Prof. Kevork Bardakjian Honored with Ellis Island Medal of Honor


Dr. Kevork Bardakjian

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK CITY — Dr. Kevork Bardakjian was a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor on May 7 here. Sponsored by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO), the award recognizes the immigrant experience as well as individual achievement. This year, Bardakjian was one of seven Armenian winners of the award. There is an Armenian on the NECO Board, Irma Der Stepanian, and a number of Armenian- American organizations are part of the NECO coalition, including the Armenian Assembly of America, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the Armenian National Committee of America, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

There were various members of ethnic groups singing or dancing at the entrance to Ellis Island hall, including Armenians and a sumptuous dinner was followed later by fireworks. One hundred awardees from many fields of work were recognized in the presence of several hundred people, including family and friends of the awardees. The event finished late, with many returning to their hotels or homes around midnight.

Bardakjian gave his impressions from that weekend: “It was a very dazzling ceremony. It was pomp and circumstance. The army, navy and air force were all represented with bands. Several people made speeches. Jerry Lewis popped in and said a few words. It was very well organized and you truly felt that you were being honored. It made you think back about the path you have traveled in your career.”

Indeed, Bardakjian has had a long and active career in Armenian studies. Born in Aleppo and raised in Damascus, he became interested in Armenian topics in part because of the influence of his father, an Armenian priest who was a classmate of Simon Simonian. As a youth, Bardakjian had a great interest in Soviet Armenia and was a self-described “lefty.” He said, “I felt I needed to know more about myself as well as to learn more about my culture. That is how I ended up in Armenian Studies.”

After graduating Grtasirats, an Armenian school in Aleppo, and the Greek Catholic high school of Damascus, he spent one year at Damascus State University before going to Yerevan State University (YSU) and studying with the leading Soviet Armenian scholars of the time, from 1964 to 1969. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hand, he went to Oxford University to study with Albert Hourani and Charles Dowsett from 1970 to 1979. He obtained his doctorate in Armenology there, though he also was awarded an honorary one from YSU in 2006.

Bardakjian began teaching at Harvard University as an instructor in 1974 and remained a senior lecturer there until 1987, when he transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He continues to teach at Ann Arbor as the Marie Manoogian Professor of Armenian Language and Literature. Bardakjian explained, “The chair was basically established for me. Mr. Manoogian wanted me to get it and Edmond Azadian’s role in organizing this was important. My chair was initially in the Slavic Department but I moved it to the Near Eastern Department because I felt that even though we were part of the Slavic world in recent times, we were essentially a Near Eastern culture.”

Bardakjian instituted a major and a minor in Armenian Studies and as director of the Armenian Studies Program from 1995 to 2007, organized conferences and gatherings and managed money for fellowships and academic projects. In 1987 he initiated an Armenian Language Institute. Through it, hundreds have studied Western or Eastern Armenian in Armenia. There were also a few courses in Classical Armenian. Alex Manoogian initially helped the Institute financially and the Armenian General Benevolent Union and its Presidents’ Club, with Rita Balian in a leadership role, also played a role. The Soviet Armenian government funded all expenses in Armenia, so that only travel funds had to be paid. Later, especially after Alex Manoogian’s death, Bardakjian himself did fundraising for the institute. Financial difficulties, a decline in the number of students, competing new programs in post-independence Armenia and perhaps a desire to turn to new projects after so many years on the part of Bardakjian led to the termination of the Institute.

Bardakjian’s academic work involves a variety of fields. For example, he said, “Willy-nilly, we were drawn into genocide studies. I did that initially and still do it, but not as intensely as before. I read Ottoman Turkish. There was a program prepared by Ted Bogosian for Nova, ‘An Armenian Journey,’ and he got me more of the Ottoman court-martial copies. That really catapulted me into it and I was engaged. I was working on only Turkish evidence.”

At one point, there were plans for inclusion ofArmenians in the Holocaust Museum and though this eventually was not allowed, Bardakjian served as one of the experts who met with museum people with some regularity. He also prepared a confidential report on the Armenian Genocide and what could become part of the Museum. This led him to write his book, Hitler and the Armenian Genocide (1986), which provides documentation of the famous Hitler quote pertaining to the Armenians. It has since been translated into Armenian and Turkish.

