Venice: Job's People

Far from the ethnic strife in Armenia and Azerbaijan, an obscure order of monks tends to a people’s soul

THE AZIENDA DEL CONSORZIO Trasporti Veneziano, Venice’s waterborne-transport company, runs a vaporetto eight times a day from the wharves off St. Mark’s Square to the Isola di San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a mile and a half out in the Lagoon. The twenty-minute ride follows ancient channels marked out by sagging wooden piles. After two intermediate stops the Byzantine-style cupola of the church of St. Lazarus heaves into view. Minutes later a deckhand tosses down a gangplank, and passengers drift up to the cluster of brick-and-stucco buildings that shelter the Armenian Congregation of Mekhitarist Fathers.

The visitors may have time, before a priest appears, to examine an inscribed stone affixed to a wall, bearing a testimonial from George Gordon, Lord Byron, an admirer and sometime pupil of the Mekhitarist fathers. Byron settled in Venice in 1816, before enlisting (and dying) in the cause of Greek independence. Writing to an English friend that December, he mentioned taking up the study of the formidable Armenian language. “My mind wanted something craggy to break upon,” he explained, “to torture me into attention.”Mornings the poet took himself by gondola to San Lazzaro and retired to a library over the monastery kitchen to “hobble Armenian with the friars,” as he put it.

In a year, under the direction of his tutor, Padre Paschal, he had mastered the language and its largely Greek-derived script of thirty-eight characters well enough to parse scriptural passages. Yet even Byron had to concede that “it is, to be sure, a Waterloo of an alphabet.”

This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the bloodbath in Turkey in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of ethnic and sectarian antagonists. Solemn commemorations of the Armenian genocide will be made in the various places around the world where the many expatriate Armenians now find themselves—and of course in the Armenian republic of the Soviet Union, still beset by ancient animosities.

But the historical resonance will be particularly strong in the observances to be conducted by the Mekhitarist fathers on their tiny island, where they have tended the flame of Armenian national consciousness for nearly three centuries.

ON A RECENT visit to San Lazzaro I was met in the cloister walkway by a spare old priest with a neatly trimmed gray beard and wirerimmed bifocals. Padre Giuseppe—to use the Italian rendition of his Armenian name, Hair Housep (his last name is Behesnilian)—has spent most of his life on San Lazzaro. The son of a Protestant Armenian merchant in Ethiopia, he came to Venice for secondary studies at the Mekhitarists’ Moorat-Raphael College, in the Dorsoduro quarter. Captivated by the order’s peaceful life and also by its singular mission—the preservation and transmission of Armenian culture—he converted to Armenian Catholicism and eventually took his religious vows. Now he is in charge of showing visitors the manuscript collection and other artifacts. The island opens a window on an ancient people, the regeneration of whose national vitality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in large measure the legacy of Mekhitar, an itinerant vardapets, or learned monk, who founded the order and brought it to its current home.

Born Manough Petrossian, in 1676 in Sivas, in what is now Turkey, Mekhitar entered a monastery at fifteen and took the name by which he is remembered, which means “The Consoler.” The young monk roamed the monastery circuit from Etchmiadzine, the see, or seat, of the Armenian Church, to Constantinople. Western thought swirling into the stagnant Armenian Church culture had a bracing effect upon him, which was reinforced by contacts with Jesuits and other Latin orders. Around 1700, fellow Armenians denounced him to Ottoman authorities as a frangui, meaning someone under a presumably subversive French influence, and he sought asylum on the French embassy grounds. Before his eventual flight to the Venetian-controlled Peloponnesus, in Greece, he founded the Adoptive Sons of the Holy Virgin and Preachers of Penitence, as the Mekhitarist order was first known.

