August 13, 2011

Day 3: Discovering Personal and Ancestral Connections.

After I got to my room, I managed to connect with Skype back home. I miss my family a lot. I share with them the exciting details. I tell them to read my blog, as I will likely publish the first installment soon. I also tell them to connect online for the opening ceremonies.

I fall asleep from sheer exhaustion around 4:30 a.m. I wake up at six.

I always become extremely depressed when I think about how short a human lifespan is and how many things I must do. I remember back in the early 1980s, I even wrote a small program which calculated how many man-years I required to complete everything I wanted to do then. I made reasonable assumptions about my life expectancy and it turned out that I needed two and a half lives to complete everything.

And I got more depressed.

Two and a half lives for everything that was on my plate then. Now I have 30 years less to go on, and at least double the amount of things that I need to do. Things that I must do, because it is likely that only I can write about them.

Like climbing Mount Ararat, Mount Fuji and Mount Kilimandjaro. The great triangle of the Temple Mountains rising on the plains, and feeling the connectedness of the three.

Like experiencing sunset and sundown at the Mandala temple of Borobudur in Indonesia, at the stone gate of Puerta Del Sol in Bolivia and on Lake Van, and through them, experiencing the birth of the Armenian Sun-God Vahakn.

Like researching Armenian manuscripts at San Lazzaro in Venice, in the Madenataran in Yerevan and in the St. James Monastery in Jerusalem, to unravel the mystery of the naming of our letters.

When I am in Armenia, that sense of urgency just shoots through the roof. I feel that I have a very short time in which I must accomplish so much. I feel like sleeping is a waste of time.

It happens to me subconsciously. I cannot help it. That is why I wake up so early.

I go down for breakfast and a large gulp of coffee. I need to put my thoughts together. I must get Sam and Ter Mesrop to talk. Ter Mesrop has already left me the mobile phone he promised. It is early in the morning but I call him and ask for his availability. He tells me that he can make it only tomorrow morning, but not too late. It is after all the Feast of Sourp Asdvadzadzin (the Holy Mother of God). He will be holding mass. This leaves me very little choice.

It is now around 8:30. I am ready to join Alex and his kin on the bus to Madenataran. I rush down to the lobby and as I step out I hear:

-Վիգէն դո՞ւն ալ հոս ես: (Viken, toon al hos es? - Viken, you're here too?).

Swoosh goes the Stargate. It is Boghos K. of Montreal, the former AGBU chairman, my predecessor in that job. A dynamo of a community organizer and my old friend. Without him, the new AGBU Center in Montreal would never have been built. Boghos is a fundraiser par excellence. He is here with the Canadian contingent of the Pan-Armenian games. He sits on the Organizing Committee. We barely exchange a few words when,

Swoosh goes the Stargate again. Hermineh D. shows up once more. Kiss kiss and we part. I board the van.

- You kissed that woman last night, says David. Who is she?- It's all right, I answer. She is my wife's cousin.

I am introduced to Svetlana. She speaks English very well and with a charming accent. She clearly is knowledgeable and very proud of the cultural heritage of her people.

I am then introduced to a red-haired young woman. She is Laura, Alex's wife. Alex didn't make it this morning because one of their three children is not feeling well. So the two parents are alternating to care for them. Laura says that she has heard a lot about me and was looking forward to meeting me.

David joins the conversation and tells Laura about our long covnersation of the previous night. I had told many stories to David. Including stories of my grandparents and the places they came from. I had told David how important it was in the understanding of ourselves to know our own stories. And to be able to tell them to others.

I told David that telling stories makes us human.

I had also told David many things about the place we were headed for. Sort of a sneak preview of what they were about to see.

Our minibus is now climbing the roads of Yerevan to the most sacred destination of them all. The greatest repository in the world of what is left of what has made us Armenian throughout the millenia. The Madenataran. The Great Scriptorium. The place of ancient manuscripts copied over centuries, illuminated with vibrant pictures by the unique talent of the great artists, bound and preserved with care.

A place where reside about 75% of what is left of their kind in the world. Slightly over 17,000 of the manuscripts that defined what Armenians were really about.

A place of research, meditation, serenity, and, of course, inspiration.

A place that is now living proof, that my people were the guardians of the knowledge of the world. From history, to religion, to the medical sciences, to poetry, to philosophy, to law, to storytelling, to mathematics, to physics, to cartography. All painstakingly created by hand, on parchment of animal skin . Original authors, translations, commentary.

One should walk the halls of the Madenataran only in silence. Because the spirits of those who created these works are all alive and in conversation with our times. This is the real time-travelling machine. It contains untold secrets, unknown histories, unrecited tales.

We can only glimpse this past though. What remains of this immense treasure, what has reached the 21st century, is ultimately less than 1% of what the Armenian people had created.

All the rest was destroyed by those who wanted to kill our real spirit.

Our ability to create.

Historians tell us that when the Tatar hordes of Tamerlane (Լենկթիմուր - LengTimur in Armenian or Timur the Lame) invaded our lands, they piled up the manuscripts from the great libraries of our monasteries and burnt them.

They tell us that those piles burnt for months.

Here is a mathematical problem:

If we know that one sheet of bovine parchment is x millimeters thick, and that an average manuscript contains y sheets of parchment, and that the rate of complete incineration of one sheet is z minutes, how many hours would it take to completely burn one book of sacred writings?

And now the inverse problem:

Given that a certain pile of manuscripts burnt for m months, how many manuscripts could be estimated to have constituted that pile?

Millions. Depending on how large m would be.

