The oldest Armenian church and sanctuary in Europe are in Romania
We begin our coverage of Armenians in Europe our acquaintance with the Armenians of Europe from Romania, as the richest Armenian cultural and spiritual heritage throughout Europe is in Romania .
It is surprising that, even after 25 years of the fall of the Communist regime, this country remains undiscovered for vast masses of Armenians and Europeans. Traces of history are everywhere in here. One has the impression that this area has been part of Armenia in the past by just looking at the map of Armenian churches across the country. Meanwhile, the number and capacity of the Armenians have reached such a level of development that Romania has become a second home for them.
The oldest Armenian community in Europe belongs to this country, where the first information on Armenians goes back to the tenth century, during the Byzantine Empire. Groups of Armenians settled in this region between the fifth and seventh centuries. The existence of various Armenian location names also proves this fact. The oldest evidence is the inscriptions engraved on headstones in 967 in the town of Cetatea Albă.
Later, the flow of Armenians into Romania increased, especially in the eleventh century, after the fall of Ani, when the Armenians reached Polish, Ukrainian, and Romanian territories through Crimea. The foundation of the first Armenian church in 1350 in the city of Botoşani is considered the date of the establishment of the Armenians in Romania. This stone church, St. Mary the Virgin, is still standing. In 1830 there were 400 Armenian families in this city; in 1884 they (had) also built an Armenian chapel and cemetery.
The Armenians possessed a diocese, which was first attached to the bishopric of Lviv. In 1401 the Armenian episcopal seat was settled in Suceava, in the former capital of Moldavia (now in the north-eastern part of Romania), by decree of the great Prince Alexander the Good of Moldavia. The Armenian episcopal seat was established and headed by Bishop Hovhannes; he had three churches and two monasteries under his jurisdiction. By princely decree, in 1408 the Armenian merchants from Lviv moved to the cities of Suceava, Siret, and Cernăuţi and received special privileges. In 1418 the number of Armenian migrants in this area had reached 3000.
The European meeting point: Gherla or Armenopolis (Hayakaghak in Armenian).
The Armenians settled in Transylvania as early as the tenth to fourteenth centuries. According to Bishop Datev, the head of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Romania, the most important evidence of the existence of Armenians in Transylvania is the city of Armenopolis, founded in 1700 near the village of Gherla, where 3000 Armenian immigrants from Moldavia were settled on their own bought land. The Hungarians call this village Szamosújvár. Gherla was the Armenian center of Transylvania within Austria-Hungary and in Romania since 1918 (except for the years 1940-1944). The city architect was Alexis Alexanian, an Armenian from Rome invited by Armenian Bishop Oksentius Verzerian (Auxentius Varzarescu), who converted to Catholicism under certain circumstances and forced the local Armenians to do the same.
In 1997 a cooperation agreement was signed in the city between the Armenian associations of Hungary and Romania to ensure the revival and development of the Armenians in the region. A newspaper, “Ararat International,” was published with this purpose.
The Feast of St. Gregory of Illuminator, celebrated at the end of June, constitutes the day of congregation for local Armenians. In 2012, when Gherla became the sister city to the town of Ijevan in Armenia, the Mayor of Gherla, Sabo Marius Gregory, declared the Feast of St. Gregory the Illuminator to be the City Day, with the aim of developing tourism and international cooperation through the rich Armenian historical and cultural heritage of the city. The City Day became an international festival, which brings together the delegations of Gherla’s sister cities from France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, and Poland. Last year, Swiss experts restored the historic clock tower of the Armenian Holy Trinity Cathedral in Gherla. As Hamlet Gasparyan, the Armenian Ambassador to Romania told us, “Gherla became the European meeting place, and this is natural, because it has been a crossroads of nations, cultures, and traditions for centuries.”
The interest was so widespread that in 2014 the mass dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator in the Holy Trinity Armenian Catholic Cathedral of Gherla was broadcasted in its entirety by the Romanian TVR3, TVR-Cluj and TVR Plus TV channels. Romanian Armenian filmmaker Florin Kevorkian directed a documentary about Gherla-Armenopolis.
The Holy Trinity Armenian Catholic Cathedral of Gherla, built in 1795, keeps 424 books printed between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries; 254 of these are early printings. There are also some manuscripts. The Holy Solomon church of Gherla was built by Solomon and Asvadur Shimanians from 1723-1732. The Armenian museum of the Association of Gherla was restored in 2007. The History Museum of Gherla is located in the former building of the Armenian museum. In 2002 Ararat Publishing House from Bucharest published an album, “The Armenian culture and art in Gherla,” in Armenian and Romanian, where famous historians and scholars introduced the historical and cultural heritage of Gherla.
In the foreword of the book, the president of the Cluj-Napoca branch of the Union of Armenians in Romania, professor and artist Azaduhi Varduca-Horenian presented the characteristics of the local Armenians in a metaphoric way: “The Armenians of Transylvania could be compared with a bird having two different wings. One of them, the old one, abandoned the Armenian environment around eight centuries ago, and the other one is young and came here from his homeland in 1915 after the genocide. To ensure that the Armenian’s heart does not stop beating and the bird is able to fly, none of the wings should be wounded. Today, here, we try to keep the bird alive.”
The Armenian Catholic churches in Romanian territory are the following: Holy Trinity (Frumoasa, 1700), St. Solomon (Gherla, 1724), St. Mary (Gheorgheni, 1773), Holy Trinity Armenian Catholic Cathedral (Gherla, 1776), St. Elizabeth Armenian Catholic Cathedral (Dumbrăveni, 1850). In fact, the Armenians first established a bishopric in the city of Bistrița, which moved to Gherla in 1700. It is noteworthy that it was associated with the conversion of Transylvania. According to historian Nicolae Gazdovici, it took six years for a priest to convert 30,000 Armenians, both descendants of early settlers and newcomers, into Catholicism.
To my question about how the Catholic churches function, Bishop Datev answered: “We do not have catholic clergymen in Romania. But the church choirs learn some parts of the Armenian liturgy and sing them also in Hungarian and Romanian. The priest and the deacon do not sing, but the choir sings mostly in Armenian. I cannot tell the exact number of Catholics, but it exceeds several hundreds.”
Actually, the number is closer to 1,000, while others make claims of several dozens of thousands who prefer to present themselves as Hungarians.
Catholic Armenians in Gerla, Dumbrăveni, and surroundings are unified around the Union of Transylvanian Armenians, which is a member of the Union of Armenians in Romania. The Armenians in Gheorgheni and Frumoasa have separate unions.
Political analyst Ara Papyan, after his trip to Gherla, expressed his surprise that many people were proud to state that they are of Armenia descent, despite having no connections with Armenians for a long time and having been Magyarized or Romanized: “I think that the first factor is the pride of being Armenian. Armenians have been so respected and influential for centuries that even nowadays to be Armenian is perceived as belonging to a particular chosen class in this region. The second factor is Romania’s official policy. With the wish to weaken Hungarian influence in former Transylvania, the Romanian government encourages the emergence of “cracks” within the Hungarian-speaking and Catholic solid mass (1.8 million), and the return of national groups to their roots. The third factor is the existence of the Armenian statehood. As one Gherla Armenian said, ‘Now, I look at the map, I read the name Armenia and I know that it is there.”
Another Armenian city of Transylvania, Dumbrăveni, former Erzsébetváros (Yeghisapetopolis in Armenian), was built in 1733. Gherla and Dumbrăveni were declared free royal cities by imperial decree of 1799. Afterwards,the church of St. Elizabeth, one of the most beautiful Armenian churches of Transylvania, was built in Dumbrăveni. Events dedicated to the Armenians are organized there every year on August 15. According to Ioan Calinescu, the president of the Dumbrăveni branch of the Union of Armenians in Romania, “ Serving the liturgy in four languages, Hungarian, Romanian, German (the sermon), and Armenian (the chorus songs and Lord’s Prayer), is unique to our country. Armenians come here from all over Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Germany.”
The Armenian museum of Transylvania was opened on July 15, 2010 in Dumbrăveni, in the castle built in 1552 by the noble family of the Apafi. According to the “Nor Giank” (“New Life”) magazine, the decline of the community of Dumbrăveni began in the years of World War I and increased after World War II, when the population moved from the small town to the big cities.
