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Vahe Sarukhanyan

Municipal Pantheon Under Siege

Vandals Deface Grave of Writer Derenik Demirchyan

On October 6, Emil Stepanyan, the son of poet Anjela Stepanyan, telephoned the staff at the Derenik Demirchyan House-Museum in Yerevan.

He wanted to know if they were aware of the fact that the bust of the famous Armenian novelist and playwright had disappeared from the Central (Tokhmakh) Cemetery’s Municipal Pantheon.

Museum Director Karineh Rafayelyan recounts that the last person to see the bust was Emil, who had gone to the cemetery after Easter. He visited the cemetery again in September, right after Khachverats (Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross). This time he noticed that the bronze bust was missing. Emil assumed that the museum staff knew that the bust was no longer where it should be so he never called them. Later on, when he noticed that no one was writing or talking about the missing bust, he decided to contact the museum.

Museum staff visit grave every five years

The news came as a shock to the Demirchyan Museum staff. They couldn’t believe what they heard. Karineh Rafayelyan says that once every five years the museum organizes a grand cortege to the pantheon to celebrate Demirchyan’s anniversary. In 1997, they commemorated the writer’s 120th anniversary; in 2002 his 125th and in 2007 his 130th. The last time the museum staff saw the bust was back in 2007.

After Emil telephoned, museum staffers visited the pantheon. Mrs. Rafayelyan immediately contacted her immediate superior, Henrik Bakhchinyan, Director of Armenia’s Literature and Art Museum. He advised her to call the police; which she did.

On October 8, the RA Police issued a communiqué stating that the Erebuni Division had received a report from the Yerevan Central Police that sometime on October 7 the bust   of Derenik Demirchyan had been stolen from the gravesite at the Central Cemetery’s Municipal Pantheon and that an investigation had been launched.

Stolen Demirchyan bust weighed 300 kilos

Upon inspecting the site, the police concluded that the thieves had toppled the huge bust from its perch and that this had caused the damage to other grave stones immediately in front of Demirchyan’s.

In addition, it became apparent that the theft had occurred at least one month before the police inspected the crime site. Investigators noticed that that birds had proceeded to build a nest atop the basalt memorial stone and that it had already dried-up and withered.

Mrs. Rafayelyan says that according to Demirchyan’s relatives the bust weighs about 300 kilos and that a sculpture named Aharonian from the diaspora was invited to Armenia to construct it. Most likely it was placed at the grave site in 1957, one year after the death of Demirchyan.

Vandals hit other graves as well

Other graves of Armenian notables in the cemetery have also been vandalized. Years ago, thieves removed a metal cloak-like ornament from the gravestone of actor Vagharsh Vagharshyan. The sculpted laurel wreath framing the round gravestone of Armenia most famous sculptor Yervand Kochar has also vanished. Robbers have also carted off the bronze cross that once adorned the grave of writer Sipan Shiraz.

Just last month, vandals made off with a 10 kilo metal section ripped from the grave of linguist Hrachya Ajarian. One of the maintenance crew at the Central Cemetery has said that just 20 days ago the metal bust of former Yerevan Mayor Yeghisheh Vardanyan was also stolen from the pantheon.

After 5 pm, the Central Cemetery literally becomes a ghost town; no one patrols the grounds. Only grounds sweepers and laborers are to be seen at the cemetery. There are no gatekeepers to monitor the comings and goings at the huge facility. The cemetery is open to the public from Monday to Friday from 9 to 5, and on the weekend till 3pm. It seems that those with ulterior motives in mind wait until the cemetery officially closes to do their dirty work.

No guards on duty

There are four entrances to the cemetery through which cars can pass. The gate at the main entrance is always open. A few years back the police padlocked the gate. The next morning street sweepers noticed the locks had been smashed and tossed aside.

Katarina, a woman who’s been sweeping the cemetery grounds for the past ten years, says that thefts have risen during recent years.

When we asked Karineh Rafayelyan why a prominent writer like Derenik Demirchyan was never buried in the more prestigious Komitas Pantheon she answered, “Not all of our notables have caring and selfless descendants.”

She pointed out that given the pitiful condition of the museum itself, the condition of Demirchyan’s gravesite wasn’t high on their list of priorities. After the theft of the bust, however, it’s become their main concern.

About a year ago the poet Lyudvig Duryan made a public plea that the remains of Derenik Demirchyan be interred at the Komitas Pantheon. Presently, Armenian Writers Union President Levon Ananyan and Karineh Rafayelyan are discussing the matter. Ananyan claims that the Armenian public does not appreciate Demirchyan in a manner befitting his rich literary legacy.

Thieves don’t care whose grave they rob

“Today, we should be talking about why Demirchyan was not worthy of eternal resting place in the Komitas Pantheon upon his death in 1956. The unfortunate situation in the Municipal Pantheon demands that we must learn from our past mistakes and see to it that the writer’s remains are transferred to the Komitas Pantheon,” Mr. Ananyan says.

The Writer’s Union President also argues that the public at large can no longer afford to tolerate such outrages. “The looting of these gravesites is just one manifestation of the immorality that surrounds us and which we take for granted. We have returned to the level of the grave robbers of old.”

“Do you think the thieves knew who Demirchyan was? More improbably, do you think they ever read his masterpiece Vardanank?  Of course not. They just were interested in making a few bucks to get by,” notes writer Hrachya Matevosyan. “This nation which has survived through the centuries today has lost its moral compass because a social system has arisen in which there are the filthy rich and the dirt poor. And those who plunder are in control.”