Armenian Legends and Poems  at sacred-texts.com
During the last years of the eighteenth century, the Russian conquest of Armenia began.
At the end of the eighteenth century an Armenian monk named MKHITAR SEPASTATZI established at St. Lazare in Venice an Armenian Brotherhood, who devoted themselves to literature. This Brotherhood is still in existence, and has a branch in Vienna. During this period of more than a century its members have printed hundreds of old MSS. of historical value. They have also produced many works dealing with history and other branches of learning, and translations of foreign classics, thus rendering a great service to Armenian literature.
It will be remembered that Byron stayed at St. Lazare and studied Armenian. He actually took part in the publication of an Armenian-English dictionary and grammar.
For centuries music and song have become a joy to Armenians through minstrels called ashoughs. Ashoughs are invited to all weddings and other festivities, where they are the life of the party and the makers of merriment. They sing also on the bridges and in the squares,
and wander from courtyard to courtyard. Their song is not always merry; it is sometimes sad, sometimes even bitter. They always carry with them their saz or tar or kamancha, oriental instruments, on which they accompany their songs. Many of the ashoughs are blind. To be an ashough is considered a high attainment. In order to acquire the art, any one who aspires to become an ashough first observes a fast of seven weeks, then goes to the monastery of Sourb Karapet, which is the Parnassus of Armenian musicians. "Sourb Karapet" is John the Baptist, who is the patron saint of Armenian minstrels. In the Near East, ashoughs (who are mostly Armenians) are greatly admired not only by Armenians, but by Persians, Turks, and other races, as some of them sing in other languages besides Armenian. Some ashoughs sing their own verses, but as a rule the songs are the composition of a special class of poets. The songs of these other ashoughs often reveal deep feelings and many of them are high-class poems.
As a typical ashough author, I will only mention SAYAT NOVA. His lyre attained extreme sweetness; he combines all the vivid colouring of the East with soft and refined shading. He was born in 1712. He was a special favourite at the court of the Georgian king. In his own words, he "sat in the palace among the beauties and sang to them," but his songs seem not merely to be poems in praise of court beauties, or for their amusement; they seem an expression of the deep feelings of his heart. A word-picture of his lady-love will be found on page 74 of this volume ("Thy Voice is Sweet").
His love is so intense that one sees at once that he is capable of deep feelings and one is drawn to him; yet this love is pure and unselfish. He describes his love as a sea and himself as a little barque floating on it. For ten years he has wooed the lady as a prince, but without success; he will not relinquish the pursuit of her, but resolves now for seven years to pay court to her in the character of a pilgrim-minstrel.
He is even content only to sleep on her doorstep. There is something else that is a part of his life, namely, his kamancha. He threatens to cut the strings of his instrument if he is a week without seeing his beloved.
Once he comes face to face with his lady-love and says:--
"What avails me now a physician? The ointment burns, and does not heal the wound, but your medicine is a different one."
But she replies that she has no remedy for him. In another poem he is in despair, and says:--
"Without thee, of what use is the world's wealth? I will don the habit of a monk and visit the monasteries one by one. Perhaps in one of them I shall discover a way of redemption
from my hopeless love." (See "Without Thee what are Song and Dance to Me?" on page 85 of this volume.)
In another poem he expresses the wavering between earthly and heavenly life, saying:--
"If one obeys the will of the soul, then the body is offended. How shall I escape this sorrow?
At last he carries out his declaration and becomes a monk. He secludes himself from the world in a lonely monastery, far away from Tiflis; but once he hears that a minstrel has come to that city whom none can equal, whereupon he steals out of the monastery, disguised as a layman, and taking his saz with him, goes to Tiflis, enters into contest with the new minstrel, and conquering him, saves the honour of his native town.
In 1795 Agha Mohammed Khan laid waste Tiflis and many other towns of that region. His soldiers entered the monastery where Sayat Nova was praying and commanded him to come out and become a Mohammedan if he wished to save his life; but he replied, in verse, that he was an Armenian and would not deny his Christ. He was therefore martyred on the spot. Other poems of his appear on pages 35 ("I have a Word I fain would say"), 14 ("I beheld my Love this Morning"), 110 ("Thou art so Sweet").