100 Pillars of AUA Explore Cultural Heritage in Exclusive Tour
The mystic Noravank monastery, with its stone carved splendor and symbolic steps among Armenia’s historic jagged cliffs, served as one of the unique backdrops of the American University of Armenia (AUA)’s Pillar Tour that took place in June. The 13th-century site, located in Yeghegnadzor, was a meaningful stop during the two-day historical and cultural tour, led by renowned historian, archaeologist and AUA Professor Gregory Areshian, who organized this exclusive opportunity for AUA’s generous supporters.
Traveling through the historic provinces of the mountainous Vayots Dzor, Ararat and Aragatsotn, participants were able to experience rarely visited churches, monasteries and cultural treasures in Armenia. A must-see included the Areni Cave Complex in Vayots Dzor, the site where Professor Areshian and his team found the world’s oldest leather shoe and winery ‒ dating back over 6,000 years ‒ while serving as co-director of the National Geographic Society funded project.
“This was a life-changing tour of our homeland,” said Dr. David Essayan, who traveled on the tour with his wife, Dr. Susan Jerian. “It was an honor and privilege to spend time with Professor Areshian and try to absorb a small slice of the history that is our people and our land.”
The 17 participants on the tour experienced the rich itinerary that stemmed from Professor Areshian’s desire to show Pillars sites that are outside the general tourist guidelines. Instead of the usual locales, he sought to convey the diversity of Armenian civilization.
“The most important goal we achieved was that we were able to see an Armenia that is unknown to most Armenians,” said Professor Areshian.
He punctuated each site visit by dispensing his knowledge and research of the thousands-year-old history behind the remarkable locations, such as the Hovhannavank Monastery in the Aragatsotn Province and Armenia’s oldest wine-making enclave in Vayots Dzor, where the group enjoyed a wine tasting and meal together.
“Most Armenians have a limited horizon with regard to Armenia and I wanted to share this wealth of Armenian culture and civilization that is often omitted from Armenian history textbooks and the general Armenian narrative,” said Professor Areshian.
He stressed the importance of visualized history that cannot be learned in books but occurs only when one “sees the reality and can touch the cultural and historic monuments,” allowing individuals to receive “a completely different perception of Armenian history.”
The positive feedback and enthusiasm of the Pillars was evident throughout the tour, as they ventured onto grounds very few have embarked on before.
“Professor Areshian helped us grasp the impact of our Armenian history and culture on the happenings of today,” said AUA Pillar Dr. Michael Kouchakdjian, who also serves as Director of AUA’s Entrepreneurship & Product Innovation Center (EPIC), an on-campus startup incubator. “From architecture, to history, religion, and archaeology, there are no bounds to his knowledge and his willingness to share.”
One of the most ancient settlements in Armenia, Dvin, which was once the capital of medieval early Armenia, also served as a touching yet educational experience for participants. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dvin was built in 335 BC, where 100,000 citizens once lived in the plains of the Ararat province as artisans, craftsmen and fishermen. Almost two millennia later, Professor Areshian stood on the Dvin ruins with the Pillar group as he explained the significance of the city ‒ once used as the primary residence of Armenian kings ‒ while overlooking the lush Ararat Valley.
“Professor Areshian was able to condense an entire intermediate level course in the archaeological heritage of Armenia into a once-in-a-lifetime, hands-on experience for the participants,” said Dr. Essayan. “His command of this vast topic is extraordinary and the educational experience was inspirational, instilling in each of us the critical importance of proper archaeological research and preservation.”
What started out as an impromptu tour for members of AUA’s Board of Trustees in 2015, organically soared in scale and popularity, resulting in the Pillar Tour, which is now organized twice a year. In addition to the Pillars and their family members, three AUA students participated in the trip, giving them the chance to spend time with Pillars who support their education and the school’s advancement as a whole.
“The two-day trip we took with Dr. Areshian was extremely interesting and educational and it was clear Professor Areshian is highly knowledgeable in his field,” said Pillar Berj Kalaidjian. “What I admired on this tour was the idea of training AUA students, including Kevork Mnatsaganian, who will take over this mission in the future.”
Professor Areshian cites the importance of forging a connection between the AUA students and the Pillars in order to create a symbiotic relationship so the “pillars have the opportunity to see our most important product of AUA, which is our students.”
“The pillars not only saw how great Armenia is, but also witnessed the strong role of AUA and the results of the university’s mission and work,” said Professor Areshian.
In addition to his academic efforts at AUA, Professor Areshian continues to embark on excavations, including an upcoming one at Zorats Karer, a prehistoric archaeological site in the Syunik Province of Armenia known for its stonehenges.
“We have a whole set of historical and cultural sites that we know exist but know almost nothing about,” said Professor Areshian. “We can see beautiful, unusual ruins of deep antiquities, but not know their functions or dates.”
The excavations of these sites, “important jewels of Armenian culture unknown to the world” that are “clearly of global significance,” will be further discovered during fieldwork over the next few years, where excavations occur with the direct participation of AUA students.
This insightful on-the-ground experience and academic knowledge offered to the Pillars by Professor Areshian is the result of his four and a half decades as a researcher, archaeologist, academic and educator. His prolific career includes the publication of 150 scholarly works and professorships in 14 universities around the world, which was channeled to the tour participants.
“Professor Areshian fostered a camaraderie and pride within our group that only a true educator and humanitarian can, and for that, I am eternally grateful,” said Dr. Essayan.
As AUA Pillars, the participants had already established a rapport with the homeland and the university, but this trip brought them even closer to their roots as they dug deep into the nation’s treasures and together discovered a new way of looking at Armenia.
“A nation cannot survive and prosper without a deep understanding of its history,” said Professor Areshian. “Most Armenians must discover the riches of their past for themselves before talking about Armenia to the world.”
As supporters of AUA, the Pillars are aware of the impact of the academic institution and the strong influence it bears on the country’s next generation as the future leaders of Armenia.
“The recent events and the change of government was led by our youth, many of whom have passed through the corridors of the American University of Armenia,” said Dr. Kouchakdjian. “It is hard to find a more laudable diaspora investment that gives back every day than the American University of Armenia.”
The 100 Pillars of AUA is a group of 100 benefactors who contribute $50,000 to support the mission of AUA. Currently, 72 committed donors have become Pillars. Funding received through the 100 Pillars of AUA has allowed the University to hire additional internationally-sourced full-time faculty, such as Professor Areshian, increase funding for Professional Development Grants, and establish new degree programs. From the Center for Student Success to the AGBU Papazian Library, these contributors have allowed AUA to provide students with optimal resources and an unsurpassed level of education in Armenia.
Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia, and affiliated with the University of California. AUA provides a global education in Armenia and the region, offering high-quality graduate and undergraduate studies, encouraging civic engagement, and promoting public service and democratic values.