A big flow of Armenians to Romania took place in 1453 and 1475, when the Turks captured Constantinople and the Crimea, respectively. In the seventeenthcentury, the conversion of Polish Armenians into Catholicism forced many people to move to Romanian areas – Moldova and Wallachia, but Armenians in Transylvania soon found themselves in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and not only adopted the Catholic faith, but also assimilated with the local population. Armenians moved from Moldova to Transylvania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to pressure and persecution. Though that did not last long, however, it divided the community. According to chroniclers, the number Romanian Armenians in medieval times was about 30,000. There were many families who even had coat of arms and family tombs in cemeteries.
The next big flow of Armenians began in the 1890s, especially after the genocide of 1915, when dozens of thousands of Armenians found refuge in Romania.
Cultural life flourished in all provinces of Romania where Armenians lived, along with trade and manufacturing. Armenians not only developed trade between the East and the West, but also promoted the development of the arts. They were known as shoemakers, leather workers, dressmakers, silversmiths, garment makers, and lace makers. For example, the Armenian Sirin was the leader of the tailors’ guild in Bucharest, and another Armenian called Papik was the leader of the bakers’ guild in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Armenian craftsmen established their own trade unions, called Breasla. All towns and villages with Armenian populations also had their own armed forces to defend the interests of their communities. The Armenians even had autonomy in the cities of Suceava, Vaslui, Siret, and Barlad, with internal government, court, and city council. As mentioned before, the Armenian cities of Transylvania were also self-governed.
A branch of Armenian General Benevolent Union functioned in Bucharest with 100 members from 1912-1913. Other branches of the Union were opened in the cities of Iaşi and Roman in the next few years.
According to the 2011 census, the number of Armenians is 2079. In fact, the number of Armenians and peoples of Armenian origin is greater, if we consider the Transylvanian Catholic Armenians, who during the census generally identify themselves as ethnic Hungarians or Hungarian-speakers, the number of Armenian or Armenians by origin varies from 5000-6000 to tens of thousands. The old Romanian Armenians or Romanian-speaking descendants of mixed marriages also identify themselves as ethnic Romanians.
The Union of Armenians in Romania and the new era of Varujans
After the Armenian genocide of 1915, Romania was one of the first countries that opened its doors to the Armenian migrants. In those years, there was need of a legal structure to prove the Armenian identity of these people. The Union of Armenians in Romania was created in 1918, but ceased to exist under the Communist regime. Following the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, by order of a member of the Diocesan Council, Sharan Kazarian, the editor of “Nor giank” newspaper, Sarkis Selian organized a meeting, which took place on February 7, 1990 in the Library Auditorium of Dudian CulturalCenter. Thus, the Union of Armenians in Romania (UAR) was created, with Varujan Vosganian elected as its first president.
Varujan Vosganian has been the president of UAR since 1990, as well as a member of the Senate of Romania and vice-president of the Romanian Writers’ Union. Fifty-six-year-old Senator Vosganian is not only an influential political figure, but also a well-known writer. His novel, “The Book of Whispers,” has been translated into many languages, including Armenian. The author himself worked on the Armenian version, which gives the work a value almost equal to the original. The novel, which depicts his family story, also speaks about the Armenian Genocide.
Varujan Vosganian presented the modern history of Romanian Armenians to us in the following way: “In the 1920s there were about 50-60000 Armenians in Romania. They were strong not only by their quantity, but also quality. There were also political parties. Half of the Cabinet of Ministers of the first Republic of Armenia were in Romania: Simon Vratzian, Drastamat Kanayan, and others. After the war, all parties stopped to operate and a front was set up, called “Shahumyan.” But in 1950 both the front and the school, which was functioning up to that date, were closed. Not a single Armenian organization functioned in Romania from 1950-1990. We remained Armenians and preserved our national identity only thanks to the Armenian Apostolic Church. During Communist times there were traitors, apostles, and martyrs, as it happens in such cases. Community elders realized that all the pains and contradictions they had gathered did not allow the community to be united, and then they decided to deliver the leadership of the community to the new generation. Thus, I was elected as the President of the Union, and Varujan Pambuccian was elected my deputy. We were 30 and 31 years old at that time. If they had followed the example of Romania in all socialist countries, many of our communities would function better.”
Then Varujan Vosganian created a Romanian political party, the right-wing Conservative Party, which joined the Liberal Party, and he was elected its vice president. Since those years Vosganian was elected member of the Parliament’s upper chamber, the Senate, being chairman of the Committee of Budget, Finance and Economy, and also chairman of the Committee of Finance and Foreign Trade during various years. In 2006-2008 he was Minister of Economy and Trade, then Minister of Economy and Finance, and in 2012-2013, Minister of Economy. While he worked as Finance Minister, he supported the restoration of Orthodox and Catholic churches.
The Armenian minority is represented in the Romanian Parliament by a well-known public and political figure, the vice-president of UAR Varujan Pambuccian, who has headed the parliamentary group of ethnic minorities for almost 20 years. Pambuccian is professor of the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Bucharest, a doctor of sciences and a well-known academic in Romania. From 2000-2008 he also headed the parliamentary committee on information technology and communication; he is the author of all legislative projects related to this sphere.
Varujan Pambuccian gives the following explanation on Romanians’ trust toward Armenians: “The confidence of the Romanian people toward our organization, the Union of Armenians, is interesting. I have got more votes in every election, 14000 to 24000, more votes than the number of Romanian Armenians. According to the last census, the number of Armenians is 2000. This means that many Romanians vote in our favor and trust us more than any other political party in Romania. It is a very good and positive attitude that has nothing to do with the recent revolution. Its roots go far back to the First World War, when the great Romanian country was established as the result of the unification of Transylvania and Romania. All the rights of the Armenians are enshrined in documents of those times.”
The role of both Varujans in the modern history of Romanian Armenians, indeed, is invaluable. Due to their work, Romanians talk about Armenians with respect.
The Union of Armenians in Romania (UAR) has 15 branches. The Armenians have a minority status, which ensures that the state funds the institutions, community, and church activities.
Varujan Pambuccian says that the Union of Armenians in Romania started to digitize the Romanian Armenian cultural heritage documents in 2010 to make them available online. This includes houses, music, photos, and movies. “Our goal is to turn all them into an electronic format that later researchers may easily access. There is another program associated with online learning, with distance learning by children gathered in one place following a teacher in another,” Pambuccian says.
This project, started in Gherla and Bucharest, later should be spread to Galaţi, Constanza, Suceava, Botoşani and Dumbrăveni.
The community has established relations with Armenia, and an active cultural scene has been established, including concerts, exhibitions, festivals, and lectures.
Schools, Armenian Education and Armenian Studies
The history of Armenian schooling in Romania also starts at the time of Armenian settlement. As early as in the fifteenth century, a monastic school functioned next to the Armenian Zamca Monastery in Suceava; a school also functioned next to the Armenian church of Iaşi in 1646. Schools were opened in Gherla and Dumbrăveni. In 1724 there was even a school for girls in Dumbrăveni. The first Armenian school in Bucharest was opened in 1800. Co-ed schools existed in areas with Armenian population. Four more schools had been opened up to the year 1939. These schools were closed in 1962. But already in 1841, under the leadership of Iacob Buiucliu, a community joint charter had been approved, and then the prince of Moldova, Mihail Sturdza, granted Armenian schools state status. Thus, their graduates had the right to continue their studies at the universities in the country and abroad.
Later, after the independence of Romania, a kindergarten and Sunday classes were opened thanks to the efforts of the UAR. Armenian Saturday classes operate in Bucharest, Piteşti, Constanza, Cluj since 1994, their expenses are covered by the state and they are accepted in the educational system. There is also a school with an Armenian teacher. Armenian language summer courses are organized in Suceava, Iaşi, and Sinaia.
According to Father Hetum from Pitești, there is the need to open a school for the community and teach Armenian. “Today, very few people speak Armenian. Only the older generation does. During the Soviet Union, they were cut off from their roots. In 1960-1970s there were two Armenian schools in Bucharest. At the time the Armenian diocese had dozen of thousands followers. We are working now to open an Armenian school in Bucharest.”
