One hundred and thirty years after his death, Raffi has long become a classic of Armenian literature. He was born Hakob Melik Hakobian on September 5, 1835, in Payajuk, a village in the district of Salmast, in Iranian Azerbaijan. He was the eldest of nine siblings. His paternal family had been meliks (hereditary lords) of the village for many generations. His father was a wealthy farmer and merchant.
His education began in the home of the village priest. There, in a small cramped room adjacent to the barn, boys of all ages and levels of learning were taught under pressure of corporal punishment. In 1847, at the age of twelve, his father, who had always harbored a deep respect for education, sent him to Tiflis, a major center of Armenian intellectual life at that time, to continue his secondary education at the Nersessian School. Since the school had been shut down due to a cholera outbreak, the future writer enrolled in a boarding school run by a distinguished Armenian teacher, Garabed Belakhian. This school was administered under the aegis of the Russian gymnasium of Tiflis, and its curriculum was adapted to requirements for entry into that institution. Here, the young village boy learned literary Armenian and Russian, and acquired a privileged education. In 1855 he started drafting his first novel in Classical Armenian, which he later transposed into vernacular Armenian and would be posthumously published as Salbi (1911).
In 1856, when he had still a year to complete his gymnasium studies, he was forced to abandon his formal education and return home to help his ailing father with the family business. In 1857-1858 he visited Western Armenian, particularly the regions of Van and Mush, and acquainted himself firsthand with the plight of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In 1863 he married Anna Hormouz, the daughter of an Assyrian Protestant family. They had two sons and a daughter, who died at a young age. However, the death of his father in 1865 sent the family into ruin. Hakob Melik-Hakobian had to work as a sales clerk and accountant in Tiflis to try to take care of his extended family.
From 1872-76 he contributed to the newly published Mshak daily in Tiflis. He debuted with the penname Alexander Raffi, which would later become just Raffi. He subsequently took teaching posts in Armenian language and history at the Armenian school in Tabriz (1875), where he put into practice his modern educational values. Two years later, he had to leave the city due to his conflict with the conservative establishment, both Armenian and Persian. He took a teaching position in Agoulis, in the region of Nakhichevan, but in 1879, his progressive views became again a matter for clashes with the local wealthy sponsors, and he settled in Tiflis for good, where he continued his prolific work for Mshak . The newspaper would publish many of his novels in serialized form. A year before he had published to great acclaim his first book, Jalaleddin, a novel depicting the massacres of Armenians by a Kurdish chieftain in the southeastern corner of Western Armenia. The next critically and popularly acclaimed book would be the novel The Fool (1881), whose subject was the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. In the following years, the patriotic imagery and episodes of both novels would inspire many young people to devote themselves to the cause of the liberation of Western Armenia, which would end in the creation of revolutionary groups and then political parties.
Raffi, who underwent a brief search and house arrest by the Czarist police in 1883 under suspicions of being a revolutionary, met the relentless criticism of the Armenian conservative press. A jubilee for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his literary activities was planned in 1884, but forbidden by the authorities. His next novels, Davit Bek (1882), The Golden Rooster (1882), The Diary of a Cross-Stealer (1883), Sparks (two volumes, 1883-1884), and Samuel (1886), which depicted historical and contemporary issues, further cemented his fame. Raffi’s novels would transcend his time and become mandatory reading for the next generations.
In 1886, while Samuel was received with great enthusiasm by the public, Raffi’s health had started to decline. In 1888 he published his last book, The Five Melikdoms of Gharabagh. His lungs were failing, and he passed away on April 25, 1888. He was buried in the Armenian cemetery of Khojivank on April 29, with an enormous mass of people attending beneath a downpour. As another novelist, Shirvanzade, wrote years later, “Raffi’s was the first great public funeral. Never before had there been anything like it.”
Anna Raffi, the writer’s wife, later moved to London with his sons Aram and Arshag. She would be instrumental in the publication of Raffi’s unpublished works, as well as reprints of his already popular novels. Her sons would have an important literary and political activity in the British capital to the benefit of Armenian causes. Raffi’s works, prohibited in Soviet Armenia during Stalin’s time, were published in huge multivolume editions afterwards. Presently, there is a school as well as a street named after Raffi in Yerevan. His works have been translated into several languages, such as English, French, Spanish, and others.