Armenian News Network / Groong


Armenian News Network / Groong
May 25, 2004
Travel Wire

By Ruth Bedevian


It was a sunny day with a perfect dose of April breeze as we alit from our cab at Komitas Square and entered the courtyard of the Hovhannes Hovhannesyan House Museum in Etchmiadzin (formerly Vagharshapat), Armenia. Mariam Maghakian, a veteran docent, introduced herself and invited my friend, Gohar, and me to explore the home. It is somewhat reminiscent of the architecture of the Aksel Bakuntz House Museum in Goris in that it was built in traditional Armenian design of its day with a large wooden porch and thick stone walls. She led us through the courtyard which was overgrown with vegetation, including lilacs in bloom. It was a charming setting and in an earlier time I imagined it more gently groomed. We passed the statue of the former owner - foremost a teacher, also a poet, linguist, and translator - Hovhannes Hovhannesyan (1864-1929.)

Hovhanes Hovhanessian
Hovhanes Hovhanessian
( R. Bedevian/Groong)
As we stepped into the foyer of the home, a vast image of Hovhannesyan loomed before us and Mrs. Maghakian remarked, `He was a very distinguished and handsome man.' She began to tell us that he was born in this house on May 8, 1864 to well-to-do parents, Mgrditch and Anoosh, one of six siblings - two boys and four girls. Mgrditch, an educated man who earned his living from farming, made sure to pass on his respect for education to his children, teaching them to read before they attended the local school. At age 13 young Hovhannes went to Moscow where he studied in the prestigious Lazarian Institute, but returning each year to pass his childhood summers in Byurakan (Place of a Thousand Springs) - a delightful village in the outskirts of Yerevan that invites cooling temperatures and mild breezes from the surrounding mountains. Mrs. Maghakian digressed to tell us about the Lazarian Institute, established by a wealthy Armenian family from New Julfa in 1815. The school developed an academic standard of excellence, attracting the brightest and best Armenian students and teachers from the vast areas of Russia. For a little more than 100 years Lazarian cultivated and groomed Armenian intelligentsia. In 1918 it was shut down by the Bolsheviks. There is a glimmer of hope that it may be re-established for many who have emigrated from Armenia to Russia in recent years.

H. Hovhanessian's Piano
H. Hovhanessian's Piano
( R. Bedevian/Groong)
After his graduation from Lazarian, higher education took Hovhannesyan to Moscow University where he graduated in 1888 after which he was invited to teach at the Gevorgian Seminary in Etchmiadzin, where he successfully taught for many years as a professor of Russian, Armenian and General Literature while he continued to write poetry. He was a contemporary of Tumanyan, Shirvanzate and Chobanian. Charentz was a very late contemporary. Hovhannesyan is regarded by literary experts (along with Avetik Isahakyan, Hovhannes Tumanyan and Vahan Teryan) to be the founder of modern poetry in Eastern Armenian literature. According to Very Reverend Father Krikor Maksoudian, a professor of Armenian Church history and also Director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center in New York City, `he was the first to have introduced the personal element in his poetry as opposed to the historical, socio-nationalistic, rhetorical poetry of the earlier generation.' It was at Gevorgian that Komitas became Hovhannesyan's prized student. An upright piano was on display in the living room. The piano belonged to the family and Mariam Maghakian told us with pride, `Komitas played this piano!'

She went on to summarize. Hovhannes Hovhannesyan was part of the Modern Armenian Literature movement which arose at the end of the 19th century. He, along with Abovyan, Nalbandian and Raffi, wrote in modern Armenian to awaken the common people. Together with the Russian linguist and writer Valeri Brusov, he was one of the first to unearth medieval Armenian secular poetry, still buried in old manuscripts, and stir the interest of his students, colleagues, intellectuals at large and the Russian readers. They collaborated on translations of works by Schiller, Pushkin, Goethe, Nekrasov, Ibsen and Hainze. Hovhannesyan's translations of Shakespeare [from Russian into Modern Armenian] are considered in linguistic circles to be extremely fine and accurate. In addition to Russian, Hovhannes Hovhannesyan also translated from French and German into Armenian to expose the Armenian people to international literature.

Although he worked in Baku as an Inspector of Schools and traveled very briefly, visiting Eastern European cities, and briefly taught at the Nersessian School in Tbilisi, the majority of his lifetime was spent in Etchmiadzin where he was devoted to teaching generations of gifted students at the Gevorgian Seminary. His literary works are primarily poetry, of which several pieces have been translated into English. `Song,' `The Poet' and `New Spring' appear in Alice Stone Blackwell's Armenian Poems Rendered into English Verse (1917). His friend and colleague, Valeri Brusov, edited and translated thirteen of Hovhannesyan's poems into Russian.

Words of tribute by prominent Armenian writers are decoratively displayed in glass cases. My friend, Gohar, loosely translated one in particular at my request. Quite eloquent in English, one can imagine Avetik Isahakyan's original Armenian. ` There are people who are gone from us but who are always present in our hearts and who are remembered with gratitude and endless love. One of the brilliant creators of our new poetic literature, Hovhannes Hovhannesyan is one of these eternal beings. I am forever indebted to this great `priest' of poetry.' A former student of Hovhannesyan, Isahakyan grew to be a grealy revered poet himself and therefore his homage to his teacher is particularly poignant.

H. Hovhanessian's Fishing Pole
Hovhanessian's Fishing Pole
( R. Bedevian/Groong)
We ended our tour in Hovhannesyan's study where his desk has been left as it was on the day of his death. He suffered a heart attack in his garden and died on September 29, 1929. A timeline etched in stone at the front entrance stated that on October 2 his remains were interred at the Pantheon of Artists in Yerevan. Resting upon his desk is a book by the Russian writer Turgenev opened to the page that he was last reading. [Ivan Turgenev wrote novels and short stories about the Russian peasantry and although history has overshadowed him with his contemporaries, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, he remains one of the major figures of 19th-century Russian literature.] His fishing pole stands in the corner. His garden clippers are also resting idly in a case.

As part of the intellectual circles that created the new socialist republic circa 1918-1920, he was among those who, most probably, would have been targeted by Stalin as a counter-revolutionary, but he died seven years before the great purges that began in 1936 which erased the intellectual class in Armenia - Yessayian, Charents, Totovents, Bakountz among them. Mariam Maghakian informed us that Hovhannesyan's parents and a few of his eight children (of which there were four daughters and four sons) are buried near Hripsime and that his youngest sister is buried in Moscow. Today there are no living grandchildren.

I left the Hovhannesyan home with a deep sense of longing, with a yearning for a time when eight children filled the rooms with chatter and laughter, with a pining for a time when the master of the house retired to his study and read, wrote, and translated classics to enlighten an Armenian peasantry, and with a hunger for a time when Komitas, the student, played melodious tunes on a piano that has now become a relic.

Ruth Bedevian continues her visits to Armenian authors' House Museums
around Armenia. Her articles in this series are at:
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