Restoring What Has Been Destroyed: Digital Julfa


SONY DSC

Prof. Harold Short

Khachkars from Julfa

Khachkars from Julfa

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Armenians have not only lost lives but also irreplaceable cultural artifacts as a result of acts of violence over the centuries. Now, there may be a way to recreate some of this lost heritage, at least in the digital realm. Prof. Harold Short is part of a research team attempting to restore some of the Armenian past, starting with the cemetery of khachkars or cross-stones in Julfa systematically destroyed by Azerbaijanis. Short was in Watertown recently, and provided some insights into the project, officially called the Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project.

He said that the project was initiated by co-director Dr. Judith Crispin, an Australian musician, photographer and intellectual. While she was running the Manning Clark House, a center in Canberra, Australia, bequeathed by the family of Clarke for exhibitions and cultural events, she came to learn from Armenians about the Armenian Genocide and the recent destruction of the Julfa cemetery. At its peak this cemetery contained over 10,000 medieval khachkars on the banks of the Arax River between Iran and Nakhichevan. By 1998, there were some 2,000 left standing prior to the coordinated Azerbaijani campaign of destruction. UNESCO has included the khachkars on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Incensed at this loss, and stunned by the beauty of the demolished khachkars, Crispin met with Armenian researcher Vicken Babkenian and the Armenian bishop in Sidney, and sought their support for attempting to use modern technology to restore the cemetery in a virtual but realistic manner. She looked for an academic home for the project to work with the Manning Clark House. The Australian Catholic University thought it very worthwhile. The vice chancellor of that university asked Short at this point to join in as a digital humanities specialist. The university’s Institute for Social Justice and the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry served as host structures for the projects.

Short, with an educational background in the humanities and mathematics, computing and systems, was head of the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London, until his retirement in September 2010, and has collaborated in a large number of multidisciplinary projects. He is responsible, he said, for the technical side of things, and managing the people doing the work, while Crispin will coordinate the historical and cultural research necessary. This is an interdisciplinary project, with archaeologists, historians, photographers, theologians and sound and digital humanities technical specialists just some of the experts required.

Short explained what sources materials exist for the cemetery. He said, “What makes it possible to think in the terms we are thinking is the collection of 2,000 photographs of Argam Ayvazyan.” Over a period of several decades, at considerable risk to his own safety, Ayvazyan systematically took photographs of the cemetery in the Soviet period out of concern for its neglect and damage. There are also photographs taken by other people from the 1920s on, some of which are of very high quality. Short said that there are enough to permit working out the positions of the khachkars relative to each other.

An exploratory trip in 2013 to Armenia obtained a great deal of information and images, and led, among other things, to a richly illustrated electronic book, Recovering a Lost Armenian Cemetery: A Pilot Project by Manning Clark House. During a 2014 trip to Armenia Crispin and a group of collaborators also learned of approximately 40 extant khachkars taken to Armenia, Georgia and Iran from Julfa over the years. A third field trip this spring allowed the latter to be photographed, and 3-D scans were taken. A lot of materials in libraries in Armenia and elsewhere exist which will help identify the individuals commemorated in the khachkars.

The photographs and other information that are being collected are being digitized. Short said, “As we work, the archive will grow, and eventually the archive will be held somewhere between the Australian Catholic University and the State Library of New South Wales, the first public library of Australia which is doing important work in digitizing its own collections.”

Ayvazyan’s collection of photographs have been purchased by the Australian Catholic University. Short said that Ayvazian “was very anxious for this to happen. He was concerned about their security in Armenia.”

The State Library has begun talking to the Armenian community in Australia, as one of the library’s responsibilities is to create collections of interest to the community. Consequently, an Armenian community state archive will also be created in the library and the high quality scanner bought by the Australian Catholic University for the khachkar project will eventually be given to the library after the project is finished. The archive will be available both physically and digitally in several places so that other people can work on the collections.