Of course, this is not a true inverse problem in mathematics. That branch of the science has been developed relatively recently. The real inverse problem would have been to derive probabilistic solutions to the range of values for x, y and z given m. Actually, our own Viktor Hampartsumyan, who was a trained mathematician prior to creating the whole science of astrophysics, was a genius in inverse problem solving. His most significant contributions to cosmology were based on his insight and ability to formulate and then solve related inverse problems.

Viktor Hampartsumyan is also no longer. But our mountains, from where he watched the unfolding of the magnificent story of the universe, still remain.

His work, which is an immense intellectual mountain, still remains.

Our mountains of manuscripts were burnt to ashes. We are now left with a small hilltop.

The great mountain-sized and mountain-inspired creativity of my people still remains.

We are greeted by the statues of Mashtots and his pupil Koryun, the chronicler of the life of the Real Illuminator. Mashtots, the greatest linguistic genius of his time who created the ever-lasting monument for my people. The original 36 letters of the modern Armenian alphabet.

Siamanto, an Armenian poet martyred in 1915 during the Genocide of Armenians, had written a poem dedicated to Mesrop Mashtots on the occasion of the 1500th anniversary of his masterful invention.

It says:

«...Դո'ւն դարերուն դիմաց կեցող ադամանդեա'յ ապառաժ:»
"Toon tareroon timats getsogh atamantya abarrazh. You who stand as a rock of diamond against the power of centuries."

I have always found Siamanto too pompous. But in this specific case, his statement is definitely not an exaggeration.

Armenian is, in my view of a humble amateur linguist, one of the great spiritual languages of the world. It is true that all languages have a spiritual component, because they are essentially another manifestation of our humanity. But it is also true that there are a few spiritual languages that have transcended their national origins. These would include, not in any particular order of importance, Hebrew, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Japanese, Arabic and Armenian. Of the languages that are now only studied as archeology, they would likely also include Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian. The Great Scriptorium in the heart of Yerevan where I am standing now is a testament to that.

We are also greeted by the statues of six giants of Armenia's intellectual heritage. Toros Rosslin, the masterful illuminator artist, unmatched in skill and talent. Grigor Datevatsi, the founder of the great monastery and university of St. Datev, the great teacher and the last Armenian official saint. Ananya Shiragatsi, the one whom I have called the Armenian Da Vinci in one of my lectures, the great genius of mathematics, physics, cosmology, philospohy, languages, calendar theorist, environmental scientist, teacher and builder of dozens of schools. Movses Khorenatsi, the "father" of Armenian history, the first chronicler of the history of my people from the beginning of time up unto his own age. Mekhitar Gosh, the first codifier of the laws of the land of Armenia, and a great writer of Armenian fables. Frig, the medieval poetic genius, whose language had been living proof of the vitality of the evolution of our ancestral tongue from its ancient roots into the modern era.

The story of the selection of these six is an Odyssey in itself. Worthy of a separate essay. I shall perhaps document it one day.

But not today. Today, I must listen to the reverence-filled information that is being provided by Svetlana. Today, I shall once more climb the stairs of this multi-layered temple into its main hall.
I pause at the entrance as we wait for the specialized guide of the Madenataran to escort us. I am staring at a huge map of Eurasia showing with dots the historical locations of the repositories of Armenian manuscripts. There are literally hundreds of them across the vast landscape, from London in England all the way to the extreme Eastern borders of India.

I tell David, Stewart and Laura about the stories of the copiers, the skills that they have learnt through a lifetime. Laura points to a small dot right outside Istanbul.

- You know, she says, this is the location from where Alex's grandfather has come after the Genocide. It is called Atapazar.


- What did you say? I ask.

- Atapazar, she says. I found it on I traced back the ship and landing records. It is really amazing.

As I hear that word from her mouth, I freeze. She is pointing to the location of the great Monastery and Seminary of Armash. A place of immense learning and scholarship from where have come many great Patriarchs of Constantinople of the Armenian Church. Armash lay on the outskirts of the township of Atapazar. The latter was composed of a few small villages and was a picturesque area not far from Istanbul.

Armash is no longer. Neither is Atapazar.

None of this is of course identified on that wall. There is just a map and a dot. And Laura, the young American wife of my friend Alex S. just points to that dot, says its name, and with a great smile tells me that it is the place Alex's grandfather comes from.

That is a miracle.

That is a miracle caused by this place where we are standing right now.

It is a miracle, because the night before, I had spent many hours talking with the other grandson of this long-gone Genocide survivor, Alex's brother David, telling him the stories of my own grandfather. The great patriarch of the maternal side of my family, Israel-Vahan P.

I had told him how I had videotaped my grandfather in 1992, talking about his ancestral village.

I had told him how my own stories had enabled my grandfather to travel back in time and remember his grandmother. How my grandfather was prodded to remember his childhood and her stories and we were able to reach back perhaps all the way into the first half of the 19th century.

I had told him why it was important to keep stories alive and create our own.

I had not told him where my grandfather had come from.

My grandfather came from a village in the township of Atapazar. Just like Alex's grandfather did.

I had not met anyone to date in my generation who could trace their roots to that same small area.

And now, in the hallowed halls of this sacred place of ultimate creativity, I, the grandson of one Genocide survivor, discover that the grandson of another Genocide survivor, who is my friend and with whom we have worked to create another sacred place of future creativity; I, that biped who is, at best, an insignificant background in likely an accidental dream of the Creator; I, living on a spec of dust revolving around a fireball at the edge of a galaxy not distinguishable from billions of others; I, discover that this other biped who is my friend, and with whom I have shared ideas and a vision of a better time that we set upon to build together, I discover that he is actually descended from someone who came from the same corner of that spec of dust that we bipeds who pretend to be intelligent call Earth.

