Thursday, November 22, 2012

Introduction of the “Dram” as Armenia's Currency - November 22, 1993

The first independent Republic of Armenia (1918-1920) used Russian rubles as currency. The Armenian banknotes, which kept “rubli” (ռուբլի, ruble) as the name of the currency, were designed by painter Arshag Fetvadjian (1866-1947). They were under printing in Europe when Armenia became a Soviet republic in December 1920 and were never put into circulation.

After the second independence, the Central Bank of Armenia was created on March 27, 1993. The new Armenian monetary unit was called dram (դրամ); the name, which means “money” in Armenian, was also the name of the silver coins in circulation during the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia (1199-1375). Interestingly, the word դրամ, pronounced tram, designates “money” in Western Armenian; Eastern Armenian uses the word փող (pogh) to designate “money.” Pogh was also the name of a certain type of copper coins in the Armenian state of Cilicia. 

The devaluation of the Russian ruble (which initially continued as the currency in the former Soviet Union following the collapse of the state) prompted the replacement of old currency by new one, and a flood of worthless old Russian rubles into Armenian forced the introduction of the dram, earlier than anticipated, on November 22, 1993. The initial value was 1 dram = 200 Russian rubles, while 1 American dollar equaled 14 drams. The high inflation of the period 1993-1994 in Armenia depreciated the dram to a value of 1 U$S = 100 AMD.  It reached 420 drams per dollar in March 1995 and stabilized afterwards (450 AMD per dollar in 1997). On November 19, 2012, the exchange rate was 407 dram per American dollar. 

The banknotes issued in 1993-1995 were put out of circulation in 2005. Their value went from 10 to 5,000 drams. This old series, which today only has a historical value, featured different national symbols:  for instance, the 10 dram note showed the Yerevan Central Train Station and the statue of David of Sassoun (across the station) on the obverse and Mount Ararat on the reverse, while the 5000 dram note exhibited the pagan temple of Garni on the obverse and the head of goddess Anahit kept in the British Museum on the reverse.

A new series of banknotes, currently in circulation, was issued starting in 1998. The first six values, from 50 to 20,000 drams (the notes of 50, 100, and 500 were later put out of circulation and replaced by coins), featured six figures of twentieth century Armenian culture and an image related to them: Aram Khachaturian, Victor Hambardzumian, Alexander Tamanian, Yeghishe Charents, Hovhannes Tumanian, and Avetik Isahakian. The 50,000 dram banknote was issued in 2001, on the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia, and featured the cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. The highest value, 100,000 dram, pictured King Abgar V of Edessa, who according to tradition received the painting (portrayed alive) of Jesus Christ from St. Thaddeus

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Death of Hovhannes Masehian - November 18, 1931

Hovhannes Masehian (1864-1931) was a Persian Armenian diplomat and writer, who became the foremost translator of Shakespeare into Armenian. He was born in Tehran in 1864. His father, Dzeruni Khan Masehian, was the chief jeweler of Shah Naser al-Din (1848-1896). From 1870 to 1878 he studied at the newly opened Haigazian School in Tehran. Afterwards, he went to Tabriz to continue his studies with his maternal uncle, Andon Khan Yervandian, who was the tutor of the heir prince. After three years of studies, in 1881 he went to Paris where he studied philosophy, law, political economy, and literature at the College de France. 

Masehian returned to Tehran in 1884, where he taught at the Haigazian School and was hired as a translator at the royal court. He traveled to London in 1897 as the chief translator for the Persian delegation sent to participate in the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation of Queen Victoria. Ten years later, he would be the first secretary of another delegation sent to London for the Queen’s sixtieth anniversary. Meanwhile, in 1895 he had been named head of office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Persia. He managed different positions in the ministry until 1901, when he was designated counselor to the Persian ambassador in Berlin. He became chargé d’affairs in 1906 and held the position until his return to Persia in 1911.

By that time, Masehian had also become a household name in Armenian letters. As the official translator of the Shah’s court (he knew some ten languages), he had translated around 30 books into Persian, of which there is no trace. In 1894 he published his first version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Tiflis. The famous Eastern Armenian poet, Hovhannes Hovhannisian, wrote, “This translation of Hamlet leaves a very beautiful impression on us; first, because . . . the translator knows his mother tongue very well and uses his knowledge with confidence, an advantage that many of our famous authors and translators may envy; second, because that language is rich and poetic, a necessary condition to translate authors such as Shakespeare.” Other translations followed: As You Like It, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Merchant of Venice. Masehian was unable, however, to publish his translations of Otello, Macbeth, and The Tempest. He continued his work until 1901, when he traveled to Europe as a diplomat; by 1909, he had translated nine Shakespearean plays and had translated anew his unpublished works.

