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, 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 the Armenian Genocide survivors, Armen had also heard about the tragic fate of his ancestral homeland and its monuments from parents: his mother Arusyak, an educator and piano instructor at the Tehran State Conservatory of Music, and 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, Nakhijevan region of Armenia.

In 1970, having earned his doctorate in architecture from the University of Aachen, Haghnazarian 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 was marveled at the majesty of millennia-old ruins. At the same time, he was appalled by their conditions: not only desecrated, abandoned, and decaying left to the ravages of nature in ruins by conscious ignorance, but more importantly premeditated destructive measures of their custodian, the government of Turkey. Long before the phrase “cultural genocide,” entered our lexicon, Haghnazarian saw it in progress perpetrated against the historical Armenian monuments in Turkey. Over the following years and decades Haghnazarian became the voice for the voiceless symphony of stones in historic Armenia, and later in Karabakh, 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 which over the years has grown into an impressive research institute. For the next four decades Haghnazarian with Margrit’s unfailing support, devoted his life to the supreme mission of his life: documentation and preservation of the Armenian historical monuments scattered outside Armenia.

A native of Lubbecke, Germany, 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 1990s.

Haghnazarian returned home from his second expedition even more stunned and at the same time more resolute in his conviction to dedicate his life to the cause of 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 khachkars [cross stones].” His scientific trips, each lasting for two months, grew to nine and covered more than just khachkars. 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, Haghnazarian was declared persona non grata and banned from participating in any future expedition in Turkey. However, more expeditions were planned and carried out under Armen’s supervision from abroad.

After leaving Turkey, Haghnazarian 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.” Haghnazarian 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, Haghnazarian became acquainted with Dr. Vazgen Barseghian of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York. With the unwavering support of Dr. 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, Haghnazarian’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 of seeing 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 as the major resource, on the 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 1990s 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 goes 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 Haghnazarian’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 (ancient Armenian province of Artaz) to study the Armenian monasteries and churches there. His impressions and experiences had been diametrically different and encouraging from that of those in Turkey. His study included an in-depth historical and architectural study and survey of the monastic complex of St. Thaddeus [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. To this day, it remains 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 Nakhijevan, and St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) chapel of Tsor Tsor. This expedition constituted the foundations of Haghnazarian’s future scientific and cultural endeavors and left a deep emotional imprint on his worldview and vision. “That to which I am attached –Haghnazarian 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 %u218hunter.’ 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. Longtime contributor and member of the executive board of the Paris based, Land and Culture Organization (LCO) for over twenty-five years, Armen helped organize volunteer corps of Armenian youth from various European and North American communities to participate in restoration of the St. Thaddeus, and other projects in the Middle East over the years. 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 %u218square is round!’ and assert their Armenianness. For some they are %u218fools’. 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 the monuments. Haghnazarian 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.

Haghnazarian 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 Armenian historical 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 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 he had special feelings toward his birthplace, “This country to which I am much attached ‘s Haghnazarian wrote ‘s 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 Haghnazarian’s 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, Dr. Haghnazarian has contributed to several professional journals with articles and research papers, and participated in numerous symposia and conferences with memoranda and reports.

Like every Diaspora Armenian conscious of his roots, Haghnazarian 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 Diaspora Armenian writer Hakob Karapents. He had read and reread the works of Karapents. He associated with many of the characters of Karapents’ novels, because they personify 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 %u218homeless’ 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 reality 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 seeing the Armenian community of Iran dwindling in recent years as he observed, “The social and cultural milieu is tense, gloomy, and the future unpredictable. 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 ‘s borrowing from Karapents ‘s %u218the old sowers to the new world’ . . . ” Haghnazarian believed that the main factor guaranteeing survival of a nation is its culture, which is under constant assault by more powerful forces outside the homeland. “For 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 the despite hundreds of years of presence in virtually every country on the planet; the future of the Diaspora Armenians is not promising.

The Haghnazarians settled in Tehran for close to a decade (1974-1982), 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 historical monuments. Thus, 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 St. Sandukht Chapel and Andreordu churches, and others in the once Armenian populated villages of Gharadagh as well as Salmast, the birthplace of renowned 19th Century Armenian novelist, Raffi; historical cities of Ardabil, and 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 thirteen 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 of these districts, particularly rich in inscribed tombstones and of unique cultural value also constituted an important focus of Dr. Haghnazarian’s research. Later, in the capital of Tehran, Haghnazarian participated in the restoration of the historic churches of St. Grigor, and 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 mysteries of once rich cultural legacy and heritage of his people buried in centuries of indifference and ignorance.

