By Nora Bairamian
“Have you heard of this German scholar, they call him Hegel?” Mkrtich Khrimian Hayrik asks of Avetik Isahakyan during one of their many chats. This particular chat included a sprinkling of Hegel, Darwin and their relation to Christian theology – and Khrimian’s thoughts on it all.
In recollecting Khrimian Hayrik in his memoirs, Avetik Isahakyan recounts that the storied Catholicos loved poetry. His favorite poets were Homer and Virgil and he would recite from memory passages from the Iliad and Aeneid – in fact, Khrimian’s own Hravirak Ayraratian was modeled after Virgil’s Pastoral Poems. Isahakyan paints a vivid picture, describing the renegade cleric with a joyous and boisterous laugh who, at the same time, “carried the hopes and longings of the Armenian people, [the] Hayots Hayrik.”
But in reading Isahakyan’s account of Khrimian, what strikes the reader most is Khrimian’s interest in learning about the world around him. Isahakyan calls him an inquisitive man, always asking questions about science, literature and politics.
The exchange described above may surprise some because Khrimian Hayrik is primarily known for his Iron Ladle Sermon which he delivered upon returning from the Congress of Berlin at the end of the Russo-Turkish War in 1878. This sermon is often characterized as the shift which helped ignite the Armenian nationalist movement. However, years before – and after – he extolled the value of picking up a weapon as the primary means to alleviate the dire situation of the provincial Armenian, Khrimian told the Armenian to pick up a book.
In 1859 there was an earthquake in the Armenian provinces. Following the earthquake, Khrimian noted a disturbing phenomenon: a number of “terrible myths” began circulating among the youth explaining the cause of the natural disaster. He found this ignorance so inexcusable that he printed an article in his publication, the Eagle of Vaspurakan, explaining the scientific causes of earthquakes so as to enlighten the local population to its real source.
Khrimian’s commitment to education as a means of improvement was no more clear than during his time as abbott of Varak Monastery in Van. He turned the monastery into a hub where he opened a school, library, and the printing press where he published Eagle of Vaspurakan, the only periodicals printed in the provinces.
Later, when he moved to Daron and became the Prelate there, his impact was no less wondrous. There at St. Garabed, he opened another publishing house where he printed the periodical the Eaglet of Daron.
“What is the reason, do you know perhaps, why you with all what you believe to be goodness, remain deprived? The only reason is ignorance…not knowing how to read, write, count and economize,” Khrimian wrote in the preface of his magnum opus, Papik ev Tornik, in 1894. He addressed the book and each lesson therein to the Armenian villagers in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The book is written in the format of an old grandfather sharing his wisdom with his young grandson. Papik ev Tornik offers guidance to the provincial Armenian, all of which is directed toward bettering their lives while simultaneously encouraging an attachment to their ancestral lands.
Hayrik’s involvement in inspiring Armenians to educate themselves was evident both in his deeds and in his writing. He printed two periodicals and nine other texts wherein he often discussed the value he placed on learning and self-improvement through education.
Khrimian also trained the next generation of spiritual, academic and national leaders. The most notable was Father Srvandseants who was responsible for recording the oral epic Daredevils of Sasun on paper for the first time; previously it remained a folk tale transmitted solely through oral means. Not only that, but a number of the other ecclesiastic followers and students of Khrimian were so fervent in their commitment to aiding the Armenian people that many were later jailed for their involvement in the forthcoming revolutionary movement.
This dedication to education was multi-faceted. He recognized that all provincials were not to become school teachers or philosophers but nonetheless needed knowledge to help them nourish their land and consequently allow the provincial Armenian the means to keep that land. Thus in Van, Khrimian opened an agricultural school where he introduced the European plow, new agricultural technologies, and invited experts to speak to the provincials to teach them innovative new methods in agriculture.
At the same time, Khrimian emphasized the value of books and reading, not only as a way to educate oneself – a necessity in some underdeveloped areas of the Armenian provinces that did not have schools – but also as a way to gain access to the wisdom recorded generations and centuries before. Again in Papik ev Tornik, Khrimian expounds on the importance of reading as “every book is its own teacher for the reader. The authors have died, but the writing has remained alive. There are those kinds of books that are immortal, thousands of years can pass and they still speak to us.”
Khrimian Hayrik’s popular legacy is often simplified to nothing more than a call to arms, but for this august leader, education was one of the cornerstones of national advancement. Indeed, for Hayrik, it was the starting point.
It is in the words of another great Armenian writer, Siamanto, that we can more fully perceive the meaning that Hayrik had in his own time, and perhaps illuminate why, despite so many years since his passing, we are still in search of Hayrik.
All of our eyes full of service and devotion,
Again turn to you, again are devoted to you…
Rise to your feet oh majestic one, rise to your feet oh sweet father…
Bestir us again, inebriate us again, stimulate us again…
Rise to your feet, rise to your feet, oh torchbearer of thought and freedom…
I know that from the daybreak, the fiery ones will roar,
“Eagle, reveal again your ancient sword today,”
And from the foot of the mountain to the peak of bloody Ararat,
His obstinate restless breath will resound for eternity…1
- These lines were chosen by the author of the article. The original poem is much longer and was not reprinted fully.