Today, three different age groups of children learn Armenian on Saturdays and Sundays in the Armenian cultural center in Bucharest. There is also a kindergarten, primary, and secondary classes. The teachers are also paid by the state.
During our visit to Bucharest, the “Luys” (“Light”) nursery club was opened next to the Diocese, where children spend a few hours in an Armenian environment. Bishop Datev commented on the importance of kindergarten: “The idea of the kindergarten came from the Ladies Guild. Working with children is important, because when they begin to learn in this age, then they can also easily follow the Armenian school. Even if they do not learn the language well, they will have Armenian friends and thus the longing for an Armenian milieu will be fulfilled. In Romania we have not been able to create an Armenian environment as there is in France or Holland, especially in big cities. At the same time, the children will learn Armenian culture, Armenian literature, Armenian language.”
Teacher Luiza Smith-Grigoryan considered the club an important initiative, taking into account that, while older children are attending classes, younger ones will attend the club, and parents will drink coffee and play backgammon in the cultural center.
Twenty children will attend the “Light” club. As Bella Martikyan, the head of “Vardavar” dance group and also an Armenian school and kindergarten teacher, says: “For children it is more difficult to adjust, but they learn Armenian at home. They need to speak Armenian, and especially children of mixed marriages should know Armenian history and culture. Armenian language lessons at school started at the age of 7, the club is for the smallest ones.”
Bella also heads the Armenian dance group of Bucharest. “Through the creation of an Armenian dance group, I aim to awake love in children toward the centuries-old Armenian culture. My pupils attend classes with great pleasure and enthusiasm,” she says.
On his side, Hamlet Gasparyan, the Ambassador of Armenia, although evaluating positively the efforts of Armenian institutions (UAR, Armenian Church), believes that the problem of Armenian identity preservation remains the same as in other communities. The danger of assimilation is great. For centuries, when the number of mixed marriages has increased, the number of Armenian speakers has decreased. The people that can speak and write in Armenian are mostly the representatives of the first and, partly, the second generation of Armenians, who settled in Romania after 1915, whose number is decreasing, as well as the small number of migrants from Armenia in mid-1990s. The new generation of young people – young people, teenagers and children (with the exception of those from Armenia) – almost do not speak and do not understand Armenian. From the old generation Armenians, sporadic Armenian-speaking has remained. Some of them – Catholic Transylvanian Armenians – have a triple identity: Hungarian-speaking, Romanian citizens of Armenian descent; are quite a unique mixture.
“The Armenian language has retreated so much,” the ambassador says, “that in order to make it more understandable, the sermons in the churches are delivered in Romanian or translated into Romanian, and in Transylvania they only use Hungarian. This decline is due to the antiquity of the Armenian community in Romania; mixed marriages; conversion of Armenians into Catholicism; mass emigration of Romanian Armenians to other countries after World War II; severance from the Armenian diaspora and homeland during the communist regime; disappearance of neighborhoods with much Armenian population and trade and commerce networks, and therefore its Armenian relations and professional life; and lack of necessary knowledge and use.”
“The Communist regime caused extensive damage to the community: closed unions and community organizations, seized community properties and assets, expropriated rich people who mostly fled the country, and restricted the activities of the church. The community is reduced, weakened, and isolated,” the Ambassador says. “Now times have changed; in this historical phase Armenians have the ability to determine the Armenian agenda independently for the first time. It is a chance, and includes hazards in itself.”
According to the Armenian Ambassador, the biggest challenge faced by Romanian Armenians is the preservation of Armenian identity through fidelity to the Armenian language, culture, and traditions, as well as consolidation of ties with Armenia and common sharing of all-Armenian issues.
For this aim many practical things were initiated in the last years. A memorandum signed between the Universities of Yerevan and Bucharest allowed Armenian language courses to start again at the University of Bucharest in 2011. In 2013 Dr. Aida Markosyan published an Armenian language textbook for Romanian speakers at the University of Bucharest, and Ulnia Belenaru Makanian, a textbook of Western Armenian. An agreement was also signed between the National Academies of Armenia and Romania. Every year 8-9 students continue their education in Romanian universities with state scholarships. According to the Ambassador, each year 1 or 2 scholarships should be allocated to historical and philological spheres, because there are favorable conditions to restore the good traditions of Armenian studies in Romania. The Romanian authorities are willing to meet Armenian programs and initiatives. One of the best examples was an international conference on the cultural heritage of Romanian Armenians, held in October 2013 in Bucharest, as well as the upcoming major exhibition at the National Museum of Romanian History in 2015.
2014 was a milestone in terms of preservation of Armenian identity with the establishment of the Armenian Studies Institute at the University of Babeş–Bolyai in the city of Cluj-Napoca at the beginning of the year. According to the director of the Armenian Studies Institute, Dr. Lucian Nastase-Kovacs, the mission of the institute is not only to research rich Armenian materials in Transylvania and throughout Romania, but also to develop scientific ties with Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and the Balkan countries, thus vying to become the center for Armenian studies in Central and Eastern Europe. For the next year, it is also planned to launch language courses at the University, which will be also available for free auditors.
By the initiative of the embassy, during the last two or three years friendly relations have been established between ten Armenia and Romania cities, which enables direct contacts through visits and exchanges to know each other’s language, culture, and lifestyle. A useful way for the preservation of Armenian identity is to send Romanian Armenian youth regularly to Armenia within the frame of the “Come Home” program.
“Identity protection is a daily struggle, because there is no one with whom you can speak Armenian,” Senator Vosganian states. “My wife is Romanian, my daughter, Armine, has little chance to speak Armenian. She attended the intensive summer course of Armenian language and culture, organized by Father Leon Zekiyan in Venice and speaks Armenian fluently, but she is an exception. Many can not keep Armenian roots.”
Armenians and Romanians
How Romanian Armenians are and what are their relations with Romanians? I have met no one in Romania who does not speak about the Armenians with love and respect. Perhaps one of the most characteristic evaluations has been given by Varujan Vosganian: “In Romania there is exclusively a favorable position toward Armenians. The Armenians are very respected not only as Christian, as we also have Catholic parishes in Transylvania, but because there is not one important moment in the history of Romania where you cannot find any Armenian. We had the Armenian princes who fought and died against the Turks for Romania, praying in Armenian before the fight. During the war in 1877, Osman Pasha, the Turkish army general, handed his sword to an Armenian named Cerkez. We had ministers and members of Parliament who opened schools. Gheorge Asaki was a well known name in pedagogy and education, Jacob Jacobovici and Ana Aslan in medicine, Vasile Conta in philosophy. Also today there are well- known academics, writers, doctors. Kevork Kimician is an excellent pharmacist. Surgeon Eskijian was well known: he has done 10 thousand brain surgeries. We have singers, writers, and brilliant actors. Here the Armenians are intellectuals, but we also have medium businessmen who are in trade, textiles, and construction. Although we are a few thousand, but the community is respected and influential.”
Recently we celebrated the 100th anniversary of famous physician, scientist and professor Grigor Pambuccian.
The acclaimed Romanian-Armenian translator and journalist Madeleine Karacasian characterizes community life in this way:
“Unfortunately, the newcomers from Armenia still do not integrate well with our existing community. Integration of new people will not take place if they do not learn the local language. But the young generation that are born here or are already 20-25 years old have a dance group, they have fun together, and follow Armenian language courses. They also participate in the programs of Armenia. The rest are children of mixed marriages. The new bishop brought liveliness for the revival of the community, gathering the youth, organizing pilgrimages to Suceava, and we hope the future will remain in the hands of the new generation. The Church is having a regenerative role in the community. The community also actively cooperates with the Embassy of Armenia.
The Romanians are always friendly with us; our two Varujans reached high positions. Some other people reached different levels of success,” says Mrs. Madeleine, who has introduced the best samples of Armenian literature in Romanian translation for decades.
Among famous Romanian-Armenians are writers and publicists Stefan Hagopian, Varujan Vosganian, Anais Nersesian, Bedros Horasangian, Vartan Arakelian, Paul Grigoriu, Paul Tumanian, Simion Tavitian, film sound engineer Anusavan Salamanian, who participated in over 100 films, film director and actor Florin Kevorkian, music critic Dumitru Avakian, translator, former diplomat Agop Bezerian and others.
