockets and worm like lips.  “This is for you,” spoke Ambrosia, “since you forget that in the end, any beauty turns to this…”

And from that day Llul gave himself to religion.

This story, that for us is only a legend, is a fundamental theme of Spanish spiritual life.  One could say that all Spanish art (painting, lovely painted wooden figures, sculpture, literature, and poetry) is penetrated by it.  The moral history of Spain circles around it and is inspired by it.

Everyone knows the wonderfully forceful canvasses of Valdes Leal from the Caridad de Seville that depict the end of this world of ours.

Fin de la Gloria del mundo [Thus passes worldly glory].

In the foreground, in the lit vault, two open caskets.  In one lies the bishop, in the other a knight belonging to the order of Calatrava.  Their clothes are still intact, reflecting their earthy glory- but what faces!  The face of the bishop is swarming with worms, and from an open wound puss is flowing upon his magnificent vestments; the knight’s face is yet untouched by decay, but has a yellowish hue and is covered with blue cadaverous spots, strands of hair are stuck to his forehead, lips are void of life, and the temples tightly compressed. 

The second painting depicts Death.

A great skeleton with a casket under his arm- the left hand mowing people down with a terrible weapon, one foot rests upon the terrestrial globe, and with the other he extinguishes candlelight that symbolizes life.  The inscription reads: In acti oculi [In an instant].

In other countries artists also depicted nightmarish visions: one need only remember Bosch and Bruegel, the favorite painters of Philip II.  However, nowhere but in Spain were such paintings an expression of the general psychology.  Bosch and Bruegel expressed a pure individual fantasy outside of their era.  Dutch painters at the same time were busy with the new trends of the Renaissance, especially with Raphael, and Bruegel’s fascination with the Middle Ages remained for them unintelligible and bizarre.  This at the time when Valdes Leal was the spawn of the essential Spanish soul. 

Furthermore, he drew inspiration in the famous composition under the name of “Discurso de la Verdad” [A Discourse on the Truth] from Miguel Mañara, the creator of the hospital at Caridad. 

Today it is concretely proven that Miguel Mañara is no other then the famed Don Juan.

Don Juan!

“I, Miguel Mañara, ash and dust,” he writes in his remaining will, “am a pitiful sinner, who served Babylon and Satan, was his prince with all my abominations and shame, pride, fornication, profanity, temptations and theft.  With my sins, my countless evil deeds without limit, that only the Lord’s omniscience can endure and only His infinite mercy may forgive.”

Don Juan- African fire, hidden in the body of an Apollo.  He attracted women “more powerfully, than a magnet attracts metal.”

It is impossible to imagine an Armenian Don Juan.  This is a truly Spanish “product,” for whom love is a turbulent flow, a rebellion against the body, a riot against an inflamed heart, an anarchic rejection of the real and a primitive fear before death.  Fearing death, he seeks death.  Miguel constantly subjected his life to danger.  With sword in hand he entered the bedrooms of other men’s wives and stepping over the bodies of awakened husbands, he departed, so as to enter another window…  Contemporaries said that each day he partook in a bullfight and killed a bull.  He not only started fights in all quarters of the city, but went far into the mountains for a dangerous hunt, so as to compare his strength against a wild beast.  He drove the beauties of Seville mad, and it seemed that fate protected him.  Once he fell with his horse into a deep ravine and found his way out unscathed.  Another time a huge avalanche covered him completely, and all were convinced that he disappeared forever, until they saw him standing calmly on another side of the gorge.  That very day he magically left his home just a few minutes before it collapsed.

He fell deadly ill and it was thought that he would expire, but no, he got better and while still lying in bed, began to take down the names of women that he deceived, lovers and men that he tricked.  This list of names covered all classes: pope, emperor, persons with princely and knightly titles, and commoners.  Someone mentioned that amid such worthies, God’s name was missing, so he noted a capital “G” before the names of all nuns that he seduced. 

Scarcely had he recovered when he was informed that the beauty Teresita, whose father he killed, fled to a nunnery from grief.  He went to the monastery, where Teresita, seeing him, falls into his embrace.

His list of lovers expands with new names daily.  During a fiesta, where all city notables were present, he took out of his pocket this list, turned it around and mockingly stated: “Look señores, are your names not forgotten by any chance?  If they are not here, it is only due to the unattractiveness of your wives…” Rage burned in the eyes of the guests, and if it weren’t for the intervention of his friend, blades would have immediately pierced the breast of the bold Don Miguel.  Together with his squire Don Alfonso Peres Velasco, he left the fiesta at a late hour, almost the last man there, since a woman that he desired to visit, would open her door exactly on the agreed upon and safe hour.

After midnight they traverse the city in cheer, when a suddenly strange loud noise interrupts their conversation and fills their heart with sadness.  Sad voices are heard, a requiem reaches their ears, and in the open doors of the church of Santa Cruz are seen blurred flames and the pale tongues of dying candles.  Such a sight in the quiet of midnight can instill terror in the bravest heart, but not in the heart of Don Miguel, who courageously enters the church and with surprise faces darkness and silence.

They anxiously continue on their way.

In the Jewish quarter, now long gone, at a crossing of two small streets - Death Street and Casket Street, a skull hung.  It belonged to a beautiful Jewish courtesan, who repented and in atonement for her sins bequeathed her skull to be hung on the wall of her home where she usually accepted guests.  At this crossroad, Miguel suddenly falls upon the ground hardly breathing.  As he explained later, a powerful strike placed on the nape of his neck brought him down, and until he regained consciousness, some voice repeated a few times: “He is dead, bring the casket.”   Meanwhile the street was empty and the voice did not sound human.

Shaken, Miguel returned home quickly.

On another day he found out that he escaped imminent death.  Three persons from the fiesta who found out where Miguel was heading, not only told the parents of the girl, but joined with the members of her family in a plan to kill Miguel.

Maybe the skull and that voice saved him?

Miguel changes his way of life.  He does not go to a monastery as in the tale of Don Juan, but marries: this is confirmed by evidence gathered after his death by the jurors of the Highest Clerical Court.

