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Marine Martirosyan

The Byurakan Observatory: Armenia’s Scientific Crown Jewel

The Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory, located on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, is perhaps the one scientific institution that has put Armenia on the international map in terms of scientific prestige and prominence.

Owned and operated by the Academy of Sciences of Armenia, the observatory has a rich and interesting history we’d like to share with our readers.

Named in honor of the world-famous astrophysicist Viktor Ambartsumian, the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory is one of the five units of the academy’s Division of Physics and Astrophysics. (The others are the Institute of Radiophysics and Electronics, Institute of Allied Problems of Physics, the Institute of Physical Research, and the ICRANet-Yerevan Center.

Viktor Ambartsumian’s godchild 

Areg Mickaelian, the observatory’s director since 2017, says that when the Armenian Academy of Sciences was created in 1943, the 35-year-old Ambartsumian, then living in Leningrad, was invited to Yerevan to serve as its vice president.

“While I can’t fathom what he had in the back of his mind, I believe that one of Ambartsumian’s first ideas was to build an observatory. And it quickly happened. Just two years later, at the close of 1945, the academy decided to create an observatory. 1946 is considered the year of our founding. From then on, they came to inspect the site, start construction, and test small telescopes,” says Mickaelian, adding that people always ask how the country was able to think about science just one year after the war, when the economy was in ruins.

“The government probably thought that they could get the country back on its feet by developing the sciences. Armenia is a land of brainpower and dramatic progress in the natural sciences, especially astrophysics, took off,” Mickaelian says.

In 1947, at the age of 39, Ambartsumian replaced Hovsep Orbeli as president of the academy. Mickaelian stresses that Ambartsumian had already garnered world prominence in the field of astrophysics.

“During the 1930s, we can list at least ten famous achievements he made as a young man. They mostly relate to theoretical astrophysics, but there were some theoretical physics and mathematics works.”

Mickaelian says that Ambartsumian’s prominence also afforded him a high level of authority as well. When he said that Armenia needed an observatory, the government came through with permission and funding. And Ambartsumian wanted to create a serious scientific institution. It’s no wonder that Byurakan takes up 56 hectares and has seventy structures on the site.

Armenia’s scientific institutes (operated by the Armenian Academy of Sciences)

Why was Byurakan chosen as the site? 

Talking about the observatory’s location, Mickaelian says that there’s a concept called “star climate” in astronomy.

“Statistics are very important for astronomers. They want to know many cloudless nights a site has in a year, whether the sky is clear,” Mickaelian says. “It’s vital that the nights are clear. The winds can also negatively impact observations. The environment’s clarity is also important. The farther up we go, the clearer it gets. But there are anomalies, of course. It’s not as if any spot on a mountain affords good conditions.”

Mickaelian says that inspection teams are sent to examine potential observatory sites, and the work is expensive. He says that Armenia, given its resources, did the same at the time.

Byurakan Observatory’s Main Entrance: The Starry Gates

Readers might be surprised to know that Byurakan wasn’t the first astronomical observatory in Armenia. In 1933, Yerevan State University founded its own observatory, where the famous astronomers Benjamin Markarian and Hayk Badalyan worked.

Located in Yerevan, as explained by Mickaelian, conditions for observing the heavens weren’t ideal. He says that observatories are generally built far from large urban areas. At the same time, adequate living conditions for the scientists must be maintained.

An observatory could have been built on the summit of Mt. Aragats, but that would have required a roadway to the top. Locating the observatory in the village of Byurakan was much more appropriate. The elevation was high, there already was a road, and the staff could partake of the village’s “bounty”.

Byurakan: Armenia’s global calling card

In 1947, at Byurakan, Ambartsumian was the first to discover the existence of  “stellar associations”. In 1948-1949, Benjamin Markarian proved the theory regarding their expansion.

Byurakan: Main Administrative Annex

The observatory’s main annex was still under construction in 1951 when an international symposium was convened. The observatory officially opened in 1956.