In 1912, after spending a year in Tehran as chief of the secretariat of the Persian court, Masehian was faced with an unprecedented task. It was unheard of a Christian to represent diplomatically an Islamic country like Persia. However, disputes among the officers of young Ahmad Shah (1909-1925) ended when in 1912 the sovereign signed the decree that designated the Armenian diplomat as Ambassador of Persia in Germany. He held this position until March 1916, when he went to Paris, probably commissioned by the Shah. In 1919 he represented Persia in the Peace Conference at Versailles.

In the meantime, in 1916 Masehian had been officially invited to London as a speaker in the festivities of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Between 1921 and 1923, he was able to publish several more of his translations in the presses of the Mekhitarist Congregation, in Vienna: Hamlet, Otello, Macbeth, and Merchant of Venice. Indeed, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice were published in new versions. In the 1910s he had also translated Antonio and Cleopatra, Much Ado about Nothing, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Between 1923 and 1931, the indefatigable translator finished new translations: Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Winter’s Tale. “I am convinced that the translation of Shakespeare’s works,” he wrote to his friend, the poet Avetik Isahakian, “will leave a deep influence on our literature. If the giants of German literature have been impacted by Shakespeare, how much more our writers need that impact? This is why I have devoted myself to that task with all my energy.” He also was a translator of works by other literary giants: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Lord George Byron, Heinrich Heine, Omar Khayyam, and Rabindranath Tagore.

In 1927 Masehian was elected to the Persian Parliament. In the same year, he was designated as Ambassador to London. He held the position until 1929, when Persia established diplomatic relations with Japan and Masehian became the first ambassador to that country from 1929-1931. Because of illness, in 1931 he tended his resignation to Reza Shah (1925-1941) and left Tokyo to return to Persia. However, on his way he died in Harbin (China) on November 18, 1931. The efforts of the Armenian community of China and the special permission of Reza Shah allowed for his remains to be moved from China to Persia and be buried in Tehran on April 1, 1932.

A school of Shakespeare studies was developed in Soviet Armenia and several good translators appeared in the next decades. However, according to many specialists, Masehian’s translations remain unsurpassed.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Death of Father Ghevont Alishan (November 9, 1901)

Father Ghevont Alishan was one of the foremost names in nineteenth century Armenian scholarship and literary history. He authored several mammoth books on Armenian history, archaeology, and geography, which are still regarded as precious primary sources.

Kerovpe Alishan was born in Constantinople on July 18, 1820. His father, Bedros Alishanian, was an antiquarian and numismatist. He was sent to the monastery of San Lazzaro, the center of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice, in 1832. He studied for four years at the seminary and then continued his higher studies. In 1841 he became a teacher at the Moorat-Raphaelian School of the Congregation, in Venice. He started to contribute his poems to the flagship journal of the Mekhitarists, Bazmavep, published since 1843. He became principal of the School in 1848. The Italian rebellion against Austrian rule in that year, as part of the revolutionary movement that exploded throughout Europe, fired his imagination. He wrote several patriotic poems, of which the most famous was the one dedicated to Vahan Mamikonian (nephew of Vartan Mamikonian, the hero of the battle of Avarayr) that starts with the words Բա՛մբ, որոտան... (Pamp, vorodan...). This would become a celebrated patriotic march, a sort of unofficial Armenian hymn until the first decades of the twentieth century.
Between 1850 and 1853, Alishan visited some important European cities, such as Rome, London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, where he studied Armenian manuscripts and cultural artifacts, and gathered materials for his future investigations. During his journey, he translated the fourth chant of Lord Byron’s famous poem, Childe Harold.
He became the principal of the Mekhitarist school of Paris, Samuel-Moorat, from 1858-1861. He quit his position in November 1861 and returned to San Lazzaro. Again in 1866 he took the helm of the Moorat-Raphaelian School and worked as a principal until 1872. Afterwards, he abandoned the educational field to concentrate on his scholarship of Armenian Studies until his death on November 8, 1901.
He was one of the pioneer names in Armenian romantic poetry and his works, written between 1840 and 1852, were collected in five volumes published in 1857-1858. Most of those poems, however, were written in classical Armenian (krapar) and remained inaccessible for the general public. He became celebrated for a small collection of works written in modern Armenian (ashkharhapar) between 1847 and 1850.
His main contribution to Armenian culture was his important scholarly work. He executed a methodical plan of collecting information and systematically reconstructing Armenian antiquity. His poems and his works made him a household name. He never visited Armenia, but his extensive research was famous for its geographical accuracy. He wrote about Armenian ancient and medieval history, literature, mythology, and other issues. Some of his most important works include “Shirak,” “Sisakan,” “Sisuan,” “Ayrarat,” “Nerses Shnorhali and His Family,” “Ancient Belief or Armenian Pagan Religions,” “Armenia and Venice."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Death of Aghpiur Serop - November 1, 1899