Bardakjian was forced to prepare language textbooks, since when he entered the field, these were scant. In 1977 he published A Textbook of Modern Western Armenian, with Robert Thomson. In 1999, he and Bert Vaux published Eastern Armenian: A Textbook.

In 2000, he published A Reference Guide to Modern Armenian Literature, 1500-1920 (2000). It is now out of print and as he is unable to continue it to the present period. Bardakjian suggested, “Maybe it should be put online and people could contribute, with supervision, sending in at the least bibliographies.”

While still at Harvard, Bardakjian prepared a concise overview of the work of the Mkhitarist Catholic Armenian brotherhood, titled The Mekhitarist Contributions to Armenian Culture and Scholarship (1976).

His thesis was on the political and social satire of the Ottoman Armenian writer Hagop Baronian and he published a related work, an Armenian-language volume titled The Historical Figures and Events in Some of Hagop Baronian’s Allegorical Works, in 1980. Bardakjian may eventually turn his thesis itself into a book.

Bardakjian at present is supervising the work of seven graduate students on topics that range as widely as his own research interests. He stresses their learning various empirical research tools such as languages. He is also the language coordinator for the Department of Near Eastern studies and president of the Society for Armenian Studies (SAS).

Bardakjian was involved in SAS from its inception and has served in various high-level positions over the years. His goals as president include the creation of a permanent endowment, broadening the participation of its membership in conferences in various fields, creating an online encyclopedia of the diaspora on the Wikipedia model, an online page for posting translations relevant for Armenology that would allow comments and review and an Internet site for members to respond to Armenological questions from the public. He wants to recruit as many supporting members as possible who do not vote in the society but have an interest in learning more about Armenology.

An independent biannual SAS conference or workshop and the funding of the participation of promising PhD students from Armenia in the Middle Eastern Studies Association annual conference are two other SAS projects for which Bardakjian needs funding. One of the main reasons funding has been so difficult, Bardakjian feels, “is the old tradition that the community rallies around the church, not secular institutions.”

However, his efforts have already been crowned with some success and he hopes to continue to improve SAS’s finances. Perhaps the most ambitious of Bardakjian’s administrative projects is the creation of an institute of Armenian studies, which would create employment for new doctoral students in Armenology and aid in the development of the field. If any new chairs are created in Armenian studies, Bardakjian feels that the agreements or contracts for these chairs should very clearly define the purpose for which they are being established, so that the donated money will only be used for the promotion of Armenian studies and not other fields, unlike at some programs at present. Bardakjian also wishes to support the teaching of Armenian in the US, especially of Western and Classical Armenian, which recently seems to be deteriorating. SAS might be able to find federal support for this.

When asked about attacks by some scholars in Armenia on the motivations and scholarship of academics outside of the homeland, Bardakjian replied, “I’m against having public arguments with them. I want to ignore them and continue to work with scholars in Armenia. There are so many good scholars that don’t share the views that these people have expressed and secondly, we have to come to terms with the fact that there will always be people like this. We should not let the atmosphere be contaminated and should avoid engaging in public polemics.”

Aside from participating in various lectures and conferences, Bardakjian is busy with multiple academic projects at present. He is editing a volume froma conference on the Armenian apocalyptic tradition together with Sergio La Porta and burnishing the first draft of his translation of the lengthy Chronology of Grigor Daranaghtsi (Kemakhtsi). Bardakjian chose it because, he said, “it tells us of Armenian peasants, their relations with Turks, their daily routines and problems. It gives us insights into the daily life of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and how things actually worked in the Empire, as well as the difficulties the various nationalities therein faced. He covered the period from 1596 to 1638 or 1639.”

Bardakjian has been working on this daily for the last four or five years. He is preparing a history of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, which he started about eight years ago. Bardakjian has been interested in this topic for an even longer time, having published a book chapter on it in 1982. He waited 25 years but finally obtained permission to delve into the Ottoman Prime Ministry Archives in Istanbul. Bardakjian gave a series of lectures on Armenian identity at Columbia University as part of the Takakjian Lectures, which he wants to revise into a book, and some lectures on the post- Cilician period, as well as his thesis on Baronian, that may also turn into separate volumes. If he is able to accomplish even a small part of what he has on his plate now, he will be enriching Armenology in English greatly.