The Monuments of My Ancestors

This article will be published in PD Magazine: Monuments, launching June 2019. Subscribe here to receive email updates on the publication release.

The Erebuni Fortress also known as Arin Berd (Fortress of Blood) was built in the last quarter of the 8th Century BCE by the great Urartian King Argishti. Modern-day Yerevan (Ere-van), Armenia is also affectionately known among Armenians as Yerevan-Erebuni ^1. This capital city of 86 square miles with more than 1 million inhabitants traces its roots to this Urartian fortified city, which turned 2,800 years old in October of 2018. This makes Yerevan approximately as old as, if not 30 years older than, the City of Rome ^2.


The Armenian Civilization flourished in its historic homeland stretching from the Euphrates River–western Armenia (modern-day Turkey)–in the west to the mountains east of the Arax River in Armenia. Armenia was governed by several kingdoms and principalities over the span of these 2,800 years. “From mighty fortresses lodged on hilltops and mountain peaks, the Armenian kings and princes maintained constant vigil against foreign occupation and waged dogged resistance to liberate their country whenever overrun” ^3. In 70 BCE the Empire of Tigranes the Great stretched from Tbilisi (modern-day Georgia) to Damascus and Beirut, in Syria and Lebanon respectively. With abundant natural resources Armenians were early discoverers of metallurgy as well as cultivators of grape, pioneering winemaking ^4.

Over the centuries Armenians were noted for their art, architecture, literature, music, and dance. “Their strong sense of identity was shaped by their unique language, one of the oldest living Indo-European languages, written with a distinct alphabet, and their early adoption of the Christian religion” ^5. Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew (Saint Jude) traveled to Armenia in the 1st Century. The adoption of Christianity, in 301 CE by King Drtad, made Armenia the first nation in the world to adopt the religion as a nation. This event profoundly influenced the Armenian culture, the arts, and the fate of the Armenian people. Armenians became experts in working the tufa stone as sculptors, masons, and architects. The monuments they created captured the spirit of a small but resilient and productive nation.

Especially in the context of Christian Architecture, Armenia’s churches and monasteries have acquired world prominence. Today, UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Armenia include the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, built in the 10th and 13th Centuries. These monasteries represent the best of Armenian religious architecture, which is quite unique in the world. External domes of cylindrical or geometric shape tower the churches in the monasteries. The cathedral of Etchmiadzin was built in the years between 301 and 303 by the founder of the Armenian Church, St. Gregory the Illuminator. The cathedral replaced a pagan temple signaling Armenia’s conversion from paganism to Christianity. The cathedral was rebuilt in the 5th Century and became the Catholicosate for all Armenians in the 15th Century. Now the seat of the Armenian church, the cathedral at Etchmiadzin undergoes constant renovation to preserve its historic meaning and architectural beauty. The Monastery of Geghard with numerous churches on the cliffs of Azat Valley, Armenia, represents medieval innovations in carving structures into the rocks of the valley. The monastery is famous for and is named after the relic that Apostle Thaddeus is believed to have transported with him to Armenia. The spear (“Geghard” in Armenian) that is believed to have wounded Christ on the cross is the monastery’s most important and cherished possession ^6.


I am blessed to have visited all these sites in Armenia as part of my annual pilgrimage to teach in Armenia’s universities the topics of public policy and administration, which I am honored to teach at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. This September 21 will mark the 28th anniversary of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union ^7. My first trip to Armenia was in October of 2007 as the President of the International Armenian Bar Association. Since then I returned to Armenia 5 times as an educator. Especially since last April, and after the “Velvet Revolution,” ^8 I noticed a remarkable change for the better in the governed as well as those who govern. The younger generations are unambiguously able to believe in a better future for all. I am convinced Armenia remains a beacon of hope to preserve what is left of this 3,000-year-old civilization.  

The evidence of strong Christian architecture, culture, and art persists in modern-day Armenia, but unfortunately has been ruined in western Armenia or modern-day Turkey. Thousands of churches and stone crosses were built across historic Armenia, even after the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of historic Armenian lands. The great monuments of my ancestors, worthy of all world distinctions and dating back several millennia, are in fact endangered today in most of Anatolia. Despite constitutional protections for religious beliefs and convictions, the protections spelled out in the Treaty of Peace with Turkey signed at Lausanne in 1923 ^9, and despite Turkey’s status as a secular democracy, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report, religious freedom in Turkey remains a challenge for various religious minorities ^10. One of the common features of modern-day Turkey seems to be its intolerance for other cultures and religions. On top of this list is Turkey’s intolerance for churches. The approximate number of churches in Ottoman Turkey before 1915 stood at 2,300. The number of active churches in Turkey today is 34. Of these 34, 28 are in Istanbul and six are in Anatolia ^11. The remaining balance has been desecrated or defaced. In some instances these holy sites have been as target practice in an effort to culturally marginalize and devastate the Christian minority after the Ottoman Empire’s failed attempt to eradicate the Armenian race in the early parts of the 20th Century.  


Armenians lived in peace with their Ottoman rulers for about 500 years. In early 20th Century the Ottoman Empire experienced its worst decline under the rule of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, who was forced to give up power to a group of young leaders known as the Young Turks. While promising equality to Christian minorities in the Empire, the Committee of Union and Progress led by Young Turk leaders Enver, Talat, and Jemal Pasha began creating a modern state with Turkish nationalist ambitions. There was no place for Christian minorities as, according to the Young Turks, “Turkey [was] for Turks.” On April 24, 1915, Turkish officials arrested, deported, and executed 250 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. Able-bodied men were disarmed and slaughtered across the Empire. My great- grandfather, a school board member, and my great-uncle, a University professor, were among them. Women and children were marched to death, sold into slavery, raped, and killed. My paternal grandmother marched over 200 miles into the desert witnessing atrocities that no 7-year-old, and for that matter no human being, should witness.

I am the great-grandson of a victim and the grandson of a survivor of this genocide. Ironically, I live today as the direct result of the kindness of Turkish families, who had the humanity to shelter my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother. In various public speeches I give every year about this topic, I never forget to applaud the humanity of Turks, who were remarkably influential in saving the lives of their Christian friends and neighbors. Many Armenians, like me, live today because of their kindness. May their humanity live on and be an example to Turkish officials, who continue this atrocity today by denying a historical fact and who take every opportunity to erase the monuments and therefore the spirit of my ancestors. However, the future remains bright for Armenia and Armenians. No better words can describe the Armenian spirit than those of Armenian-American poet William Saroyan who passionately wrote ^12:

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.
— William Saroyan

Frank Vram Zerunyan, J.D. LL.D. (hc)*is a Professor of the Practice of Governance at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy and Director of Executive Education at USC Price Bedrosian Center on Governance and The Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making, an Interdisciplinary Center USC Marshall USC Viterbi and USC Price (DECIDE). For his influential work over the past five years at American University of Armenia, Yerevan State University and Public Administration Academy in Armenia, he was awarded LL.D. Doctor of Laws – Honoris Causa by the Public Administration Academy of the Republic of Armenia. Frank is a three-term Mayor and still serves as a Council member in the City of Rolling Hills Estates, California. As a gubernatorial appointee under Governor Schwarzenegger, Frank was a state regulator serving on the Medical Board of California in the Department of Consumer Affairs.

4 See Footnote 3
5 See Footnote 3
9 The Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923) signed between THE BRITISH EMPIRE, FRANCE, ITALY, JAPAN, GREECE, ROUMANIA, the SERB-CROAT-SLOVENE STATE and TURKEY