Christina Maranci brings new but experienced leadership to Harvard Chair in Armenian Studies


His thesis focused on the legacy of Josef Strzygowski, the controversial art historian who claimed that Armenian architecture influenced the Gothic style that prevailed in Europe during the High Middle Ages. But she became an association in the popular mind with her work on Mren Cathedral, a 7th-century church which, like the ruins of Ani, is in western Armenia.

“It’s an amazing site and it’s been studied since Toros Toromanian and before,” Maranci said. “It is an extraordinary monument in the way it testifies to the wars of the 7th century, between the Byzantines and the Persians as well as the Islamic conquests. And it’s covered in inscriptions. And he names the [Byzantine] Emperor Heraclius. It can be studied architecturally, and in terms of inscriptions and sculpture. The sculpture helps us to understand the culture of the time and how closely Armenia was linked to the Byzantine world.

Heraclius was the 7th-century emperor known for his wars with the Sasanian Persians and his recovery of the “true cross” relic that was taken from Jerusalem by Persian forces. The Byzantine-Persian Wars, according to some scholars, weakened both empires, paving the way for Islamic conquest of the Middle East.

Maranci is passionate about the history that Mren’s site contains. “Why was it built? He calls Heraclius “the Victorious Emperor Heraclius”. We can cross reference this with the story of Sebeos [a history of the era written by a contemporary Armenian writer, Sebeos]. It seems to have been constructed to express alliance with him. There is a carved lintel showing Heraclius bringing the True Cross back to Jerusalem, which was a crucial reference in terms of success.

“Mren and monuments like Mren, with inscriptions, are high-quality eyewitnesses to history,” Maranci said. “It comes down to the other side, that it’s in a military area on the Turkish side of the border and that means it’s hard to get to, and it hasn’t received the kind of attention that Ani has.” Maranci notes that this is the case for most Armenian historical sites in Turkey, in addition to Ani and Aghtamar. “It’s the status quo in Turkey. Mren is in a terrible state. The lintel is in great danger of collapsing. It is the testimony of an unknown era, but also very fragile. There are many monuments in the same situation, and this is something we know only too well with the Artsakh war. Understanding history, and understanding that monuments are “archives” of that history,” is an important way to bear witness to the region’s Armenian past, Maranci concludes.

Heir to the Harvard Chair

Maranci is well aware of the historical significance of the Mashtots Chair. Regarding his nomination, “I would say personally, it’s huge, it’s exciting. It is personally very moving because my mother and my aunt were both present at the inaugural dinner. [The 1955 inaugural dinner for the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), which established the Harvard chair]. She continued: “It was an amazing feeling, being here is really exciting and I want to do a good job. I have big shoes to fill, when you think of Robert Thomson and James Russell, the spirits they represent, I’m really humbled.

Maranci’s background prepared her well for the new role. “I occupied the chair at Tufts for 14 years, and 6 years I was head of department, so I had the experience of thinking about how to shape what I study and what I teach. I have been involved now for many years in growing Armenian language classes, Armenian art classes, but when I teach art, I teach a bit of history, culture, religion, language… I had 200 students in my class last spring. I think there’s potential to do that at Harvard. I am teaching this course this fall.

Isn’t 200 students quite remarkable for an Armenian-related course? “I will be as welcoming and generous as possible. You are of interest to undergraduate students. And this is the basis of interest. And from there you get majors, in art history or in Armenian. And from there, you start producing doctoral students. What I find that I do with doctoral students all over the place, I don’t just train the students, I teach their supervisors,” she explains.

Maranci noted that many thesis supervisors have no knowledge of Armenian history or culture. For example, she highlighted ongoing work on bronze mirrors originating from medieval Anatolia; although some had Armenian inscriptions, this was somewhat ignored by scholars who classified them as “Seljuq” or “Islamic” based on artistic criteria and who were unable to read Armenian.

She noted, “My job puts me in a position to build bridges. One of my tasks is not only to lead a large undergraduate program, but to share PhD students with other professors so that they can also learn about Armenian culture. I want the chair to be connected to the Armenian community, but also to Harvard as an institution. I’m in [the departments of] Languages ​​and cultures of the Near East and history of art and architecture. And I see this as a great opportunity to further spread the richness of Armenian culture. There are many bridges to build. Let’s talk about Divinity School, classics, history. I got off to a good start with my experience at Tufts.

But his main job is, of course, as a scholar and researcher. “Even before [training doctoral students], my job is to do research and publication,” which she has produced tons of, as anyone can easily find out from her resume. She continued, “I produce this research, it’s the backbone of what I do. This painstaking work, involving all the details, is what is needed to teach and defend. If you don’t know why Mren is important, then you are not in the best position to teach and advocate. And that’s also what I like to do, it’s important. It gives me joy to work on medieval Armenian subjects and when you have that joy, you can give it to others.

As to whether Harvard’s position holds a leadership role in Armenian studies in the United States, Maranci humbly dismissed the suggestion and stressed cooperation: “There needs to be a strengthening of the ties between our chairs. Given [what has been happening] since the war, it’s important to find ways to be on the same team. It’s time. I have participated in so many initiatives since the war with my fellow presidents. And it’s going to keep happening, and it has to keep happening,” she said. She added, however, that if she can leverage Harvard professorship “to create better protection for Armenian culture and better visibility for the Armenian community,” she will.

As for the future of the field of Armenian studies in general, she said, “I think we can talk about new trends in terms of scholarship and some of the things that I see, I’m not the first person to see them. notice, the stories that connect Armenia to other cultures. In all the real ways Armenia is connected to other cultures, from Europe to East Asia. She is happy that more scholars from various disciplines are gaining knowledge about the Armenian language and culture, as well as the incorporation of “digital humanities.”

“I am also happy to see an increasing number of women on the field in various disciplines. Even in the history of art, seeing more women is good. And the last thing I will say is that new areas like material culture are starting to appear. There are interesting projects now on film studies, dance, etc. It’s exciting to see Armenian studies branching out and deepening at the same time. And also to see new players. It’s an exciting time and I’m hopeful for the future and what the next generation of students will bring.

Protector of Monuments

One of the most valuable aspects of Maranci’s particular expertise places her at the forefront of the protection of Armenian historical monuments which are now under threat in Karabakh (Artsakh) and have been so for years throughout Azerbaijan and Turkey. .

“I have been involved in so many conversations about the fate of monuments, with the church and other NGOs [non-governmental organizations]”, Maranci said. “It’s really extraordinary to see how the Armenian community has been mobilized in the last 2 years. The more people who raise their voices, the better. The situation is really dire. I have sent open letters and organized events. I can also communicate in discussions with the World Monuments Fund and various organizations that do this work.

As an expert in Mren Cathedral and other Armenian monuments in eastern Turkey, Maranci has been involved for many years in initiatives to protect monuments in this region and continues to do so. “More recently we went to Turkey and I spent a day in Ankara with WMF [World Monuments Fund].” Maranci declined to discuss specifics, but said: ‘The fact is there are plans underway to protect monuments to Ani and hopefully Mren. These are delicate situations but what is important is that I can present documented information on the monuments. It’s not spin. And that’s really important for people who can make decisions about monuments, like the State Department and WMF. “Here’s the research, here’s what we know.” And it helps people make good decisions.

She believes that the same applies to Artsakh. “For almost 20 years, from my experience, what I can tell you is that, as dire as things are right now in Artsakh, what I know is that things can change. and things can change quickly. Keep working, stay optimistic and don’t get discouraged. It’s so easy to get discouraged. What helped me was to keep getting by and to keep applying for various grants and projects. »

As an academic, she grows weary of Armenian heritage being used as a pawn in international geopolitics. She explained: “There is such a political game in monuments and heritage and I find it disconcerting. I’m interested in making buildings stand up for future generations to look at and enjoy. If I can help in this process to make sure these buildings are still standing, I will. »

For example, she does not care to engage in a semantic discussion of the differences between Armenians, Caucasian Albanians, Artsakh Armenians, or Artsakh Armenians who at one time used the term “Aghvank” (Albanian) in a regional or ecclesiastical sense.

“It’s just a way to erase the Armenians from the region, it’s just a strategy,” she said of the controversy sparked by Azerbaijani authorities. “This is one of the great acts of violence committed here. It is shocking that we are in this position.

Maranci is the author of four books, including his latest The Art of Armenia: An Introductionwhich came out in 2018. Other books include Medieval Armenian Architecture: Constructions of Race and Nationand Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia.

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