New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
The Association of Greek American Professional Women (AGAPW) has initiated a celebration named “Mothers of Greek Descent”. Dr. Marina Mkhitaryan’s exhibition of ethnographic photographic and her presentation titled “Greeks of Armenia” presented at the Greek Consulate on May 5 dedicated to the memory of her Pontic mother and to all Greek mothers, was a moving inauguration of what will be an anticipated annual event featuring the work of artists and other professionals inspired by and dedicated to Greek mothers and mothers of the Greek Diaspora. Greek Armenian women, she said in her lecture, are devoted citizens of their homeland, their families and communities, and they play a great role they play in preserving and honoring the traditions of their ancestors.
The Greek Armenian Dr. Mkhitaryan, born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia to an Armenian father and a Pontic Greek mother (Nina Lazareva (Lazaridou), born in the village of Madan, in northern Armenia in 1931), has devoted three years to extensive historical and photographic research on the Greek community in Armenia, one of the most famous members of that community being the mystic and spiritual teacher, George Gurjieff (Γεώργιος Γεωργιάδης), who was born to a Greek father and Armenian mother ca 1866 in what is now Gyumri (Alexandropol), Armenia, and his cousin, the Soviet sculptor of Greek origin Sergei Merkurov.
The “Greeks of Armenia” exhibit, which includes images of almost all the Greek settlements of Armenia, is a collection of archival family photos and Dr. Mkhitaryan’s own photographs of Greek Armenians in their homes, communities and classrooms where the Greek language is being taught. The photographs record the community’s rich history and accomplishments, its contributions to Armenia, its continuous efforts to preserve the Greek language and culture, and to connect to the Greek patrida.
Curated by Greek American photographer of Pontian descent, Eleftherios Kostans, The “Greeks of Armenia” exhibit is on view at the Consulate until May 16.
The conclusion of Dr. Mkhitaryan’s lecture, which covered much historical and social ground, gave verbal form to feelings strongly conveyed throughout: pride in and love for Greek tradition and her wish for its continuation in Armenia, where the Greek language is taught at the Yerevan State University, at the Yerevan State University of Foreign Languages, at two schools in schools Yerevan, and also at the Greek Community Centers of Armenia.
“Armenia has been a hospitable home for generations of Greeks, a country where they could thrive as a community, practice their religion, study the language of their ancestors and contribute back to the Armenian society… it would be nice to conclude with a wish for collaboration between Greek Armenians and Greek Americans.”
At the start, to the singular, spellbinding sound of the Pontic lyra, played by Demtris Stephanides of the Pontian Society “Komninoi” (the flavor of Pontos was further conveyed after the lecture by the actual flavors of traditional Pontian mezedes prepared by the Women of the Pontian Society “Pontos”, of Norwalk, CT), Consul General of Greece in New York, Ambassador Aghi Balta welcomed the guests–spotlighting Consul General of Cyprus, Koula Sophianou–and Dr. Mkhitaryan, saying, “We are here tonight to enjoy an exhibition from faraway Armenia, which although it is far in distance is close to our hearts, because a large population of Hellenes lived, and continues to live there. It is a special honor to welcome Marina, a Greek lady from Armenia who wished to document the Hellenic population of her country and to bring this history here for us to take pleasure in.”
Ambassador Balta also took the opportunity to introduce Olga Alexakos, founder of AGAPW and “the inspiration behind this exhibition and presentation and the inspiration behind the organization AGAPW–a society for women in New York which Ms. Alexakos brought together selflessly for the promotion of all things Hellenic.”
Dr. Mkhitaryan also expressed gratitude to Ambassador Balta for her great leadership, and to AGAPW– particularly Olga Alexakos–to its Board of Directors, to Dr. Virginia Davis, to The Pan-Pontian Federation of USA and Canada and its president, Mr. Demetrios Molohides, the Pontian Society of Norwalk CT, Pontos and its president Mr. George Tsilfidis, to Vasiliki Tsanaktsidou and the women’s division, and all others who contributed to make the event for “their tireless efforts to organize and make possible my travel to New York, and for this exhibition to become a reality.”
Dr. Mkhitaryan began by explaining the motive behind her Greeks of Armenia project, which, it seemed, had it beginning in 1996, when, as a postdoctoral student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, she received the sorrowful news that her mother–whose 80th birthday will be commemorated this September–had died. Many years later she transferred these memories and feelings of love for her mother into the “study of the history, traditions, customs, and ways of life of Pontian Greeks living in Armenia,” visiting all the Greek settlements of Armenia and creating a vast ethnographic photographic collection that is “documentary evidence of the various aspects of their life and history.” The exhibit first opened in November 2009 at the Greek Consulate of Greece in Yerevan, where it is still on view.
