Saturday, September 27, 2014

September 27, 1829: Friedrich Parrot Reaches the Summit of Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat is not an easy mountain to climb. Today, nevertheless, we hear of many people reaching its top. The first ascent happened 185 years ago this day, according to the Julian calendar that was in use in the Russian Empire (October 9 according to the Gregorian calendar already in use in the West).

J. J. Friedrich W. Parrot (1792-1841) was a German naturalist and traveler. He was born in Karlsruhe, and studied medicine and natural science at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu), in present-day Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire. In 1811, at the age of nineteen, he undertook an expedition to Crimea and the Caucasus with Maurice Engelhardt.

In 1815 he was appointed surgeon in the Russian army. He visited the Alps and the Pyrenees in 1816-1817. He became a professor at his alma mater, first of physiology and pathology (1821) and then of physics (1827).

Parrot undertook another trip, this time to Georgia and Armenia, in 1828. Eastern Armenia had been recently conquered by the Russian Empire after the Russo-Persian and Russo-Turkish wars of 1826-1828.

His aim was to reach the summit of Mt. Ararat (16,945 feet). He established his base camp in Arguri (Akori), and set to his mission. It was not an easy task, especially in those days when mountaineering was not well-developed. He made two attempts, and he barely escaped a deadly fall in one of them.

The third was the charm. This time, too, the climb was difficult. “The newly fallen snow which had been of some use to us in our former attempt, had since melted, from the increased heat of the weather, and was now changed into glacier ice, so that notwithstanding the moderate steepness of the acclivity, it would be necessary to cut steps from below,” he wrote.

A sketch of Mt. Ararat and the Monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin in the foreground from Parrot's book, Journey to Ararat.
Finally, on September 27, 1829, after overcoming a violent snowstorm, “before my eyes, now intoxicated with joy, lay the highest pinnacle (...) and at about a quarter past three (...) we stood on the top of Mt. Ararat," he wrote. Parrot and his five companions, two of them students from the University of Dorpat, had made the first modern ascent of the mountain where it is traditionally held that Noah’s Ark had come to rest. He did not claim to see the rests of the ark, considering that the ice was 300 feet thick.

The climbers remained 45 minutes on the peak. A deacon from Holy Etchmiadzin, who had made the ascent in his habit, was among his companions; he planted the cross they had brought and then filled a flask with Ararat ice. After a prayer meeting, Parrot poured a libation for patriarch Noah.

The ascent was an event of importance, despite Armenian assurances that Ararat was unconquerable: “Put an Armenian on the summit of Ararat and he will still cling to the idea that it is unconquerable,” wrote Parrot. However, even more important for the history of Armenia culture was the encounter of Parrot with the deacon from Holy Etchmiadzin. The latter was no other than twenty-year-old Khachatur Abovian (1809-1848), a founding name of modern Armenian literature. Parrot was impressed by the intelligence of the young Armenian and made arrangements so he could enter the University of Dorpat. Abovian would stay six years at the university (1830-1836), which would become a magnet for Armenian students throughout the nineteenth century; his period of studies would be crucial in his life and his literary production. His protector would pass away five years after Abovian’s graduation.

Parrot wrote about the climb in a book in German, also translated into English (Journey to Ararat), but he was greeted with skepticism. Less than half a century later, British historian and explorer James Bryce would climb Ararat again and vindicate Parrot.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

September 20, 1918: Execution of the 26 Baku Commissars

In the history and the mythology of the October Revolution and the Soviet civil war, the 26 Baku Commissars have played a role similar to the 300 Spartans in the history of ancient Greece. Their death would be immortalized in Soviet times through movies, books, artwork, stamps, and public works, and even cities and towns would be named after some of them.

After the Bolshevik revolution of October/November 1917, a Soviet (council) of workers, villagers, and soldiers was created in Baku. This council came to power from April 13 to July 25, 1918 and created an executive organ, the Council of Popular Commissars, formed by an alliance of Bolsheviks and leftist Socialist Revolutionaries, and presided by a famous Bolshevik revolutionary, the Armenian Stepan Shahumian. It was known as the Commune of Baku.

