NEW YORK, NY—On September 28, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Prelate of the Eastern Armenian Prelacy, proudly presented Armenian Italian professor, scholar and novelist Dr. Antonia Arslan and her powerful and soul-searing story Silent Angel.
Prelacy executive director Dr. Vartan Matiossian welcomed the large and admiring crowd in Hovnanian Hall which included Prelacy Vicar Very Rev. Fr. Sahak Yemishian, St. Illuminator Armenian Cathedral pastor Rev. Fr. Mesrob Lakissian, Armenia’s Ambassador to the UN Mher Margarian, Consul General of Italy in NY Francesco Genuardi, Consul General of the Lebanese Consulate in NY Dr. Abir Taha Audi, and other officials of the Italian diplomatic corps in NY.
“The genocide of the Armenians in their historical homeland that facilitated the emptying and usurpation of territory is the central character behind the odyssey of the Homiliary of Moush. And that odyssey is the driving force of Antonia Arslan’s novel, Silent Angel,” said Dr. Matiossian.
Dr. Arslan, a diminutive, charming and humble personality is also the author of the best-selling Skylark Farm and Road to Smyrna. “I wrote this small book, and it was also placed in Yerevan’s great Matenadaran Library of ancient manuscripts with this huge treasure of the St. Arakelots Monastery,” she said. “It is symbolic of the Armenian civilization.”
The novel was translated from Italian to English by Professor Siobhan Nash-Marshall, chairperson of the Mary T. Clark Chair of Christian Philosophy at Manhattanville College.
She related in her typically enthusiastic manner that this book is a testament “on how a culture was saved. This is what makes Armenia rich – the transmission of culture and heritage to the world.”
Armen Morian and Ani Khachian read segments of the book to the audience.
Before presenting the Prelacy’s highest honor for women – the Queen Zabel award and Queen Zabel insignia pin to Dr. Arslan for her “distinguished scholarly and literary career, and her fervent advocacy of the Armenian spirit worldwide,” Archbishop Tanielian eloquently stated, “The novel is literally a journey through the valley of death, depicting the selfless character of Armenian women to the world, the women who know how to give preference to sacred values, and protection of culture, even to the risk of endangering their own lives.”
Silent Angel, which is written in the present tense, relays such graphic and heart-rending details and is so lyrically alive that readers will feel that they are also traveling with the five surviving individuals at the time of the Armenian Genocide during their harrowing journey in the rescue of this precious and huge tome, the priceless Moush Homiliary.
The 820-year-old, 601-page treasured parchment weighs more than 60 pounds and is three feet long and a foot and a half wide. The author has written that an abbot and two monks would solemnly carry the holy treasure, surrounded by a constantly flowing cloud of incense, to sick people
The images and events of the book “stirred memories and recollections of stories I had heard in Aleppo many years ago that were buried in me,” said Dr. Arslan quietly and reverently. “This story was born from them.”
The story has five survivors – two Greeks, Eleni and Makarios; a monk; two Armenian women Kohar and Anoush; and an Armenian child Hovsep, who had kept silent and saved his life as his family was killed. These are the five leading characters who come upon the ruins of a burned church—the Surp Arakelots (Holy Apostles) monastery in Moush—to take shelter and hopefully find some food in order to continue their journey.
“They all have visions of that most ancient and venerated place,” the writing continues. “For centuries, it has been a famous center of culture and the production of illuminated manuscripts. They expect to see some signs of life, traces of village inhabitants who have always sought shelter up there when in danger, near the great dome, under the protection of the majestic khachkars that have accompanied the lives of Anatolian farmers for millennia.”
Cautiously, the group approaches, “trying not to make any noise, though they needn’t have worried.” The priests are all dead. Father Hilarion is found outside the church door with a crushed skull, “his hand outmatched as though he had invited his murderer to enter the House of God. His face is calm and serene.”
The soul-searing description continues. Old Hovhannes Vartabed had also died, “but he was fighting with an ax that softly rocks in the winds stuck in his chest, like an evil definitive banner of victory. The killer had left it in him like a trophy.” A third old monk Tateos has also been killed. The scared group of five check out the ruined atrium, cells of the monks and the refectory. But all are empty.
“They bury the three monks with their feet pointed east, and place one cross – two branches hastily tied together – in each of their crossed hands.”
Dr. Arslan reverently describes the finding of the ancient parchment. “There is something on the ground, a flat and rectangular form, from which brilliant colors transpire, like jewels.” Eleni, who has discovered it, wonders if Tateos, whose dead body lay before it, “may have tried to divert attention from something that he had hidden in the darkest corner of the room.”
The book “had crossed seven centuries – [a] symbol of a civilization and a pledge of devotion, a veneration of the words of the ancients and of the images painted in the illuminations, the survivor of a culture and a world that was now disappearing in the fire and flames of senseless destruction,” the author continues with poetic compassion. There is a reason why it has come into their hands. It means that the angels who watched over it decided to give it not to wise priests, “…but expressly to them.”
Kohar says, “The book will come with us. We will take turns carrying it. But first of all, let us all swear that we will protect it with our lives, from any insult or profanation (irreverence). They all solemnly swear.”
Too heavy for one person to carry, the two Armenian women cut the sacred book in half and each carried half on her back during their perilous journey replete with sickness, fatigue and starvation through steep mountains and destroyed valleys to save it from the Turks. One half reaches Etchmiadzin.
During the tortuous trip Kohar dies, after she had wrapped her half in cloth and buried it in a churchyard in Erzurum. It is finally found by a Polish officer who was fighting in the Russian army and eventually brought to the Matenadaran where both halves were united in the 1920s to rest eternally in peace.
In the 19th century, a few pages were removed and preserved in the collection of the Mekhitarist Fathers in Venice and Vienna.
Ignatius Press, which published Silent Angel, has commented, “Antonia Arslan tells this story with intense compassion and clarity taking the reader on a desperate search for truth and salvation.”