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 Carpets are the last tangible thread tying us to our holy Sushi.

 

The roots of carpet weaving date back centuries. Experts claim that they were originally cultural and artistic elements proclaiming the antiquity of the nation. Hence, ethnic conflicts arise over which carpet and which pattern belongs to whom. Well, everyone wants to bear the title of "the earliest inhabitant of the planet".

The Shushi Carpet Museum, however, is the only place in the world where the origin of every exhibit is clear, and the disputes over their belonging are meaningless.

If you have not been fortunate enough to visit the Carpet Museum in Holy Shushi, then you have an exceptional opportunity to see the marvellous Armenian exhibits preserved from the 17th century to our days at the National Museum-Institute of Architecture after Alexander Tamanyan in Yerevan.

The sacred relics of Shushi were brought to Yerevan to tell the magical tales of the Armenian and particularly Artsakh carpet weaving traditions.

This private collection belongs to Vardan Astsatryan, who collected and identified the origins of the exhibits one by one for a decade, whereupon he founded this museum of immense historical significance. 

Now he personally guides the tours and recounts how one burns the candle at both ends working on a carpet, why butterflies and bees are so important in Armenian carpet weaving, which shade of red we call vordan*, and what mysterious secrets are hidden in our carpets.

 

You started collecting carpets in 2000. On the symbolic day of September 2, 2011, the museum opened its doors to the first visitors. How did you start out, and what made you found a museum of this kind?

 

When I was a child, I used to regularly hear stories about Azerbaijanis coming to our villages and buying our ancient carpets. When I was already an adult, I myself witnessed how we were losing our age-old carpet weaving culture. In recent decades and even during the Soviet era, Azerbaijanis spared no effort and no expense to rewrite history and ascribe to themselves everything that had a cultural value. Large academies and scientists work on this, and unfortunately the result of their work is obvious. You would not find the phrase "Azerbaijani carpet" anywhere in the literature until the sixties of the last century. But since then, large works have been created on this. The first Artsakh War aggravated the situation even more, and it dawned on me that it was high time I swung into action, or else we wouldn't have exhibits even for museums. So, I began to design a museum in my mind's eye: in the beginning, I used to find carpets on my own and learn the history of their creation. Afterwards, I started buying and collecting them. 

But it was very important for me to know the origin of every carpet I acquired. That is, the origin of every exhibit in my collection is clear.

I became convinced that if you were genuine in your commitment towards your undertaking, then God would help you succeed. This is how the Shushi Carpet Museum came to be.

 

The museum opened its doors in 2011. How did first the people of Artsakh and then the guests of Artsakh respond to the event?

 

The Shushi Carpet Museum was a big surprise first of all for the people of Artsakh itself. People could not imagine that such things could be accomplished without state support, solely by personal and private means. But we succeeded. The exhibits, that I had already had for a long time, were the most important thing. We acquired the building with the help of benefactors from the US and Moscow. We arranged the exhibits and opened our doors to the visitors. This was a really new format that attracted everyone at once. Tourists showed great interest too. Many people came to our museum with the conviction that these were Azerbaijani carpets and left with changed beliefs and sound knowledge about the Armenian carpet weaving culture. I assure you that all those who have ever been to our museum will never say that an Azerbaijani carpet exists. Well, international experts are certainly educated in this respect. They know that it's just physically impossible for a nomadic tribe to have this kind of culture because it's a hard task to move the loom from place to place. But we also faced the task of imparting this knowledge to ordinary people, and we were really able to accomplish it in the best way possible.

 

The enemy never misses the opportunity to make our culture its own. You yourself mentioned that a lot of money is being spent on this. The Shushi Museum had gained wide recognition and was also well-known among foreigners. Nevertheless, the disputes in this regard have not been resolved. Where do we fail in not being able to put an end at least to cultural disputes once and for all and prove that what is ours is ours?

 

It is an old Armenian issue. We always lose what we have. I will not hesitate to say that it is a typical Armenian behaviour. It is ours, so we are certain that there is no need to prove that and that it is the absolute truth. And new nations always do their best to assimilate the culture of old nations. It serves them as a basis for proving that they have existed since time immemorial. Well, that’s the way it is, we just need to be strong and not let them take over our history, because they will always try. We have many failures in this regard. We lacked and still lack a state policy on this issue, while in their case programs have been developed by the state, enabling them to represent everything Armenian as their own. Everyone can see with the naked eye how it all turned out. They are constantly working on this, and as long as we are not vigilant and do not stop them from resorting to such provocations they will not cease doing so.

It is not complicated. After all, we do not have to make up tales and then prove that they are true. We simply have to preserve what we have and strengthen the foundations because we have proof. We need to work and preserve what we have. Our museum mostly did just that. We used to work with the museum visitors, promoting and raising awareness about our cultural heritage. Now here in Yerevan, too, we do the same for the groups of visitors. But it is not enough, it must become a state program, and only then will we succeed and achieve results. Otherwise, we will keep on losing what was originally ours.

 

The last war in Artsakh was a painful reality, the consequences of which we will not be able to eliminate for a long time to come. You are one of the fortunate ones who at least managed to save the museum exhibits of such great importance. How many carpets did you have, and how many were you able to save?

 

I had about three hundred carpets in my collection. But there were about a hundred in permanent display. The rest were kept in the museum’s reserves. It was August, I do not know why I decided to transfer another seventy exhibits to be displayed in the museum. Now that I think about it, I still can't find an answer as to why I decided to do so. But thanks to that decision, we were able to save a larger number of carpets from destruction. We were able to remove 70-75% of the carpets in terms of quantity, but if we think in terms of quality, we saved 90%. The best carpets were saved and are currently on display in Yerevan. We left about 120 carpets in our Shushi, and of course their fate is unknown.

You did not remove the carpets from Shushi until the very last moment, even though the city was being bombed, and no matter how much we tried not to think about losing it, the situation was grave, and the museum was in danger. Why did you hesitate?

 

You know, the only reason was the psychological aspect of the issue. Of course, since the first days of the war we had been considering moving the exhibits to a safer place because, yes, the city was constantly being bombed. But the museum was an integral part of Shushi, and if we started moving the exhibits, people would despair and think that the end was near. And we did not even think about the end. It's just that when the bomb exploded right next to the museum building, and the window panes shattered into pieces, I realized that every lost minute was going to work against these unique exhibits.

Artsakh carpets have been on display at the National Museum-Institute of Architecture after Alexander Tamanyan in Yerevan since February 20. Nevertheless, the future of the exhibits is not clear, at least at the moment. What issues have you encountered? What solutions do you see?

 

This is a very important issue, because these carpets are an inseparable and important part of our culture. They are of great personal and national significance. At the moment, these carpets are the last tangible thread tying us to our holy Shushi. Therefore, this museum should not be merged with any other museum or institution. It should have its own premises where the exhibits will be on display, and people will come and listen to their story. This is an important educational and cultural phenomenon and needs to be approached as such.

At the moment, the carpets are on display indefinitely at the National Museum-Institute of Architecture after Alexander Tamanyan. Finding new premises is vital nevertheless. After addressing the issue of having a separate building, serious educational and scientific work should be undertaken, and appropriate conditions must be created for that work, because the museum has been established for a long time, and the main hard work is done. If the government or the foundations that have experience and are knowledgeable in this field undertake this task, in a few years we will not have to prove to anyone that these are Armenian carpets. There will be no doubts. We have the documents and the literature. We simply need to work systematically at least until we return the museum to its homeland and historical land. And we will definitely return to Shushi.

 

* vordan karmir - crimson red dye made from Armenian cochineal

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