Armenian News Network / Groong
July 28, 2004
We visited Hovhannes Toumanian's boyhood home in Dsegh on our June 2003 trip. That was an epiphany for me. It was at that time that I recalled Father Diran's appeal to learn more about our Armenian authors and to celebrate our Armenian literary heritage year round. When I returned last year, I undertook the task. It has been and continues to be a wonder-filled journey with one discovery after another unfolding. The most heartening part is the positive and energetic responses from the readers of Lradoo. Toumanian was the first installment that I wrote for Lradoo, the St. Leon Armenian Church newsletter (Fair Lawn, NJ). Thus, I felt I should end this series of 4 house-museums with Toumanian's - at least for now. We return to Armenia in November and my list is not yet finished.
By Ruth Bedevian
If time allows a first-time visitor only one visit to a house museum in Armenia, let it be the one in the village of Dsegh in the mountains of the Lori Marz (Province).
It is an hour's drive from Yerevan to the Lori Region and then another 30 minutes to reach the village of Dsegh. After leaving the city of Vanadzor, the winding mountainous path begins to unfold. The trip reminds the traveler of scenery found in the Swiss Alps and in the forests of Bavaria, Germany. The last leg of the journey is the most difficult - a steep dirt road that brings one to the very top of the mountain. It is most certainly worth the arduous drive. Beautiful and magnificent mountains, rolling green hills, singing brooks, streams and rivers surround the village of Dsegh and enchant the traveler.
Truly the music that the running waters create as they flow from the mountain tops and that are echoed between land and sky produce a breathlessness in one's breast. Lori has long enjoyed the reputation of being a land of fascination where mythological characters and legends abound. Hovhannes Toumanian was nurtured in the aura of this land. In Armenia everyone - from the youngest to the oldest - knows Hovhannes Toumanian and in this fashion he has achieved immortality.
Hovhannes Toumanian is a giant among the impressive list of Eastern Armenian Writers. His works have been translated into 40 languages, and he is most probably - of all Armenian authors - the one whose works are most abundantly found in English translation. Toumanian lived and worked during turbulent times where there were international conflicts in the Caucasus, World War I, and the Genocide of Armenians in Turkey. He felt and expressed the hopes and suffering of his people and times. He has been called a crusader for universal brotherhood.
The visitor to Dsegh will abundantly experience this deeply humane and gifted man. Ruzanna, the local docent, with that sparkle in her blue eyes that all good docents possess, greeted us with enthusiasm. She joyfully shared, in eloquent Eastern Armenian, detail after detail of the former inhabitant's boyhood in this modest 19th century village home. As Ruzanna related, Toumanian was born to Father Tadevos and his wife in 1869. Der Hayr and Yeretzgin were good parents, instilling a thirst for knowledge and human values in their young son. Later Tumanyan would write about his father, `The most precious and the best thing that I had in life was my father. He was honest and the most noble man. Extremely altruistic and generous, witty, cheerful, sociable, at the same time he always maintained an air of deep seriousness.' [http://www.armenianhouse.org/tumanyan/bio-en.html]
We entered the modest church, lit candles and prayed. It is an active church serving the village residents. We crossed from the church grounds to a monument where Ruzanna told us that Toumanian's heart belonged to his beloved home. When he was buried in Tbilisi (where he had spent most of his adult life and where he did most of his writing and humanitarian work), his heart was removed from his remains and preserved in a special box in a Yerevan hospital until it could be transported to Dsegh. A tall monument was erected over the site of his buried heart. Ironic, it is, because the cemetery known as the Pantheon of Armenian Writers and Public Leaders in the Hojivank District in Tbilisi where Toumanian was buried in 1923 and where other Armenian luminaries were laid to rest, was since destroyed by the Georgian authorities several decades ago. The small cemetery that exists today merely houses the tombstones. The bones, it is believed, were all put together in a large heap and buried. In hindsight, to bring his heart home to rest proved to be an act of mercy, providing an apt and dignified final resting place.
