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The mission of Dhaka's last Armenian


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#1 Azat

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 09:56 AM

Posted Image
The church is a quiet haven in the noisy metropolis

Alastair Lawson
BBC Bangladesh correspondent

Once a thriving community in South Asia, the number of Armenians has dwindled to such an extent that in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka only one man remains.
He is known by his Anglicised name of Michael Joseph Martin.

When Mr Martin, 73, dies, it will not only mark the end of an era, but will throw into doubt the future of one of Dhaka's most beautiful churches. Posted Image

Nestling in one of the busiest parts of Old Dhaka, Armenian Street used to be a thriving business area, but its Armenian community has vanished.

Little evidence remains of its presence, even though centuries ago Armenians were at the heart of Bengal's jute and leather trade.

Chronicle

But one prominent Armenian landmark does remain.

It is an 18th century church, described by visitors who explore it as a haven amid the traffic chaos and crowded streets outside.

Yet its future is uncertain.

The caretaker Mr Martin, whose Armenian name is Mikel Housep Martirossian, lovingly preserves the building against the ravages of the weather and pollution.

He keeps the centuries-old births, deaths and marriages register and looks after the ancient tombstones that chronicle the history of the Armenian community in Bengal. Posted Image

But when Mr Martin dies, there will be no more Armenians to look after the church.

''Whatever happens I'm determined not to let this church go to rack and ruin,'' he says.

''I may be the last resident Armenian in Bangladesh, but I will do everything in my power to ensure that an Armenian from abroad takes over the job I have been doing. Otherwise centuries of tradition will be disappear overnight.''

Pirate deaths

The church's graveyard is like a giant history book, chronicling the history of the Armenian people in the region.

Armenians - like Bengalis - are renowned for their love of trading. Posted Image

They are believed to have arrived in the region in the 12th century.

''This person died on the high seas, they were killed by pirates," says Mr Martin, pointing at two gravestones that carry carvings of a skull and crossbones.

''They were Armenians and their bodies were brought and buried over here in 1783.''

Pointing at another gravestone he says: ''This man's father married into the British royal family, and he did the same thing. They had money and power, and were also the biggest jute merchants in the country.

''But that couldn't stop their children from dying of diphtheria. In the 18th century even minor royals couldn't save the lives of the children.''

Busy location

The interior of the church is looking a little the worse for wear after numerous robberies, but the central attractions - portraits of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper - remain.

They are believed to have been done by a prominent European artist.

The church may be rooted in history, but it is located in one of the busiest parts of the city.

Roads nearby are so crowded that services cannot be held during the working week because the multi-denominational expatriate congregation would never get there on time.

But even if it is no longer possible to hold regular services, Mr Martin says the future of this valuable piece of history will be secured.

Until someone is found among the Armenian community abroad, he says he will carry on as caretaker.

''While most Armenians have left Bangladesh, as the last to remain it's my mission in life to make sure this relic from a bygone age will not be allowed to disappear."

http://news.bbc.co.u...sia/2645617.stm

#2 Azat

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 10:02 AM

As I read this story I thought about the Armenian community in Glendale or Boston or Fresno or anywhere else in the world with the exception of Armenia. What is going to be the story in LA Times on Feb 2, 2203? "One Armenian left in Glendale who is taking care of 205 Armenian churches that they built in the small city" or "Armenians were wrong, the Church was not able save their culture"

#3 564312

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 04:50 PM

oops i posted the same thing too Azat in the church section. so were would all the Armenians from LA go back to Armenia? apply for a blue card maybe.

#4 Azat

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 04:56 PM

what is a blue card?

I think that armenians in LA will move all over the US and the world and just assimilate.

#5 vava

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 06:21 PM

Barev Azat,

Out of curiosity, what do you propose as a time-frame for your assimilation hypothesis?

#6 Azat

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 06:28 PM

Hey Vava, Do you mean the 200 year thing that I mentioned above? It is just a date I pulled out of my a&*. No significance what so ever. I don't know maybe 200 years may be too little a time for some families but large majority will be assimilated.

