An Armenian and Armenia

Garen Kokciyan was born in Nisantasi, a nineteenth-century residential quarter in Istanbul, in 1959. His father and mother were Armenian, and they spoke Armenian at home. On their identity cards, the words “religion: Christian” were printed. Like most minorities, the Kokciyan family, after the Armenian elementary school, sent their children to a foreign secondary school. Garen attended the Italian secondary school in preparation for university in Italy: at the age of nineteen, he arrived in Torino to study Aeronautic Engineering at the Polytechnic.

In the twenty years that followed, all of Garen’s energy and attention was absorbed by the difficulties of building a life in a foreign country, making it his own and establishing his activity of aeronautic consulting there.

Up to this point, the fact of being Armenian was the natural backdrop of his life, perceived mostly as precocious training for passing from one language to another and from one culture to another: a store of flexibility and ease that helped him in his move to Italy.

A change took place when he turned fifty and departed on the first of many trips to Armenia.

Armenia is about the size of Piedmont today, a mountainous area squeezed in the middle by the large Caucasian corridor that central Asian populations used for thousands of years to migrate towards the south in search of a warmer climate and more fertile soil. It is a poor country of stony ground, with only one city, Yerevan, rich in ancient times, and an expanse of endless peaks, plateaus, gorges and plains.

The history of Armenia is terrible. It is a small country condemned by its geography to being crushed between large empires: Hittites and Babylonians, Greeks and Persians, Romans and Carthaginians, Byzantines and Seljuqs, Russians and Ottomans, Soviets and Europeans have continued for centuries to measure their strength in arms before and beyond the Caucasian hinge, each time crossing Armenia, annexing it and losing it, always turning it into a battle field.

And yet, Armenians have resisted the fate that its geography had reserved for them. It was their choice: in 301 their king Tiridate converted to Christianity, and twelve years before Constantine he chose it as the religion of his kingdom. In 405 Mesrop Mashtots created an alphabet modeled on the phonemes of the Armenian language, which became an important element of consolidation of Armenian identity.

Language, religion and writing proved to be tools capable of binding and preserving a culture, of marking the difference with respect to the surrounding worlds with their different languages, customs and religions. A boundary that, between 1915 and 1917, meant the uprooting and almost total extermination of western Armenians by the Ottomans towards the end of the Ottoman Empire.

A few times in history, from the second century BC to the end of the sixth or seventh century AD, and again between the tenth and twelfth centuries, Armenians had a nation, a kingdom, an authority that represented them. The churches and monasteries, which date back to one or the other of these two periods, are testimony to the flourishing of the “Great Armenia” and the long centuries of emptiness before the reconstruction of today’s Armenia.

These monuments are unique in Europe: Roman, Persian, Greek and Arab characters merge in a new creation, from which Roman and European Gothic architecture would draw elements and inspiration. In the churches of gray and pink tuff, in the monasteries constructed at the end of tortuous gorges or high up on plateaus of unexpected beauty that emerge between steep cliffs, one seems to find precisely expressed and written in the stone the hinge between the ancient world and our own, the point of passage in which arches, columns, vaults, capitals and cupolas inherited from Greek, Roman and Persian worlds, from East and West combine and, like the Armenian alphabet, draw on elements from all of the neighboring countries to create an autonomous language, rich in figures and forms.

Christianity, whose ways in the West are well known to us, in Armenia preserves and reflects the breadth of the civilizing work of its beginnings. The baritone voice of the officiants that resonates deeply under the vaults of these churches has a virile tone, expresses strength and infuses courage, and the songs and sacred music refer back to different, older tonalities than what our ears are used to.

For many centuries without a state, invaded and crushed by restless, arrogant empires, Armenians miraculously preserved their identity. And this is the electrifying experience that is felt in Armenia today. The Soviets withdrew twenty-two years ago, leaving in their wake cemeteries of abandoned factories, unfinished apartment blocks and forests of concrete pillars waiting eternally for a future that will never arrive. They aren’t even sad, but proceed stoically towards their destiny of ruins already besetting them. But the real inheritance that the end of the Soviet regime left to the Armenians is something else: at this point in their thousand-year history they have the freedom to be themselves and to discover that something essential from their world and culture has not been lost.

This could be the magnetic force that has attracted Garen to Armenia and that the photographs presented in this show communicate to us: the sense of participating in an adventure, in the discovery of the man and his history in a moment that involves the potential for constructive hope, hope that is felt in the air that is breathed.

Annalisa Ferretti