Maxime K. Yevadian

Maxime K. Yevadian: ‘To Be Armenian Is to Resist Ambient Mediocrity’


YEREVAN/LYON – Maxime K. Yevadian is a historian and specialist in medieval and ancient Armenian culture. Born in 1979 in Fréjus (France), Yevadian holds the chair of Armenology at the Catholic University of Lyon. He works on the Christianization of Armenia, and, more generally, on ancient and medieval Armenia.

In 2006, he founded Sources of Armenia, a cultural association for the development of Armenian culture in the West, and especially in France. The association has developed along two directions: publications, through which they try to offer university-level syntheses to the French-speaking public on this millennia-old culture, and training, aimed at a wide audience, able to awake interest from the primary schools, secondary schools, students and adults, something that is unparalleled in Western Europe.

Among Yevadian’s published works in Sources of Armenia editions are: Stone, fabric, parchment and metal lace; The Art of the Christians of Armenia in the Middle Ages; Armenian Ornamental Grammar (2006); Christianization of Armenia (two volumes, 2007-2008), The Metamorphoses of Tigran (2014), etc.

I met Maxime several times in Armenia, and also once in Venice and we regularly are in touch, sharing academic interests.

Dear Maxime, where are your ancestors from and how did they reach France?

Let us say that out of four great-grandparents, I descend from two orphans of the region of Kharpert, from a peasant from Mush who became a fighter in the Armenian Legion, in Syria, and from a family that was saved trough a miracle in Sivas. A tragically classic Armenian destiny. As Nina Garsoïan, one of the best historians presently on antiquity and medieval Armenia and a great friend, said, God has not created the Armenian people on April 23 to immolate it on the 24th on the altar of genocide. On the contrary, I am like all the Armenians descendent of a Christian lineage that goes on for 70 generations or so and which has for 60 generations resisted the conversion to Byzantine Orthodoxy or to Islam, while this conversion would have allowed us a more comfortable and agreeable life in the metropolises of the times, rather than to have suffered harsh winters in the highlands. Nevertheless, this small, undisciplined people that was also stubborn has had its continued exchange with these great empires and many others, a contribution that the specialists are wrong in neglecting. This is the perspective, which isn’t a doloristic or miserabilistic one, that I would like to transmit to my children, Krikor and Méliné, on top of the language of their ancestors, to allow them to better understand the complicated world in which they will have to live.

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No doubt that people like you will transmit the national identity to the next generation. How did the idea of establishing Sources of Armenia come about?

In fact it is an expansion of the same ideas. For the Western general public, the “Armenians” mean the genocide. Isn’t that a little bit inadequate? What is more, overwhelmed by the trauma of 1915, Armenologists essentially work around the history that is contemporaneous to Armenians, mostly in the US, something which is probably necessary, but is also insufficient. I’m the first one to fight for justice for the Armenian people, and not only in the limited frame of the recognition of this genocide. To try to pressure the Turks to recognize a genocide which enriched them and has allowed for them a form of partial modernization of their country is to fail to know this people well, and to put oneself in a situation of subordination in front of their leaders who are among the finest diplomats in the world. It seems that it would be appropriate to explain to them that their pseudo-modernization was largely a failure, and that if they had known truly how to modernize their society and how to give the same rights to minorities as the Muslims had gotten, this state would be one of the first powers in today’s world. Far from this, they are trailing in 20th place in rank, their society is and remains one of a great violence which has set itself against families and social groups in part due to the absence of a minority to persecute. One will have eventually to work on this violence in order to overcome it. Where does this compulsion of death come from, which leads the Turks to such a degree of violence between men, against buildings (churches, monasteries, etc.) and nature itself? I think it’s a direct consequence of the situation of the Turanians in Central Asia who, during centuries, have been cannon fodder during wars between the great kingdoms such as the Tibetan Empire and China, and also other kingdoms. During those continual fights men, women and children were sold as slaves for a vile price. The situation of permanent insecurity has shaped the collective character of this people which is attempting to wipe the slate clean of its past and establish its domination and its security on blood and violence. This is illusory and they will have, one day, to confront the situation.

As for the Armenians, they have to get out of the “emotional trap” of trauma, to build a personal and collective future. For this, the knowledge of the past lived as a formidable legacy and as an intense spiritual life. In fact, in France and nowhere else in the world outside Armenia, according to me, was were any “market,” in the economic sense of the term, for books on the Armenian culture which were not summaries of, or which did not deal with, the genocide and its trauma. Whoever says no market, also says the no series of editions possible. As such, one either had to make do with the situation, or to establish a place where one could have works that sprung in existence of a high level of academic achievement. Additionally, Sources of Armenia has allowed us to publish books of a quality unseen in Europe for Armenian books. This initiative has probably shocked and angered some communities, perhaps as they had gotten used to being miserable. Few readers have made it all the way to the end of my 840 pages on the Christianization of Armenia, but this study has played a role in the evolution of historiography, and this is what matters.

