Answering the Question: ‘Who Is Zabel Yessayan?’

The title page from the first edition of The Gardens of Silihdar, published in 1935 in Yerevan, by the State Publishing House (Photo: NAASR)

Not long ago in Stepanakert, I wore a T-shirt with an image of Zabel Yessayan on it. A young woman approached my colleague and asked timidly: “Who is Zabel?’

That was exactly the question that I wanted the students of Artsakh to answer.

On Sept. 1, Artsakh Ombudsman Ruben Melikyan and I launched the second annual Human Rights Essay Contest of Artsakh, which would relate the students’ understanding and experience of human rights to the writing of Zabel Yessayan—the noted Armenian author and political activist.

We wanted to give the students a reason to read Yessayan’s memoir of her childhood in Constantinople, The Gardens of Silihdar. In this book, Yessayan reflected on how she came to care so deeply about issues of human rights and social justice.

The cover of the 2014 English translation of The Gardens of Silihdar (Photo: AIWA)

During the past three months, 53 high school students across Artsakh participated in the contest and answered the question, “Why are human rights important?” The students were also asked to relate this question to their own personal experiences and to the experiences of Yessayan.

Eighteen judges from Artsakh, Armenia, and the Armenian Diaspora examined and scored the essays and chose 12 finalists in the first round, and the top three winners in the second round.

Alexander Yesayan, Zabel Yessayan’s grandson, was one of the judges. Speaking at the ceremony, he said all of the students who entered the contest were winners.

The selected winners were announced on Dec.  10, International Human Rights Day, in Stepanakert. At the ceremony, the 12 finalists received recognition and gifts from various ministries and organizations, including the Tufenkian Foundation and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), co-sponsors of the contest.

All of the entrants were given a T-shirt designed by Astghik Simonyan of Stepanakert. Her T-shirt design entry was the winner of another competition, organized by Tumo Center, in conjunction with the essay contest. The T-shirts featured a quote by Yessayan: “Literature is not an ornament, a pleasant pastime, a pretty flower. Literature is a weapon to struggle against injustice.”

The participating students (Photo: Judith Saryan)

Here is the full list of winners of the second annual Human Rights Essay Contest of Artsakh:

  • First prize: Marat Hayrapetyan from the K. Mouratyan School in Vaghouhas Village
  • Second prize: Leena Mirzoyan from the Khachatur Avovyan School in Shushi
  • Third prize: Siroun Gabrielyan, Badara School in Askeran

Below is video footage from the announcement of the winners, courtesy of the Tufenkian Foundation.


Judith Saryan

Judith Saryan was born in Delaware and graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts with a major in economics. She spent her career in the financial industry, most recently at Eaton Vance Management, where she was vice president and portfolio manager. Saryan left her successful career in order to pursue her passion for literature and history. For her first project, she worked with the Armenian International Women's Association (AIWA) to showcase the work of newly translated Ottoman Armenian author, Zabel Yessayan.


  1. Can the power of a memoir and the action of journaling affect our mindset and our ability to take action about issues of human rights and social justice? Since knowledge is truth it can. Thank you for the translation and for creating this space!

  2. What a meaningful melding of so much that is important in life: values; voice; education; literature; culture; community; participation; recognition; and making history relevant to today and the future. Bravo to the organizers, participants and judges! Hopefully this is is the beginning of a new tradition that will continue!

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