The Scholar at the End of the World

An Interview with George Bournoutian

BELMONT, Mass. (A.W.)—On Feb. 12, Dr. George Bournoutian, a prolific Armenian historian and pillar in the field of Eastern European and Middle Eastern Studies, currently at Iona College’s Department of History, sat with the Armenian Weekly and spoke about his life as an Armenian scholar, his recent translation of Catholicos Simeon of Yerevan’s 18th-century economic history Jambr (Archival Chamber), and the donation of his personal book collection to the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) library.

As he had just returned from a trip to Antarctica, before speaking at NAASR on Feb. 11, I had to ask him about the trip. “It was amazing!” he said. “I really did not expect to be impressed. Nothing prepared me for Antarctica. The icebergs are beyond description. I’m talking about icebergs that laid flat and were taller than the Empire State Building, and that’s only the 10 percent we see of them above the surface.”

He noted, “We met some Polish scientists there that came to take some fruit off the ship—it’s only scientists that live there year round—and I began talking to them because I know Polish. They said that in winter it can reach –135 degrees Fahrenheit! They told me in that temperature, unprotected, you only have 15 seconds to live before all the liquid in your body freezes solid.”

I then asked him about his recent translation of Jambr, and whether this was the sort of project he could have attempted 20 years ago or whether it took his collected experience to surmount. “No, never 20 years ago,” Bournoutian responded. “And I’ve never been asked that before. What I did 10 years ago, in 1999, was I decided to put aside temporarily my work on eastern Armenia under Persian rule and concentrate on studying documents from Armenian history’s Dark Period,” roughly from 1600-1800 A.D. “A lot of information from this period is missing from the Ottoman sources, and the Persian sources in Iran as well. Little has been done on it. I mean, we have information about the Julfa Armenians from this period, but that’s only one community.”

Bournoutian explained, “The sources were mostly written by Armenian clerics and were published or kept at Etchmiadzin long ago. They were rare books written in a mish-mash of terms taken from Classical Armenian, Persian, and Arabic. They wrote in Armenian script, but with Persian and Arabic words.”

“Because I knew those languages, I decided to translate all the documents I could, and those from Poland, too—of which there was really only one author, Simeon of Poland. There have previously been very big Armenian communities in Poland, many of which were near Lvov by Ukraine. So, for the last 10 years, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Turning to speak about the Ani and George Bournoutian Collection he recently donated to NAASR’s Mardigian Library, Bournoutian explained that he gathered the collection “from my studies as an IREX student in Armenia from 1973-74, and the rest are either from when I was a student in the 1960’s or books from libraries that were closing.”
He added, “I want to give credit where it’s due, I was sharp in looking for many of these books, but often librarians would call me up and tell me if they had related books that they were getting rid of.”

Bournoutian said of the collection’s gems, “The really rare ones of the collection—the Venice editions—came from Armenak Alikhanian, my wife’s grandfather. It’s a very small collection, but it’s amazing. It has the first Armenian book printed in Amsterdam (1667).”

Of his future projects, Bournoutian said to look forward in the near future to seeing the publication of Esayi Hasan Jalaleants` A Brief History of the Aghuank (Karabagh-Ganja) Region 1702-1723. “This is a very small work, only 100 pages, but a very important one because of those in Azerbaijan that are trying to revise the historical record.”
Bournoutian noted that also forthcoming would be a translation of the 1760’s work, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin. “He’s very interesting and I’d like to write an introduction to the edition.”

I asked him to follow-up on his response last year at a NAASR Q&A when he talked about the lack of jobs for young Armenian historians (The Armenian Weekly, May 24, 2008). Bournoutian stated in more detail, “There are jobs, but they’re small. They’re adjunct professorships and the salaries are very small. I myself could not get a tenure-track teaching job until I was 45. I’m OK now, but only after 20 years.”

He added, “You have to love the subject. The rewards are great, especially having the time in the summers to write, travel, and take care of your children. To anyone getting into the field, I say to them that you trade in making money for a better quality of life.”

Bournoutian noted, “Myself and James Russell [the Mashtots Professor at Harvard] are two of the only people I know that get up with a smile going to teach our classes because of the satisfaction we get from our jobs.”

He ended by advocating the relative simplicity of future donors supporting Armenian historical publications: “If the Armenian community would like to support organizations like NAASR for subsidizing publications, it really doesn’t take a lot of money, maybe $2,000-3,000. That’s how we get these books published and it’s all tax-deductible.”

To reserve an appointment to peruse the Ani and George Bournoutian Collection within NAASR’s Mardigian Library, inquire at NAASR (395 Concord Ave. in Belmont) by calling (617) 489-1610 or emailing [email protected].

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Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin has been the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly since 2006. He was raised in Palma City, Fla. His family is of Italian, Welsh and Armenized-Romani stock. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in history and journalism. Following graduation, he went to Armenia as an English as a Second Language (ESL) U.S. Peace Corp volunteer. He received his CELTA-ESL degree from Cambridge University in 2006.

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