Catholic University of Lyon

Who are your supporters?

We are a small group and we are aware of the challenges of our world in its many dimensions. This has enabled us to publish one book per year on average, for the last 10 years, to start over again and develop the Chair of Armenology which has it existed in the midst of Lyon Catholic University since 1987, and more recently, to contribute to the launching of a Chair of research on Eurasia, in the same university. For example, Rouben Malians has offered a warehouse of his restaurant franchise to be used as a place to keep our books, a warehouse that is built to the dimensions of a combine harvester.

Additionally, we’ve met some very nice personalities and been supported by them, such as Zaven Yegavian, the former director of the department of Armenian communities, and his first successor Astrig Tchamkerten, who helped us in developing a program for the schools of the diaspora, the Armenian numeric campus ( ), or the Geneva sponsor Vahé Gabrache, who is a rare combination of great Armenian sensitivity, a will for action, and financial means at a high level! We’ve been also recognized and supported by the administrators of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, both on the Armenian part of our programs as well as on the academic pole of excellence of the Research Chair on Eurasia.

Last and foremost, I have had the huge pleasure of meeting dozens of scholars of a high level who have made it possible to shape an expertise and acquire a real level of requirement. I have already mentioned Nina Garsoïan with whom we have spent days working on the nakhararoutiun (Armenian dynasticism); the historian of the Roman Empire, Yves Roman, my professor at Lyon II who has a luminous vision of the spread of Rome as a civilization pole and who has taught me a lot on the Roman world, and with whom we still maintain a conversation on these questions that has been ongoing for 20 years now; the architect Mourad Hasratian who, when I was a student, accompanied me for visits of dozens of Paleo-Christian Armenian churches, which has strongly contributed to my knowledge of this extraordinary art; the specialist of Armenian liturgy, Benedictine father Charles Renoux who has revealed for me the intimate relationship between Armenian liturgy and Jerusalem; specialists of patristic studies such as Michel Van Esbroeck and Bernard Outtier who have supported me and oriented my work when I worked on the Christianization of Armenia; I must also mention Lilith Zakarian and Erna Shirinian, two great researchers of the Matenadaran of Yerevan who became friends, as well as Anelka Grigoryan, the former director of the Armenian History Museum who knows well the finances of her institution, and my dissertation advisor Armenouhi Drost-Abgarjan without whom I would not have come out of those 10 years of doctoral work. In the midst of all these very nice encounters, I have to also cite Marie, my wife, who has embraced the workaholic that I am.

I follow your publications with admiration. Please tell us about them in details.

For a start, let us say that each one of our publications tries to bring a renewal on an already known subject or to expand the field of Armenian studies on a new question. In order to achieve this, we have shown interest in the edition of sources and their commentaries. In a certain way, we could think that I have spent my life constituting corpuses, inscriptions and texts or coins and their exploitation.

In 2006, during the Year of Armenia in France, I was invited to accompany the curator of the Museum of Miniatures of Montélimar, C. Courbère, to organize an exhibit on sacred art of Armenia and its symbolism. I gave over my salary to Sources d’Arménie to print its first book which is a synthesis of this art. My idea was to make a point on what we can say on the reality of the Armenian artistic tradition, its expansion and its relationship with other artistic traditions of the East and West. Then, after this book which is a sort of general introduction, we will have to publish some synthesis works on the main types of art: architecture, khatchkar, miniatures, and rugs. Only the volume on architecture has been published to this day. In 2010, Mourad Hasratian has published a formidable synthesis of a great work of genius which is also admirably rigorous! I pursued for this project, by publishing recently a study in German on the relationship between the architecture of the time of Charlemagne and Armenia, with an accent on the Cathedral of Aachen, the dedication inscription of which should read as: Insignem hanc dignitatis aulam, Karolus caesar magnus instituit, Egregius Odo Magister, [venit De montem Araratam], explevit (Charles, the great Emperor, has erected this remarkable temple of prestige the excellent master Odon, who came from Mount Ararat has seen to its construction).

Currently, I am working on the symbolic structure of the churches which, starting from the 4th century, reuse the quaternary structure of the Jerusalem Temple and of which we find the first examples in Armenia.

