Interview with Sasun Danielyan

“Enlight” presents a series of interviews dedicated to the International Day for Monuments and Sights

An interview with Sasun Danielyan, photographer and painter-designer of the RAA Foundation (Research on Armenian Archeology).

“I think it is necessary to instill a sense of love and care for the historical heritage and nature from an early age.”

Mr. Danielyan, when did you get engaged in photography? It is known that you have been hiking since you were a child, the village and the mountains attracted you.

I have started photography as a profession since 2011, as for hiking and traveling, they have been around since I was a child, as I grew up in the village. I didn’t live in the village, of course, but during the school years I have spent the summer holidays in the village and in the mountains. My grandparents kept animals in the mountains and I always went there and stayed for a month or two with great pleasure. During that time my love for wildlife and discoveries arose. As a child, when I was still in school, I always gathered the children of the village and we climbed the mountains. On the way we made interesting discoveries – churches, ruined fortresses etc. And I started photography, just when I returned from military service.

Once you mentioned that you have joined “The Armenian Geographical Project”. Would you tell in detail what kind of project  that is, and what its purpose is?

Yes, “The Armenian Geographical Project”, which is more known as “Armenian Geographic”, is a project for geographical expeditions. The founder is Tigran Shahbazian. The interesting thing about these expeditions is that they are more focused on wild nature and mountain tourism. The project is interested in unexplored paths, mostly mountains and wild nature, where churches, fortresses, khachkars, etc, can also be found.

The famous places (Geghard, Garni, Haghartsin…) aren’t so attractive, they are not in my interests. I may visit such places, but not often. It is more interesting for me to go through unexplored paths and “The Armenian Geographical Project” gives that opportunity.

Mr. Danielyan, is the government able to preserve the historical-cultural monuments? After all there are also monuments out of the borders of Armenia, aren’t there?

All the historical monuments in Armenia – regardless of religion, dogmas and nationality, are equally important and supposed to be preserved.

Nowadays a lot of new churches are being built with the support of individuals, donations, etc. I think it is a wrong approach and that amount of money should be used for restoration and maintenance of old historical churches, monasteries and fortresses.

All this should be regulated by state laws. Hotel and restaurant activities should be strictly prohibited in any historical environment. The preservation of historical and cultural monuments is a big problem not only for the state, but also for our citizens. The government can pay some attention to the most popular tourist attractions, but in the villages and mountains there are many abandoned and destroyed monuments. Most of them are left to the mercy of nature and nature transforms them (rains, winds, etc.).

The other part is the problem of the residents. There are medieval monasteries, churches, medieval cemeteries with khachkars in the villages, around which new cemeteries appear. Sometimes ugly and indecorous tombs are built, which distort the historical environment of the monument. This is a big problem, which remains unsolved. The government responds only when someone caring visits , takes photos and publishes them, raising a voice of protest. But the government cannot afford having a “guardian” or organization in every village to deal with this issue. The problem is also in the awareness of the citizens, which, unfortunately, is not widespread among us. 

When you ask the villagers why a new grave was built near the 700-800-year-old historical monastery, they get surprised: there is a grave next to it, is there any difference whether it is a 1000 or 10-year-old grave?

It doesn’t occur to people to understand that it is a historical layer with its environment, which must be preserved as it was and as it has reached our times. Urban monuments and old buildings are another problem, as all urban development and construction are centered in Yerevan, especially in the center. You just have to get out of the city center to preserve the old urban architecture.

Does the Armenian society preserve and value the monuments inside the state? If not, what is the problem, how to create a culture, which values the monuments of historical and cultural heritage?

Caring for the heritage of historical monuments should be taught from kindergarten and school. The problem is not only in propaganda of radio, television or any other means.  School-age children should definitely be taken on trips and campaigns, they should be shown  that it is not allowed to litter around the historical monuments, to light candles on khachkars, to distort the inscriptions, to engrave something on the walls of churches or fortresses etc.

In recent years, the state has taken many complimentary steps, it has given schoolchildren referrals to theaters, museums, etc., but they should include seasonal expeditions as well.  Spring and autumn nice weather should be definitely used to visit historical monuments having the tendency to do cleaning work as well. Around most of our historical sights, we will find numerous food and beverage pavilions and springs which are accessible by car. Citizens, who use these pavilions, mostly leave a large pile of rubbish.