#7 564312

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 08:33 AM

Azat was meant as sarcasm, since Armenia does not give out citizenship to Armenians outside of Armenia.
Yes I think that there is a possibility of same thing happening in LA or any other places where Armenians have made home and prospered. Perhaps they will go somewhere, leaving behind the extinct monumental marks, like a tree quietly separating from its colorful leaves when cool autumn wind starts breathing.

#8 Harut

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 08:57 AM

hay mard, tanjvats, tsavid arjhani,
ches karogh dadrel hoghum hayreni:
piti tapares ashkharhe ashkharh,
vor hetqd toghnes gortsov qo ardar:

expromt

the last word in the last line is a joke of course.

#9 sen_Vahan

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 05:17 PM

"hay mard, tanjvats, tsavid arjhani,
ches karogh dadrel hoghum hayreni:
piti tapares ashkharhe ashkharh,
vor hetqd toghnes gortsov qo ardar:"

expromt

Expromt? Are you the author?

"the last word in the last line is a joke of course."

And the rest to inspire armenians to leave the country more? By the way, What does it mean "tsavid arjani"??? What a sadomasohism?!

#10 Harut

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 08:37 PM

quote:
Originally posted by sen_vahan:
Expromt? Are you the author?

probably. unless i remember something. like Ostap Bender says in "Voske Hort" (eng?):
"... bayts heto hishetsi, vor ayn grel e A. S. Pushkin@..."

quote:
And the rest to inspire armenians to leave the country more? By the way, What does it mean "tsavid arjani"??? What a sadomasohism?!
vorpes dzevavorvats banasteghts ( ), yes chem qnnarkum im glukhgortsotsner@, ayl toghnum em @ntertsoghis ardar datin:

[ February 06, 2003, 08:46 PM: Message edited by: Harut ]

#11 sen_Vahan

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Posted 07 February 2003 - 05:49 PM

"vorpes dzevavorvats banasteghts ( ), yes chem qnnarkum im glukhgortsotsner@, ayl toghnum em @ntertsoghis ardar datin: "

De @nterzogn el es em u asum em, vor es mer Harut@ (aysinkn, metsn banastegz@) iskakan sadomasohist e Bayz de , vor es el ko @nterzogn em, uremn es el mi arandznapes .......

De lav, inch asem, barov mnas, stegtsagorts Harut

@ntertsaraniz tsavi arjani,
Vahan

#12 Yervant1

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Posted 02 May 2018 - 07:07 AM

The Daily Star, Bangladesh
April 30 2018
 
 
In search of a community lost in time
 
Armen Arslanian, warden of the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection in Armanitola, talks to The Daily Star about the importance of preserving and researching the history of the Armenian community in Dhaka and how it was linked to a broader global community
 
 
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by Moyukh Mahtab
 
“Whenever forty or more of the Armenian Nation shall become Inhabitants in any of the Garrisons, Cities or Towns belonging to the Company in the East Indies, the said Armenians shall not only have and enjoy the free use and exercise of their Religion, but there shall also be allotted to them a parcel of Ground to erect a Church thereon …”
 
- From 1688 agreement between English East India Company and Armenian merchants
 
When we speak of the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection in Armanitola in Old Dhaka, it is almost always of the once prominent role the Armenian community here—their businesses, their zamindaris, and the impact they had on the development of the city. Yet, what is often overlooked, and what is now understood much better due to recent scholarship by historian Sebouh David Aslanian, is that the Armenians in Dhaka were part of a truly global network. They had bases in Surat, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chinsura, Calcutta and Dhaka to as far as Canton, Jakarta, Lhasa and Singapore. But this too was only part of the expansive network of settlements, connected to the central node of New Julfa in Isfahan in Safavid Iran. These merchants, trading all sorts of goods including textile, had settlements in St Petersburg, Moscow, Astrakhan, Istanbul, Venice, Livorno, Paris and Amsterdam, to name only a few.
 
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Armen Arslanian, warden of the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection
 
Armen Arslanian, the current warden of the Armenian Church in Dhaka, feels this history of Armenian migration has been largely forgotten among even Armenians today. The more recent history of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 which resulted in large-scale migration of Armenians to different parts of the world overshadows the history of the Armenian merchant community. And yet, he himself inhabits a world shaped by both histories.
 
