Richard Hovannisian

BELMONT, Mass. — Prof. Richard Hovannisian on May 6 was the speaker at the first in-person evening lecture event since the beginning of the pandemic, at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), for a program co-sponsored by the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. The program was also available online.

Hovannisian was there to speak about the book Armenian Communities of Persia/Iran: History, Trade, Culture, of which he is the editor. The book is a result of the proceeds from the last in the UCLA conference series, titled “Historic Armenian Cities and Provinces.”

Hovannisian, 89, made few concessions to age; the only difference from previous years was that he was sitting. He still speaks without notes, deliberately and calmly.

“I feel very fortunate I have been able to come back to the greater Boston area for the first time  in several years since we all became home bound and worry bound,” he said, praising the “renewed and expanded facility” of NAASR, whose headquarters had undergone an extensive renovation which had been unveiled in the months before the pandemic.

“I didn’t think I would ever do this volume. All my other volumes in this series dealt with Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire that are now in Turkey,” he said, adding that he had organized two conference on Iran and one on Jerusalem. “When I was urged to do so by the publisher, I said there are many others far more capable than I, but there were no takers,” he joked.

He has dedicated the book to his late wife, Dr. Vartiter Kotcholosian Hovannisian, “who for over 60 years was a beloved physician but also my academic partner as we traveled the together, into archives around the world, and her fluency in German, Russian and Armenian made it so much easier for me to be able to work and put together the volumes that we have over the years,” he said.  She had passed away in November 2021.

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Before speaking about the new volume, he spoke about the collaboration with his wife.

Their initial work was to present “the first Armenian Republic, as much as possible, on an objective basis,” he noted.

“We know that our community was torn apart for many years. Part of the reason was the question of the First Republic. Was it the fulfillment of a long struggle for self-determination and independence, a struggle to regain Armenian sovereignty after centuries of foreign domination or was it a land of death and destruction and failure until the Soviet Russians came to save it?”

A symbol of the division about the issue was the attitude toward the tricolor flag in the community.

“As time went on, I realized that no one was correct and everyone was correct,” he said. To be able to understand under what conditions that republic was born and how the challenges were addressed, “required a great deal of study.”

He and his wife, he noted, went to many archives “loaded with information that was never touched. We were sort of pioneers in uncovering that information without trying to disguise the fact that we were sympathetic to the concept  of an independent Armenian state,” he said, referring to the 30-year effort to study the short-lived republic.

In addition to the First Republic, he has studied many of the provinces of Western Armenia, as well as the Armenian Genocide.  While he said he “never claimed to be a genocide scholar,” he was driven to study the issue because of the extensive denial and ignorance, “including in my own university,” UCLA, in previous decades. Thus, he said, he organized a number of conferences on the Armenian Genocide.

“When I began in this field, there were perhaps no more than five or six books that dealt with the Armenian Genocide in a Western language and today if you go to the NAASR library, you will find scores of very serious studies on the Armenian Genocide,” he said.

Hovannisian has covered all the lost provinces of Western Armenia in conferences, including in Van, Vaspurakan, Bitlis, Kessab, and published the proceedings.

The US-born Hovannisian, who is a descendent of Armenian Genocide survivors, visited Iran when he finished studying in Lebanon.

“I kept on going eastward through Iraq, Iran and India, all the way to Hong Kong, Manila, Japan and ended up in Hawaii and finally San Francisco.”

“I was fortunate as a young man to spend my first visit in Tehran and Isfahan and was really impressed by a lot of things. The wonderful Persian cuisine which is among the best in the world.” His visit to  New Julfa yielded a big surprise, because he could only see what looked like plain mosques in the Armenian quarter, which were indeed churches, very different from what was inside. “I was awed because there were frescos from the ceiling to the floor that were commissioned by the very wealthy Armenian merchants of that community,” he said.

“I was enthralled by Iran,” he added.

