By Aram Arkun
NEW YORK — Robert Gregory Bedrosian worked for some two decades as a computer programmer in Manhattan, making good money in the heyday of this profession.
He also has created one of the most important English-language websites on Armenian history — an Internet site containing a large number of translations of Classical Armenian authors, as well as some original studies and commentaries by himself and other contemporary scholars. What led Bedrosian to live a double life, and what is this website all about?
Bedrosian was born in Long Branch, NJ in 1949, and grew up in the Boston area. His father’s family was made up of Genocide survivors who lost all they had in Cilicia and came to the United States in poverty. Naturally, this affected their offspring. As Bedrosian described it for this article: “All the time my father was raising me I heard about the Genocide. Every holiday when his siblings came to dinner, the Genocide was seated at the table. I remember them crying and shouting and generally going crazy. This wasn’t a
one-time scenario. It went on from earliest childhood until my father, aunt and uncles died. He [Bedrosian’s father] was greatly interested in justice for the Armenians and he was always pointing out events from Armenian history.”
Western Armenian was Bedrosian’s first language. His parents deliberately and consciously spoke it at home. Bedrosian reminisced: “I can remember when I started kindergarten, the teacher complained to my mother that I was mixing ‘strange’ words in my conversation. While in grammar school, I was sent to Armenian school on Saturdays — for years.”
Eventually, when he became 11 or so, like many other children placed in this type of demanding position, he rebelled and did not want to have anything to do with Armenia, the Armenian language or Armenians.
However, when Bedrosian was in junior high school and taking Latin, he encountered many references to Armenia and the Armenians in the texts he was reading. Evidently, this stimulated new interest in the Armenians, but there was little in English that he could find except for two general histories by Jacques de Morgan and Vahan Kurkjian. “I gobbled them up,” Bedrosian exclaimed.
This was the era of the foundation of the first chairs in Armenian Studies, with the first one established at Harvard in Cambridge, the next town over to Belmont, Mass., where the Bedrosian family then lived. Bedrosian’s father played “a minor part in these matters, through the organization National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.”
Furthermore, there was a large vibrant Armenian community in neighboring
Watertown with all kinds of activities.
Bedrosian notes, “We participated ‘as a family,’ if I can put it that way. Anyhow, one thing led to another. Maybe my father was steering me toward Armenian Studies. I can remember him saying many, many times: ‘Wouldn’t you like to study the history of your own people?’”
By the time Bedrosian graduated high school and began his studies at Tufts
University, he had made this goal his own. There was some truth to the old adage that the father’s hobby becomes the son’s profession, Bedrosian felt.
Bedrosian had forgotten much of his Armenian by now, but his father intervened to change all of this. In the late 1960s, when the latter was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Soviet Armenian astrophysicist Raphael Ghazaryan came there for about six months and the two became fast friends. Together they took care of the paperwork to get approval for Bedrosian to study in Soviet Armenia, and in 1970 he learned Eastern Armenian with a tutor at the University of Yerevan. Ghazaryan, who later became a member of the Karabagh Committee, took Bedrosian on a weeklong trip to remote villages in Karabagh, then part of Azerbaijan, during that year. Bedrosian recalls that there was a surprising number of Armenian students there from many other parts of the world — the Middle East, Ethiopia, Canada, France and Eastern Europe. Since Bedrosian could understand Armenian somewhat, he also sat in on an ancient history course taught by the Iranist Hagop Papazyan and a Marxism-Leninism course — also taught in Armenian. This trip had a decisive effect on him in a number of
ways. As he pointed out, “So today if I speak Armenian, it is Eastern Armenian.”
After graduating from Tufts with a bachelor’s degree in history, Bedrosian attended graduate school at New York’s Columbia University from 1971 to 1979. He studied with Professors Nina Garsoïan and Krikor Maksoudian (now a vardapet). Maksoudian taught him Classical Armenian (grabar). Bedrosian also studied Armenian history and civilization, cultural anthropology and a number of dead languages such as Old Persian, Parthian, and Pahlevi. He had a good reading knowledge of French and Russian, and was preparing for a career in academia.
Bedrosian returned to Armenia from 1976 to 1977 to work on his dissertation at the Matenadaran, the famous repository of old manuscripts. The noted historian Aram Ter- Ghevondyan took him under his wing.
Thanks to him, Bedrosian spent time with his peers, including Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was then just another researcher in the Matendaran. Of course, he later became the first president of the post-Soviet independent Republic of Armenia. Bedrosian also was a frequent guest at the home of Levon Khachikyan, “the Matenadaran’s wonderful director,” as he puts it. Bedrosian, still with an air of wonderment at it all, states, “It was a rarified intellectual environment, and I dream of it still.”
In 1979, Bedrosian received his doctorate in Armenian Studies from Columbia University. The title of his thesis is “The Turco-Mongol Invasions and the Lords of Armenia in the 13-14th centuries.” It is about a turbulent period in Armenian history during which no less than 15 invasions took place.
The problem was that there were no jobs available in Armenian Studies when
Bedrosian graduated. He realized that “by the time you get through dealing with all the people and organizations that might have related jobs, you just lose your soul.” Instead, Bedrosian took a one-year course at Control Data Institute in New York in order to learn computer languages such as Assembler, Cobol, CICS, Fortran and RPG. As most of these languages are now classified as “dead,” Bedrosian wryly commented, “To my portfolio
of dead human languages I have added dead computer languages, but they were not dead yet — far from it.”
