On An Unpublished, Early 17th Century Armenian Gospel From New Julfa, Iran
July 11, 2010 in Armenian Gospel News You Can Use
Several years ago I was asked by a Greek prep school to examine an Armenian manuscript in their possession. The school was built in Greece in the 1920s to replace the original school built in the mid nineteenth century in Van, Turkey, by American Catholic missionaries. This first school was destroyed during the Armenian genocide. Those who escaped were entrusted with a variety of things by villagers. Most of these objects were never retrieved; this is how the school came to own what it thought was an eighth-century illuminated Armenian manuscript.
I was ostensibly brought in to verify the date, but these things are never simple. If it did date to the 8th century it would be very valuable, as there are no surviving complete Armenian illuminated Gospels from that period. Being handed a book such as this is, I think, much like standing just outside of a crime scene. All the evidence is there, but there is also a great deal that is not evidence. More questions will be asked than answered. While truth is the goal, there is often more than one truth. Finding it will please no one.
The local Armenian prelate was very vocal about this book and its status as part of the collective Armenian history, and wanted it “back.” The school saw the book as a vital link to its past, but was also interested in how much it, or individual paintings taken from it, might be worth. I should mention that the manuscript is unpublished, and to my knowledge only myself and one other Armenist (yes that is unfortunately a word) have worked on it. We of course came to opposite conclusions; those I present here are my own.
It had not been treated very well. The librarian apologized profusely as she dug it out of the bottom of a metal filing cabinet, pulling it from beneath a stack of molded, printed books. She handed it to me and said “oh, wait a minute, I’ll get something for you to carry it in,” handed me a plastic grocery bag and that was that. I was in residence for a week, and I carried the manuscript around with me the whole time in that damn bag. I slept with it under my pillow, carried it with me to the cafeteria where I took my meals, and hid it when I took showers.
The manuscript itself is small, paperback-sized. It was meant to be used as a service book in a monastery. It is a Gospel, a collection of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It now has 4 illustrated Canon Tables (concordances) and three full-page images of the evangelists Matthew, Luke and John. There are 256 pages made of paper. The text was written by hand by one scribe using three colors of ink. There are small ink paintings of birds and men in the margins, and the first letters of each chapter are fashioned into fantastic birds, people or buildings. The scribe was very good and the painter was good. There is a set of inscriptions in hands other than that of the original scribe which were added after the book was completed. One is the colophon, or dedicatory inscription, which is on the final page. It states that the manuscript was made in 746.
All of the preceding is true, and none of it explains the nature of the book, the life of the book, or what it represented, or represents, to its owners. On my second day at work the Armenian bishop arrived, dramatically, in full kit, to point out to me that the colophon ‘says’ that it was produced in 746. I in turn pointed out that this colophon was written in pencil on paper and therefore cannot be true. His reply was, essentially, “it is written, therefore it is.” This digressed quickly into matters theological and polemical, and into questions such as why I am not Armenian (I’ve never come up with an acceptable answer to that one) and whether I really knew the language (because I’m not Armenian). He ended by re-stating that the Armenian Church intended to ‘repatriate’ the book. I later received a letter from the Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem scolding me for not hijacking it and handing it over to its ‘rightful owners in the eyes of God.”
I examined that manuscript for 8 days—unfettered by the usual (and necessary) needs for security and precautions such as gloves and specially-made stands to guard against further wear and tear. It was an incredible privilege. The book visually reveals its past—the pages that were most frequently used are soiled with oil from hands that constantly turned to them, rubbing the corners and darkening them. Hints of the character of the scribe, of what might now be called his work ethic, are also on display. There are places where he made an error, then scraped the ink off as best he could before correcting it. There are places where he lost track of his place in the book from which he was copying. In one place he repeats four words, in another an entire sentence. The laying out of the space for text and image in the book of Mark somehow went awry. The text is completed in mid-page, but lines incised in the paper show that it was meant to finish at the bottom of the page. There is also evidence for collaboration between the scribe and painter, confirming that the book was made by two people. There are empty places where the scribe left room for the painter to insert a figure. There are places where the painter squeezed in a bird or figure where there was no space waiting to receive it. The manuscript also reveals how its function changed through time. The ink is in places smudged and rubbed away from fingers passing over the lines, suggesting that this Gospel was, at some point in its history, itself copied. There are worn places on the three remaining Evangelist portraits where the faces have been almost kissed away by the faithful. This documents a change in function, when the Gospel became a private devotional book.
I began by trying to date the script and determine the order of production–whether the text or the images were done first. Within a few days I had what I consider to be the basic facts: the gospel was written in the early 17th century, the text was done by one scribe in three types of ink on paper, not vellum, and the illustrations were added after the text. Later inscriptions were added during the mid 17th-early 19th centuries. There are 21 missing pages, including 3 or possibly 4 Canon Tables, the lost portrait of the Evangelist, and pages that, I suspect, were damaged and then cut out when it was rebound. While this description accurately summarizes the physical object, it fails to convey its function and meaning.