History of Armenia and Iran

The ties between the Armenian and Iranian peoples go very deep, he noted. Hovannisian went over the history of the region, noting that the Achaemenid Empire, started in the sixth century BC, incorporated Armenia and “most of the population of the world at the time.” It was at this time that Armenia is mentioned for the first time, Hovannisian said.

“Even then when there were Armenian rebellions against the Persians, the generals in the Persian army were of Armenian origin, which meant the Armenians were already there,” he said.

The central rulers let the Armenian princes rule their regions under the aegis of the Persian rulers.

“Armenians were allowed a great deal of autonomy” during the Sassanian empire, he said. “We may forget that even then there were many Armenians in the series of the Iranian state,” while referring to Vartan Mamigonian.

Hovannisian then delved into the history of the province of Azerbaijan (Aterpetakan) in Northern Iran, with the capital city of Tabriz. “They [the other Azerbaijan now fighting Armenia and Karabakh] adopted that name only in 1918. That was not known as Azerbaijan before,” he noted.

“It [that region of Iran] plays a critically important role in Armenian history because if you look just to the west, beyond the border, lie Van and Vaspurakan. The connection between Vaspurakan and Azerbaijan [Iranian Aterpetakan] were very intimate,” he said.

“It was in [Iranian] Azerbaijan that Armenian organized their fedayi groups that they sent weapons across the border into Van and Sassoon,” he said.

“Azerbaijan in the north of Iran has a very different history than southern Iran, where Armenians created a whole trading network,” he explained.

He named Salmast, Khoy, Gilan and Mazandaran and Gharadagh in the north with rich Armenian tapestries woven into Iranian life. “There were hundreds of Armenian villages,” he noted. “They have a very, very rich history.”

‘The city of Maku, across the Arax River from Nakhichevan, had a principality known as Ardaz, from the 13th to the 15th centuries,” he said.

He paid tribute to historian Armen Hakhnazarian, who at a conference on Iranian-Armenians, presented a study of the churches and monasteries of Northern Iran.

Hovannisian paid special attention at the lecture to Sourp Tadeh (Saint Thaddeus) Vank, where during the summer there are pilgrimages during Vartavar. “Both the Shah’s government … and [later] the Islamic Republic, are taking special care to see that these monasteries are kept in good shape,” he said.

There were many notable personages hailing from the region. One was the writer Raffi (Hakop Melik Hakpian), who called for Armenians to strive for enlightenment and use self-help and resistance for survival. Raffi was born in Salmast in 1835 and later moved to Tiflis (Tbilisi) but he traveled through Turkey and Iran and looked at the oppressed lives of the Armenians. He encouraged them to take up arms when needed.

Hovannisian said that women were active in the social scene in Tabriz. The women were “not only intellectuals but also participated in Armenian revolutionary movements by doing such things as putting arms under their skirts and go across borders and boundaries, carrying concealed weapons for the fighters on the other side,” he explained.

The most famous of the Armenian revolutionary figures in Iran was Yeprem Khan (1868-1912), who took part in not only Armenian revolutionary movements, but also against the Persian oppressors fighting the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1789 to 1925, to try to bring about a constitution in Iran.

“In 1910-11 they [the population at large] engaged in revolutionary warfare, which forced the Shahs to make compromises and give into them a certain degree. Yeprem Khan was a part of the Iranian revolutionary movement,” he explained.

Hovannisian also spoke about the Armenian religious leaders in Iran’s north, including Nerses Melik-Tangian, who he said, “is probably the most loved and remember of the Primates in Tabriz.”

The continued Turkish killings of Armenians on their lands spilled over into northern Iran and Armenian villages there. “In World War I, it was not only a genocide of the Armenians in the Turkish empire, but the Turkish armies invaded Iran twice, in 1915, when the Genocide was taking place, and when they withdrew they came back again in 1918 after the Russian revolution of 1917 and a second massacre took place in the northern areas of Khoy, Uremia and Salmast. It was at this time that the Armenians had to flee,” he explained.

