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The Desecration of Beauty

Desecration: the act of treating something sacred or solemn in a sacrilegious or disrespectful way; the act of ruining or violating something revered or greatly valued.

Beauty matters. Don’t believe me? Ask Roger Scruton:

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty. And if you had asked for the point of that, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important as truth and goodness.

Scruton then describes what has happened since. In demonstrating this, the first example offered is of the Mona Lisa with a mustache; the third, a urinal as a piece of art in a museum. I have no idea what the second picture is.

But this isn’t a piece on the desecration of beauty in the West, at least not as the term “West” is conventionally understood. To understand that desecration, watch the Scruton video – it is infinitely better than anything I could say on the subject. Through several snapshots, I will write of Armenia and Armenians, and the desecration of the beauty of their culture and people.

Sons of Hayk

Armenia begins in legend; the legend begins with beauty:

Armenians do not call themselves Armenians nor their country Armenia. They are descendants of Haic [Hayk], as the legend goes, who was the son of Togarmah, the son of Japhet, who was the son of Noah, and they call their country Haiasdan [Hayastan] after the patriarchal progenitor of their people.

Legend has it that Hayk was as beautiful as a god and as strong as a giant. He also was a director in the building of the Tower of Babel. As a result of this ill-fated endeavor, or, perhaps, as a result of refusing to worship the god of Babylon, Hayk, with his sons numbering 300, headed north to the land of Ararat. He returned home, to Noah’s landing spot. Hayk is said to have died at about the age of four-hundred, and about 2,000 years before Christ.

Our Mountain

Ararat, Hayk’s new home and the home for the Hayastansis is, perhaps, the most beautiful mountain in the world (ask any Armenian). Sadly, this symbol of Armenia is today found in Turkey, just across the closed border. This view is from Armenia; the view from Turkey is not nearly as beautiful.

Mt. Ararat rises almost 17,000 feet above sea level, and about 11,000 feet above the surrounding plain. The smaller peak is almost 13,000 feet above sea level and is known as Little Ararat, which is little only when standing next to its brother.

Ara

Next, we come to the legend of Ara, king of Armenia, and Semiramis, queen of Assyria. This legend dates to about eighteen centuries before Christ:
Ara was very beautiful, and Semiramis having heard speech of his beauty for many years, wished to possess him.

Armenians know him as Ara Keghesig: Ara the Beautiful. Semiramis sent messengers to Ara with gifts and offerings: come to Nineveh to wed and reign with her, or at least to enjoy countless more gifts and treasures. Ara refused to come to her. At this, the queen became angry, sending an army to battle – however, with orders not to kill Ara. Unfortunately, it didn’t go this way. Ara was killed, but the Armenian people remained independent of the Assyrians.

The Virgin

Armenians were the first to accept Christianity as the nation’s official religion, in 301 A.D. This story, too, is wrapped in beauty. The time is when St. Gregory was bound, thrown in a pit (Khor Virap) at the order of the Armenian king, Tiridates, and held for preaching Christ prior to the king’s conversion. To call it a pit does not do it justice. Through a small opening in the ground, barely large enough for one’s body to pass through, one descends straight down a ladder into a dark cave. I went down once, and in subsequent visits to the monastery decided I would not do it again.

But returning to this legend: Hripsime was a Roman virgin of exquisite beauty. Along with her nurse Gayane and thirty-three followers who were also virgins, Hripsime fled from the Emperor Diocletian, who wanted her for his spouse, “after a most careful search of his kingdom for the most beautiful of women.”

She fled to Armenia. An envoy of the Roman emperor was sent to the Armenian king, Tiridates, in search of Hripsime. When Tiridates found her, he decided to keep her for himself. She said that she would marry him only if he became a Christian. Tiridates took this for mockery and had her killed.

Legend has it that as punishment for this crime, Tiridates was turned into a grass-eating boar. The only possible cure for this infliction was to call St. Gregory, by now thirteen years in the pit. Gregory healed the king, who then converted to Christianity – albeit, now without the beautiful Hripsime as his bride.

Two of the oldest churches in Armenia are the Saint Hripsime Church and the Saint Gayane Church, each dating from the early part of the seventh century – four hundred years before any Turks were in the region.

Beauty and Meaning

Enough of these legends – mixtures of fiction and tales along with sporadic facts. Are they true? It depends on what you mean by true, I guess. If true is limited to that which comes with historical evidence, then, no, they are not all true. But if we limit truth to this, we lose beauty. So, are these stories true? Of course, absolutely. It is stories like these that make life beautiful and give life meaning.

Currently, Armenia and the Armenian province of Artsakh are facing an existential crisis, an attack by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Existential, given the history of genocide at the hands of these same instigators and their pan-Turkic desires.

Cross-Stones

There was an ancient Armenian cemetery, in Nakhichevan, an exclave of Azerbaijan, not contiguous to it. While Azerbaijan lies east of Armenia, Nakhichevan lies to the west – another remnant of decisions made early in the Soviet era.

The cemetery was in a town called Julfa. The earliest markers date to the ninth century (some sources say even earlier), and continue to the sixteenth. These markers are something more than tombstones; the Armenian word “khachkar” is used to describe these – the word literally translates as “cross-stone.” These markers usually stood between six and eight feet high. Here are two examples, dated 1602 and 1603, removed from the graveyard and now on display at Echmiadzin, Armenia.

The work is elaborate, intricate, and – dare I say – beautiful. In the seventeenth century, as many as ten-thousand khachkars remained at this gravesite in Julfa, despite the Armenian population having been earlier removed by the Persian king. Even one hundred years ago, perhaps five-thousand were still in place.

