WRITER AND PATRIOT - KHACHATUR ABOVYAN
By Ruth Bedevian
The rain was unrelenting the day my friend, Gohar, and I took a cab that took us from Republic Square to the highest part of Yerevan, well beyond the Cascade, to the birthplace and museum dedicated to Khachatur Abovyan. At the time that Abovyan was born, Kanaker was a small village on the outskirts of Yerevan. Today it is part of the city. There are several interpretations of the name's origin, one being that it was the name of one of Noah's sons and when the Ark landed and the waters ebbed, Noah's son settled here.
Abovyan was a 19th century writer (c1809-1848) who is considered to be the father of Modern Armenian literature, and is equally revered as a fervent son of a people without statehood. He is best remembered for his novel, Wounds of Armenia, (Verk Hayastani) which was published posthumously in 1858 (ten years after his mysterious disappearance). Classical Armenian, the language of the scholars and the clergy, was the norm during Abovyan's time, but he chose to write in the vernacular to reach the common masses. He fervently strove to widen the horizon of the common man. According to Kevork B. Bardakjian, `Verk Hayastani is a heart to heart dialogue between the author and his people... The political plight of his fellow countrymen under Persian khans was profoundly painful to him. And the survival of his nation against overwhelming odds throughout its history was a delightful source of pride and respect for Abovyan. All this inspired him to write a novel that extolled patriotism, loudly justified self-defence, castigated ignorance and illiteracy, and called upon his fellow countrymen to break away from their ignoble lassitude to restore Armenian statehood.' [A Guide to Modern Armenian Literature 1500 -1920 pages 136/7].
The Khachatur Abovyan Museum complex consists of the museum and the home in which Abovyan was born and where his parents lived. The birthplace was first established as a museum in 1939, utilizing valuable information from a book written by one of Abovyan's friends, an ethnographer, August Hagstauzen, entitled Transcaucasia; and in 1978 under Soviet rule a large edifice was constructed, designed by architect Liparit Sadoyan, which today contains an enormous exhibition hall, exhibiting Abovyan's literary, pedagogical, research and social work, including the first and subsequent publications of his writings, translations, and manuscripts. Paintings by Gevorg Bashinjaghyan, Ervand Kochar, Isabekyan, Hovhannes Zardaryan decorate the walls. Two images stand out in my memory: Abovyan dressed in the seminarian's costume as a young student at Gevorkyan seminary in Etchmiadzin (at the tender age of 9) and another of Abovyan with his students with Ararat as a backdrop.
Accompanied by three docents, Gohar and I first began touring the exhibition
hall which covers the writer's family life, education, the Russian-Persian
War of 1828 - 1830, Abovyan's friendship with Dr. Parrot and ascent of Mt
Ararat, Dorpat University and his association with Estonia, his pedagogical
activity and finally his writings, including, The Wounds of Armenia (Verk
The docents began to relate, `Abovyan was the first born son, arriving 6 years after the marriage of his parents, Avetik and Tackouhy. He had a brother named Garabed who died at 3 years old. As devout parents, they dedicated Khachatur to God and the young boy was enrolled in the Gevorkyan Seminary of Etchmiadzin. The Abovyan family had a great reputation for generosity which was primarily focused on Etchmiadzin. This generosity was a family tradition that was handed down from his grandfather...'
In 1822 Abovyan went to Tbilisi to continue his higher education at the Nersisian School being one of its earliest students. Displayed is a letter written by Catholicos Nerses Ashtaraketsi to one of the teachers of the Gevorkian Seminary, Anton Mughnesi, in which he describes Abovyan as a person of great talent.
We came upon memorabilia that documents Abovyan's ascent to the top of Mount Ararat with Dr. Friedrich Parrot. Some of Abovyan's exercise books and a miniature globe that he made under professor Parrot's direction are displayed. Parrot was a professor of natural history and philosophy from Dorpat University (presently Tartu University in Tartu, Estonia). Abovyan, according to the docents' account, accompanied Parrot on this third attempt to scale the mountain, serving as translator for the Armenian local guides. This third attempt proved successful and on Sept 27 1829 they set foot upon the top of Mount Ararat and on October 27 - exactly a month later, they reached the top of Sis. According to Parrot's account, during this time, he was shown relics at St. Jacob Monastery at the Armenian Akori Gorge, located at an elevation of about 8000 feet. They were crosses which were said to have been made from Noah's Ark. Sadly, the monastery was violently shaken by an earthquake in 1840 and its relics were presumed to have been destroyed. Following this joint adventure, Parrot arranged for a Russian state scholarship for Abovyan to study at Dorpat. Upon his return from the university in 1837, Abovyan was appointed as supervisor of the Tbilisi district school, a position that he held until 1843.
While touring the exhibit, one cannot help but feel the closeness that Abovyan felt for Russia and the Russian influence upon his education, but at the same time one feels his abiding love for Armenia. In a display of Estonian artifacts given as a gift to the museum there is a title page and first page of the Sharagans (Armenian Hymns) that Abovyan presented to Tartu University library in 1831. Abovyan placed his hope in Russia, thinking that Russia would take Armenia under its wing and would encourage the revival of Armenian statehood. It was this deep love for his homeland that led him to feel betrayed when Russia abolished the Armenian Oblast (province) in 1840. Abovyan turned very hostile. One ruler, the Persian Empire, was replaced with another. [As history has shown since, Russian annexation proved the lesser of two evils in that, unlike the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Eastern Armenians were not massacred.]
On April 2, 1848 at the age of 40, he walked out the door of his home and never returned! His wife, Emily (of German and Estonian origin) did not report him missing for a month! Their children, Vartan and a daughter, Zarmandought, were ages 8 and 5 when he mysteriously vanished. Our docents put forth several `theories' to explain his disappearance, but no credible explanation has ever been found. Emily remained in Armenia for 22 years never to see her husband again nor to have the consolation of placing a flower upon his grave. His son, Vartan, who had two sons and a daughter, is buried in the graveyard of St. Gayane Church. `From his and his sister's family descend 100 scholars,' the docents proudly declared.
Braving the rain, yet again, we stepped outside to tour the ancestral home. It is a charming introduction to a life lived 200 years ago and to appreciate the primitive beginnings of greatness - how from living off the land and being nurtured by spiritual parents who valued education - developed discipline, creating a patriot who did the best with his talents and made a difference in his lifetime as well as for posterity.
I was saddened to see several plastic drop cloths covering cherished items of irreplaceable value in the exhibition hall. The roof is leaking and the walls are cracked in several places due to dampness. The renovation of several museums by the Lincy Foundation - a magnanimous and visionary project - was concluded some time ago. The government of Armenia selected which museums Lincy should renovate and the Abovyan complex was not included, unfortunately. Each succeeding winter, it is feared, will do further damage. The Director, Mr. Hovhannes Zatikian, who is relatively new to his position (this is his second year) and a devotee of Abovyan, seeks help to improve the museum's restoration.
Provided by: Ruth Bedevian
© by Ruth Bedevian. Published with the permission of the author. No copying or any sort of redistribution allowed without the prior written permission of the author.