Aside from the Armenians, the Assyrian population in the region was also massacred.

Salmast and Khoy, he said, are now devoid of Armenians. They have all left for Soviet Armenia, the US or the capital in Iran. “There are scores and scores of abandoned Armenian villages with remnants of their chapels,” he said. “In Khoy, the mother church is being maintained of the southern churches.”


Next, he focused on the Armenians further south, near Isfahan, who made their mark not just in the region, but around the world.

“The Persians had a new dynasty, the Safavid, and they were in a 200-year-war with their neighbors in the west, the Ottoman Turks,” he said, much of it on the Armenian Highlands.

“During the time, Shah Abbas took the initiative and won back a significant part of that territory. A part of that territory was near the Arax River, what was Soviet Armenia, and Nakhijevan or Vaspurakan, Van. One of the policies that followed, no matter how cruel it may seem, was a scorched-earth policy,” he explained. “If there are no people, no animals and no wheat, they can’t go very far.”

Thus, he said, “hundreds of thousands of Armenians were moved south of the Arax River.”

“There was a particular village or town on the Arax River, known as Julfa. The Armenians know it as Jugha. It was a fabulous city with very wealthy merchants. It had become part of the Silk Road and the international trade network,” he said. “Shah Abbas brought these people to his new capital, Isfahan, in the south of Iran, and gave them an area across the river from his capital. He said, ‘Here you make your town and I will see to it that you will live according to your Christian laws. I will not allow any Muslims to live in that area. And you will have your local self-government.’ And the Armenians thrived.”

Hovannisian said the success of those forced transplanted Iranians continues to inspire him. “I continue to be amazed that however wealthy they already were and however well-established their trade, how was it that the Jugha merchants, who were displaced by several hundred miles … are on the international trade routes within one generation?”

During his travels to Calcutta, Rangoon or Manila, Hovannisian said, he met many Armenians. “They all had originated form New Julfa,” he said. “And when they were talking about a pilgrimage to their homeland, it was to Jugha, to the mother church of Jugha.”

The breadth of the travels of the Jugha traders, especially considering the technology and means of transportation then, is simply incredible; they went all the way east to Mongolia, and all the way west to Sweden.

“Armenian merchants were very, very resourceful,” Hovannisian said. “They didn’t even need to have contracts because they had an honor system among themselves.”

Through various systems, including what might be construed as bribes by today’s standards, they were able to get monopolies in various countries for certain goods.

In Cadiz, Spain, for example, he said 12 Armenian merchants had built a Catholic church, the Church of Santa Maria, which is still standing.

New Julfa, in Isfahan, is still populated by Armenians, with their unusual churches and buildings.

“Over the generations and years, it has become a sleepy town, still very, very charming,”

There are many churches in Julfa, but all look like plain mosques from the outside, but the interiors might shock visitors.

“Look what’s inside. The mosaics, murals and tiles. Opulence. What money it took and how much they had to invest in it and how much foreign specialists and craftsmen,” Hovannisian said with awe, as he showed a picture of a church with intricate murals from top to bottom.

At the program, art historian Ani Babaian of NAASR, who herself hails from New Julfa, spoke about the art and architecture of the region, including the Monastery of Sourp Amenaprkich (New Julfa Vank).

Babaian thanked Hovannisian for including her essay on the art of Julfa, as well as her colleagues at NAASR and the members of the Armenian Society of Boston, who allowed the publication of the photographs in the book in color.

“From 1606 to 1695, 24 Armenian Apostolic churches were built in Julfa. Today 13 churches are standing. Each church reflected the financial capacity of the parish,” she explained.

Many who had gone to the diaspora, often sent money for the construction and the decoration of the churches, she said.

