Operation to rescue the Armenian Manuscripts during the Genocide

Western Armenia and Cilicia left an exceptionally large legacy of ancient manuscripts. Almost every family had them; they were kept at home as a shrine. Every Armenian church, be it in a village or a city, had the necessary books for daily rituals, and Armenian monasteries were large centers of scriptoria (rooms for copying the manuscripts), as well as places for storing manuscripts.

The Armenian Genocide became an unprecedented event not only in terms of human sacrifice but also in terms of the destruction of the culture of the Armenian people. Thousands of manuscripts have been turned to ashes without having time to become subjects of research. In 1915, monasteries on the territory of Western Armenia were plundered, burned, razed to the ground, and the countless manuscripts, printed books, and even entire libraries stored there were irretrievably destroyed. Only a small part of them survived and was heroically rescued.

The operation to rescue the Vaspurakan manuscripts

Monasteries located on the islands of Akdamar, Lim, and Ktuts on Lake Van were of great importance as scriptoria. The islands, surrounded by water on all sides, were protected from attacks by Turks and Kurds, and thus served as a safe place for storing a large number of manuscripts.

“[Before the genocide] the number of manuscripts in Lim monastery reached 550, and that of printed books – 3000. Many valuable national and religious utensils, as well as about 500 manuscripts, were kept in the monastery of Ktuts Island,” notes Hovhannes Hussian, abbot of the Lim monastery.

In 1915-1916, in the hardest days of the genocide, when violence and death were everywhere, and to save a life seemed to be a miracle, Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg V Surenyants initiated an operation that seemed like madness at first glance – to save Armenian manuscripts on the territory of Vaspurakan (Van, Varagavank, Akdamar, Lim, and Ktuts islands), Mush and Kars and transport them to Holy Etchmiadzin.

This difficult operation to save the manuscripts in Vaspurakan was led by the abbot of the Lim monastery, vardapet (archimandrite) Hovhannes Hussian. In the days of the April massacres, Hovhannes turned Lim into a center of defense, helping to move to this island and saving about 12 thousand people who remained there until May, when Russian troops and Armenian volunteer detachments entered Vaspurakan.

Not only did vardapet Hovhannes save thousands of innocent Armenians from death, but also took care of their shelter – the Lim monastery in general – as well as the preservation of manuscripts and valuable utensils. During the migration of refugees to Eastern Armenia in 1915, Vardapet Hovhannes and the abbot of the monastery on the island of Ktuts, Vardapet Stepan, took with them the first part of the manuscripts, about 284 pieces, and transported them to Holy Etchmiadzin, where Catholicos Gevorg V was waiting for them.

In October of the same year, the Catholicos, well-aware of the hellish situation in Western Armenia, nevertheless instructed the vardapets Hovhannes and Stepan to return to their homeland again, collect all the remaining manuscripts and valuable utensils, sort and transport them to Holy Etchmiadzin.

Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg also expressed concern about the preservation of cultural values ​​in Van and its environs. Following its instructions, Smbat Ter-Avetisyan, the senior scientific director of the Caucasus Museum in Tiflis, went to Van, joining the vardapets Hovhannes and Stepan.

On November 21, 1915, 1,082 manuscripts were collected from the islands of Akdamar, Lim, Ktuts, as well as from the monasteries of Van, and two months later were delivered to Holy Etchmiadzin. In general, in 1915 – 1916, about 1,440 manuscripts were saved. A small number of books, taken by refugees, have been added to this large collection: in the period from 1916 to 1918, Bishop Mesrop Ter-Movsisyan, vardapet Mesrop Maksudyan and Stepan Kanayan collected manuscripts from refugees from Vaspurakan. Over the years, other rescued books also came from different people to Matenadaran.

In Matenadaran, about 1,476 manuscripts from Vaspurakan, saved during the genocide, are now kept. Each of these surviving manuscripts has its own history of creation, special illustrations, and content.

In Armenian scriptoria, manuscripts were not only copied and delicately illuminated but also great attention was paid to the preparation of their covers. Thus, despite the enormous cultural losses we suffered during the genocide, the Armenian people managed to preserve beautiful, illustrated, and silvered manuscripts as a result of exceptional self-sacrifice.