Armen was born and raised in Argentina. His parents emigrated there from Cilicia, now under Turkey, after the Armenian Genocide. Their initial plan was to eventually return. After five years in a refugee camp in Greece, when they saw there was no progress, they decided to go to Argentina. “They went with nothing, but Argentina was a very generous country—it still is. It gave them the opportunity to start over and be what they are today—the Armenians are a thriving community there still today,” says the 58-year-old.
 
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Photo: Moyukh Mahtab
 
Today, as the warden of a church built by Armenian merchants in 1781, Armen is trying to preserve the rich heritage and history of their presence in the Indian subcontinent—which could possibly date back as far as the 16th century—and how it was connected to the regional and the global. As he explains: “The Armenians in this side of the world, in India, Bangladesh or Burma who came here in the 16th, 17th, 18th century were not refugees. They were following the routes of business.”
 
The 1688 agreement between the English East India Company and Armenian merchants encouraged Armenians to alter the course of their trade to and from Europe. The agreement promised special privileges to the merchants, including low customs fares. It also promised religious freedom to the Armenians, most of whom belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Along with the founding of New Julfa in Isfahan in Iran in 1605 due to the deportation of Armenians from Old Julfa in Armenia by Safavid ruler Shah Abbas, this is considered today as one of the principal reasons which accelerated migration and settlement of Julfan Armenian merchants to India in the seventeenth century.
 
“They came as a community, they embraced the country and the cultures—they got along with the Mughals, the British and then with the local authorities afterwards. After the partition, their business was not favourable anymore. Because of that a lot of them went looking for better horizons. I am no historian, but as far as I know, a lot of them went to Australia and Canada after the '70s,” says Armen.
 
***
 
The story of how Armen, from another part of the world, came to be in-charge of a church in Dhaka is just as intriguing.
 
As he narrates it: “Wherever Armenians went, they developed themselves as businessmen—that's how they came here. That is the case even today; I am a living example of that. I came to Bangladesh in 2008 as we were opening a business here. Even three weeks before my first visit, I had no idea about the existence of this church. My daughter who was going to an Armenian school in LA, when she learnt I was coming here, told me there was an Armenian church in Bangladesh.” Armen initially thought his daughter was referring to a church in India. “So the first thing I asked my business partner when I came to Dhaka was if he had heard about the Armenian Church. That's how we ended up coming here and meeting Mr Martin.”
 
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Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection in Armanitola, Old Dhaka. COURTESY: BANGLADESH ARMENIAN CHURCH FACEBOOK PAGE
 
Mikel Housep Martirossian (anglicised Micheal Joseph Martin), had been probably the last Armenian living in Bangladesh at the time—even in 1871, there were around 100 Armenians living in the city.
 
Armen says: “I was in a state of awe when I came through that door, it was really amazing. From then on, every time I came to Dhaka, I came to the church and met Mr Martin and got to know each other very well.” Out of respect, Armen always insisted that if Mr Martin needed anything, he should contact him.
 
Martin had a stroke in 2014. His daughters, who had already emigrated to Canada, decided that there was no way he could continue to live alone and take care of the church. And thus, at the insistence of Martin, the wardenship of the church went to Armen, since he was the only Armenian Martin knew who had frequent connections with the city. Armen still reveres Martin, now living in Canada, as his mentor: “For a long time he was the only Armenian in Dhaka and he stood his ground and kept this place for the future generations.”
 
***
 5_2.png?itok=jj5U7Icq
Photo: Moyukh Mahtab
 
The Armenian Church in Armanitola today stands in almost the exact conditions as it was built. Before 1781, the grounds of the church were a graveyard. The church once even had a clock tower which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897. The massive bell from the church's belfry was also stolen over time, and has now been replaced with four smaller ones.
 
Today, we know that churches were significant for Julfan traders as a means of fostering a sense of common identity worldwide. The church in Dhaka, along with Armenian churches in Chinsura and Saidabad in India, used to be under the jurisdiction of the regional node, the Church of Holy Nazareth in Calcutta. These regional nodes were in turn under the jurisdiction of the Armenian church in New Julfa, and this network was one of the means of communication between the trade community scattered throughout the world.
 