He takes to be his wife a lovely, goodhearted girl with innocent eyes and a singing voice - Jirolima Carillo de Mendoza.  He could not be happier.  At the age of thirty he feels like he could change his life and make his newly arrived dream come true.  When he looks at Jirolima, he fancies that her eyes reflect all the delightful gazes that he never noticed upon himself and in the name of which he subjected his life to danger.  In her voice and sweet smile, he sees a torn rose of past voices and smiles, implanting themselves into his love-filled heart.

This happiness lasted only a few years.  His wife died.

Miguel went mad with grief.  Taking his wife’s casket, he ran to the Ronza Mountains, into the religious retreat “Snow Desert,” the most primitive part of Andalusia.  There in the semi-crumbling monastery called Carm, where there was no one but him, he became deranged, spent whole days in a dark cell or climbing up a mountaintop, then down a ravine, finding his way into ancient craters, so as to wail to his heart’s content about his woes and to pray for a miracle of resurrection.  It is said one could take him for a holy man, and if that was not in his power to be, then his beloved could be returned by Satan, to whom he would pay any imaginable price. 

Satan or God.  Don Juan always pondered in symbols. 

“This death,” it would be later said by one witness, “was an expression of godly love, a means to return Don Miguel to the side of the faithful.” 

Everyone takes him as a madman.

“Seeing him in such a lonely state and so isolated from others,” remembers another witness, “people said that he lost his reason, yet others claimed that he was in a deep state of melancholy.”  Everywhere he notices phantasms and ghosts, he hears voices.  One day a procession was passing him.  “Is it some saint’s day being celebrated today?” asks Don Miguel from one in the procession.  “We are going to bury Señor Miguel Mañara,” replied the man.  Miguel laughs and asks another the same question.  The answer is the same.  He trails the procession and in church he asks once again: “Whose funeral is this?”  “The funeral of Miguel Mañara,” he is told.

Losing consciousness, Miguel falls to the ground.

Another time he runs down a street after a woman whose manner of walking and figure reminded him of his adored Jirolima.  He quickens his pace, tries to catch up with her, but she flies determinedly and rushes into the church as though driven by the wind.  There Don Miguel cries: “Heartless woman, will you finally look upon me?”  She looked at him and, (oh horror!) instead of a woman’s face he sees a skull.

Later comes the time of repentance.  Don Miguel leaves the family palace and gives his whole fortune to a hospital founded by him at Caridad.  It was exactly at this time that he commissions from Valdes Leal the excellent, from an artistic point of view, painting “The Victory of Death,” about which Murillo said that it’s impossible to look upon it without holding ones nose, and where the depicted dead knight is Don Juan himself. 

“Here rest the bones of the most foolish man that ever earth upheld.  Pray for him.”  And further: “I command that my corpse, barefoot, with an uncovered head, with crucifix in hand and covered by my cloak, should be placed upon a cross of ash, and near it, two candles… Let them carry me without music and bury me on the threshold of the tomb of St. Charity, so that everyone who enters would trample upon me…”

Some tried to rank Don Juan alongside the canonized saints.  I would not be surprised if it happens one day.

If saints are the highest expression of the national genius then why should Don Quixote and even Don Juan be not canonized?  After all, the Great Inquisitor was canonized…


Yes, death brings horror to the Spaniard. 

Not an otherworldly inscrutability and incomprehension, not an uncertainty of whether he will exist in another life or not, and not even the cruel punishment from the merciless cruelty of the sky, but those circumstances in which the body alters, becomes a corpse, decomposes and disappears.

Spanish individualism cannot accept this.

The sight of a corpse drives a Spaniard to madness, agitates his thoughts and heart, plunges his African nature into a blaze, and his soul is driven to severe suffering and rebellion.

A purely material fact.  A corpse.

The wife of Emperor Carlos V, Isabella of Portugal, whom Titian in one of his paintings depicted as a woman with delightful, delicate facial features and a graceful figure, inspired Duke de Gandia, the Marquis Lombe to passionate love.  When she died from childbirth at Toledo, her body that she requested to not be embalmed, was moved to Granada.  Opening the lid of the coffin, Duke de Gandia saw with horror the decomposing corpse that held no trace of a previous beauty, and fled weeping. 

Duke de Gandia later became Saint Francisco Borgia. 

If such is our end, that means that we should be ready for it beforehand, that means to become the same as he. 

That means that we should be near to this earth, taking in her cruel emptiness, dryness and solitude.  We will become one body.  We will become death itself.

This extreme Catholic materialism was fortunately softened in places by the influence of Arab mysticism, which even explains the originality of Spanish theology and its adoption of the impartial stance in regards to life, which for us remains foreign and mostly incomprehensible.


Our Gods are different.

An Armenian bows not before the material, but before nature.  For us, Jesus and even the cross are the sun.  Our country is light.  Great, monumental light, upon whose rays our life depends.

“I swear by your sun.”  “I shall die for your light.” 

The sun of the sun, the light of the light.  Death is not an eclipse, not a loss, but a modified, long, and ineradicable life.  If you were to dig into the soil of the Spaniard, you’ll find a skeleton and decay.  But if you were to dig Armenian soil, light would burst from below, the sun would give off its glitter and life would come into being.

Our theology is still unwritten.

Our sky is our boundless desire to rest on the top of our mountains.  There where our gods still reside.  Where they wait.  Wait for great spiritual achievements, a great spiritual epic song for which the Armenian is still unready, but whose inspiration will write his history. 

I sit and look at the desert, dying alongside the setting sun.  It evokes sadness and suppressed emotion. 

To rid oneself of this great emptiness, one must avert ones gaze.  These far reaching lands are speechless.  If one were to strike the ground, the loose soil would not produce a sound.

While Armenia is a huge rock.  If you were to kick it, it would ring, clink.  Like metal. 

The border between sound and light is like the frequency of a vibration.  Like the border between life and death, which is also like the frequency of a vibration.  The sun becomes sound and sound becomes the sun. 

This is why we do not fear our land.  Why we want to lie down in her womb.  To be and to belong together with her.  In imitation of the sun.

No, our theology is still unwritten.

The Book of our golden legends is unwritten.  The deep history of mangods; and the unseen and incomprehensible sunlit daring emanating from Ara.


Levon, King of Armenia

To this day Madrid cannot forget this adventure – not only Madrid, all of Spain cannot forget it.  Just imagine!

The director of the city library: tall, well-groomed, with a wide Roman face, a monocle in his eye; standing before a chair, upon which I am invited to sit, and looking at me in part with interest and in part with suspicion, and complete puzzlement.

“Yes, yes señor,” he spoke, “nothing of the sort actually took place…Just imagine!  Astounding, improbable, as everything in our Castile! ...” He adjusts his monocle, raises an eyebrow and looks me in the eye with confusion.  “Just imagine…” He has such a dumbfounded appearance, that I cannot hold back a laugh.  And he tries to laugh.

“What you cannot deny,” I said in jest, “is that we have a claim to Madrid.”  His face turns serious.  He removes his monocle and looks at me with fear.

“I can’t,” he says in all seriousness, “I can’t say…  In any case, your case concerns City Hall…”

After half an hour we are already the best of friends.  We speak of his poetry and our history, which is new to him.  Now, convinced that I do not demand Levon V’s inheritance, he completely calms down.  He places before me all the needed books, brings a pen and inkstand, offers me a Cuban cigar and schedules an appointment for me at City Hall.

“You must agree of course,” he says with a smile, “that our king’s purely Castilian generosity went a bit far.  What would you say if someone took it into their head to present three, I repeat, three important cities of your country with full rights, to let’s say a most worthy, most unfortunate and most Christian, but an altogether foreign king – let’s not forget, with full rights!”

“This suggests the breadth and majesty of the Castilian soul…”

“Yes, just imagine…”

He lights me a cigar and, with head held high, he walks into his office.  I experience the same everywhere.  At government agencies, at the library of the Academy, at the offices of the daily newspaper, during private conversations…  Eyes bulge from shock, a confused facial expression, furrowed brows.  “Just imagine!”


In 1383, Sierra Nevada was a vast desert around the crumbling fortress of Madrid.  In winter there were the storms and blizzards, in summer there were the sun and dust. 

This insignificant city at the heart of Castile, standing on a minor hill, will accumulate rows of houses, divided by uneven little streets, with flat roofs and narrow little windows – so that sand and heat wouldn’t get inside and so that during enemy attack, the inhabitants could jump from roof to roof, creeping one on top of the other.

When the church bells pealed inside the fortress, ringing from its highest point, grandees in silk robes and long swords, sitting on loud neighing horses, galloped uphill, shaking the city houses, and the streets echoing with the sound of a deep gorge.

Cities at that time were not so much places of residence, as symbols of the inherited rights of lords.  There, near a bright-golden royal banner on the El Casar tower, swaying flags stood in line, boasting the rank of numerous grandees: with colors of blood, green meadows, blackened silver, blue sky…

In courtyards, iron chests, crumbling cellars, caverns dug beneath the foundation, were stored documents decorated with heavy seals, under which were ornate signatures of the king and his numerous witnesses; documents listing many names and places, and the intricate language of notary jurisprudence mixing with biblical language: an oath – with an attached curse, the Apocalypse – with land measured in miles. 

All of Sierra Nevada was included in parchment.

They looked jealously upon the land taken from the Arabs.  The struggle for it was long and merciless.  Every bit of land held a bloody memorial.  To the howling snowstorm of Sierra joined the voices of a thousand taken lives. Under the horses’ hooves sounded plaintive moans.  And the war continued.

Juan I, “hidalgo of hidalgos, knight of knights, brave warrior, humble and true Christian, majestic monarch and proud Castilian,” first sat on the throne aged twenty-one and quickly earned the universal reputation as a wise and sagacious king. 

In a country that was in a state of chaos, he began to create order.  He created many new laws; people of separate classes were forced to wear different clothes; towns and villages were granted special, almost autonomous rights; he granted amnesty to all prisoners; forbade poverty and commanded that work be found for the poor; lessened the bribery of judges and forced the people to read the new code of laws. 

Juan I was a mighty monarch. 

His brilliantly organized an army, cleansed Spain from internal enemies and crossed the border into Portugal, for the purpose of conquering that country.  During the endless wars between France and England, he was on the side of France.  In 1383 his armada heavy-handedly sailed for the shores of England, entered the Thames and there, in the middle of London, sank British vessels. 

As a good Catholic he didn’t forget about the Jews.  He created special laws under which Jews were deprived of using their own laws and had to use common law. 

To save the cross from the ghetto. 

To save the soul of Spain. 

Since Spain…is the heart of Christ.  And the bells of Toledo Cathedral beat so loudly, that they could even be heard in Rome.  And throughout the world.  Not only the bells of Toledo, but the victorious cries of Castilian soldiers. 

The Cross and the Sword. 

Juan I, in a long red mantle, surrounded by haughty knights and senior clergy, entered the church and as long as the horns bellowed and bells pealed, he remained on his knees before the altar surrounded by a thousand candles, whose flames glittered and sparkled in the jewels of his crown, indulging in the stream of prayer that only echoed in his heart.


The year 1383 brought great grief to the king.  He just signed a peace treaty with Portugal when news came from Madrid, that the queen Dona Leonora, young and lovely, gave birth to a child of the female sex.  In spite of the daily and nightly prayers in all the churches, in spite of the blessing from the cardinal and the medicine from snake’s skin and crow’s beak, after an awful bloodletting, and partaking of communion, she passed away. 

Juan I was crushed. 

Was it an omen or a punishment?  Was it Providence punishing him?  Can it be that he was negligent in performing his duties, can it be that he was neglecting the interests of the Church: wasn’t he pious and devout, devoting his power to the protection of the Holy Church? 

His heart mourned and he was tormented by thoughts. 

