By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BOCHUM, Germany — For centuries Germany and Armenia have maintained friendly relations, but there are probably only a handful of individuals, whether in Berlin or Yerevan, who have any inkling of this fact. For broader layers of the two populations, it is virtually unknown. But thanks to the initiative of Armenians and their German friends in the city of Bochum, the exciting history of this close relationship is being brought to light. On September 12 an overflow crowd of members of the Bochum community showed up for an event titled, “Gardens of Friendship link Orient and Occident – Yerevan and Bochum.” The gathering was organized in the form of an open interview conducted by German author Heide Rieck with Armenian historian and doctoral candidate Azat Ordukhanyan, who chairs the Armenian Academic Association 1860, the oldest Armenian organisation in Germany. In the course of their discussion, they shed light not only on the history of this bond of friendship, which was shattered by two world wars and two genocides, but on the perspectives for future development.
Back in spring of 2014, when violent hurricanes wrought havoc in Bochum, devastating thousands of trees, Ordukhanyan decided spontaneously with the board of his association to donate 155 trees from Armenia to this, his adopted city, in commemoration of the willingness to help displayed by East and West Germany after the earthquakes in Armenia in 1988. At that time he was a student in Yerevan. These gestures of good will inspired him to launch the idea of Friendship Gardens, one in Yerevan, his birthplace, and one in Bochum, his adopted place of residence. The initiative enjoys the patronage of Prof. Norbert Lammert, speaker of the German Parliament, Bundestag. On October 17, 2015 a third garden will be established in Yeghegnadzor, whose university is 100 years older than that of Heidelberg and whose museum displays the world’s oldest leather shoe.
Following introductory remarks by Rieck, Ordukhanyan delivered an illustrated lecture tracing the history of representative Armenian personalities in Germany. She mentioned that plans are afoot for a seminar on the German presence in Armenia.
The second part of the event featured reports on the planting of Armenian trees in Bochum. And the third part was dedicated to the melodies of poetical language, both Armenian and German. Rieck was joined by a local Armenian, to read selections from a bilingual volume of poems by Parujr Sevbak, just released by Schiler Verlag in Berlin. The translations are the joint effort of Heide Rieck and Agapi Mkrtchjan, an Armenian poetess and author from Wiesbaden, entitled, “Parujr Sewak – Und sticht in meine Seele – 24 und 4 Gedichte”.
Armenians on German soil – the beginnings
As might be suspected, the Armenian presence in Germany is closely tied to the introduction and spread of Christianity. In fact, as early as the 4th century A.D., relics of the Armenian doctor and martyr St. Blasius were brought here by Christian Greeks and Romans, and their traces are located in St. Blasien (near Freiburg), Mainz, Trier, Braunschweig and Lübeck. In the same century, the missionary Servatius of Armenia proclaimed Christianity in the Rhineland region and the Low Countries. Churches in Cologne, Bonn and Siegburg were named after him. In the 5th century Saint Dionysius transported the mortal remains of the Armenian Bishop Aurelius to Milan after the Italian bishop had fled to Armenia where he died. Aurelius remained in Milan until his death. In 830 the Baden Wurtemberg Prince Nothing asked for a relic of Saint Aurelius in Milan and brought it to Nagoldtal von Calw, near Stuttgart, where it is worshipped to the present day.
At the end of the 10th century, to be precise, on April 14, in the year 972, the Armenian-Byzantine Princess Theophanu was married in St. Peter’s in Rome by Pope John XII to the German Emperor Otto II, thus becoming Empress. After her husband’s death, Theophanu ruled for 7 years as Empress and Regent for her son, Otto III, over the German-Roman Empire. Her Armenian-Byzantine outlook and actions were to have a significant impact on her son’s later policies, especially in respect to the idea of a united Europe. If Charlemagne was the first “European man” in the 9th century, then in the 10th century Theophanu was the first great European woman. She was also known as the “most German of all German Empresses,” and, among other things, was the one who introduced the feast of St. Nicolas into Europe.
At the end of the 11th century, Bishop Gregorius from Armenia founded the first Armenian community in Passau (Bavaria) and his student Engelmar was so beloved there that the “Engelmar-Festival” was named after him – and is celebrated in Bavaria to the present day.
At the time of the Crusades and the height of Cilician Armenia (11th-14th century), political and cultural relations between Armenia and Europe developed apace with trade relations. To mention just a few highlights: On one of his crusades, Friedrich I (1152-1190), or “Barbarissa”, the German Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, had brought a crown with him for an Armenian-Cilician prince, to crown him. The night before the ceremony, however, Barbarossa drowned, and his heart was buried in the
Armenian Cathedral of Taron in Cilicia (today a mosque in Turkey). His mortal remains were to be delivered to Jerusalem but the city was occupied by the Arabs, so his remains were taken to Lebanon. Shortly thereafter, in 1198 the Mainz Cardinal Konrad von Wittelsbach, as Representative of the Vatican in the Orient, crowned the Armenian Prince Levon I as king, according to the Latin rite, and thus placed the kings of the Cilician state on a par with the European royal houses. It was this historic event that established Armenian-German diplomatic relations for the future.
Foremost among the Armenian aristocracy in Germany was the Aretin family (derived from the Armenian name, Harutyun = resurrection). On October 24, 1706 the ship “San Paolo” sailed from Constantinople to Venice. Aboard was a 4-year-old boy who was carrying a letter from the French Ambassador Marquis d’Argenthal to the Polish Princess Therese Kunigunde, wife of the Bavarian Elector Max Emmanuel II from the Wittelsbach family. The young boy is the son of the Armenian Prince of Sünik, from the House Harutyun, baptised in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Constantinople with the name of Hovhannes Mkrtitch Christaphor Harutyun. He is to be educated at the Bavarian court which, as a result of the Spanish War of Succession has been moved to Venice and Brussels. The child is accompanied by crates full of gold coins and valuable treasures.
Eight years later, in 1714, the Wittelsbachs moved together with the scion of the Armenian-German aristocratic family back to Munich. “He died, without having seen the distant homeland of his forefathers, without having known his parents and without ever having learned his mother tongue. And yet today, almost 280 years later, his successors are aware of their origins and are proud of their Armenian heritage. This family has produced important personalities: scholars, professors, high ranking government officials and clerics. In Munich there is even an Aretin Street. One can meet the members of this family in the Armenian homeland societies. They are also represented in the so-called ‘Committee to solve the Armenian question.‘ In their personal libraries one can find works on Armenian history, architecture, music and the Armenian family coat of arms adorns the entry,“ according to Gerda Topakian, researcher of the Aretin family history. They were related to more than 35 royal and aristocratic families of Europe well into the 1940s and one Annette von Aretin was the first moderator of the Bavarian radio broadcasting station.
The presence of Armenians in Germany continues to the present day, in the political world, media, economy and of course music. There are even street names in the capital city Berlin documenting this presence, like Armenian Street and Sevan Street. Most recently, in 2013, a plaque was placed on the walls of the Music Department of the Humboldt University, just opposite the famous Pergamon Museum, to commemorate the Armenian composer Komitas. In April of this year, the highest institutions of Germany, from the President to the Bundestag, commemorated the centenary of the Genocide and recognized, for this first time officially, the coresponsability that Imperial Germany as wartime ally of Ottoman Turkey had. The message that Ordukhanyan wants to transmit in his continuing Armenian-German cultural activity in Bochum is that, despite the one hundred years of “slumber,“ this friendship between the two nations and cultures and peoples rests on a history stretching back a milennium, a history that needs to be known and preserved. Only then can this friendship be nurtured and developed for the future.