The Books: “Imperium” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

My history bookshelf. Onward.

51QZBN26TBL._OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpgNext book on this shelf is the last Ryszard Kapuscinski book I have – actually, I think that’s it for Ryzsard – at least in English translation – To anyone who is interested in Communism (the rise and fall of), totalitarian regimes and how they work, the Caucasus, Central Asia – (meaning all the things I’m interested in!!) then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I absolutely LOVE it. It’s called Imperium – I’m sure I’ve posted excerpts from it before. The structure of the book is really interesting. Kapuscinski starts with a description of the Russians rolling into his Polish town in 1939 and what that was like – he was 8 or something like that. This was his first encounter with “the Imperium”. In 1958, as a journalist, he takes the Trans-Siberian Express – and that’s the second section of the book – his confrontation with the true vastness of the Imperium. In 1967 he traveled down through the Caucasus (called “the South”) and that’s the third section of the book. The last section is the longest one in the book – and it is reporting from the years 1989 to 1991. Kapuscinski tried to be literally everywhere at once – because events were happening so quickly, revolutions breaking out, things falling apart – it was hard to tell where the center was.

I knew immediately what excerpt I wanted to put here. The one about Armenia.


From Imperium

In Matenadaran one can see the ancient books of the Armenians. To me they are doubly inaccessible: they lie in cabinets behind glass, and I do not know how to read them. I ask Vanik if he understands them. Yes and no, for he can read the letters but cannot discern the meaning. The alphabet has remained the same for fifteen centuries, but the language has changed. The Armenian walks into Matenadaran like a Muslim into Mecca. It is the end of his pilgrimage; he is moved, overwhelmed. In Armenian history, the book was the national relic. The comrade who is our guide (so beautiful!) says in a hushed voice that many of the manuscripts that we see were saved at the cost of human life. There are pages stained with blood here. There are books that for years lay hidden in the ground, in the crevices of rocks. Armenians buried them in the same way defeated armies bury their banners. They were recovered without difficulty: information about their hiding places had been handed down from generation to generation.

A nation that does not have a state seeks salvation in symbols. The protection of the symbol is as important to it as the protection of borders is to other states. The cult of the symbol is an act of patriotism. Not that the Armenians never had a state. They had one, but it was destroyed in antiquity. It was then reborn in the ninth century, and after 160 years it perished — in that earlier form — forever. It is not just a question of statehood. For at least two thousand years Armenians were in danger of complete extermination. They were sitll threatened with it as recently as this century, right up until 1920.

The history of Armenians is measured in millennia. We are in that part of the world that is customarily called the cradle of civilization. We are moving among the oldest traces of man’s existence. In the valley of the Razdan River, near Yerevan, stone tools from half a million years ago have been unearthed. The first mention of Armenia is four thousand years old, but by then, as the stone inscription proclaims, there had already existed on Armenian territory “sixty empires” and “hundreds of cities”. Armenia therefore is the contemporary of the world’s oldest civilizations. Babylon and Assyria were its neighbors. The biblical rivers Tigris and Euphrates have their sources within its borders.

Armenians have a measure of time different from ours. They experienced their first partition 1,500 years ago. Their renaissance occurred in the fourth century of our era. They accepted Christianity seven centuries earlier than we. Ten centuries before us they started to write in their own language. But Armenia shared with ancient Egypt, Sumer, and Byzantium a drama typical of this part of the world — its essence was a lack of historical continuity, that sudden appearance of empty chapters in the history book of one’s own state.

A magnificent ascent, and then a dispiriting fall.

Gradually, the nations living in this cradle of mankind, having created great, monumental civilizations, as if exhausted by the superhuman effort, or perhaps even crushed by the immensity of what they had brought forth and no longer capable of further developing it, handed over the reins to younger peoples, bursting with energy and eager to live. Europe will come on the scene and, later, America.

The source of all of Armenia’s misfortune was its disastrous geographic location. One has to look at the map, not from our vantage point, from the center of Europe, but from an entirely different place, from the south of Asia, the way those who sealed Armenia’s fate looked at it. Historically, Armenia occupied the Armenian Highland. Periodically (and these periods lasted centuries) Armenia reached farther, was a state of three seas — the Mediterranean, the Black, and the Caspian. But let us remain within the borders of the Highland. It is this area upon which the Armenians’ historical memory draws. After the eleventh century, the Armenians never succeeded in rebuilding Armenia within those borders.

The map, looked at from the south of Asia, explains the tragedy of the Armenians. Fate could not have placed their country in a more unfortunate spot. In the south of the Highland it borders upon two of the past’s most formidable powers — Persia and Turkey. Let’s add to that the Arabian caliphate. And even Byzantium. Four political colossi, ambitious, extremely expansionist, fanatical, voracious. And now — what does the ruler of each of these four powers see when he looks at the map? He sees that if he takes Armenia, then his empire will be enclosed by an ideal natural border in the north. Because from the north the Armenian Highland is magnificently protected, guarded by two seas (the Black Sea and the Caspian) and by the gigantic barrier of the Caucasus. And the north is dangerous for Persia and for Turkey, for the Arabs and Byzantium. Because in those days from the north an unsubdued Mongolian fury loomed.

And so Armenia gives all the pashas and emperors sleepless nights. Each one of them would like his realm to have a nicely rounded border. So that in his realm, as in King Philip’s, the sun should never set. A border that does not dissipate itself amid flatland, but which leans against a proper mountain, against the edge of the sea. The consequence of these ambitions is continued invasions of Armenia; someone is always conquering and destroying it, always subjugating it.

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One Response to The Books: “Imperium” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

  1. Matt says:

    This book is interesting. I was just trying to find some sights that gave sumamries of the book because I’m reading it now, and enjoy it, but confused on where Kapuściński is. He doesn’t really give distinct differences in time. I knew he was a young boy in the beginning, and then was thrown back by the time Aremenian and the 2nd. half, I wasn’t sure how old he was.
    Nice review, Thanks!

    P.S. Armenia is my favorite part so far.

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