None remain today:

Those stone regiments are gone now; broken down, all of the headstones have either been removed from Djulfa or buried under the soil. No formal archaeological studies were ever carried out at the cemetery–the last traces of a community long gone–and its full historical significance will never be known.

Over the course of several centuries, stones were lost to decay and vandalism; stones were taken and used for building materials; a railroad was apparently built through the region as well. But the final blow came while the region was under the governance of Azerbaijan, in the post-Soviet era:

In 1998, the Armenian government claimed that Nakhichevan’s Azeri authorities were deliberately wrecking the cemetery in an act of symbolic violence and had destroyed 800 khachkars.

But this wasn’t the end:

The last remains of the cemetery were obliterated this past December [2005]. Over a period of three days beginning on December 14, 2005, a large group of Azeri soldiers destroyed the remaining grave markers with sledgehammers, loaded the broken stones onto trucks, and dumped them into the waters of the Araxes.

There were witnesses. The gravesite sits on the border with Iran, and directly across the Araxes River. The desecration was both photographed and filmed. Three short video clips can be found here, the first two showing the soldiers destroying the khachkars, the third showing the remains being dumped into the river chasm. Before and after pictures can be found here. One can consider this a continuation of genocide: the living were removed from their homeland, and so, too, now the dead.

Azerbaijan claims that Armenians never lived in the region, that the land has been Azeri since time immemorial. Of course, it would have been easy enough to demonstrate this by allowing proper archeologists into the region prior to the final desecration.

Holy Savior Cathedral

In Artsakh, one will find a beautiful cathedral, Ghazanchetsots, the seat of the Diocese of Artsakh. The church fell into disrepair during the Soviet period, when the region was under Azeri control. After the post-Soviet war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control of the region, Armenians rebuilt the church, rededicating it in 1998.

On October 8, 2020, during this current conflict, Azerbaijan targeted and hit this church. It is now in ruins. Several pictures and a short before-and-after video can be found here, including a picture of the hole in the roof where the projectile came through. The cultural center in the same town was destroyed.

Voice

I have struggled with writing this post for perhaps ten days. I tried starting a couple of times but couldn’t bring myself to it. What prompted me to consider it, and what has at the same time made it so emotionally difficult, is the death of Kevork Hadjian:

Kevork Hadjian, an Armenian-Lebanese opera singer, has died while fighting on the Nagorno-Karabakh [Artsakh] frontline. He was 49.

What was a world class opera singer doing there?

Hadjian was a member of a regiment of volunteers led by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – an Armenian nationalist and socialist political party that is also active in Syria and Lebanon. The platoon had been fighting alongside the Artsakh Defence Corps and managed to overrun Azerbaijani positions on the Varangatagh (Lulasaz) height shortly after Hadjian was killed.

Here is a video of him singing a very well-known and well-beloved and beautiful Armenian song, Groong (The Crane). It took me about five tries to get through all of it; I had to stop several times – the first time after only a few seconds of his voice. The lyrics:

Oh crane, where do you come from,

I am a slave to your voice,

Oh crane, don’t you have news from our homeland?

You did not answer me and you flew away,

Oh crane, go, fly away from our land.

Komitas

The composer of the song is Komitas (his name taken as a priest; by birth Soghomon Soghomonian – Solomon, son of Solomon), an Armenian priest and one of the leaders of the community deported from Constantinople on April 24, 1915 – the date we commemorate as the beginning of the genocide. He is the father of much of the Armenian Divine Liturgy; he rescued for posterity many of the songs sung by Armenian villagers.

Komitas survived this ordeal through the intervention of U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who intervened with the Ottoman government; Komitas was dispatched back to the capital alongside eight other Armenians who had been deported. The word “survived,” however, is loosely applied. On the train ride out of Constantinople, Komitas is described by a fellow passenger and priest, Fr. Grigoris Balakian, as mentally unstable:

He thought the trees were bandits on the attack and continually hid his head under the hem of my overcoat, like a fearful partridge.

Shortly thereafter, he ended up in a hospital in Istanbul, then in 1919 in Paris. He died in a psychiatric clinic in 1935. That train ride, it seems, cost Komitas his beauty.

There is a statue of him, a monument, in Paris on the River Seine, in a beautiful (and expensive) part of Paris near the Champs Elysée and the George V Hotel, just beyond the shops of Avenue Montaigne. The main Armenian Church of Paris, St. Jean Baptiste, is also close by. I once attended an April 24 commemoration that began at this church and ended at the base of the statue – attended by city leaders and hundreds of members of the Armenian community.

The statue was desecrated last month, by one who wanted us to know that he believed that the genocide is a lie.

Conclusion

Sevak Avanesyan is an Armenian-Belgian cellist. In this video, he plays the same song – Groong – in the ruins of the aforementioned bombed church in Artsakh.

Roger Scruton would say that when beauty is lost, meaning is lost. Avanesyan demonstrates how Armenians live lives of meaning – by creating beauty in the offerings of those who would desecrate ours. As one of the commenters at this video noted: “Like a Phoenix, we always rise from our ashes.” Sadly, we have lived through too many ashes; we have much experience in knowing how to rise.

The movie Fight Club offers commentary on the nihilism of rejecting beauty and embracing the desecration of beauty. In one scene, we have this exchange:

Tyler Durden: Where’d you go, psycho boy?

Narrator: I felt like destroying something beautiful.

Psycho boy. Armenians are surrounded by neighbors such as this.

Source: Daniel Ajamian via LewRockwell