Prof. Drost-Abgarjan with Gohar Khachatryan-Sargsyan

Two Decades of Armenian Studies in Germany


HALLE-WITTENBERG, Germany — It is a unique institution in the country, the only center specializing in Armenian studies, Armenology. When the Mesrop Arbeitsstelle für Armenische Studien (Mesrop Center for Armenian Studies) at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg observed its 20th anniversary on October 18-19, it celebrated the special role it has played in bringing knowledge of the Armenian language, literature, culture and history to not only academic circles but also the broader public. Much has been achieved, and the potential for development is even greater.

Since the Bundestag (Parliament) passed a resolution in June 2016 recognizing the Armenian genocide, interest in Armenia has expanded immensely. For many Germans that political act opened the door to discovery of a hitherto unknown people and their culture. Several new studies, especially of the history of the genocide, have appeared and been well received.

But there is more to Armenia and Armenians than the genocide.

Halle is the right place to host the Mesrop center; the city boasts a long tradition of oriental studies, reaching back to 1694, especially studies of the Christian Orient. Another reason is the connection of the university to German reformer Martin Luther. Its director, Prof. Armenuhi Drost-Abarjan, has noted that the center’s namesake “was a counterpart to Martin Luther, … Luther plays the same role for our national literature as Mesrop Mashtots played for Armenian literature.” Mesrop’s groundbreaking translation of the Bible into Armenian was an inspiration to Luther, who explicitly acknowledged him as his forerunner when he undertook the translation of the Bible into the German vernacular.

Three Causes for Celebration

On October 18, in Halle an der Saale it was not one but three anniversaries that merited a festive toast: the cultural agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany (represented by the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt) and the Republic of Armenia was signed in 1998; the Mesrop Center for Armenian Studies at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg also reached its 20th birthday; and, the Yerevan State University and the Halle University looked back on a decade of partnership.

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The auditorium in the historic Löwengebäude — the lions’ building, so-called for the sculpted reclining kings of the jungle who guard the entrance — in the university square was brightly lit on the evening of October 18 and everything had been prepared for a dignified ceremony. Drost-Abgarjan welcomed the numerous guests warmly, musical strains sounded from members of the Halle University Academic Orchestra and the round of congratulations opened. Prof. Tietje, the university’s rector, stressed the historical significance of Armenia and the need for objective scientific study of the region. He pointed to the so-called small subjects, the university’s responsibility to them and the importance of the Mesrop Center for the Caucasus region in the context of European politics.

Dr. Ude, State Secretary of the Federal State Ministry for Economics, Science and Digitalization, summarized the activities of the Mesrop Center to date as well as its engagement for cultural mediation, and, speaking in the name of the ministry, expressed deep gratitude to Prof. Drost-Abgarjan. He also voiced appreciation for the activity of Prof. Dr. Goltz, the first Director of the institute, whose achievements were to be acknowledged with utmost respect repeatedly throughout the course of the evening. Ashot Smbatyan, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia in Germany, called for injecting more vitality into the abstract relations between Armenia and Germany, and emphasized the central role Armenian studies play for Mesrop as well as the elevated status the Center enjoys in research on Armenia as a Christian nation. Dr. Arayik Harutyunyan, Minister of Science and Education, R.A., coined a fitting honorary title for Mesrop — he dubbed it the “second Armenian embassy” — and reported on the institution’s efforts to strengthen Armenian studies in Germany and, with the help of special scholarships, to promote a vigorous student exchange program.

The loudest applause of the evening then came, when Prof. Drost-Abgarjan, visibly moved, received the “Gold Medal” from the Armenian Ministry of Science, an award which stands as a tangible symbol honoring her indefatigable intellectual work, for which she deserves most heartfelt thanks. Dr. Gunnar Schellenberger, State Secretary of the Minister President’s Office and of the Ministry for Culture of Saxony-Anhalt, followed, and spiced his greetings with amusing accounts of his personal experience during his visit to Armenia ten years ago. Dr. Vahan Ter-Ghevondyan, Director of the Mesrop Mashtots Research Institute Matenadaran, Yerevan, spoke in conclusion about the close relations between the Mesrop Center and various Armenian scientific institutions. He noted the project for a Dictionary of Middle Armenian, and recalled the German scholars who made contributions to Armenian culture.

