The name “David” comes from the Hebrew for “the beloved one.”   Like the Old Testament David who slew Goliath, David of Sassoon is the beloved, national hero, the defiant and self-reliant youth, who by the grace of God defends his homeland in an unequal duel against a titanic oppressor.  

            The David of Sassoon presented here is Hovhannes Toumanian’s captivating rhymed version of the third cycle of the epic.   The epic spans four generations of the house of Sassoon, a mountainous enclave of the Armenian highlands, west of Lake Van and Mt. Ararat, known for its hearty folk and indomitable spirit.   The epic took shape in the 10th century based on an oral tradition spanning centuries.  The earliest written reports of the epic were made by Portuguese travelers in the 16th century.   The basic text of the epic was first recorded in 1873 by Fr. G. Srvandzdyants.  The full epic is a hefty tome that, one can imagine, took medieval tellers days to recite, easing the boredom of the long, lonely winters for these highland shepherds.

            The epic begins with two brothers, Sanasar and Balthasar.  Some scholars link them to the brothers Adramelek and Sarasar, the sons of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:37, Is. 37:38), the king of Israel during the seige of Jerusalem by Sennecherib, King of Assyria.   Movses Khorenatsi, the father of Armenian history (II.5,7, III.55), considered the Artsruni dynasty of Armenia, which ruled in and around Vaspurakan (Lake Van to Lake Urmia) and reached its height from 908 to 1021, to be descended from Sanasar.   According to Armenian tradition, the two sons settled near the mountain called Sim, which some have identified as a mountain in Sassoon.  The pair of brothers resurface in the Armenian epic as the immaculately conceived sons of the Armenian princess Dzovinar, who was taken from Armenia to Baghdad by the Caliph when most of Armenia was under Arab domination from (7-9th centuries).   The Caliph decides to kill them, but before he can, they escape to Armenia.   After slaying dragons, building cities, and restoring Armenia to prosperity, the brothers return to Baghdad to rescue their mother.  

            In the epic of David of Sassoon, the Moslems (referred to as Musr or Egypt in this version of the epic) and their leader (referred to Melik - king) may have displaced the Assyrians, and two thousand years of history may be compressed into a single storyline, but the north-south geopolitical dynamic between Armenia and Mesopotamia persisted in the people’s collective memory and remained deep rooted in the repertoire of Armenian oral tradition.

            The next cycle is the story of David’s father, Lion Mher, who is the epitome of the noble, wise, fair and self-sacrificing father-king.   Approaching old age without an heir, he accepts with gentility the passing of his generation as the price of the next generation.   As the reading from the Armenian requiem states, “except a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears fruit.”  (John 12:24).   Lion Mher represents the strength of nature and rectitude of character that bears fruit in his son, David, who is raised an "orphan, no keeper on earth."      

            David’s story resonates not only with the Old Testament David, but also with the battle between Hayk of Armenia and Bel of Assyria.  Hayk is the Armenian Orion  (Job 9:9), the deified archer-protector-forefather of the Armenians.   His deification has been linked by some scholars to the Prometheus story in Greek mythology.   In Movses Khorenatsi’s history, the story of Hayk’s titanic battle with Bel is one of the key episodes in the formation of the Armenian people.   Hayk was a handsome, friendly man, with curly hair, sparkling eyes, and strong arms.   He was a man of giant stature, a mighty archer and fearless warrior.  Hayk and his people, since the time of their forefathers Noah and Japheth lived in and around Mt. Ararat (whence the name of the region below Ararat, Nakhichevan – “the place where Noah descended”).   To the south ruled a wicked giant, Bel.  Bel tried to impose his tyranny upon Hayk’s people.   But proud Hayk refused to submit to Bel.  After major battles, Hayk delivers his people and restores freedom to his homeland.  This north-south struggle is a recurrent theme in Armenian history, repeated in the century from 750 to 850 between the Armenian Bagratuni kingdom of Ani and their Arab overlords.  According to some scholars, a century later, David Bagratuni surfaces as David of Sassoon, the fearless, freedom-loving youth, and Hovnan Bagratuni as Uncle Ohan, the cringing appeaser.

            An epic cannot be summed up in a single word or from a single point of view.   Each reader and listener will relate to certain characters and events in different ways.  Nevertheless, the image of David of Sassoon, his nobility, fearlessness, strength, and simplicity, while having special significance for Armenians, has a universal appeal that speaks to all peoples.

Finally, a word about this translation.   There are several English translations of David of Sassoon, including a blank verse translation of Toumanian's version of this work.    So why this translation?   Primarily because no other English translation has attempted to replicate the rhymes and rhythms of the Toumanian version, ¬ in short, the music of the poetry that draws the reader in and pulls the reader forward through line after line of this marvelous epic work.  

Thomas J. Samuelian

Yerevan, August 1999