x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Armenian city lives in a school museum

Visitors come from all over the world for a taste of old Kharberd, a provincial capital Armenians were driven out of nearly 100 years ago.

Safaryan Yepraksya spent almost 10 years gathering material for a small museum dedicated to preserving Armenian history.
Safaryan Yepraksya spent almost 10 years gathering material for a small museum dedicated to preserving Armenian history.

NOR KHARBERD, ARMENIA // Safaryan Yepraksya is a mine of information about the province of Kharberd in what used to be Western Armenia. The 55-year-old schoolteacher tells how there were 300 Armenian villages, each having up to 500 houses, plus dozens of Armenian churches and schools in the province, the capital of which was a city also known as Kharberd. These figures are also displayed on the wall of the tiny museum she has created in a school in Nor Kharberd or new Kharberd, a district in the south of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, named after what Armenians consider a lost province.

Ms Yepraksya said there were 280,000 people, half of them Armenians, in old Kharberd, as it is sometimes referred to, at the time of the "genocide" in which Armenians were driven from the area. "The majority of those born in Kharberd ended up in France, Lebanon and other countries," she said. "Nor Kharberd was founded [in 1929] when they came to live here." The province, now in Turkey, where it is called Elazig, has seen brisk economic and population growth in recent years and is home to around 600,000 Turks, Azeris and Kurds.

Ms Yepraksya, a 55-year-old history teacher, spent nearly 10 years gathering material for the museum before it opened in 1983. She said she has always been interested in the history of Western Armenia, the term she uses for what is now eastern Turkey. As well as being used for classes at Nor Kharberd secondary school number two, Ms Yepraksya said the museum also attracts diasporan Armenians from countries such as Lebanon, France, Russia and Greece. Some, she said, are the children and grandchildren of former Kharberd residents.

According to the museum, 68 churches, 83 schools and 12 monasteries were destroyed during the "genocide". Turkey does not recognise the events as genocide and disputes the Armenian assertion that 1.5 million of its people were killed, saying the actual figure was one fifth of this. The museum has black-and-white photographs of the residents of the original Kharberd and recent colour pictures of their descendants, some of whom live in the United States and other western countries.

There are souvenirs, ranging from pieces of white lace to vases and jugs, collected from residents of Kharberd who fled the killings and deportations of the early 20th century. A simple painting of a man and woman wearing traditional Kharberd clothing sits on the wall. "This is the notebook of a female college student from 1911," Ms Yepraksya said while reaching into a glass cabinet and picking out a book that contained writings and a few dried flowers.

"These all came from old Kharberd. She survived the genocide and the notebook was brought to us." Displays commemorate some of Kharberd's most celebrated residents, including the writer Tlkatintsi, who was killed near the city in 1915. The school's partner institution, secondary school number one, is named after him. Some of the first families to settle Nor Kharberd are also pictured. Some of their descendants, among them the great-grandchildren of Kharberd residents, attend the school.

"If you don't inform your younger generation about historical facts, they will gradually be forgotten," Ms Yepraksya said. "That's why we need to collect all these and teach the younger generation so they can remember the Armenian cause." Ms Yepraksya said students were taught about the "genocide" when they were aged 10 and 11, although even when they begin at the school aged six they have some knowledge of Armenian history. "At pre-school they're told we had greater Armenia, we had Mount Ararat [a mountain in modern-day Turkey that Armenians consider their spiritual home], of how it was ours and it's not ours now," she said.

According to Hrachik Melkunyan, the headmaster of the school, which has 770 children aged between six and 17, while the museum "develops patriotism" it does not encourage hatred of Turkey. "It's not about developing hostility," he said. "We just tell them the facts: who we were, where we came from as the Armenian nation. "We know that one day the historical truth, everybody will know about it and we know we're showing it in a just way."

What Mr Melkunyan would like most is to take groups of students to visit old Kharberd and in future this might be possible. Turkey and Armenia have held talks about establishing diplomatic relations and reopening the border that Turkey closed in the early 1990s over Armenia's support for the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, previously controlled by neighbouring Azerbaijan. "With great pleasure we'll take our students to old Kharberd," Mr Melkunyan said. "We want these two nations not to be enemies and to collaborate together, if that's possible."