Sayat-Nova (Սայաթ-Նովա, საიათნოვა, Саят-Нова) was an Armenian troubadour poet and musician. He is an important figure in the history of Armenian literature, but he composed songs in all the major languages of the South Caucasus and maintained friendly relations with Georgians and Azeris. For this reason, it has become something of a cliche in writings about the South Caucasus to invoke Sayat-Nova as a symbol of peace and ethnic neighborliness. Besides his intrinsic importance, Sayat-Nova was also the quasi-subject of Sergei Parajanov’s brilliant film The Color of Pomegranates.
The poet’s father, Karapet, was an Armenian who had fled from Aleppo, Syria, and his mother, Sara, was from Havlabar (Avlabari), the Armenian district of Tiflis (Tbilisi). Later in life, Sayat-Nova would refer to Tiflis as his “homeland”, and this has generally been taken to mean that he was born or at least grew up there. A minority opinion holds that he was born in the Armenian village of Sanahin, in the Lori province (currently in Armenia, but then part of Georgia). In any case, he was born in the early 1700s (tradition gives the precise date of 1712) as Harutyun Sayadyan***. The family was not well-off, but neither were they serfs. Legend has it that Karapet was a weaver and that young Harutyun grew up learning his father’s trade, but there isn’t much evidence to back that up.
***Harutyuan is the Armenian version of the name Anastasius. The surname Sayadyan is shared, coincidentally (?), by Yuri Sayadyan, the sound designer for The Color of Pomegranates.
Some time in his twenties, Harutyun abandoned whatever trade he was employed in and became an ashik, a Turkish-style minstrel who sings and plays the various lutes of the South Caucasus — the saz, the chonguri, and so on. [See this video to see a modern ashik in action.] Sayat-Nova, as he was by then known (the name probably comes from a Persian phrase meaning “hunter of songs”), quickly achieved a reputation for his music, and he was called to the court of Erekle II (a.k.a. Irakli and Heraclius), the king of Kakheti. He remained at the court in Telavi for around twenty years, eventually being kicked out for falling in love with the king’s sister. Or maybe for some other reason; this part of the story is mainly conjectured on the basis of clues in his songs, which cannot be considered terribly reliable.
After being exiled from the court, he became a priest in the Armenian church, assuming the sacerdotal name Stepanos. Some biographical information about Sayat-Nova comes from colophons to texts he copied during this time. He lived at the monastery in Haghpat until the Persian invasion of 1795, when he fled to Tiflis. He was killed there, along with almost everybody else in the city. His tomb is at the Armenian Cathedral of Saint George in Tbilisi.
[Regrettably, I didn’t know about this when I was there. If I go back, I’ll definitely go see it.] [UPDATE 2/5/15: On my recent trip to Tbilisi, I tried to see Sayat-Nova’s tomb. Regrettably, the cathetral was undergoing some kind of renovation, and the tomb was inaccessible.]
Sayat-Nova’s poetry is renowned and notorious for its multilingual complexity. His extant works are estimated to include around a hundred and twenty Azeri songs, sixty to seventy Armenian songs, and thirty or so Georgian ones. None are written in Persian exclusively, but all of them contain liberal amounts of Persian vocabulary. Of his Armenian works, most are in his Tiflis Armenian dialect, but some are in Classical Armenian. He seems to have been most comfortable writing in the Georgian alphabet. He wrote his Tiflis Armenian poems using that script, usually reserving the Armenian alphabet for the ones he wrote in Classical.
It has been speculated that he thought it inappropriate to transcribe his local dialect with the writing of the church; on the other hand, he wrote his Azeri songs sometimes with Georgian and sometimes with Armenian letters.Occasionally he would switch back and forth between scripts on a single page, or even from line to line. He explicitly stated in one song that he didn’t know the “Tatar script” (i.e. the Perso-Arabic alphabet). This is lucky for modern researchers, since him having written in that alphabet as well would make his manuscripts even more inaccessible than they are now.
