Sunday, December 21, 2014

December 21, 1917 - Closure of the Kevorkian Lyceum

In the nineteenth century, the Armenian Church did not have an institution that provided superior religious education and prepared its future members. At the beginning of his tenure, Catholicos Kevork IV (1866-1882) met Russian czar Alexander II (1855-1881) and asked for permission to found such an institution. The construction of the lyceum (jemaran) started on May 25, 1869 and the grand opening was held five years later, on September 28, 1875. The bylaws approved by the Ministry of Education of the Russian Empire in the same year established that the lyceum would have two sections: a six-year school and a three-year auditory, and would provide higher religious education. After the death of the Catholicos, the lyceum was named in his honor.

Despite many efforts, Kevork IV did not see any graduate becoming a celibate priest during his tenure. A secularist spirit predominated in the lyceum. His successor Magar I (1885-1891) played an important role to redirect the institution into its actual purpose. He invited a qualified faculty, which included Bishop Maghakia Ormanian, future Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. The latter became the teacher of theological subjects, and thanks to his efforts, four graduates were consecrated celibate priests in 1888.

The level education at the lyceum was quite high. At the school level, the following subjects were taught: Armenian history and geography, general history and geography, ancient Armenian literature, Armenian and foreign (Russian, French, German) languages, natural sciences, astronomy, mathematics, the Bible, religious music, logics, etc. The auditory section included Armenian language (Classical and Modern), Armenian history, religious literature, Armenian literature, European literature, philosophy, psychology, pedagogy, political economy, history of the Armenian Church, Armenian religious law, ritual studies, ancient Greek, etcetera.

The graduates presented final essays, which were defended before an examining committee and then they became clerics or continued their higher studies in Russian and European universities.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the lyceum had 20 paying students and 230 others with scholarships. It was maintained through the incomes of the monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin, as well as fundraisers and donations. The Catholicos was the principal, who followed the activities of the lyceum through the Educational Council and the dean. The deans included Bishop Gabriel Ayvazovsky (brother of the famous painter), Rev. Garegin Hovsepiants (future Catholicos of Cilicia), Rev. Mesrop Ter-Movsisyan, and other names, generally but not exclusively ecclesiastics. Among the teachers of the Kevorkian lyceum were such luminaries of Armenian culture as Manuk Abeghian, Hrachia Ajarian, Leo, Stepan Lisitsian, Gomidas, Hakob Manandian, and many others. Those teachers were partly graduates of the same lyceum.

Within the frame of the lyceum there was an intensive intellectual activity: preparation of Armenian schools programs, writing of textbooks and handbooks, as well as many historiographic, philological, pedagogical, and theological works. The faculties of the Armenian schools of the Caucasus were filled by graduates of the Kevorkian lyceum for more than half a century.

Due to the political and military unfavorable conditions at the end of 1917, Catholicos Kevork V (1911-1930) decided to cease temporarily the activities of the lyceum on December 21, 1917. Attempts to reopen the Kevorkian Lyceum during the first independent Republic did not succeed. The unique and rich collection of its library (45,000 volumes) became one of the starting points of the collections of the National Library of Armenia and the Matenadaran.

The Etchmiadzin lyceum was finally reopened in 1945 and continues its activities until today.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

December 14, 1861: Foundation of the Oriental Theater

The 1850s became a period of cultural awakening for the Western Armenian centers of Constantinople and Smyrna. Many young people were getting their higher education and bringing back new ideas with them. Armenians and Greeks used to be the carriers of European innovation in the Ottoman Empire. Theater was among those innovations.

Patriotic plays in Classical Armenian and comedies in Turkish were developing the interest for theater among the public. The Altunduri (Altunian) brothers headed the formation of a theatrical committee at the beginning of 1861 in Constantinople. Arakel and Stepan Altunduri knew good French and made several translations, but above all, they had the financial means to organize theater performances. The theatrical committee would become the founder of the first Armenian professional drama theater in modern times. They rented a building that belonged to Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Pera (nowadays Beyoglu), which was called Cafe Oriental. The premises were revamped and decorated, and a state license was secured. The theater was renamed “Oriental Theater.”

The first performance, on December 14, 1861, was “Two Sergeants,” a melodrama by French playwright Rota. The theatrical group was formed by ten actors (including important names of the time such as Bedros Maghakian, Serovpe Benklian, and Mardiros Menakian) and two actresses (Arusiak Papazian and Aghavni Papazian); the presence of women on the stage was a novel element in Armenian theater. The theatrical committee had hired an Italian director, Asti. An interesting element was that Mikayel Nalbandian, the Eastern Armenian writer and journalist, who was visiting Constantinople at the time, read a speech at the inaugural performance. He reminded the public that, “The theater stage is not less than the study chair; the stage of the theater is that chair where philosophy sits and, embodying the living word, with practical ideas and examples, liberates the public from the effort of understanding those ideas only through imagination.” He also encouraged the bravery of the actresses: “The history of Armenian theater will not forget the names of the respectable damsels, Arusiak and Aghavni Papazian, who are the first to have set foot on the theatrical stage. They have fought against common prejudices and have come to the arena after overcoming them. Long live them!”

