In Memoriam: A Tribute to Armen Haghnazarian

What began in 1961 as a modest student life in the historic city of Aachen, the resting place of Charlemagne and German kings, came full circle almost half a century later. Thousands of miles from his beloved Armenia, on February 19, as Armenians worldwide marked the St. Vartanants Day, Armen Haghnazarian, husband, father, architect and urban planner, scholar and educator, friend and colleague to many, passed away after a valiant battle with an incurable illness. He was 67 years old.

Growing up in the diaspora, like many of his cohorts, Armen had always dreamed of seeing historic western Armenia with his own eyes. Over the years, he had seen the pictures of majestic monuments, and had read and learned about them in professional publications and the Armenian history textbooks. However, his curiosity went beyond that of an aspiring architect. As a descendent of Armenian Genocide survivors, Armen had also heard about the tragic fate of his ancestral homeland and its monuments from his parents—his mother Arusyak, an educator and piano instructor at the Tehran State Conservatory of Music, and his father Dr. Hovhaness Haghnazarian, a prominent linguist and educator, one of the very few who had miraculously survived the 1919 massacres by the Turkish armies in Goghtan, in the Nakhichevan region of Armenia.

In 1970, having earned his doctorate in architecture from the University of Aachen, Armen embarked on his first ever trip to historical western Armenia (present-day eastern Turkey). The expedition marked a turning point in his life. He returned to Aachen, his adopted hometown, a changed person. He had marveled at the majesty of millennia-old ruins. At the same time, he was appalled by their conditions; they been desecrated, abandoned, and left to the ravages of nature by conscious ignorance, and by the premeditated destructive measures of their custodian, the government of Turkey. Long before the phrase “cultural genocide” entered our lexicon, Armen saw it in progress—perpetrated against the historical Armenian monuments in Turkey. Over the following years and decades, Armen became the voice for the voiceless symphony of stones in historic Armenia, and later in Karabagh and Azerbaijan. Many more expeditions were to follow in the subsequent years.

The first person Armen consulted about his findings and vision for the future was his wife Margrit, who shared Armen’s concerns as well as his anguish. Both appreciated the magnitude and urgency of the project, knowing well that preserving the monuments required major financial and human resources well beyond their limits. The first modest idea came from Margrit, who unreservedly advised Armen to sell their wedding ring to generate seed money for his next expedition. He did so, unhesitatingly. This move charted the course of Armen’s life. Shortly after, he launched Research on Armenian Architecture (RAA), an unprecedented project that over the years has grown into an impressive research institute. For the next four decades, Armen with Margrit’s unfailing support, devoted himself to the supreme mission of his life: documenting and preserving the Armenian historical monuments scattered outside of Armenia.

A native of Lübbecke, Germany, and also an architect with a degree from the University of Aachen, Margrit was Armen’s comrade-in-arms, the rock on which he leaned throughout their marriage which began in 1969. The wife and mother of his two daughters, Talin and Sharis, Margrit played a pivotal role in her husband’s accomplishments. Fluent in Armenian and an expert on Armenian architectural structures and artifacts, Margrit also participated in several hazardous expeditions to eastern Turkey, some as recently as the early 1990’s.

Armen returned home from his second expedition even more stunned and at the same time more resolute in his conviction to dedicate his life to saving historical Armenian monuments. He knew that he was in a race against time, and faced formidable odds. Single-handedly, he had declared war against forces perpetrating cultural genocide against the national heritage of his people. He characterized these expeditions as a “hunt for khatchkars” (or cross stones). His scientific trips, each lasting two months, grew to nine and covered more than just khatchkars. Each one was more extensive, costly, and riskier than the one before, until he ran out of luck. Armen was arrested, harshly interrogated, and imprisoned by the Turkish security forces. Decades later, he attributed many of his chronic health problems to the treatment he had endured during his imprisonment. Finally, Armen was declared a persona non grata and banned from participating in any future expeditions in Turkey. However, more expeditions were planned and carried out under Armen’s supervision from abroad.

After leaving Turkey, Armen always preferred window-side seats on flights crossing over eastern Turkey. Every time, as the airplane tilted northward toward the Araxes River separating Iran from Armenia, he took pictures, pressing his face to the airplane window as if trying to conduct an aerial survey. In a letter to a friend, he described what he saw during one of those flights: “In the north are the ancient provinces of Paytakaran and Goghtan. To their right are the Ararats. We just flew over my ancestral homeland, Agulis in Nakhijevan. With my nose pressed against the window, I look and recall the nine expeditions I made to Western Armenia. I can see the mountains and plains of historic Armenia, the magnificent Lake Van glittering under the sun. Now we should be passing over the Khnus Mountains. Further up in the distance is Tayk province. I have a deep seated feeling of belongingness and attachment to this land. At the same time, I have a deep measure of sadness shrouded with great rage, frustration, and helplessness.” Armen knew the western Armenian provinces like the back of his hand and the history behind every monastic complex and monument.