The Viktor Ambartsumian House-Museum

One of the first structures built at the observatory complex was Ambartsumian’s private residence, which today serves as the Viktor Ambartsumian House-Museum. Two small observatories were also built opposite the main annex.

Mickaelian notes that two main Armenian architectural schools held sway at the time – one advanced by Tamanyan, the other by Safaryan. The architect of the Byurakan observatory was Samvel Safaryan.

“Naturally, given the huge significance of the Byurakan observatory, the most prominent architect had to draw the blueprints. It couldn’t have been otherwise,” Mickaelian says. “If we take an historical perspective, no director can argue with me that the observatory was the most important for the country and its people in terms of its contribution, achievements and significance.” (Here, Mickaelian refers to the other organizations within the Armenian Academy of Sciences’ network-authors).

Today, according to Mickaelian, the village of Byurakan is known internationally because of the observatory. Even though Byurakan isn’t a city, its name is included in the list of the largest ten cities in the world, and international astronomy symposiums are frequently held there. That list includes Paris, Prague, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro and Rome.

In 2013, the Armenian government recognized the Byurakan Observatory as a “national value”, alongside the Matenadaran and the Armenian Genocide Museum.

The Ambartsumian Phenomenon

Viktor Ambartsumian served as the observatory’s director from 1946-1988. He also headed the Armenian Academy of Sciences from 1947-1993. Two years before his death in 1996, Ambartsumian was awarded the title “National Hero” – the highest honor bestowed by the newly independent government of Armenia. Catholicos Vazgen I was the first to be granted this title. Ambartsumian was the second. The observatory was renamed in his honor in 1998.

Viktor Ambartsumian’s Office Desk

“He was never fixated on maintaining official postings. He was the most prominent scientist in the country, and it didn’t matter if he had a position or not. I can now say that he was the greatest scientist in Armenian history,” says Mickaelian.

“Ambartsumian was also one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century in the world. He was twice elected as the president of the International Council of Scientific Unions (1966–1972), serving consecutive terms. This was an exceptional feat given that, as a rule, the president would change after one term in office. He was president of the International Astronomical Union from 1961-1964. Suffice it to say that he held many top international scientific posts. No scientist in the Soviet Union was so honored. Since many foreigners at the time referred to the Soviet Union as Russia, Ambartsumian was called a Russian scientist. But he corrected them, saying he was Armenian.”

The Byurakan Observatory director knew Ambartsumian for twelve years, starting in 1984. Mickaelian says Ambartsumian spoke perfect Armenian, albeit with an accent, despite being born in Tiflis and studying in Leningrad. This is because his father Hamazasp Ambartsumian, a famous scientist in his own right, was strict about only speaking Armenian at home.

Viktor Ambartsumian’s Office

“Ambartsumian even demanded that the Russian scientists that came here to defend a dissertation would have to pass an Armenian language exam. Tormented, and with their broken Armenian, they tried,” Mickaelian recounts, with a grin.

“Russian was the language used for all official documents in the Soviet Union. Meetings at the academy were conducted in Russian. There’s the well-known incident that happened in 1947 when he became president and presided at those sessions. At the following session, again in Russian, a scientist in the audience raised his hand and asked if he could speak Armenian. Ambartsumian told the story, saying, ‘It was as if a revolution had taken place. To think that someone asked whether it was possible to speak Armenian in Armenia’.

From that day on, recounts Mickaelian, Ambartsumian decreed that Armenian be used for all academy sessions. He says that many Armenian academicians of the day couldn’t speak fluent Armenian.

“Even today, many academicians over 75, are Russian speakers. It’s absurd, but at the time it was a badge of honor to send your children to Russian schools,” says Mickaelian.

Ambartsumian’s desk remains off-limits to all

Director Mickaelian says that Ambartsumian was so busy that there was a long waiting list of those wishing to see him. But the world renown scientist always had time to meet with those who had an interesting theory or piece of work to present.

The gardens of the Ambartsumian House-Museum

Mickaelian says that Ambartsumian always managed to finish all the work on his desk.