The main field on which I have worked starting with my first years at the University of Aachen is the origins of Christianity in Armenia, since my master in history in 2003-2004 and my sojourn at the St. Nersess Armenian Seminary of New Rochelle, NY, where I was invited by Abraham Terian and Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan, who both helped me make progress in my understanding of Armenian theology. Thus, in 2007 we published a first volume on Les origines de l’Église arménienne au milieu du iiie siècle, and the year after one major breakthrough was L’œuvre de saint Grégoire l’Illuminateur which has allowed, for the first time in the world, for Christianity to become durably the official religion and the unique religion of a State while the great empires of the time persecuted it. This event is a major threshold, a conceptual rupture point, all the more if we place it in the true chronology: neither around 295 and 300 or 301, which is a date with a theological value in its inception, nor in 314, which rests on philological and historical errors. On top of assembling some 250 texts, I studied at length the question pertaining to the date of the conversion, without stressing too much the “political” bearing of some of those dates. But be assured that those who speak of 314, either do not know this dossier, or else they have a hidden agenda that is not scientific.

This work on the origins of Christianity has led me in two directions, the link to Jerusalem which is rather well studied, and the mission of preaching of the Armenian prelates which is much less studied. It was as such the subject one had to study. I have worked since the beginning of the year 2000 on many Armenian saints who came to evangelize in Europe, among them Servatius of Tongeren-Maastrich.

Armand Tchouhadjian has published a book in 2010 which is a thesis on those Armenians who came to evangelize and travel in Europe, and there appeared in 2010 a volume on Gregory of Tallard, and another one the following year on Servatius of Maastricht.

Many volumes are in preparation for the period of Christian antiquity and for the Middle Ages.

I have gathered important documentation and materials, which I have made the theme of my doctoral dissertation, defended in Halle-Wittemberg in 2017, thanks to Armenouhi Drost-Abgarjan and Cornelia Horn.

The other direction of Christian preaching is Eurasia, all the way to India and China. This research has led me to the Silk Road. It is a huge and fascinating research and it is for the most completely neglected by Armenologists, while those Armenians have continually maintained close relations with Eurasian cultures. This study that is so important for us today has led to the foundation of a Research Chair on Eurasia which develops its work in this direction with many international cooperation projects.

We have also published anthologies of thematic articles. There was in France in 2010 a Turkish season, following the year of Armenia (2006). In the program for this, the Turkish government read things through its Kemalist and primary reading grid, where everything Ottoman is Turkish, which is in turn pure ideology. I have invited many specialists to study some subjects on the contribution of the Armenian minority to Ottoman influence, as I reserved for myself the question of architects. It was a nice volume translated, as early as 2011, in Turkish at an academic publisher, with the help of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Then, in 2017, we had to celebrate with dignity to 300th anniversary of foundation of the Congregation of the Mekhitarist fathers by Mekhitar Sepastiatsi.

Those Catholic Armenian fathers played an essential role in the transmission of European modernity to the Armenian people, which was then repressed by the Turkish night, but also in the development of the study of the Armenian language in its modern Western form, and also to the spread of schools of the diaspora. My cordial relations with Msgr. Levon Zekiyan, the pontifical delegate for this order, have allowed us to organize a series of articles published in the Nouvelles d’Arménie during the year 2017, and then gathered in a very nice volume, thanks to the organizational capacities and selflessness of Ara Aharonian, a man devoted to his church.

Finally, we have a dozen of Armenian schools, in France, three of which have been erected thanks to the energy and the consciousness of the venerated Msgr. Norvan Zakarian. The need has been felt within the school of Lyon to have a sort of a history manual on geography of Armenia, in its Middle Eastern context. This is what brought us to direct an Atlas of Armenia which, through about 20 maps with their commentaries, posits the essential basis for an understanding of Armenian culture and of its development. We are currently working on the 6th edition of this work. Jacques Hagopian, in collaboration with the director, is in charge for many years of the subtle balance whereby he hopes to make of the school an establishment of excellence where the transmission of Armenian culture is assured in a dynamic way.

The Metamorphoses of Tigran, initiated by you and musician Alexandre Siranossian, became a “coffee table book” for me. These two volumes include rare and generally unknown stuff – the Armenian topics and heroes in European operas and plays in late middle ages. I assume that after publishing this book, you have found more interesting facts, right?

This project has to be replaced in the context of the anniversary of printing in Armenian letters (2011-2012): this small people was the 10th nation to publish a work with its alphabet, after France, Germany or England, but without a state, an administration, nor an army… all the while being dominated from all sides! One had to put words on this prowess. I have thus asked three researchers to write a book of 128 pages on three interesting and original subjects. Alexandre Siranossian was one of them. 20 operas with Armenian themes had been published in 2011. He knew more than 50, there was thus enough to do something! And this was without factoring in the development of digitalization and thousands of books now available online. Alexandre has proven to be a discoverer of texts who has consulted dozens of thousands of pages and has gathered 640 works related to Armenia, an unexpected harvest! Then we had to classify and analyze all of this. This is where problems started. As a man of the notes and music, he was not able to entirely put his treasure into words… I have thus morphed, while I was in the midst of writing my dissertation, into this project and I have consecrated the hundreds of hours necessary to its finalizing. It was a pharaonic project which has united dozens of people living all over Europe. Those 500 pages in two volumes have been the occasion of the birth of a new branch in the already majestic tree of Armenian studies, and they have also completed what we knew of the mental universe of Europeans in modern era. However, the reception has been lukewarm, few people have understood its value and the consequences one must draw from it. Be that as it may, the book is there, as a foundation stone for an intellectual rebirth that is to come.