Miraculously Rescued Manuscripts from Mush

The province of Taron has been known since ancient times for its monasteries and churches, which served as spiritual and cultural centers. The monasteries of Msho Saint (Surb) Arakelots and Saint (Surb) Karapet were especially noteworthy with their monastic orders, history, and cultural artifacts, including valuable manuscripts. Not only did they copy and decorate the manuscripts with colorful illustrations in these monastic complexes, but also created a library over time with a rich collection of manuscripts.

A special commission created by the Catholicos reached Mush on April 24, 1916, through great hardship. The members of the commission were monk Gyut Ter-Ghazaryan, Avetik Ter-Poghosyan, the assistant to the overseer of the Gevorkian Theological Seminary, seminary teacher Bahadur Bahaduryan, who were later joined by doctor Khosrov Panosyan.

It was noted in the decree of the Catholicos: “You should especially protect the manuscripts belonging to monasteries and churches, and collect them … sort them into bags or boxes and safely transfer them to the Cathedral [Etchmiadzin] as many as possible.”

In Mush, they were accompanied by the priest Yeghishe Ter-Parsamyan (who was the only survivor of 500 priests in Mush), a member of the city council of Mush Misak Bdeyan, the Chair of the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Dzori Tagh (Mush) Aram Porikyan and other prominent Mush residents.

Members of the commission found churches of Mush in a plundered and destroyed state. With a heavy heart, they reported this to the Catholicos at Etchmiadzin:

“Historical monasteries, famous places of pilgrimage were destroyed so much that in comparison with this the destruction from the invasions of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane pale into insignificance. The destructive hand acted with the stones so barbarously, as if it poured all its revenge on the immortal historical monuments. Churches, sacred graves, khachkars – everything was ruined and destroyed. One of the motives of this barbarism was an attempt to find secret caches in the monasteries, and they could sometimes blow up the whole building with gunpowder or dynamite for this purpose.”

The buildings of the prelate of Mush, the churches of St. Marianeh, St. Resurrection, St. Sarkis, St. Kirakos, St. Mary, Mother of God Church (Dzori Tag), schools, and prominent houses of Mush were almost destroyed. The once famous monastery of the Holy Apostles was sunk in the stones together with its cathedral, bell tower, and narthex, the hiding places were opened and plundered.

Meanwhile, the former minister of the Surb Karapet monastery Hakob Stepanyan wrote a letter to the Catholicos stating that in the spring of 1915 the chapter of the monastery managed to hide the sacred church utensils:

“Last spring, when the political situation began to deteriorate, the chapter of the monastery of St. Karapet decided to hide the church utensils to save them from looting. This task was entrusted to the holy father-key-bearer and me. We took an oath not to tell anyone about this until the danger is over.”

(March 1, 1916)

When the commission arrived at the monastery of St. Karapet, it witnessed its ruins, including holes in the floors and stolen doors. Hakob Stepanyan revealed to the members of the commission the largest and most important cache of the monastery, which had escaped the eyes of the enemy. They took sacred robes, church utensils, a small number of printed books and manuscripts from there. In addition to this, the commission also collected 21 manuscripts held by various individuals at Mush. On May 29, 1916, the commission brought all the rescued treasures to Etchmiadzin. 

In subsequent years, three more manuscripts brought from Mush were transferred to Matenadaran, including an anthology from Mush, which was kept in the monastery of the Holy Apostles. Thus, 102 Armenian manuscripts, 12 manuscripts in Arabic (one of which is divided into 16 parts), and 27 printed books were transferred from Mush to Matenadaran.

These special operations to preserve the common heritage of mankind show the sensitivity and respect the previous generations of Armenians perceived their culture and values with. A century has passed, generations have changed. Today, having every opportunity to preserve and develop their culture without risking their lives, people often remain indifferent and superficial. Does a nation of authors and creators, that has experienced a great crime against itself, have the right to be indifferent to its culture and identity?

Materials courtesy of Lusine Tumanyan, a candidate of historical sciences and a researcher at Matenadaran Research Institute named after Mesrop Mashtots.

Eleonora Sargsyan armat.im

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