Aghpiur Serop is today remembered as one of the noted names in the first generation of Armenian freedom fighters, in the last decade of the nineteenth century. 

His real name was Serop Vartanian. He was born in the village of Sokhort, in the district of Khlat (province of Bitlis), in 1864. His brothers were prosperous villagers; one of them was the head of the village.
In the 1880s, the deteriorating situation of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Abdul Hamid and the rise of political awareness in the Armenian provinces had created the urge for self-defense against the violence and exploitation exerted by Turks and Kurds. The legend of the Armenian fedayees (the freedom fighters) would be born at this time. On September 3, 1901, Tumanski, Russian deputy consul of Van, would write to the Russian ambassador in Constantinople: “The fedayees are really people who have lost their patience. They have sworn to take revenge, somehow, from their oppressors.”

Serop was a hunter. In 1885 he married seventeen-year-old Sose, one of the beautiful girls of the village. One day he engaged in a fight with two Kurds who tried to take his gun. Serop killed one of his attackers and made the other flee. His uncle helped him escape the vengeance of the Kurds. He went to Constantinople to live with another uncle. There he entered the ranks of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. The police of the capital was informed that he was a wanted person in Khlat and Serop was forced to escape to Romania in 1892. He settled in the city of Sulina and opened a coffee shop; however, in 1893 a cholera epidemic compelled him to go out of business and move to the Caucasus. For the next two years, he lived in between the Caucasus and Western Armenia.
After the beginning of the massacres of 1895, he returned to Khlat heading a group of 27 fighters and organized the self-defense of the Armenian villages. The
people baptized Serop with the nickname aghpiur (“source”), meaning “the one who gives life.” His military actions had actually instilled new spirit in the population and taught the importance of armed defense against injustice.
Many fedayees who fought in his group, such as Mushegh of Bitlis, Balabekh Garabed and others, later became battalion commanders. The future General Antranig also became a member of his group.
In 1896 he organized new groups of self-defense and distributed them in the villages; he also obtained weapons from the Caucasus. He fought throughout the province of Bitlis in 1897. He wrote one of the heroic pages of the history of the fedayee movement on October 20, 1898. During the combat of Babshen, which lasted until late night, Serop’s group of 17 inflicted heavy losses to an entire Turkish battalion.
The Ottoman government put a price to the life of Serop. He left Khlat and found refuge in the mountains of Sassoun. His wife Sose and his two sons, age 12 and 2, joined him. On November 1, 1899, Serop and his comrades were surrounded in the village of Gelieguzan. An Armenian traitor poisoned Serop, and despite a desperate fight, most of the Armenian fedayees were killed. Serop, paralyzed and unable to fight, was beheaded by the Turks. Two of his brothers and his elder son Hagop were killed in the fight, while his little brother Samson was saved by Serop’s sister-in-law.
Serop’s head was paraded by the Turks around the city of Bitlis, and afterwards it was delivered to the Armenians, who buried it in the church of Surp Garmrak. His wife Sose had fought until she was taken prisoner. However, Turkish commander Ali, who admired her bravery, had her grave injuries cured and was later liberated. The Armenian traitor, Ave, was killed by the fedayees a few months later.
Sose, called Mayrig (“little mother”) by the people, moved to Van after the revolt of Sassoun in 1904 and later to the Caucasus. She finally settled in Alexandria (Egypt) in 1920, where she passed away in 1953. Her remains were moved to Yerevan in 1998 and reburied in the military cemetery of Yerablur.
Aghpiur Serop had become a living legend. Many songs and poems were written about him and his wife. Avetik Isahakian, then a 24-year-old young poet, in 1899 wrote his poem “To the memory of Serop,” whose first stanza says:
        Mount Nemrut has a thousand sources,
        All of them go down the plain of Moush,
        Only the source of Serop’s heart
        Goes into the heart of the poor people.