BY HEGHINAR MELKOM MELKOMIAN
I have a copper pot which my mother-in-law gave to me; it’s over a hundred years old. When I first saw it, I fell in love with it. I wondered how many meals had been prepared in that pot, how many people had eaten food prepared in it, how many coppersmiths had cleaned it, and how many hammers had left their marks on it.
My mother-in-law also gave me an old iron, one of those that have a compartment for coal underneath them, and some other old family bits and pieces, which she had preserved with love for so many years and which contained her family’s history. I love these items and deep down inside felt honored to receive them. I felt honored to be trusted to preserve her memories and to hopefully pass them on to my children one day.
I love old things including knickknacks, clothing, photographs, buildings and monuments. I love things that have stood the test of time, witnessed many good and bad things, and that hold the memories of specific people, places, and events. These things are like time machines that take us to places and moments that we may have never been before. They allow us to live or relive the past.
We want to travel and see the world in order to feel, in order to learn, in order to understand. If there was no Notre-Dame or Montmartre or Opera Garnier, why in the world would we want to go to a country where no one speaks our language, where there is nothing to see, and where nothing evokes our sense of things different, things past?
Traveling is a search through time, a search through history, and various monuments – churches, schools, palaces, buildings – are there to help us feel, see and understand different times, different people, different mentalities, and different lifestyles. Without preserved paintings, songs, buildings, and sculptures, there is nothing before us save blankness. Things contemporary are our present; old things are our past, our heritage.
So it is fair to ask and today, I, together with thousands of my other compatriots, am facing a serious question, “What are we leaving behind?”
Recently, there was news that the Armenian Apostolic Church has requested that Moscow Cinema’s amphitheater on 18 Abovian Street be demolished and the St. Boghos-Bedros Church – which once occupied the entire territory of today’s Moscow cinema and was demolished during the Soviet Era – be reconstructed in its place.
Our people never came to terms with the Soviet planners’ rationale for pulling down a religious monument for the purpose of building a cultural center. I am sure they will not understand the reasons for pulling down a cultural monument, albeit only 40 years old, to make room for a church. Was it not possible to build the center without destroying the monument? Of course it was. But the Soviet state was equally as intent on destroying the churches as on building cultural centers. It was anti-religion. Now that it is gone, why do the same in reverse? Is it not possible to build a church without pulling down a cultural monument?
There are many different opinions about the proposal and its implementation. Visit the “Save Cinema Moscow Open-Air Hall” Facebook page, and more than 3,500 opinions by Armenians from different walks of life are displayed. Some consider this to be a restoration of history, some consider it justice, others consider it a strengthening of the Armenian Apostolic Church, while others consider this the demolition of yet another one of our city’s cultural monuments.
Moscow Cinema’s Open-Air amphitheater was included in the Republic of Armenia’s list of historic-cultural places until March 4, 2010, when the government approved the decision to remove the amphitheater from the list of sites that needed to be preserved and protected.
Yes, a structure considered to be worthy of preservation and state protection all of a sudden turned out to be just pieces of stone worthy of demolition. I guess I could say that some things are solved mafia-style in Armenia: “If it’s in your way, get rid of it.”
For several days I’ve been following the discussions and debates of my fellow citizens and my diasporan compatriots, but I have remained silent until now. Now, I feel as if I’m about to explode with anger and sadness.
Unless I suffer from Alzheimer’s, I will never forget the first rock concert I attended with my friends at the Open-Air amphitheater. Years ago I watched movies there at nights and attended many concerts. These memories put a smile on my face and make the jukebox in my head sing, “Memories light the corners of my mind, misty watercolor memories, of the way we were.”
We live our lives remembering various people and events and keep those events and people alive by remembering. I remember there was a time when Abovian Street had an air of distinction with its hexagonal concrete blocks and two-and-three-storied beautiful buildings constructed in black tuff. During the construction of Northern Avenue (a section of which converges with Abovian Street), these historic buildings – instead of being reinforced – were numbered, dismantled and removed: to be “relocated”, later. It was said that a special neighborhood was to be designated to reconstruct them. To date the “relocation” has not been implemented. Now, few historic buildings remain standing on this street.
Today I am angry because apparently heritage and culture mean little to our Government and even our Church. Yes, I know, the Open-Air amphitheater is only 40-years-old, but if we preserve, reinforce and renovate it today, tomorrow it will be over 100-years-old. Over the years, the amphitheater has stopped serving as a cinema, but has hosted unforgettable concerts and festivals, including last year’s very successful Open Music Fest 2009.
Just a block further up, at the intersection of Sayat-Nova and Abovian streets, there’s the St. Katoghike Chapel. Many years ago, ignoring the cries and criticisms of experts, the Soviet authorities ordered the tearing down of the 17th Century Holy Mother of God Katoghike Church in order to build the Language Institute on its premises. Two years ago the Church demolished the Language Institute in order to construct a new church, St. Anna, on the site where the church used to stand. The Institute was knocked down without delay, but the new church has not been constructed yet. I don’t know why the church has not proceeded with the construction of St. Anna yet, but while the construction work is pending, why not plant some flowers or grass on that site? My favorite sanctuary now looks abandoned in the middle of an intersection, surrounded by dust and rocks.
I am not against the construction of churches, but I believe this needs to be done with more thought. By demolishing the Open-Air amphitheater and constructing St. Boghos-Bedros, historical justice will not be done. Firstly the church was massive and occupied the entire territory of Moscow Cinema and this new structure will merely resemble the old St. Boghos-Bedros, squashed between other buildings. Secondly just because the amphitheater does not function as it should, does not mean that it should be brought down. Something that is not functioning should be renovated, refurbished, should be given life and not destroyed. With this same logic, all of those churches which have long stopped serving as churches – of which there are many examples throughout Armenia – should be demolished and replaced by other structures. Thirdly,
having a church only a block up makes the construction of yet another church in downtown Yerevan somehow unnecessary. There are many other districts which lack a church altogether.
I want to see restoration and not demolition. I want to see logic and not obstinacy. I want to see faith and not force. I want to see the fruits of our voices. I want to live in a city where buildings and monuments tell the city’s, and its residents’ story. I want the coming generation to experience this as well. And today I once again ask myself, “What are we going to leave behind us?”
Will I be able to take my children to the still-standing Open-Air amphitheater to watch a cartoon or a movie? Will I be able to point out the building to them one day and tell them I attended several rock concerts in this amphitheater? Will I be able to watch their amusement at the thought of their mother loving rock music? Will I be able to back my stories with the help of the structures that witnessed the course of my life? Or will I just have to recall a story and then try to explain what happened to that building, why it was torn down, and what we did or didn’t do to save the structure?
I want us to be smarter than other cities. We have already made many mistakes, but it is not too late to stop yet. Instead of cutting down trees, demolishing architecturally valuable buildings, and constructing new ones, we should plant more trees and add buildings next to the already existing ones.
We should build today’s Armenia on yesterday’s foundations, yesterday’s heritage. Otherwise, just as is happening in many Western countries, we will have to try to correct today’s mistakes. We should be wise and look at our situation as a cup that’s half-full instead of half-empty. We should take advantage of being an under-developed country by learning from the mistakes more developed countries have already made and prevent making them ourselves.