Back in Germany, Haghnazarian joined the faculty of his alma mater and taught at the Urban Studies Department for a decade (1984-1998). Urban planning was Armen’s second professional field and passion, which he had completed and earned his second doctorate in 1973. He 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 K?ln, 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 Haghnazarian’s life. Having established preliminary contacts there over the years, he invited a core of dedicated and brilliant young scholars to join the RAA. Despite bureaucratic red tape and other obstacles caused by the vestiges of the soviet era, Haghnazarian succeeded in establishing the branch office of RAA at the heart of the 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 an intercontinental entity. This speaks to Armen’s organizational skills, huge personal financial sacrifices as well as a group of devoted young generation of scholars and academe.

Though young and modest in resources, 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, Karabakh (Artsakh), 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 (Azerbaijan), and historic Persian Armenia. In the course of the expeditions, the RAA members have amassed an impressive volume of documents, over 120,000 images, measured, mapped, documented, and cataloged Armenian structures of historical values, 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 RAA have culminated in multilingual (Armenian, Russian, English) publication series (exceeding 10 volumes). Conceptualized, planned and implemented by Haghnazarian and his core advisors and staff of dedicated young scholars, they are compendiums of historical Armenian regions and their monuments, which provide a coherent historical, ethnographic, architectural, socio-economic, and religious picture. Haghnazarian, though never expressed, deep down in his heart, was proud of as he put it RAA’s “modest” accomplishments. He believed that the key behind the RAA’s success was the conviction of his colleagues to their cause and in critical nature and realities surrounding the condition of the Armenian monuments.

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

In addition to all the above, Haghnazarians took initial steps for saving the Khosrow reserve in Armenia during the most difficult years in early 1990s. He believed the importance of natural environment, and its inseparability from the task of the protection of 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 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 certain level of apathy among both the Armenian public and government officials and entrepreneurs toward environment, he noted with frustration, when he added, “We know who our enemies are, their potentials and capabilities. However, there is 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 it if we are to prevail.”

The last and major project undertaken by Armen in Armenia to which he was specially attached was the historic monastic complex of Dadivank in Artsakh (Karabakh). The consecration of this magnificent monastic complex was to take place in 2008 with the participation of the Armenian Catholicoi of Ejmiatsin and Cilicia. Unfortunately the official dedication ceremonies were postponed and Armen did not live to see it.

Haghnazarian believed in supreme importance of Armenia and the reunification of Karabakh with the motherland. He would say, “No efforts should be spared toward strengthening the foundations of the Armenian state. Without this %u218fistful’ of a land we would have been gone and disappeared %u218yesterday’. He drew parallels with the tragic period of the not so distant Armenian past, when 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, 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 Armenians; it is only natural to feel alien toward Armenia. This feeling is because of their lack of appreciation and familiarity with their ancestral homeland, its people and culture of which they have been deprived of over seventy years. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the decades of rift between Armenia and its Diaspora now removed, he believed that new and unprecedented opportunities have become available for the Diaspora Armenians to rediscover their fatherland, reconnect with their roots, and brethren.

Making an observation on thousands of Armenians visiting Armenia, he often inquired about their feelings and level of understanding of Armenia and it 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,” ‘s Haghnazarian would argue ‘s “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 Diaspora Armenians toward their Armenia since its independence speaks to Armen’s correct assessment of this phenomenon.

Haghnazarian 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 remained unchanged, locked in the old Soviet era mentality. Armenia has to make efforts, extend its arms to the Armenia Diaspora communities and embrace them.

The last and perhaps the most enduring legacy of Armen was his involvement in raising the world’s consciousness of the obliteration of the 1500 years-old historic Armenian cemetery of Old Julfa in Nakhijevan, Republic of Azerbaijan. In December 2005 in a four day period (10th-14th) he witnessed in shock with the Prelate of the Armenians in Atrpatakan (Eastern Azerbaijan province of Iran) as the entire historical cemetery was leveled to the ground by 200 Azeri soldiers, the pieces of the ancient khachkars 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, Dr. Haghnazarian alerted the world community to the vandalism in progress and submitted a report to the ICOMOS on the destruction of the historic Armenian cemetery. This blatant example of “cultural genocide”, with a comprehensive documentation, including a film taped at the time of the destruction was presented to UNESCO in October 2006 by an international parliamentary delegation.

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 the invaluable service of Dr. Haghnazarian and 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, Haghnazarian shunned titles, awards and avoided the limelight. In 1997 when he was informed that he had been chosen as the “man of the year” by the Armenian Scientists and Engineers of America, 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 decades of accomplishments and indirectly commending the work of its dedicated staff.

In early February, the prime minister of Armenia, followed by the minister of the culture visited the RAA offices. Expressing amazement on the magnitude of the RAA’s accomplishments both officials promised to render their support to improve the conditions under which the RAA operates. The news of this visit was conveyed to Haghnazarian barely three weeks before his demise. This official visit was in the recognition of his four decades of tireless work, which brought smiles to his tired and emaciated face.

It has been forty 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 indefatigable spirit. An untiring and staunch advocate for the preservation of the Armenian architectural monuments in Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, Haghnazarian 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 with untiring work and spirit.

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


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