At a meeting with Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirril I, on December 2, Gyumri mayor Vardan Ghukasyan brought up the idea expressed by many residents of Gyumri to rename the city back to its historical name --Alexandrapol.
The mayor's suggestion caused a stir in Armenias second city, and was read by some as the further Russianization of Armenia.
A closer look, however, shows different motives --including the fact that the current name is of Turkish origin-- and is one reason over the past years more and more residents of Gyumri talk about recovering the city's former name.
Alexandrapol's history goes back to 1837, when Emperor Nikolay I personally visited the settlement, which later was named in honor of the emperor's wife.
The place itself was not a city yet. It was a settlement with fortresses erected in early 19th century, as strongholds during the war against Ottoman Empire. It was the Turks who called the place gyumri, which meant customs.
Yet a thousand years before the 'the customs', there was an ancient Armenian settlement called Kumairy, which stood where today's Gyumri is. In late 5th c. BCE ancient Greek historian Xenophon wrote about Giumnias --'a big, rich and crowded' city.
Armenian historian Ghevond (8th c., during the Arab rule) --has reference to Kumairy of his period already as a settlement.
The Turks who took possession of that territory played the similarity between the traditional name of the settlement and the Turkish word gyumri meaning customs, and altered Kumayri to Gyumri. The concept of Gyumretsi (native of Gyumri) is the Turkish equivalent of tax- or tribute-collector, as well as a money-lender, money-changer.
For dozens of years the Armenians of Kumayri struggled to free themselves of the Turkish yoke, of the hated name Gyumri, and connected all the hopes with Russia --a country that shared the same faith with them. In 1826 the former customs finally rid itself of the Turkish oppression.
In 1840 the fortress of Alexandrapol was officially proclaimed a city, and in 1850 that city became the center of Alexandrapol uyezd [district] of Erivan province.
As a result of the railway lines Tiflis [Tbilisi] --Alexandrapol- Kars and Alexandrapol-Erivan [Yerevan]-Julpha laid later, it became also one of important communications hubs.
The moment when customs became Alexandrapol marked the launch of the settlement-to-city transformation process. By a special decree it was developing in accordance with the standards established for Rostov, Kars and Shushi.
That period saw the formation of a new type of Eastern Armenia-based Armenians, who combined the best traits of Armenian, Russian, Caucasian and even European cultures.
Nonetheless, today's residents' growing desire to rename the city is not so much dictated by the drive for the recovery of historical justice (in that case it would make more sense to rename it Kumayri), as by the realization of the deficit of urban culture, and of the loss of urban values and traditions.
The concept of Alexandrapoltsi (native of Alexandrapol) meant belonging to urban culture. If Gyumri nurtured money-lenders and did not leave behind any more or less worthy name, Alexandrapol, on the contrary, gave birth to mystic Gyurjiyev and sculptor Merkurov, poet Isahakyan and painters Aslamazyan sisters --names that soon became known in all Europe.
Alexandrapol became the city of craftsmen, where more than a hundred kinds of crafts flourished --goldsmith craft, smith craft, copper, tin working and casting. Masons, layers, carpenters were especially respected and demanded. While churches were built in a traditionally established manner, residential and public buildings incorporated new -Russian and European- tendencies.
After Sovietization the city -then renamed into Leninakan (after communist leader Vladimir Lenin) - lost some of its qualities, but due to the massive Alexandrapol stratum it kept standing out among other regions.
The city was renamed yet another time in the early 1990s back to the Turkish name Gyumri along with the objectively brewing multidimensional crisis, and reanimated the pitiful and humiliated Gyumretsi type of the times of Turkish oppression.
It is against this reanimated image that many residents of Armenia's second biggest city are speaking out, and moreover, they say that the mayor who actually voiced that issue in his conversation with the Russian Patriarch would never be able to become the mayor of Alexandrapol, he can only be the mayor of Gyumri.
Today's tour around Gyumri is the fixation of the victory of money-lenders' world perception. In the current whirlpool of the construction boom, that traditional stratum of Alexandrapol culture is under the threat of complete destruction, either through demolishing the old housing, or their adjustment to the architectural taste of the new rich.
But if Alexandrapoltsis knew their limits, Gyumretsis never new such limits and still dont. It is that all-permissiveness that the residents of Kumayri-Alexanrapol-Leninakan-Gyumri oppose, and in their quiet desire to reclaim a name, seek also to reclaim a character by which their city was honored in its best days.