Monday, November 25, 2013

Birth of Monte Melkonian - November 25, 1957

Rather than his uncommon life journey, the ending part of it, as one of the commanders of the self-defense force of Karabagh, turned the Armenian American modern-day freedom fighter Monte Melkonian into a legend.

Monte Melkonian was born in Visalia (California), an all-American child who in the spring of 1969 visited the ancestral town of his maternal grandparents, Marsovan (nowadays Merzifun), with his family and discovered the “Old Country” of which his parents had rarely spoken. This sparked his interest in his background.

After a study abroad program in East Asia, he returned to the United States and graduated from high school, and from the University of California at Berkeley, in three years, with a major in ancient Asian History and Archaeology.

Upon graduating in the spring of 1978, he was accepted into the archeology graduate program at Oxford University. Instead, he chose to begin his lifelong struggle for the Armenian Cause.

After a short sojourn in Iran, where he participated in the movement to overthrow the last Shah, Melkonian made his way to Beirut in the fall of the same year, and participated in the defense of the Armenian quarters against the attack of right-wing Phalangist forces for the next two years. By this time, he had learned the fourth language he would speak fluently, Armenian, the others being Spanish, French, and Japanese, and of course his native English.

Between 1980 and 1983, he was a militant of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), one of the organizations that carried armed struggle against the Turkish state from 1975 to 1985. After the split of the organization in 1983, he spent over two years underground, until his arrest in Paris in November 1985. He was sentenced to six years in prison for possession of falsified papers and carrying an illegal handgun.

He was released in early 1989 and expelled from France. He reunited with his long-time confidante and future wife Seta Kebranian, whom he had met in early 1980s in Beirut. After living for a year and a half underground in Eastern Europe, they arrived in Soviet Armenia in October 1990, where they married the next year. He first worked at the Armenian Academy of Sciences to prepare an archaeological research monograph on Urartu, which was published after his death.

During the turmoil that led to the independence of Armenia and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Melkonian focused his attention on Mountainous Karabagh. "If we lose [Karabagh]," the bulletin of the Karabagh Defense Forces quoted him as saying, "we turn the final page of our people's history." He traveled to the region of Shahumian (today occupied by Azerbaijan), where he fought for three months in the fall of 1991. He arrived in Martuni as the regional commander in February 1992, without any army experience, and succeeded in pushing back Azeri troops. He was one of the chief strategists who planned and led the capture of the region of Karvajar (formerly Kelbajar), between Armenia and the Autonomous Region of Mountainous Karabagh, in April 1993.

He was killed in the abandoned Azerbaijani village of Merzili on June 12, 1993, during the battle of Aghdam, in an unexpected skirmish that broke out with several Azerbaijani soldiers who had gotten lost. He was buried with full military honors a week later at Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan and is revered by Armenians in Armenia and Karabagh as a national hero.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Birth of Hagop Baronian - November 19, 1843

Every society and every point in time needs critics. Critics may lash out at negative points, and they can hit very hard. However, they will hit even harder if they use satire as their weapon. This is why the late nineteenth century critics of Armenian society are not remembered today, but Hagop Baronian has become the most famous Armenian satirist writer of all time.

He was born in Adrianople (nowadays Edirne, in Eastern Thrace) on November 19, 1843, in a family belonging to the poor class. After graduating from the local Arshaguniats School, he studied for a year at the Greek school of the town (1857-1858). Then he had to contribute to family living. He first worked two years at a pharmacy, and then entered a tobacco company as a bookkeeper. Self-teaching and continuous reading made up for his lack of formal education.

He moved to Constantinople in 1863 and taught at the Scutari Lyceum, where one of his students was Bedros Turian, the future poet. He entered journalism in 1871 as editor-in-chief of the newspaper Yeprad, but soon took a position as editor of the newspaper Meghu, published by Harutiun Svajian, and turned it into a well-known satirical publication. Meghu ceased publication in 1874 and Svajian transferred the right of publication to Baronian, who renamed it Tadron. Becoming the publisher, Baronian gave a free ride to his lashing and educational wit to criticize the negative aspects of society. However, economic troubles ended the publication of Tadron in 1879.

