Middle East expert and magistrate whose turbulent, polyglot life typified the dislocations of the Armenian diaspora
Gaspar Aghajanian was an archetypal member of the Armenian diaspora. His life was twice disrupted by political violence ? in 1948 in Palestine and 1974 in Cyprus ? but each time, with the courageous support of his wife Astrid, herself a survivor of the disasters which befell the Armenians in Turkey in 1915, he created a new career in a new country.
Aghajanian was born in 1911 in Jerusalem, where his family had been part of the Armenian community for generations. His most thrilling memory as a boy was hearing the rumble of heavy guns outside the city as the Turks, Gaspar?s conscripted father among them, were pushed north by Allenby?s army in 1917. Many of Jerusalem?s ethnically mixed inhabitants were ambivalent in their allegiance to their Ottoman rulers, and British rule, under the mandate of the League of Nations, was to start with generally preferred.
Aghajanian attended Armenian, Italian and English schools, and also spoke French, Arabic and Hebrew fluently, as well as a smattering of Greek, Turkish and Aramaic. In 1928 he began a legal career as a clerk in the Jerusalem law courts and steadily worked his way up, using evening classes at the government law school to obtain his diploma. He was appointed notary public of Haifa in 1938 and in 1945 chief clerk of the Jerusalem District Court. In the war he joined the Palestine Volunteer Defence Force, trained with a heavy AA battery and was in action against enemy bombers attacking from Vichy-controlled Syria. He was again promoted in 1947 to be magistrate in charge of the courts at Tiberias and Safad. His ability to speak and listen to all concerned in their own languages proved a huge asset in a society which became increasingly polarised as the British Mandate drew to a close.
In March 1948 fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs in Tiberias, and Aghajanian sent his wife and their two daughters to safety in Trans-jordan, as it then was. He had married Astrid Topalian in 1942, and for her this was a second flight. Her family had lived in the Armenian area of Turkey, and when the First World War started the Turkish Government had feared that sympathy for the advancing Russians, their fellow Christians, posed a security risk, and that the Armenians must be moved. The policy was arguably defensible, but the manner of its execution was barbarous. All the menfolk in Astrid?s family were shot, and the women and children of her village were herded on the long trek across the mountains in appalling conditions. When the remnants of her group reached what is now Syria they were in a state of collapse, dying by the day. In desperation Astrid?s mother threw herself on a pile of dead bodies, her baby beneath her. The guards gave a few desultory pokes with their bayonets and left. Mother and child were succoured by wandering Beduin, and eventually reached Jerusalem.
Aghajanian struggled to keep the administration of justice alive in the dying days of the mandate, but a month after his wife?s departure he was told by the beleaguered British Police that his safety could no longer be guaranteed, and he joined his family across the Jordan, where for a time he acted as legal representative for the British Council. While in Amman he was summoned for an interview with King Abdullah, who offered him a judgeship in Trans-jordan, and it says much for his reputation that when he later met a Jewish legal acquaintance in Nicosia he was assured the same offer would hold good if he returned to the new state of Israel. Wise in his generation, and foreseeing a troubled Middle East, he declined both suggestions.
He was by now a British citizen, and considered making a legal career in London, but the offer of a job with the American radio-monitoring station in Cyprus was a bird in the hand which he dared not let go. He was rapidly promoted, first to be Middle East unit chief and then to be in charge of quality control for the whole station.
The Aghajanians made a delightful new home in Kyrenia, which they named Jerusalem Cottage. Gaspar retired in 1971, and they intended to end their days there.
But in 1974 Turkey, alarmed by the strength of the Enosis movement for union with Greece, invaded the north of the island to protect the Turkish minority ? an action for which Britain, as one of the guarantors of the political status quo in Cyprus, bore a grievous responsibility. Despite holding British passports, the Aghajanians, mindful of 1915, fled south for their lives, leaving all their possessions, convinced that death awaited them if they remained. They were flown to Britain by the RAF and once again started from scratch.
Again, Gaspar?s gift of languages and deep understanding of Middle East politics proved the key. In 1975 he joined the Ministry of Defence and to his surprise found that in fact he was working within MI5. He would never talk about this work, but he was so valued that he did not fully retire until 1983, by when he was well over 70.
He devoted part of his retirement to a fruitless attempt to obtain compensation for his losses in Cyprus, but Turkey refused to acknowledge his British citizenship because of his Armenian name, and he found the Foreign Office reluctant to make forceful representations on his behalf to a Nato ally.
He and Astrid were eventually able to set up house again, in Sussex, and their home became a place of pilgrimage for many friends and relations, who by then regarded Gaspar as the family patriarch. He was a man of absolute integrity and no small wisdom.
He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.
Gaspar Aghajanian, linguist, magistrate and Middle East expert, was born on April 16, 1911. He died on August 31, 2007, aged 96
Source: “The Times”, London, 20 September 2007