Rare Armenian masterpieces to go on display for the first time at the Bodleian Libraries

A new exhibition at the celebrates more than 2,500 years of Armenian history and culture with a sumptuous display of manuscripts, books, sacred objects and everyday artefacts from the Armenian community that have been handed down through the generations.

 features treasures from the Bodleian’s magnificent Armenian collections alongside items from private and national collections in Armenia, the Netherlands and the UK.

Opening on 23 October, Armenia is the second exhibition to be held in the Bodleian’s newly renovated Weston Library. The Bodleian Library has been collecting Armenian manuscripts and printed books since the seventeenth century, but this is the first time items from the Libraries’ rich Armenian collection have gone on public display in a major exhibition.

Armenia: Masterpieces from an Enduring Culture showcases more than 100 stunning objects that demonstrate the enormous achievements of a nation with a rich, fascinating and often turbulent history. The ‘enduring culture’ in the exhibition’s title refers to the great antiquity of Armenian culture. This landlocked country situated along the route of the Great Silk Road boasts a long history spanning more than two and a half millennia, from its first mention, carved into stone, in the reign of King Darius I (c. 550-486 BCE) to the modern Republic of Armenia and the numerous diaspora communities worldwide. The endurance highlighted in this new exhibition also refers to the suffering and hardship which has befallen the Armenians. 2015 marks the centenary of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire by the Young Turk government during World War I.

In their honour, the Bodleian’s Armenia exhibition displays a rich cache of objects spanning more than two thousand years of cultural history: from coins minted in the first century BCE during the reign of King Tigranes II to sumptuously and more modestly decorated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The diverse range of books, maps, art and artefacts on show reveals a culture that is both religious and secular. The exhibition also features the treasured objects of survivors of the 1915 genocide including traditional Armenian needlework and needlelace items, family photographs and an Armenian family’s century-old tea set.

‘The Bodleian Libraries is honoured to take part in the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by helping to share the history and culture of the Armenian people,’ said Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden. ‘We have collected Armenian books and documents for over 400 years, and the University has taken seriously the study of Armenian culture for a very long time. Through this exhibition, which features items of exceptional beauty, we are able to share with a much broader audience the vibrancy and richness of this ancient culture.’

Highlights of the exhibition:

  • A rare and outstandingly beautiful gospel illustrated by Mesrop of Xizan, an Armenian master of the 17th century.
  • A venerated holy book on loan from a UK-based Armenian family who have passed down their copy through the generations. The book – known as The Narek – is an 18th century copy of The Book of Lamentation containing mystical prayer poems by Saint Gregory of Narek. This is the most venerated book in Armenian culture after the Bible, and healing powers are ascribed to it. Often called the ‘Saint of the House’, it is believed to protect the family with whom it resides.
  • A brightly coloured gospel manuscript featuring a ‘hidden demon’ that has been rubbed out over the centuries by pious readers. Using hyperspectral imaging tools, conservators at the Bodleian have revealed the hidden demon and will display the newly-discovered image alongside the original manuscript.
  • A collection of 20 ancient coins from a private collector and benefactor to the exhibition, which tell the story of Armenia’s tumultuous political and economic history.
  • The only known copy of the first book printed in Iran, a book of psalms dating from 1638.
  • The Bodleian’s oldest Armenian manuscript dating from the 11th century: a copy of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians.
  • Religious artefacts such as a silk altar curtain embroidered with silver thread, a priest’s staff, and a ceremonial brass bowl.
  • Personal treasures that have been carefully kept and passed down through generations of Armenian families including a traditional needlework headdress, a woman’s needlelace collar, an Armenian family’s samovar (hot water vessel used to prepare tea), and personal photographs from families affected by the Genocide.

The exhibition will also feature videos of the Oxford Armenian Choir performing in the Weston Library and a short film titled The Blessing by artist Krikor Momdjian.

‘Armenian culture has shaped humanity and given it great gifts, from precious manuscripts, literature and art to religious and secular music,’ said Theo Maarten van Lint, Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies at the University of Oxford. ‘In this exhibition, we present to the public the historical, artistic and other cultural achievements of a people not often in the focus of the public eye, in an effort to educate, fascinate and create a dialogue between nations and peoples.’