The bells of cities and villages rang in mourning.  Churches echoed with cries, in the monasteries they fasted.  Shut in with his old confessor, the king wretchedly repented for his past sins and, holding back his tears, swore to immortalize the memory of his beloved Leonora with good Christian deeds, humility and generous alms. 

A horse and retinue awaited him on the street.  Juan planned to go to Madrid, so as to ceremoniously transfer the body of Leonora to Toledo and bury her in the chapel where lay the ashes of Enrique II. 

When the king left the palace, everyone noticed a clear and gracious light upon his face.  Despite the heat, the procession moved all day long without rest.  Finally in the evening, being tired and hungry, they decided to remain overnight at Medina del Campo. 

Juan retired to one of the chambers for prayer.  “Thy Will Be Done, O Lord” - and he stretched out in bed.

At dawn, as they were readying to continue their journey, the king was informed that two messengers arrived from Babylonia and desired to see him.

A knight and monk appeared before the king.

“Great king, we are Christ’s servants, arriving from the land of Babylon in the name of the suffering captive King of Armenia…”

Juan could not believe his eyes.  This meant that the heavens heard his promise; this meant, that the Almighty already demands a tribute!  With a voice emanating from so far!

“Speak now!  Speak!”

First, pressing his waxy-pale hands to his chest and kneeling was a sunken-cheeked monk of the Order of the Uniate.  His large eyes were full of suffering, and his voice trembled from unease.  The words of his Vulgar Latin, which was translated by a Dominican monk, beat waves of sadness and howled many an inexorable wind.  A great cry arose from the vast fields of the Eastern world.  Savage tribes raided and destroyed cities, burned villages, and turned the country into dust.  Solitudinem faciunt, o rex [they created havoc, o king].  Defenders of the cross, princes and nobles slaughtered, the people groaning in the captivity of the infidel, women and maidens…

Sobs halted the speech of the monk.  Help, help, pro Deo et Ecclesia! [in the name of God and Church].

Then a strapping red-bearded knight, in a black mantle with a red cross upon his breast, knelt and placed his left hand upon his sword.  His deep and low voice was loud and expressive.  When he got excited, the black curls that lay on his shoulders fluttered, his eyes burned.  He told the king under what conditions the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia that lay upon the Mediterranean Sea had disappeared.  He spoke of how the Armenian king, in whose veins ran the noble blood of the Lusignans, after the disadvantageous battles “in the name of the holy orthodox Christian church” fell into the hands of Soldan’a [sultan in old Castilian] and is now undergoing indescribable suffering.  In vain did he await the involvement of the Christian monarchs, in whose company Armenian knights battled in the heroic Crusades in the name of liberating the Holy Sepulcher; and in vain did they approach the lords of other nations to help the unfortunate king, who dreams of the return of his lands and the continuation of the struggle in the name of the Holy Trinity.  And thus, hearing of the brave, noble and mighty king of Castile whose Christian piety is known to the world, the Armenian king bade them to beg and entreat him to come, rescue the Armenian king from the hands of the infidel and to save Christian honor.

In his last words the knight was deeply moved, paused for a moment, stretched his arms skyward and exclaimed in French: Pour Dieu vous prie, o roi de Castille, de liberer de la douleur dolente et dure, par Sainte Marie, le roi captif de l'Armenie!.. [In the name of God we beg you, o king of Castile, to liberate from sorrowful pain and hardship and in the name of the Virgin Mary, the captive king of Armenia.]

The king of Castile ordered to immediately send ambassadors to the sultan of the infidel, for the purpose of saving the Christian king.  He didn’t have a very clear idea where this mighty barbarian-sultan resided, in which country he ruled, and what sort of land was Armenia.  He only vaguely knew that in the East existed a country named Babylonia, about which it was written in the Bible and near it was Jerusalem, the grave of Christ, land of the magi… But in the depth of his soul, Juan was certain that the request by the messengers was God’s Will.  The Almighty wants to test him.  And how could one know if Leonora’s soul was not calling out to him?  The Lord’s Will Be Done, this Christian act must be committed in memory of Leonora, so as to save her soul.

“I will do everything to rescue my brother, Christ’s servant, the Armenian King Levon.”

“Ambassadors must take with them the most expensive gifts that they can find,” said the knight.  “Quickly, choose the best gifts,” ordered the king of Castile.

And from the royal treasury were selected rich fabrics: velvet embroidered with gold, the finest Cordoba silk, the finest weapons of Toledo steel, and lots of gold and silver objects.  Algunos falcones gerifaltes, escarlatas, penasverоs (martas blanсas) y varias alhajas de oro y plata, los mejores quе pudo haber [some gyrfalcons, scarlet, several gold and silver jewelry, the best of things.]

“O my lord, king,” spoke the monk, “this barbarous despot of Babylon is arrogant and haughty; he demands that Christian kings addressed him with humility, with submissiveness and supplication of the lowest kind.” Upon hearing these words, the eyes of the grandees surrounding Juan I flashed, and the tips of the swords trembled. 

“Let Gonzalo Martinez, the court chronicler, compose such a petition,” declared the king amid the general shock; and turning to his courtiers, he added: “This pitiful petition will be a lesson in Christian humility and love, as well as an expression yet unheard of in the expressions of the Castilian spirit: genorosidad y caballerosidad [generosity and chivalry.]

While Juan travelled to Madrid in order to fulfill his sad mission, his appointed ambassadors together with King Levon’s men, who were readying for their long and dangerous journey.

This half-fairytale and half-history, primarily witnessed by Spanish chroniclers (to whom, it is said, everything appears in an exaggerated form), could be enriched by much description.  It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to use the works of many authors (from Marco Polo to Ruy González de Clavijo), to describe the departure of Juan’s delegation, who were to experience travels full of danger, as described by the same Clavijo; the delegation that on its path met storms and winds, were open to the perpetual threat of attack by pirates and robbers, and experienced thousands of other mishaps. 

