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6 march 2014- Tribute to Armen Aroyan Held at ararat-eskijian museum

Armen Aroyan was honored for his achievements and dedication over the past 25 years, during which he has tailored more than 75 Armenian Heritage tours for over 1,200 pilgrims to historic Armenia to show them the lands of their parents and grandparents. The tribute was organized and cosponsored by the Ararat-Eskijian Museum (AEM) and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). The program took place on February 9, 2014, at the Sheen Chapel on the grounds of the Ararat Home Nursing Facility in Mission Hills, CA, followed by a dinner reception in the Museum.

The master of ceremonies was Bruce Roat, Southern California board member of NAASR. He was introduced by Martin Eskijian, Chairman of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum, who initially welcomed an audience of more than 220 enthusiastic attendees. The program started by the Ani String Quartet rendering selections from Gomidas, Khatchaturian, and Berberian, including “Tzitzernak.”

Prof. Richard Hovannisian reviewed the history of the confiscation and redistribution of Armenian properties during and after the deportations and massacres. He commented that the Armenian Genocide was unique among the 20th century genocides since its survivors were the only ones who could not return back to inhabit their historic homes. If they attempted, they were invariably arrested and sent back. Prior to the 1980s, by law no non-Muslim could venture to the interior of Turkey, even if they were Turkish citizens of Istanbul. Prof. Hovannisian gave examples of how difficult it was for Armenians to visit eastern Turkey in the early 1980s, when some travelers had their cameras and film as well as their luggage confiscated by Turkish security personnel, and they finally had to leave.

Armen Aroyan’s first expedition into the interior of Turkey in 1987 was to Antep, his own ancestral land. He dealt in a low-key manner with the Turkish inhabitants and won them over with his smile while he searched for remnants of old Armenian homes and churches. From that point on, he extended his scope by discovering the small villages that his pilgrims yearned to visit. More than anything, he enjoyed seeing the joy and pleasure in the eyes of the people he took there, the descendants of the Genocide survivors, as they experienced the life-altering event of walking where their parents and grandparents had once walked. Prof. Hovannisian ended his talk by thanking Armen for having enriched so many people’s lives.

The next presentation was an extensive slide show by Roupen Berberian, a four-time traveler with Armen, of the groups he guided at numerous historic sites visited by the pilgrims. This was accompanied with historical commentary by Mr. Berberian. In addition, there was coverage of Armen’s genealogy, family influences, and education in Cairo, Egypt, and his immigration to Southern California where he furthered his education in Electrical Engineering at USC. He worked for McDonnell Douglas Aerospace for 25 years. Armen had guided many scholars, authors, religious leaders, and documentarians from different countries on their trips to Turkey.

Anne Elizabeth Redgate, a historian from Newcastle University in England, made the long trip specifically to be present on this occasion. She had been with Armen Aroyan on previous trips and commented on how he had been able to fulfill the realization of the pilgrims’ dreams by taking them safely to the heart of historic Armenia. She had studied Armenian history for a long time, but being given a chance to connect with the people and being “a beneficiary of Armen’s magic” had meant a great deal to her.

Bruce Roat acknowledged the many messages of congratulation that were received from pilgrims who were not able to travel to the tribute event. He read three testimonials, one by Lucille Hamparian, and another from Jack Bournazian, who compared Armen to “an Armenian locksmith” who “came into our lives and fitted a personal key for each of us, unlocking the door to our personal pasts.” In a third testimonial, Nancy Kolligian, former Chairman of NAASR, who has worked closely with Armen Aroyan and Prof. Hovannisian in organizing several NAASR Armenian Heritage Tours, commended Armen for “the importance you have always placed in making each traveler feel special and complete in their personal quests” and commented that her visit to Hussenig in historic Armenia was “one of the most memorable and emotional experiences in my life.”

Martin Eskijian presented Armen with an award of recognition from the Ararat-Eskijian Museum, a sculpture of an Armenian mother protecting her child during the deportation. The NAASR tribute was given by Southern California board member Dr. Gregory Ketabgian who presented Armen with a symbolic silver bowl designed by Michael Aram and representing Noah’s Ark resting on top of Mt. Ararat . He said “although British ships could not climb Mt. Ararat, Armen was symbolically able to do it with his vans.”

Armen thanked all the organizers of the event and explained the “providential chain of events” that led to his passion for organizing tours through historic Armenia. He described some of the Armenians he had discovered still living in remote corners of historic Armenia. He was inspired by how they were initially reluctant but after relaxing were able to sing the sharagans, recite the Havadamk, the Armenian alphabet, and so on. He explained what he calls the “King Arshak phenomenon,” the transformation process he has witnessed in pilgrims “reminiscent of the legend of the forlorn, depressed, and subservient Armenian King Arshak II in captivity, who would miraculously regain his boldness and strength when he stepped on the soil brought from the homeland.” He also thanked all the pilgrims who had travelled with him and emphasized that he had learned much from them and their family histories. “The pilgrims,” he said, “gave me the opportunity to see our homeland through their eyes, with the very wonder and awe of the first time—every time. Together, we turned a haunted memory into a tangible reality.”

Armen explained the importance to him of the poem “My Death” by Bedros Tourian and recited the last two lines: “When from the world my memory fades away, / That is the time when I indeed shall die!”

He concluded: “First and foremost, last but not least, it is all about keeping the memory of our rich legacy alive and propagating it for future generations.”

Armen Aroyan is in the process of publishing a two-volume collection of writings by and about his co-travelers and their experiences.

Rev. Kevork Terian of the Armenian Cilicia Evangelical Church of Pasadena ended the program with the benediction and wished Armen good health to “continue his sacred mission to create new memories for those yearning for their homeland which was so unjustly taken away from them.”

The reception, prepared by Maggie Mangassarian Goschin, the director of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum as well as one of Armen Aroyan’s pilgrims, and Nora Nalbandian, was a veritable cornucopia of Armenian dishes representing the different regions of historic Armenia. A varied selection of wine was donated by Mr. Paul Kalemkiarian of the Wine of the Month Club.

Marc Mamigonyan

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