I think it is necessary to instill a sense of love and care for the historical heritage and nature from an early age.

What problems and obstacles do you face in the field of monument exploration and protection? What new tendencies and directions are there in this field in the world and in Armenia?

For the exploration of monuments inside Armenia, of course, there are no problems when the researcher conducts professional research. The main problems may arise during the study of monuments located in border regions. In other words, it can be in the study of monuments located in Akhuryan, Araks valleys, Armenian-Turkish, Armenian-Azerbaijani borders, which are observed and inspected by the enemy. The researcher, of course, often gets the opportunity to conduct research.

For example, the Holy Trinity Church in Aragatsotn Province or the St. Shushanik Church in Bagaran, Armavir Province and all border monuments are difficult to study due to their location. Hundreds of monuments in Western Armenia need to be explored. We can go and do some research for tourism purposes only, but not openly. You must have permission from that particular state to conduct scientific research. For example, in cooperation with the “State Department for the Preservation of Churches of Iran” under the Ministry of Culture and the Union of Churches  we carry out legal and detailed studies. The problem is different in Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Georgian side tries to make the Armenian churches Georgian, it avoids Armenian studies. It even forbids  books or materials on other studies,  their entry isn’t allowed to the Georgian side.

In Azerbaijan, of course, every Armenian church, except for St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Baku, is represented as Afghan –  Afghan church, Afghan graves.

How to solve this problem? What should be done so that our churches do not become a  “belonging” part of other states?

I think that requires a very clearly formulated special state policy. The state, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry Of Education, Science, Culture And Sport, should raise these issues and prove to the world with scientific justification that spreading misinformation is Azerbaijan’s main policy by all means on foreign platforms, UNESCO, etc., where meetings on historical heritage are held, . It is necessary to develop a serious state policy, to take special measures using all possible levers. Azerbaijan as a sponsor has quite serious financial leverage in UNESCO. Many cultural phenomena are presented as Azerbaijani monuments.

When talking about the study and preservation of monuments, we can not fail to mention Samvel Karapetyan, his huge activity and legacy. How did Samvel Karapetyan differ from other monument experts? What was his peculiarity?

The word “monument expert” always made Samvel Karapetyan smile. He said it was a bit of an artificial word, but it stuck and stayed.

He was a unique character. From school years he dedicated his life and activity to Armenian historical monuments and nature. He started traveling alone or with friends at an early age. When he became an adult, he traveled alone in neighboring Azerbaijan for a month or two. The work he has done is so great that not everyone is able to do so much work in their lifetime. Some of the works done by him are so valuable that it is impossible to do the same research, that is, some of the monuments have either disappeared or are in the territory of the unfriendly neighbor. It is simply forbidden, there is no material or fact about the existence or condition of the monuments. We can only get an idea of ​​the historical Gardmank, the Armenian historical and cultural heritage in the north of the Kur River, thanks to the work he has done.

What are some memorable episodes from the years spent with Samvel? Maybe something from his words and advice impressed you particularly.

Every moment, every trip, every working minute – they are all memorable. Of course, I can not tell everything now.

It is a happiness that I had the opportunity to just work, communicate and become friends with Samvel. He was a senior friend, he was the director of the company, but he was not like a director, that is, he was very sincere and friendly. The most impressive moments I had were related to his memories when he told about his travels and discoveries. His energy, his diligence, all of that has been passed on to us to some extent. How painful it was that he left us, we still can not accept that he is no longer with us!

What are you working on at the moment? What are your plans for the future?

Our activity continues as it was, of course, unfortunately, without Samvel Karapetyan. Indeed it will be more difficult for us  because all his scientific resources are in the form of archives, papers, records, but his presence encouraged us a lot. Now we will try to continue in the same way – each of us in our work, travels, book publishing. It is planned to publish two books this year: they are in the final stage. We should publish two tomes, one dedicated to Khnus, and the other one to the provinces of Parspatunik (Gharadagh), which is the work completed by Samvel Karapetyan. There will be articles as well, but I still do not know when we will start the journeys after this situation.

The interview was held by Anna Manukyan  © All rights reserved.
Translator: Sona Simonyan.