Not only from the same corner, probably from the same village street. For all I know, we are very likely related, because everyone there was related to everyone else, either by marriage or by blood. After all, according to my grandfather, the Armenians there were between 50 to 100 families.

At that moment I realized the tragicomedy of existence. The absurdity and the equally magnificence of the human condition.

The Madenataran, and by extension, all of Armenia and its dreams have brought Alex and me, and David and Stewart and Laura together.

I must admit that there has been a certain sense of uneasiness in all of this. The stories of our scribes and educators and heroes are, not unlike those of other dogmatically Christian nations, stories of men and by men. The female perspective is mostly lost or only appears in minute flashes in our folklore, like the grand epic of David of Sassoon.

And yet, I know that during the millennial period of our pagan centuries and even during the early Christian tradition of Gnostic Christianity, of which Armenia was one of the birthplaces and even a hotbed for close to a thousand years, during those periods, women have played a key role. A role that had gone unrecorded and remained unstudied.

I had given a lecture on that too. In fact, I had given three lectures on that topic.

Women hold the keys to magical realms of eternal wonder. They always have in all cultures. We are not different.

And symbolically, it was Laura who uttered the password that unlocked this miraculous door.

And now, because of her, we were living in Armenian space-time. Warped, curved upon itself, labyrinthine, spiraling.

Strangely enough, as if always familiar.

Words cannot express it. Our stories are now intermingled in a glorious symphony whose echoes are captured from across the centuries. And as we tell our story, our voices get mixed with the millennial old tales that are themselves captured in the Great Scriptorium. We come alive with them and they are reborn in us.

The only witness of this sublime awesomeness being our mountains.

Our mountains, who are us.

We step inside the main exhibition hall, the story of the manuscripts unfold for me for a thousandth time. As I listen to the guide, I can repeat her words almost verbatim in my mind.

David and Stewart and Laura are mesmerized by her recitation. I could almost kneel in reverence here. I know every corner, every square millimeter of the place.

And as we complete the first circle, there it is.

The Great Մշոյ Ճառընտիր, The Djarendir of Moosh. The selection of Sermons and Interpretations of the wise and saintly. The largest mauscript in the collection. About 650 individual calf skins. Weighing over 65 kilograms.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. Part of the Sacred Scriptorium in the Monastery in Moush near Lake Van. The most sacred place of them all. The final resting place of dozens of Armenian saints and creative minds.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. In 1915, two elderly sisters decide to save it from the fate of the Genocide of my people. They decide that it is the only thing worth saving. It is too heavy for them to carry.

They split it in two. And then they walk, carrying the two parts on their backs.

They walk hundreds of kilometers back with the retreating Russian Army. To the part of Armenia that was behind the Imperial Russian borders. They walk facing starvation, thirst, disease, the elements, and the threat of wartime violence and physical annihilation.

No one knows how long their Golgotha lasted, weeks, perhaps months. One of them does not make it. In a last act of survival, she buries her half of the great manuscript in Ottoman Turkish territory near the town of Gareen (Erzerum). Her sister makes it to Armenia and delivers her half to Etchmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Church.

The buried half is eventually discovered by a Polish mercenary in the Russian Army, it is unearthed, and then sold off in Russia to be rediscovered by Armenians in Baku, who purchase it and reunite it with its original half. The two are now one. The book is now whole. It rests here at the corner of the Main Exhibition Hall.

Two women, who recreate my people by bringing together what has been split apart.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. Whose story I cannot listen to without tears rolling down my cheeks.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. Whose story is the story of my people.

The splitting of Armenia and the Diasporas. And their reunification here in the ancestral land.

The splitting of my language into Eastern and Western and its reunification in The Great Scriptorium that houses the expression of our unified ancestral tongue.

The splitting of our history into the "Before and After of Genocide" and our coming together here to create something better than what has ever been.

The splitting and resplitting of our families and our dispersion to the four corners of the Earth, and our constant yearning to come together and finding our roots.

The start of the journey of my family from a place hitherto unknown, whose name is uttered by a person unknown to me until that morning and the sudden torrent of storylines that is woven instantaneously across a century of time and across many continents back into this place of our origins.

Coming together. And knowing it.

A consciousness of who we are, suddenly being born in ourselves, never to leave us. Ever.

A consciousness that is united within us. That unites us. Visceral and primordial, yet also ethereal and ultimately spiritual. Yin and Yang. Male and Female.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. The great manuscript upon which is now fixated the gaze of David. He knows what it is. Because it is its story that I was telling him in the early hours of that same morning.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. Reunited. Uniting me and David, me and Stewart, me and Alex, me and Laura, my children and their children, in a sudden discovery of our common place of beginning and becoming. Uniting. United. One.

Seeking to become one. All the time. Dying on the way to become one, but never stopping.

Kind of like our human urge to become one with the Creator. Never quite making it. In the image of the Creator, and yet so incomplete.

Perhaps the Creator is another incomplete being. Just like us. The Demiurge of the Gnostics.

But in reality, the only way to become one with the Creator is to create. There is no other alternative.

The Great Djarendir of Moosh. Created. Recreated. Continuously creating.

Stewart, a physician, is fascinated by the medieval Armenian medical texts. Armenians were great learners of the medical arts, mostly from the Arabs and Persians. But also, we have had two giants in the field whose work has withstood centuries and for close to half a millennium was the actual medical textbook of physicians in the region. Mekhitar Heratsi and Amirdovlat Amasyatsi.

