Scholar Erna Shirinian Delves into Armenian-Greek and Armenian-Byzantine Relations


The Armenian church of Chordvan in Tayk (today near Yusufeli in the Rize province of Turkey)

The Armenian church of Chordvan in Tayk (today near Yusufeli in the Rize province of Turkey)

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Normally Dr. Erna Manea Shirinian spends the first half of her workday as a full professor of history at Yerevan State University and then goes in the afternoon to Yerevan’s Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (“Matenadaran”), where she is head of the department concerned with researching and editing ancient Armenian texts. Fortunately for the Mirror, she was in Boston a few months ago, during the spring, and spoke a little about the state of scholarly affairs in Armenia as well as a conference she was organizing on Tayk.

Born in Akhalkalak, Georgia, Dr. Shirinian began her education in Armenia. Her father did not want her to leave the country, but as a good student, she was sent by her teacher to Russia to learn classical literature and translation. Most of the other students did not continue in academia. When she returned, she was told she could go to specialize in Byzantine Studies in Moscow.

She went back to Armenia and then spent three years in Moscow and five in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) studying but when she graduated in 1975 and came back to Armenia she was told there were no jobs available for her. Instead she began making Gobelin tapestries to support herself.

After defending her first thesis, while in the Matenadaran, and in the period after Chernobyl, she received a letter from a German named Günther Christian Hansen who had read an article she wrote on Socrates Scholasticus, a fifth-century Constantinople church historian. He wished to meet her. Despite some initial misunderstandings – for example, he thought she was a man – they ended up collaborating on an academic work.

The German appreciated it greatly, and starting sending packages with chocolate, flour and other items during the difficult times in Armenia. Eventually the packages reached the size of pieces of luggage. He invited the whole family to stay with him in Berlin and helped on some medical issues for Dr. Shirinian’s son. The work, a critical edition titled Sokrates: Kirchengeschichte, was published in Berlin in 1995.

Each time Dr. Hansen saw Dr. Shirinian at a conference, he brought some money, which he said was earned by the book. Shirinian exclaimed, “I was very lucky that he appeared in my life. Aside from all his help, in Armenia, when they see that a foreigner approves of you, the Armenians will also value you.”

Even more significantly, Shirinian declared, “the most important person who supported my work during my whole life is my husband and the best friend Levon Melikian.” Melikian is an architect and a professor at the Yerevan Institute of Architecture. He also is a musician who was one of the original members of the band Apostles, a pioneer of Armenian rock in the Soviet period, together with Arthur (Artashes) Meschian.

Shirinian added that she has three very close friends, “really sisters…thanks to whom I became who I am.” They are Tamar Hadjian, Carolyn Mugar and Susan Yacubian Klein.

In 1987, Shirinian earned her doctorate in history from the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Russia, while she received a second doctorate in 2002 from the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia. Though she initially went into the theology department at Yerevan State University, her specialty is translations into Classical Armenian from Greek during the fifth to early eight centuries – what is called the Hunaban or Hellenizing School. These Armenian translations are earlier than whatever Greek original versions may be extant, since the latter date from the 10th to 12th centuries. Thus, the Armenian can be used to restore the Greek original since it usually was a literal translation.

Shirinian continued to publish on topics such as the Hellenizing School, the Armenian reception of the Greek philosophical and theological heritage, and Armenian-Byzantine cultural relations. In 2005, she published the volume Kʻristoneakan vardapetutʻyan antik ev hellenistikan tarrere : haykakan ev hunakan, dasakan ev byuzandakan aghbyurneri baghdatutʻyamb [Christian Doctrine in the Ancient and Hellenistic Centuries, Through Comparison of Armenian and Greek, Classical and Byzantine Sources] (Yerevan). In 2010, she was a co-author of The Armenian Version of the Greek Ecclesiastical Canons with Gohar Muradyan and Aram Topchyan (Frankfurt am Main: 2010). She has many other articles and chapters in books, such as on the forged “genealogy” of Patriarch Photius (1995), the similarly forged Dashants T`ught [Letter of Concord] (2003), “The Armenian Versions of Vita Silvestri” (1997), and “The Armenian Version of David the Invincible’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories” (2009).

At present, she has quite a few ongoing projects. She is collaborating with the Canadian D. S. Hutchinson on the Greek and Armenian Pseudo-Aristotelian texts of De vitiis et vertutibus and is preparing English translations of the philosophical texts of Davit the Invincible with a colleague at the University of Geneva. The Armenian Version of David the Invincible’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories will come out in book form in a year or so. She is working on completing for publication the Book of Causes, which is a prolegomena, on questions which should be settled before exegesis of the Bible. It is one of the unpublished manuscripts of the Matenadaran and dates from the 12th to 13th centuries AD. This is an example, she pointed out, of what Armenian scholarship can give the world – in this case concerning the study of Christianity.

A book she began with Professor J. J. S. Weitenberg two decades ago, Parallel Aligned Text and Bilingual Concordance of the Armenian and Greek Versions of Vita Silvestri, is coming to completion in 2018, though Weitenberg’s death in 2012 has complicated the work.

Another topic that she is working on is the “mankunk yekeghetsvo,” or the Children of the Church, which concerns a teaching from the early period of Christianity. According to Shirinian, the meaning of this phrase changed over time from pious and pure Christians in general to a class of people who were like studious vardapets, dealing with literature and knowledge and living in separate communities with special belts and rules.