From the field of contemporary art and music one can remember the names of the following Romanian Armenians: artists Ervant Nicogosian, Paruhi Tepelikian, Pavel Botezatu, Azaduhi Varduca-Horenian, Samvel Setrakian, architect Eduard Sagatelian, violinist Varujan Cozighian, famous jazzman Harry Tavitian, jazz musicians, composers, saxophonist and guitarist brothers Capriel and Garabed Dedeyans, opera singer, baritone Eduard Tumagian. Among the names of not a very far past we can mention well known sculptor Ioana Kassargian, graphic Cik Damadian, director Ion Sahighian, opera singer David Ohanesian, theater and literature figures Haig, Arsavir, Jenny Achterians, journalist Leon Kalustian, orientalist Agop Siruni.
The names of surgeon Mircea Vasile Ghemician, design engineer Jirair Ghiulbenghian, football coach Florin Halagian, businessman, philanthropist Agop Kirmizian are also known.
Jeweler Gevorg Martirosyan, originally from Aleppo, who has worked in Bucharest for 22 years, says that the Romanian Armenians have no problems, because they get good support from the government.
“The Romanian Armenians, as our deputy Pambuccian says, are not integrated in this state, because we all grew up together and have 1,000 years of history with the Romanians. We are brothers with Romanians,” he says. “The only problem is that the new generation leaves Romania.”
Well known TV commentator,journalist and historian, member of the Romanian Writers’ Union and UAR Vartan Arakelian had another experience in Romania. Like many others, he does not speak Armenian. “I cannot say that I am completely satisfied, I had difficulties in the Romanian milieu. When at age 12 I changed the school and went to gymnasium, the religion teacher in Costanza expelled me and a Turkish student from the class, saying that we are not Christians. The communists resolved the issue taking off religion from curricula. After graduating from college, I was working for the Romanian Communist Youth Union newspaper. As an Armenian, I have dedicated particular efforts to succeed. Since my youth I have had Romanian friends.” The Armenian friends have taught him who the Armenians are and what means being Armenian. His hardships forced him to enter the Armenian environment. “Ararat” publishing house refused to publish two of his books about great academician and writer Agop Siruni (who was convicted under the Communists and exiled to Siberia). The books have been published by a Romanian publishing house, which contributed to the fact that the Romanian Academy posthumously awarded Siruni the title of academician. Vartan Arakelian says that, given his personal experience, the difficulties can stimulate so people keep their Armenian identity.
“Romanian Armenians are largely integrated and even infected by Romanians’ sins, once were naturalized because of mixed marriages,” the Armenian intellectual continues.
“Taking into consideration today’s open world, the Armenians can socialize with the younger generation of Romanians,” he says. Yet, when he was a student, one of his professors suggested him to enter the literary criticism department of a literary newspaper, but asked him to change his name, because it is a difficult name.“Today there are not such questions. We have Armenian individuals who became famous through their own abilities. Under the Communists we could not even be able to talk about the Armenian community,” Vartan Arakelian recalls. This board member of UAR today also writes books and is making a film dedicated to the last 25 years of the transitional period in Romania.
Father Hetum of Piteşti says that the reason some Armenians left their roots was not only the Communist regime, but also the lack of clergy and intellectuals. “Unfortunately, this development was frustrated during the Romanian Communist leader Ceausescu. Only after the overthrow of the Romanian dictatorship the Armenians began to breath easily. Until 1968 the community was flourishing, there were a large number of well known Armenians. We owe to prominent intellectuals, and the leader of the diocese, Archbishop Hoosig Zohrabian, the preservation and development of the Armenian diocese. At the end of the 1960s the Romanian government decided that Armenians and Jews could leave the country, resulting in a big flow to America, and thus, the Armenian community decreased.”
Today the number of Armenians from Armenia has increased, reaching 300-400. “In Piteşti there are 2-3 families from Armenia. The integration is not easily done, but I cannot say that it is very difficult. After a while the mentalities of local Armenians and Armenians from Armenia will be assimilated,” the priest says.
A vivid evidence of it is the family of Ruzanna Varderesyan and Arthur Jaghinyan. They moved to Romania back in 1993. Ruzanna’s parents were immigrants from Romania. She was born in Yerevan, but her children already grew up in Bucharest. They have an excellent command of Armenian, Romanian and English. They worked day and night to ensure the best education for their children. “Our two sons were sent to a British International School. My son Hrant at age 12 won the grand prize of a theater festival. Today he is a recognized designer. With my husband, Arthur, we opened an Armenian restaurant, “Cilicia,” and even we bake a special cake named “Cilicia,” Ruzanna says.
“I am highly involved with the Romanian society. The Romanian is very soft, we have a very warm friendship with Romanian families. At the same time, I am not a European, I remain Armenian. I have not been in Armenia for almost 10 years, but I watch all TV programs and feel a desire to help my homeland,” says Ruzanna with an excited voice.
Dance teacher Bella has also mixed easily with the Romanian environment, but her colleague Luiza says that initially it was very difficult. And even though she has been living in Bucharest for 11 years, every year she goes to Armenia. The longing is overwhelmingly great.
Generally, it is both easy and difficult to write about the Armenians in Romania . As mentioned above, Bishop Datev highly appreciates the behavior of Romanians. In his opinion: “The Armenians are fully integrated in Romanian society. The Romanians are very friendly towards Armenians, we have a thousand years of history with them, and I feel myself in my elementhere. I have to say that I have never felt myself so close in other European countries as in Romania.”
The Ambassador to Romania for the past 4 years, Hamlet Gasparyan, also characterizes the Romanians as a tolerant and open people, that being the reason for the preservation of the Armenian identity despite the complicated historical times and regimes, despite the inevitable phenomena of assimilation. After the half-century Communist restrictions, the Armenians, along with other nations, had the status of minority with the rights deriving from it during the last quarter century, and now they have their representative in the Romanian parliament.
Romania was among the first countries to recognize Armenia ‘s independence on December 11, 1991, the first one outside Soviet territory. On December 17, 1991 a protocol was signed in Bucharest on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In turn, Armenia was one of the first countries of the former Soviet Union that opened its embassy in Bucharest on April 24, 1994. Former ambassadors of Armenia were the couple Gevorg and Karine Ghazinyan, and Yeghishe Sargsyan. Numerous mutual visits of the highest level took place; more than 40 bilateral agreements were signed. In order to foster the economic ties between Armenia and Romania, the Armenia-Romania intergovernmental commission was formed in 2000, developing an active cultural, educational, and scientific cooperation. The Romania-Armenia Commercial and Industrial Chamber and the Noradungian Foundation operate in Bucharest.
Armenian Bucharest and the Armenian media
The main Armenian institutions of Bucharest are located in the center of the capital. The Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel Armenian Apostolic Church is on Armeneasca Street, built from 1911-1915 by the joint project of architects Grigore Cerkez and Dimitrie Maimarolu. In fact, it is the miniature copy of Holy Echmiadzin Cathedral. It is the only Armenian church in the world that was consecrated in 1915, the year of the Armenian Genocide. As priest Ezra Bogdan (Asdvadzadurian) told us, at the time there were also two other churches under this church, one of which was built in the seventeenth century, in 1638, and the other one in the following years. Once this area was out of the city, but now the city has grown so much that the church is in the city center. The Armenian cemetery is located a little further, along with the chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
Around the church are located also the Diocese of the Armenian Eparchy and the Hovsep and Victoria Dudian Cultural Center, where there is a rich museum, built in the period 1940-1942, and the foundation of the library was laid in 1927 by scholar-orientalist Agop Siruni. He toured throughout the country to collect ritual objects, books, and manuscripts. Now there are fifteen thousand volumes of books stored in the library. There are also manuscripts and early printed books that are unique for their value. Twelve hundred of these books were published from 1512-1850. All the literature is digitized. This information was provided by the previous director of the library and museum, former employee of Matenadaran Arshaluys Paronyan, who is a teacher of the two-day school. Family trees of old Romanian Armenians are preserved in the Dudian Center.