The Commune faced various problems, from the shortage of food and supplies to the threat posed by the invading Turks. The Red Army units hurriedly organized by the Commune were defeated by the Islamic Army of the Caucasus, an Ottoman army unit organized by order of Minister of War Enver Pasha on the basis of the local Tatar (Azerbaijani) population, and retreated to Baku in July 1918.

The military defeat provoked the rise of a coalition of rightist Socialist Revolutionaries, Social Democrats, and Armenian Revolutionary Federation members, which asked help from British forces stationed in Persia to counterbalance the Ottoman advance. The Commune transferred power to the new provisional government formed by the coalition, called the Centro-Caspian Dictatorship, and left Baku for Astrakhan, which was under Bolshevik control. However, the new authorities arrested the members of the Commune under charges of embezzlement and treason.

However, a new attack of the Ottoman forces over Baku prevented the trial of the military tribunal, and, according to Soviet historiography, on 14 September 1918, during the fall of Baku to the Turks, Red Army soldiers broke into their prison and freed the 26 prisoners; they then boarded a ship to Astrakhan, which changed its destination to Krasnovodsk, on the other side of the Caspian Sea. They were promptly arrested by local authorities of the Transcaspian provisional government, also anti-Soviet, on September 17, and three days later executed by a firing squad between the stations of Pereval and Akhcha-Kuyma on the Transcaspian Railway, apparently under British pressure.

Isaak Brodsky's The Execution of the Twenty Six Baku Commissars (1925) depicting the Soviet view of the execution.
Although they have been named as “commissars,” not all of them were officials and not all of them were Bolsheviks. Among the executed men, there were Russians, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Greeks, and Latvians.

Along with Shahumian, there were five other Armenians: Baghdasar Avagian, military commander of Baku; Aram Kostandian, deputy commissar for Agriculture; Suren Osipian, chief editor of the newspaper Izvestia of the Baku Commune; Arsen Amirian, chief editor of the newspaper Bakinski rabochi; and Tadeos Amirian, commander of a cavalry unit. Arsen and Tadeos Amirian were brothers, and this explains why the latter, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, had fought on the side of the Commune.

After the establishment of the Soviet regime, the authorities of Azerbaijan exhumed the bodies of the 26 victims and reburied them in Baku, at the square named after them, where a pantheon was built in 1968. The anti-Armenian hysteria in Azerbaijan has reached the point that, in January 2009 the pantheon was demolished, since the activity of the Baku Commune is considered an “Armenian conspiracy,” and the remnants were reburied at the Hovsan cemetery, reportedly “with the participation of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clergy, and the corresponding rituals” (ironically, most of the commissars were atheists). Monuments and streets devoted to the commissars, whether Armenian, Russian, Georgian, or Azerbaijani, have also been demolished or renamed.

Meanwhile, the cities of Stepanakert (in Gharabagh) and Stepanavan (in Lori) continue to carry the name of Stepan Shahumian, whose statue in the proximities of Republic Square, in Yerevan, has been maintained. Amirian Street, an important street originating from the same square, has also kept its name.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

September 14, 1862: Birth of Movses Silikian

The battle of Sardarabad, from May 21-28, 1918, symbolized the defining moment in Armenian life. It is quite likely that, following an Armenian defeat, the Turkish armies would have had a free pass to occupy Eastern Armenia and liquidate its population, completing the process of annihilation that had been taken place with Western Armenians from 1915-1916. The victory had a military hero, General Movses Silikian.

Silikian was born on September 14, 1862, in the village of Vardashen, in the province of Nukhi (currently Azerbaijan). He was not an ethnic Armenian, but belonged to the Udi minority (an ethnicity descending from the Caucasian Albanians, with a distinctive Northern Caucasian language), although he was a faithful of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He graduated from the Moscow Military Gymnasium (1882-1884) and the Alexander III Military School.

Silikian entered the military service in 1884 and was assigned to the military region of the Caucasus. After serving as company and battalion commander, he was awarded with the degree of colonel in 1914. He became adjutant to the military commander of Yerevan in 1915, commander of the Eighth Regiment in 1915, and commander of the Army Group of Van in 1916. He participated in the liberation of Mush and Bitlis, and became military commander of Erzerum after the occupation of the city. He was awarded the order of St. George in 1916 and rose to the degree of major general in August 1917.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the retreat of the Russian forces, Silikian was designated commander of the second rifle division of the Armenian army in January 1918, and afterwards, commander of the Army Group of Yerevan. He managed to organize a regular army in a short time, and by order of Aram Manukian, who had taken the leadership of the Province of Yerevan, Silikian led the Armenian troops in Sardarabad, where their victory stopped the advance of the Turkish army towards Yerevan.

