Armenian Books on Display in Harvard’s Lamont Library


By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies James R. Russell expressed justifiable satisfaction as he oversaw the final details of an exhibit of Armenian books that opened at Harvard University’s Lamont Library on Monday, April 9.

Said Russell, “We started planning this about a year ago. Our core group included Marc Mamigonian from NAASR [National Association of Armenian Research and Studies], Barbara Merguerian from ALMA [the Armenian Library and Museum of America] and Michael Grossman from Widener Library. Grossman is chief cataloguer for Armenian and Georgian books. We didn’t have a designer but Mark

McKertich and Todd Pattison, who is in charge of conservation for the entire Harvard library system, organized the space and set up the exhibit.”

Russell says he was moved to mount the exhibit out of the knowledge that few Harvard students know very much about Armenian history and culture. Said Russell, “Harvard is a place where students come to study large things in the world. Most Armenian students here are involved in that endeavor. Few people are interested in language and history and I wanted to undertake this exhibit to display the scope of Armenian culture and history.” The exhibit itself is mounted on the third floor of Lamont Library and consists of two horizontal cases of books, periodicals and scrolls and one large vertical glass case that contains a copy of Russell’s text, “The Armenians and the Book,” and additional materials.

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The display contains a range of materials ranging from the ancient and precious to the more modern. To name just a few, there is a facsimile of the Friday Book, the first text to be actually printed in Armenian in 1512 by the Mekhitarist monks in Venice. There are also tiny, delicate, intricately-illustrated books of Aesop’s fables, a copy of the first edition of Hairenik, texts by the poet Yeghishe Charents and more contemporary works such as the novels of William Saroyan and the new edition of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. There are also magical scrolls with the explanatory text written and illustrated by Russell.

The contents of the exhibit have come from a number of different sources including NAASR, ALMA, Widener Library and Russell’s private collection. Funds were provided by the Mashtots chair, Tufts University, Boston University, NAASR, ALMA and the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF).

“This is the 500th anniversary of the start of Armenian printing, so this seemed the right moment to put this exhibit up,” said Russell.

Extended captions, which in some cases, are short essays, help to explain and amplify the visual materials. In addition to Russell, others who contributed their knowledge and research include Prof. Christina Maranci of Tufts University, Michael Grossman of Widener Library, Prof. Simon Payaslian of Boston University, Merguerian and Mamigonian. Russell, whose multi-lingual interests and mastery extend to both Western and Eastern Armenian, provides a brief history of the Armenian language noting that, “… it is related to Phrygian, an Indo-European tongue like Greek or Persian, that was spoken by the defenders of Troy. It is possible that the first bearers of Armenian migrated east into the highlands of Urartu, Biblical Ararat; and Armenian contains a number of Urartean words….” Russell also notes several important mile-stones. As mentioned above, the first Armenian printed books appeared in Venice in 1512; and further, the first printed Bible was issued in Amsterdam a century-and-a-half later. The first Armenian news- paper was published in Madras, India in the late 18th century.

While survivors of the Armenian Genocide wrote privately-published Memorial Books (hushamatyan) many of those who might have writ- ten more widely distributed works were massacred.

The breakup of the Soviet Union has freed the Armenian press in many ways, and Russell notes that many texts are now far more avail- able on the Internet. Included in the exhibit is a 19th-century Western Armenian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, taken from Baudelaire’s French.

Maranci’s caption focuses on the importance of manuscripts in the history of Armenian liter- ature. She notes that the largest collection of Armenian manuscripts is housed in the Matenadaran, the manuscript library in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Other important col- lections are preserved in the Monastery of St. James in Jerusalem and the Mekhitarist Monasteries of Venice and Vienna.

Grossman has contributed commentary on the availability of Armenian language and relat- ed collections held in the Harvard libraries. The supervision of Harvard’s Armenian collections — acquisitions, cataloging, preservation and reference — falls at present to Widener’s Middle Eastern Division, as it has done since 1954. The earliest catalogued item dates back to the 1700s, while Houghton Library today is the holder of Harvard’s earliest Armenian items. Grossman pays tribute to the Boston-area Armenian community for establishing a lasting home for Armenian studies at Harvard. In 1959, the Mashtots Chair, now held by Russell, was created at Harvard.

Payaslian of Boston University contributes an essay on modern Armenian history, noting especially the publication in the 18th century of Mik’ayel Ch’amch’ian’s History of Armenia and Fr. Ghevond Alishan’s Memories of the Armenian Fatherland. Said Payaslian, “Their works encouraged a new generation of intellectuals in the 19th century to engage in the modernization of their nation, its culture, and its institutions to bring about an Armenian enlightenment.”

In a commentary titled “Armenian Women and the Book,” Merguerian notes that in the 19th and 20th centuries, “The role of women in a rapidly changing society became a controversial question explored extensively in the constantly growing number of publications appear- ing in the vernacular Armenian literary language…Circumstances have changed radically, but the role of women in Armenian society still remains a much debated topic.”

Mamigonian, in a piece titled “The Armenians in America,” writes that the Armenian presence in the United States dates to around 1618, “when one Martin the Armenian came to Colonial Virginia.” There was, of course, increased immigration after the massacres in Ottoman Turkey under Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1894-96, and after the Genocide, nearly 100,000 Armenians had arrived in the US by 1924. These immigrants opened libraries and bookstores and eventually established newspapers such as the Hairenik and the Baikar. The Armenian-American Diaspora has since produced its own writers such as William Saroyan, Peter Balakian and Peter Sourian, amongst many others, who have reached a broader reading public.

The Lamont Library exhibit, open only to holders of Harvard University identification, will be up until April 25, but negotiations are under way to bring the exhibit to ALMA so that it may be viewed by the Armenian community and others not affiliated with Harvard. Further details will be announced in the future.

Russell hopes, with reason, that the exhibit will increase the interest in the Armenian language at Harvard.

“Right now, I am shifting my attention to the teaching of Western Armenian because it is a language in danger of disappearing. Without some speakers in the Middle East, we would truly lose it,” he said.

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