Professor Rachel Goshgarian Shows Students The Vibrant Diversity Of


Lafayette College Campus News

May 7 2012


If you don’t know where the Hagia Sophia is, that the English word
“alcohol” comes from Arabic, or the fact that Saladin (a “hero” of
the counter-crusade) was an ethnic Kurd, then you probably haven’t
taken a class with Rachel Goshgarian.

Newly hired as an assistant professor of history, Goshgarian, who
has a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard,
has spent her first two semesters introducing Lafayette students to
the historical study of a region that she calls “multi-layered and
consistently fascinating.”

“The American press has a tendency to dehumanize the people of the
Middle East,” she says, noting most high schools in the United States
don’t offer courses on the region, so often times her class is the
first and only a Lafayette student will ever take on the Middle East.

“I try to expose students to images and information that highlight the
past and present diversity of the region, and also to introduce them
to new approaches to the history of the Middle East in the hopes that
we can paint exciting academic endeavors on a ‘blank-ish’ canvas,”
she explains.

Of Armenian descent, Goshgarian grew up as part of a vibrant diverse
community in Chicago, a formative experience that led her to major
in international relations and French at Wellesley.

Goshgarian is proficient in several languages, including Turkish,
Armenian, French, Spanish and Arabic, the latter which she began
studying after her first year at Wellesley. Her motive was personal-she
attended what she calls a “jubilant” Lebanese wedding and wanted to
“befriend all the Lebanese people” she could-but her decision to learn
Arabic was a rewarding one as her study of the language led to an
“obsession” with the Middle East and later, to a Fulbright grant to
study for a year in Morocco.

Goshgarian’s passion for the Middle East continued and she began her
graduate studies at Harvard with plans of specializing in the modern
Middle East. “I thought I would eventually work at an NGO in D.C.,”
she says. That idea was upended after taking her first class in
Ottoman history.

“My professor had such a nuanced approach to the history of the Ottoman
Empire that I began to see the history of the region as something
other than a long crawl towards the formation of nation-states,” she
says. “And I realized that in order to comprehend the modern Middle
East, I had to have a better understanding of its medieval and early
modern history.”

After earning her master’s in 2001, Goshgarian began pursuit of her
Ph.D. The goal of her project was to better understand the significance
of urban confraternities in Anatolia during the transitional period
between the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. But she didn’t relegate
her research to computers and library carrels.

“Highly social” by her own description, Goshgarian also founded the
Harvard Middle Eastern Cultural Association, a student organization
that seeks to encourage understanding through cultural communication.

Activities included concerts, poetry readings, dances, and a weekly
breakfast for students and professors.

“Our goal in founding the association was to create a space where
people with an interest in the Middle East could interact uniquely
by means of the culture of the region,” she says. Goshgarian hopes
to create a similar space at Lafayette so the campus community can
“dip its toe” in the pool of Middle Eastern culture.

In 2006, Goshgarian coauthored an Armenian language textbook published
in Turkey, something she calls “an exciting venture considering the
complicated relationship that exists between Armenians and Turks over
their shared history.” The book itself was one of the first ever
written by an Armenian and a Turk, and the first Armenian grammar
book published in Turkey in 114 years.

Goshgarian is quick to note that she’s a medieval historian who
systematically conducts her research by using Armenian sources in
conjunction with texts composed in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. It’s
the seemingly intentional erasure of history and memory for which she
aims to compensate, and her research is the warm breath that reveals
a hidden message on a window pane.

Take, for example, a trip she and her father took-while Goshgarian
was conducting dissertation research in Turkey-to find a medieval
Armenian monastery. Goshgarian had always wanted to experience the
place where Yovhannes of Erzinjan had produced the writings that had
inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. The trip was arduous, and she and her
father spent hours in a stuffy car traveling over mountainous roads
with their chain-smoking driver.

On the verge of giving up, the motley threesome stumbled upon a small
village populated by ramshackle homes and crinkly-faced shepherds
where her father’s offhand reference to the “vank”-the Armenian word
for “monastery”-unlocked the discovery of Surp Nerses.

In her writing about the trip, Goshgarian references the phrase “There
was and there was not,” explaining that it’s the Middle Eastern fairy
tale equivalent to “Once upon a time.”

“These six words were not just an entry into an imaginary world that
had never been,” she muses. “These words were also a bridge to a
place that once existed.”

Upon receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard in 2008, Goshgarian served as
director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center in New
York and taught Armenian history as a visiting professor at Columbia
University. And she was a senior fellow at the Research Center for
Anatolian Civilizations at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey, before
coming to Lafayette in the fall of 2011.

In January, Goshgarian traveled to the Middle East to continue her
study of Anatolian cities as places where-in the 13TH and 14TH
centuries-Arabs, Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, Nomadic Turkmen,
Persians, and Turks lived together and created what she calls “a
hybridity of culture, not completely dissimilar from medieval Spain.”

Goshgarian says she has been warmly welcomed not only by the College
community but also by local Eastonians, and, in particular, by Easton’s
Lebanese population, thanks both to her gregarious nature and love
of a good chicken shawerma sandwich. Her enthusiasm for people has
served her well, not only in her research but also in the classroom,
where part of the enjoyment, she says, is getting to know her students.

“I love teaching,” she says. “And I enjoy sharing my own approach
to understanding the complexities of human existence. It is in its
complexity, in fact, that history becomes most familiar to us.”