My first ever research paper in Armenian Studies was the book by Amirdovlat, called Անգիտաց Անպետ (Ankidats Anbed – Useless for the Uninitiated), which was an exhaustive book on diseases and their treatments. I presented a summary of this work and highlighted its important contributions to the science of medicine. I was seventeen and was attending the Yervant Hiussisyan Armenian Studies College in Beirut.

Yervant Hiussisyan was the Vice President of the global AGBU. He had left an heirloom to the AGBU with the specific directive to create an Armenian Studies program of post-secondary level. It was called the Հիւսիսեան Հայագիտական Հիմնարկ (Hiussisyan Hayakidagan Himnarg – The Hiussisyan Institute of Armenian Studies).

Today, that institute is no longer. The mountain of love it instilled in me towards the culture of my people still remains.

Today, I lecture at the Montreal AGBU Manuel Keusseyan Armenian Studies Program. The last of its kind left in the AGBU network around the world. It is named after the great teacher, poet, essayist, writer, traveler and Armenian cultural expert, the founder of the Montreal Armenian Studies program and its principal lecturer, my friend Manuel Keusseyan.

Manuel Keusseyan is no longer. I delivered his eulogy.

The lecturers in the Armenian Studies program named after him have given themselves the task to recreate mountains in the heart of Armenians.

We are trying very hard.

We walk out of the Main Hall into the Temporary Exhibition Hall to look at an exhibit of examples of early Armenian printing. Including a map of the world published in the 17th century in Holland. Remarkably accurate.

I tell the guide that Armenians had been skilled navigators during mediaeval times. Especially after the founding of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. That a replica of one of their ships was actually rebuilt recently in Armenia, was christened Cilicia and sailed successfully in the Mediterranean and through Gibraltar and then northwards. She nods in agreement. I then tell her that Armenians had settled early on in Italy, probably even before that period. I tell her that there is a lot of Armenian heritage that remains undiscovered in the Italian Byzantine city of Ravenna. She is intrigued and surprised. She asks for proof. I tell her that I am preparing a lecture on that. She laughs. I hope she believes me.

As I explain to my friends the details though, she keeps listening in. I then ask her about the ancient collection of magical writing known as the հմայիլ – hmayil which I had seen last time. She tells me that it is no longer available to the public.

I tell her that those secret writings of “magical” origin used by the Armenian village shamans to cast various spells have pre-Mashtotsyan roots and are very ancient. They are likely the remnants of our pre-Christian script from which Mashtots was partially inspired. She listens attentively to what I am saying.

- Դուք շատ տարօրինակ եւ հետաքրքիր մարդ էք: (Took shad darorinag yev hedakrkir mart ek – you are a very strange and interesting man), she tells me.

My wife would agree with her. Women are very insightful.

We walk out and go into the gift shop. Stewart is seeking out an English translation of the medical manuscripts. No luck, they do not exist in English. They have not been translated.

There is so much that remains to be done.

We are then greeted by Svetlana as we board the bus to the hotel. David, Stewart and Laura are also intrigued by the mathematical works that they heard about. Shiragatsi, after all, wrote the ultimate textbook in arithmetic in the 7th century AD which included the most complicated division tables ever devised. These remained unmatched well into the 17th century. His textbook was used for over a thousand years. I also tell them that Armenian manuscripts still hold many undiscovered and unstudied secrets, and that I had once given a lecture about secret ciphers and cryptography in those manuscripts. In fact, I had described two dozen different kinds of ciphers that appeared in those ancient books.

Svetlana is equally fascinated. She is listening attentively.

In the afternoon, Laura will switch places with Alex to look after their children. We shall be visiting Etchmiadzin. The Holy See of the Armenian Church. It is part of the Oriental Orthodox tradition. It recognizes only the first three Christian Ecumenical Councils. Its Christology makes it part of the oldest subgroup of Christian Churches. It includes the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, and the Malankara (Indian) Syriac Church.

Actually, Armenia was the first country to officially accept Christianity as a state religion, in 301 AD. Ten years ago, the whole of the Christian world celebrated the 1700th anniversary of that historical event.

It could be argued, that the Oriental Orthodox Christian tradition is the closest to the original tenets of Christianity. Its Churches are as old as the faith itself, plus, historically, their dogmatic systems have not been modified by successive group decisions (many of which were political in nature) over a period of a thousand years.

I have never been to Etchmiadzin, although I have visited it in my mind’s eye many times. It is not very far from Yerevan. I would even consider it a suburb of the capital.

Having experienced Geghard, I do not expect to be spiritually moved by Etchmiadzin. Also, since I am a baptized Armenian Catholic, it holds only an important historical and cultural meaning for me.

Armenian Catholics are a minority among Armenians. Many Armenians regard them as somewhat "lesser Armenians" because they are deemed to have betrayed their so-called “national” faith.

For me, they would be no different from ignorant fascists.

The contributions of Catholic Armenians to our culture and the preservation of our identity are immeasurable.

The last Armenian monastic order has been that of the Catholic Mekhitarists who settled on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice in the 17th century and then later in Vienna. From there, they founded over a hundred schools across the world. They single-handedly created and preserved the modern Western Armenian language. They researched and translated and published. They became the modern equivalent of the ancient scribes of Armenia. In fact, they have one of the three large collections of ancient manuscripts in the world, second only to the Madenataran and to the Armenian Monastery in Jerusalem.

The Mekhitarists were more Armenian than anyone else. They were so Armenian that they even taught Armenian to the great English poet, Lord Byron.

