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Penn State professor has passion for stone crosses

February 28, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

MONT ALTO, Pa. - It's one of the "forgotten incidents" in American history, said an assistant professor of communications at the Penn State Mont Alto campus.

Alfred G. Mueller II was talking about June of 1918 when 4,500 American soldiers were pulled off the battlefields of France in World War I and sent to invade Russia.

"They got within 40 miles of Moscow when they stopped and turned back," Mueller said. "The British told U.S. officials that the Bolsheviks were Jews who were killing Russians. The Americans pulled back when they learned it wasn't true."

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Another reason for the invasion, Mueller said, was because Russia refused to pay its share of the costs of fighting the world war. Russia, along with the U.S. and Great Britain, made up the Big Three Allied Powers in WWI, he said.

Mueller, 31, wrote an article on the incident in 1992 that was published in "Essays in History" while he was a student at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Researching the incident launched Mueller's interest in learning about the Caucasus - Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. "It got me interested in that part of the world," he said.

Before that he spent three years on and off in Ukraine between 1994 and 1997 studying the connection between Russia and Ukraine that he wrote about in other articles. "I'd go there, do research, come home, write, go back again, do more research, come home and write," he said.

In 1998, a year before Mueller earned his Ph.D, a professor at the University of Iowa encouraged him to go to the Caucasus to further his studies there. He chose Armenia. "It was the only one that wasn't at war," he said.

It was in Armenia that he first saw the stone crosses called Khachkars (pronounced hatch-ars).

In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first Christian state. The first stone crosses were carved that year, Mueller said.

He continued his research on the crosses on subsequent trips. He has taken extensive photographs of the crosses that show the progress made as the stone carvers developed their craft through the centuries.

The earliest examples were crude, but they got markedly better as the carvers became expert at their craft. Later ones are works of art, judging by Mueller's photographs and their fine filigree work.

The man-sized carvings are an integral part of the Armenian culture, much like the bald eagle is to Americans.

"Anyone who vandalizes one goes to jail," Mueller said.

Only carvers sanctioned by the Armenian Apostolic Church are allowed to make them, he said. "They are still being made today," he said. There are two in America, both commissioned by Armenian communities, one in Boston, the other in California, he said.

Mueller is writing a book on the carvings, a coffee-table publication that will be filled with his photographs.

He also is doing research for another book, this one on a more serious subject - the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish government during the last years of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s, he said.

On a personal note, Mueller met his wife, Lusine, then a graduate student, on his first trip to Armenia in the spring of 1998.

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