Scholarly interest in Armenian culture at the University of Oxford dates back at least 400 years, when the first Armenian texts entered the newly founded Bodleian Library through benefactions from Archbishop Laud (1573-1645). This year, the University commemorates the 50th anniversary of the establishment of an endowed Chair in Armenian Studies: the Calouste Gulbenkian Professorship. The current holder of the Professorship, Professor Theo Maarten van Lint, curated the exhibition with Robin Meyer, Lector in Latin and Greek Languages at the University of Oxford. The exhibition is the first major exhibition in the UK of Armenian materials in almost 15 years.

Armenia: Masterpieces from an Enduring Culture follows Marks of Genius, the inaugural exhibition at the Bodleian’s new Weston Library, which opened to the public in March 2015. The Armenia exhibition runs until 28 February 2016 and a programme of talks and events will be held over the course of the exhibition. Admission to the exhibition is free and booking is not required.

The Bodleian Libraries is grateful to Mr Raffy Manoukian for his generous support of the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 276-page catalogue, Armenia: Masterpieces from an Enduring Culture, edited by the exhibition’s curators Theo Maarten van Lint and Robin Meyer (Bodleian Library Publishing, 2015). The publication was produced with the generous support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and The Hakop Kevorkian Fund.

New details emerge about Hrant Dink’s murder

Police officer Muhittin Zenit, who had been in contact with a key informant in murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, has said he was prevented from giving testimony in the slaying by former police intelligence chiefs Ramazan Akyürek and Ali Fuat Yılmazer, the Hurriyet Daily News reports.

Zenit, who was arrested as part of an investigation into public servants accused of negligence in the murder of Dink, wrote his testimony on March 20 before sending it to the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office.

After Zenit’s statements, prosecutor Gökalp Kürkçü took the testimony of several officials, including Yılmazer, who was the former Istanbul police intelligence chief when Dink was shot dead on Jan. 19, 2007, in Istanbul.

Akyürek was the Trabzon Police Department head at the time of murder.

On May 28, Yılmazer reportedly told prosecutor Kürkçü that he told Akyürek, the former head of Turkey’s Police Intelligence Department, and Zenit not to go to Istanbul to give testimony regarding incidents in the lead-up to the Dink murder.

Yılmazer told the prosecutor that he had informed Zenit and Akyürek that it not be correct to provide testimony regarding key figure Erhan Tuncel’s past as a police informant.

“I told Ramazan Akyürek not to be part of such an incident. I said his [Tuncel] contact with us had been cut long ago and that he had not informed us correctly about the incidents. We cannot talk about a person as an informant when he hides the facts about a murder. A week later, Muhittin Zenit called me and said that his testimony had been demanded in connection with [Tuncel] in Istanbul. I told him that it was not right for him to get involved over someone who had already cut his ties with us,” Yılmazer reportedly told the prosecutor.

The Istanbul Police Department later learnt that Tuncel was a former police informant from his own testimony rather than learning it from the Trabzon police or police intelligence unit.

Ogün Samast assassinated Dink in broad daylight on a busy street outside of the office of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos in Istanbul’s Şişli district. Samast is serving a sentence of 22 years and 10 months in a high-security prison. Yasin Hayal and Tuncel were accused of encouraging Samast to kill Dink in the Black Sea province of Trabzon.

Armenian, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers set to meet in New York

Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian will leave for New York on September 24 to participate in the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.

Within the framework of the visit Minister Nalbandian will participate in a number of high-level conferences and meetings.

The Armenian Foreign Minister is expected to meet with OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister.

Edward Nalbandian will also hold meetings with his counterparts from a number of countries.

Armenian-populated districts of Istanbul attacked

The situation was tense in the Armenian-populated districts of Istanbul this night, reports quoting its sources in Turkey.

Turkish nationalist groups attacked Istanbul’s Sisli, Kurtuluş and Besiktas neighborhoods.

“We must turn these districts into Armenian and Kurdish cemeteries,” the nationalists were chanting.

According to the source, the violence is a consequence of the recent clashes between the Turkish army and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK).

Reports on occupation of Armenian-populated areas of Damascus untrue: MFA

The Armenian Foreign Ministry has dismissed the reports on the occupation of the Armenian-populated regions of Damascus.