The first season of the Oriental Theater lasted five months, until May 1862. The group presented four original plays and four translations. However, theater was still a field of polemics among progressive and conservative writers and public figures, and the Oriental Theater ceased its activities in April 1863. It was reopened in 1865 under the direction of playwright Srabion Hekimian. It was finally closed again in mid-1867 after several performances of Romanos Sedefjian’s play “Vartan Mamigonian, Savior of the Fatherland,” dedicated to the memory of Nalbandian, who had passed away the previous year in a Russian prison.

Despite its short life, the impact of the Oriental Theater would be lasting. Many of its members would continue their activities in different groups and become pillars of Western Armenian theater until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

December 4, 1738: Birth of Mikayel Chamchian

Fifth century historian Movses Khorenatsi has been commonly labeled as the Father of Armenian History. It is not unfair to call Father Mikayel Chamchian the Father of Modern Armenian Historiography.

Chamchian was born in Constantinople. He was initially homeschooled and then attended the local Catholic school. He later studied jewelry with Mikayel chelebi Diuzian, imperial jeweler and a distant relative. The young Garabed (that was Chamchian’s baptismal name) was so famous in town for his talent as a jeweler that a contemporary wrote: “Not even one was found like him.” Diuzian thought of turning him into his business partner and even arranging marriage with his daughter. However, in 1757, barely eighteen, Chamchian left his promising career and went to the island of San Lazzaro, in Venice, to enter the Mekhitarist monastery and satisfy his thirst for knowledge. His elder brother Hagopos was a member of the Mekhitarist Congregation.

After graduating from the island’s school in 1762, Chamchian joined the congregation and became a teacher at the school. His scholarly studies were interrupted in 1769, when he was consecrated vartabed and sent to serve the Armenian Catholic community of Basra (Iraq). He traveled through the Armenian communities of the Middle East (Alexandria, Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, etcetera) and collected manuscripts for the library of the monastery. In the 1770s he wrote a four-volume polemical work (each volume contained 800-900 pages) entitledShield of Orthodoxy. This work was destined to demonstrate “the orthodox doctrine of the Armenian Church.” His enemies robbed this work from his room, and the Vatican called him for an interrogation, since his defense of Catholicism seemed to have been accompanied with some sympathy for the “schismatic” Armenian Apostolic Church.

He returned to the monastery in 1775 and taught at the seminary for the next fourteen years. Many of the best scholars of the congregation in the next several decades were his students. He produced a remarkable grammar of Classical Armenian in 1779, which he abridged in 1801 and became the main textbook of Armenian schools in the nineteenth century (eleven reprints).

Between 1780 and 1788, Chamchian dedicated himself to write the first comprehensive history of Armenia from the origins to his days. The author was an enormously fastidious writer and made countless changes and additions in his volumes until they went into printing. The thick three volumes, which had the publishing dates 1784-1786, were actually published between 1785 and 1788. Chamchian’s History of Armenia would become a reference work for Armenian Studies scholars for over a century and, besides, it would offer a full picture of the past for a people that were trying to construct their national identity.

Afterwards, he devoted himself to religious and theological works. Due to his poor health, the congregation sent him back to Constantinople as its resident representative. He would remain in the capital of the Ottoman Empire and he would continue producing with incredible fecundity; among other works, he published a ten-volume commentary of the Psalms, more than 6,000 pages (1815-1823). He also worked on a project to create a school of Armenian higher education in any European university town. Besides a history of the Ottoman Empire that remained unpublished, he produced an abridged version of his History of Armenia, both in Armenia (1811) and in Turkish (1812). The Armenian version was translated into English and published in Calcutta in 1827.

Following the ecumenic orientation that had been the focus of the founder of the congregation, Mekhitar of Sepastia, Chamchian dedicated himself also to solve the disputes among Armenian Apostolics and Catholics in Constantinople, in the understanding that the Armenian Church was not heretic, as it was frequently portrayed at the time, and there was no need to shock the Armenian nation with new quarrels. He even tried to unify both communities. During four decades (1776-1815), he wrote a theological work of some 900 pages, Shield of Faith, Which Confirms the Orthodoxy of the Armenian Church from St. Gregory, the Illuminator of Armenia, until Today. Another Catholic priest robbed the book and took it to Rome, where it had the impact of a bomb. After four years of discussions and debates, the book was destroyed by order of the Propaganda Fide and only an abridged version was published half a century after Chamchian’s death (Calcutta, 1873).

Chamchian passed away on November 30, 1823 and was buried in the Armenian cemetery of Pera (today Beyoglu). His History of Armenia still remains as a classic, and has been the foundation of his intellectual fame.