So, Armen feels that although the church has a religious value, it also has a historical value which should be preserved. “Mr Martin did a wonderful job of preserving the church and keeping it intact. We changed the electricity lines and restored the two paintings that you now see.”
 
And indeed, one is struck by the beauty of the paintings as soon as they enter the church. Possibly the work of English painter Charles Pote, who was also a headmaster of the Pogose School in Old Dhaka, these paintings were in tatters. “So from the Armenian Church, they sent two diplomat restorers who had studied in Italy. Gevorg Endza Babakhanyam and Rev Fr Sevak Saribekyan, came over here and did the restoration—they did an amazing job. I had initially thought one of the paintings was beyond repair.”
 
***
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One of the two paintings at the church alter before restoration. Courtesy: Gevorg Endza Babakhanyan
 
Armen has big plans for the church. His idea is to promote the place as a site of historical value and cultural exchange. To that end, he also wants to promote research work on the Armenian community in Bangladesh. But over the years, many church documents, which would be of immense historical value, have disappeared. Armen, after he took over, could find only some registers of births, deaths or marriages. “But when it comes to older documents or pictures, there were not many left.”
 
He continues, “We want to conduct research through professionals about the community in the Bengal area, to find out how the Armenians here were linked to the Armenians in Kolkata and from Kolkata to Julfa."
 
“I have a lot of expectations about the research. We constantly receive questions about the community—what had happened to them. There is little information available and whatever exists is not compiled. So one of our projects is to conduct a research study and make a professional compilation of the history of the Armenian community in Bangladesh, from the beginning until today.”
 
For preservation purposes, Armen also got in touch with the Armenian ambassador to Bangladesh, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in Bangladesh and Unesco for designating the church as a Unesco world heritage site. “The process is complicated. But, this initiative has the support of the board of the church, the Armenian Church in Armenia, and Mr Asaduzzaman Noor has expressed support too. The process has to be started here from the local government, and he has said he is interested in promoting it.”
 
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The two restored paintings at the altar of the church, The Last Supper and the Crucifixion, most probably the work of Charles Pote, were in a dismal state when Armen took over wardenship. Photo: Moyukh Mahtab
 
Now, he is getting mail from some Armenians about how they had visited the church, or telling him how one of their forefathers lies buried here. But Armen feels that Armenians still don't know much about their historical presence in this part of the world. He says: “The Armenian diaspora probably amounts to seven million people living outside Armenia, mostly in western countries. Among most of them there is very little knowledge about the Armenians who came to the Indian subcontinent. I remember that when we were kids, we knew that there were some Armenians in India and this and that but it was very vague information. The lack of awareness is something I am personally working on. I always send out and share articles published on Armenia. Now we are receiving emails expressing surprise, asking questions.”
 
Armen's interest goes beyond just the church. He says, “We keep hearing of other Armenian settlements here even beyond Dhaka. I was told about the Pogose School, one of the first private schools in Dhaka which was built by the Armenian Zamindar Nicholas Pogose. I went to the school, and the state of the place is pitiful. So maybe we can bring some relief to the school—maybe some funding from Armenians. We think it is our duty to do something since it is part of our heritage.”
 
As the warden of the church, Armen visits Bangladesh every one and a half months or so. “I wish I had more time to work here. We would love to see if somehow the City Corporation can help us with the entrance. We want the outside to be a bit more accessible. We can do a lot more. If we can make the cultural centre, I think it would be a great contribution, as long as the Bangladeshi community embraces the place."
 
Armen Arslanian's work on the church has not only meant better preserved premises, but the church is also drawing more visitors. But, he is also trying to make the church a more integral part of the community in Bangladesh. The church arranges to feed 300-400 local underprivileged people twice every month now, and also arranges free medical camps for locals.
 
"My goal is to preserve the history and the future of the church in hope that its legacy is one that will be remembered for generations to come," says Armen.
 
________________________________
 
The Armenian Church would love to hear from anyone with an association to the Armenian families who once lived in this part of the world for their forthcoming research project. To get in touch, email armenianchurchbangladesh@gmail.com
 
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