In recent years, a growing number of professionals from the newly independent Republic of Armenia have been settling in Malta. In 2009, a carved stone-cross (called a khatchkar in Armenian) was dedicated by the small but vibrant community in Valletta. During the ceremonies, mention was made of the “Armenian connection with Malta dating back to the construction of the Ta’Liesse Church, which was built by an Armenian” (emphasis added).
Based upon that statement, I have endeavoured to research what, if any, “Armenian connection” there may have been with this church. I wish to present these preliminary findings by way of some notes. I hasten to add that I have never visited Malta, and that all of the information has been gathered through online sources.
Account of Our Lady of Liesse
According to the Roman Catholic Church’s information, the veneration of Our Lady of Liesse dates to 1134 when three brothers, who were knights and lords of Eppes (from the French region of Laon), set forth for the Crusade to defend the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. The knights were caught in an ambush and taken to Cairo as prisoners of the sultan of Egypt. Hoping at all costs to make the knights apostatize, the sultan went so far as to send his remarkably beautiful daughter, Ismenia (or Ismeria), to seduce them. But while discussing the Gospel with the prisoners, believing she would defeat them, Ismenia herself was defeated. She asked the knights to carve the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary for her. The knights prayed to the Blessed Virgin so that She would guide their hands. During the night, the Virgin sent angels bearing Her radiant image of piety.
The next day, when Ismenia returned, the dungeon was filled with dazzling light and a delicious perfume exuded from the statue. The princess believed immediately in Christianity and took the statue to her apartments, never taking her eyes off the statue while the knights cried out: “Our Lady, cause of Joy!” (“cause of joy” in Latin is “Laetitia,” which later was pronounced Liesse in French). The following night, Ismenia heard the statue say: “Trust me, Ismenia! I have prayed to my Son for you. You will be His faithful servant. You will free my three beloved knights. You will be baptized and through you, France will be enriched by countless graces. Through you my name will become famous and later, I will receive you forever in paradise.” Ismenia helped the prisoners escape and fled with them. All four of them were overtaken by a deep sleep, and during their sleep angels transported them to France. When they awoke, the three knights were in their country, near their castle in Marchais. Ismenia was baptized and they all agreed to have a chapel built at the site where they had woken up, in honor of Our Lady, cause of Joy.
Crusaders in Armenia
During the several centuries while the European Crusaders were waging war in the Holy Land, the Kingdom of Armenia (then located in the coastal area of Anatolia called Cilicia) was a solid, Christian refuge for all ranks of people engaged in the Crusades. Europeans married Armenians, and subsequently, Armenian lands and associated titles and rights were acquired. In many cases, the Europeans settled with their new spouses in the Kingdom of Armenia, and a natural affinity and attachment grew out of generations of heirs.
According to the Libro d’Oro di Melita, the descendants of the Crusader de Lusignan Dynasty, which began to intermarry with Armenian nobility in the 12th century, assumed the family title “de Armenia” or “d’Armenia” at the beginning of the 15th century. Many of the de Lusignan descendants were titled “king of Armenia,” and as such, acquired lands and possessions commensurate with their regency. The title “Barone de Baccari (d’Armenia sives Darmanin) of Malta” was created in 1508 for Jacques Matteo (sives Eugene Matteo) d’Armenia, with the remainder to his descendants in perpetuity. (For the complete list of marriages and issue, see “The Royal Descendants of de Lusignan and the Barony of Baccari and Benwarrad” at www.maltagenealogy.com.)
The Knights Hospitaller established a principal castle in the Armenian coastal city of Seleucia in 1210. They maintained a strong presence at the castle and surrounding areas in Cilicia until 1226 (H.J.A. Sire, The Knights of Malta. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994; pp. 7, 22). By the middle of the 14th century, however, the Mamelukes were gaining the upper hand throughout all of the Levant. In 1375, the last Armenian king passed away, and the Christian lands of Armenia passed into Muslim hands for more than five centuries. Those nobles and knights and their inter-married families who were able to escape settled on the nearby island of Cyprus and continued to maintain a chivalric dynasty there and likewise on the island of Rhodes. Others returned to the European lands of their forefathers.
