Claude Mutafian: “We should leave the Armenian ghetto”

The name of Claude Mutafian, historian and expert in medieval Armenian history, is inseparably linked to the ancient Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. In September, Mutafian will come to Russia to take part in a conference organized by the Moscow State University in cooperation with Foundation for development and support of Armenian Studies "ANIV", titled “Armenian Diaspora and Armenian-Russian Relations: History and Modernity.” We spoke with Claude about Armenian heritage and Armenian treasures exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
By Tigrane Yegavian
T.Y.: What is so special about the Hermitage’s Armenian collection? Where did the majority of items come from? 
C.M.: The provenance of these items is quite varied. For example, the collection boasts a consecrated Book of Gospels that was copied in Genoa in 1330s. Back in the day, it was gifted to the Hermitage by the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Another interesting exhibit is a pair of wooden doors from the Armenian monastery in Crimea, inscriptions on which date back to the 14th century.
The Armenian collection also includes a number of seals, of which two are completely unique. One of them belonged to prince Thoros II (12th century) from the Rubenid dynasty. The second one has a Greek inscription of the name of Empress Maria Palaiolog. She was the sister of the king of Cilicia Hethum II and the wife of the Byzantine co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos. I brought those seals to Sorbonne in 1993 and the Genovese Book of Gospels to the Vatican in 1999.
But the most important item in the Hermitage’s Armenian collection is the silver ark from Skevra (a medieval Armenian monastery), which contained holy relics. It was made in 1292. In that year, the Rumkale fortress, the seat of the Cilician Catholicos, fell to the protracted siege of the Mamluks. Skevra was one of the most important monasteries of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. On the topside of the ark one can read a long inscription, a poem of sorts, which bemoans the fall of Skevra. This stunning specimen was found in Italy in the 19th century and was acquired by some Russian count. When the count passed away, the Hermitage bought his whole collection, the little ark included. For a long time, all of these items were kept in museum vaults, and the majority of them have never been exhibited. Fortunately, about 10 years ago, the Hermitage had opened a special room to exhibit Armenian art.
T.Y.: How did Armenian studies develop first in czarist, and then in Soviet Russia? How did it all begin? 
C.M.: I should admit that in the Soviet times, the field of Armenian studies was growing rather actively. I could name several prominent scientists, first and foremost the present-day Director of the Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky and his father Boris, who oversaw archeological digs in Armenia.
In the beginning of the 19th century Russia conquered the Southern Caucasus, and that sparked an interest in Armenian history. The Russians saw the Armenian architecture and ruins. The pioneer of Armenian studies was Nicholas Marr, who conducted the first archeological excavations in the ancient city of Ani. Apart from the Russians themselves, a lot of work was done by Armenians who lived in Russia. The most prominent of them was a scientist from St. Petersburg, Karen Yuzbashyan: thanks to his efforts, the works of Armenian historians were translated to Russian. Another proof of the great interest in Armenia was the work of the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages, which actively taught the Armenian language, and later became the headquarters of the Armenian Embassy in Moscow.
During the reign of Catherine II, Armenians were often moved to the Russian Empire’s outskirts for military reasons. This idea belonged to Hovsep Argutyan, the bishop of Armenians in Russia, who suggested that the Russian state transport the Crimean Armenians closer to the borders. As a result, two towns were founded in Bessarabia — New Nakhichevan and Grigoriopol. The latter is located in modern-day Moldova. These events were reflected in the engravings on the Khagpart ark, which is kept at the Museum of Armenian National History in Yerevan.
T.Y.: Thanks to the call for submissions of personal first-hand accounts, we’ve opened up a whole layer of Armenian history to the world. As a historian, what do you think of the 100 LIVES initiative and the Aurora Prize?
C.M.: Your work is very important. I have always supported the idea of leaving the Armenian ghetto and addressing non-Armenians. I always try to do just that. But this doesn’t prevent me from giving my due attention to the new generation. I often give lectures at Armenian schools. The children should be told stories, and today my task is made easier by new technologies that allow me to illustrate the historical content. Every time during such sessions, I do my best to make sure that the students look at the events from more than just one, Armenian, point of view, even if the Armenians themselves, who don’t know their history too well, seem to find this pointless.
By the way, it’s interesting to note that until the end of the 20th century, almost all of the graduates of the Armenian studies department at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Langues’O) in Paris were not Armenians (Georges Dumézil, Antoine Meillet, Jean-Pierre Mahé,  Frédéric-Armand Feydit, and others) — and that’s great. In the 19th century, one of the world’s most prominent Armenian scholars, Frenchman Marie-Félicité Brosset, had mostly worked in St. Petersburg along with other leading experts of his time, Charles-Victor Langlois and Jacques Dulaurier.
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A famous historian on Armenian treasures