One could also describe those countries through which they probably passed, the striking languages and dialects that they heard as they arrived at their destination, at the palace of the sultan (here one could be more colorful, use abundant epithets, express trepidation, shudders and excitement), fell to their knees, struck their foreheads to the ground, persuaded him and finally agreed to take the suffering Armenian king from his dungeon, and to whom the news of his freedom was told in voices sobbing with joy.

What couldn't be described about those horrible times?  One could write about Tamerlane’s hordes and their whirlwind tour from India to Syria, and the pyramids of 70,000 skulls that they erected.  About the sorry state of Constantinople, that was ready to fall at the feet of Turks.  About the destruction of cities, made into “uninhabitable places,” and of massacres.  About the destruction of an 8,000-year-old Mediterranean irrigation system and the turning of fertile ground into desert.  About the ruthless rule of the Mameluks in Egypt – a dynasty originating from enslaved Christian boys.  About the cowardly and brutal friendship between the Byzantines and Turks, and their readiness to sacrifice Christian nations in the name of that friendship. 

About the senseless policy of ignorant and petty popes; whose personal animosity towards the Armenians and their thirst for revenge, whose vanity and petty calculations; can be considered one of the greatest crimes in the world.  Just think of it – in 1269 the powerful Kublai Khan sent a delegation to Rome with the request to prepare clergy so as to propagate Christianity among his people.  That was a unique and marvelous opportunity to rein in and educate barbarian hordes.  The delegates from Kublai Khan waited for two years without any result.  Clerical parties struggled for the papal throne.  And when finally, Innocent IV was elected, he condescended to send to the East only two semi-literate Dominican monks, who were so little interested in their mission that they didn't even arrive at their destination.  Two ignorant Dominican monks for the purpose of converting to Christianity one of the most powerful empires in the world!

Catholic power, in which there was so much hope in poor Lusignan, was experiencing disintegration.  Monstrous marionettes that spoke in the name of Christ held only individual or group interests at heart.  Upon the grave of St. Peter, a sad comedy was being played out. 

In 1261 the Greeks reconquered Constantinople from the Latins.  Michael VIII permanently broke ties with the papacy.  And Rome, vindictive and narrow-minded, responded with conspiracies and intrigues that took many dangerous forms; and all this with incredible hatred for those Christians who were not blindly obedient to its authority.  What sort of authority?  Popes in Rome and anti-popes in Avignon.  One pope excommunicated another, that other responded with curses.  Power struggle, intrigue and malice.  States also split according to which pope they allied themselves.  On one side was the anti-French alliance: England, Hungary, Poland and northern Europe; on the other side: France, her ally the king of Scotland, Christian kings of the Iberian peninsula and a few German princes.

Little Armenia swarmed with ignorant and vicious Latin clergy.  Their true purpose was to incite one side of the Armenian nation against the other.  Their aim was to divide, create disagreement and disorder. 

From a spiritual point of view, this was a greater evil than the Turkish conquest.

Beneath the guise of those speakers of linguam armeniam elegantem [the aristocratic Armenian language] were snakes, scorpions, and croaking ravens that fled as soon as danger appeared in our midst.

Only the Armenian people were left, while centuries black and unrelenting had begun.

About this I may speak a long time, but where to find the words?  Armenian historiography has raised a black flag, absorbing all these words, so none are left... And if some do remain, they are different kind of words, as they must be different kind of words.  And how hard it is to find them is known by all.

At any rate, the fact stands that in 1383, speech abandoned the Armenian people.  "In some their tongues dried out," wrote Abovian, "in others, their souls perished, and in still others their lips withered from fear, and blood flowed like a river…"

In the midst of all this horror, there remained our blessed Levon V.  Lonely, miserable, and pitiable.  In a way he was like Hamlet, running after the apparition of his father.  I must say that in every chronicle, book and manuscript that I could get my hands on, there wasn't even a mention of the Armenian people, not a word about their suffering and lost freedom.  There was only the mention of Levon, the return of the throne of his ancestors, the sultan and the true Catholic faith. 


When I want to imagine that epoch, Spanish morals and personality types (primordial roughness, innocent and epic), for some reason one Abyssinian film-reel is before my eyes: some sort of Negus and many different tribes.  Why? – I couldn’t possibly say.  Yet I’m certain that it is driven by an internal truth.  By some sort of a psychological analogy.

Arab cunning in conjunction with the immediacy of religious feeling.  Boundless innocence and inordinate vanity.  The desire to be Harun al Rashid and Solomon at the same time.

And worried and envious glances from different tribes. Murmuring and whispering.

None of them believed that the “sultan of Babylon” would grant freedom to the Armenian king.  In their hearts, all were confident and calm.  It appears that Juan himself didn’t have great hopes.  A year had passed since the delegates were sent, and there was no news.  And what if the impossible were to take place and the king be granted freedom, then there will be no doubt: God allowed him to accomplish a just act – to teach the infidel sultan a good lesson and show the whole Christian world the greatness and knightliness of the Spanish soul…

Juan I was on the border with Portugal when he was told that the delegation sent to the sultan returned with the Armenian king that had been rescued from captivity.

The nobility began to get worried.

Juan’s happiness had no limit.  Immediately he gave an order to ready for a celebratory meeting with the tormented king at Badajoz.  Grandees and servants, excited, unable to wait for the unlikely meeting, para quienes era por extremo sorprendente aquel espectacolo [for whom this presentation was very surprising, stunning].  Just think: a king freed from Babylonian captivity!  A biblical scene where the main role is played by the powerful monarch of Castile…

And here is the melodramatic scene.

Juan I in a grand pose, which befits an actor playing the role of a Shakespearean king, enthroned, surrounded by grandees in luxurious robes and with servants.  Levon V, who in later engravings that appeared from goodness knows where was depicted as a well-fed bishop (big cheeks, wide shoulders, bearded, with an Eastern turban on his head; while under the circumstances he should have been depicted emaciated and exhausted, aristocratic and pale), as soon as he saw Juan, derribabare in tierra – he falls to the ground, at the king’s feet and stretching his lips, endeavors to kiss his feet.  Saddened by this sentimental scene, the magnanimous and gracious Juan jumps to his feet lightening-quick, and raises the pitiful Levon, thus showing, as Spanish historians say “if he rescued him from evil hands, this does not mean that he desired to see him pathetic and humiliated.” 

