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The 22nd Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture Series features “New Topics in Armenian History and Culture”

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(The following is a post by Levon Avdoyan, Area Specialist for Armenia and Georgia, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

I first heard the rumblings early in 2017: “The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is going to have Armenia as one of its featured countries in 2018!” In Washington, DC rumors are rampant, but this one was confirmed later that spring when an Armenian friend and colleague at the Smithsonian affirmed it and then breezily asked: “Would the Library of Congress consider doing something to complement the Festival?” Would we? Of course! After discussions at the Armenian Embassy with Smithsonian staff and members of the Armenian community in Washington, there was only one thing to do — plan the 22nd Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture to coincide with the opening of the Festival.

Map of the various Armenian states from Robert Hewsen. “Historical Armenia,” in Armenia: A Historical Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. (Reproduced with the permission of the author.)

The Vardanants series began in 1994 soon after Mrs. Marjory Dadian’s generous bequest in the name of her husband Arthur Dadian to the Near East Section for the “health and maintenance of the Armenian collections” at the Library of Congress. The lecture series is sponsored by the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division and was named after the Armenian holiday that commemorates the battle of Avarayr (451 A.D.), a battle waged by the Armenian General Vardan Mamikonian and his compatriots against invading Persian troops who were attempting to re-impose Zoroastrianism on the Christian state. Although a religious holiday, it also celebrates the Armenians’ secular triumph over forces of assimilation. Through the years the series has presented scholars, ambassadors, politicians, artists, and musicians each tasked with illuminating a variety of issues relating to Armenian history, life, and culture. Since 2000, the lectures have been webcast and made available on the Library’s website to the public around the world.

The opening day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on June 27, 2018 (Photograph by Levon Avdoyan)

As the 2018 Folklife Festival intended to concentrate on the ancient arts and crafts of the Armenian people, from fabric, to clay, to stone, to wood, and on to calligraphy, music and dance, what would be appropriate as an introduction to the festival’s plans? That was the question. Armenians have been around for millennia. Its various states, stretching from Eastern Anatolia to the Armenian Plateau and the Caucasus, all have had a rich and complicated history with strong and mutually influential connections to its neighbors to the North, South, East and West. Yet as with many other countries and people, only a few events are commonly known, such as Armenia as the first Christian state. I decided, then, to invite a group of international scholars and librarians to discuss “New Topics in Armenian History and Culture,” that is, any topic other than those commonly known tropes.

And so, at 9 a.m. on June 26th, members of the Armenian community, Congressional staffers, interns with Armenian organizations, researchers, those who had come to town for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Library of Congress staff, among others, gathered to hear this international cast of scholars discuss art, trade, political appropriation, sports, nonviolent protest, digital initiatives, renewed publication initiatives, manuscript production, and, of course, history and culture.

An albumen print c. 1880 of a hamal (an Armenian porter) in late Ottoman Turkey by the photographers known as the Abdullah Frères. (Private collection of Vazken Davidian)

The day-long symposium featured the following speakers and topics: Helen C. Evans (Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters) on “Cilicia on Mongol Trade Routes;” Amy Landau (Walters Art Museum) on “A Concert of Luxury Wares and Estates: The Will of the 17th-Century Armenian, Merchant Poghos Velijanian;” Sylvie L. Merian (The Morgan Library & Museum) on “The Eclectic Nature of Late Armenian Manuscripts from Constantinople;” Vazken Khatchig Davidian (Birkbeck College, University of London) on “Image of the Migrant Worker: Visualising the Bantoukhd from Ottoman Armenia in Late Nineteenth Century Constantinople;” Khatchig Mouradian (Columbia University) on “Unarmed and Dangerous: Non-violent Resistance from the Ottoman Empire to the Third Reich;” Murat C. Yildiz (Skidmore College) on “Biceps and Balls: Physical

One of the 17th century works included in Sylvie Merian’s persentation-Պատմութիւն վարուց երանելւոյն Յօհաննու աւետարանչին (The History of the Acts of St. John the Evangelist). Manuscript copied in 1765 AD.

Culture in late Ottoman Bolis;” Theo Maarten van Lint (Oxford University) on “Poetry, Patria and Pedigree: Eghishe Charents’ ’Monument’ and the Muse’s Discontents;” Robert Krikorian (Bureau of Intelligence & Research, U.S. Department of State) on “The Re-Appropriation of the Past: History and Politics in Soviet Armenia, 1988-1991;” Nerses V. Hayrapetyan (U.S. Embassy, Yerevan) on “Samizdat and the Emergence of the Contemporary Armenian Press;” Tigran Zargaryan (The National Library of Armenia) on “The Pan-Armenian Digital Library in Action: Connecting the Diasporas, Bridging Knowledge;” and Haig Utidjian (Charles University in Prague) on “’Sublime and Celestial’: Pietro Bianchini and an Ode for the Patriarch.”

A page from the Canto Liturgico della Chiesa Armena (Liturgical Chant of the Armenian Church), 1887. Manuscript copied by Pietro Bianchini and discussed and chanted by Haig Utidjian during the conference.

The day ended with the Pietro Bianchini’s manuscript springing to life as Haig Utidjian chanted Bianchini’s transcription into European notation of the Armenian Ode, Ընտրեալդ յԱստուծոյ (“You, Chosen of God”). Bianchini was the choir master at the Armenian Catholic Monastery of San Lazzaro in Venice and also the first composer to transcribe the Armenian Liturgy into European musical notations. In 1887 he transcribed this beautiful Armenian Ode as a presentation to the Armenian Catholic Patriarch at that time.


Conference participants (Photograph by Paul Vartan Sookiasian)

On June 27th the Smithsonian Folklife Festival opened and for two weeks it amplified the celebration of Armenian history and culture in Washington, DC. As all the papers presented at the conference have been filmed, and will ultimately be mounted as webcasts on the Library’s  homepage within the coming weeks, the commemoration will spread around the world for a long while to come.

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