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Smithsonian Mag: Unfurling the rich tapestry of Armenian culture

Smithsonian Mag: Unfurling the rich tapestry of Armenian culture

PanARMENIAN.Net - A modestly sized landlocked nation framed by the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian to the east, Armenia links the southernmost former Soviet Socialist Republics with the arid sprawl of the Middle East. Armenia’s own geography is heavily mountainous, its many ranges separated by sweeping plateaus of vivid green. The wind is stiff and the climate temperate, and the mountainsides teem with archaeological treasures of a long and meandering history, Smithsonian Magazine says in an article about the diverse Armenian culture.

Thousands of years ago, the land known as Armenia was roughly seven times the size of the current country. Yet even within the borders of contemporary Armenia, cathedrals, manuscript repositories, memorials and well-worn mountain paths are so dense as to offer the culturally and historically curious a seemingly endless array of avenues to explore.

This year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be bringing deeply rooted Armenian culture to Washington, D.C. From food and handicrafts to music and dance, the festival, taking place in late June and early July, will provide an intimate look at an extremely complex nation. Catalonia, the autonomous region of northeast Spain, is featured alongside Armenia.

What exactly makes Armenia’s cultural landscape so fascinating?

Library of Congress Armenia area specialist Levon Avdoyan, Tufts Armenian architecture expert Christina Maranci, and the Smithsonian’s Halle Butvin, curator of the festival’s “Armenia: Creating Home” program explain the many nuances of the Armenian narrative.

What was Armenia’s early history like?

Given its strategic geographical status as a corridor between seas, Armenia spent much of its early history occupied by one of a host of neighboring superpowers. The period when the Armenia was most able to thrive on its own terms, Levon Avodyan says, was when the powers surrounding it were evenly matched, and hence when none was able to dominate the region (historians call this principle Garsoïan’s Law, after Columbia University Armenia expert Nina Garsoïan).

Foreign occupation was often brutal for the Armenian people. Yet it also resulted in the diversification of Armenian culture, and allowed Armenia to exert significant reciprocal influence on the cultures of its invaders. “Linguistically, you can show that this happened,” Avodoyan says. “Architecturally this happened.” He says Balkan cruciform churches may very well have their artistic roots in early Armenian designs.

What religious trends shaped Armenia?

It’s hard to say what life looked like in pre-Christian Armenia, Avdoyan admits, given that no Armenian written language existed to record historical events during that time. But there are certain things we can be reasonably sure about. Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic faith of Persian origin, predominated. But a wide array of regionally variant pagan belief systems also helped to define Armenian culture.

Armenia has long had strong ties with Christian religion. In fact, Armenia was the first nation ever to formally adopt Christianity as its official faith, in the early years of the fourth century A.D. According to many traditional sources, says Levon Avdoyan, “St. Gregory converted King Tiridates, and Tiridates proclaimed Christianity, and all was well.” Yet one hundred years after this supposedly smooth transition, acceptance of the new faith was still uneven, Avdoyan says, and the Armenian language arose as a means of helping the transition along.

The invention of an official language for the land of Armenia meant that religious tenets could be disseminated as never before. Armenia’s medieval period was characterized by the proliferation of ideas via richly detailed manuscripts.

What was special about medieval Armenia?

Armenian manuscripts are to this day world-renowned among medieval scholars. “They’re remarkable for their beauty,” Avdoyan says. Many have survived in such disparate places as the Matenadaran repository in Yerevan, the Armenian Catholic monasteries of San Lazzaro in Venice, and the Walters Art Museum in Maryland.

What sets the manuscripts apart is their uniquely ornate illuminated lettering. “The Library of Congress recently bought a 1486 Armenian gospel book,” Avdoyan says, “and our conservationists got all excited because they noticed a pigment that didn’t exist in any other.” Discoveries like this are par for the course with Armenian manuscripts, which continue to draw academic fascination. “There’s still a lot to be learned about the pigments and styles.”

Armenians take pride in their historic architecture. Why?

