Special for the Armenian Weekly
Dolma. I was not expecting that. Nearly 80 percent of the restaurants listed in Trip Advisor in Venice are categorized as Italian. After gobbling pizza and pasta ad infinitum, the last thing I was expecting to see being advertised at the restaurant adjacent to my hotel was homemade dolma.
I poked my head into the restaurant. I stared at the bartender. I knew immediately. “Parev dzez,” I offered. A smile grew on his face. I had just met Bogos Yaghoubian, Venetian resident, originally from Iran. He had ended up in Venice as a student at the Armenian College. After school, he settled in this former city-state. Once a month, Bogos would cook up a fresh batch of dolma as a special at the Italian restaurant.
After learning about Bogos’s background, I followed the map on a 30-minute walk to the Moorat-Raphael College of Venice, which Bogos attended upon arriving in Venice. The college rests on one of Venice’s many canals. The stately structure was built in Baroque style that dates to 1690. The college was funded by two Armenians from India in 1836 and is currently closed.
Of course, with some additional wanderings I discovered two additional Armenian businesses. A luxury leather works store named Serapian. And in the heart of St. Mark’s Square, a jeweler and watchmaker, Tokatzian.
Armenians started arriving in Italy as early as the 6th century, but Armenian communities began to take shape in the 12th and 13th century in Venice. Venice was a powerful city-state that traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea. One of its trading partners was the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Treaties were signed that allowed for Armenians to settle and build businesses in Venice.
In the Armenian community, Venice is best known as home of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. The Venetian Senate ceded this small island in 1717 to allow for the creation of an Armenian monastery that is still in use today. Mkhitar Sebastatsi of Anatolia founded the Mekhitarist Order (named in his honor at his death) in 1701. The order was dedicated to raising the educational and spiritual levels of Armenians. Escaping from persecution in the Ottoman Empire, he and his order had made their way to Venice and established the monastery.
During my recent stay in Venice, I took time to visit this square-shaped island. A quick and efficient vaporetto (water taxi) ride from San Marco brought me to the pier of San Lazzaro. I immediately recognized I was on Armenian terra firma. A blue sailboat stood at attention, appropriately named Armenia with the Armenian cross displayed on the bow. The sign that greeted me on the pier was written in the Armenian alphabet.
My tour started promptly with a multilingual monk who hailed from Syria. And over the next 90 minutes I became acquainted with San Lazzaro degli Armeni. What originally began as a leper colony during the Middle Ages has blossomed into a center of Armenian learning and scholarship. “For more than two centuries this island has been an Armenian oasis transplanted to the Venetian lagoon” wrote the New York Times in 1919. Today, more than 30 residents make their home here, including monks, seminarians, and students.
The monastery has a vast library that was first built in 1740. The library contains more than 150,000 books and periodicals. And it has the third largest collection of Armenian manuscripts numbering 3,000-4,000. The largest collections can be found at the Matenadaran in Yerevan and the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The tour was brought to the library to admire some of these ancient works. A publishing house was established in 1789 on the island. In fact, the printing press located here is the oldest continuously operating publishing house in the Armenian world.
The visit came to an abrupt end. I only had moments to catch the last boat to Venice. An Armenian oasis in Venice.