What are your planned publications with Sources of Armenia?

Let’s say that we still have around 10 projects in the works. The most advanced one is on the relationship between Armenia and Urartu, which has required two years of work, with a text that is at present written, followed by 32 sources which are at the base of our reflection on the subject. I hope this will be published soon! We also have a project in development on Armenian art with Prof. Alain Navarra di Borgia, which is very promising. Still in this field of art, I am working with the choreographer Michel Hallet-Egayan, on a project of the video podcasts that is truly fascinating. Dancer that he is, he has been able to transform my rather terse university teacher material into a superb poetic declamation. He has gathered around us a series of specialists and I can’t wait to see the results when COVID-19 will be over and we will regain some freedom.

To cite one branch of work, for some years, the new coins from antiquity have been discovered and allow one to reread the history of the Artaxiad dynasty. It is an immense project on which I been working for years with Roy Arakelian. Three articles have appeared, or are being printed, with three others in the course of finalization, and the work continues!

You have studied the presence of the Armenians in Western Europe in ancient times. From what year does it begin, and how could you characterize that presence?

You see, one has to keep the difficult balance between high-level research so that Armenian studies could progress. This balance is what undergirds the courses offered within the Chair of Armenology. It is also this double preoccupation which has led us, with Roy Arakelian, to develop an application on the Armenian patrimony outside of Armenia: the Armenian traveler’s guide. We have started on three Italian cities, Venice, Ravenna and Milan, and about 100 points of interest. And there are close to 10,000 for Europe only!

In a general way, we must say that Armenians have been coming to the Western world (the Latin world, the Germanic kingdoms, the Catholic Christendom, etc. ), since some 20 centuries, and their situations have been different! In antiquity, Rome welcomed some Armenian princes to perfect their education, and in late antiquity, Armenian missionaries traveled over Europe to spread Christianity, in what was then a land of missions where many became bishops. In the middle of the 7th century, there was an Armenian monastery in the city of Rome. I have alluded to the time of Charlemagne. But then the Seljuq dynasty came, the Mongols, the Timurid dynasty and others which brought the inexorable decline of Christian societies in the Middle East. Europe has been an asylum more than a support, and has largely used to its advantage the know-how and the knowledge of these Christians.

What is the most amazing fact on Armenians in Europe?

There are so many breathtaking places! In Paris for example, go to the Pantheon, one of the most important memory places in the whole country. Under its vaults, the great men of the nation lay around four statues of the greatest names of French literature. Among those, in full-size is Jean-Jacques Rousseau dressed as an Armenian… On the same place, there is the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, one of the great libraries of the capital. On its front are engraved the names of the main men of knowledge of mankind. On top of the main door, and the beautiful flag of France, one can read the name of the learned man and Armenian political figure of the 11th century Grigor Magistros. Florence, worldwide capital of the arts has taken, in the Middle Ages, as a patron saint the soldier who died as a martyr Miniato (arm.: Minas) and there is no nicer panorama on this marvelous city than the one which one finds from the front steps of the monastery of San Miniato al Monte. In this church there is, on top of the altar, a mosaic from the 13th century where we can see written besides the Saint “S. Miniatus Rex Erminie.” Those two examples owe nothing to the Armenians. They reflect the vision that Europeans have had, during the centuries, of Armenia and Armenians. To give one last example, on the San Marco Piazza in Venice, the square that’s the most visited in the world, there are on the columns of the Cathedral San Marco 31 Armenian graffiti (which I have published in 2017), left there by the negotiates and which are as many direct proofs of the relationship between the Venetian Republic and the people…

How would you describe the state of Armenian studies in France today?

The situation of Armenian studies is particular in the Francophone world. The places of teaching and research are integrated with public universities with only a few exceptions. This is a great advantage because they are not tied to private sponsorship, as it is generally the case in North America, but the consequence is that they follow the general trend of the humanities, which is not very good. For teaching the Armenian language, there is the INALCO in Paris which, under the direction of Anaïd Donabédian, possesses a real dynamism. There are places where the language and Armenian culture is taught, for instance in Aix-Marseille, Montpellier III, and Paris’ Catholic Institute in France, and also in Louvain and Geneva in the Francophone space. In Lyon, as previously mentioned, I am the only strange bird but I do my share.

(Translated by Philippe Gagnon, Catholic University of Lyon)

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