Academics & Faculty

New Holder Of UCLA Professorship Celebrates 2,500 Years Of Armenian Culture

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When UCLA scholar S. Peter Cowe wasn't laboring this summer over medieval translations of 5th-century Armenian manuscripts, he was proofreading translations of late 20th-century plays from the Armenian Republic and laying the foundations for an 18th-century Armenian cultural history.

No wonder the noted champion of Armenian language and culture describes himself as a "renegade classicist."

Over two decades of tracing the culture from its first flowering at the same time as Classical Greece to the establishment of an independent state in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution, Cowe has developed a reputation for groundbreaking research spanning two millennia.

"Here you have a vibrant contemporary culture that can be traced back to about 500 B.C.," said Cowe, a resident of Sherman Oaks. "With the exception of the Greeks and Jews, that's really unique in Western culture. So it's fascinating to get as broad an overview of this development as possible."

The approach recently earned Cowe UCLA's oldest endowed chair — the Narekatsi Professorship of Armenian Language and Culture. Established in 1969 with contributions from the Los Angeles Armenian community and named for the 10th-century Armenian mystical poet Grigor Narekatsi, the position had gone vacant for nine years while university officials searched for a worthy successor to the chair's original holder — the late Avedis Sanjian, who retired in 1991.

"Finding just the right person is no small thing, but we've certainly done so with Peter," said William M. Schniedewind, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages in UCLA's College of Letters & Science. "He arguably is one of the most prolific and widest ranging scholars in Armenian studies in the world today. He's added an enormous amount of energy and visibility to Armenian studies here."

Cowe's appointment is expected to further burnish UCLA's reputation as a leader in Armenian studies. Only six other American universities can lay claim to even one endowed

position in Armenian studies. Meanwhile, UCLA, located in the heart of the single largest population of ethnic Armenians outside of the Republic of Armenia, has two such positions: in addition to the Narekatsi Professorship, UCLA is home to the Armenian Educational Foundation Professorship in Modern Armenian History, held by Armenian genocide authority Richard Hovannisian. Only two other American universities — University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and California State University, Fresno — can boast as many endowments in Armenian studies to attract and retain the field's premiere scholars.

UCLA is also home to one of the nation's richest collections of Armenian holdings, with nearly 100 manuscripts dating back to the 13th century and recordings of interviews with more than 100 survivors of the Armenian genocide, which claimed 1.5 million lives between 1915 and 1922.

"In Armenian studies, UCLA is really the place to be," Cowe said. "My position is a big challenge and an enormous responsibility, but it's a wonderful opportunity for growth."

Cowe's enthusiasm apparently is infectious. Since he signed on at UCLA as a visiting professor in 1996, the number of graduate and undergraduate students studying some aspect of Armenian language and culture has risen from just over 60 to more than 100. Course selection, meanwhile, has nearly doubled with the introduction of rarely available coursework in Armenian's eastern dialect, which is spoken mostly in the Armenian Republic and Iran.

The native of Scotland says he's just trying to introduce students to the wonders he discovered as an Oxford undergraduate with a penchant for classics.

"You take someone like Plato, and there has not been a single generation since Socrates that hasn't studied him, so many of the most important questions have already been answered," Cowe said. "I was looking for a field that was related but with a better opportunity for groundbreaking research. Since Armenian studies is a relatively young discipline and it's still not so popular, it tends to attract renegade classicists like me. There's a tremendous amount of virgin territory for scholars to plow."

To this day Cowe continues to mine a research vein that he first cracked as a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the late '70s and early '80s. Combing though early biblical manuscripts in Armenian, he was able to isolate clues dating the documents back to the same era as 5th-century Greek biblical texts that were the foundation for the King James Bible. Ironically, he made the discoveries as a student of the noted Armenian scholar Michael Stone, a Sanjian protege. Cowe, who belongs to the world's two leading scholarly societies for Armenian studies, now works with a team of Spanish researchers looking at 4th- and 5th-century Greek and Armenian texts through the prism of medieval Armenian manuscripts for clues to the earliest versions of the Greek Bible.

But where another biblical scholar may have seen an opportunity to burrow for an entire career, the fluent speaker of French, German, Greek, and both the eastern and western

dialects of Armenian saw a launching pad for a whole range of scholarly pursuits. During successive trips to the Armenian Republic to study ancient biblical texts since glasnost, Cowe introduced himself to a new crop of playwrights writing in Armenian, an Indo-European language with its own script. His co-edition of plays by seven of these playwrights — only three of whom have ever been translated into English — will be published in December by Columbia University Press. Plans are in the works to mount next spring one of the plays in Southern California; Cowe describes the author of one of the plays in the anthology, Berch Zeytuntsyan, as the "Arthur Miller of Armenia." Also in press is an anthology of contemporary works by women writers from the Balkans, which he is co-editing.

"One of the advantages of being in a small field is you can't survive by being a specialist — you have to be something of a generalist, too" Cowe said.

But nobody could accuse the scholar, who sits on the editorial board of this country's three leading scholarly journals for Armenian studies, of neglecting the bread-and-butter of his field. Also in press is an English translation of a bibliography of Armenian literature from the 16th to the 19th century. Moreover, the University of California Press recently published "Medieval Armenian Manuscripts at the University of California, Los Angeles," a survey of all the university's holdings that was completed by Cowe but begun by Sanjian, who died in 1995.

"It was an important work that needed to be printed, and I was happy to assist," Cowe said. "As a scholar, Sanjian was like my grandfather. So in an important way the lineage continues."

-UCLA-

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