Besides his major works, he also wrote, late in his life, six poems in Russian. These poems, when they aren’t ignored completely, are generally looked down upon by scholars. Grammatical errors abound, and he constantly attempts to rhyme words which in fact do not rhyme. Although his Russian poems are the most egregious in this regard, many of his other songs are clearly the work of a man with some but not much education: his Classical Armenian shows defects, and he frequently screws up the vowel harmony in his Azeri. Of course, erudition is not what has drawn people to Sayat-Nova. What draws them is his sincerity. Even as he follows all the standard genre features and cliches of ashik poetry, it’s clear that he really is talking about his beloved, rather than some general idea of a beloved. (At least that’s what they say. I’ve never read any of it.) The standard English reference work on Sayat-Nova is Sayat-Nova, An 18th-Century Troubadour: A Biographical and Literary Study by Charles Dowsett. It’s a very hard book to find. I found a copy once, but I didn’t have a chance to read much of it. Despite being full of dry scholarly minutiae, it’s written in a relatively breezy style. Here’s a sample passage dealing with the identity of the poet’s beloved (all diacritic markings have been removed because I don’t feel like dealing with them, and there really are no paragraph breaks):
The first verse calls this person variously prince, lord of the manor, Sultan and Khan. These are titles by which a swain could traditionally ennoble his mistress. However, they are without doubt ambiguous, and it could be that Sayat-Nova owed his downfall to this ambiguity. For such was his manifest devotion, averred in many poems, to Irakli II, that the suspicion arises, and must have arisen then, that many of his love-songs may have been addressed to the King. The Armenian ode Indz u im sirekan yarin me tari berats gitenak “May ye know that one year produced me and my beloved friend” (Tetrak, p. 127), recited in 1759, the poet’s last year at court, could be addressed to Irakli: P[ersian] yar can, as well as “mistress”, mean a male friend (cf. yar-i ghar “friend of the cave”, i.e. Abu Bakr, who hid with Muhammad in a cave prior to their flight to Medina). The poem describes the physical and mental effects of love in the manner of Sappho’s Lesbian ode, and nowhere refers to the female properties conspicuous in many of his songs. The epicene nature of Sayat-Nova’s Beloved has been strongly stressed by Sergo Parajanyan [sic!] in his remarkable film Neran guyne (“The colour of pomegranates”) devoted to Sayat-Nova, in which the figure of both Mistress and King is portrayed by the ethereal beauty of the Georgian actress Sopiko Chiaureli. Without intending to pass any moral judgment, one might well credit Parajanyan with special insight into such a matter, for he was known to be himself homosexual, in which respect, in the world of art, he is not alone (though luckily all were not subjected to the brutal Soviet system that imprisoned him). It is not unknown for fathers of three children, as was Sayat-Nova, or husbands of four wives, as was Irakli, to be in fact bisexual. There is however, nowhere the slightest indication that the Georgian King was affected in this way: “Moi en Europe, et en Asie l’invincible Hercule”, said Frederick the Great, but this does not refer to the Prussian monarch’s sexual inclinations [???].
It’s a shame this book isn’t more widely available. Even its reviews are hard to find. Hopefully someday it will surface online.
Tangentially related to the poet himself is the Sayat Nova Project, an effort to document and record the many varieties of ethnic music in the Caucasus. It was started by some English teachers in Georgia whom I actually met once or twice. I don’t know if the project is still underway, but their existing recordings are excellent. I recommend checking it out.
By the way, Sayat-Nova’s name is typically written with a hyphen. I don’t know why. That’s how it is in Armenian, though in Georgian it’s written as a single word (Saiatnova). I don’t particularly care for hyphens, but I decided not to go against the grain this time. You have to pick your battles, after all.
UPDATE 2/5/15: On my recent trip to Georgia and Armenia, I visited the Haghpat Monastery. It’s worth visiting if you’re into that kind of thing.