Theatre Essays & Articles>> A 'Renegade' Armenian Scholar

By Meg Sullivan
UCLA Today
, 2000
When S. Peter Cowe wasn't laboring this summer over medieval translations of 5th-century Armenian manuscripts, he was proofreading translations of late-20th-century Armenian plays 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. "With the exception of the Greeks and Jews, that's really unique in Western culture."
Cowe's broad approach recently earned him UCLA's oldest endowed chair — the Narekatsi Professorship of Armenian Language and Culture. Established in 1969 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 and Cultures in the College of Letters and Science. "He arguably is one of the most prolific and widest-ranging scholars in Armenian studies in the world today."
During trips to the Armenian Republic to study ancient biblical texts since glasnost, Cowe — a native of Scotland who is fluent in French, German, Greek and Armenian — discovered a new crop of playwrights writing in Armenian. His co-edition of plays by seven of these playwrights will be published in December by Columbia University Press.
"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. Cowe now works with a team of Spanish researchers looking at 4th- and 5 th-century Greek and Armenian texts through the prism of medieval Armenian manuscripts for clues to the earliest version of the Greek Bible. He has written 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.
"As a scholar, Sanjian was like my grandfather," Cowe said. "So in an important way, the lineage continues."

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