An accomplished intellectual, educator, and public figure, Nikol Aghbalian was a self-appointed missionary of Armenian values wherever he went and wherever he worked, from the Caucasus to Beirut.
He was born in Tiflis in a working-class family. He graduated from the Lyceum Nersisian in Tiflis and the Kevorkian Seminary in Etchmiadzin, and he dedicated himself to teaching. At the same time, he started writing literary criticism for the monthly Murj, and the quality of his writing attracted the attention of the readership and the intelligentsia. Despite his precarious financial situation, he managed to follow university courses in Moscow, Paris, and Lausanne, although he was never able to graduate.
Aghbalian became a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation at a young age and he used his intellectual qualities to service the political cause. Since 1905, he was among the leading members of the Vernadun, the circle of intellectuals that gathered in the attic of poet Hovhannes Tumanian’s house to discuss literary and cultural issues of the day.
He was the principal of the Armenian school of Tehran between 1909 and 1912. He returned to Tiflis in 1913, where he became the editor of the A.R.F. newspaper Horizon and vice president of the Armenian Writers Society.After the beginning of World War I, Aghbalian was one of the founders of the Armenian National Council and played a crucial role in the organization of the Armenian volunteer movement that gave several battalions of Armenian soldiers to the Russian army fighting on the Caucasian front. When the retreat of the Russian forces brought thousands of survivors of the Armenian genocide from Western Armenia, he devoted himself to the daily work of sheltering, nourishing, and treating those refugees.
After the establishment of the Republic of Armenia, Aghbalian was elected a member of the Parliament and in 1919-1920 he became Minister of Education and Art. He established the grounds of the University of Yerevan and sponsored various educational and cultural initiatives. It is a well-known fact that his sponsorship of the yet unknown poet, Yeghishe Charents, whom he gave a job at the ministry, permitted him to concentrate on his literary creations.
After the sovietization of Armenia, he was incarcerated by the Bolshevik regime on February 9, 1921, and he was able to save his life, as well as many others, thanks to the popular rebellion of February 18, which liberated the prisoners, who had been condemned to death. After the end of the rebellion, he left Armenia and went to Tabriz, in Iran. A short time later, he moved to Alexandria (Egypt), where he worked as a teacher until 1928. In that year, he was among the initiators and founders of the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Editorial Society (today Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society). Later he moved with his friend and associate, the writer and educator Levon Shant (1869-1951), to Lebanon, where they founded the Armenian College (Jemaran) of Hamazkayin in Beirut (later Nshan Palanjian College and today Melanchton and Haig Arslanian College).
Until his death on August 15, 1947, Aghbalian followed an active schedule as a teacher and scholar. He taught the history of Armenian literature, Classical Armenian, and Armenian classical literature. He also organized a cycle of widely attended popular lectures to attract the interest of the Armenian community towards its literature and culture. He remained one of the intellectual referents of the Diaspora in its first decades.
His extended activities as a public figure and an educator did not allow Aghbalian to complete many of his projects. However, he managed to publish several books on Armenian literature and politics, and a four-volume collection of his works was published in the late 1950s in Beirut.
His family remained in Yerevan after his exile in 1921. His name was forbidden in Armenia until the final years of the Soviet regime. His name and his work were fully rehabilitated after the second independence. Some of his works, as well as monographs about him, have been published, and a school has been named after him.