Aims and Challenges

Prof. Theo van Lint, Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies from Oxford University, delivered the Laudatio. He elaborated on the landmark cultural agreement signed in 1998 between Germany and Armenia and quoted the aims of the center then defined as follows: “strengthening Armenian studies in Germany in research and teaching, establishing an official professorial chair at the Halle University, scientific counseling and coordination of German-Armenian scientific and cultural projects as well as institutional partnerships, providing competent expertise to museums, libraries, archives, as well as to financial support institutions in both countries.”

Over the last two decades, the center has accomplished a great deal, including several international agreements that van Lint praised: in addition to the partnership with the Yerevan State University, he mentioned the cooperation agreement established in 2010 with the Valery Brusov University for Languages and Social Sciences, which has been elevated to a full partnership this year. Also this year the Martin Luther University and the Matenadaran signed an agreement, while de facto cooperation is ongoing between the Evangelical College for Church Music in Halle and the Komitas Conservatory in Yerevan.

Further achievements include the rich contributions made by the center through its scientific publications, its educational trips to Armenia and six outstanding exhibitions it organized, all with accompanying catalogues. Two remarkable publications van Lint singled out were the Middle Armenian Dictionary and a project for translation of Sharakans or hymns.

The list is indeed impressive. Yet, van Lint singled out one of the official aims of the center which has not yet been realized: the establishment of an official professorial chair for Armenian studies. Speaking from his vantage point as current holder of the only chair for Armenian studies in Great Britain, “and as holder of these all-too-few chairs overall,” van Lint said he could sense “the holes in our research, holes which can be filled only by area specialists whose broad knowledge is combined with a rich orientation in the interdisciplinary sphere.” For this, a proper professorial chair is “indispensable.” He said he “would like to go to bat here for a chair dedicated to the Armenian language, philology, history and culture, so that specialists can be educated who will be able to assume the enormous task of making Armenian culture in the broadest sense accessible to those interested,” whether they be diplomats, politicians or the general public. In this connection, van Lint also made the highly relevant point that in an era of “globalization,” where “area studies,” like “Asian studies,” “Caucasus studies,” etc. abound, it is imperative to make sure that “competence in the individual language and cultures not be lost or watered down.”

The revolutionary developments in Armenia have created a new situation in which these and many other challenges can be met. Voskanyan from the American University of Armenia developed this theme in his keynote address, “Armenia in 2018: Realities and Perspectives,“ which provided the transition from the evening’s relaxed and festive mood to the spirit of scientific research that would dominate the following day’s agenda. As the speaker related his eye-witness account of the “Velvet Revolution,“ images of the historic events took shape in the mind of every listener.

Voskanyan described and analyzed single scenes, presented the social mechanisms at work, as well as the political and social structures shaping the revolution, and located them in their historical context, and in this way identified the grounds for such radical change in the country. Voskanyan offered a glimpse of Armenia’s future political course in light of various expectations and hopes, while never losing sight of the possible dangers.