It is something of a rarity for a country’s distinctive architecture to inspire ardent national pride, but Christina Maranci says such is most definitely the case in Armenia. “Many Armenians will tell you about Armenian architecture,” she says. To this day, engineering is a highly revered discipline in Armenia, and many study it. “A lot of Armenians know very well how churches are built, and are proud of that.”

How far back can we trace Armenian architecture?

With the dawn of national Christianity, Byzantine and Cappadocian influences began to take hold. And places of worship began to dot the land. “The first churches upon the conversion of Armenia to Christianity are largely basilicas,” Maranci notes. “They’re vaulted stone masonry structures, but they don’t use domes for the most part, and they don’t use the centralized planning” that many later Armenian churches claim as a hallmark.

By the seventh century, though, Maranci explains that Armenia began to embrace its own signature architectural style. “You have the domed centralized plan,” she says, which “is distinctive to Armenia and neighboring Georgia, and is distinct from Byzantine architecture, Syrian architecture and Cappadocian architecture.” Within the span of just a few decades, she says, centrally planned churches came to predominate in Armenia. And “it becomes ever more refined through the tenth century, eleventh century, and so on.”

What is significant about the Armenian diaspora(s)?

Many have heard the phrase “Armenian diaspora,” generally used as a blanket term to encompass those Armenians who fled the region around the time of the genocide and other killings. During and after World War I, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed—the Turkish government, for its part, disputes the death toll and denies that there was a genocide.

Avdoyan notes that, really, there was no one diaspora, but rather many distinct ones across a wide stretch of history. By using the singular term “diaspora,” Avdoyan believes we impute to the various immigrant groups of Armenia a sense of cohesion they do not possess.

What aspects of Armenian culture will the Folklife Festival be highlighting?

On every day of the festival, which runs from June 27-July 1 and July 4-July 8, a dedicated “demonstration kitchen” will hold hourly presentations of Armenian recipes in action. Festival curator Halle Butvin calls special attention to Armenian methods of preserving food: “cheesemaking, pickling, making jams and drying herbs and fruits.”

The demonstration kitchen will also be showing off recipes featuring foraged foods, in honor of the self-sufficient food-gathering common in mountainous Armenia, as well as foods tied to the time-honored ritual of coming together for feasting: “Armenian barbecue, tolma, lavash, cheese, different salads. . . some of the major staples of an Armenian feast.”

Linked to feasting is Armenia’s dedication to its national holidays. “Vardavar, a pagan water-throwing tradition takes place on July 8 and Festivalgoers will get a chance to participate,” Butvin says. She says celebrants can expect to learn how to make such treats as gata (sweet bread), pakhlava (filo pastry stuffed with chopped nuts) and sujukh (threaded walnuts dipped in mulberry or grape syrup) for the occasion.

Tonirs, the clay ovens in which Armenian lavash bread is cooked, are traditionally made specially by highly skilled Armenian craftsmen. One such craftsman will be on site at the Folklife Festival, walking visitors through the process by which he creates high-performance high-temperature ovens from scratch.

Another featured craft which speaks to the value Armenians place on architecture is the stone carving technique known as khachkar. Khachkars are memorial steles carved with depictions of the cross, and are iconic features of Armenian places of worship. Visitors will get hands-on exposure to the art of khachkar, as well as other longstanding Armenian specialties like woodcarving and rugmaking.

Musically, guests can expect a piquant blend of Armenian jazz and folk tunes. Butvin is looking forward to seeing the camaraderie between the various acts in the lineup, who all know one another and will be building on each other’s music as the festival progresses. “They will play in different groupings,” Butvin says—guests can expect “a lot of exchanges and influences taking place between the artists.”

And what would music be without dance? Butvin says the dance instruction component of the Folklife Festival will tie in thematically with the feasting traditions emphasized among the culinary tents. “Usually you eat, drink, listen to music, and then dance once you’re feeling a little tipsy,” Butvin says. “That’s kind of the process of the feast.”

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., June 27 to July 1, and July 4 to July 8, 2018. Featured programs are “Catalonia: Tradition and Creativity from the Mediterranean” and “Armenia: Creating Home.”

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