It was cold in Venice. Small islands of ice in some places floated in the canals; they were slowly blown down into the lagoon by the current, like paper litter swollen in water. Nobody lingered on the streets – the squares were empty.
The reason for this was not only the cold. From the balcony of the palazzo on the Grand Canal, students had hung the banners with the words “No to war!”, “No to disaster!”. The catastrophe for the Venetians was the fact that the Gulf War scared off tourists. I was nearly the only one there.
The Murad-Rafaelian School was the only Armenian school in Venice for the children of the Armenian community. Its director looked more like an Italian than an Armenian — he wore red socks and even had a typical Italian walk. I met him when he was hurriedly leaving the school.
“Please,” he pleaded, “Wait for me at the school! My car broke down right in the middle of the road.”
“Your car?! In Venice?!” But he was already gone.
I pushed the unlocked heavy oak door and entered the lobby.
Its walls were paneled. Bright sunshine fell on the slabs, and a small courtyard was visible from the window. You wouldn’t tell that someone lived here. Upstairs, too, there was no one – only bare floors and hollow, empty corridors. The building looked more like an empty palace than a school.
Only the walls and ceiling decorated with pretentious stucco with gold and pompous, frivolous paintings seemed alive there. Even too much alive, to be precise. The sleepless night spent on the train and the contemplation of the Baroque at such an early hour brought me into a horrible condition. I chose a window from which the canal was visible and began to watch how sunlight shimmered on its surface covered with a thin film of ice.
Armenians have settled in Venice long ago. Back in the 12th century when it was a strong state, they already lived here. The historical chronicle of the republic testifies to their innate ability to innovate (the talent of those ever persecuted).
Hakob Meghapart established a printing house here in 1514 and published the first printed book in Armenian. In the same period, Anton Suryan, Anton the Armenian, built ships. His inventions have twice rescued Venice. The first time, he has done it with a frigate, whose cannons installed across the entire width of the ship brought the victory in the Battle of Lepanto. The second time, he has done it with the help of a rescue vessel which cleared the lagoon from centuries-old remains of dead ships.
But in recent years, the Armenian community has thinned out – few have stayed there. Most of the old families moved to Milan.
The director returned and escorted me to his office with a very high ceiling. The walls of the office were painted in a modest monophonic color and were covered with the icons of Armenian exiles, the views of Ararat that had been already familiar to me, and large color engravings of half-destroyed churches standing alone in the deserted mountains of Western Armenia, old Armenia, Turkish Armenia.
“Yes,” said the director, sighing, “Not many of us are left here. You see, to be an Armenian… Is a constant hard work,” He spread his hands wide and bowed his head in the direction of one and then the other, “Here… There… I struggle not to lag behind my brother in Syria and Egypt, in America and Persia. If I relax even for a minute, everything will be gone!”
His hands fell, slamming his thighs. “Do you understand?”
He grabbed the phone and tried to find an auto mechanic.
To drive a car in Venice, apparently, is also a constant hard work, so I thanked him and again went out into the frosty streets.
I called Father Levon Zekiyan, and we agreed to meet in a small cafe near the church of San Rocco.
In Venice, Father Levon led the studies of Armenian history. He turned out to be a tall man distinguished by the bright personality of tailoring art. I had been told about him in Jerusalem. Besides, I had often met his name in various scientific articles. He had written a huge number of works in different languages, and his footer notes were always full of different manuscripts.
He was meticulous with even the smallest episode of the Armenian history, therefore, the conversation with him covered all the centuries. But he was not embarrassed by such a broad temporal scope. When I asked him a global question – “What helps Armenians to remain Armenians?” – he answered me almost without thinking:
“In general, the reason is one idea. And the key to it is the writing system. Our Mesrop Mashtots was the greatest political thinker. In the 5th century, he invented the alphabet, realizing that Armenia as a state was doomed. Since Armenians were destined to survive without their own territory, they needed to have a common idea, something that would belong only to them. Writing is the embodiment of such an idea.”
“And what is this idea?”
“Oh, it is impossible to formulate it so easily. If you are lucky, you will come to a partial understanding of it.” He took a sip of wine and smiled, “Our poet Sevak called it shortly ‘Ararat’.”
Excerpt from “The Crossing Place: A Journey Among The Armenians” by Philip Marsden