As Padre Giuseppe showed me the way off the open-air cloister to the stone church in which Mekhitar is buried, he said, “His ideal was this: to illuminate the Armenian nation for the glory of the Lord.” We stopped in a passageway hung with a series of prints and photographs showing the island in different periods. A tenthcentury Benedictine abbey gave way to the medieval leper colony from whose patron saint—Lazarus—the island took its name. But the island was abandoned and derelict in 1717 when the Venetian Senate ceded it to the Mekhitarists. The bearded fathers had washed up in Venice two years earlier after fleeing an Ottoman offensive in the Peloponnesus. Venice, bursting with monasteries and convents, had barred new religious orders from settling on its canals. But Venetians and Armenians had historical and commercial ties, and a common quarrel with the Turks. Mekhitar, a patriarchal figure even at age thirty-nine, also enjoyed Vatican favor as a likely bridge between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches, which were risen in the sixth century by a quarrel over Christ’s divinity and humanity. Mekhitar did lead his small fold into Roman Catholicism, which exerted an attraction on many other Armenians at the time. Nonetheless, the vast majority of his countrymen today are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has not achieved full communion with Rome. In the quiet of the island church, Padre Giuseppe pointed out apertures in the walls, now bricked up, through which lepers once peered during mass. And he talked of Mekhitar. “He was very patriotic, our founder. He said, ‘I would not give up my faith for the nation, or the nation for my faith.'" Perhaps the most important tool that Mekhitar employed to gain his ends was the Armenian language, intimately associated with national identity from early times. The runic Armenian alphabet was devised about A.D. 405 by the monk Mesrop Mashtots, roughly a century after Saint Gregory the Illuminator had converted Armenia to Christianity. “As soon as the language was ready we had the most beautiful translation of the Bible,” Padre Giuseppe said. “Maybe not precise, but beautiful.”

Armenian monks also were fervent nationalists. The Armenian Church was a bulwark supporting the sovereign kingdom of Armenia in precarious equipoise among various great powers. Showing me the manuscript collection. Padre Giuseppe pointed out a fragment of parchment. “Here, from the sixth century, just a piece,” he said. “For as Armenia was on the invasion route, the first thing the barbarians did was to burn our books.” In the seventh century the first Muslim expansion brought pillage and decimation of the Armenian ruling class. In the ninth century Prince Ashot, of the Bagratid Dynasty, ushered in a short-lived medieval Golden Age. In 1064 the fabled Armenian capital of Ani fell to another invasion, marking the end of what is known as Greater Armenia. A number of Armenians resettled in Cilicia, along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, where they established Lesser Armenia and provided critical support to the Crusades. The new kingdom fell victim to a succession of Muslim conquests, and by Mekhitar’s time most of Armenia was under Ottoman rule.

As a non-Muslim community, the Armenians paid heavy tribute to the ruling Ottoman Turks and received only second-class citizenship in return. Yet they were often better educated than the Turks, and served the Sublime Porte as able administrators—as the distinguished portraits and curios in the San Lazzaro collection reflect. In an antiquarian’s delight of a library, visitors can inspect the mummy and sarcophagus of Nemenket Amen, an Egyptian official of the fifteenth century B.C., from Diospolis. It was presented to the monastery in 1825 by the prominent Armenian Bogos Bey Yusuf, an Egyptian minister plenipotentiary under Mehemet Ali, the founder of modern Egypt. Men like Bogos Bey served their masters well, but their simpler kinsmen in distant provinces were subject to bureaucratic abuse and periodic depredation.

In the tranquillity of Venice and in the schools they had founded throughout Armenia, the Mekhitarists meanwhile were laying the foundations for an Armenian renaissance. At mealtimes in the walnut-paneled refectory, which was designed by the founder, the Mekhitarists listened, as their successors do today, to seminarians reading scriptural or classical Armenian selections from a pulpit set high in the wall. Soon after establishing themselves on San Lazzaro the Mekhitarists published an illustrated Armenian Bible and a classical-Armenian grammar. In 1784-1786 Father Michael Chamchian published his monumental, 3,000-page History of Armenia, which helped to re-ignite smoldering national consciousness. Other Mekhitarists composed inspirational verse or music. The Mekhitarists’ Haykazian Bararan (Armenian dictionary), issued in two volumes in 1836 and 1837, became, and remains, a cultural landmark. In addition to collecting precious illuminated manuscripts and other early Armenian documents, the Mekhitarists translated Western European works into Armenian.

