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Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3

Alumni Profile

Writing History’s Story

Archaeology may be the study of ancient civilizations, but one would never think to describe this type of history as “dead and buried” after meeting with renowned archaeologist and historian Nina Jidejian (BA ‘61, MA ’65). For anyone who cracks open one of her fifteen books, Jidejian’s animated and accessible writing style and obvious passion for her material make these journeys into the past come to life in the present. It is because of her scholarly reputation as well as her knack for storytelling that MainGate sought out Jidejian’s own life story.

Born in Boston and growing up primarily in Tehran, Jidejian’s story begins with a fateful visit to see her sister in Beirut in 1947. At the end of her vacation, her sister had a minor accident, obliging the young Nina Nazaretian to spend some time at the AUB Hospital. Here she happened to meet the esteemed surgeon Yervant Jidejian. The following year, they were married and Nina Jidejian moved to Beirut. In 1949 the Jidejians celebrated the birth of their only child, Denise.

As wife to the doctor serving as governor to the Lebanese chapter of the American College of Surgeons, Jidejian was often called upon to entertain visitors traveling to Lebanon to attend medical conferences. Along with organizing barbeques and swimming parties, she gave visiting doctors her own tours of Lebanon’s many ancient wonders, based on what she could learn from the available guidebooks. After years of obliging her guests with tours, she decided it was time that she learned more about the ancient history of her adopted home. Jidejian started auditing classes at AUB, despite being both a mother and a decade older than most university students.

Jidejian was no stranger to the University when she started attending classes and, indeed, her contributions are still very evident. She was one of the founding members and presidents of the Women’s Auxiliary, which raises funds for AUBMC patients and medical students; she helped start the still active Bargain Box, a small store run by volunteers which supports the hospital through the sale of used clothing, books, and other gifts items; and she established the coffee shop in the old surgical wing of the hospital in 1953. She describes these activities with warmth, remembering the close network of wonderful colleagues who shared her energy and vision.

As an auditor, Jidejian recalls, “Because I wasn’t always worrying about who I was going out with that night, I was getting much more from the courses than my younger colleagues.” Given that this is a woman who could not be satisfied giving tours based solely on superficial guidebooks, it is not surprising that she soon sought to dedicate herself fully to being a student. Having already completed two years of university at the Sage Junior College in Tehran, Jidejian was given standing as a “junior” when she enrolled as a full-time student at AUB in 1961.

Jidejian recalls her days at AUB fondly. Though an older student and the wife of a respected AUB doctor, she had to follow all the administrative protocols required of all students. “I asked for no favors and none were given to me,” she says. Jidejian flourished in this challenging environment. She remembers AUB for its superb professors and gives specific credit to William A. Ward as a particularly supportive teacher. She was especially inspired in her study of the ancient world by her advisor and professor John Pairman Brown, from whom she learned the axiom of academic integrity she still lives by today: “Never go out on a limb; always site your sources.”

With these principles to guide her, Jidejian worked hard and fast. Despite her other responsibilities, she earned her BA in archaeology and history in 1963 and graduated with her MA in 1965. She produced a groundbreaking dissertation on Byblos that so impressed the faculty that her professors encouraged her to pursue publication.

At this juncture, Jidejian insists, luck played a large role in her life, as she believes it does in all lives. Standing timidly inside the Jesuit Brothers Publishing House with her revised thesis under her arm, she learned that the publishers were currently working on a series of English language books on Lebanon’s archaeological sites. Whether it was due to luck or the quality of her research and writing, her thesis was immediately accepted as part of this project and, once published in 1966, received international acclaim.

Jidejian has since written books on all of Lebanon’s famous archaeological sites, as well as a book on the Michel Eddé coin collection and a companion to Liban l’autre rive, an exposition in Paris. These works have earned praise from noted academics worldwide, as well as from the presidents of Greece and Lebanon.

One might ask, after thirty years and fifteen books, what more is there to write about? This question would never occur to Jidejian. When asked how she came to write her most recent book, Animals of Lebanon in Antiquity, from A to Z, she answered with two very simple statements. “First of all, I love animals. And, it’s never been done before.” These two principles, a love of her material and a desire to investigate new topics, keep both her interest and her writing fresh and alive. Jidejian varies her audience as well, reaching beyond academic circles. Animals of Lebanon in Antiquity is more of a picture book than anything else and is intended to “be something interesting for all ages.”

“What is very rewarding is that I learn as I write,” explains Jidejian. While researching depictions of ancient animals in museum objects and mosaics, she discovered the importance of specific animals to various cultures. With obvious delight, she explained in detail her findings on the symbolic meaning of the vulture to ancient Egyptian civilization. “Every day I realize I know nothing,” she says in complete solemnity. “You always have more to learn.”

This is clearly a heartfelt sentiment. Having already learned enough to fill—and write—a book on Sidon, Jidejian is returning to this ancient site for a fresh analysis. She is currently working on a revised, enlarged edition of her Sidon work, incorporating new research and recent findings. She describes these new developments the way a mystery writer might explain the exciting plot twistings of their upcoming whodunit and, indeed, Jidejian really does bring out the ‘story’ in history.

Having remained in Lebanon throughout the war years, Jidejian has lived through some very traumatic experiences. The beautiful home in Yarzé that she shared with her husband until his death in 1989 sits in what was called the Triangle of Death, where bombing from the sea and the mountains converged for fifteen years. Throughout this long and violent period, Jidejian continued to research and publish, though her access to AUB was completely cut off during that time. She used the resources at the Bibliothèque Oriental to continue her work, but risked her life every time she made a visit to her publisher, the Jesuit Brothers.

Speaking with obvious respect and affection, she describes her late husband’s philosophy that kept them in Lebanon throughout the war. “I have seen the good days of Lebanon and Lebanon has made me,” Dr. Jidejian used to say. He would not abandon his home. Thankfully, Nina Jidejian has not abandoned her home either, and she continues to provide the world with new perspectives of Lebanon, based on sound research and presented with the fresh eye of a lifelong student.

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