By Levon A. Saryan
The Mekhitarist Congregation is a unique institution in our Armenian reality and has played an enormous and thoroughly positive role. The twin monasteries (Venice in Italy and Vienna in Austria) have long been the leading outposts of Armenian culture in Europe. Although (as Roman Catholics) they have been dismissed by some Armenians,1 the Mekhitarist contribution to Armenian letters and scholarship, linguistics, literature, poetry, history, and antiquarian studies over the past three centuries has been tremendous2and is worthy of our everlasting respect.
The reputation of the Mekhitarists for their humility and pious scholarship soon attracted the attention and curiosity of learned Europeans. The monks responded to this interest with enthusiasm, supplying the literati with information about Armenia and its many-faceted heritage in the Italian, French, English, and German languages. In 1810, when Napoleon was ordering the dissolution of monastic institutions, a specific exception was made for San Lazzaro because of its status as a cultural and scientific academy. Over the centuries, many prominent figures visited the island, such as the famous British poet Lord Byron, British statesman William Gladstone, and noted American writers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Dean Howells, to name just a few.
Byron deserves special mention. One hundred and ninety years before our arrival, almost to the day, the youthful poet had also sought solace on this island. Already a celebrity and widely popular in England, Byron was compelled to flee to the continent when his numerous amorous affairs became hopelessly entangled. He was handsome, talented beyond measure, idealistic, and not even 29 years old. He made his way to Venice, which was then one of the cultural centers of Europe. There he became acquainted with the Mekhitarists and learned from them the secrets of Armenia’s language and history.
“By way of divertisement,” wrote the dashing young bard in a letter dated Dec. 5, 1816, “I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this—as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement—I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it.”3
Soon after his arrival, Byron immersed himself in Armenian studies, rowing each morning to the island in a gondola for his lessons. He found the Armenian friars exceptionally friendly; for about four months, they tutored him in the language, and he collaborated with them on literary projects.
Byron may well be the most famous of the island’s countless visitors. The monks cherish his memory assiduously. You might think that the poet is still here, sitting on a bench overlooking the lagoon, putting finishing touches on Canto IV of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” even though he last set foot on the island almost two centuries ago. “Byron’s spirit haunts the island,” wrote James Morris in 1960,4 and this statement remains as true today as when he wrote it. The room where Byron studied is maintained untouched; a memorial to the bard is erected on an exterior wall near the entrance; his manuscripts, his writing table, and his pen are preserved; a beautiful painting of the poet in oil hangs in the monastery corridor; and his portrait and quotes from his letters are printed in every published guidebook to the monastery.
Byron was evidently fond of the monks, and they returned the favor. “At this period,” he wrote on Jan. 2, 1817, “I was much struck—in common, I believe, with every other traveller—with the society of the Convent of St. Lazarus, which appears to unite all the advantages of the monastic institution, without any of its vices. The neatness, the comfort, the gentleness, the unaffected devotion, the accomplishments, and the virtues of the brethren of the order, are well fitted to strike the man of the world with the conviction that there is another and a better even in this life.”5
Byron’s view of the fate and future of the Armenian nation, formed during his brief stay on the island, was extraordinarily perceptive. In the same essay, he expounded on Armenia’s history: “It would be difficult, perhaps, to find the annals of a nation less stained with crimes than those of the Armenians, whose virtues have been those of peace, and their vices those of compulsion. But whatever may have been their destiny—and it has been bitter—whatever it may be in future, their country must ever be one of the most interesting on the globe; and perhaps their language only requires to be more studied to become more attractive.”6
Mekhitar planted the seed of a movement that lasted well past his earthly life. He was followed by a legion of successors—scholars, teachers, antiquarians, and writers, such as Father Harutiun Avkerian (Paschal Aucher, Byron’s teacher), historian Father Mikael Chamich, linguist Father Arsen Aydenian, literary critic Father Nerses Akinian, numismatist Father Ghemes Sibilian, antiquarian Father Vartan Hatzouni, and especially poet and historian Father Ghevont Alishan. Alishan’s Sisouan, an erudite compendium of the history and lore of Cilician Armenia, published in 1885, remains unequalled for the breadth and depth of its coverage. Alishan was one of the most remarkable figures of the 19th-century Armenian renaissance, yet he spent almost his entire life here on this tiny island, thousands of miles from his native land.
To be continued.
1. During the 19th century, Catholics and Protestants were considered a threat to the Armenian Church and looked down upon by some narrow-minded persons. Thankfully, that era is now behind us.
2. For a summary, see Kevork Bardakjian, The Mekhitarist Contributions to Armenian Culture and Scholarship (Cambridge, Mass., 1976).
3. Throughout his career, Byron carried on a voluminous correspondence with his publisher and biographer in England. His collected letters were published shortly after his death. For excerpts from these and related writings, see Beauties of English Poets (Venice, 1852), esp. pp. iv-x.
4. James Morris, The World of Venice (New York, 1960), p. 295.
5. Beauties of English Poets, pp. iv-vi. The same quotation appears on the monastery’s exterior wall.
6. Beauties of English Poets, pp. iv-vi.
Dr. Levon Saryan has been writing for the Armenian Weekly for 40 years. He lives in Greenfield, Wisc.