“During the restoration of the Sourp Amenaprkich Church dome in 2008, an inscription was found at the center of the dome. It contained the names of the previously unknown floral decorator artists, dated 1667,” she said. “It proves the opulent dome was done by Armenian artists.”

The churches, she said, are part of the historical buildings protected by the Isfahan province’s government. In addition, there are efforts to get the Surp Amenaperkich Church declared a UNESCO protected site, which has already recognized the churches of Dzordzor, Surp Tadeh Vank there.

Hovannisian also spoke about the art of Julfa, including paintings and theater, singling out painter Sumbat  Der Kiureghian and actress Siranoush, who had been born in Constantinople, performing widely in the Caucasus before coming to Iran and becoming “the darling” of Persian society.

The former often painted village scenes in Julfa. However, many villages are now empty.

“The basis of the Armenian society has always been the farmer,” Hovannisian said, before delving into the villages, including Peria and Boloran.

From 1946 to 1947, the highly patriotic Armenians of the country repatriated to Armenia, leaving many of the villages empty, he noted.

“When I was taking a train from Yerevan to Tabriz in the 1960s,  still in the 1960s, there were large number of Armenians migrating out of Iran, coming to Soviet Armenia, many of them of course later disillusioned, but they had come there with great optimism, thinking they were going to develop the county,” Hovannisian said.

He dedicated the last part of the talk to the capital, Tehran. There are still 25 Armenian schools in the city, he said.

David Yaghoubian’s chapter in the book, titled “Armenians and the Development of Nationalism in Iran,” he said shows how “flexible the Armenians are in Iran. They adjust to the local situations and that is one of their ways. That’s part of Armenian history, isn’t it? For Armenians to survive they have had to adjust.”

Then he gave a specific example. He showed a picture of the huge Armenian demonstration on April 24 in 2006, but he recalled that they were very circumspection 2005, when he was in Iran to speak at the commemoration. They asked him not to take  part in the march, though he was going to speak at the program. The idea of him, an American citizen, criticizing turkey there, they suggested, might take on a different meaning.

“They are diminished by perhaps 2/3 but they are still there, still active and I hope they will have a very long, long life,” he noted.

The Armenians from Iran constitute a very large segment of the population in Glendale, he said. “The most prosperous segment of the community who live up in the hills of Glendale which is a status symbol.”

“They continue to thrive while at the same time acculturating and adjusting and changing but being proud of their heritage and maintaining it even though they had been in Iran for more than 400 years, and in some cases for more than 1,000 years, still able to maintain their language as their primary means of communication,” he said. “It’s a rich history.”

Hovannisian has written the first chapter of the book, an overview of and introduction to the community. Authors include the late Leonardo Alishan, Rubina Peroomian, Ani Babaian and Vartan Matiossian, among others.

In 1986, Hovannisian was appointed as the first holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA. Hovannisian is a Guggenheim Fellow who has received numerous honors for his scholarship, civic activities, and advancement of Armenian Studies. His biographical entries are included in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World among other scholarly and literary reference works.

In 2014, he became adjust professor at USC “with the intention of advising on the Shoah Foundation’s integration of the Armenian Film Foundation’s collection of genocide survivor interviews.” He then in 2018 donated his own interviews to USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. The 1000 interviews are titled the Richard G. Hovannisian Armenian Genocide Oral History Collection, and is “the largest existing collection about the Armenian Genocide” according to the foundation.

In his introduction at the start of the program, NAASR’s Marc Mamigonian brought attention to the changes since the last time the building had hosted an in-person lecture, in February 2020. “We would be remiss not to remember that many people dear to us have been lost whether because of the pandemic or other causes. A terrible war has been fought in 2020 that brought great suffering to Artsakh and Armenia,” and thus, he suggested a moment of silence. Buy Premium Perfums

The program was also sponsored by the Armenian Society of Boston and the Society for Armenian Studies.

Armenian Communities of Persia/Iran is available from NAASR, Abril Bookstore and Mazda.


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