Immediately, desiring to show that this is indeed the case, he orders that the unfortunate king be given the best clothes threaded with gold, silver-trimmed weapons, jewels and everything that will help him recoup lost oriental luxory.

Let the world see generosidad y caballerosidad [generosity and chivalry] of the formidable king of Castile!

But as though this were not enough, just imagine señor(!), he, driven by some tumultous and uncontralable feeling, went to such an extreme that was unseen in all of the history of the Middle Ages: he presented this foreigner with a gift that was the heart of Castile: the three cities of Madrid, Andújar and Villarreal.

Madrid!  Let's put the others to the side for now, but Madrid, the jewel in the crown of Castile!

And here the melodrama turns into a real drama.

Juan's order falls on the heads of the Castilian nobility, like a ton of bricks.  At first everyone was so stunned, that no one dared to utter a word.  How can one resist the monarch's will?  What took place was so unexpected, so new and unheard of, that the nobility at first didn't fully grasp the meaning of what had just taken place.

A hollow murmur arose, discontent.

Just imagine!

That the fate of an unfortunate and distant land could produce sympathy and mercy in the hearts of believers is understandable.  That the king who had lost his wealth should be rightly given generous assistance is also understandable.  That this king should be given money and weapons so that he could reconquer his country and reinstate his legitimate rights, that also is understandable.  But, holy of holies, to give him three important cities belonging to the crown of Castile and to make him their lord, and whom the noblest and proudest aristocracy must obey – that is horrible, that is unforgivable!

Annoyance, ferment, protest.

Secret meetings are called at the palaces of the grandees.  Scathing and mocking words are expressed.  Groups are formed.  People are sent to all corners of Castile, so as to spread the news to all the vassals of the throne and to all the noblest families.  Everyone with an interest is aroused.  The City Council whose rights are trampled, landowners and merchants who would be deprived of their monopoly, and the people who are to be led by some foreigner - an Oriental barbarian.

This concern is primarily motivated by material interest.  The aristocracy has sacred rights laid down by law in regard to city income.  How will the new owner dispose of his property?   He is as poor as a church mouse, so it is natural that to replenish his coffers he will tear down everything he can get his hands on.  One need not be a prophet to prophesy this.  An Oriental, even a Christian one, is at heart a sultan, a despot, there’s no doubt about it!

And we?

Finally, the rights of the Cortes are trampled.  Without a decision made by the Cortes, the king of Castile has no right to make such a decision.  No right!

Juan was grieved when he learned of the growing protest.  And then he became outraged.  He declared: if the notables of Castile want to serve him, they must accept his will, which is unshakeable.

On October 9, 1383, Juan sent a definitive order to the members of the City Council and the Notary Public, to prepare and sign the already existing order in Segovia, in which it is agreed that Madrid and two other cities shall be given to the Armenian king.

The evidence is in Document 2-a-385-18 at the Chancellery of the City of Madrid:

“En la ciudad de Segovia, lunes diez y nuebe de Octubre… estando el muy alto e muy noble don Leon, rey de Armenia, en su palacio en el monasterio de San Francisco de la dicha cibdat, en persona antel dicho rey don Leon, et en presencia de mi Gonzale Martinez, escrivanto de oro señor el rey Johan de Castiella…”

“On Monday October 9, in the city of Segovia, together with the most noble Don Levon, king of Armenia, in his palace at the monastery of San Francisco of the aforementioned city, in the presence of the said king Don Levon, our señor King Juan and my clerk Gonzale Martinez…”

Juan fulfilled his promise honestly.

The people of Madrid gave their consent to be the subjects of King Levon.  The mayor of the city sought the consent of the City Council, stressing that, in order to avoid any surprises and possible misunderstandings in the future, King Juan reserves the right to certain lands and certain income from the city.

On October 12, 1383 King Levon arrived in Madrid from Segovia.

The people greeted the new lord with fanfare.  As an expression of loyalty to the mayor's office and the Council, a petition was signed and submitted by Dons Diego Fernandez de Madrid, Alvaro Fernandez de Lago, Gonzalo Bermudez and Juan Rodriguez, in which they noted that, according to the will of the Council, the city should retain privileges, rights and liberties and that the city should continue to grow and prosper.  Juan I responded with full agreement, considering the Council's demand to be just, and using this opportunity he publicly explained the reasons that moved him to give such rights to an Armenian king that had lost his inheritence.  The main reason was that the unfortunate king had sacrificed everything, even his kindom for preserving “the holy Catholic faith” habia perdido su regno en defendimento de la sanna fe catolica.

Juan had to make such a declaration, as it seemed that the movement against the Armenian king had became rather dangerous.  The Castilian nobility, who were joined by most of the clergy, used any method to discredit the foreigner.   Was this king…a proper Catholic?  Monks living in the Orient state that Armenians have always been the enemies of the papacy, schismatics and persecutors of Catholic missionaries…

And if this Armenian king really was a true Catholic, how can one be certain that after his death some schismatic won’t claim the inheritance and won’t force upon the people his satanic religion?

Juan, whose soon to be extinguished magnanimity, gave Levon cities without conditions, was a fact that he amended by stating that these rights were given to the Armenian for his lifelong pleasure, but after his death the city of Madrid and his income and privelages will revert back to the crown of Castile.  And so as to dispel any doubts about the last point and so that the Council, knights and honest folk (consejo, caballeros y hombres buenos) would be quite certain about it, Juan ceremoniously gave his royal word of honor that after the death of the Armenian, the city will be inherited by Juan's eldest son infanto Don Enrique and his offspring, and could never be inherited by anyone else under any condition, by neither a native nor foreigner, and from this point on, he, the king of Castile, orders the Council, knights and all the people never and under no circumstances, to take measures or sign any document that contradicted his promise. 