Position of Bailli, Knights of Malta
Upon their return to Europe, the descendants of the Crusaders and their associates maintained their Levantine titles, even in the absence of physical possessions. Within the Knights Hospitaller, certain knights were accorded the French title of bailli. The designation of Bailli was derived from that of the king’s administrative representatives during the ancien régime in France, where the Bailli was responsible for the application of justice and control of the administration in his bailliage (called a “bailiwick” in English).
The Bailli was the rank and title of the head of each of the bailiwicks of the Knights Hospitaller and also of the head, at Rhodes and Malta, of one of the seven, later eight, langues (or tongues) into which the members of the Knights Hospitaller were grouped once the Order was established on Rhodes and subsequently on Malta. The langues were Auvergne, Spain (later split into Castile-Portugal and Aragon), England, France, Germany, Italy, and Provence.
At the center, in Rhodes and subsequently Malta, each tongue had its own auberge (hostel) which served as its headquarters and where the members lodged and took their meals. Presiding over the auberge was the “pillar,” who by virtue of his office was a Bailli of the Order and, typically, therefore also a member of the Order’s Chapter-General representing his tongue. The Baillis ranked just below the Grand Priors and Priors. They commanded the knights of their tongue at the center, where each tongue was responsible for the maintenance and defense of a specific portion of the fortress defenses and had to man it with sufficient numbers of knights and soldiers.
The Bailli d’Armenia
On the modern plaque outside of the Church of Our Lady of Liesse, near the port in Valletta, the information attributes the construction of the church in the year 1620 to “the Bali d’Armenia Fra Giacomo Chenn de Bellay” (I believe the correct spelling should read “the Bailli d’Armenia Fra’ Giacomo Chemin du Bellay”). According to H.J.A. Sire, this church “embodied the particular devotion of the French knights” (The Knights of Malta, pp. 218-219). The name “Giacomo du Bellay” is probably originally French. In the 16th century, there was a famous French poet named Joachim du Bellay; “Giacomo” is the Italian version of “Joachim”, and it is likely that Giacomo was related to Joachim. The du Bellay Dynasty included Cardinal Jean du Bellay as well as other noted clergy, writers, and members of the nobility.
The title Fra’ is a contraction of the Latin word “frater,” meaning “brother.” It is used for members of a religious order, and since the Knights Hospitaller (later called the Knights of Malta) is a chivalric religious order, its members are addressed using the title of Fra’. Fra’ Giacomo was a member of the Knights of Malta, and it would also appear that he was given the title and responsibility of being a Bailli.
What remains unclear, at the moment, is how and why Fra’ Giacomo was given the specific title of “Bailli d’Armenia.” The Knights Hospitaller ceased to have any physical possessions in Armenia after 1375. By 1620 (the year the church was constructed), the remnants of the Kingdom of Armenia were firmly under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and Christian knights would have no honors within that Muslim domain. Cyprus and Rhodes had also fallen to the Ottomans, driving the Knights Hospitaller to refuge in Malta.
It is my opinion, then, that the title “Bailli d’Armenia” was honorific. Fra’ Giacomo was probably French by nationality (using an Italian version of his first name while retaining the ancient “Chemin du Bellay” family name of his French ancestors). Since the veneration of Our Lady of Liesse was historically of French derivation, and since it appears that the church in Valletta “embodied the particular devotion of the French knights,” it would appear that his only connection with Armenia was honorary and titular.
Armenians in Malta
In his General History of Armenian Colonies (in Armenian; Antelias, Lebanon: 1985), Hagop Atikian describes in great detail the history of the Armenian colonies throughout Italy (pp. 225-235). In 1201, the Armenian King Leo IV signed trade agreements with both the Venetians and the Genoese, and subsequently, Armenian merchants established trading houses in Italy. According to Atikian, there were more than 30 Italian cities and towns in which Armenians established commercial, religious, and cultural centers for their compatriots. However, Atikian points out that by the end of the 14th century, the Vatican had changed its attitude about non-Latin Christians living within Italy, and consequently, the Armenian monasteries, churches, and schools that were operated by the Armenian Apostolic Church were converted into Latin Catholic institutions. The Armenians themselves were absorbed into the local Italian population, making their once-vibrant commercial and religious life in Italy a mere footnote in history.
