When in 1899 the construction of a railroad tunnel in Jajur (the birthplace of the renowned painter Minas Avetisyan) was completed and the first steam locomotive entered Gyumri, the inhabitants of the city gathered at the rail station to see the otherworldly sight. It is said that two youths, Poloz Mukuch and his friend Madoyents Napo, were there as well. After watching the approaching train for a while, Mukuch asked:
- Napo, how does this train move? - Bghov, by vapor.
The eight-year-old Mukuch did not believe his friend. As Napo tried hard to convince him, he expressed his doubt:
- Tso, if this train moved by vapor, then Dsitoghtsonts bathhouse would have reached London!
The hero of this aneqtod (conversational Armenian for ‘joke,’ borrowed from Russian, borrowed from Greek, borrowed from…) is Poloz Mukuch, the most famous of many renowned witty persons of Gyumri. These tales have become emblematic of the city’s spirit and are a veritable source of joy and pride for the inhabitants.
Poloz Mukuch (Mkrtich Ghazari Melqonian) was born in Gyumri on January 7, 1891. Because of his height, Mukuch (already a colloquial form of Mkrtich) was given the name ‘Poloz’ (colloquial for elongated, asymmetrical, out of proportion). Despite his father being one of the most accomplished blacksmiths and artisans in Gyumri, Poloz Mukuch didn’t learn a trade. He only received an elementary education and, to earn his living, became a podratchi. He would station his cart at different points inside the city and, as he sold fruits, would pepper his humble trade with endless sweet jokes. His impromptu tales—many of which are based on real-life events—quickly made him famous around Gyumri.
Among the witty contemporaries of Poloz Mukuch were Tsitro Aleq, Tutkhal Harut, Madoyents Sirun Napo, Tiraturents Margar, Nal’j Karo, Gramophone Onéss, Dzaghlents Nerses, damrchi usta Kola, Sokh’ Heyvaré, and dholchi millstone Asho. (If you are really curious, ask a Gyumretsi to decipher for you these phantasmagoric nicknames. I will not do so here due to space constraints).
Poloz Mukuch died in February 1931. The inhabitants of Gyumri loved Poloz so much that a huge crowd accompanied the funeral (As a reminder: the funerals in Armenia consist of having the coffin openly carried out from the home of the dead and, in special cases, the procession walks all the way to the cemetery). Twenty years later seeing that Poloz Mukuch did not have a gravestone, Avetik Ishakyan asks varpet Simik to make one on his behalf. On the one side of the gravestone is carved ‘To Poloz Mukuch (Mkrtich Ghazarosi Melqonyan); on the other side, ‘A memento from the poet Avetik Isahakyan.’
When I was growing up in Gyumri, Poloz Mukuch was an omnipresent and glorified figure. But because scarcely any facts were mentioned about his life, secretly I started to seriously doubt that such a person ever really existed. Most people didn’t bother to talk about his biography. In fact, the jokes with which Poloz had made his mark on the world were much more powerful than any historical facts. Hence, there isn’t a Gyumretsi who not only has heard about, but feels a warm, personal attachment to a figure called Poloz Mukuch. The legend of this man is so dear to a Gyumretsi that innumerable jokes are attributed to him, oftentimes posthumously. Only after living in America for a while do I see the way a city—my home city—has given birth to and nourished a wonderful legend.
Yet, in the 1990s, this pride and humor, although of great psychological use, was surreal and incomprehensible to me. Half of the city was devastated by an earthquake; cycles of harsh winters had left no trees standing in and around the city; the war and a possible conflict with Turkey had made the residents anxious; and people fell into object poverty overnight. Still, they managed to look at the world as if half-seriously; not believing what they see and making fun of it.
To recall, the opening aneqtod mentions a railway being constructed through Gyumri, and a certain Dzitoghtonts bathhouse. Unlike the rest of Eastern Armenia, Gyumri was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1804 at the beginning of the 1804-1813 Russo-Persian war. Already in this period, Gyumri was a major center. In 1829 its population grew significantly due to the influx of about 3000 families from Western Armenia. In 1837 Czar Nicholas I visited Gyumri and renamed it Alexandropol, in honor of his wife, Princess Alexandra Fyodorovna (Charlotte of Prussia). (Almost a century later, in 1924, the city would be renamed again, this time to Leninakan, honoring Lenin…more on this, on re-naming).
Due to its strategic location, Gyumri became a major military station for Russian troops. In many respects, the city’s architecture was determined by this. Thus, two intermingled themes dominated the city: commerce and military presence. Interestingly enough, there are still Russian troops stationed at Gyumri, with a peacekeeping, deterring mission, given the proximity of the current Turkish border (this is the official version of the story). What also seems unique about Gyumri is the fact that during the 19th century the vast majority of its inhabitants have been Armenians.
In the Armenia of today, despite the devastating earthquakes that have periodically occurred in the region, Gyumri has the largest number of standing 19th century buildings. The city was becoming an important commercial and military outpost for the Russian Empire. Ironically, the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century were profitable for the commercial class of Gyumri. There were dozens of taverns and large guesthouses. Usually, at the top of the arched gate or somewhere on the front of the building is a slab on which is inscribed the date of the construction, the varpet who built it and the name of its owner.
