The Secret of Armenia’s Endurance

The Secret of Armenia’s EnduranceThe Armenian nation is one of the most ancient civilizations that have survived over centuries until today, though the Armenians haven’t had an independent country for large parts of their history. Due to this, the Armenians gave particular importance to their spoken and written word, which in fact were the means that allowed the Armenian identity to survive.

In particular, the Armenians fostered a special regard for books and their production. Scribes wrote whole notes on the proper care and preservation of the books and even advice on hiding them in dangerous times or “ransoming” then, should they fall into the wrong hands. A late 19th-century English traveler remarked that the Armenians valued the printing press with the same “affection and reverence as the Persian highlanders value a rifle or sporting gun.”

A gospel dating from 1331 with an illumination of St. Matthew with the artist himself, Sargiz Pitzak, kneeling at the feet of the evangelist. – Library of the Mekhitarist Fathers, San Lazzaro

In 1511 – 1512, the first book in the Armenian language was printed in Venice, a significant event for the severely scattered nation that didn’t have a modern country until 1918 in only small part of their historical lands.

In 2012, Gabriella Ulluhogian, Boghos Levon Zekiyan and Vartan Karapetian organized the exhibition “Armenia: Imprints of a Civilization”, which featured over 200 works spanning more than 1,000 years of Armenian written culture.

The works ranged from illuminated manuscripts to inscriptions and from printed to illustrated books, including many rare and unique pieces from European and American collections.

The atmospheric painting “The Descent of Noah From Mount Ararat” from the National Gallery in Yerevan painted in 1889 by Armenian artist Ivan Aivazovski opened the show. This painting shows the Old Testament patriarch leading his family and a caravan of animals across a plain still covered by the waters of the subsiding Flood to repopulate the earth.

The extraordinary meaning and grip of Mount Ararat that had influenced the Armenian imagination over the centuries are well demonstrated by the sections on sculpture, the Armenian Church, and the Ark. The conical domes of the Armenian churches seem to have eternally replicated the major geographical feature that emblematizes the survival of the human race.

Christianity made it into Armenia in as early as the late 1st or early 2nd century. In fact, Armenia is the first country to officially adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301, a date traditionally recorded by the Armenian Church.

This major event was followed up by another key initiative that would become one of the cornerstones of the Armenians’ endurance. In 405, Mesrop Mashtots invented the distinctive Armenian alphabet capable to support the complex phonetic system of the language. This invention made the translation of the Bible into Armenian possible, as well as gave a beginning to the foundation of the Armenian literature in all its manifestations.

Remarkably, the desire to portray the gospels and other Christian texts was the driving force behind the development of Armenian art. Armenian artists have created works on a wide range of sources thanks to Armenia’s position at the crossroads of numerous civilizations. “Armenian artists were remarkably open to artistic trends in Byzantium, the Latin West, the Islamic Near East, and even Central Asia and China,” writes Dickran Kouymjian in his essay in the exhibition’s substantial and wide-ranging catalog available in English, French, and Italian.

The splendid showcasing of these illuminated books brought together a number of the finest surviving examples from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Interestingly, the tradition of illumination continued in Armenian monasteries for a two and a half centuries after the advent of printing.

Armenian miniature reached its peak in the 13th century in the era of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (1198 – 1375), which had ruled over a significant part of Asia Minor until being overthrown by the Egyptian Mamluks.

Armenian contacts with Venice date back to the times when the arising lagoon republic was a distant western output of the Byzantine Empire, where Armenians held a number of key positions in the military and administration. The Armenian governor Nerses is credited to have introduced the cult of Theodore (Todoro), the first patron saint of Venice, in the 6th century. Isaac the Armenian is recorded as the establisher of the antique Santa Maria Assunta basilica on the island of Torcello.

A 7th-century sundial with Armenian numbers from Zvartnots Cathedral in Echmiadzin, Armenia. – Zvartnots Cathedral Museum, Echmiadzin

Contacts between the countries become especially frequent during Cilicia when Venetian merchants expanded their business in the Levant, with their Armenian counterparts likewise exploring new trading opportunities in Europe.

In 1235, a Venetian nobleman Marco Ziani presented the Armenian community with a house at San Zulian near Piazza San Marco. This house would become known as the Casa Armena, a focal point for Venice’s ever more numerous Armenian visitors and residents.

The testament written in 1354 by the governess of this house, “Maria the Armenian”, attests that by that time, there has been not only a prosperous Armenian merchant community but also clerics and an archbishop. Maria left them three of her six peacocks. The church of Santa Croce would be later founded on the same site, and it remains an Armenian place of worship even today. Both Marzo Ziani’s and Maria’s wills were at the exhibition.

Another notable piece on display is the religious book titled “Book of Friday”, the first Armenian book printed in 1511 – 1512. This innovation led to the installment of a host of Armenian printing presses all over the world from locations as distant as Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg to Istanbul, Isfahan, Madras, and Singapore. The fruits of these formed the last section of the exhibition.

As a global hub of Armenian culture, Venice received a further boost at the arrival of Abbot Mekhitar and his monks in 1715. Mekhitar was born in Sivas (ancient Sebastia) in Western Armenia and had spent years of his life in Etchmiadzin and Istanbul. The visionary would later take the community he had created to Methoni in the Peloponnese, which had been subjugated by the Venetians in the 1680s. However, the prospect of the town’s recapture by the Ottomans forced Mekhitar to take refuge in Venice. And in 1717, he along with his followers were granted a lease on the island of San Lazzaro, their headquarters ever since.

Under Mekhitar, San Lazzaro became the heart of a worldwide Armenian cultural revival. His community created a library and a study center and was also responsible for printing scores of books in Venice and elsewhere. They were also engaged in the establishment of an international network of schools that would give education to a high proportion of the religious and secular elite of Armenia.

The Academy of San Lazzaro has published “Bazmavep”, a historic, literary, and scientific journal, one of the oldest continual magazines of its class, since 1843. And the first Armenian newspaper-magazine  “Azdara” (“the Monitor”) was established in Madras in 1794.

The most renowned foreign student of the Academy of San Lazzaro was Lord Byron. There, the scholar Harutiun Avgerian taught Lord Byron the Armenian language, with whom Lord Byron would at some point collaborate in the production of an Armenian and English grammar book including translations by the poet.

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An Armenian merchant portrayed by Giovanni Grevembroch in the 18th century. -Correr Museum, Venice

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