By Levon A. Saryan
Due to a persistent fog that enveloped the city and lagoon, our cruise liner was unable to dock in the morning as scheduled, and thus our visit to the island was hurried. But the delay brought an unexpected blessing. Two men dressed in black cassocks, whom I immediately recognized as Mekhitarist fathers, entered the water taxi with us. Shirley and I introduced ourselves to Father Yeghishe Joulian and Father Krikor Mikaelian, who became our travelling companions on the short boat ride to the island.
The two fathers were returning to San Lazzaro from a funeral that had taken place in the city earlier in the day.1 Both men were originally from Syria (Father Yeghishe from Damascus and Father Krikor from Aleppo) and had grown up in Armenian Apostolic households. Father Krikor was visiting Venice for a short break from his teaching duties in Javakh (an Armenian district in the Republic of Georgia).
After we landed, Father Krikor gave us a personal guided tour—the one reserved for Armenian pilgrims, he explained; non-Armenian tourists get an abbreviated version. Our visit lasted for over 2 hours, leaving us only 10 minutes in the monastery’s bookstore and souvenir shop.
The tour was exceptional. We viewed the specially constructed climate-controlled library housing the monastery’s priceless manuscript collection (over 3,000 complete volumes and about 2,000 fragments, the third largest gathering of Armenian manuscripts in the world) and a vast library of Armenian and European printed books and periodicals. There is a an impressive collection of paintings by Armenian and Italian artists, including works by Aivazovsky, Martiros Saryan, and Vartan Mahokian, as well as “Justice and Peace,” a magnificent painting by the Venetian master Tiepolo. The church is small but exquisite, richly adorned with mosaics and stained glass art work. We stepped into the refectory with its beautiful painting of “The Last Supper” occupying every square inch of an entire wall. There are portraits and busts of Mekhitar and Gomidas Vartabed, colored ceramic ware inscribed in Armenian, silver liturgical vessels and artifacts with Armenian inscriptions, even an Egyptian mummy. The only disappointment was that the important collection of ancient coins, kept under lock and key, was not available for viewing.
We walked around the beautifully kept grounds, contemplating the courtyard and gardens. There, we saw a large bronze statue of Mekhitar on a pedestal, with arms outstretched welcoming visitors to the island, an ancient carved Armenian stone khatchkar in dark gray basalt presented to Venice by Catholicos Vazken I, and finally the pantheon where the remains of Alishan, Kourken Alemshah, and other luminaries of our national culture lie in perpetual repose.2
Sadly, our time on the island was very short. We reluctantly took our leave with instructions to meet Father Levon Zekiyan in Venice proper, where he is a professor of Armenian literature and culture at the University Ca’ Foscari. I knew Father Levon from our first meeting at the Armenian Linguistic Symposium in Yerevan in 1987. He led us to a little restaurant in the Dorsoduro section of western Venice, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal washed down with a liter of excellent red table wine and Pellegrino sparkling water.
No topic would have escaped our animated conversation if only we had had more time. We dissected the current state of Armenian studies in the United States and Armenia (including the work of several individual scholars); we compared the evolving situation in Yerevan in 1987, 1993, and 2006; we critically evaluated the successes and failures of our generation; we pondered the significance of the liberation of Artsakh and Vaikunik; and we contemplated the task of building and rebuilding Armenia that will confront the next two generations.
Yet, sadly, it must be mentioned that this tranquil refuge in the middle of the lagoon is no longer the active place it once was even a generation or two ago. The congregation fell on hard times in the 1980’s, when an investment scandal plunged the order into financial crisis. Even more troubling were the consequences: The monks were forced to close many schools as well as their printing press, which at one time was one of the most advanced in Italy. As the material world encroaches on the new Armenian generation, fewer novitiates are entering the monastic ranks. A bright spot appeared a few years ago when the Venice and Vienna branches patched up their differences (of more than two centuries duration) and reunited, combining their forces. But the outlook for the congregation remains uncertain.
Is there hope for the future? Shall we allow this venerable Armenian institution that has so ably carried the torch of Armenian Christianity and enriched our people so greatly, to slowly wither away? Have Venice and Vienna lost their importance now that we have an independent Armenia?
I don’t think so. A strong argument can be made that the manifold treasures of the Mekhitarists should not be permitted to pass into non-Armenian hands. But just as San Lazzaro should be preserved for the sake of its priceless ancient artifacts, it is even more important that we find ways and means to enable the Mekhitarists to continue and expand their noble mission of educating and enriching the minds of generations of Armenians yet to come.
Armenians are still in need of enlightenment and knowledge, just as they were three centuries ago when Mekhitar founded the order. We were in need two centuries ago when Byron visited the island. We were in need a century ago even as Armenians were fleeing to foreign lands for safety in the aftermath of the 1915 genocide. This need has not disappeared even today, even though we have an independent Armenia. If anything, the need for devotion to authentic Armenian values and traditions is even greater now, both in the diaspora and in Armenia.
This was but a single day of our lives, but for me it was a microcosm of my own story. It started out slowly; we were anxious to begin but were delayed by circumstances beyond our control. With half the day already behind us, our journey was finally underway. We arrived safely at our destination, and to us were opened all of the treasures of our ancient heritage. Finally, we communed warmly with good friends, took stock of our accomplishments and disappointments, and then parted. Everyone we met at San Lazzaro embodied the Christian ideals of humility and love fused with devotion to Armenia’s rich heritage, just as they were taught by their illustrious founder three centuries ago.
Dr. Levon Saryan has been writing for the Armenian Weekly for 40 years. He lives in Greenfield, Wisc.
1. Visitors will be interested to learn that an Armenian alley and an Armenian church (Santa Croce degli Armeni) are located in Venice proper, just off the Piazza di San Marco. The Armenian community of Venice dates to the 12th century when merchants from Cilician Armenia settled in the city. The first Armenian printed book was produced in Venice in 1512, two centuries before the arrival of Mekhitar and his followers.
2. The story of San Lazzaro is summarized in two guidebooks available in the souvenir shop: C. Sartor, Armenia and San Lazzaro (Venice, 1986); Fr. Dajad Yardemian, San Lazzaro Island: The Monastic Headquarters of the Mekhitarian Order (Venice, 1990).