“According to the data of the Armenian Embassy in Syria, the reports that terrorists have captured the Armenian-populated regions of Damascus do not correspond to reality,” Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tigran Balayan said in a Twitter post.

Turkish authorities block Twitter access to stop information spreading after Suruc bombing

Turkish authorities cut off access to Twitter Inc. on Wednesday to block the spread of information about a suicide bombing that has convulsed the country and to prevent unauthorized demonstrations, the reports.

The Twitter blackout just hours after a court in the southern province of Sanliurfa ordered the suppression of images and videos on Monday’s suicide bombing in Suruç, which killed at least 32 people and wounded more than 100 others. Turkish officials have blamed the attack on the Sunni Muslim extremist group Islamic State

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the ban was triggered by the dissemination of information about the attack and calls for what it described as “illegal mass demonstrations.”

Turkey’s Internet Service Providers Association delivered court orders to Twitter, Facebook Inc. and Google Inc.’s video-sharing website, YouTube, demanding the removal of attack-related content, the news agency said.

While Facebook and YouTube quickly removed the banned content and kept operating, Twitter was unable to immediately comply with the order and shut down. The microblogging site would go back online once it does so, Turkish officials said.

One photographer’s personal endeavor to track down survivors of the Armenian Genocide, 100 years later

As children, they escaped ruthless state-sponsored violence. Now, these Armenian women and men visit the aching memory of what they left behind

By  Jenna Krajeski
Photos by Diana Markosian

Few places are more important to Armenian national identity than Mount Ararat, the snowcapped peak that looms over Yerevan, the capital city. A centerpiece of Armenian folklore and religious history where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed, the mountain evokes pride and a sense of place. It is featured on the Armenian coat of arms and currency. But it also looms as a reminder of the tragedy that has dominated Armenian life: Mount Ararat is visible from Armenia, but it belongs to Turkey.

A hundred years ago, as the Ottomans anxiously tried to hold together their collapsing empire, they launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the territory’s Armenian population, whom they feared as a threat to Turkish rule. Between 1915 and 1923, Ottoman forces killed 1.5 million Armenians and expelled half a million more in what is widely considered the first major genocide of the 20th century. Men, women and children were marched to mass graves in the Syrian desert or massacred in their homes. Ottoman soldiers destroyed Armenian churches and villages and confiscated property. Survivors fled into Armenia, then a republic that would soon be swallowed by the Soviet Union. Others scattered around the world.

The Armenian-American photographer Diana Markosian, who had a great-grandfather from eastern Turkey who survived the genocide because Turkish neighbors hid him until it was safe to flee, has undertaken to document the national memory of the event in portraits of living survivors. Raised in Moscow, Yerevan and Santa Barbara, California, Markosian says that she long felt the weight of the genocide as a burden, a “monstrous history you inherited because of your ethnicity.” It’s a history that hasn’t been fully acknowledged. To this day, Turkey disputes the extent of the killings and denies that they were planned by Ottoman officials, and the U.S. government declines to recognize the atrocities as a “genocide,” a word no sitting American president has used to describe the fate of the Armenians.

Consulting voter registries to track down Armenian citizens born in Turkey before 1915, Markosian found some survivors still alive in Armenia, now an independent nation of three million people. She photographed them in their homes and, later, after traveling to the places they had fled, she reunited the survivors with images of their lost hometowns and documented the reunions.

The images are surreal meetings at the crossroads of place and memory. Farmland has overtaken villages; ancient mountaintop churches stand in ruins. Some of the survivors wept when they saw her photos of their former homes, which beckoned like Ararat in the distance, enduring but out of reach. “I wanted to help the survivors reclaim a part of their own history,” Markosian says. “But how do you show something that’s not there?”

Wikileaks reveals spying on French Presidents

The US National Security Agency (NSA) spied on French Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande in 2006-12, Wikileaks says, the BBC reports.

The whistleblower website cites “top secret intelligence reports and technical documents” from the NSA.

A French official said spying “between allies was unacceptable”. Mr Hollande is to discuss the issue with security chiefs.

The US would not confirm the veracity of the documents.

In 2013 the NSA was accused of spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On Tuesday, Wikileaks said it began publishing the files under the heading “Espionnage Elysee” – a reference to the French presidential palace.