They also founded and ran the greatest Armenian school ever. The Moorad Raphaelian school in Venice. Which, for over a century and half, produced some of the greatest Armenian intellectuals. It was operational well into the 1990s.

The great Armenian poet and martyr of the 1915 Genocide, Daniel Varoujan, was a Catholic and a graduate of that school.

The greatest Armenian writer of modern times, Gostan Zarian, was a Catholic and attended that school.

My father, Alphonse Attarian (a.k.a. the writer Armen Tarian) attended that school up to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He then had to return to his family in Aleppo, Syria. Two years ago, I went on a personal pilgrimage to San Lazzaro and to the Moorat Raphaelian school in Venice. I retraced the steps of my father and re-imagined the city of the 1930s. My companion was my wife, Datevik. My guide was the grandson of Gostan Zarian, the architect Ara Zarian who lives there.

You can learn about the Mekhitarist order here.

Since my family has been Catholic for at least six generations, I do not think that I have any right to change that. As for Etchmiadzin, I expect to be deeply moved by the place.

In Armenian, Etchmiadzin means “the place where the Uniparental One (Միածին - Miadzin) came down”. The Uniparental One is the attribute given in Armenian to Jesus Christ, since he was born of only an Earthly Mother, hence he had only a single human parent. The name of the place refers to the dream of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian Catholicos, who converted the whole Kingdom of Armenia to Christianity, in 301 A.D. In his dream, he saw Jesus descend from heaven and strike the ground with a golden hammer. It is at that place that he built the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, and it became the Holy See of the Armenian Church.

St. Gregory the Illuminator was not even Armenian. He was of Parthian origin. His father actually plotted to murder the Armenian king Khosrov and was executed for it. The Parthians were essentially a sub-ethnic group of Persians, who were ethnically in much closer kinship with the other Indo-European people to the West of Persia, mainly the Armenians. There are no more Parthians in the world. Armenians are most likely to be the only people who carry Parthian DNA, along maybe with some of the current inhabitants of the Khorasan region in Iran.

St. Gregory built Etchmiadzin on the site of a pagan temple.

There is a statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator at the Vatican, on the northern external wall of the Great Basilica of St. Peter. The adjacent courtyard is named after him.

The Great Basilica of St. Peter is also built on the site of a pagan temple.

My tourist guide in Rome had told me that underneath every single church in Rome was a pagan temple. He was a very smart and erudite man.

The statue of St. Gregory at the Vatican is a source of pride for Armenians. It should be. It puts my people at a historical landmark and clearly associated with the early history of Christianity.

The statue itself is very ugly in my view. About as ugly as the gigantic cathedral in his name that was built right in the heart of Yerevan to commemorate in 2001, the 1700th anniversary of the establishment of Christianity as a state religion in Armenia.

Armenia is full of great historical monuments and churches. In fact, no other country can match Armenia in this aspect. For all intents and purposes, Etchmiadzin is the monument to St. Gregory the Illuminator, and was 1700 years old in 2001. Building a new one was uncalled for.

Armenian churches, by their unique architecture, are integrated in the landscape of the country. They are monumental not by size, but by imagination. Otherwise, they are immensely intimate spaces for spiritual enlightenment.

The newly built cathedral is monumental in physical size (it can house 1700 worshippers) yet it is anything but intimate. And it certainly does not integrate with the landscape, it overshadows everything else.

I am yet to meet anyone who has discovered spiritual illumination at the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan.

It has become a tribute to megalomania. A tribute to the feeling that Armenians too can build gigantic structures. Someone was trying to compete with the Vatican.

As if such proof was necessary. Go figure.

The first president of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, has built the world’s largest church in his hometown of Yamassoukro. It cost $300 million to complete, and was consecrated in 1990.

That one was really competing with Vatican and the St. Peter’s Basilica. It is taller and the complex is bigger. In fact if you just look at its picture, you might think it is the Vatican. Externally, it is almost a copy.

Photos of the Yamassoukro Basilica can be found here.

You can also see it here.

The copy of the Vatican, smack in the middle of one of the poorest countries in Africa. Just to get in the record books.

Now that is megalomania no Armenian can compete with.

Armenian megalomaniacs are not only building large empty churches. Many of them are oligarchs, part of the ruling politico-business elites, who build mansions and castles for themselves modeled after medieval and baroque palaces of European aristocrats, complete with their own chapels and even private zoos.

To each their own obsession.

The best of these megalomaniacs succeed at competing with former African presidents. Not even that.


Because they only build Memento Moris. Tributes of after-death memories. Basically, gigantic “tombstones” to be remembered by the living.

Etchmiadzin, on the other hand, is a Memento Vivi. Memento Vivis evoke the memory of someone by an action lived in the present. Because what they have done by their actions have led to us to our days. Etchmiadzin is a tribute to a Christian journey that started over 17 centuries ago and that continues to this day. Especially, in the Holy Lands where the epic story of Armenian pilgrims throughout the centuries have built roots that go to the foundation of the Christian faith.

It is that story that Ter Mesrop told in From Ararat to Zion.

It is at Etchmiadzin that all of that had started. On the way there, Stewart, Alex and Laura are discussing how to get to Vernissages, the Yerevan outdoor flea market. They have lots of gifts to buy. I offer to show them where it is, it is not very far from our hotel.

We arrive at the main gate of the complex. There is a whole new construction of giant arch. This is an addition after 2001. It depicts St. Gregory handing the Holy Cross to King Terdat (Thirtades) the Great. From the back, the two main supporting columns depict the Two Apostles, St. Thadeuss and St. Bartholomew who established the Armenian Apostolic Christian church in the 1st century A.D.

