by David Zenian
Tbilisi, Georgia — The tombs of literary and musical giants Gomidas, Raffi, Gabriel Sountougian, Hovhannes Toumanian and Magar Yegmalian are only some of the reminders of an Armenian heritage dating back to when Yerevan was nothing but a small dusty city.
The 136-year-old Bedros Atamian theater and the ornate cliffside balconies stand witness to what was once the most prominent center of Armenian business and culture in the Caucasus.
Most of these “monuments” are in Havlabar, the picturesque hilltop Tbilisi neighborhood overlooking the Gour River — home of the majority of the city’s more than 150,000 Armenians.
It was also in Havlabar where the Mantachev and Aramiantz families began their journeys to fame and fortune. Buildings constructed by the two families, or dynasties as same prefer to call them, still stand. One such structure is the city’s First Hospital which is still known by many as the Aramiantz Medical Center.
“Many ordinary Georgians do not know the origins of these buildings, let alone who the Aramiantzs were. In the early l900′s, especially before the communist revolution, the Armenians of Tbilisi, or Tiflis, were a source of strength and pride.” said a local elder.
The Aramiantz hospital, in the heart of Havlabar, is a sprawling complex. Originally built in 1895 and expanded many times over since, the medical facility now has 1650 hospital beds. It employs 600 doctors and 800 nurses and is considered the best in the country.
Assistant Director Zurab Baratashvili, the Tbilisi educated and Leningrad trained surgeon, is too young to remember the founding fathers of the facility. “We are getting no assistance from Moscow, and unlike Armenia, we do not have a Diaspora to help us. The Armenians are better off in that aspect,” he says with an air that disguises envy.
“We used to have an annual budget of 6 million rubles, which was more than 6 million dollars in the old days, now, we need 25 to 30 million rubles, or 200-240,000 dollars, but there is no way we could get our hands on that kind of money,” he says. “Our highest paid doctor makes 2000 rubles, or 16 dollars,” he said.
Compared with medical facilities in Armenia, the Aramiantz Hospital is not better equipped or maintained. There are no visiting foreign medical personnel and there is no outside help. The hospital is also a target of frequent attacks by gunmen searching for drugs. We have been forced to maintain an armed guard around the pharmacy,” Baratashvili says.
A few miles away, and scattered around the Armenian-populated Havlabar neighborhood, are dozens of buildings once owned by the Mantachev family of oilmen. One such building, now standing on the site of a house once owned by the Mantachevs, is the Bedros Atamian Theater — the Georgian government-subsidized Armenian theater. Except for a month during summer, Armenian actors perform six nights a week, attracting several hundred people who often use the theater more as a meeting place than a home of Armenian culture.
“Community problems are solved here, and sometimes the committee in charge of the theater acts like an Armenian mini-parliament. People come here for help to solve their real life dramas,” says newspaper editor Van Baybourtian.
Havlabar is also home to most of the “cottage industry” for which the Armenians are most renowned. One such mini-industrialist is Levon Parseghian. Before the advent of a market economy, Parseghian was the manager of a small government-owned shoe factory. “I now pay rent to the government, and the entire production is mine. I pay the 40 workers and other expenses. I cannot say I own the factory, but neither does the government,” he says.
His long-time friend Albert Khatchadourian runs a similar enterprise. “Some Armenian factory foremen are taking advantage of the new conditions and taking the first steps toward private ownership. But typical of all Armenians here, most are careful. They are keeping their cards close to their chests,” Khatchadourian says.
The Armenians of Tbilisi have always found security in Havlabar — like fellow Armenians in parts of Los Angeles and the Bourj Hamoud neighborhood of Beirut, Lebanon. “There is a subconscious attraction towards Havlabar, more so today than any other time.We just feel safer together,” says a local shopkeeper.