“I never saw such an individual. He would leave the observatory and read all the articles, correcting and editing them, before publication. Quality was paramount for him. He founded the observatory after all. He regarded everything emanating from the observatory as his children. We’d joke and say that some were his children, the next generation, his grandchildren, and the next, his great grandchildren. To be honest, I can’t say whether I’m one of the grandchildren or great grandkids. Maybe I’m somewhere in the middle,” Mickaelian says.

Byurakan’s “golden years”

Mickaelian says the observatory flourished from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Although some wouldn’t say so, he believes the sciences and other sectors in the Soviet Union started to nose dive in the 1970s. He singles out the quality of technical equipment in the 1970s, in particular, the late introduction of digital equipment to Armenia. The first digital observations at Byurakan occurred in 1996. Mickaelian says that no observations were conducted from 1991 to 1996.

Mickaelian stress the theoretical underpinnings achieved while Ambartsumian served as the observatory’s director. He says the observatory’s world prominence was based on Ambartsumian’s ideas and the work that he launched.

“I saw how Ambartsumian would tell young scientists to pursue this or that issue. They knew it would be productive work. He could ascertain what were the missing parts in science and that if a person did the work, discoveries would soon follow. He’d provide most of the staff with such issues for further research. Scientific establishments dream of having such a scientific leader.”

How Hitler’s gift to Mussolini wound up in Armenia

In 1960, at the height of the observatory’s Golden Age, a Schmidt-class 1m telescope was brought to Byurakan. An interesting historical side note is Adolf Hitler had presented the telescope to Mussolini as a gift. The aim was to establish an observatory in Italy. The project was never realized.

The legendary telescope

Mickaelian says that Hitler launched his program to develop telescopes in the 1930s and that Carl Zeiss, the famous manufacturer of optics founded in Jena, Germany, in 1846, was on board. The outbreak of WWII put an end to the program. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, this unfinished telescope, with other property, was transferred to Leningrad as spoils of war.

Mickaelian claims that Ambartsumian saw the telescope in Jena and knew that he wanted it. The telescope was finished in Leningrad and sent to Armenia.

This was the first large telescope, corresponding to international standards, installed at Byurakan, and ranks as one of the largest Schmidt-class telescopes in the world.

Benjamin Markarian’s work: Listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register

Using correctional lenses on the telescope, according to Mickaelian, allows for a wider field of vision, and more extensive surveys of the heavens in the search for unique celestial objects and phenomena.

Nevertheless, selecting which section of the sky to investigate, and what to look for, is quite complicated.

“Even if all of earth’s inhabitants became astronomers and the budgets of all countries were devoted to astronomy, it still wouldn’t be enough to explore the universe. It’s necessary to choose what to observe,” Mickaelian notes. 

Nevertheless, the academician Benjamin Markarian possessed such a scientific “sense of smell” that he would select 3-4 points, at tops 5, of the 15,000-20,000 on each photographic plate for further examination.

In 1965, Markarian conducted the first of a series of spectral sky surveys that ultimately revealed a class of weak galaxies named in his honor.

In 2011, the First Byurakan Survey (FBS or Markarian survey, Armenia), containing the records of a unique astronomical survey carried out by the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory (BAO) from 1965-1980 were added to UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register”. The survey involved the largest ever astronomical study of the nearby universe and is considered one of the most important achievements of 20th century astrophysics.

(The Memory of the World Register, now numbers a total of 245 documents and documentary collections from all parts of the world. It includes all types of material and support, including stone, celluloid, parchment, audio recordings and more.)

One of the 10,000 photographic plates taken by the Schmidt telescope

Byurakan Observatory Director Mickaelian says it took three years for the Markarian Survey to be accepted in The Memory of the World Register.

The Mesrop Mashtots Matendaran Ancient Manuscripts Collection made the Register years earlier, and the musical manuscripts of composer Aram Khachaturian were recommended for inclusion in 2013.

“Markarian was the first in the world to achieve what he did. Others have tried, but they’ve come up short,” says Mickaelian.

(To be continued)

Top photo: The observatory’s dome housing the 2.6-meter telescope

All photos by Narek Aleksanyan