Educator, literary critic, public figure, scholar. These are some of the many hats that Nikol Aghbalian wore and that he put to the service of his people wherever he went.
He was born in Tiflis (now called Tbilisi) on March 24, 1875. He went to the parish school of his neighborhood, then to the Gevorgian Seminary of Holy Echmiadzin, and he finally graduated from the Nersisian School in Tiflis. He went to several universities for higher education (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Paris, and Lausanne), but he could not graduate. The constraints of life and public service took precedence. He entered the ranks of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in his youth and served it with total dedication.
Aghbalian became a teacher in the 1890s and he would work as an educator for the rest of his life. At the same time, he started his contributions to the Armenian press and would soon establish himself as a seasoned literary critic and commentator. He cooperated with poet Hovhannes Toumanian to establish the famous literary circle known with the name of “Vernadoon” (Attic).
His life would take a hectic turn in the 1910s. He was the principal of the Armenian school of Tehran (Iran) from 1909-1912, and after returning to Tiflis, he became the editor of the ARF daily Horizon in 1913. In 1914-1915 he was a member of the Armenian National Bureau and of the steering committee of the Armenian volunteer battalions that fought alongside the Russian army. He later worked in the difficult task of providing shelter, food, and medical treatment to the refugees from the genocide.
Nikol Aghbalian had also a role in the events leading to the declaration of Armenian independence; the declaration of the Armenian National Council that proclaimed Armenian self-government on May 30, 1918, was in his handwriting. He became a member of the Armenian Parliament in late 1918 and minister of Public Education from 1919-1920. During his tenure, he established the grounds for Yerevan State University and sponsored new literary values, such as poet Yeghishe Charents.
After the sovietization of Armenia, he was imprisoned from February 9-18, 1921, along with Levon Shant, Hamo Ohanjanian, and other political and cultural figures. He was liberated from prison and probable death thanks to the February 1921 revolt. After the end of the revolt in April 1921, Aghbalian, along with his comrades, was constrained to abandon Armenia, leaving his family behind. He would spend the rest of his life in exile, first in Iran, and then in Egypt, where he was principal of the Armenian school of Alexandria, while continuing his cultural activities. In 1928, he founded in Cairo, along with Shant, Ohanjanian, Kaspar Ipekian, and others, the Hamazkayin Cultural Society, and in 1930, he moved to Beirut with Levon Shant to found the Armenian Jemaran (Lyceum) of Hamazkayin, which would later become the Nishan Palanjian Jemaran (now Melanchthon and Haig Arslanian Jemaran).
Until his death, Aghbalian did not stop his prolific educational, intellectual, and political activities. He taught Armenian classics, history of Armenian literature, and Classical Armenian. He organized series of popular lectures to enrich the knowledge of the general public about Armenian culture and art.
He published several books in his lifetime, but most of his output in literary, scholarly, and political writings remained scattered in the press. It was collected in four volumes, posthumously published between 1959 and 1970 in Beirut.
Nikol Aghbalian passed away in Shtora, near Beirut, on August 15, 1947. He remained a censored name in Armenia until the final years of the Soviet regime. Today, the school No. 19 of Yerevan bears his name.