As Ruzanna guided us through the simple rooms, I was reminded of the primitive boyhood beginnings of another great man - the log cabin origins of Abraham Lincoln who at the time of Toumanian's birth, had already completed his life's mission. Like Lincoln, Toumanian was primarily self-educated. Although Toumanian left Dsegh for higher formal education at the prestigious Nersisian School in Tbilisi, he was forced to leave at age 16, two years before graduation, because his father fell sick and died. In order to support his family, he worked at several jobs that didn't utilize his intellect. The atmosphere stifled him to the degree that he later called that time in his life `hell.' At age 19 he married and eventually fathered ten children. He became known as a poet in 1890, when his first poetry collection was published. Literary critics said of Toumanian that he brought a fresh spirit to Armenian poetry. From that time hence, he began to focus full time on his writing.
Ruzanna told us that he was an avid reader and admired Shakespeare to the point of idolizing him. Ruzanna led us to a display case showing newspaper clippings of the 100th anniversary of his birth that was celebrated in 1969. A photo displayed a caravan of cars, carrying prominent government leaders slowly spiraling up the road to pay their respects. It was a touching moment when a member of our group, the mayor of Vanadzor, Samuel Darbinian, offered his personal recollection of that red-letter day. He said that he was age 10 and remembered clearly the importance of those special visitors.
He did not travel far as some of his contemporaries did. He is considered the founder of the `Vernatun' (Upper Room), a literary circle that met weekly in his home from 1902 through about 1908 in Tbilisi. He was imprisoned from 1908 to 1909, having been accused of Anti-Tsarist activities and again from 1911 to 1912. He devoted himself to humanitarian causes - organizing societies to help war victims, orphans, refugees. He engaged in many community activities, seeking support for an Armenian statehood and from 1915 on he actively organized relief for those fleeing the Genocide. In 1921 he went to Constantinople to aid in humanitarian work and fell ill. He underwent several surgeries and died in a Moscow hospital in 1923.
Universal, classic, melodious - these words describe Toumanian's stories and poems that speak to all ages and to all people of all nationalities and to all generations. Literary critics value Toumanian's inner world of peace and harmony in his prose, fairytales, poetry, even his correspondence and journalism. Ruzanna highlighted for us some of Toumanian's contributions. Two of his best-known epic poems, Anoush and Almast, have been used as librettos for these operas which are still performed today. His version of David of Sasoon (of which there is an English translation by Aram Tolegian, Bookman Associates, New York, 1961) is considered the best. He left an endless list of works. A few of his most celebrated works are: Hokehankisd (Requiem), Akhtamar, The Dove Monastery, The Capture of Tmpkabert, The Construction of the Railway, Neso's Steam Bath and a host of fairy tales, among which is Kach Nazar (Nazar the Brave). Toumanian opened the way for Armenians to discover folklore from different nations. He skillfully used folk images, plots and motives from other cultures and introduced them into Armenian literature without imitation, shaping them into a genuine Armenian art form.
Interspersing her enthusiastic narrative with quotes of quatrains, Ruzanna shared what Toumanian said about himself, `The closer the writer is to his own nation and the deeper he delves into its folklore, the ..... greater (is) the meaning of his work for mankind.'
In Yerevan there is also a Hovhannes Toumanian House-Museum at 40 Moscovian Street where more than 8000 volumes of his private library are stored as well as other artifacts. His daughter founded this museum in 1953 on the 30th anniversary of his death. In 1969 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, an annex was added to the building. The museum resonates with the furnishings and atmosphere of Toumanian's home in Tbilisi.
Ahh! But it is to Dsegh, the birthplace and boyhood home in Lori, that the visitor must journey, to deeply and powerfully encounter Hovhannes Toumanian.
Ruth Bedevian recently visited many Armenian authors' House Museums around Armenia. She's writing monthly installments about Armenian authors for the St. Leon Armenian Church newsletter (Lradoo) at the request of Father Diran Bohajian.
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