By Florence Avakian
NEW YORK — Ancient Armenian chants from the Forty Martyrs Armenian Church (Karasoon Mangants) in Aleppo enveloped the Kavookjian Auditorium of the Armenian Diocese in New York on Friday evening, September 18. The event was sponsored by the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center.
In welcoming the large audience, the Executive Director of the Zohrab Center, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan who spent a summer six years ago in this ancient city with his students, called the unique experience “life changing.” He was there with his students who had come to learn the Armenian language, and he revealed that Armenians have chanted in the Forty Martyrs church since it was constructed in 1429.
During the Armenian Genocide, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were deported to Syria, with tens of thousands settling in Aleppo which became the country’s economic center. The current four year Syrian war has greatly reduced Aleppo’s Armenian population to half, leaving the future of this vibrant historic city in doubt.
The Friday lecture was presented by Jason Hamacher who calls himself an “Anglo-Saxon American”. Hamacher related that he has been exposed to tragedies over the years, and wanted to do something that expressed his faith. A musician who mostly plays drums in two bands, he has always been fascinated by music of different groups, and has visited Syria several times during a six year span, documenting the ancient prayers of the Armenian, Sufi, Syriac and Assyrian musical traditions of Aleppo. About a year ago, he said he founded Lost Origin Productions, a multi-media company which explores ancient civilizations, “with hopes that these ancient Christian chants will unite our turbulent world.”
During the program which featured an interview of him by Anastasia Tsioulcas, an associate producer for NPR Music, and the former North America editor for Gramophone Magazine, he showed a film of the vibrant city of Aleppo before the war, and the current massive destruction that has taken place during the last few years. Accompanying the film was his audio CD recording, Forty Martyrs, the sacred Armenian chants he recorded on location in 2006 and 2010, sung by the Very Rev. Fr. Yeznig Zegchanian.
While in Aleppo, he made a three hour “intriguing excursion” of the Forty Martyrs Armenian Church, and asked Fr. Yeznig what Armenian chants sound like. He called the priest’s beautiful baritone a cappella chanting of the Lord’s Prayer (Hayr Mer) and Hor Jam “gut-wrenching”. This was his “first exposure to anything Armenian,” he noted. “Not being Armenian by blood, I was deeply moved and inspired by the Armenian culture,” he related.
While there, he visited the UNESCO World Heritage sites with the numerous Armenian stone crosses (khachkars), and realized that the “world has recognized the profoundness of the Armenian culture.” And during visits to his two favorite restaurants in Aleppo which “of course” were Armenian, he took note of the “gorgeous” wall illuminations, and understood “how entrenched Armenian culture was in Syria.”
He closed his presentation by reading a 1946 poem “Farewell to Aleppo”, written by an Armenian Genocide survivor who had lost all his family members, and had walked 1200 miles without shoes to Aleppo. With visible emotion, he again used the expression, “gut-wrenching”.
In his words of appreciation, Fr. Daniel called the film and CD recording “an effort to combat the apathy and ignorance found today about Syria, a country of great vitality, and multiculturalism”. The Save the Children organization will be the recipient of a portion of the sale of the Forty Martyrs CD which can be purchased from the Zohrab Center of the Armenian Diocese.