Julfa Cemetery Project Goes to Rome

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By Harold Short

ROME — As previously reported in these pages, the Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project has the goal of creating a virtual reconstruction of the destroyed Julfa Cemetery, with 2,000 khachkars from the medieval and early modern periods as the initial objective. The project is based in and supported by Australian Catholic University (ACU) at its North Sydney campus.

With ACU’s support, over a period of 3 plus years, the project has collected a significant volume and range of Julfa Cemetery materials, including: Argam Ayvazyan’s archive of 2,000 photographs, purchased by ACU in 2015; digital copies of a further 500 photographs, including glass negatives made by Aram Vruyr and Zaven Sargsyan; a variety of maps and other documents; and over 50,000 film and digital photographs of extant Julfa monuments. Many of these materials were collected in two field trips to Armenia in 2013 and 2015.

The first priority in 2016 was to develop the archive further. In May a third field trip, to Armenia, Iran and Georgia, succeeded in gathering additional images of extant khachkars, including 3D scans and additional film and digital photographs. The team was also able to capture 3D audio, both environmental sound and liturgical recordings, as well as ‘environmental’ photographs, along the Arax River, as close as possible to the Julfa site.

Following the very successful field trip, the project used these materials to prepare our first immersive 3D exhibition. This presents 3D models of 15 of the extant khachkars, ram stones and tombstones, positioned as accurately as possible in the cemetery landscape, which is itself reconstructed as accurately as possible, both visually and aurally.

The exhibition was tested in Sydney at the end of August, and presented for the first time in Rome in late September. It is pioneering a revolutionary new approach to combining still images, 3D audio, 3D visualisations and traditional photography in order to render an emotionally compelling and dignified recreation of a destroyed cultural site.

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Associated with the exhibition, a half-day colloquium was arranged, with keynote papers by Ayvazyan, without whose systematic — and heroic — photography of the cemetery our project would not be possible, and Prof. Hamlet Petrosyan, whose scholarship and passion have been an inspiration and an invaluable help in its development. Ayvazyan gave his paper from Armenia via Skype. Both presentations were delivered in Armenian, and translated into English by our Denver-based colleague Simon Maghakyan.

The colloquium was opened by Vartan Karapetian, Cultural Attaché in the Armenian Embassy to the Holy See, on behalf of the ambassador, Dr. Mikayel Minasyan. A welcome was also given by Professor Wayne McKenna, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at Australian Catholic University.

The 3D exhibition is in two parts. A three-screen “soft projection” room enables a small group of people — up to 12 or even 15 — to share the immersive experience of visiting the cemetery. In parallel with this, there is a pseudo-hologram exhibit, which displays one khachkar at a time, with an individual viewer (or a small group of 2-3) able to control which khachkar to view and to rotate it and to zoom – out and very close in!

The exhibitions and colloquium took place in the Soap Factory, a newly renovated event space in Rome’s Garbatella district. (The exhibitions had to be modified because of space constraints.) They were on show over three days and were extremely well received by those who saw them, including over 50 of Rome’s Armenian community, and many others interested in the preservation of the world’s cultural heritage, with visitors travelling from Milan, Madrid and London!

The enthusiasm and support of the Armenian community was also evident in a subsequent visit to the monastery at San Lazarro degli Armeni in Venice, where Father Hamazasp has offered to host a two-year installation of the Julfa Project materials.

The events in Rome were presented by project members Drew Baker (3D visualisation), Judith Crispin (co-Director & image specialist) and Harold Short (co-Director). The exhibitions included: historical photographs by Argam Ayzazyan, Aram Vryur and Zaven Sargsyan; new photographs by Dione McAlary and Judith Crispin, audio field recordings by Kimmo Venonnen, 3D field scans by Drew Baker, Judith Crispin, Dione McAlary, Hamlet Petrosyan and Father Shahe Ananyan. Topographical and monument reconstructions were done by Drew Baker, image editing by Judith Crispin and technical support was provided by Craig Williams and his team from Mosaic, Adelaide.

The support of the large Armenian community in Sydney has of crucial importance to the project, and the first public exhibitions in Sydney will take place early in 2017 at the State Library of New South Wales, to mark the launch of its “Armenian Collection,” which is documenting the arrival and development of the community in Sydney.

It is also hoped that the exhibitions can be brought to the US in the near future.

Information about the project can be found at https://julfaproject.wordpress.com.