It said the secret files “derive from directly targeted NSA surveillance of the communications” of the three French presidents as well as French ministers and the ambassador to the US.


Armenia offers refuge for Europe’s last leopards

Daniel McLaughlin

High on an Armenian hillside, Gor Hovhannisyan eases a camouflage-green box from its hiding place in the trees and opens the back to see what he has caught.

This time, only a bird and a rabbit triggered the camera trap’s motion sensors. But far bigger beasts also roam the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge: lynx, bears, wolves and at least one of Europe’s last remaining leopards.

Across a deep gorge speckled with thyme and wildflowers, Hovhannisyan points to the snowy ridge where a Caucasian leopard was last captured here on camera; behind him, far below, a lush plain of farmland and fruit trees stretches away to Mount Ararat, an ice-clad 5,000m volcano just over the border in Turkey.

The refuge is breaking new ground in Armenia and the region, by leasing a large area of outstanding beauty and biodiversity and ensuring that local people contribute to and benefit from its protection.

The challenge is considerable in a country where environmental awareness is low, large predators are seen as a threat to life and livestock, and the rule of law is too weak to control either small-scale trappers or wealthy hunters.

Geopolitics doesn’t help, either. Barely 25km south of the refuge is Azerbaijan, which officially is still at war with Armenia after an early-1990s conflict. Some 10km further lies Iran. The leopard’s territory spans all three countries, further complicating conservation efforts.

Hovhannisyan is one of several local men who work as wardens in the refuge, patrolling its 4,000 hectares in a battered green 4×4 and on horseback.

Hunting ban

“All hunting is banned in the refuge,” he shouts, as the groaning 4×4 bounces beneath a troop of iridescent bee-eaters preening on a telephone line.

“We make sure no one’s in the refuge without permission, and we talk to the villagers. We tell them that if they hunt bezoar goats or boar or even rabbits, then there will be less food for the wolf and bear and lynx. And then they are more likely to come to our yards and fields and take a sheep or cow.”

People’s lives are intertwined with nature here, to a degree that is not always comfortable. In winter, hungry wolves sometimes come down from the mountains to snatch a sheep, chicken or dog from a yard; in spring and summer the shepherds take their flocks to the high meadows, into the domain of the big carnivores; and autumn is the bears’ favourite time to raid the valley’s orchards – though they also amble down in warmer months to feast on fruit.

“Last year a bear family ate lots of apples and damaged the trees, and they like to come for apricots,” says Ashot Manatsakanyan, who lives in Urtsadzor, a village on the edge of the refuge.

“And I’ve seen a bear sitting and eating watermelons like a man – splitting them open in his lap, eating the best bits, throwing away the rest and grabbing another,” he recalls.

“Sometimes a wolf comes into the village, but it’s the shepherds in the hills who have the most problems. Even with six or seven guard dogs, a pack of wolves can take a sheep or even a horse. They complain that the wolf is taking money from their pockets, but I’m glad the wolves are here – and they need to eat too.”

The refuge aims to boost and diversify the local economy through eco-tourism, and it helps villagers access clean and cost-saving technology such as solar panels, and runs classes for adults and children on nature and sustainability.

Conservation model

“We want this type of conservation model to be spread more widely through the Caucasus,” says Ruben Khachatryan, the founder of the refuge and director of Yerevan’s zoo.

Though it is barely an hour’s drive from Yerevan, there are few visitors to the refuge, which is supported by the UK-based World Land Trust.

Most that do make the trip dream of glimpsing a Caucasus – also know as Persian – leopard, but the chance is minuscule: only a handful survive in Armenia, and the entire population may be less than 1,000.

“In Armenia, people and leopards have co-existed since the early prehistoric times. Depictions of leopards can be found in many ancient petroglyphs . . . recounting origin myths and tribal traditions of ancient Armenia,” says Khachatryan.

“The inhabitants of Caucasus region should be proud of not killing the last of the species, and to have this amazing feline thrive in their territory.”

No one in Armenia has a better hope of seeing a leopard than refuge warden Hovhannisyan.

“Sometimes, when I’m alone on my horse in the hills, I wonder if it might attack me,” he says. “But I’d still love to see a leopard up close. It’s great to know that it’s out there.