While pursuing her research at the Matenadaran, Shirinian has been developing new generations of scholars. She supported the transition of several of her students from the university’s Theology Department to the Matenadaran, and has succeeded in sending some to various European institutions for further study. One now is at Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, another at Basel University in Switzerland, and others in Armenia. She exclaimed, “They are Armenian women, but they are also great scholars. It is amazing, but they have families too. They are strong in everything.”
Shirinian pointed out how hard it is in Armenia today to be a good scholar. She said, “You must be completely dedicated or very rich, but if the latter, you don’t really case. You can’t sleep at night to be a good wife and mother and a good scholar.” It is not something material, yet, she said, “you cannot touch love or music either, but without them, how can you live.” She added that scholarship everywhere in the world, not just in Armenia, is in decline. Even in Germany, she noted, they are closing Byzantine and Classical Studies centers.

In Armenia, she said, “Scholars are fighters, just as in the Karabagh battles. Perhaps this is unexpected, but this is the same battle, and the same people. Scholarship is a truly important weapon for us.”

At present, Shirinian aside from working at her two main jobs, serves as editor of the Armenological periodical Ashtanak and the multivolume annotated bibliographical series Armeniaca, which covers Armenological publications printed in Armenia. It is in English, in order to keep Armenian specialists abroad up-to-date and informed. She began work on it in 1998. The first volume covers the year 2000, and now the latest volume (four) covering 2003 will soon appear. The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont, Mass. helped support this project. Today, the internet makes it easier to find out about new publications in Armenia, but in earlier years this publication served an indispensable function.

Shirinian is president of the Armenian National Committee of Byzantine Studies (ANCBS). It is the Armenian branch of the international organization, Association International des Études Byzantines. NAASR supported Armenia’s participation in this organization’s conferences, so that two people from Armenia were able to attend its Athens conference in 2008. Shirinian has participated in many other conferences of this organization and in fact at present is preparing to go to Belgrade as a representative of the Armenian National Committee to deliver a paper at yet another conference.

Most recently, Shirinian as president of ANCBS initiated a major conference entitled “The Historical Region of Tayk: History, Culture, Religious Confessions,” which took place in Armenia from June 22 to 27 of this year. There were 32 academic participants from various countries including Armenia, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In addition to the National Committee, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts and the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia were organizers, while the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, the State Committee of Science of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Armenia, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia, and the Honorary Consulate of Italy in Gumri were financial sponsors. The most important grants for the conference were from the Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies and NAASR. Jack Medzorian, member of NAASR’s executive board, was able to be present with his wife Eva.

The disputes around the identity of Tayk continue to have very real political implications today. One evidence of that was that Georgian scholars were invited, and two even sent abstracts, but all pulled out of the conference. A similar conference in Georgia organized by Ilia State University will take place in September, and three young Armenian scholars are planning to apply to participate. However, they were warned that if the Armenian toponyms Tayk or Kghardzk were to be used in an abstract, it would be rejected.

Tayk was one of the fifteen historical provinces of Armenia, and today its territories are in northeastern Turkey. Disputes over the understanding of the nature of Christ led at one time to both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Armenians living there in large numbers. In the eighth century the Chalcedonians came under pressure and eventually the non-Chalcedonian Armenians of the Church of Armenia won control in general, but Tayk was predominantly Chalcedonian and went over to the Georgians. Shirinian explained that they began to call themselves Georgian, but this at the time was only in a religious sense, not ethnic. The Bagratuni clan split so that those who went over to the Chalcedonian side are today claimed as ethnic Georgians though they were Chalcedonian Armenians.

Those who became “Georgian” continued to write in Armenian however. This is clear from the inscriptions in the Chalcedonian churches they created, many of which are now in Turkey or Georgia.

Even the scholar Nikolai Marr, whose mother was Georgian, says that the population of Tayk was Armenian. He wrote an important Russian-language article in 1906 which is now being prepared by Shirinian for a new trilingual edition including Armenian and French translations (“Ark’aun, mongolskoe nazvanie Khristian” Vizantiiskiï Vremennik, xii). Marr’s article concerns the term “ark’aun” used for Christians by the Mongols as well as observations on the Chalcedonian Armenians.

The conference includes papers on Tayk during various historical periods, starting from the second millennium BC and covers historical, ecclesiastical, architectural, musical, literary, artistic and political topics. The goal was to show scholars outside of Armenia, including the Georgians, that there are a plethora of historical materials and sources in Armenian. Serious scholarship cannot be done on this topic without using these materials, while Georgians are lacking many primary sources prior to the 11th century.

Political conditions did not permit any excursions to the historical areas of Tayk, but the conference participants visited Chalcedonian churches in the north of Armenia, such as Kobayr and Akhtala, along with some other non-Chalcedonian churches.

On a different topic, Shirinian noted with gratitude the donations of the sisters Maria and Beatrice Gheridian, who live in the Boston area, to the Matenadaran. They donated money in 2015 to create the Mashtots Fund for the preservation and progress of Armenian culture. One of the goals is to support young scholars working at the Matenadaran. The sisters previously donated to the Matenadaran five manuscripts, 144 valuable early printed books, largely from the 17th and 18th centuries, and two Armenian rugs in memory of their brother Dr. Ruben Gheridian. They donated books and other items to the Armenian Museum of America in 2012.