Posted on April 22, 2016
Finnish monk, Professor of Theology Serafim Seppälä has for years been studying the Armenian culture and history and has a number of publications on this topic, among them a 500-page book on Armenian art and culture; he is currently working on another book on the topic of the Armenian Genocide. In the interview with Panorama.am Father Serafim speaks about his works and his unique personal experience with Armenia, which he says is the last corner of the Middle Eastern cultures where the old Christian tradition is still preserved and which he calls the home of his soul.
- Father Serafim, you have been engaged in Armenian studies for years and you have a number of books written on cultural and religious issues related to Armenia. How did you as a Finnish Orthodox Monk first get interested in Armenia? What topics have you studied in particular?
- I was interested in Armenia before I became Orthodox, but it is a long story. As a young student in the 90’s, I wanted to become a Christian but I did not know what kind of Christian I should be. There were dozens of different denominations in Helsinki and I visited all of them. The Orthodox church was the last one on my list! Before that I already visited an Armenian church in Istanbul.
I was studying Oriental studies and Semitic languages in Helsinki, also reading a lot of books on the history of Christianity. I became convinced that Christianity by its spirit is an eastern religion, and the Oriental Churches are the closest to the original. Then I went to Jerusalem for a year and experienced them all: the Syrian Orthodox, Copts, Ethiopians and Armenians. I lived in the Armenian quarter, in a tiny hut on the roof of an Armenian house.
So it was for me a personal and academic pursuit. I translated spiritual literature from Syriac (Aramaic) into Finnish, but I never had a chance to study Armenian. Then I became Orthodox, and some years after that I went to a monastery. The monastic years were very busy. Each day 14 hours of church and work, and in the nights I was preparing a PhD.
Then by surprise, I got a job from the University and the Church blessed me to go. Only then I was able to fulfill my dream and go deeper with Armenia.
- What interesting discoveries have you made while studying Armenia?
- For me everything Armenian surviving from pre-Genocide times is a revelation of supreme Beauty. Vaspurakan Miniatures, duduk tunes, folk dances, sharakans, Sayat Nova, Artsakh carpets, even reminiscences of tight rope dances! I never encountered such beauty anywhere. Combining this with the history of massacres and bloodshed, the combination is absolutely unique.
These things are the home of my soul. It hurts me every time when I see or hear these precious pearls being replaced by Western rubbish in Yerevan.
Armenia is the last corner of the Middle Eastern cultures where the old Christian tradition is still in the heart of the whole culture from operas to holy caves. This is so precious.
I am not blind for the practical problems of Armenia, but there are practical problems in all countries. An ultimate example: people make much more suicides in well-to-do Finnish villages than in poorest Armenian villages. Why? Could it be that there is still something precious in poor Armenian villages, something that the Finns lack?
- You have actually studied the philosophy of the Armenian Genocide as well as the Armenian art of the post-genocide period, didn’t you? Could you share some of your findings and ideas in this regard?
- Yes I did a study on the cultural aftermath of the genocide: How the Armenian art, paintings, movies, literature and the whole identity has been affected and constructed by the genocide and its denial. It felt like the deeper I dig the more painful it is.
The term genocide is nowadays used very lightly. When a few thousand die in the Middle East conflicts, even politicians immediately label it as genocide. In an actual genocide, even the deaths are a secondary problem, whether thousands or millions.
I see genocide basically as an ontological event, a systematical attack against existence in all levels: past, present, future. The past of Armenians was and still is being destroyed by Turkey. The present was taken away from those 1.5 million. And the future, the whole way of life, this is the true problem of genocide. To sit and chat in a church-yard in LA is not the same as to sit and Chat in Aghtamar. The know-how of thousands of years of traditions in prayers, folk songs, carpet-making etc. went into ashes. This is the essence of genocide.
At the moment I am already writing a third book for the 100 years anniversary. This time my idea is to portray Western Armenian village life, with all of its feasts and so on, and to present an overview of a few martyrdoms based on survivor memoirs.
I never write about politics or diplomats and such. For me, they are marginal. What is important is the actual people and their spirit - in spirituality and in arts.
- Father Serafim, you are also the author of a 500-page book titled “East of Ararat” on Armenian culture, history, art and religion. Could you say in a few words what the book is about and what its message is?
- For 15 years I waited for someone to make a book about Armenian culture in Finnish, and no-one did. So I understood that I need to make it myself. It is a cultural history introducing twelve most important chapters of Armenian history. I tried to make it so that it is not a dry catalogue of empires and rulers and power relations, but rather a historical exposition of Armenian identity. Why and how things like Avarair, Catholicos, alphabet, Narekatsi, Aznavour etc. are constituents of modern Armenian identity.
- Is this book going to be translated into English or Armenian?
- I am afraid not. It is meant for Finnish audience. To my great joy, there are already hundreds of Finns who have travelled to Armenia with this “brick” in their hand. They say that in Armenia they see things and perhaps experience them deeply, then they read and understand.
In fact, it seems that I have contributed to the emergence of a curious sub-culture in Finland: we have dozens of people who love Armenia deeply, with all of its shortcomings, and even can feel the authentic karot. Most of my friends have been to Armenia like 5 times, and more they go, the crazier they turn! At the moment one of them is riding a horse from Jermuk to Sevan!
- It is really great to discover that we have such amazing Finnish friends who love Armenia like this! You have visited Armenia for a number of times; when are you planning to visit again?
- Well, twice a year I bring a group from Finland. In October to Northern Armenia, and then in May we’ll go to Artsakh and Siunik. I hope to spend the Christmas time in Armenia, too. I cannot stand many months outside.
Interview by Nvard Chalikyan