I like the new arch. It is modern in style and yet resonates with a hidden antiquity. The creators did a good job.

As she is explaining the inscriptions and the images on the arch, Svetlana is telling the stories of the arrival of Christianity to Armenia and the conversion of the Armenian king. She is very passionate about the stories.

She then turns to me and says:

- I hope you agree, Professor!

She is of course dead serious. The title of “professor” is a very revered one in Armenia and used with extreme respect. She had been listening all day to what I was telling my fellow pilgrims to these ancestral places and she has concluded that I must be one.

I am flattered to have left such an impression on her. I tell her that I do not deserve such a title since I am but a humble lecturer at the AGBU Armenian Studies Series in Montreal. She tells me that it does not matter. For her I am a professor who knows important things and likes to teach them and share them. She tells me that she has learnt from me and that was that. I have no choice but to accept.

The courtyard of the complex has many khatchkars on display. These are the unique stone crosses that are carved with intricate designs. Only the Armenians and the Irish have elaborated this art. The Armenian carved stone crosses however go much further in their sophistication of carving and imagery than anything else in the world.

You can learn about khatchkars here.

We approach the main Cathedral and walk in with reverence. Svetlana is explaining the architecture, the origins, the iconography, the intricate carvings and imagery. Svetlana is really an excellent guide. I make a mental note of seeking her out at my next visit.

We then step into the attached treasury at the back of the main cathedral. A local young guide takes over and describes the treasures on display. The Armenian Church has many important relics as well as historical vestments of the hierarchical clergy. There truly are amazing treasures here, including a relic reputed to be a piece of Noah’s Ark from an expedition on Mount Ararat in the late 18th century, a piece of bone of the right hand of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, many relics of the great Saints of the Armenian Church as well as the Lance that pierced the side of Christ on the Cross.

The Armenian word for lance is geghard, the great rock hewn monastery of the same name was called Geghard because it was the repository of this spear. It now rests in Etchmiadzin.

I think it is doubtful whether this is that actual historical lance. Firstly, it has never been examined by historians and independent experts, secondly, it has never been carbon-dated to establish its age. The final piece of evidence against it being the real deal is that its shape does not correspond to the type of weaponry carried by Roman soldiers of two thousand years ago.

There is also no historical mention of this lance in Armenian or foreign records, prior to the 13th century. It is likely a spoil of war that was a replica of the lance. Either gained through the Crusader battles (the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia was an ally of the Crusaders armies) or it fell into Armenian hands during the numerous wars with Byzantium.

Relics however are powerful symbols that attract pilgrims and the faithful. The Armenian Church never lacked either. The lance is as authentic as the faithful believe it to be.

Ancient relics of an ancient place kept by an ancient people.

The greatest modern relic hunters who were literally obsessed with them were, of course, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi minions.

They wanted to create a powerful new religion from their ideology. They went crazy with the occult, and believed that by collecting all the important Christian relics of the world, they would be giving immense divine legitimacy to the Third Reich.

The demons collecting Christian symbols. Almost out of the Book of Revelations. Hollywood sure milked the idea for all the money it is (and is not) worth.

Those were dark times. For the world and for Armenia. The demonic hand of Stalin and his henchmen had just finished off the second Genocide of Armenian intellectuals. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian young men fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazi onslaught. Three hundred thousand perished.

Three hundred thousand! That represented a quarter of the population of Armenia at the time.

Comparatively, that would be the equivalent of 3 million Canadian soldiers dying in WWII. Or 30 million American soldiers! The quantities would be staggering, and it would be doubtful whether Canada or the USA would ever be able to recover from such a loss. They would not be the economies that they are today; that’s for sure.

During those dark times, the Diaspora Armenians were engaged in a large scale fundraising campaign to help their brethren. They raised enough money to help build the Armenian tank battalion called The Tank Battalion of David of Sassoon, after the hero of the same epic. That battalion took part in many historical battles and eventually made it all the way into Hitler’s den in Berlin.

A lot of that fundraising was done in the Middle East, in secret. The money needed to be smuggled through secret routes to get them safely to the hands of those who could ensure it arrived at destination. The secrecy was necessary, because if they were discovered, those involved would be immediately accused of being communists and summarily executed.

I know, because my grandfather from Atapazar was one of them. I have his diary as well as his meticulous records of the donors. That is a priceless historical relic for me and my family.

At the same time, there were close to 10,000 Armenian volunteers who fought in the Nazi armies against their own countrymen. They were led by a Nazi collaborator called Dro. He eventually got caught in Stalingrad, and was later unmasked as a CIA operative of the Cold War. After independence in 1991, he was reburied in Armenia in a special mausoleum as a national hero.

As far as I know, Armenia is the only country that has officially glorified a Hitler collaborator. Luckily, we also had great WWII heroes like Marshal Pagramyan, to wash away the sins of Dro. Pagramyan was instrumental in the defeat of the Nazi armies and pushing the frontline back into German territory.

Like I said, we are a nation of extremes.

The Etchmiadzin treasury also contains priceless personal objects, including the vestments and Catholicossal cane of Mkrtich Khrimyan, arguably the greatest of the modern Catholicii of the Armenian Church. He was so beloved by the people that they called him Hayrig, or the Father of the nation. There is the ceremonial head gear used at mass by Komidas, the greatest Armenian musician of the early twentieth century.

I watch in awe and mentally imagine the times, places and individuals who have used these priceless objects. The Etchmiadzin Treasury is special, because it houses these objects that are relevant for Armenians. Most non-Armenians would not know, let alone appreciate the importance of Komidas Vartabed or Khrimyan Hayrig. I have been raised with their stories.