All this he commanded to be put down on paper, attaching a still more lengthy preface confirming his Catholic faith, where the Trinity, Virgin Mary and the canonization of saints were mentioned, and where he has his eldest son sign among many witnesses: certain that the document would appease both members of the Council and the nobility (chancellery document 2-a-305-27).

As we learn later, this hadn't helped a bit.

That Juan took preventitive measures for the future was fine, but what about now?  Who will reimburse the losses that knights and honest folk suffered?  The money that is being spent by this barbarous Armenian king, that income that he is receiving out of their pocket.  Rights ancient and popular are being trampled.  Religion and humanity is one thing, but what about their money?!

Anger and hatred toward the Armenian king grew.

Taking shelter in his palace, surrounded by ill disposed courtiers who despised him, the last King of Armenia and the first Armenian Refugee spent hard and bitter days.

Living in a foreign land, eating foreign bread!

A harbinger of the tragedy that will become reality for most of the Armenian nation.  The first “sale étranger” (dirty foreigner), the first psychological lash of the whip, the first humiliation, the first hanging of the head among swine: all the things that the wounded self respect of the Armenians was to experience for centuries!  

To be honest, I hold no sympathy for this pitiful Lusignan as a king.  His fanatical latinophilia and adherence to the Catholic faith brought the Armenian people many troubles.  In the last years of the Cilician kingdom, the Armenian nation was split, corrupted, devoid of consensus and spiritual unity.  Infinite are the losses and harm done to our nation due to the throne’s support for ignorant, depraved and parasitic foreign clergy - and the harm continues to this day.  There were also terrible consequences for the foolish faith that Armenians began to hold for the so-called “civilized Christian countries”: we were innocent lambs, who kept staring into the void! 

What of Levon V, in his new jail in Madrid – did he understand this?

It seemed that after all the explanations and concessions to the aristocracy that Juan made, things ought to have calmed down.  But no, the struggle against the foreign king continued more fiercely than before.  Our money!  Our income!

Notwithstanding all the efforts by Levon to please his subjects, to be a just lord, a humble and devout Catholic, compassionate toward the poor, generous, kind and wise, the discontent kept growing.

So as to tarnish the reputation of King Levon, many rumors were spread about him.  That it was untrue that he lost his kingdom defending the Christian faith.  Armenians have always been the enemies of Catholicism and persecuted missionaries!  Juan I is just too innocent and kind.  He believes this wily Oriental and is not thinking about what will happen if he were to die tomorrow, how this former tyrant could turn to tricks and intrigues so as to take control of our country.  And at the end of the day, think of our money!  Our income!

So as to show his altruism, King Levon spent most of his income on renovating parts of the city, reinforcing crumbling castles and walls.  He lived humbly, spent little, gave much away.  Let that be the case, his enemies mummbled, but what if this is a cunning trick and a treacherous game for the purpose of gaining the trust of the people and our sympathy?  And what will you say if tomorrow, taking advantage of the rights that were bequethed to him by the unheard of, and world renown, generosity and magninimity of the Castilian soul, he will impose new taxes and will form a new debt?  That he won't lose the opportunity to accumilate a huge fortune, that he will send to his offspring or to his own people?  He'll skin us like a rabbit!  And so as to rid himself of enemies, tomorrow he may replace all the notables and put in their place his own people, will strip the members of the Council and mayorship of their rights.  Don't forget that you are dealing with an Oriental!  Don't be so naive, so foolish!

A new delegation was sent to King Levon with a demand to sign a new document, to give new oaths and to publicly declare that he will never create new taxes, will not create new sources of income, will not take out new loans, will not touch any of the grandees or members of the Council, or the courtiers, or members of the mayorship, or any of the servants, will not bring in his own people and will just keep things as they were and not create any new decrees.  Not only that, but King Levon was to swear on paper that he had no right to punish palace or city officers, princes, ladies of the court, servants or maidens, even if they were to act against him. 

To release from punishment in advance anyone who may disobey him – absolvendo de todo pena a los que le desobedeciesen...

In other words, a ruler without the right to rule.

So Don Levon, by the Grace of God king of Armenia and lord of Madrid, Villarreal and Andújar, in the lengthy and extended document number 2-305-60, promises and swears that he will perform all that is demanded of him, will not tax, will not do this, and will not do that.

And he signs: “Rey Lyon Quinto, regnante” – King Levon V, regnant…”

The word “regnant” sounds like mockery.  Reigning over what?  Over there in Cilicia are ruins and dust, and here… One need not be a psychologist to imagine the insufferable atmosphere around Lusignan: the scorn that was meant to denigrate him, the villainy behind dishonest phrases, furtive glances, mockery; and taking into account the vulgar manners of the time - the obscene words and acts, and the presentation of the bitter bread of exile upon a silver plate…

If it wasn't for Juan I's persuasion, the poor king would have probably left it all behind and fled.  But Juan did all that he could to help him.  And at the end of the day – where would Levon flee?

In the West things, as always, were mixed up: two big countries that could have come to the rescue of the Armenian king, were in a state of ceaceless warfare; and besides, Armenia had nothing left to pillage, the Turks took it all and gorged themselves.

The Papal States were in a worse position than others.  Christ and His teachings were laid out to be sold to the highest bider; and like yesterday, became weapons for petty local politcs.

Where to go?

So the refugee-king, with drooping head, became reconciled: “Wait a bit,” Juan told him, “we’ll wait and see.”


On October 9, 1390, Juan I together with the archibishop of Toledo, Don Pedro Tenorio and with the retinue of a group of Castilian nobility, were riding on horseback from Alcalá to Burgos. 

They rode Arabian steeds.  Fierce, quick and restless beasts: about which the knights serving in Africa for many years told many pleasant stories.  They had the ability to dash like arrows, fire and whirlwind; and at times the rider felt as though wings had grown upon his shoulders.

“On sand, in deserts maybe, but not here, not on this rocky ground,” noted Juan.

“It depends on who the rider is, your majesty,” exclaimed one of the knights and pulling the reins, they instantly broke away and flew forward.