How many Greeks in Armenia are we talking about? According to the public census of 2001 there are 1176 Greeks living in towns and villages of Armenia, such as Yerevan, Hrazdan, Etchmiadzin, Stepanavan, Vanadzor, Alaverdy, Gyumry, Akhtala, Yaghdan, Koghes, Madan, Shamlugh, Hankavan etc., said Dr. Mkhitaryan, contrasting that with the public census count of 4,650 in1989, “… the majority of these residents left the country after the collapse of the former USSR, and moved to Greece, the US, Russia, etc.”
Quoting from the notes of Greek First Lady May Papoulia, at the Museum-Institute of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan in 2008, which read ”Once again I felt the deep roots uniting the Armenian and Greek people,” Dr. Mkhitaryan described the Day of Commemoration of the victims of Pontic Greek Genocide on May 19 every year, when the representatives of the Greek Embassy in Yerevan, the Greek Community of Armenia, Armenian officials, and many ethnic Armenians visit the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Also the Day of Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, on April 24, when Greek diplomats, the Greek Armenian Community of Armenian and ethnic Armenians visit the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan.
Participation in the genocide commemorations is just part of Greek support in her homeland, according to Dr. Mkhitaryan, there are other important examples of Armenian-Greek cooperation, one being Greek government funding for the water supply system of Yaghdan village and help from Greek organizations, such Hellenic Aid, which financed the reconstruction of the school N 132 in Yerevan in 2006, and the organization Hellenicare, which since 2007 has funding the Hyppocrat Medical Center (founded in 2001) in Alaverdy in Northern Armenia, where the majority of Greek Armenians live. As of 2009, during the Hyppocrat Medical Center’s eight years of operations, 71,013 people have applied for and received medical help and care, according to the Head of the Center, Doctor Simon Zakharov. The center does not only serve ethnic Greeks; any Armenian can apply for the to receive medical help. Mobile groups of doctors periodically travel to villages to consult and check the inhabitants’ health onsite, a great social assistance.
Currently there are no acting Greek churches in Armenia, said Dr. Mkhitaryan. Local Greeks attend the Russian Orthodox Church in Yerevan and/or various other Armenian Churches. On the 21st of September there is a tradition to visit Akhtala Monastery (Northern Armenia), which has become the local place of worship for Greeks of Armenia. ‘While visiting Greek villages of Armenia, I noticed that the majority of settlements are located next to mines and that there are Greek churches and chapels built in each settlement. Let’s reconstruct some details related to the daily life of the miners: on Sunday, after a hard working week, the whole family would be attending a church liturgy to pray for a good, healthy, and prosperous life.” She noted that in 1997 His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited the Greeks of Armenia, in particular, the Greek community of Gyumry, the second largest city in Armenia, which in 1988 had suffered from a tragic earthquake. “Definitely, Greek people will remember this blessed meeting with His All Holiness for the rest of their lives.”
“One can consider issues related to the Greek Community of Armenia only within the framework of bilateral steadfast developing relations as they have been developing between Armenia and Greece,” said Dr. Dr. Mkhitaryan, “Armenian-Greek relations have been developing successfully since Armenia’s independence in 1991. The President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan visited the Hellenic Republic from the 18th through the 20th of January 2011 at the invitation of the President of Greece Karolos Papoulias, where he also met with His Beatitude Hieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece and Primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece.
There are also Greek Armenian war heroes, said Dr. Mkhitaryan. “During the Sardarabat Battle for Armenia’s independence in 1918, there were Greek heroes among the Armenian fighters, namely the famous captain Vladimir Sakillary, she said, and the ethnically Greek World USSR War II, hero, Konstantin Khadjiev, born in Madan, the village of my mother.”
Visit Dr. Mkhitaryan’s website at: www.greeksofarmenia.com.
The ancestors of Pontic Greeks living in Armenia today are of Pontic Greek descent and moved to Armenia as miners in 1763 and processed the mines of Akhtala, Madan and Shamlugh (Northern Armenia), says Dr. Mkhitaryan, who quoted from Garnik Asatryan and Victoria Arakelova’s The Ethnic Minorities of Armenia to describe the early history of the Greeks of Armenia: “…The Greek population of Transcaucasia emerged as a result of several waves of migrations having started mainly in the 2nd to the 1st centuries B.C.
and continued on until the 13th century, i.e. the period of the Seljuk and Mongol invasions. Nonetheless, the core of the Hellenic ethnic element in Georgia and
Armenia are descendants of the mining workers invited in late 18th century to Armenia and partially relocated to Central Georgia in the 1820s, as well as migrants from Asia Minor and the inner Turkey. Armenia’s Greeks, as in the whole of Transcaucasia, speak the Pontic dialect, an extension of the Ionic dialect of the Old Greek language. A certain layer is occupied by the migrants from Trabzon city and Kars region in the 19th and 20th centuries. (endoethnonym: ROMEYUS)…’‘.