BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Today I’d like to tell you about Armen (Claude) Mutafian, who I met in Paris. A friend had referred him to me as an interesting person to write about. I had a rather favorable opinion of him from afar, as he’s known as an expert in medieval Armenian history.
I had seen him on several occasions, but never had a chance to meet him. Mutafian, in his late 70s, has a jovial air and a friendly attitude. His signature is his uncombed white hair, which hangs to his shoulders and becomes one with his white beard. His tight-lipped expression, sometimes with a little smile, reminds me of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. Or perhaps I see some Albert Einstein in him. The spirit is quizzical, but warm.
Before coming to Paris, I had contacted him to see when we could meet. He, like many Parisians, was going for his “vacance” (vacation) during the month of August. The only time he had to meet with me was the very first day I had arrived, which was on Sunday, July 28 at 6 p.m.
After a long flight from Los Angeles, with a layover in Dallas, Texas, I needed a power nap to regain my sanity, to be ready to meet an important person and have an unforgettable conversation.
At around 5:30 p.m., my host called a taxi. I was at Mutafian’s door right on the dot, albeit with a tremendous jet-lag!
Mutafian welcomed me at his office on Rue Saint-Jacques in the heart of Paris. The office was an apartment turned into a library. Walls of all the rooms, from floor to ceiling, were covered by shelves holding volumes of books. He estimated the number of books to be around eight to ten thousand.
Although I had seized the opportunity to interview him, crossing multiple time zones had unfortunately diminished my alertness. Besides that, an hour seemed not enough time for all the things I wished to discuss with him.
Claude Mutafian was born in 1942, in Clamart – a suburb of Paris. Both of his parents were born in Western Armenia and had survived the Armenian Genocide.
For more than forty years, until 2004, Mutafian was a university professor of mathematics in Paris. However, in later years his interest progressed into studies of Armenian history. He received his Ph.D in history from Paris’ Pantheon-Sorbonne University. Today his name is inseparable from ancient and medieval Armenian history.
Mutafian has devoted his time to studies of Armenian history, particularly the relations of Armenia with its various neighbors. Following the publication of several books on algebra, Mutafian has authored multiple books on the history of Armenia and the studies of maps. His most recently published book is “La Saga des Armeniens de L’Ararat aux Carpates,” which is about the Armenians in the Carpathian region, which includes present Romania, Eastern Poland and Western Ukraine. The book tackles when, why, and how the Armenians settled in those areas and what they accomplished thousands of years ago.
Mutafian discussed with me the highly publicized Armenian exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, last year. He said, “Although I have admiration for the work, I think there were some shortcomings.” He thought the exhibition should have included the Urartu period.
“The exhibition covered the Armenian civilization from the 4th century, with the dawn of the Christianization of Armenia, and unfortunately ignored one millennium of pagan Armenia before the Christian Era,” said Mutafian. “As an example, the absence of the name of the most famous of all Armenian kings, ‘Tigranes the Great’ (1st century B.C.), in an exhibition called ‘Armenia’ looks strange, if not unacceptable.”
He told me that, although history is his first love, his second love is the opera. He loves operas by Wagner in particular, Berlioz, Verdi, and of course, the Armenian Operas.
It’s a pity that I didn’t have more time to interview this man who, besides being a Master of Armenian Studies, is also so knowledgeable on many subjects and so generous with his time and attention. I regret that I forgot to ask him about his personal life and about growing up in Clamart, which is one of the Armenian populated suburbs of Paris.
We shared a lovely and very informative hour together, and I hope that, at some later date, I can visit him again to learn more about other aspects of his life.