In clouds of dust, they quickly could not be seen.

“Marvelous!” said Juan, speaking to the archbishop of Toledo.  “But why do these gentlemen think that one may be a good horseman only after serving in Africa?  Look here!”

And before all, he whipped his horse, crouched down, loosened the reins and dashed forward. 

“God Almighty,” whispered the archbishop,” God Almighty!”


The widely accepted explanation for the death of King Juan seems a bit murky to me, and I must confess, rather suspicious.

First of all, the insistence by contemporaries that the archbishop of Toledo, who was an old and trusted friend of Juan’s father, was present, seems like they are trying to say that one must not doubt the veracity of the story.

But why must one doubt it?

Furthermore, the king was escorted by aristocrats who served in Africa for many years.  I almost wanted to say adventurers.  Anyone familiar with the mores of the time, the histories of those who sought out adventure, with the lackeys and swindlers, for whom profit stood above all else and crime the usual means to that end, can imagine the personalities and moral character of these people, especially those who served in Africa for many years and took part in common brigandage.  But let us leave to the side the suspicious presence of these gentlemen from Africa. 

It is a fact that the riders rode out a great distance and Juan, desiring to catch up with them, left the archbishop, the friend of his father - that is, left a man of advanced years by himself, quickly rode on and disappeared.  And what took place farther away, where Juan caught up with the riders, the archbishop could not see.

Which means that his testimony, if one was ever given, has no value.  A man with a broken skull was on the ground, no longer breathing, and it wasn’t that hard to convince the old man that the king simply fell from his horse and cracked his skull.  One must also not forget that clerical morality was rather predatory and at that time one could acquire the silence of one archbishop in the simplest way imaginable.

The oddest thing is that Spanish chroniclers do not pause for long when describing this death.  They mention it briefly and move on.  No details.  They do not elaborate, as their habit usually is, about the mourning that the nation underwent, about the funeral that the king received, and the like.  For the curious reader who can read between the lines and can get a feel of the author’s mood, one gets the impression that the people weren’t really saddened, but on the contrary, they breathed more freely, as though they were finally rid of him. 

On the other hand, the chroniclers go into great detail about what took place after the king’s death.

First of all, these incidents were of extreme importance, as after the death of Juan, power more or less went into the hands of the Castilian nobility and clergy, as the infanto was too young.  That is why the nobility and clergy, unhappy with Juan’s behavior, had an interest in his disappearance.

Though I have to clear evidence at hand, but taking all this into consideration it seems likely that Juan fell victim to a crime.  That he was killed, so that they may get rid of Levon.

And they certainly did.


It isn’t hard to imagine Levon’s position after Juan’s death.

There was no limit to the happiness in Madrid.  The City Council, not wasting a minute, convened a meeting of the clergy, nobles and the wealthy (prelados, magnates y ricos hombres), and declared Don Enrique the only lawful inheritor of the throne.  On the squares of the future capital, flags with the name of the new king were raised, so as to show that the only lord of the city can be he and no other.

Lavish festivities took place.

City-dwellers, caballero and hidalgo, held celebrations with great enthusiasm, organized demonstrations and uniting in the process, marched from street to street.

It is quite likely that passing by the palace (historians, of course, are silent about this) the demonstrators urged the king to leave the city with their hostile cries.  And who knows what sort of obscene scenes could have played themselves out... 

One of the first acts of the regent Enrique III was the annulment of all privileges that were given by the last king.  The clergy and nobility rose against Levon and it was even dangerous to stay in the country.

Levon V could no longer stay in Madrid.  He could not even stay in Spain.

Thus he left.


The material that we have about Levon V, what has been gathered and written, is primarily from Armenian Catholics, both religious and secular figures.  Understandably, they tried to convince everyone during the time of our national suffering that if not the entire Catholic world, but their clergy was with us.  And as an example they would bring up the episode with our last king Levon: “see how wonderful the Catholic world is, they gave three cities to our last king!”  And naively, I would even say in the most foolish way, we felt flattered and were ready to forget the deadly insults and injury that this same Catholicism, and Europe itself, had caused us. 

Our farcical illusions, our futile and empty hopes aimed at Europe have cost us much.  And the source of these illusions was the legend about Levon: an ugly and demeaning episode in our national history that was presented to us in beautifully wrapped candy-paper. 

Let it not appear strange, as it wasn’t that long ago that in that same Cilicia, a part of our bloodstream Cilicia, French soldiers allied with Turkey shot at our volunteers, and let it not be strange that today our bestial torturers are received everywhere with much honor, while doing their best to humiliate us.   

And this isn’t new at all, it was happening even back then. 

It appears that the regents and tutors of Enrique III, who were primarily clergy, made sure that he would never make a similar Christian act as his father, by instilling hatred of Eastern Christians and of Armenians in particular.  I do not even speak of Jews, whom he annihilated mercilessly. 

Eastern Christians and Armenians must be hated.  They are schismatics, do not accept papal authority, act against the interests of Latins and in their time persecuted missionaries from Rome.

Barbarians were preferable – Seljuks and Mongols.  This hate was so strong that when news arrived that someone by the name of Tamerlane was putting to the sword hundreds of thousands of Christians, destroying cities, burning villages, leveling churches and was conquering on and on, like a destructive whirlwind; King Enrique III, the right hand of Rome, defender of the Catholic faith and lover of the papal throne, in 1402 sent a large, festive and rich delegation, so as to congratulate Tamerlane for his victories.  Para felicitarle por sus triumfos...

Tamerlane was very touched, and through that same delegation expressed his gratitude and sent King Enrique rich gifts stolen from Armenian homes, including two enslaved young girls. 

Enrique felt so flattered that on May 22, 1403 he sent new ambassadors from Puerto de Santa Maria, for the purpose of showing the deep friendship and affection of the Spanish king. “To the Great Warrior, whose brave deeds outshone all military leaders before him.” Para darle mayores moestros de amistad…


Feedback/Comments: azat.oganesian@gmail.com