Atikian does not mention Malta in his work. While it is quite probable that Armenians did settle on the island during the course of history, there is no evidence that they counted in large enough numbers to maintain a separate place of worship according to their Apostolic liturgy. Since the Crusaders were mostly men, inter-marriage with Armenian women generally implied a conversion of faith from Apostolic to Latin rite by the women. Consequently, upon arrival in Malta, accompanying her husband, an Armenian woman would most likely have attended the local Latin rite church. There is no evidence that the Armenians had a merchant house in Malta, and therefore, it was highly unlikely that they would have counted a large enough population to establish their own church.
Curious notes regarding place names
In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul is shipwrecked on an island (Acts 27:27–28:10), and is informed that the name of this island is Melita (Acts 28:1). Over the course of centuries, the name Melita morphed into Malta.
Of equal interest, in Asia Minor, there is a major city located to the northeast of Cilicia. The ancient name for this city is also Melita. Over the course of centuries, the name of the city of Melita morphed into Malatia. Until 1915, the city of Malatia and its environs was the residence for thousands of Armenians. Melita into Malta and Malatia—is there any further historical connection?
In the Kingdom of Armenia, which was geographically situated in the area called Cilicia, there was a town in the northeast sector, tucked into the Ante-Taurus mountain chain. The name of the ancient city is Zeitun. Armenian nobility enjoyed the cool summer climate of Zeitun, and many established summer residences in the area. When the Crusaders arrived in Cilicia, and especially once they inter-married with the Armenian nobility, they too found the water and climate of Zeitun to be a pleasant relief from the oppressive heat of the coastal region.
On the island of Malta, there is also a town called Zeitun (also spelled Zejtun). Now, the name itself is of Semitic origin, and means “olive.” There are numerous cities and towns throughout the Levant that share the same name. But, in reading the genealogy of the Barony of Baccari, I was struck by the fact that many of the marriages of the d’Armenia family took place in Zeitun, Malta. Was there any connection between the Armenian city of Zeitun and the Maltese town of Zejtun? It would be interesting to determine whether the knights and nobles who journeyed from Cilician Armenia to Malta may have retained the pleasant memories of their time in Armenian Zeitun, and perhaps established a connection with the same name town on Malta.
Rightfully, this cannot be considered “the” conclusion. More research is required. But, based upon preliminary study, it would appear that the Church of Our Lady of Liesse near the port of Valletta has no direct, historic connection with the Armenian people.
It is true that the church was constructed by a pious knight. Fra’ Giacomo held the honorific title of “Bailli d’Armenia,” but being French by ancestry, and given the fact that nearly 250 years had elapsed since the last European knight set foot on Armenian soil, it is highly improbable that he had any close connection with the country of Armenia.
There is no extant evidence that Armenian merchants established a commercial presence on Malta in the form of a separate trading house. Furthermore, there is no anecdotal indication that individual Armenians who may have settled on the island ever requested the services of an Armenian Apostolic priest to conduct specific rites for them. While there were Armenian rite priests in Venice and Genoa between the 12th and 14th centuries, there is no evidence that any of them sailed to Malta to conduct baptisms or marriages.
By 1620, the Vatican had suppressed the existence of non-Latin rite worship throughout Italy. (It was more than a century later that the Vatican allowed Armenian monks into the domain, but with the condition that the followers of Abbot Mekhitar of Sebastia renounce their affiliation with the Armenian Apostolic Church and swear obedience to the Pope. The Mechitharist Order maintains a solid presence on the island of San Lazzaro, Venice, and is recognized as a full order within the Roman Catholic Church.) Therefore, the church in Valletta could not have been constructed for use by the Armenians according to their Apostolic Church’s rite. As Atikian notes, there were not enough Armenians living in Malta to be counted as a community, and those few who had inter-married most probably attended Latin rite churches.
The beautiful Church of Our Lady of Liesse remains an important sanctuary for Malta, and especially for the French Knights Hospitaller and their associates to this day. Historically, though, there is no evidence that the church, its founder, and its congregation have any direct connection with Armenia and with the Armenian people.