In the neighboring building, the congregation, the headquarters of UAR, and La Armeni Culture Hall are located. The bust of General Andranik and a cross-stone monument in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide are erected in the yard. On April 24, 2002 a stone cross in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide was inaugurated in the Armenian cemetery of Bucharest.
In the UAR office building are also located the editorial offices of “ Ararat” and “Nor Giank” magazines, and “Ararat” publishing house, where nearly 25 books are published annually, including the two media. It has been nearly 25 years since the printing press was lent to Sirun Terzian, who is the vice president of UAR. According to her, about 200 books have been published here since 1975. They publish many translations, both Armenian authors into Romanian and vice versa. Among important publications are the Romanian translations of “40 days of Musa Dagh” by Franz Werfel, voluminous Armenian-Romanian and Romanian-Armenian dictionaries by Vartan Martayan, valuable books about Catholicos Vazgen I, Calouste Gulbenkian, William Saroyan, Hovhannes Tumanian, Avetik Isahakyan, and many other famous people. The publications also have the Internet website Araratonline.com in Romanian and English. Sometimes they include articles in Armenian. Over the last 100 years, more than fifty Armenian newspapers and periodicals were published in Romania.
Mihail Stepan-Gazazian, the editor of “Nor Giank” and “Ararat” magazines, says that “Ararat” magazine was published in 1925 with the sponsorship of Armenag Manisalian and the first editor was Vartan Mestucian. Until now, the first issue of the journal and the entire archive are kept at the editorial office. Mihail indicates that they continue these traditions. Since 1950, “Nor Giank” began to publish pages in Armenian. Of course, “Ararat” has more readers, being in Romanian, and it is published with a circulation of 1000 copies every month, while 600 copies of “Nor Giank” is being published bimonthly. The magazines are also funded by the UAR. They reflect not only the life of Romanian Armenians and community events, but also publish articles and interviews dedicated to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
“The Romanian Armenians are very well integrated into Romanian society. We have a very old community, but there was also assimilation. Communism was very harmful to our religious life. Today the Armenians have a great opportunity to keep their identity, because the government helps keeping the national culture. The coming of Armenians from Armenia was important for us,” the editor says.
The Armenian pages of “Nor Giank” are being prepared by Madeleine Der-Ghugasian and Vartan Martayan. The photographer is Mihail Gheorgiu.
Two more Armenian periodicals are published in Romania: “Armenia,” a Hungarian-language newspaper in Gherla, and “ Siamanto” magazine in Iaşi.
The Zambaccian Museum of Bucharest, which was opened in 1947 and reopened in 2008 is also famous. The museum contains one of Romania’s richest and most valuable art collections by Armenian art collector and critic Kricor Zambaccian (1889-1962). He donated his house to the Romanian state. Today, valuable works of modern Romanian and French painting are exhibited in the well equipped museum. Both Armenians and Romanians are proud of this museum.
Another important historical place is the inn of Romanian-Armenian diplomat and famous trader Manuc Bei–Emmanuel Mirzayan (1769-1817), nowadays Hanul Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) hotel in the old town. The original appearance of the inn has been almost completely preserved, even in a café menu there is an article about him and coffee named after him. Thus, Manuc Bei continues to bring an income. For his services and skills, he received the title of bei (bey) from the Turkish sultan and the title of prince of Moldova from the Russian court. Manuc Bei played a major role in the peace treaty between Russia and Turkey in 1812, which was signed at his inn in Bucharest. They say that the Turks would remain dissatisfied with the treaty and kept ill-heart against Manuc Bei. To avoid Turkish government reprisals, in 1813 Manuc Bei established himself in Chisinau and became a Russian subject. Manuc Bei made great services to the economic development of his hometown Rustchuk (now Ruse, in Bulgaria) and other cities in the Balkans. He linked the liberation of Armenia with Russia. He visited Armenia and gave material support to the churches of Echmiadzin, Mush, and other places, including Jerusalem. In 1817 he founded the first Armenian school near the Armenian church in Bucharest. Two Romanian villages are named after him. Among his properties is also the Manuc Bei homestead in Hîncești (now in Moldova), whose reparation is being conducted within the framework of a joint European project. Archaeological excavations are being carried there, as well as the restoration of the castle’s appearance and its equipment as a tourist center. Manuc Bei’s homestead in Hîncești is set to open on August 31, 2015.
In Romania there are Armenian museums also in Gherla, Dumbrăveni and Frumoasa, clubs and cultural centers in Gherla, Constanza, Cluj, and Bacău. Armenian dance groups operate in Bucharest , Constanza, Cluj, Iaşi and Pitești.
Sculptor Ioana Kassargian’s statue “Victoria” is placed in the Parliament building of Bucharest, considered the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon and built by dictator Ceausescu. The valuable collections of Hurmuz Aznavorian, Garbis Avachian, and Beatrice and Hrand Avakians are in the Museum of Collections in Bucharest.
The Armenian Diocese of Romania and the communities
The Armenian Diocese of Romania, founded in 1931, had belonged to the Patriarchate of Constantinople for the previous six centuries. It has been under the jurisdiction of the Holy See of Holy Echmiadzin over the past 90 years. Archbishop Hoosig Zohrabian headed the Armenian Diocese of Romania from 1921-1942, followed by Bishop Vazgen Baljian (Vazgen I, Catholicos of All Armenians) from 1943-1955 and Archbishop Dirair Mardigian from 1960-2010. After the latter’s death in 2010, Bishop Datev Hagopian was elected the 42nd head of the Armenian Diocese of Romania. Originally from Iraq, he had been the spiritual leader of the Armenians in Netherlands since 2004 and in November 2011 was ordained bishop in Holy Echmiadzin.
What is the current state of the Armenian Diocese of Romania, established in 1401 by a decree of Prince Alexander the Good of Moldavia. Bishop Datev speaks about his four years of spiritual guidance:
Bishop Datev Hagopian: “The most important thing that we did in these four years was the confirmation of the status of all properties of our diocese. Now we have the total picture of Armenian heritage in the territory of Romania: 12 parishes, 2 monasteries, 16 churches, 8 chapels, and 8 cemeteries. We moved all valuable pieces from the churches to the Museum in Bucharest, since it is safer there. We also collected the entire archive of the Diocese, which is no longer scattered in different cities, but stored in the Diocese. All documents in Romanian have been catalogued and now it is the turn of the Armenian documents: afterwards, they will be all digitized. Meanwhile, we renovated the Hagigadar Virgin Mary Armenian Monastery, completed the reconstruction of the church St. Mary the Virgin in Botoshani, and also repaired the church of Saint Simeon in Suceava. Daily masses are held only in 6 churches, while in others once a month or once every two weeks. We only have six priests and some of them supervise two or three parishes. No mass is offered in Hagigadar, as well as in Zamca Monastery. There are cities with no Armenians, but once a year we offer a mass in local churches and for non-Armenians.”
Bishop Datev continues: “In these years we have managed to gather the youth around the church and establish the Armenian Church Youth Organization. Although there are still difficulties related to our work, we hope that it will become even more lively in the future. We organize pilgrimages to the Armenian churches of Romania during the days of offerings, which helps Armenians be involved in these initiatives and learn about the Armenian churches in Romania. Previously they did not go from one city to another. The days of blessing offerings allow getting to know the Armenian churches of other cities and to know each other. Such contacts are very good. While I see Armenians coming from different places, local communities also revive. Otherwise, there was disappointment in the diocese. Many feel that the community is reaching its end, yet such initiatives show that community life has and should continue its mission. Romania was an aging community, but the flow of people from Armenia brought liveliness to it. Frankly speaking, the newcomers from Armenia give strength to the old community. The old community was also weary that the migrants from Armenia would come and take charge. But they are also Armenians, aren’t they? Besides, for centuries, the newcomers always took power from the older settlers. The newcomers always come “armed” with culture, language, dances, and songs. This is a normal condition. Although that relationship is not warm in Romania, but is in good condition. By the way, the relationship between generations is much better among the young people than among the elderly. The Romanian-Armenian youth do not care where the newcomer youth is from, so their communication is easier.”
During my visit in Romania I met other religious pastors serving in different communities.
The spiritual leader of the Armenian community in Constanța, Father Oshakan Khachatryan, came to Romania from Armenia. Since May 2012 he is the spiritual leader of the Dobruja region and of Constanța, serving in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin of Constanța.