After the independence of Armenia, Silikian, promoted to general commandant in 1919, became commander of the front of Nor Bayazid (nowadays Gavar) in the same year and was designated general commander of the front of Kars-Alexandropol (nowadays Gumri) in the fall of 1920.

The veteran soldier was exiled in January 1921 to Riazan after the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia. He returned in May 1921 to Armenia and settled in Yerevan. He was exiled once again, this time to Rostov-on-Don, and returned again to Yerevan. He worked at the Alexandropol branch of the Swedish “Baltic” company from 1921-1923, and from 1923-1929 or 1930 at the Armenian branch of the Near East Relief.

Silikian was arrested once again during the Stalinist purges of 1937 (he had been previously arrested in 1927 and 1935), and charged within the frame of the “Tukhachevsky case” (a fabricated case against Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other prominent Soviet military leaders), to which he bore no relation. As many other victims of the purges, he was executed in the gorge of Nork, together with General Kristapor Araratian and other heroes of Sardarabad, on November 22, 1937. He was rehabilitated fifty years later, on November 10, 1987. A neighborhood in Yerevan has been named after him, as well as a medal of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Armenia.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 8, 1701: Foundation of the Mekhitarist Congregation

Mekhitar of Sebastia
Since its inception, the educational and cultural activities of the Mekhitarist Congregation had a very important role in Armenian history. After becoming a priest at the age of 20, Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749) decided to find a congregation in order to work collectively to increase the spiritual, moral and intellectual levels of the Armenian people. He was consecrated celibate priest in 1699 and soon converted to Catholicism. However, he did not renege his Armenian ancestry and identity.

On September 8, 1701, on the feast of the birth of the Virgin Mary, Mekhitar and a group of sympathizers founded the congregation of St. Anthony the Abbot in Constantinople. The congregation initially had twelve members, including four celibate priests. The conflict between the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic communities in the Ottoman capital took a bloody turnaround. Mekhitar and his sympathizers fled the Ottoman persecution and moved to the Peninsula of Morea (Peloponessus), in Greece, which was under the domination of the Republic of Venice, and settled in the fortress of Methon.

The Mekhitarist Monastery on the island of San Lazarro in the Venetian Grotto.
An assembly held in 1705 prepared the draft bylaws of the Congregation, based on the bylaws of the Benedictine Congregation and extracted from the canons of the life of St. Anthony the Abbot. He sent two of his students to Rome with the draft, and letters to Pope Clement XI and the governor of the Propaganda Fide. The assembly of the Propaganda Fide, since the canons of St. Anthony were incomplete, suggested Mekhitar to choose from the canons of St. Basil, St. Augustine, or St. Benedict. The Armenian priest chose the canons of St. Benedict and presented the new draft of bylaws to the Pope on May 12, 1711. The bylaws were approved by Clement XI in 1717, who bestowed the title of Abbot upon Mekhitar.

The library inside the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna, Austria.

 Meanwhile, a war started between the Ottoman Empire and Venice in December 1714. Mekhitar and most of the congregation members fled Methon and moved to Venice. However, they needed a cloister and a monastery to carry on their plans. The Venetian Senate had just approved a law that forbade the establishment of any new religious congregation in the city. Nevertheless, the highest body took Mekhitar’s request into consideration and proposed that he find a place outside the city. Mekhitar chose the island of San Lazzaro, which belonged to the order of the Mendicants. On August 26, 1717, the Senate of Venice conceded the island to the congregation with right of permanent residence, and Mekhitar and his followers, a total of sixteen, settled there on September 8, the anniversary of the foundation of the congregation. The renovation work at the church was completed in 1723, and Mekhitar started the construction of a new monastery, which was finished in 1740, including a library and a refectory. Mekhitar passed away on April 27, 1749, and was buried before the main altar of the island. On his death, he had already achieved the publication of some twenty books, including the first volume of the Haigazian Dictionary, which his disciples would complete twenty years later. After his passing, the Congregation was named after him.