In the course of his expeditions, which extended over a decade, Armen became acquainted with Dr. Vazgen Barseghian of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, N.Y. With the unwavering support of Barseghian, a native of historic Moks located southwest of Lake Van, and in collaboration with the Department of Preservation and Use of Monuments at the Council of Ministers of Soviet Armenia, Armen’s efforts culminated in a seven volume set of the Armenian architecture microfiche series. For the first time, the scholarly community and public at large had the opportunity to see scientifically taken images and information on Armenian historical monuments in western Armenia and Cilicia. This monumental study—with over 42,000 slides microfiche collections documenting Armenian monuments in present-day eastern Turkey—remains to this day unmatched in its scope and is a major resource on Armenian monuments outside Armenia.

Sadly, many of the sites documented by Armen and his teams over the years no longer exist. They have fallen victim to the continued policies of the government of Turkey aimed at the complete eradication of any sign of Armenian civilization in Anatolia. The accounts of several European and American travelers and scholars published as recently as the 1990’s confirm this. The scope and dimension of these destructive measures followed by those later in Azerbaijan dwarf that of the deliberate destruction of the giant Buddha statue by the Taliban in Bamian, Afghanistan. The indiscriminate “cleansing,” desecration, and defacing of historic Armenian monuments in Turkey go beyond the work of fundamentalist religious zealots; it is an undeclared cultural war committed against the three-millennia-old Armenian heritage, in particular, and world civilization, in general.

As much as Armen’s experiences in Turkey were revelations for him, it was not the first time he saw ancient Armenian architectural monuments. In 1968, he spent six months in the Azerbaijan (eastern and western) provinces of Iran, in the ancient Armenian province of Artaz, to study the Armenian monasteries and churches there. His impressions and experiences had been diametrically different and encouraging from those in Turkey. His study included an in-depth historical and architectural study and survey of the monastic complex of St. Thaddeus or Kara Kilise (Black Church), dating to the 7th-9th centuries, located in the shadow of the Ararat mountains. This complex eventually became the topic of his doctoral dissertation, which remains to this day one of the most scientific studies of the monastery. His expedition also included the monastery of St. Stepanos of Dara Shamb (on the banks of the Araxes River overlooking the historic cemetery of Old Julfa in Nakhichevan) and the St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) chapel of Tsor Tsor. This expedition constituted the foundations of Armen’s future scientific and cultural endeavors, and left a deep emotional imprint on his worldview and vision. “That to which I am attached,” he wrote, “belongs to the past, and in territories which used to belong to a glorious past. But not any more, and if we are to be realistic, perhaps they will never be ours. Therefore, it brings me a great joy when I discover historical relics and inscriptions whether on the walls of a monastery, in a manuscript, or even on a piece of paper. I have turned into some kind of khachkar ‘hunter.’ These realities do not sit well with my temperament and are often depressing. Affliction has been my constant companion in life.”

The deep impression left by the majesty of the monastery of St. Thaddeus and his concern for its structural conditions led Armen to develop projects to improve its condition. A longtime contributor and member of the executive board of the Paris-based Land and Culture Organization (LCO) for over 25 years, Armen helped organize volunteer corps of Armenian youth from various European and North American communities to participate in restoration of St. Thaddeus and other projects in the Middle East. A child of the diaspora, Armen understood the feelings and mentality of the second- and third-generation Armenians. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “Growing up in alien lands, they are in search of their identity. They are determined to prove almost the impossible, that the ‘square is round!’ and assert their Armenianness. For some they are ‘fools.’ For me on the other hand they are realists, who besides all kinds of hardships and daily routine, have to struggle against the onslaught of assimilation and plague-infested organizations suppressing their thoughts.” He never viewed these expeditions purely aimed at the reconstruction of monuments; Armen placed special importance on the educational aspects of each expedition, which granted the diaspora youth the opportunity to expand their knowledge and at the same time gain more consciousness toward their national heritage and history.

