Treasures of NAASR's Mardigian Library ~ Two Classic Works on Artsakh
While taking note of the anniversary of the capture of Shushi this week in 1992, one of the key events in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, we look back at two noteworthy books from NAASR’s Mardigian Library from the late 19th century that explore the then recent past of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabagh: Khamsayi Melikʻutʻiwnnerě (Խամսայի Մելիքութիւններ) by Raffi and Gaghtnik‘ Gharabaghi (Գաղտնիք Ղարաբաղի) by Apresi Beknazareants‘.
By far the better known of the two is Raffi’s Khamsayi Melikʻutʻiwnnerě, 1600-1827, The Five Melikdoms [of Karabagh], his historical work on the five principalities (khamsa=five in Arabic; melik=ruler or authority) of Artsakh that existed on the territory of modern Nagorno Karabakh up into the 19th century. (See map extracted from Robert Hewsen’s Armenia: A Historical Atlas.)
Raffi (Hakob Melik Hakobian, 1835-1888) was, of course, one of the leading Armenian authors of the 19th century. As Kevork Bardakjian says, “Few modern Armenian writers can rival the impact and appeal of Raffi.” Through his copious works including novels, poems, reports, essays, and historical studies he tried to awaken Armenians’ interest in their past, identity, and rights. Raffi’s writings were widely read by Armenians of the time and remain popular to this day. “Raffi looked up to the ‘crowd,’ the educated and well-informed masses, to bring about radical change” and presented “the public with new concepts of social and political justice” (Bardakjian, A Reference Guide to Modern Armenian Literature 1500-1920).
Khamsayi Melikʻutʻiwnnerě is the result of his deep studies of and journeys to Artsakh, studying manuscripts, oral histories, and making detailed observations to write the history of the Armenian melikdoms of Karabagh. “The project was undertaken with a view to collecting additional material for Dawit‘ Bek [Raffi’s novel published in 1881] and to reviving and evaluating the latest manifestation of Armenian political power in the region” (Bardakjian).
Khamsayi Melikʻutʻiwnnerě was originally published in 1882 in Tiflis (Tbilisi). NAASR’s Mardigian Library holds copies of the 2nd edition published in 1895 in Tiflis by Martiroseants as well as the 3rd edition of 1906 published in Vienna by the Mkhitarian Press. The third edition is significantly augmented by Raffi’s translation of Russian writer Platon P. Zubov’s 1834 novel Gharabaghi astghagetě (The Astrologer of Karabagh), originally published in Tiflis in 1882, and Raffi’s critique of the book Gaghtnik‘ Gharabaghi. (An English translation of The Astrologer of Karabagh by Artashes Emin and edited by Ara Ghazarians, was published in 2013.)
Gaghtnikʻ Gharabaghi (The Secrets of Karabagh), by Apresi Beknazareants‘, was published in 1886 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The book was translated by Makar Vardapet Barkhudareants‘ from grabar (classical Armenian) into ashkharhabar (modern Armenian).
According to Barkhudareants‘ (1823-1906), Armenian bishop, writer, and ethnologist, on May 5, 1881, while he was working at his home in Shushi, an old man came and gave him a book wrapped in handkerchiefs. The old man told him that the book contained valuable information and secrets about Karabakh, and asked him to translate and publish it. The old man left without leaving a trace. The authors were a father Abraham Beknazareants‘ and his son Apresi Beknazareants‘. The first volume was dictated by the father, and written out by the son, and the second volume was the result of a collaboration between the father and the son.
The book combines historical writings about the region, covering events including the 1795 attack on Shushi by Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, with descriptions of the authors’ travels to Persia, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, such as to the village of Khnatsakh, the birthplace of Apresi Beknazareants‘.
After the publication of Gaghtnikʻ Gharabaghi, it became the focus of criticism questioning the accuracy of the book. Most notable were the writings of two prominent Armenian intellectuals, Leo (Arak‘el Grigori Babakhanyan) and Raffi. Leo’s Vep t‘ē Patmut‘iwn?: Gharabaghi ants‘ealě Apres Beknazareants‘i grch’i tak: Gaghdnik‘ Gharabaghi (Shushi, 1887) questioned whether Gaghtnikʻ Gharabaghi should properly be called a novel or a work of history. Raffi’s long essay on Gaghtnikʻ Gharabaghi was included, as previously mentioned, with the 1906 3rd edition of Khamsayi Melikʻutʻiwnnerě. (Both critiques were originally published in the Tiflis-based periodical Ardazgank‘: Leo’s in 1885, no. 14; Raffi’s in 1886 in nos. 35 through 46.)
Raffi questions whether the real “secret” of the book is the identity of the author himself, and doubting the translator Barkhudareants’ story of the father and son who compiled the text he suggests that the text is entirely the creation of Barkhudareants‘, who wrote stories and poems in the Artsakh dialect and whose works Aghuank erkir ew dratsik (1893) and Artsakh (1895) are still valuable for their information about monuments no longer in existence.
He also casts doubt on various facts presented in the text. It would be interesting for a modern researcher to assess Gaghtnikʻ Gharabaghi and the criticisms of the work in light of current scholarship.
As a final note, a few words about the books themselves. NAASR’s 1895 copy of Raffi’s Khamsayi Melikʻutʻiwnnerě was donated by the late Torkom Boyajian. The donor of the 1906 copy shown here is not known, but like many hundreds of books in the NAASR Library, it bears the stamp of the Berberian Bookstore in Boston. Gaghtnikʻ Gharabaghi comes from the collection of the late Vahe Tashjian, and like numerous other books from Tashjian’s collection, it carries the stamp of the Armenian Library of Salem (Mass.)—one of many small libraries that early Armenian Americans created in community centers, traces of which can be found throughout the NAASR library and which will be the subject of a later installment of this series.
For More Information
Kevork B. Bardakjian, A Reference Guide to Modern Armenian Literature, 1500-1920 (Detriot: Wayne State University Press, 2000)
George Bournoutian, Two Chronicles on the History of Karabagh (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2004) [This is one of several important works from Bournoutian on the history of Karabagh.]
Robert Hewsen, "The Meliks of Eastern Armenia: A Preliminary Study," in Revue des Études Arméniennes, New Series, Vol. 9 (1972) [This is just one of several articles by Hewsen on the meliks.]
Ara Stepan Melkonian, trans., Raffi, The Five Melikdoms of Karabagh (1600-1827) (London: Taderon Press, 2010)
Murad Meneshian, Raffi: The Prophet from Payajuk (Glenview, IL : Mayreni Pub., 2010)