A Scholarship Can Change a Life

How better to portray the hopes for the future than to share the experience of a young student of that generation preparing to contribute to the new Armenia? Gohar Khachatryan-Sargsyan is the first alumna of a special scholarship program for students from Armenia, which is offered in the context of the agreement between Saxony-Anhalt and Armenia. In her moving “thank-you” speech, she recalled the difficulties the country endured after independence and the Karabakh war, particularly the toll taken on education. When she found out she was the recipient of the first scholarship to study in Germany (1999-2000), she considered it nothing short of a miracle. “From the first day in Halle,” she said, “I felt as though I were in wonderland.” Everything she encountered seemed magical, the lectures were lively and her professors were eager to help. “I was finally satisfied with my studies, and I learned how to study, something I consider very important.” In addition to classroom work, she was able to take part in excursions and museum visits. One of them turned out to be decisive. In the Dresden Picture Gallery when she saw Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” she “was struck as if by lightening.” Although she had seen reproductions of Raphael’s works as a child, she had never imagined what the impact of the original would be. “Then I understood,” she said, “that I wanted to be an artist, not an art historian, because only an artist can produce something that moving even today.”

The young scholar (who is the daughter of a famous artist) emphasized the value of friendships she made during that year as well. She has begun artistic collaboration with one such new friend, the writer Daniela Danz, and the two are going to work on a literary film project, sponsored by the Goethe Institute in Gyumri, which will deal with the Armenian poet Sajat Nova. As a gesture of gratitude, she concluded by presenting the Martin Luther University with a painting of hers, titled “The Grandmother,” a portrait of “an elderly and wise Armenian woman.”

After the audience had returned to silence, a concert of German-Armenian music filled the air. Participants listened with rapt attention to the performance by singer Anahit Abgarjans (a sister of Drost-Abgarjan), Duduk player Araik Bartikians and organist Helene von Rechenbergs, who, in addition to a work by Johann Sebastian Bach, offered Armenian spiritual songs, hymns and folk songs. The wonderful music captivated the souls of those present, transporting them to distant fields, and filling them with optimism in the future. The evening ended with a reception, with fine cuisine and engaged discussions, all in anticipation of the working sessions planned for the second day.

Prof. Theo van Lint

Scholars in Dialogue

On October 19, educators and researchers from both countries engaged in a full day of scientific discussion and exchange. The conference panels illustrated the nature, vast range and high quality of the intellectual collaboration that has grown over the past two decades in Halle. Under the direction of Drost-Abgarjan, the first session heard presentations by Cornelia Horn (Halle) on “Armenian Studies in Germany,” Vahan Ter-Ghevondian (Yerevan) on “Non-Armenian Documents of Matenadaran” and Annegret Plantke-Lüning (Jena) on “The Role of German Scholars in Research on Armenia’s Material Cultural Heritage.”

In the afternoon session, chaired by Professor van Lint, Hacik Gazer (Erlangen-Nürnberg) spoke on “Germany as an Educational Center for Armenian Students in the 19th/20th Century,” Axel Meissner (Halle) on “Dr. Johannes Lepsius and the First Magazine of the German-Armenian Society Mesrop (1914)” and Ashot Galstyan (Yerevan) on “Armenian-German Relations in the First World War and 100 Years of the First Armenian Republic (1918-2018).” Professor Gazer led the final session, which heard papers by Franziska Knoll (Halle) on “The Highlands of Syunik – Petroglyphs and Summer Pastures over Millennia, by Meliné Pehlivanian (Berlin) on “Armenian Press History as Reflected in the State Library in Berlin” and by Thomas Buchholz (Halle) on “Komitas’s Compositional Work from the Perspective of His Music Studies in Germany.”

In her concluding remarks, Drost-Abjarjan cast her gaze to the future and the perspectives for Armenian studies in Germany.

The festivities and scholarly exchange in the historical setting had provided ample food for thought regarding precisely the future perspectives for this unique center of learning. Dr. André Höhn, a lecturer at the university, paused to reflect on a Greek script that decorates the ceiling of the university hall, a saying about life, which is all too brief, and art, which is eternal. Rendering the notion in a brighter light, he expressed his hope that the Mesrop Center would be granted both a long life and lasting impact.

(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach thanks Dr. André Höhn for having made his report on the two-day proceedings available for publication in this article. Höhn is a Lecturer at the seminar on the Christian Orient and Byzantium, of the Department of Oriental Studies, Mesrop Center.)


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