Armen spoke with great respect for the government of Iran for measures taken both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to restore and preserve the historical Armenian monuments on its territory. As recently as July 6, 2008, Armen could not contain his joy and appreciation when, through the efforts of the government of Iran, the monastic complexes of St. Stepanos, St. Thaddeus, and the Chapel of Tsor Tsor were adopted and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. While every effort in the Islamic Republic of Iran is made to restore and preserve historical Armenian monuments, conscious efforts were and continue to be made by Armenia’s three other immediate neighbors—Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—to destroy or deface the remnants of the centuries-old Armenian presence in their territories with utter disregard for international conventions and norms.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Armen had special feelings toward his birthplace. “This country to which I am much attached,” he wrote, “with its people, races, religions, rich and complicated culture with all its contradictions, not to mention its beautiful and diverse nature, has been and continues to be a constant and boundless source of inspiration for me.” His extensive studies and expeditions to locate and document the silent witnesses of the glorious Armenian past deepened his respect for Iran and its people. Despite growing up within the confines of the once-bustling Armenian community of Iran, Armen had come to understand and appreciate Iranian society, and the intricacies and mentality of its people. Recently, one of his major works on the Armenian monuments of New Julfa was translated into Farsi and published by the Ministry for the Preservation of Iranian Archaeological sites (Miras-e Farhangi). Over the past decades, Armen contributed to several professional journals with articles and research papers, and participated in numerous symposia and conferences with memoranda and reports.

Like every diasporan Armenian conscious of his roots, Armen lived, for over four decades, a life torn between his birthplace, Tehran, and his adopted hometown, Aachen, with his heart and soul in Armenia. He found solace in the works of the prolific diasporan Armenian writer Hakob Karapents. He had read and reread the works of Karapents, and related with many of his characters, as they personified every Armenian living and growing up under alien skies. “I see, hear, and feel myself in your writings,” he wrote to Karapents. “I am one of those estranged souls who live everywhere, but at the end of the day feel ‘homeless’ and devoid of solid roots or attachment to their adopted home country, and who belong to nowhere.” The bond between Armen and Karapents grew over the years as his search brought him to a closer contact and deeper understanding of the Armenian Diaspora scattered throughout the world, struggling to retain and regain their national identity.

While he was excited about the future of his people in Armenia, he expressed deep sadness over dwindling of the Armenian community in Iran. “The social and cultural milieu is tense, gloomy, and the future unpredictable,” Armen observed. “Our spiritual hearths are in jeopardy. Our schools have lost their strength. The Armenian spirit and education no longer exist as they used to…people are depressed and are leaving the country taking with them [borrowing from Karapents] ‘the old sowers to the new world’…” Armen believed that the main factor guaranteeing the survival of a nation is its culture, which is under constant assault by more powerful forces outside the homeland. “Those who live in the Diaspora believe just in the ‘ian’ of our last names or place faith in our genetic roots are only engaged in self-deception. I believe that without a homeland there cannot be a national culture. For us living outside Armenia, language, which sadly is being lost with the passing of every generation, is our only homeland.” He knew that despite the hundreds of years of presence in virtually every country on the planet, the future of the diasporan Armenian was not promising.

The Haghnazarians settled in Tehran for close to a decade (1974-82), which coincided with some of the most turbulent years in Iran’s modern history. As professional architects, they worked on the planning and building of a number of projects, including kindergartens, hospitals, and housing complexes. This provided Armen with a greater opportunity to explore the Armenian architectural heritage in Iran. In time, he became actively involved in the restoration of numerous Armenian monuments. In addition to their professional pursuits, in the course of six years he led expeditions to the Azerbaijan provinces of Iran and participated in the documentation and restoration of numerous monuments, among them the St. Sandukht Chapel and Andreordu churches, as well as monuments in the once Armenian-populated villages of Gharadagh and of Salmast, the birthplace of the renowned 19th-century Armenian novelist, Raffi; and in the historical cities of Ardabil and of Tabriz—once the “cultural citadel” of Armenians in Iran.

Turning his attention to the southern provinces of Iran, he organized teams of amateur and professional architects to study Armenian monuments in the old settlements, villages, and other sites in Shiraz, Kerman, the Khuzestan province, and Bushehr on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Similar projects, more extensive in nature, were conducted in the 13 Armenian churches of New Julfa, the historic Armenian neighborhood of the ancient Iranian capital Isfahan, and the seat of the Irano-Indian Diocese of the Armenian Church; the once Armenian-populated districts of Peria (Faridan province); Chaharmahal; and their villages. The cemeteries in these districts, particularly rich in inscribed tombstones and of unique cultural value, also constituted an important focus of Armen’s research. Later, in the capital of Tehran, he participated the restoration of the historic churches of St. Grigor, St. Gevorg, and other monuments in the outskirts of the capital.