Early on, the inhabitants of Gyumri lived in houses completely or partially dug into the earth: in Armenian, getnapor and kisagetnapor houses. The latter is also known as glkhatun or ‘Gharnavuj tun’ in the vernacular of Gyumri. These kinds of constructions were used for multiple purposes (living space, storage, workshop, etc.) and were popular throughout the Caucasus and the Armenian Highland. They were built largely with tuff stone and had their own gardens and conveniences. At the same time, another type of building was being perfected: a house-complex with covered internal gardens.
The architecture of these houses already testifies to the growing sophistication of the Gyumri artisans. Their multi-functionality, efficient inner and outer solutions and decorative richness made them exemplary buildings. One of the largest complex houses in Gyumri was the Dzitoghtsonts old house. The Dzitoghtsyan was one of the richest families of the city. It is not accidental that Poloz Mukuch compares their baghniq (‘bathhouse’) to the new railroad in the opening ‘aneqtod’ of our writing. The Dzitoghtsonts complex was built in 1829. Architecturally, this building was one of the masterpieces of early Gyumri cityscape. Like other buildings of its kind, it had many rooms and intricate and highly functional network of halls and entrances.
These prefiguring architectural developments lead to the building of urban house complexes in the second half of the 19th century. There were one and two storied houses and some of them were explicitly called shahutaber (literally ‘income generating’) houses because they rented out frontal spaces and interior rooms for shops and guests, respectively. These houses have intricate designs on their frontal walls. They incorporated details from previous forms of buildings, such as basements, inside gardens, windows on the ceiling and narrow hallways. Once again, the Dzitoghtsyan had one of the largest shahutaber houses in Gyumri. This new two-storied house was built in 1872, according to the inscription on the front of the entrance gate. The first floor was used for commercial purposes while on the second floor, lived the owners of the house. Interestingly, this house had a rare metallic ‘hanging’ balcony on the front-center of the building. Today, this late Dzitoghtsonts building houses the Gyumri museum of popular culture and the museum of Sergei Merkurov – the renowned Soviet sculpture of Greek origins and a native of Gyumri. Anyone visiting Gyumri must visit this museum.
Even though Gyumri has had more prosperous days, it has never been as vibrant and creative as in the second half of the 19th century. In a sense, Poloz Mukuch’s death marked the beginning of a kind of cultural decline for Gyumri. This decline, to be sure, was concomitant with political and economic hardships. There was the devastating impact that the genocidal events of 1915 had on Armenia, in general. With the annihilation and scattering of the Armenian life in Western Armenia, Gyumri lost a great source of economic and cultural growth. The city’s infrastructure and population was put under great pressure by the inflow of refugees. The city lived through harsh winters and devastating epidemics.
Before the collapse of the Armenian Democratic Republic (the first Armenian republic), Gyumri was occupied by Turkish forces twice and in 1920 the infamous Treaty of Alexandrapol was signed there. Soon, along with the current day Armenian Republic, Gyumri became a part of the Soviet Union. Then came a few more years of starvation that were accompanied by forceful efforts to collectivize the economy. This was followed by years of Stalinist repression, and then WW II.
From 1950s on Gyumri experienced major industrial growth. It became the second largest city of the Soviet Republic of Armenia, after Yerevan. Its factories produced textile, high quality electronic devices, industrial parts and construction materials. However, the 1988 Spitak Earthquake and the subsequent economic collapse after the birth of the present Republic of Armenia obliterated the economy of the city.
Unfortunately, even without citing any statistical information it is easily confirmed that to this day Gyumri hasn’t recovered from these blows. There is still wide-spread unemployment; the economic infrastructure is outmoded and sometimes blatantly absent. A new generation of young Armenians who have spent their formative years in an independent Armenia, have not experienced prosperity. The young people of Gyumri lack educational and technological resources. For example, many of them are poorly acquainted with the internet and do not take advantage of the new modes of world-connectedness. Add to this the rampant corruption of the city administration and the future doesn’t look very promising. Instead, for the youth it is completely normal to aspire to move to Yerevan and, even worse, to Russia, Europe, Australia, and especially to the US.
But, I can’t help but be hopeful. Clearly, the multifarious and sophisticated cultural heritage of the city has the potential to reinvigorate itself. Consider all that early-industrial achievement in architecture, artisanship, the arts, and commerce. We should think of how to tap into these potentialities that will allow Gyumri to re-imagine itself. Perhaps this should be left as material for another article.
Մաթեւոսյան, Սարգիս. XVIII – XIX դդ. Գյումրիի Ժողովրդական Ճարտարապետությունը. Երեւան, Սովետական գրող, 1985. 144 Էջ.
Matevosyan, Sargis. Gyumri’s Popular Architecture of XVII – XIX cc. Yerevan, Sovetakan Grogh, 1985. 144 pp.