A nation is identified by the common stories that form its ethos. Among other things.

In our case, stories are the only component of our ethos. Because Armenians are one of the few global nations, in that most Armenians live outside the lands of historical Armenia. The common thread that goes through the heart of every Armenian is not a bounded geographical landscape, a common language, nor even a common church; but rather our history and culture.

That and the memory of Genocide.

We walk back to the minibus. On our way back Stewart asks me about the details of the faith of the Armenian Church. I am no expert. I explain as much as I can. I explain the Nicene Creed and related dogmatic tenets. I explain about the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

He smiles and tells me that it is like the Da Vinci Code.

I tell him that the Da Vinci Code is fiction, but that numerous real codes and secrets remain to be unearthed in the Madenataran and our manuscripts. I then tell him that probably the greatest living expert on such theological matters is none other than Ter Mesrop. I make a mental note to myself to spend some time discussing the issue with Ter Mesrop. Maybe we can invite him to give a lecture on the topic at our Armenian Studies program.

Alex tells me he heard the news that we could be related. He tells me we are both weird enough that he would not be surprised. He then adds:

- You know, I have registered; maybe we can create and populate that site.

I promise to send him my grandfather’s two-hour interview. I will have to digitize it, edit it and dub it. What a project!

We arrive at the hotel. I run up to my room. There is a voice mail message. It is from the two young journalists that were sent to me by Andrew. Angela and Maryanna. I call them up.

Maryanna answers. We quickly arrange to meet up at the hotel lobby on Monday morning. It will have to be quick, no longer than an hour. She says they’ll take care of everything. All I have to do is show up.

I run back down because I promised to escort Alex and his brothers to the flea market. Laura has switched places with Alex again. They really are a team. We walk across Republic Square. In a couple of blocks we are there.

We run into Katherine S. and her husband M. He has purchased a set of djezvehs (a small coffee making pot for thick Armenian/Arabic/Oriental style coffee). He is somewhat of an expert on the topic and explains the intricacies of that kitchen appliance. David is fascinated and is certainly on a djezveh quest of his own. I consider my promise fulfilled and leave them there. I need to rest for an hour or so, before heading off for the evening with Sam, Silva and their VIP guests for dinner.

Evening is the best time in Yerevan. Especially in Republic Square. The hot burning sun is gone, it is sufficiently warm. But mainly, because the shadows elongate and create amazing effects over the building tufa façades. Tamanian was brilliant.

There are many in today’s Yerevan who are actively destroying his legacy. The great architect’s vision was as enormous as a mountain. Yet his capital city is being eroded away building by building, street by street.

The Poet of the All Armenians, Hovahannes Toumanian, after whom the Tumo Center is named, has said:

- Մարդ ինչ անի, իրան կ'անի: Mart eentch anee, eeran ganee. Whatever one does, one does to oneself.

You can never have enough Toumanian. You can never have enough Tamanian.

It is evening and we are meeting downstairs to take the shuttle buses to the restaurant. It is called The Club. We were there last time as well.

It is exactly as I remembered it. In a basement. Tastefully decorated, nice dining area partitions. But most of all, exquisite food.

I take a seat at the guest table. Stewart, usually taciturn, is more than excited about the discoveries he has made at the Madenataran especially about the scientific legacy of his people. David is fascinated about how this whole country reminds him of a gigantic family gathering. M. turns to Alex and tells him that he should develop a game about Armenian mythical heroes. Alex looks and me and smiles. You see, we had that idea over four years ago and we even exchanged emails and phone calls on the topic.

I tell M. that the idea has already been explored. Then I tell them that Armenian mythological characters are unlike any other and are completely unknown to the rest of the world. I tell them about Tork of Angegh.

M. is chewing on a piece of delicious թել պանիր (tel paneer-string cheese). He listens carefully. He then says:

- You know, every time you open your mouth I learn something fascinating. Someone should follow you around with a video camera. Then we can produce interesting short subject films to capture the imagination of young Armenians.

- I agree, answers Stewart.

He then pulls out his camera and tells me that his daughter Rachel is an amazing mathematics genius who has gone off to study at Princeton. Neither he nor his wife nor anyone else in their families has ever shown any talent for this science, and he has always wondered where that wonderful ability has come from.

- After today, and after listening to you talk about Shiragatsi and the other Armenian great scientists of history, I think I know. I want you to speak to my daughter and tell her where her roots are.

No one had ever asked me for such a thing. The red recording light is on. I am on the spot.

So I tell Rachel, in English and Armenian, why it is important to understand where one’s roots lie. And why she needs to come to Armenia, not once, but again and again, to really understand herself. Why it is important to find out not only about one’s family. Why it is important through that same exercise to ultimately find out what makes us human. I promise her to meet her and be her guide through that great adventure.

We are then served a most Armenian dish. Մանթը. Mante. It is basically like little open-top raviolis in the shape of small boats, filled with spicy ground beef, baked in an oven, and then served in a chicken or meat broth mixed with garlicky yogourt (and sometimes chopped coriander). For added flavour, with a dash of sour red sumac spice on top.

Alex, Stewart and David are initiated into this delicacy. Katherine and M. are very familiar with the recipe and are savouring it because it is likely a rare dish in the San Francisco Bay area where they live. I feel privileged. I can taste this delicacy anytime I want. It is also a favourite of my older son Armen. All we have to do is call up my mother-in-law. In fact, our Montreal AGBU holds Mante days and sales all the time. They are very popular.

