NEW YORK—On Fri., Nov. 30, Dr. Sergio La Porta delivered an engaging and insightful lecture about Armenian identity in the Middle Ages. Hosted by the Armenian Center at Columbia University, the lecture, titled “Networks of Knowledge: Communication and Identity in 12th-14th century Armenia,” took place at the university’s distinguished Faculty House.
Warmly welcoming La Porta back to his alma mater, Mark Momjian, the chair of the Armenian Center Board at Columbia, highlighted his achievements in Middle Eastern studies, including an undergraduate degree from Columbia College, a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, as well as his subsequent research and teaching positions. A specialist in medieval Armenia, La Porta is currently the Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno.
“The students at Fresno State consistently rank Dr. La Porta as among their favorite professors,” said Momjian in his introductory remarks. “They love the enthusiasm he brings to his lectures and the way he engages class discussion.”
Providing a historical backdrop of Armenia during the 12th-14th centuries, La Porta touched upon Armenian dispersion and political fragmentation in the region at the time. Because of Armenian emigration, other groups began entering the area, resulting in cultural integration among Armenians and the neighboring Georgians, Turks, and Kurds.
While they were not the dominant culture in the region, La Porta pointed out that Armenians were able to both adapt to their changed environment and create a sense of community to keep the nation together during a time of cultural hybridity. In reaction to this hybridity, “borders of barriers” were created that emphasized differences between these groups in relation to racial, economic, religious, and dietary restrictions. “By denigrating the other, we get a clear distinction between who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are,” he explained.
Trade routes, the development of a cultic community, and the formation of a textual community were integral to Armenian cohesion at the time. The trade routes that passed through Armenia—including the Mediterranean transit route, the Mongol silk route, and the Levantine route—allowed the sharing of ideas across Armenia and helped Armenians to create contact with the scholars, pilgrims, merchants, and soldiers who traveled these routes. They also helped bolster the Armenian economy.
“In the 13th century we witness increased economic prosperity,” he said. “How come, at a time when there’s political fragmentation and destruction, the economic situation doesn’t seem to be as negatively affected? Part of the reason is you have all this capital moving through Armenia, which is advantageous for the cities, especially in eastern Armenia.”
Armenia’s monastic centers also served as a bridge among the people. During the 12th-13th centuries, Cilicia was the center of Armenian intellectual activity, as it housed monastic centers and created an intellectual group. “Armenians traditionally were not in urban cities,” said La Porta. “They preferred hunting and feasting and fighting in the beautiful countryside that is Armenia, and that is where most of their monasteries were set up. These centers served as important centers of cultural interaction and definition.”
Scholars from Greater Armenia traveled to Cilicia to enhance their education. “These schools become primary centers of education for the cultural and religious elite of Armenia,” he said, noting that there wasn’t a great degree of centralization among Armenians, and that each monastery had its own traditions and rules. “A trans-regional connection and a core curriculum were developed based on books, sacred spaces, and certain texts, such as the Cappadocian Fathers, Philo, and Aristotle.”
The development of a cultic community also helped form connections, especially the idea of pilgrimage sites, in particular Jerusalem. “Pilgrimage sites served as points of communication and exchange,” he said. “You have Armenians from all over converging on these holy sites.”
Although Armenians were able to maintain a sense of community under difficult circumstances, La Porta pointed out that there were challenges threatening this unity, in particular from missionaries during the Middle Ages who traveled the trade routes near Armenia. Franciscans and Dominicans friars converted tens of thousands of Armenians to Roman Catholicism during this time, and while Armenians kept their language, those who converted were in communion with Rome and recognized the supremacy of the Pope. In response to these attempts at conversion, the Armenian Apostolic Church fought against the Latinization of the Armenian Church, and knew that a textual community was, according to Dr. La Porta, “essential for the success of this response.”
Concluding his compelling presentation, La Porta said there was “a new definition of Armenian communal identity through the creation of shared communal and sacral boundaries and of an intellectual elite built around a common textual corpus.” There was a significance beyond this period, and the cultural boundary markers that distinguished Armenians from those around them, including religion and language, were essential to the construction of an Armenian “national identity” in the 18th-19th centuries. “There are still ways Armenians are able to connect to other Armenians even though they don’t live in one place,” said La Porta. “It makes it capable for us to speak of an Armenian community that extends from Glendale, Calif., to Yerevan, Armenia.”
The evening concluded with a question and answer session followed by a gift presentation—that of a rare book on Armenian illuminated manuscripts by Frederic Macler, a pioneer in the field of Armenian Studies, to La Porta as a show of gratitude from the Armenian Board at Columbia University. A reception gave guests the opportunity to ask La Porta further questions about his research and Armenian history.
“Coming back to Columbia was a moving experience for me,” he said. “My undergraduate experience has been essential for my continued studies and research. To come back as a professor and speak to former and current students was absolutely wonderful and brought back many fond memories.”
The Armenian Board at Columbia University was equally pleased at having a prolific figure speak about Armenian identity and history on campus.
“Dr. La Porta’s lecture on the extensive trade and cultural exchanges involving Armenians in the Middle Ages was a tour de force,” said Momjian. “Dr. La Porta is a rising star in the field of Armenian studies, and everyone privileged to hear his captivating talk at Faculty House left asking when he was going to come speak at Columbia again.”
Echoing Momjian’s sentiments, Dr. Nicole Vartanian, the vice-chair of the Armenian Center Board, said the lecture “demonstrated his breadth and depth as a scholar and educator.”
“His presentation was simultaneously ambitious yet accessible, and the audience response was effusive. It was a great source of joy for the Armenian Center to have hosted a room full of engaged attendees, a range of Armenian and non-Armenian students, alumni, board members, and community members.”
Students, including Maxwell Rowles and John Doyle-Raso, who are both candidates in the dual master’s degree program in international and world history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, were also impressed with the evening’s presentation.
“Dr. La Porta’s lecture provided profound insights into Armenian history and identity from the 12th-14th century,” said Rowles. “I particularly appreciated the precision of his approach and the ways in which he made ‘old’ history fun, new, and interesting. Economics, language, politics, race, and religion were all remade and transformed in Armenia during these years, and I am very grateful to Professor La Porta for exposing this past to me.”
“I was impressed by Dr. La Porta’s enthusiasm and ability to communicate a large amount of information so clearly,” said Doyle-Raso. “His expertise is obviously far-reaching; I asked a question that was outside the scope of the presentation, and he was able to provide an interesting answer. I hope he will be back to present again.”
Upcoming activity for the Armenian Center at Columbia University includes a course titled “Memories: The Armenian Genocide,” planned for the spring in Columbia’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies (MESAAS), which will be taught by Board member Dr. Armen Masroobian, chair of the Philosophy department at Southern Connecticut State University.