The name of amateur poet Francis Scott Key would not have gone down in history if it not were for his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which later became the U.S. national anthem. Equally, the name of amateur poet Nahabed Rusinian would have not reached us if not for his popular poem “Cilicia,” which later became a cherished song. Rusinian was born in 1819 in the village of Efkere, a few miles northeast of Caesarea (Kayseri). He received his primary education in his birthplace, and at the age of ten he moved with his father, who was a palace painter, to Constantinople. He attended the Armenian school of Scutari, one of the suburbs of the Ottoman capital, where his interest for Armenian language, history, and culture flourished. However, his father’s premature death forced him to leave school and get a job as a translator for a Turkish pasha.
The promising Rusinian had gone under the radar of wealthy Armenians, such as Garabed Balian (the imperial architect who built the renowned palace of Dolmabahçe) and writer Krikor Odian’s father, who helped him financially to pursue higher studies. He traveled to Paris, where he attended medical school at the Sorbonne and also followed courses of literature and art as an auditor.
The environment of Paris in the 1840s nurtured Rusinian with the elements to develop his interests in language, arts, and philosophy, but also shaped his liberal views, particularly with the 1848 revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. After obtaining his medical degree in 1851, Rusinian returned to Constantinople and, along with his daily work and his teaching duties at the university became an active participant in the political life of the Armenian community. His penchant for free expression and democratic participation threw him into the struggle for democratization of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire. He joined efforts with his comrades from Paris, Stepan Voskan and Krikor Odian, to put forward the project of a National Constitution (Azkayin Sahmanatrutiun), a legal instrument that would establish the grounds for internal administration within the community. It would also reflect the need for modernization and democratic change that was the driving force of that generation.
As part of his quest of modernization, Rusinian was also very active in the promotion and development of the Modern Armenian language (ashkharhapar) as a written language instead of Classical Armenian (krapar). He was a member of the Armenian Educational Council in 1854 when he published his textbook “Orthology” (Ughghakhosutiun), where he made quite radical proposals for the grammar of the language. The heated debates between the partisans of krapar and ashkharhapar would continue for several decades.
In 1855, the Armenian Patriarchate forbade the use of Rusinian’s textbook, as well as of his other book, “Calendar of Feasts” (Donatsuyts), because of their eccentric proposals which modified radically both Armenian grammar and calendar.
Nahabed Rusinian was among the group of seven intellectuals who drafted the Armenian National Constitution, which was finally approved by Sultan Abdülaziz in 1863. Rusinian passed away in 1876, at the age of 57, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The song “Cilicia,” which he wrote and was later put to music by Kapriel Yeranian, has become a cherished song for Armenians from Armenia to the latest corner of the Diaspora. It has also become, unofficially, a hymn of sorts of the Catholicate of the Holy See of Cilicia.
As a side note, Armenian scholars have shown a long time ago that “Cilicia” was strongly inspired by French composer and songwriter Frédéric Bérat’s (1801-1855) poem “Ma Normandie,” written in 1836, which incidentally has been used as the semi-official hymn of Jersey, one of the islands of the British Channel, and sometimes as an unofficial hymn of Normandy, in France.
For the French text of the song and its English translation, click here.
To hear Cilicia (Giligia) rendered by the Chamber Choir of Yerevan with the Alan Hovhannes Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Krikor Pidedjian, click here.