Modestly, he declares, “Luck was on my side here.” He was able to work for the next 20 years as a mainframe programmer at a variety of banks, insurance companies and brokerage houses in Manhattan, while increasing his programming skills.
At the same time, he continued with his Armenian work in the evenings and on weekends as a labor of love: “I love translating the grabar sources. It’s a means of discovering the Armenian past directly from the hands of the participants. It’s like time travel. The very first, Kirakos Gandzakets’i, was started as part of a class project when Vardapet Maksoudian was teaching me grabar.”
He began to collect materials for various studies, which later appeared as articles. Bedrosian’s article on dayeakut`iwn (childrearing in ancient Armenia) appeared in this period. He also became very interested in Armenian mythology. This led to an article on references to the Armenian highlands and the Caucasus in ancient mythologies and years later to the article “Soma among the Armenians.”
In 1985, at the urging of some friends and family, he set up a mail-order bookstore called Sources of the Armenian Tradition, and sold photocopies of the translations in binders. This company lasted until 2006, when he dismantled it. Though hardly lucrative, this undertaking demonstrated that there was quite an interest in the Classical Armenian histories. Subsequently the website proved this.
Bedrosian followed the development and expansion of the Internet in the 1990s with great interest. His background in computer languages facilitated learning the hypertext markup language (HTML) necessary to post all his translations on a website. Bedrosian points out: “This work could only be accomplished when I wasn’t at my real-world job, so it didn’t happen all at once. Still, I was so excited by the idea of putting together a content-rich site on Armenian history that I frequently stayed up very late or early.” In 1996, his website, Armenian History Workshop, went live.
The website began with his English translations of the fifth-century writers P’awstos Buzandats’i and Ghazar P’arpets’i, Sebeos (seventh century), John Mamikonean (10th), Aristakes Lastivertts’i (11th) and Kirakos Ganjakets’i (13th), as well as several of his already-published scholarly articles. As it was still the early period of development of computers and the Internet, Bedrosian had to continually upgrade his equipment while adding more translations to the site. As he enthusiastically describes it: “The machines
physically were changing every six months to a year, becoming much more powerful and able to handle all types of graphics. So I was buying computers every year. It really was an exciting time.”
Meanwhile, Bedrosian’s star was rising in the programming profession and he was able to make a good living as a consultant. During this time, from 1985 to 2001, he lived in Manhattan: “It was quite a thing: during the day I was in skyscrapers high above the Financial District writing computer software and at night I was with my beloved grabar and the Internet.”
But then the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks took place. Bedrosian was working only about one block away at Merrill Lynch. He was one of the people in the crowds running away from the burning towers. This led to much reflection over the next few months, until he decided to stop working and move back to the Bedrosian family house in Long Branch, NJ, now vacant.
He said, “So I moved back to the house I had been born in, a large Victorian house with a beautiful yard and walking distance to the Jersey Shore. I was free at last to pursue my Armenian Studies full time with no distractions and as much solitude as I wanted. One of the ‘side effects’ of the 9/11 bombing was that I have become partly reclusive, so this arrangement is heavenly.”
From 2002 to the present, Bedrosian enriched the website with many more important translations, along with new sections containing maps, chronologies, early non-historical sources on eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, and reliable reference works by prominent scholars like Toumanoff, Manandyan, Der Nersessian and Piotrovsky. Maksoudian allowed Bedrosian to include two of his own translations. Last year Bedrosian made compressed versions of much of this material, allowing for easy downloading. The website statistics indicate that thousands of these files have been downloaded by people all over the world. The website averages about 10,000 visitors a month.
Bedrosian sees the Internet further developing in the near future as a means for education, “a modern and indestructible Library of Alexandria — only this library would be available to everyone for free and all the time.”
Bedrosian is not optimistic about the future of American university centers for Armenian Studies: “Unfortunately, in several cases, the funds that were given to the universities and supposedly allocated strictly for Armenian Studies have been nibbled at by various forces, most notably the universities themselves. The universities also try to impose conditions on the faculty to teach courses not specifically in Armenian Studies. Add to that the nightmare of a professor of Armenian Studies with control over some funds behaving capriciously or opportunistically, and you have a recipe for disaster.”
As the universities at present cannot be trusted with donations, Bedrosian feels the best use of new funds would be to sponsor concrete projects such as publications or sponsorship of work, so that a large sum would produce a variety of observable results. Agreements should be made with the principal parties, and be legally enforceable, whether in the US or in Armenia. He gives two specific suggestions: translate the collected works of renowned Armenists like Manuk Abeghyan or Hagop Manandyan into English; or, if indeed a donor wishes to establish a major monument, create an institute
similar to the Zoryan Institute, but dedicated to the pre-19th-century Armenian past, which carries out specific projects.
Bedrosian feels strongly that scholarship emerges through self-discipline and selfstudy: “Creative scholarship is not a groupproject, and ‘communities’ like universities and other organizations are the best places to kill it.”
Furthermore, in the current economic climate, he thinks it unlikely that people will pursue Armenian Studies as a career. Fortunately, his website allows anybody with time and determination to pursue Armenian Studies for free, as a hobby. Even a course on Classical Armenian is available through a linked site. Bedrosian is clear about his goal: “‘Knowledge freely given.’ That’s my motto. I want to present enough material — the primary sources and some reference works — that an interested, intelligent person can get a decent education from it.”
To read any of the works mentioned in this article, see Bedrosian’s website: