by Tatul Hakobyan

The Armenian Reporter mri-has-preserved-the-aura-and-architecture-of-the -19th-century
Friday March 27, 2009

Gyumri, Armenia - The devastating earthquakes of October 22, 1926,
and December 7, 1988, which claimed the lives of about 750 and 17,500
residents of Gyumri respectively, ruined most of the city's buildings
except those built during the czarist era - from the second half of the
19th century to the 1920s. When you walk through the central streets
of Gyumri, you feel the aura of the 19th century and become fascinated
by the city's architecture. That city, however is not present-day
Gyumri, it is Alexandrapol, a city which in its day used to be the
second richest, most beautiful and attractive city after Tbilisi.

At the beginning of the 19th century, present-day Gyumri was just a
village named Kumayri. However, after a dozen years it became one of
the most important railway junctions in the Caucasus. In 1837 Russian
Czar Nicolai I visited Kumayri and in honor of his wife, Alexandra
Fiodorovna, renamed Kumayri, Alexandrapol. Three years later in 1840
Alexandrapol received the status of a city.

In order to learn the history of today's Gyumri and feel the breath
of former Alexandrapol, the available volumes of history books and
ethnography are not enough. A visit to the museum of the Dzitoghtsians,
which is in the center of the city, in old Kumayri, is a must. In
general, Gyumri is very rich with museums. I always try to avoid using
the ambitious phrase "open-air museum," regardless of which country
or city and site it may refer to. However, when it refers to Gyumri's
center, where 100-150-year-old architecturally valuable buildings,
villas, museums, churches, and other structures with black, sometimes
black-and-yellowish stones, are located, the phrase "open-air museum"
can be used.

There are three house-museums in the center of the city, on Varpetats
Street: Armenian writer Avetik Isahakian's, Hovhannes Shiraz's,
and actor Mher Mkrtchian's, who is loved by Armenians throughout the
world. The crafts museum of the Aslamazian sisters is located a short
distance away. However, the most famous museums, where diasporans and
tourists to Gyumri visit, are without a doubt that of the Dzitoghtsians
and sculptor Merkurov.

The museum of the Dzitoghtsians

The Dzitoghtsians Museum or the museum of national architecture and
urban life of Gyumri was constructed in 1872. The house that is the
museum today used to belong to one of the wealthiest people in Gyumri,
Petros Dzitoghtsian. I toured the museum with Karine Mkrtchian,
one of the employees of the museum.

The museum comprises several sections, where belongings of the former
owners have been preserved. Here you can get a clear idea of how
wealthy Armenians lived 150 years ago, their tastes, preferences,
and interests. Their furniture has been preserved in the rooms of the
Dzitoghtsians: the piano and watch brought from Austria 130 years ago,
paintings by famous painters brought from Italy and other pieces of
furniture brought from Russia and Europe.

Alexandrapol was truly considered the city of arts and
crafts. Armen Tigranian staged the opera Anush for the first time
in Alexandrapol. The instruments on which they played at that time
including the bagpipe, kyamancha, shvi, duduk, and tar have been
preserved in the museum. Jivani and Sheram, the famous Armenian ashughs
(minstrels) of that time sang in Alexandrapol.

The arts of jewelers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, lace work, and other
crafts were developed in the city.

"There were two beer factories in Alexandrapol. One belonged to
the Dzaghikians and was constructed in 1881 and the second, which
opened sometime later, belonged to Mkrtich Dzitoghtsian, who was
Petros Dzitoghtsian's brother. He sent his son to Munich, where he
learned the art of making beer. The beer produced in Alenxandrapol
was in demand not only in Armenia and the Caucasus, but also outside
its borders," explains Karine Mkrtchian.

In the Dzitoghtsians museum you feel that you are in the 19th century,
the time when Alexandrapol was the richest Armenian city. At that
time Eastern Armenia, which was a part of czarist Russia, only had six
cities: the richest and the most important one was Alexandrapol, then
came Yerevan, New Bayazet (today's Gavar), Goris, Shushi, and Kars.

In the 1920s the Dzitoghtsians left their house and moved to the Crimea
and from there to France. There are no other details about them and
their heirs. In 1984 the house was turned into a museum. However
after 1988 it was inhabited.

Sergey Merkurov's museum

Sergey Merkurov's museum is next to the Dzitoghtsians museum. Director
Arshak Manukian says that Merkurov's creations are phenomenal in the
development of Armenian sculpture genre. The creation of monumental
memorials of renowned people in pre-revolution Russia is linked to him.

Sergey Merkurov was Greek by origin. To be more precise, in his
own words, which he repeated several times, "I am a Greek Gyumretsi
[resident of Gyumri] or a Greek-Armenian Gyumretsi." Decades after
moving from Alexandrapol, not only did he not forget Armenian, which
was like a native language to him, but he always talked and like all
residents of Gyumri, joked in the Gyumri dialect.

The Merkurovs, their true surname Merkuridi, moved to Alexandrapol in
the mid-19th century, along with another 100 Greek families. Merkurov's
grandfather was a trader who had shops in Kars, Tbilisi. and Baku, as
well as baths in Alexandrapol. The Merkurovs were among the wealthiest
families of the city.

The future sculptor lived and studied in Alexandrapol till the age of
15, then moved to Tbilisi and studied and worked in Zurich, Munich,
Paris, Moscow, and many other cities. He studied philosophy and,
apart from Armenian, he was also fluent in English, Russian, German,
and French.

"Merkurov was a sculptor and monument maker. His huge sculptures
were placed in the open air in squares. When we opened this museum
we had some difficulties since we could not move some of those
sculptures here. Merkurov is famous for being a master of death
masks. In the pre-Soviet and Soviet period Merkurov was the most
famous death-mask-maker," recounts Manukian.

Merkurov made his first death mask in 1907. When the Catholicos of
All Armenians Khrimian Hairik died, senior clerics invited Merkurov
to Armenia from Europe to sculpt the death mask of the Armenian
Catholicos. And so, Merkurov, who was by then a world renowned
sculptor and monument maker, started receiving numerous invitations to
create the death masks of famous people of the time. Those included
writers Lev Tolstoy, Hovhannes Toumanian; composer Nicolay Scriabin;
political and state figures Vladimir Lenin and Georgi Plekhanov -
70 death masks in total. This means that he was invited to different
cities throughout the world 70 times.

"The largest similar museum in the world is in Dusseldorf, in Goethe's
museum, where there are about 300 death masks. Here we have 56 death
masks. All of Merkurov's sculptures were transported from Moscow. His
son Georgi Merkurov lived in Moscow. Merkurov had a large studio
there and he gave all of them to us," says Manukian.

Merkurov was close to Lenin and after his death he created a dozen
huge sculptures of the Soviet leader, which were placed in numerous
cities. Merkurov created the sculptures of other famous political and
art figures: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Marks, Engels, Shahumian,
and Stalin - in total 190 sculptures.

During the years he lived and created in Moscow, he saved the
sculpture of Empress Catherine II and sent it to Yerevan. In 2006
the sculpture was returned to Russia at the request of the mayor of
Moscow, Yuri Lujhkov.

Today, Merkurov's museum in Gyumri is the same house where Merkurov
lived for a dozen years.

"Before his death Merkurov gave this house to the city as a gift with
the request that it should serve art.

Since there were apartment issues during the Soviet years, people
resided here, about 25 families. In 1978 it was decided to turn this
house into a museum. The museum opened in 1984. After the earthquake
once again people resided here, but in 2003 it was renovated by the
Lincy Foundation and it reopened as a museum," says Manukian.