Short said that there were a number of specific outcomes they hope to accomplish concerning the khachkars. Two permanent installations would be created, one at Yerevan’s Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, and one near Sydney, in Chatswood, a small city where many Armenians live. Suitable large spaces have been identified for the installations.

Short said, “Our primary objective is an immersive three-dimensional experience so that people, as far as possible, feel that they are in the cemetery. We would be happy for the permanent installations to be wherever people would like them. We would also like to create a touring version, which probably would be in a dome.”

Short said that they want to set the installations up so that you can choose what part of the cemetery you want to be in, the time of the day and the season of the year. If you look at a particular khachkar, you will be able to press a button and find out about its symbolism, and the individual for whom it was made. Perhaps even religious rituals could be performed that would have originally been carried out. A partial version hopefully would also be created for the Internet, something like a virtual world, where at least some of the above could be done.

Short said, “Electroacoustics is the single most innovative thing that we do. As far as we know, no other existing 3-D reconstruction has attempted to incorporate acoustics.” Some recordings were done on the Armenia-Nakhichevan border. Sound was recorded during this year’s field trip while photographs were taken as close as possible to the Arax River near Agarak.

Armenian clerics in Armenia have provided helpful information about the kinds of music that might have been originally performed in the cemetery. Short said, “The idea is that part of the permanent installation will have the sounds as authentic as we can make them.”

The idea of the Julfa recreation was not based on one particular model. There are other similar projects such as the 3-D light projects of the immense Bamiyan Buddha stone statues destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bits and pieces were taken from similar existing projects for the Julfa one.

The 3-D visualization specialist for the Julfa project initially worked at King’s College on the recreation of a number of theaters that no long exist, including that of Pompey the Great in Rome. Such reconstructions led to the formulation of the London Charter in 2006 about how to document the process to make completely clear what is historical and what is not in the reconstruction. Short pointed out that the Julfa project will follow the same guidelines.

The name “digital repatriation project” comes from a range of projects, many of them Australian, where aboriginal materials, some quite sensitive and some fragile, had to be carefully controlled for preservation purposes. Short said, “It is a way of enabling the community which has the most direct interest in them to enjoy and experience them through digital means.”

The project initially found funding from the Australian Catholic University. It provided some salaries for over a year, and gave contracts to four people for 12 months, including Crispin, Short, and a 3D visualization specialist. It purchased a high quality scanner and the Ayvazian photographs.

The university has a space in Rome where it runs seminars. There are two planned for September 2016, one of which will be for the Julfa project. Consequently, speakers have been invited to talk about various aspects of the project, while the 3D specialist is preparing a demonstration with the scans already taken.

The goal is to display somewhere between 12 and 20 of the extant khachkars for an immersive experience in a geodesic dome. If this cannot be done by September, it will be presented in Rome a bit later in the year. The decision will be made by mid-July, Short said, and the exhibition may later be brought to several cities in the US, such as Boston, New York and Los Angeles, if appropriate arrangements can be made.

Yerevan State University and the Armenian Church, especially the Armenian Apostolic Church of Holy Resurrection in Chatswood, Sydney, have been very supportive of the project, and the former will receive some of the projected funding for its assistance.

The Gulbenkian Foundation funded the pilot work done, such as the visit to Armenia and the most recent field trip this year. There have been several other benefactors. Additional funding will be necessary to continue the project after a year. Salaries will be necessary for people doing post-graduate work primarily in Armenia and Sydney. Quite a lot of the contextual research will have to be done in Armenia.

The total budget, Short estimates, is about six million American dollars. Major grants from government bodies and corporations in the US and the United Kingdom are being sought but this will not be enough. Short said, “My own sense is that we have two projects together — the reconstruction of the cemetery, and [the collection of] the contextual material to make sense of the cemetery.” It is an expensive project, which, Short feels, in the end may require an Armenian philanthropist who understands the importance of both parts. For more information, see https://julfaproject.wordpress.com/.