Baronian married Satenik Etmekjian in 1879 and they had two children, Zabel and Ashod. In the same year, he started to work for Minas Kapamajian’s Luys, as the editor of the comic section. His writing attracted a lot of attention, but Kapamajian did not appreciate him, and Baronian was forced to stop his contribution to Luys.

He started to publish the monthly Khigar in 1884, and despite financial hurdles and short interruptions, managed to continue it until 1888. Some of his most important satirical works were published here.

Between 1871 and 1888, he published more than 10,000 pages in the newspapers, although most of his works were published in book form posthumously. His most important works were the novel The Honorable Beggars, the collection of stories The Perils of Politeness, the satirical chronicles A Trip in the Neighborhoods of Constantinople and National Big Shots, and the comedies The Oriental Dentists and Brother Baghdasar.

To make ends meet, Baronian became a teacher of accountancy at the Getronagan School of Galatia from 1888-1890. One of his students was the famous linguist Hrachia Ajarian. He died of tuberculosis on May 27, 1891, at the age of 48, leaving his widow and his young children penniless. Nevertheless, a compact crowd participated in his burial. His colleague Mateos Mamurian, another noted journalist, wrote: “How many people who loved education and the nation responded to the invitation formulated by the Armenian newspapers at the time of his illness...? As a matter of fact, what did we do for the poor man? What did the nation make collectively for its brave son? It made the burial and just decided to collect monies for his orphans. There was not a single official body or individual who would put a crown of flowers on the immortal Baronian, even though his works are his perennial crowns.”

As supreme irony, Baronian was buried in the cemetery of Ortakeuy without a tombstone marking his grave, and the exact location was soon forgotten. Nevertheless, his works were widely published and read after his death; his plays have been frequently performed and even turned into movies (The Perils of Politeness and The Honorable Beggars were adapted into plays), and the comedy theater of Yerevan bears his name.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Birth of Stepan Malkhasiants - November 7, 1857

Modern Armenian did not have a fully comprehensive dictionary of the language until the mid-twentieth century, and such a dictionary was the result of the two-decade efforts of one man, Stepan Malkhasiants.

Stepan (Stepanos) Malkhasiants was born on November 7, 1857 in Akhaltskha, actual Djavakhk, in the Republic of Georgia. He graduated from the Armenian parish school and then continued studies at the Russian district school of his hometown and the Kevorkian Seminary of Vagharshapat (1874-1878). He entered the School of Oriental Studies of the Imperial University of St. Petersburg in 1878 and graduated with a Ph.D. in Armenian, Sanskrit, and Georgian in 1889. By then, he had already published his first scholarly work, the critical edition of tenth-century historian Asoghik’s Universal History (1885).

In 1890 Malkhasiants started his long educational career as teacher at the Nersisian School of Tbilisi, where he worked for twenty years. He was also the principal of the school from 1903-1906, and during these years he married Satenik Benklian. He produced the history of the Nersisian School, as well as several textbooks and many articles in the scientific and popular press. He also wrote two seminal monographs on the grammar of Classical Armenian.

Between 1910 and 1919 he became principal of several schools: Hovnanian Girls’ School of Tbilisi (1910-1914), Kevorkian Seminar of Vagharshapat (1915-1917), Gayanian School of Tbilisi (1915-1919). After 1917 he became one of the leading figures of the newly-founded Armenian Popular Party (one of the ancestors of the current Armenian Democratic Liberal Party). Finally, in 1919 he settled in Armenia and worked for a year at the University of Armenia, which was opened in Alexandropol (now Gumri). His report to the Parliament in 1918 became the grounds for the adoption of the Armenian tricolor flag as the official symbol of the first independent Republic (1918-1920). He gave the first lecture at the recently opened Yerevan State University on February 1, 1920. 

