The great Armenian philanthropist and businessman, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, was born in 1869 in Scutari near Constantinople (Istanbul). He received his early education at the local Aramyan Uncuyan Armenian school. He then attended the Lycée Saint-Joseph French school, and continued his studies at the American Robert College before moving to Europe at the age of 14 to continue his education.
Throughout his life, Gulbenkian was involved with philanthropic activities, including the establishment of a library, a church, aid to many schools, and other institutions. He paid special attention to the Armenian communities dispersed throughout the Middle East, and especially refugees, in the wake of the Armenian Genocide.
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian spent his last 13 years in Lisbon, where he died in 1955. His final resting place is the Saint Sarkis Armenian Church in London.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was created in 1956 by his bequest and continues to promote arts, charity, education, and science throughout the world, as per the Founder’s will.
Gulbenkian accumulated his wealth through the oil industry in the Middle East, and throughout his life, he amassed a huge art collection, which became the basis of the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon.More about CSG
The Armenian Communities Department, formerly named the Department for the Middle East, was set up in 1956 by two executors of the Calouste Gulbenkian’s will, Kevork Essayan, Gulbenkian’s son-in-law, and José de Azeredo Perdigão, the first Chairman of the Foundation.
The Trustee responsible for the Armenian Communities Department has always been Armenian and a member of the founder’s family. Presently the Trustee responsible for the Department is Martin Essayan, Calouste Gulbenkian’s great grandson. Previous Trustees include Mikhael Essayan, Gulbenkian’s grandson and Honorary President of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and Roberto Gulbenkian, Gulbenkian’s nephew.
Since 2013, Razmik Panossian has been the Director. Previous directors have been Roberto Gulbenkian, Goriun Kechichian and Zaven Yegavian. During 2012, Astrig Tchamkerten acted as Interim Director.
Below are some of the important activities undertaken by the department over the years:
- In 1957/58 the university scholarships programme was established. The programme continues until today and over tens of thousands of Armenian students have benefited from it.
- In 1959/60 the “Free Bursaries” programme was established to help students attend Armenian schools around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Thousands of children benefitted from the scheme which continued for decades. Subsequently, funds were also allocated for the building and renovation of many schools in the Middle East, Turkey, Argentina and Uruguay. Supporting Armenian education and schools remains a key activity of the department.
- In 1959 the first book in the Armenian and Armenian studies publications programme was published.
- In the 1960s several apartment houses for needy Armenians in Beirut, Lebanon were constructed, in partnership with UNHCR, the Howard Karageusian Commemorative Corporation and the Swiss Friends of Armenians. Similar construction of apartments were undertaken for Armenian refugees in Athens, Greece, with UNHCR.
- Between 1960s and 1970s, medical equipment was donated to the Surp Pirgiç Armenian Hospital in Istanbul, including an x-ray machine and an operating theatre. Calouste Gulbenkian’s parents and other relatives are laid to rest in the courtyard of the Hospital, at a dedicated shrine.
- During 1988 to 1989 humanitarian relief support was sent to Soviet Armenia after the massive earthquake. In addition to sending funds, the Foundation acted as an intermediary for the help provided by Portugal to Armenia. A total of 138 tons of first aid products was gathered, and delivered directly to affected areas. Medical equipment was also sent to hospitals in Armenia. The Department continues to support initiatives in Armenia independent since 1991, focusing on civic education and scholarships.
- In 1990, after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, the Department embarked on a vast school reconstruction programme for several school buildings in the country. Support to schools in Diaspora continue to this day.
- In 2001, the renovation of the Calouste Gulbenkian Library at the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem was supported. The library, built in the 1930s with a donation from Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, is one of the most important Armenian libraries in the Diaspora.
- In 2013, the new Five Year Programme Plan was launched, emphasising the revitalisation of Western Armenian, educational reform and pedagogic modernisation in the Diaspora, merit-based university scholarships, civil society support in Armenia, Armenian-Turkish dialogue and electronic publications.
- In 2014 the first-ever “Armenian Culture Week” was organized at the Foundation, with concerts, exhibitions and conferences. “Armenians in 2115” seminar was held with diasporan leaders.
- The 2014-2018 Five Year Plan was reaffirmed for the 2019-2023 period, with some adjustments, the most important changes being in the means the Department implements its priorities to ensure further focus and greater impact in its core priority areas of focus.
- 2014 onwards, a number of initiatives were supported in Istanbul to highlight the Armenian presence in Turkey, and to support civil society and academic organizations valorizing Armenian history, culture and language.
- In 2015, the Department initiated the digitization of materials from the Mekhitarist Congregation invaluable newspapers and periodicals collection. To date, half a million pages have been digitized, and the ready content is available free of charge. Other digitization works followed suit, including the complete works of Hagop Oshagan, hundreds of ebooks and audiobooks on the platforms Vlume and Digilib, as well as 83 dictionaries on Nayiri.
- In 2015, the Calouste Gulbenkian Translation Series was launched in Armenia. The series makes seminal texts in the humanities and the social sciences available in the Armenian language. Books being translated into both branches of the Armenian language include Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Jurgen Habermas, Simone de Beauvoir, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Hannah Arendt, etc.
- In 2016 and 2018 major academic conferences were supported in Armenia, at the YSU on the Armenian Diaspora of Russia and at AUA on challenges facing Armenia.
- In 2017, the Universal Armenian Spellchecker and the Western Armenian Text Corpus project was initiated. The spellcheckers for Android and iOS were made freely available and easily downloadable on any device. Other IT-language related initiatives were also successfully concluded, including the Western Armenian Treebank, a tool that plays a crucial role in the development of modern language processing systems.
- In 2017, the Western Armenian summer programme Zarmanazan was launched for children and young adults, which takes place on a yearly basis. Other initiatives pertaining to Western Armenian followed suit, including the launch of the pedagogic resource website Zndoog in 2021, the publication of Zartiss children’s literature series, teacher training projects and the Yertik online programme for pre-teens.
- In 2018, the Armenian Diaspora Survey was launched, a project that conducts surveys of public opinion in Armenian Diaspora communities to inform the public, scholars, policy-makers and community leaders about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the Armenian world in the 21st century.
- In 2019, the Department launched its Lebanon Strategy, with a detailed program including collaboration with Armenian schools, a professional Teacher Development program, targeted scholarships and a focus on the enhancement of Western Armenian cultural production.
- In 2019, the Department was actively involved in the Foundation-wide celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian.
- During the Covid-19 pandemic, humanitarian aid was sent to Armenia and Lebanon, support was given to schools and new innovative initiatives were launched in response to the pandemic.
- The Department continues to provide scores of scholarships per year to university students and researchers around the globe.
A conversation between Mikhael and Martin Essayan, where Mikhael is sharing stories of his grandfather.