Armenian Culture: Our Defense, Our Weapon

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

“If we have captivated other people, that has been done only through our songs,” wrote the late, modern Armenian poet, Paruyr Sevak. Indeed, our music and culture have been our only weapons of self-defense and self-preservation, as well as the means to influence non-Armenians. Although our great revolutionary novelist Raffy had lamented that we could become a great nation had we tempered swords rather than chalices and had we built fortresses instead of churches and cathedrals, the historic truth is that Armenians have survived through their culture, by choice or by default and today no alternative is left for us. We need to know our culture, present it to the world and win appropriate recognition for its richness.

We have been too slow in showcasing our cultural heritage to the world, of course, partly because circumstances have not always been in our favor.

Perhaps our enemies have been more alert to grasp the value of the Armenian culture and that is why they have targeted the creators of that culture. The first task of Talaat Pasha was to exterminate the Armenian intellectuals. And today, Talaat’s successors, the Azeris have been destroying with the same zeal the Armenian khachkars of Julfa, unique expressions and relics of Armenian culture.

Recent international recognitions have come to drive home that our ancestors have created and willed to us cultural and scientific legacy of global significance. A case in point, UNESCO’s decision to award Melina Mercouri International prize for safeguarding and management of cultural landscapes to the “Garni Preserve Museum.” The prize will be shared with the village of Batir in Palestine.

Garni is one of the best-preserved Hellenistic monuments in the world. At one time in history, Armenia was under the influence of Hellenistic culture. Our nation absorbed and preserved the finest traditions of that culture. Even several manuscripts of philosophy, which were lost forever for the world culture, were preserved in Armenian translation and were thus returned to the world.

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The other cultural milestone is UNESCO’s approval to celebrate in the year 2012 the 1,400th anniversary of medieval scientist Anania Shirakatsi, who was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and as well as the founder of exact sciences, natural science and astronomy in Armenia. He was a trailblazer in the study of the universe centuries before Galileo.

The proposal to include Shirakatsi in UNESCO’s list came from the Byurakan Observatory team, which symbolizes the continuation of Shirakatsi’s work in space exploration in the modern era.

Under astronomer Victor Harpartzoumian, Byurakan became a world-class center of cosmic-ray research as well as space-age sciences. The collapse of the Soviet Union diminished its role because of scarcity of funding and the massive brain drain from Armenia.

In today’s globalized era, many nations have been translating and introducing their ethnic literatures and heritages into major languages and thus introduce them into the forum of world culture. That is how they attract world attention and awards. We Armenians have traditionally (and subjectively) looked down upon Turks and Turkish literature. Yet they captured the Nobel Prize even before we could get one. And there are a number of Armenian writers who certainly are no less talented than Orhan Pamuk.

During the Soviet period, there was a program to translate Armenian literature into Russian in order to attract a broader audience and gain world recognition. But the Soviet Union at the time was encircled by its iron curtain, so that very little literature, except the Russian ones, filtered to the West. The French- Armenian community seems less organized, considering its size, but it has shown more instances of breaking the glass ceiling to present some treasures of the Armenian culture to the non- Armenian public. Recent examples include an exhibition organized by Claude Mutafian presenting the culture of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom (10th and 14th century) under the title of “Silver Age of Armenia Culture.” Then came the exhibition at the Louvre Museum, “Armenia Sacra,” to bring to the world attention our Christian heritage in one of the most visible and prestigious cultural forums in the world.

Most recently, one of the gems of Armenian musical heritage was presented to the French audience: the opera buffa “Garine” in French translation by Dickran Tchouhadjian.

Several French singers — none of them of Armenian descent — were so impressed by Tchouhadjian’s music that they have formed a quartet named Arevadzaghig to present Armenian liturgical and classical music to French audiences in Armenian.

The 1991 film “Mayrig,” by French-Armenian filmmaker Henri Verneuil, and starring Claudia Cardinale and Omar Sharif, did not receive the attention and acclaim that it deserved, however. All these major cultural activities are spearheaded by individuals without a coherent, broader program, nor sponsored by major funding. Unlike other countries, the French government is more sensitive and receptive to minority cultures, and therefore more willing to support those programs.

Today, with the emergence of the European Union, movements are more fluid within the continent and achievements in one country can move to the other or be easily replicated.
When we speak about Europe we cannot ignore the task of the Mkhitarist fathers in Venice (1717) and later in Vienna, who have served as beacons of Armenian culture and scholarship. Even the poet Lord Byron has left his footprint on St. Lazarus Island off the coast of Venice, with much praise to the achievements of the Mkhitarists.

Perhaps it was the offshoot of the Mkhiterists tradition that a group of Italian architects release the series of Armenian architectural volumes, under the leadership of Adriano Alpago Novello. The latter was an architect, art historian and professor who had fallen in love with medieval Armenian architecture.

All these references certainly do not cover the entire gamut of Armenian cultural achievements in Europe or elsewhere. Many more could be added to prove that Armenians may only be recognized and respected through their cultural identity.

All we need is to garner our resources to focus on greater and more significant cultures projects, especially in view of the Genocide centennial, so that we can continue “captivating others through our songs.”

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