A portrait of Stepan Malkhasiants painted by Martiros Saryan.
Malkhasiants published several important works in the last decades of his life, such as the critical edition of seventh century historian Sebeos (1939), and the Modern Armenian version of Movses Khorenatsi’s (1940) and Pavstos Buzand’s (1947) histories. He received a doctorate honoris causa in 1940 and became a founding member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences in 1943. But his lifetime achievement was the publication of the Explanatory Dictionary of the Armenian Language (Հայերէն բացատրական բառարան), in four volumes and 2,380 pages in three columns, in 1944-1945. 

He had already acquired great experience in the preparation of dictionaries and the publication of the four-volume dictionary was the result of more than two decades of meticulous research. The dictionary, with 120,000 entries, comprised the vocabulary of Classical, Medieval, and Modern Armenian (both Eastern and Western), as well as dialects and even neologisms entering the language until 1940 with examples of usage. The dictionary, published exceptionally in Classical spelling (instead of the spelling currently in use in Armenia), still remains a fundamental source for any student of the Armenian language. It won the State Prize of the Soviet Union and was reprinted three times (Beirut, 1955-1956; Tehran, 1982; Yerevan, 2008). 

Malkhasiants became a member of the Supreme Council of Holy Echmiadzin after 1944 and a member of the editorial board of the journal Echmiadzin. He passed away on July 21, 1947 in Yerevan, shortly before his ninetieth anniversary.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Birth of Shahamir Shahamirian - November 4, 1723

The so-called “group of Madras,” which developed its activities in the small Armenian community of that city of India, was one of the most interesting phenomena of Armenian history in the eighteenth century. One of its driving forces was a wealthy Armenian merchant, Shahamir Shahamirian.

Shahamirian was born in Nor Jugha, the notable Armenian community established at the beginning of the seventeenth century as a suburb of Isfahan, the Persian capital. He migrated to Madras and made an important fortune in commercial activities. Influenced by the progressive ideas of a group of fellow Armenians who were engaged in a drive to liberate their homeland from foreign yoke, Shahamirian established the first Armenian printing house of Madras in 1771 on behalf of his young son Hakob (1745-1774). A year later, he published a book co-authored by Hakob and his teacher Movses Baghramian, one of the theoreticians of the group, entitled «Նոր տետրակ, որ կոչի Յորդորակ» (Nor tetrak, vor kochi Hordorak, namely, “New Fascicle Called Advice”).

Hakob Shahamirian, a talented young man who died at the age of 29 in Malacca (Malaysia), seems to have authored much of the text of the most important book produced by the Madras group, «Որոգայթ փառաց» (Vorogayt parats, “Snare of Glory”), in 1773. The book was left unfinished, apparently, at his death, and meanwhile, his father published another pamphlet authored by Baghramian, «Նոր տետրակ, որ կոչի Նշաւակ» (Nor tetrak, vor kochi Nshavak, namely, “New Fascicle Called Target”) in 1783. This was the bylaws of self-government for the Armenians of Madras.

Even though it has been said that Snare of Glory was published in 1773, it seems more likely, according to scholars, that the book was actually completed by Baghramian, Shahamir Shahamirian, and perhaps others, and published around 1788-1789. This book was a collection of laws, a Constitution of sorts (521 articles) intended for the future Armenian state to be created after liberation from foreign rule. According to its text, the highest legislative body, the Armenian House (Hayots tun), was bound to be formed by representatives of the people. At its turn, the Armenian House would form an executive body. To this aim, thirteen representatives would be elected, one of which would become nakharar (“minister,” with a rank equivalent to prime minister) by lottery, and the others would be his advisors. The nakharar would be the first executor of the laws and the commander in chief. Snare of Glory, which also established a judicial system and mandatory education for girls, was a project to create a constitutional democratic republic at a time when such an idea was still on the works in the West and had been only achieved in the newly-born United States of America. Some of its concepts have certain similitudes with the American Constitution, it has been observed.

Shahamir Shahamirian tried to get in touch with the Georgian king Heraclius II (1744-1801) in order to achieve the liberation of the Southern Caucasus from Persian and Turkish domination through an Armeno-Georgian alliance. However, understanding that such an alliance was not enough, he later established contacts with the Russian courts, as well with other activists of Armenian liberation, such as Prince Hovsep Arghutian, Hovhannes Lazarian, and others. He passed away in 1797.