If you don’t know where the Hagia Sophia is, that the English word “alcohol” comes from Arabic, or the fact that Saladin (a “hero” of the counter-crusade) was an ethnic Kurd, then you probably haven’t taken a class with Rachel Goshgarian.
Newly hired as an assistant professor of history, Goshgarian, who has a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, has spent her first two semesters introducing Lafayette students to the historical study of a region that she calls “multi-layered and consistently fascinating.”
“The American press has a tendency to dehumanize the people of the Middle East,” she says, noting most high schools in the United States don’t offer courses on the region, so often times her class is the first and only a Lafayette student will ever take on the Middle East. “I try to expose students to images and information that highlight the past and present diversity of the region, and also to introduce them to new approaches to the history of the Middle East in the hopes that we can paint exciting academic endeavors on a ‘blank-ish’ canvas,” she explains.
Of Armenian descent, Goshgarian grew up as part of a vibrant diverse community in Chicago, a formative experience that led her to major in international relations and French at Wellesley.
Goshgarian is proficient in several languages, including Turkish, Armenian, French, Spanish and Arabic, the latter which she began studying after her first year at Wellesley. Her motive was personal—she attended what she calls a “jubilant” Lebanese wedding and wanted to “befriend all the Lebanese people” she could—but her decision to learn Arabic was a rewarding one as her study of the language led to an “obsession” with the Middle East and later, to a Fulbright grant to study for a year in Morocco.
Goshgarian’s passion for the Middle East continued and she began her graduate studies at Harvard with plans of specializing in the modern Middle East. “I thought I would eventually work at an NGO in D.C.,” she says. That idea was upended after taking her first class in Ottoman history.
“My professor had such a nuanced approach to the history of the Ottoman Empire that I began to see the history of the region as something other than a long crawl towards the formation of nation-states,” she says. “And I realized that in order to comprehend the modern Middle East, I had to have a better understanding of its medieval and early modern history.”
After earning her master’s in 2001, Goshgarian began pursuit of her Ph.D. The goal of her project was to better understand the significance of urban confraternities in Anatolia during the transitional period between the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. But she didn’t relegate her research to computers and library carrels.
“Highly social” by her own description, Goshgarian also founded the Harvard Middle Eastern Cultural Association, a student organization that seeks to encourage understanding through cultural communication. Activities included concerts, poetry readings, dances, and a weekly breakfast for students and professors.
“Our goal in founding the association was to create a space where people with an interest in the Middle East could interact uniquely by means of the culture of the region,” she says. Goshgarian hopes to create a similar space at Lafayette so the campus community can “dip its toe” in the pool of Middle Eastern culture.
In 2006, Goshgarian coauthored an Armenian language textbook published in Turkey, something she calls “an exciting venture considering the complicated relationship that exists between Armenians and Turks over their shared history.” The book itself was one of the first ever written by an Armenian and a Turk, and the first Armenian grammar book published in Turkey in 114 years.
Goshgarian is quick to note that she’s a medieval historian who systematically conducts her research by using Armenian sources in conjunction with texts composed in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. It’s the seemingly intentional erasure of history and memory for which she aims to compensate, and her research is the warm breath that reveals a hidden message on a window pane.
Take, for example, a trip she and her father took—while Goshgarian was conducting dissertation research in Turkey—to find a medieval Armenian monastery. Goshgarian had always wanted to experience the place where Yovhannes of Erzinjan had produced the writings that had inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. The trip was arduous, and she and her father spent hours in a stuffy car traveling over mountainous roads with their chain-smoking driver.
On the verge of giving up, the motley threesome stumbled upon a small village populated by ramshackle homes and crinkly-faced shepherds where her father’s offhand reference to the “vank”—the Armenian word for “monastery”—unlocked the discovery of Surp Nerses.
In her writing about the trip, Goshgarian references the phrase “There was and there was not,” explaining that it’s the Middle Eastern fairy tale equivalent to “Once upon a time.”
“These six words were not just an entry into an imaginary world that had never been,” she muses. “These words were also a bridge to a place that once existed.”
Upon receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard in 2008, Goshgarian served as director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center in New York and taught Armenian history as a visiting professor at Columbia University. And she was a senior fellow at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey, before coming to Lafayette in the fall of 2011.
In January, Goshgarian traveled to the Middle East to continue her study of Anatolian cities as places where—in the 13th and 14th centuries—Arabs, Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, Nomadic Turkmen, Persians, and Turks lived together and created what she calls “a hybridity of culture, not completely dissimilar from medieval Spain.”
Goshgarian says she has been warmly welcomed not only by the College community but also by local Eastonians, and, in particular, by Easton’s Lebanese population, thanks both to her gregarious nature and love of a good chicken shawerma sandwich. Her enthusiasm for people has served her well, not only in her research but also in the classroom, where part of the enjoyment, she says, is getting to know her students.
“I love teaching,” she says. “And I enjoy sharing my own approach to understanding the complexities of human existence. It is in its complexity, in fact, that history becomes most familiar to us.”