Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gyumri has preserved the aura and architecture of the 19th century

Gyumri, Armenia - The devastating earthquakes of October 22, 1926, and December 7, 1988, which claimed the lives of about 750 and 17,500 residents of Gyumri respectively, ruined most of the city's buildings except those built during the czarist era - from the second half of the 19th century to the 1920s. When you walk through the central streets of Gyumri, you feel the aura of the 19th century and become fascinated by the city's architecture. That city, however is not present-day Gyumri, it is Alexandrapol, a city which in its day used to be the second richest, most beautiful and attractive city after Tbilisi.
At the beginning of the 19th century, present-day Gyumri was just a village named Kumayri. However, after a dozen years it became one of the most important railway junctions in the Caucasus. In 1837 Russian Czar Nicolai I visited Kumayri and in honor of his wife, Alexandra Fiodorovna, renamed Kumayri, Alexandrapol. Three years later in 1840 Alexandrapol received the status of a city.
In order to learn the history of today's Gyumri and feel the breath of former Alexandrapol, the available volumes of history books and ethnography are not enough. A visit to the museum of the Dzitoghtsians, which is in the center of the city, in old Kumayri, is a must. In general, Gyumri is very rich with museums. I always try to avoid using the ambitious phrase "open-air museum," regardless of which country or city and site it may refer to. However, when it refers to Gyumri's center, where 100-150-year-old architecturally valuable buildings, villas, museums, churches, and other structures with black, sometimes black-and-yellowish stones, are located, the phrase "open-air museum" can be used.
There are three house-museums in the center of the city, on Varpetats Street: Armenian writer Avetik Isahakian's, Hovhannes Shiraz's, and actor Mher Mkrtchian's, who is loved by Armenians throughout the world. The crafts museum of the Aslamazian sisters is located a short distance away. However, the most famous museums, where diasporans and tourists to Gyumri visit, are without a doubt that of the Dzitoghtsians and sculptor Merkurov.
The museum of the Dzitoghtsians
The Dzitoghtsians Museum or the museum of national architecture and urban life of Gyumri was constructed in 1872. The house that is the museum today used to belong to one of the wealthiest people in Gyumri, Petros Dzitoghtsian. I toured the museum with Karine Mkrtchian, one of the employees of the museum.
The museum comprises several sections, where belongings of the former owners have been preserved. Here you can get a clear idea of how wealthy Armenians lived 150 years ago, their tastes, preferences, and interests. Their furniture has been preserved in the rooms of the Dzitoghtsians: the piano and watch brought from Austria 130 years ago, paintings by famous painters brought from Italy and other pieces of furniture brought from Russia and Europe.
Alexandrapol was truly considered the city of arts and crafts. Armen Tigranian staged the opera Anush for the first time in Alexandrapol. The instruments on which they played at that time including the bagpipe, kyamancha, shvi, duduk, and tar have been preserved in the museum. Jivani and Sheram, the famous Armenian ashughs (minstrels) of that time sang in Alexandrapol.
The arts of jewelers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, lace work, and other crafts were developed in the city.
"There were two beer factories in Alexandrapol. One belonged to the Dzaghikians and was constructed in 1881 and the second, which opened sometime later, belonged to Mkrtich Dzitoghtsian, who was Petros Dzitoghtsian's brother. He sent his son to Munich, where he learned the art of making beer. The beer produced in Alenxandrapol was in demand not only in Armenia and the Caucasus, but also outside its borders," explains Karine Mkrtchian.
In the Dzitoghtsians museum you feel that you are in the 19th century, the time when Alexandrapol was the richest Armenian city. At that time Eastern Armenia, which was a part of czarist Russia, only had six cities: the richest and the most important one was Alexandrapol, then came Yerevan, New Bayazet (today's Gavar), Goris, Shushi, and Kars.
In the 1920s the Dzitoghtsians left their house and moved to the Crimea and from there to France. There are no other details about them and their heirs. In 1984 the house was turned into a museum. However after 1988 it was inhabited.
Sergey Merkurov's museum
Sergey Merkurov's museum is next to the Dzitoghtsians museum. Director Arshak Manukian says that Merkurov's creations are phenomenal in the development of Armenian sculpture genre. The creation of monumental memorials of renowned people in pre-revolution Russia is linked to him.
Sergey Merkurov was Greek by origin. To be more precise, in his own words, which he repeated several times, "I am a Greek Gyumretsi [resident of Gyumri] or a Greek-Armenian Gyumretsi." Decades after moving from Alexandrapol, not only did he not forget Armenian, which was like a native language to him, but he always talked and like all residents of Gyumri, joked in the Gyumri dialect.
The Merkurovs, their true surname Merkuridi, moved to Alexandrapol in the mid-19th century, along with another 100 Greek families. Merkurov's grandfather was a trader who had shops in Kars, Tbilisi. and Baku, as well as baths in Alexandrapol. The Merkurovs were among the wealthiest families of the city.
The future sculptor lived and studied in Alexandrapol till the age of 15, then moved to Tbilisi and studied and worked in Zurich, Munich, Paris, Moscow, and many other cities. He studied philosophy and, apart from Armenian, he was also fluent in English, Russian, German, and French.
"Merkurov was a sculptor and monument maker. His huge sculptures were placed in the open air in squares. When we opened this museum we had some difficulties since we could not move some of those sculptures here. Merkurov is famous for being a master of death masks. In the pre-Soviet and Soviet period Merkurov was the most famous death-mask-maker," recounts Manukian.

by Tatul Hakobyan
Published: Friday March 27, 2009

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