“The Armenian community of Constanța is very old, the Armenians came and settled here mostly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As attested by Agop Siruni, Constanța Armenians even had a small church. However, the primitive church, built in 1864, was destroyed by fire. In 1880, when the community had grown, the municipality allocated a piece of land on the shore to the Armenians to build a church and school. In the same year, the St. Mary the Virgin wooden church was built, and a school followed in 1898. This church was burnt as well in 1940 and Armenians did not build a new church. Then, the second floor of the school hall was turned into a church and has been used until now. In 1990 a steeple was added to the church. There are about 300 Armenians in Constanța (140 families), while at one time the number of Armenians was about four to five thousands. Many repatriated to Armenia in the 1940s and many departed to the United States and Canada in the 1960s.
The Armenians are engaged in business, and there are artisans, professors, writers, photographers. They are mostly educated. For example, Mikayel Grigoryan teaches natural sciences at Ovidius University of Constanța. Areknaz Tatosian is also a lecturer. Magardici Elluchian is a businessman, and his transportation company has offices in several cities. He says that the majority of young Armenian have higher education. The UAR has its branch in Constanța, chaired by Hacik Garabed.
The Armenian school was closed, and Armenian classes have been taking place in the church on Sundays during the last year. In the past, this school had about 200 pupils. We also have a choir, “Zvartnots,” which besides its participation in the liturgy, also perform popular songs. The choir is led by the priest’s wife, Armine Khachatryan. She is a ngraduate of the Yerevan Conservatory and deals with children’s education, teaching song and dance.”
To my question about how much the Constanța Armenians maintain their Armenian identity, priest Oshakan answers: “They are very well integrated. The Armenian spirit is preserved in the elderly people, and this is the most Armenian-speaking community after Bucharest. Not everyone reads and writes, but the senior and middle generations all speak Armenian. We have a problem with children and young people, whom we gather in the church to attend the Armenian classes.
The UAR sponsors the youth to go to Venice and participate in the intensive summer course of Armenian language and culture, organized by “Padus-Araxes” Association and Ca’ Foscari University. There are lots of mixed marriages between Armenians and Romanians. The new generation is already half Armenian. This is an aging community, the young people mainly go to Bucharest. Most Armenians receive higher education. There is a young man from Constanța, Liviu Merdinian, who is a member of a political party and may be useful for the community when it is needed.
Every year, from October 10-12, Armenian culture days are held in Constanța, and we celebrate the pilgrimage day. Pilgrims come from different regions of Romania to make their offerings and cultural events are organized. Arshaluys Sargsyan’s book was recently launched.
Once in a month I also conduct mass in St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in the city of Tulcea, 120 kilometers from Constanța. This church was built in 1882. Here too there are not that many Armenians, only 30 families. We try to get more Armenians to the church, especially families from Armenia, who are not fully integrated into our community.
The spiritual leader of Iaşi Armenians, Krikor Radu Holca, says: “Today there are 80 Armenians in Iaşi, but most of them do not know Armenian. This is a historic community. In 1608 there were 200 Armenian households here; today their number has decreased and the majority of the community is composed of elderly people. The magnificent St. Mary the Virgin church of Iaşi, built in 1395, was renovated thanks to the Romanian government, our former Minister Varujan Vosganian, and Parish Council member Dr. Zareh Nazarian, and consecrated by His Holiness Karekin II.
The Holy Trinity church of Botoşani was built in 1350 and is the oldest Armenian church in Europe. On August 15, 2014 Bishop Datev consecrated the church and an adjacent museum was opened. St. Mary the Virgin Church, built in 1526, and Holy Annunciation Chapel, built in 1884, are also in Botoşani.
Father Krikor says that many Armenian churches in Romania are called St. Mary the Virgin. Armenians in Iaşi are partly retired people; some of them were university professors, school teachers, doctors, merchants. Five young people have stayed in Iaşi, where they study and participate in the liturgy on Sundays. Three girls from Armenia, who study at Iaşi University through the Erasmus Program, also join them. Last year there were eleven Armenian students.
By the way, Iaşi is also well known by as the first Armenian printing house of Romania, “Aramian,” was opened here in 1847 with the support of the great pioneer of Moldovan culture, Gheorghe Asaki. It actually was a branch of Asaki’s large publishing house, Institutul Albinei. In the same year, the first Armenian book in Romania was published, a 32-page book, titled “A Key for Reading the Armenian Letters, which is an ABC-book and a Primer of Armenian Language. First Printing. Iaşi, in 1847.” Although the author is not mentioned, it is believed that the first book was prepared for printing by the superintendent of Armenian schools, Hachig Karakaş. The next book, published in 1850, was a prayerbook. The printing house was closed twenty years later, according to historian Agop Siruni.
The Armenian Gospel of Kaffa, copied in 1351, was also kept in this church for many years and now it is at the Museum of the Dudian cultural center of Bucharest.
Iaşi also was the Armenian religious headquarters, starting in 1565. Its large Armenian cemetery also contains a chapel, built in 1881. The head of the Iaşi branch of the UAR is Maricel Agop.
The spiritual leader of Armenians in Focşani is Romanian-born Archpriest Avedis Mandalian, who has served in the church since 1978. He was ordained priest by His Holiness Vazgen I. His grandfather was the priest of Suceava monastery, and his cousin, Father Torkom Mandalian, is currently the priest of that church.
This city was first mentioned in 1543, in a letter by Armenian merchant Vartan Fokshants. In 1575-76 Ioan Voda cel Cumplit (John III the Terrible) or Ioan Armeanul (John the Armenian) attacked this border town. There are two Armenian churches in Focşani: St. George, built with Armenian support in 1710-1715, and St. Holy Virgin Mary, built in 1780. Currently, only six or seven Armenians live in this city, all elderly people. The chairman of the Parish Council is Constantin Kurkutian. These two churches are now being used by Romanians because there are no Armenians. The St. George church was renovated by the Romanian government. The Armenian-language mass was officiated by Bishop Datev in February 2013, after 70 years of interruption.
“I do not have big dreams about the community. It is impossible to develop it. With regard to our churches, we must take them in our hands, repair them and have them only used by us. I know Romanian very well and many more Romanians will come to our liturgies. I can officiate mass at any time. The Romanians receive us with much pleasure,” Archpriest Avedis says.
Interestingly, when I entered St. Mary the Virgin Armenian Church in Focşani with the head of the Armenian Diocese, Bishop Datev, the church bells began to ring. It turns out that, when the Romanian priests learned that an Armenian bishop was coming, they had the bells ring as a sign of respect at the time of his entrance to the church. This is a very symbolic and sensitive phenomenon, and an exciting tradition.
The St. Mary the Virgin Church in the town of Roman was founded in 1609 and consecrated 400 years ago. It has been also given to the Romanian Church for usage. Not too far from there stands the big building of the Armenian school, which was unfortunately closed a long time ago and remains inactive.
Suceava- Every Armenian should make a pilgrimage to Hagigadar Monastery at least once.
In Suceava we were met by Father Torkom Mandalian, pastor of Hagigadar and Zamca monasteries, who led us to the sanctuaries.
He remarked that today 66 Armenian families live in Suceava, a city with about 120,000 residents. Part of them are already children of mixed marriages. Previously, the number of Armenian households here reached 3,000. The Haci family opened an elementary school in 1824, and an orphanage was opened much later to provide accommodation for children who survived the 1915 genocide. The 190th anniversary of the school was celebrated in 2014 and an exhibition was opened at the school building. The school was closed under the Communist regime. It is sad to see that the school doors are closed. Dr. Joan Poit, from the Suceava branch of the UAR, states that they only have 20-30 members.
The famous Hagigadar Monastery, built in 1512 by Donavac (Donavachian) brothers, is in Suceava. The church of St. Mary the Virgin is in the middle of the monastery, with a dominant position on the surroundings. There are interesting stories connected to this monastery that are impossible to cover in one article.
One can see pilgrims at the foot who go up to the Hagigadar monastery on their knees, praying, lighting candles in different parts of the hill, on their way to the monastery. They light candles on the cross-stone and in the place for candle lighting, turn around the church twice on their knees and then enter. I have never seen anything like this anywhere in the world.