The scope of Armen’s interest and approach in these projects was comprehensive and all-encompassing. It went beyond the architectural aspects of a building or a monument. He was on a mission to unravel the mysteries of a once-rich cultural legacy and the heritage of his people, buried in centuries of indifference and ignorance.

Back in Germany, Armen joined the faculty of his alma mater and taught at the Urban Studies Department for a decade (1984-98). Urban planning was Armen’s second professional field and passion; he had earned his second doctorate in 1973. Armen was commissioned to oversee the restoration of the St. Sahak-Mesrob Armenian Church, the seat of the Prelate of Armenians in Europe in the city of Köln, which was later consecrated in January 1999 by His Holiness Karekin I, the Supreme Catholicos of the Armenians.

The independence in 1991 of Armenia marked a new and exciting chapter in Armen’s life. Having established preliminary contacts there over the years, he invited a core of dedicated and brilliant young scholars to join the RAA (Research on Armenian Architecture). Despite bureaucratic red tape and other obstacles caused by the vestiges of the Soviet era, Armen succeeded in establishing the branch office of the RAA in the heart of Yerevan in February 2000. With offices in Los Angeles and Aachen and a devoted corps of supporters and volunteers across Europe, the Middle East, and North America, the RAA has grown into a productive and truly intercontinental entity. This speaks to Armen’s organizational skills and huge personal financial sacrifices, as well as a group of devoted young scholars.

Though young and modest in resources, the RAA’s accomplishments rival those of full-fledged academic institutions. Despite enormous financial and political difficulties, the RAA has carried out over 157 expeditions in western Armenia, Cilicia, and Karabagh (including the liberated territories and northern Artsakh); Georgia (including Gugark, Javakhk, Tbilisi, Akhaltskha, Kakhet, and Kartli); the areas along the left bank of the River Kura in Azerbaijan; and historic Persian Armenia. In the course of their expeditions, the RAA members have amassed an impressive volume of documents, over 120,000 images, and measured, mapped, documented, and cataloged Armenian structures of historical value, including and not limited to monasteries, forts, bridges, cemeteries, and tombstones. Parallel with field-work, the organization has carried out historical research in different libraries and archives.

The comprehensive studies by the RAA have culminated in a multilingual (Armenian, Russian, and English) publication series (exceeding 10 volumes). Conceptualized, planned, and implemented by Armen and his core advisors and staff of dedicated young scholars, they are compendiums of historical Armenian regions and their monuments, and provide a coherent historical, ethnographic, architectural, socio-economic, and religious picture. Deep down in his heart, Armen, though he never expressed it, was proud of the RAA’s “modest” (as he put it) accomplishments. He believed that the key behind the RAA’s success was the conviction of his colleagues to their cause.

Armen personally participated in a number of projects through the RAA in Armenia and Karabagh. These included the restoration of a number of important church and monastic complexes, such as the St. Minas Church of the village of Tatev, the St. Khach (Holy Cross) Church of Aparan, the Monastery of Saghmosavank, the St. Sargis Church, the mausoleum chapel of the village of Ushi, as well as the church of the village of Karintak and the Kashatagh (Kelbajar) region of Karabagh.

In addition, Armen took the initial steps for saving the Khosrow reserve in Armenia during the most difficult years in early 1990’s. He believed in the importance of a natural environment, and its inseparability from the task of protecting the monuments. He viewed it as one of many fronts in his struggle. At that time he wrote: “Today Armenia is engulfed in a military conflict…the issue of preserving the Khosrow reserve is an important step that makes us think, that not only [do] we have to defend our homeland with arms, but every single Armenian should take a conscious stance and defend his country’s natural environment against pollution, contamination, and misuse of resources by a group of few unconscionable individuals.” Observing a certain level of apathy among the Armenian public, government officials, and entrepreneurs toward the environment, he noted with frustration: “We know who our enemies are, their potentials and capabilities. However, there is an even more destructive force, which is within us, that is personal jealousy and an ocean of indifference. This is an undeniable reality that we have to recognize and confront if we are to prevail.”

The last and major project Armen undertook in Armenia—and to which he was especially attached—was the historic monastic complex of Dadivank in Karabagh. The consecration of this magnificent monastic complex was to take place in 2008 with the participation of the Armenian Catholicoi of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia. Unfortunately the official dedication ceremonies were postponed and Armen did not live to see it.

Armen believed in the supreme importance of Armenia and the reunification of Karabagh with the motherland. He would say, “No efforts should be spared toward strengthening the foundations of the Armenian state. Without this ‘fistful’ of a land we would have been gone and disappeared ‘yesterday.’”