Even as the Armenians regained their sense of nationhood, however, potent forces released by the Ottoman decline and the onset of the First World War were building toward their nation’s destruction. Fearful of Russian expansion into Turkish Armenia and citing suspicions of Armenian loyalty, the Turks pursued a series of pogroms whose consequences stir ethnic passions to this day.

PADRE GIUSEPPE struck me as a kind and Christian man, and yet he disclosed strong feelings on the subject of the Muslims, against whom Armenians have so often been pitted. “Why so much rage against the Armenians?” he demanded when we touched on the subject of NagornoKarabakh, the largely Armenian enclave inside predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, where Soviet forces have been deployed to quell civil strife. “Those people are all furious because when they leave the Armenians in peace, they become prosperous, because they are hardworking.” Religious intolerance and economic jealousy combined with geopolitical tensions and Turkish nationalism to produce the massacres that occurred repeatedly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, as noted, reached a bloody climax in Turkey in 1915.

The Mekhitarists were devastated by the violence: After 1915 they shut down their schools in Erzurum, Kadiköy, Smyrna, Trebizond, and elsewhere in Turkey; the Armenian communities they served had been decimated or dispersed. (Only the school in Istanbul remained in operation.) In Aleppo, Syria, Mekhitarists gave succor to those who had survived the forced desert marches from Turkey, and then they followed the exiles to Greece, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Argentina, France, and the United States. Barred by the Bolsheviks from teaching in Soviet Armenia, they made it their mission to sustain the language and culture in the diaspora. This labor is shared by the Mekhitarists of San Lazzaro and another branch of the same order, which broke away after Mekhitar’s death and today is based in Vienna, and by the teaching orders of the mainstream Armenian Apostolic, or Gregorian, Church.

Of the approximately 5.7 million people of Armenian descent in the world today, 2.9 million live in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, and another 1.2 million are distributed throughout Georgia and Azerbaijan. The largest contingent of the diaspora is found in the United States and Canada, a group that numbers some 620,000, with the majority concentrated in southern California—250,000 Armenians live in Los Angeles alone. About 460,000 are spread through Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. There are 300,000 Armenians in France, and another 50,000 scattered through Greece, Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Romania. About 15,000 can be found in India and other parts of the Far East; 10,000 live in Australia. A community of 80,000 lives in Argentina, and smaller groups in Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Only 50,000 Armenians remain in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul.

But the Mekhitarists of the Venetian order, about thirty-five strong, remain a reference point for the world’s Armenians. The San Lazzaro publishing house and print shop still turn out Armenian books and publications, including the journal Bazmavep, which Padre Boghos Levon Zekiyan, its former editor, described to me as “the patriarch of the Armenian press.” Continuously published since 1843, it is one of the most eminent journals of Armenology. “Even in Armenia I have heard many times that after the motherland, they look at San Lazzaro as the most important Armenian territory,” Padre Zekiyan said. “Not in the sense of extraterritoriality; but the island has three hundred years of Armenian history, so it is a symbol of Armenia. ” The attachment to San Lazzaro and its occupants came across as I leafed through the visitors’ book on a table in the room where Nemenket Amen’s mummy and the sword of the last Armenian king are displayed. “Long live the Armenian Mekhitarist fathers!” one French Armenian woman had written in the book when she visited San Lazzaro in May of 1988. “Long live the millennial Armenians, of whom I am proud to be part!”

“IF THE SCRIPTURES are rightly understood,”Byron wrote in a fragment later found among his papers, possibly a draft preface to an English-Armenian grammar on which he collaborated,

it was in Armenia that Paradise was placed, Armenia, which has paid as dearly as the descendants of Adam for that fleeting participation of its soil in the happiness of Him who was created from its dust. It was in Armenia that the flood first abated and the dove alighted. But with the disappearance of Paradise itself may be dated almost the unhappiness of the country, for though long a powerful kingdom, it was scarcely ever an independent one, and the satraps of Persia and the pachas of Turkey have alike desolated the region where God created man in his own image.

—Brendan Murphy