As Romanian Armenian Ekaterina Rusu has characterized it, “Going up on knees until the Hagigadar monastery church is an expression of gratitude towards the Virgin Mary for fulfilling one’s present and future desires. We take our children with us to pass on our faith and heritage to the new generation.” Moreover, according to another tradition, the Romanians, coming to the monastery, try to touch anything belonging to Armenians, suggesting that success is being transmitted from God through such touch. They write their wishes on the paper and throw it into the church donation box along with money. Priest Torkom reads all their wishes during the services or offerings. Although the church is small, it is filled with mystery. Several icons in particular have specific impact on viewers.
The Hagigadar monastery is famous for its miracles. Many testimonies of healing and miracles are associated with the history of the monastery. A few years ago, in 2012, a big pilgrimage was organized on the 500th anniversary of the church and consecrated by His Holiness Catholicos Garegin II. On this occasion, the monastery was overhauled by the donation of American Armenians Hagop and Ica Kouyoumdjians. Bishop Datev’s dream is for monastic life to begin here anew. On the 500th anniversary of the Hagigadar Monastery, Haypost (Armenian Postal Service) and Romanian Philately jointly issued a stamp.
The most precious memory connected to the Monastery is when Romanian Armenian diocesan teacher Garabed Baljian (future Catholicos Vazgen I), after being ordained priest on September 30, 1943, came to Hagigadar monastery and spent 40 days here. He wrote in the pilgrimage journal of Hagigadar: “A new life begins for me today, a life that will be offered to our church and our community. Let God be with me.”
The great pilgrimages of Hagigadar are made four times a year: on Red Sunday, Vardavar, Joachim and Anna holidays, and the Feast of the Assumption of Virgin Mary. The last one was considered to be the main pilgrimage. The pilgrims even had pilgrimage songs. One of these songs says:
Holy Hagigadar, merciful Mother,
Open the door of mercy to us,
Give ill people health,
Give the pilgrims assistance.
Hagigadar Monastery may be considered the third place of pilgrimage after the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and Jerusalem that every Christian Armenian should visit to fulfill his covenant.
Suceava is also well known for being the only city in Europe where six churches and two monasteries were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some streets bear Armenian names, and one of the central streets is called Armeneska. A number of local shops, houses, and hotels that belonged to local Armenians are preserved here.
The other monastery of Suceava is Zamca, surrounded by green, with walnut trees inside the monastery. Father Torkom offers walnuts that are very tasty. Then he begins to tell the history of the monastery. Zamca is the largest Armenian monastery in Romania.Zamca means fortress, castle (zamek) in Polish. In the colophon of a manuscript of 1663, Zamca is called a famous cathedral. It was a center of Armenian spiritual leadership. Zamca looks like an impregnable fortress; when inside, one has the feeling, of having moved to the Middle Ages and being in such a spiritual environment that is truly different from other monasteries. The bishop directs us to go up to one of the facilities, still in need of repair, and to look at the surroundings. In the monastery of Zamca there is a belfry tower, located on the second floor of the chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator, with the other belfry tower on top of it. The monastery is composed of the church of St. Auxentius, the monastic residence, and the prelacy; the chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin is located on the second floor of the latter. Zamca was renovated by the Romanian authorities. The monastery also included the chapel of St. James, which no longer exists today.
The Holy Cross Armenian Church is also is Suceava, situated on Armenesca (Armenian) Street. Built in 1521, it is used by the Romanian Orthodox Church. The Red Tower is also here. Of course, we have mixed emotions when we enter the church with a status of a guest. Father Torkom works in St. Simeon church, built in 1513.
In 1902 the Pruncu chapel was built on the site of the Armenian cemetery.
There are also Armenian churches in Târgu Ocna (St. Mary the Virgin, 1825), Galats (St. Mary the Virgin, 1858) and Brăila (St. Mary the Virgin 1872).
Father Hetum Tarverdyan is not only the pastor of Pitești, but also the secretary of the Romanian Armenian Diocese. He was born in Yerevan, he studied and was ordained in Holy Echmiadzin. He has served at the Armenian Diocese of Romania since 2013. He has learned Romanian in one and a half years.
On my request, he introduces the Pitești Armenians. “The Armenians established themselves in this city 160 years ago. It is one of the small Romanian-Armenian communities formed in the late 1800s. The only church, St. John the Baptist, was founded in 1852, but consecrated by Bishop Khoren in 1882. Although there have not been a large number of Armenians, they played a major role in the public life of Pitești. Today, they are distinguished by their role and social activism. There are outstanding representatives: doctors, architects, lawyers. One of the most famous Armenians is dentist Ines Budan-Behian, born in Bucharest, who has lived in Pitești for 25 years. The family of lawyer Arax Elukian is also known. The Aslanian (Aslan) family is also famous; they came after the Hamidian massacres in the 1890s and built the church of Pitești. The Armenians were not only gathered in Pitești, but in the entire Argeș County, whose name comes from the Armenian historical name of Archesh. Here is the historical monastery of Curtea de Argeş (Archesh gateway), built by masters from Van. The town of Câmpulung (Long Field), 35 km away from Pitești, is where the Kazarian family lives; Kazarian is a famous architect and has a great reputation not only in the town, but also in the whole of Romania. The Armenians have made a great contribution to the development of the Romanian public administration. One can already guess from the names of the cities that the Armenians have built these cities, along with the Romanians.”
On September 26, 2014 the central park of Pitești was crowded. Diocese Bishop Datev Hagopian inaugurated a cross stone dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Armenian Genocide, which is a copy of one of New Julfa’s cross stones, sculpted by Artak Hambardzumyan.
The inauguration ceremony followed the opening of a photo exhibition dedicated to the Armenians at Pitești City Hall. One of the oldest Armenians of Pitești, 86-years-old mathematician Antranig Minassian, was present. Unfortunately, almost none speak Armenian amongst the old generation and most of them have never been to Armenia.
The Armenian Genocide issue in Romania
Back in the early 1920s, Romania was among the first European countries that officially granted asylum to Armenian refugees. Romania was also among the signatories of the Treaty of Sevres. In 1920 the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Armenia opened in Bucharest and operated up to the 1930s, serving to the needs of Armenian immigrants. In terms of public, there is no problem regarding the Armenian Genocide in Romania. The issue is openly written and spoken throughout the press, television, radio, and public forums.
In 2011 a debate on the Armenian Genocide, with the participation of historians Taner Akçam and Raymond HaroutiounKévorkian, was organized at the Academy of Economics of Bucharest. Former Romanian president Ion Iliescu was among the audience. The same subject was presented by Hayk Demoyan, director of the Armenian Genocide museum-institute of Yerevan in 2012 at Bucharest University. Every year, Senator Varujan Vosganian and Deputy Varujan Pambuccian make declarations condemning the Armenian Genocide at the upper and lower houses of the Romanian Parliament. In the Romanian capital and other cities demonstrations and events dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide are organized, and interviews and programs are presented in the press and television. It is no coincidence that Varujan Vosganian’s novel, “The Book of Whispers,” one of the most notable works of today about the Armenian Genocide, was written here. A film based on the book, “When Death is Delayed to Protect Himself,” has been released. Another Romanian film, “Strunka,” tells about the fate of about 200 children victims of the 1915 genocide who found asylum in Romania.
Sarkis Selian wrote “The History of the Ignored Genocide” and Christina Popa defended a dissertation in 2008 about the fact that academic circles were also aware of the issue. In September 2014 the Romanian Armenian Diocese sponsored an international conference dedicated to the First World War and Armenian Genocide, with participation of famous historians and scholars from Armenia, Romania and Diaspora, as well as Armenian Cause activists and journalists. Bishop Datev has sponsored the publication of a number of books in Romanian about the Armenian Genocide.
But it is a fact that, despite the openness about the issue of the Armenian Genocide, Romania has not recognized the Armenian Genocide until now, and statues of Ataturk and Heydar Aliyev have been erected in Bucharest, which shows the level of Turkish and Azerbaijani influence.
A three-member committee, headed by Reverend Father Ezras Bogdan, was established in 2014 under the supervision of the Armenian National Committee of Europe. “It is difficult to work for us so far, because we do not have any experience and there has not been any national organization here after the revolution. Let’s hope that we will register the National Committee Organization. We meet young people and discuss our future plans,” he says.