Armen drew parallels with the tragic period of the not so distant Armenian past; he said, “As in the early twentieth century, the Armenians are facing a catastrophe which can only be averted by the united forces of the homeland and Diaspora. Fortunately this time, the Diaspora is strong, alert, and aware of its mission for its eternal motherland. The Diaspora has to stand firm and devote all its potential and energy to the challenges Armenia is facing. We are living unprecedented times. Charents’ dream has become a reality. United we stand.”

He also understood that for certain segments of the diaspora, it is only natural to feel alien toward Armenia. This feeling comes from the lack of appreciation and familiarity with their ancestral homeland, its people, and culture of which they have been deprived for over 70 years. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the decades of rift between Armenia and its diaspora now removed, Armen believed that new and unprecedented opportunities had become available for the diaspora to rediscover their fatherland, and reconnect with their roots and brethren.

Making an observation on the thousands of Armenians now visiting Armenia, he often inquired about their feelings and level of understanding of Armenia—and its place in their hearts and minds. “In order to love [Armenia], one first has to see it, and second come to understand and gain some consciousness toward it. This will be complemented by some knowledge about it,” Armen would argue. “Only based on these factors one can begin to have respect and understanding, which will eventually lead to some level of attachment toward it. This is how love comes into existence and flourishes. It never drops in your lap like a manana from the sky. You can’t make someone love something without having seen or gained any knowledge about it.” The deep affection and attachment observed among thousands of diasporan Armenians toward their Armenia since its independence speaks to Armen’s correct assessment of this phenomenon.

Armen made his contribution to this cause through his work. He was a true visionary, who saw things through the prism of realism. He was also well aware that nothing in Armenia can improve or advance as long as the people’s mindset remains unchanged, locked in the old Soviet-era mentality. Armenia has to make efforts, extend its arms to the Armenia Diaspora, and embrace them.

His last and perhaps most enduring legacy was his involvement in raising the world’s consciousness of the obliteration of the 1,500-year-old Armenian cemetery of Old Julfa in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan. In December 2005, over a four-day period (Dec. 10-14) he witnessed in shock—with the Prelate of the Armenians in Atrpatakan (the eastern Azerbaijan province of Iran)—the leveling of the entire cemetery by 200 Azeri soldiers; the pieces of the ancient khatchkars hulled away and/or dumped in the Araxes River; and the entire area converted into a military shooting range. Through his efforts and the RAA, Armen alerted the world community to the vandalism in progress and submitted a report to the ICOMOS on the destruction of the historic cemetery. This blatant example of cultural genocide, with comprehensive documentation including a film taped at the time of the destruction, was presented to UNESCO in October 2006 by an international parliamentary delegation.

President John F. Kennedy once said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” It took close to a decade for the government of Armenia to recognize Armen’s invaluable service and that of the RAA, for the documentation and preservation of the Armenian architectural heritage. Belated recognitions, commendations, awards, and letters of appreciation were issued by various governmental and private entities, including one by the National Assembly of Armenia in recent years.

A modest and extremely humble person, Armen shunned titles and awards and avoided the limelight. In 1997, when he was informed that he had been chosen as “Man of the Year” by the Armenian Scientists and Engineers of America (ASEA), he flatly declined to receive the honor. He reversed his decision, only when the ASEA convinced him that by accepting the award, he would be contributing to the recognition of the RAA’s accomplishments and indirectly commending the work of its dedicated staff.

In early February, the prime minister of Armenia and the minister of culture visited the RAA’s offices. Expressing amazement at the magnitude of its accomplishments, both officials promised to provide their support in improving the conditions under which the RAA operates. The news of this visit was conveyed to Armen barely three weeks before his death. The official visit was in recognition of his four decades of tireless work, which brought smiles to his tired and emaciated face.

It has been 40 days since the death of Dr. Armen Haghnazarian. For those of us who knew him, it is painful to accept the fact that he is no longer with us. His departure was premature and untimely. He still had heights to conquer. His loss was greater than that of a beloved husband, father, and a friend. With his death, Armenia lost a “national treasure,” a noble-hearted soul who for close to five decades served his ancestral homeland with selflessness, exceptional dedication, zeal, and an indefatigable spirit. An untiring and staunch advocate for the preservation of the Armenian architectural monuments in Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, Armen brought national and international recognition to their tragic fate and condition.

He bequeathed to the RAA staff a unique and rich legacy, which it can fulfill following the example of their exceptional mentor, educator, colleague, and elder “brother” through their unwavering commitment and dedication to their cause, and with untiring work and spirit.

May Armen’s memory live forever, and continue to inspire present and future generations of Armenians, in the diaspora and the homeland, who greet every day with Armenia in their hearts and minds.

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