After the Genocide, How Much Armenian Art Remains?
Christina Maranci in Conversation with Christopher Lydon on Radio Open Source
Open Source is the world’s longest-running podcast. Christopher Lydon circles the big ideas in culture, the arts and politics with the smartest people in the world. It’s the kind of curious, critical, high-energy conversation we’re all missing nowadays.
Where is Armenia, the place, the idea? Where then? Where now? And how come the delight on top of the darkness in saying “I am Armenian”? Armenians were a tiny, ancient Indo-European people, between East and West, the first Christian nation, when Turkey wiped most of them off the map in 1915. It was the 20th century’s grotesque model of mass slaughter of a people, a genocide by any measure. Yet there the Armenians are today—6, 7, maybe 8 million people in 80 countries of the world: a lively, secret club, somebody said: invisible to non-members but instantly recognizable to other Armenians. A world people with their own alphabet, language, cuisine, music, nightmares abounding—but art, too, and humor, despite everything.
The mass slaughter of Armenians in Turkey starting in 1915 is a bone still stuck in the throat of history. And it’s a jagged scar, an area of darkness in the hearts of a global diaspora. More than a million people were killed, much more than half of the Armenian nation, a century ago. It’s an atrocity brazenly denied ever since by the government of Turkey, a crime unrecognized by most nations, acknowledged finally as a genocide this spring by President Biden. Both branches of Congress voted that verdict against Ottoman Turkey two years ago. We’re listening this radio hour not for the politics of the story but for the personal experience of unspeakable loss among survivors and their descendants—family histories too horrible to be forgotten, or remembered.
From the episode:
Christopher Lydon: How much of the best Armenian art was destroyed purposefully by the Turks, who were trying to stamp out a culture as well as the people?
Christina Maranci: Yeah, that’s a question. It’s hard to know. We clearly have only a fraction of what once was. Having said that, what I’m always shocked at is how much we have. So we have thousands of churches. We have at least 40,000 known Armenian manuscripts. That is a huge number. And that’s only what we know. I have to say that every other week, month, a new manuscript turns up in somebody’s private collection. So, yes, on the one hand, what we’re dealing with is a fraction of what was. But on the other hand, we also don’t quite know how much we have.
And then there’s another piece to this. As you know, there is real worry about—and for good reason. because bad things are happening to the Armenian monuments in Karabakh. Now, having said that, something that I just learned, which is a textile from an Armenian church that’s now destroyed—the Church of Nakhchivan, the Republic of Nakhchivan. The textile’s inscribed, and it gives the name of the church and the town where it was made. And this textile lives at the Armenian Museum in Watertown. So, all of this stuff that Armenian art does in inscriptions means that we know much more than we think we do. You know, that church in Nakhchivan is gone. But this textile sitting in Watertown preserves the memory of it. And this kind of story, which there are so many stories just like this, really is, I think, the fabric of Armenian art, as well as the objects themselves.
Subscribe now on iTunes, or wherever else you find your podcasts!
Christina Maranci is an Armenian-American researcher, writer, translator, historian, and professor at Tufts University. She is considered an expert on the history and development of Armenian architecture.