This one is as authentic as anything I have tasted in Montreal. Simply exquisite! You cannot get more Armenian than with Mante. Maybe with Հարիսա Harissah. The latter though is more regional or rural. Mante has a universal appeal and is a much more refined, sort of a city-dweller’s dish.

There is a young operatic tenor, accompanied by a pianist, delivering truly great musical masterpieces. From Sayat Nova to Komidas and all the great folk songs with which I have grown up. Sam and Silva are really classy.

Sam gets up and proposes a toast to all who have worked to make his vision come true. He thanks them. Silva follows him, equally gracious, she tells us why they did what they did.

To make their dream come true and with it, the dream of a whole new generation of the children of Armenia.

I get up to say my piece. I feel special. After all, after the immediate family and the initial personal discussion, I was the first who actually worked on the Tumo vision.

I have seniority.

I try to speak bilingually, in Western Armenian and in English. It is hard to keep the emotions from overwhelming me. I then tell the story of how I came about to write the Yergabadger - Diptych, the poem dedicated to Tumo. I tell them why I wrote it in Eastern Armenian, (to have it performed by the children of Armenia).

And I read it. Not as a performance, but as an author gifting his creation.

Just like Tumo has been gifted as a unique creative vision. I feel in an amazing harmony of ideas.

As I read the last lines. Sam and Silva hug me and thank me. It should have been the other way round. I had simply been inspired by their generosity of spirit.

Berge, Sam’s brother stands up and wants to express his feelings. He is overcome with emotion and has to pause. Then Elie, my classmate and Sam’s long time business partner “suffer”s a similar fate.

We are all touched, we all want to spill our hearts. One by one, friends and relatives express their feelings and gratitude for being right here, right now.

The present has never been so joyful. We are witnessing a great birth.

We leave for Tumo. Before we do so, I ask Sam to meet tomorrow with Ter Mesrop. He agrees. I call up Ter Mesrop and announce to him the good news.

Tomorrow is Սուրբ Աստուածածին Sourp Asdvadzadzin, the Feast of the Holy Mother of God. Ter Mesrop is celebrating Holy Mass. The meeting will have to be in the morning. I feel I have accomplished something very important. I have managed to secure the meeting of two great minds. And I shall be witnessing it.

Right now though, the focus shifts back to Tumo. Tonight is the second night of festivities.

There is a slight air of concern among the event organizers. Yesterday was a huge success with several thousand present and an equal number hitting the live streaming web site. Tonight, the Tumo event is in “competition” with the Opening Ceremonies of the Pan-Armenian Games, where thousands of athletes come from all over the world to participate and compete. That one has great opening acts, fireworks, parties and a lot of official support.

Ours has the coolness factor.

We are hoping that news of yesterday’s event at Tumo would have spread among the youth and that even more would show up today.

As we arrive, DJ Baxtar of Texas is already on stage and the gigantic mosaic message text is scrolling across the scene. The area in front of the stage is packed with youth. We spread out. I spot Marie Lou, Pegor’s wife and the director of Tumo. I hug her and congratulate her on the job she has done. She is very busy and disappears quickly into the building to take care of the myriad of emergencies that have sprung up.

I look at the messages on the mosaic display across the stage:

“Sam’s moustache rocks” reads one.

“DJ Johann Sebastian Baxtar” reads another. I don’t get it at first. Then I realize that the letter X in English is pronounced phonetically like KH in Russian. Essentially, making this a pun on his name, comparing him to the genius of the Baroque composer. I guess creativity has more than one way to manifest itself.

I am trying to explain this to Alex when I realize that Sam and Silva and their three daughters are on stage dancing. The crowd goes wild.

- He’s really busting a move, shouts Alex over the techno beat.

Sam is popular. I bet he could run for office in Armenia.

The crowd seems much larger than yesterday. This is good news. I later find out that we have had over 5000 attending and an even larger number hitting the live stream server.

“Who needs the Pan Armenian Games when we have Tumo” scrolls across the message display.

And then the really cryptic

«Հայեր դժժում ենք» - Hayer dzhzhoum enk .

The global conversation picks up again on the message board. Greetings flash from all over the world. Then, it seems that the two who were texting back and forth yesterday are online again.

«Խնդրում ենք էս բեմը չքանդել հանդիսութիւնից յետոյ» - Khntroom enk ess pemuh tchkantel hantissoutyounits hehdoh. Please do not tear down this stage after the festivities.

I guess that would be classified as a special request to keep the giant mosaic display running. Perhaps to satisfy the dialoguing couple. It would be really an expensive proposition. But I guess it never hurts to ask.

And once more

«Հայեր ջան դժժում ենք » - Hayer djan dzhzhoum enk .

This is a real puzzle. I am straining my grey matter over three words. Over one verb actually. What does dzhzhal mean?

It suddenly hits me. It is the Armenian version for “being buzzed” or “getting a buzz”. And even more, it is a replication of the phonetic English DJJ, which, I am guessing, comes from listening to a DJ.

So this verb would express in one word in Armenian the equivalent of “getting a buzz from a DJ”. And the flashing text on the stage would mean,

“Dear fellow Armenians, the DJ is giving us a buzz”.

It makes sense, if you think hard about it. The crowd is really “buzzing” with excitement. It is well past midnight.

The party keeps on, we take the shuttle back to the hotel.

As we step out. Swoosh goes the Stargate. It is Hermineh again. Kiss kiss.

- Who is this woman you keep kissing? asks M.

-It's alright, says David, she is his wife's cousin.

Tomorrow will be the official opening ceremonies. Serge , The President of the Republic will be there.

So will Serj of the System of a Down.

Tomorrow we’ll have a real crowd.

I wonder whether for Serge or Serj.