The Future of the Community: The Youth and Strada Armeneasca Festival
Most of the Romanian Armenian youth have higher education. Many try to study or work outside Romania. But there are also many gifted young people who have alreadt distinguished themselves in their professions, as well as in community organizational issues. While the children of early Romanian Armenians are more easily assimilated and hardly attend Armenian events, the children of people from Armenia show greater activity and initiatives. Modern technology and the Internet are used for this purpose. Their environment is required for consolidation. The church and youth organizations organize various events with this aim.
The biggest event in the past years for Romanian Armenians has been the festival Strada Armenasca (Armenian street). The organization and running of this festival became the cultural business card of the Romanian Armenians. Already in its second year, in the beginning of August the Armenian street next to the Prelacy is closed for three days and outdoor concerts are held in Cartierul Armenesc. Armenian songs and dances soar, mixed with musical performances of other nations: Greeks, Roma, Jews. Jewelers and silversmiths sell their works, artists draw Armenian paintings, and the aromas of Armenian dishes spread across the street. The street seems to regain the breath and rhythm of old days…
The municipality of Bucharest has also promoted the program of the UAR and the Romanian Armenian Youth Union. Romanian media have broadcasted special releases and advertisements, screened online via streaming. The skillful organisation of the ceremony by MP Varujan Pambuccian and designer Hrant Jaghinyan has ensured the success of the three-day festival and sympathy towards Armenians. Varujan Pambuccian hopes that this idea of the festival will also infect Armenians in Paris in the next few years and in a short time such festivals will be organized in other European cities as well. Varujan Vosganian said that next year similar festivals will be organized throughout the country. “Romania will become a huge Armenian Street, where Armenians, Romanians, and others will rejoice together.”
Bucharest theater students staged excerpts from the novel “The Book of Whispers,” and films with motives of “Armenopolis” and “The Book of Whispers” were screened at the Armenian cultural center. The works of prominent Romanian Armenian graphic artist Cik Damadian and “The Armenians Next to Us” photographic series of Andrei Tănase were exposed at the churchyard. The Armenian museum opened its doors in front of hundred of visitors. The “Ararat” publishing house of Bucharest delivered about 3000 books to festival participants for free. The same day a live TV bridge was established from Bucharest with the Armenian street festival in London.
“The Armenian street is becoming a meeting point of cultures and nations, a symbol of friendship between peoples,” Ambassador Gasparyan says.
One of the active coordinators of the festival, Hrant Jaghinyan, told us: “We are integrated in Romanian society, being one of the oldest minorities. Besides the fact that we teach our compatriots, we also participate in projects organized by the Romanian government, and, for example, the Armenian street festival is mainly aimed at Romanians in order to show what kind of culture we have and what a great role the Armenians have played in the life of the Romanian people, in different spheres.”
The Romanian Armenians also involve representatives of other minorities in their events, as well as Romanian and foreign celebrities, as it was done in Gherla and Dumbrăveni, Cluj, Iaşi, Constanța, Botoşani, Bacau, Gheorgheni. As Vahe Hovakimyan, chairman of the Armenian Youth Union, says, the Armenian street festival is their biggest program, which had 12,000 Romanian participants in 2013 and 22,000 in 2014.
Vahe Hovakimyan moved to Romania in 1993. His family opened the hotel “Noah‘s Ark” in the town of Sinai. He studied at the Melkonian College in Cyprus, then at the University of Bucharest.
Vahe presents their actions. “Our organization was formed with two branches: Armenian community young people and Armenian young people devoted to the Church. In 2011 Bishop Datev suggested we mobilize the youth and organize a camp for a Hagigadar pilgrimage. From that day, every year we go on pilgrimage during the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” he says.
“After the camp, 86 young people gathered for the first time from different cities of Romania and we got to know each other and made friends. A committee was elected, I am the chairman. We developed a variety of programs. In the town of Sinai we organized a winter school of Language and Literature. For a week, 36 young Armenians gathered and familiarized themselves with the elements of the Armenian language. Then we organized a festival of Armenian food and art in Shrovetide. In 2012 we also organized for the first time the Armenian Culture Days at the Village Museum (Muzeul Satului) in Bucharest.
To my question “How do you imagine the future of youth?,” Vahe Hovakimian answers: “It is a difficult question. I do try, but whether it works, I do not know. Romanian Armenian youth is being assimilated. I see it in my family. My maternal grandparents fled the genocide and established themselves in Romania, then they decided to immigrate to Armenia, after we came back to Romania. All my grandparents have passed through all that. I have 7 cousins here and there have already been mixed marriages amongst them. I was lucky, I married an Armenian girl. But not everyone has that opportunity. How much Armenian spirit you have, no matter how much you may think that you are an Armenian, if you do not speak the language, then you can not remain Armenian. You are being assimilated. This is my opinion. If there are two things that connect us to our nation, they are language and faith. I can see it in our youth. I try to make Armenian language courses. There is a Sunday school here, but not many attend. I have personally developed a program of teaching, there are means, there is a teacher, but young people do not come. If they learn Armenian, at least 50 percent of them will come. If they do not speak Armenian, then they will not participate. Everything depends on learning. A new approach is needed in community, compromise must be made between all parties,” says Vahe.
The number of Armenians in the last census was 2200, but the total number of assimilated Armenians may reach up to 5000. Whereas the most active are 400-500 people, amongst those there are only about 100-110 young people. The number of active young people is 40-50, but only 20-25 of them speak Armenian.
Hrant Jaghinyan, 23, is also actively involved in youth affairs.
He is the Vice President of the Armenian Youth Federation of Romania. He was 4 years old when his family came to Romania. He graduated from the Faculty of Design of Bucharest University and practices his profession. He helps at the Diocese with the designing of works.
“Because this is an old community, many have lost their language or married Romanians, and only grandmothers and grandfathers speak Armenian at home. They lost the Armenian spirit that we young people have. We would like to convey them that spirit. We organize various meetings, discussions and camps for youth to be able to pass our love toward the Armenian nation and culture. We participate actively in the events of the Ministry of Diaspora of Armenia (“Come Home,” “My Armenia” dance festival) and the Armenian language course in Venice. In addition to the Armenian Street festival, we organize cultural days. Recently, we opened an Armenian photo exhibition. We exposed the sights of Armenia in one of the cafes and told the Romanians about them. We try to represent our culture on every occasion. The main problem is the language and the Armenian soul, which is missing among many people. It has been washed for years and passed…”
Varujan Vosganian gives a serious definition on Armenians in Europe: “In Europe, the Armenians need to develop their thinking and become European. The majority of Armenians in Europe are newcomers who are more concerned about their personal lives, their families, their future, than community life. We need to build bridges between communities and accomplish it through established individuals. The worst part for us is that we move away from our roots. We must keep the identity, nature, language, culture, history, our values. For that we should have fundamental disposition: schools and cultural heritage.
Traditional Armenian communities, such as the Romanian, Polish, French, and Greek, should use our heritage and democratize so the rest of Europe knows and accepts us as a unified civilization and nation. In the fifth century we created a brilliant civilization, while Europe, except the Mediterranean coast, was backwards. Therefore, Europe should respect us as one of the deep sources of new European civilization.”
The Romanian Armenian community is impacted negatively because youth in Eastern Europe do not remain in Romania, and there is a huge outflow to the United States, Canada, or to more developed European countries.
In today’s conditions of globalization, our traditional concept of preservation of national identity needs to be changed definitely. This is the opinion of Bishop Datev. Traditionally it was based on emphasizing of features and a principle of living isolated to avoid assimilation. “Today, however, the universal element that unites the peoples of the countries where they live should be emphasized, so the national features do not seem insulating factors, but the national identity be observed as a path that leads to the national traditions and values of given countries,” the spiritual leader of Armenians in Romania says.
For those who are fond of traveling, Romania and its Armenian historical monuments and churches are the best way to learn about the culture of Armenians in Europe, to feel the Armenian breath and spirit of yore. Romanian Armenians live their season of reawakening. Armenians are optimistic, which helps to overcome all difficulties.