The colophon states that the manuscript dates to the eighth century. The colophon is also written in what is called eastern Armenian, in pencil, on paper. If it was truly eighth century it would be written in classical Armenian, in ink, on vellum. This was not an attempt to make the Gospels appear older in order to boost their monetary value. It was one layer of what turned out to be a mille-feuille of revisionist history inherent in the book from the time of its production. In addition to the colophon the book contains marginal notes which were added before the colophon. They state that the book was made in the 13th century. Some of these inscriptions are written in eastern Armenian and some are in an Arabic dialect peculiar to the Armenian merchants of New Julfa, Iran—it is this dialect which allows the place of production to be fixed. This community was forcibly removed from it homelands, and the city of Julfa, and relocated to the suburbs of Isfahan—hence “new” Julfa. There, they produced this Gospel in a manner that mimics those made in Cilician Armenia. That is, the type of script and the style of paintings consciously imitate Gospels produced in the 11-14th Centuries at a time when Armenia was a principality backed by the Crusader States, the center of the Mediterranean trade to the Near East and a recognized source of high-quality illuminated manuscripts.
The repeated insistence on the early date suggests awareness that it is a lie. The use of paper rather than animal skins is enough to invalidate the claim, as is the small size of the book. But the claim was never meant to be challenged nor set against academic criteria. A canonical text such as the Gospels is both never-changing and ever-changing. The words remain the same while the style of the script and the fashion of the paintings changes. The book was made to replace Gospels that were irretrievable. Beginning in a new land as vassal subjects, without the authority of their sacred books, monks provided their own history, their own proof of legitimacy, looking back to a time when Armenia was prosperous, powerful and renowned for its skill in the art of illuminated manuscripts. Four short sentences, written by the same person who wrote the colophon but in a different language, are squeezed into the margin at the beginning of the book of John. They continue the Gospel’s history. They are written in Ottoman Turkish, and document the return of the Gospel to the ancestral lands of the Armenians, to villages clustered around Lake Van. It is difficult to date this phase of the book’s history with any precision; a range of mid 17-early 19th century must suffice. At that time, and for those people, the desired past was not the same as that yearned for by the monks of New Julfa. Rather than looking to Cilician Armenia the owner of the book during the Ottoman centuries looked to the period before the Arab invasions, when Armenia was partitioned between Rome and Persia. The man who owned the book under Ottoman rule looked back to a time before Islam, and made it so, simply by writing it.
In my time with the Gospel I’d found out a great many things with, as these things go, a fair degree of certainty. They’re not things anyone wants to believe, as they make the book less valuable both in monetary and historical terms, and complicate the issue of patrimony and ownership. I kept digging, and came across an account of the occupation of Thessaloníki by the Nazis. They had used the school as a barracks, and it was during this period that the portrait of Mark was cut from the volume. Whether it was removed by a Nazi or not, it further encumbered the perceived history of the book. Word got out to the small Jewish population (well, I gave a lecture and spilled the beans), who then argued that the volume was part of their patrimony. The resident population had failed to protect them and over 80% of the city’s Jews were either killed or shipped to the camps.
At this point I began staying in my dorm room to work, as I was visited daily by the Principal of the school, the Armenian bishop, at least one of the two rabbis and the Greek Orthodox bishop. It was clear that whatever I finally said about the book would not satisfy anyone, and that in the end everyone would likely be furious with me—a woman, who is neither Greek, Armenian, Jewish or Orthodox. Fortunately, I’m also not of Turkic descent.
The book cannot be assigned to one or another group. It has its own history, which I feel should be recognized and respected. It was, from the beginning, a manifestation of loss. It was created in the 17th C in a diaspora community in Iran. This community had been forced to leave their homelands in what is now the southeastern portion of Turkey, and had been relocated to a suburb of Isfahan. This Gospel, which was commissioned by monks for monks, was made in a classicizing style—consciously mimicking those made in the 13th century. This book was always about the past—divorced from its contents and its function, it served to remind those who used it that they came from a better place, a place which they had lost but to which they still laid claim, a claim made tangible by such books. When Armenians were allowed to return to their ancestral lands the book went with them, remaining in the Armenian villages clustered around Lake Van until the genocide. During this time it appears to have passed from monastic ownership to private use, and its ‘past’ was changed from Cilician Armenia to that of Armenia before the Arab invasions. With the onset of the genocide, villagers sought protection inside the walls of the American Catholic missionary school and brought their most precious possessions with them. The school lost four teachers in the war; a few managed to escape to the relative safety of Constantinople, taking some one hundred children with them. There are no records accompanying the objects they brought out—the books, the photos, the clothing. The school, rebuilt in Greece, again sheltered the persecuted during the Nazi occupation, but was seized and used as a barracks, during which period much of the library was destroyed or damaged. At this point the Evangelist portrait and perhaps the Canon Tables were cut out. The school was divested from the Missionary sect after WWII. It now educates the children of the elite of Thessaloníki, the children of doctors and professors, of lawyers and politicians.
My investigation served little real purpose other than giving me the satisfaction of figuring out a puzzle, and the privilege of spending so much time with such an object. In the end nothing was resolved and everything was complicated. The book was a witness to one enforced deportation and survived two genocides, and is currently contested by two religions—and by two opposed confessions of one religion. I recommended that it be put on display in the city museum. This will not happen, for political and practical reasons. To remove it is to take responsibility for it, to choose one story to define it, and to admit to the events it witnessed. More practically, the museum has a collection of spectacular objects, and this Gospel is not visually spectacular. It would cost more than the book is worth to remove the binding and restore the pages. It stays in the filing cabinet. I did insist that it was stored in a proper archival box, in a drawer by itself. I urged the school not to sell the individual portraits, knowing what a temptation that will be. I was denied permission to publish my findings; I do so here in a consciously non-academic format. I continue to comb catalogs of obscure private collections, hoping to find the missing Evangelist portrait. If it is found, it may be possible to further understand the Gospel’s history.