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“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 41)

Quarantine Diaries – Day 41 April 24th, 2020

Trento, Italy

Armenia


Today is April 24th; for many this square on the calendar bears no special significance. However, for Armenians that day in 1915 marks the beginning of an event that would bring the word “genocide” (which didn’t exist until 1943) into existence; it was coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin precisely in response to the events which occurred more than a hundred years ago. Lemkin also played an instrumental role in organizing the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide held on December 9, 1948; for his work in championing not only the Armenian cause, but human rights in general, UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, called Lemkin “an inspiring example of moral engagement.” The Armenian community will forever be indebted to his tireless efforts; in any case, it would’ve been better for all us if the term—genocide—didn’t have to be invented in the first place, but so are the ways of the world.


It’s quite common for the diaspora community, especially the one in Los Angeles County (where Armenians constitute over forty percent of the population in Glendale), to commemorate this event with a march that culminates at the Turkish Consulate—the government still denies the event constituted a genocide. On this particular occasion—the 105th anniversary—I would like to go another way, however. I’ve written about and discussed this sadness in some capacity—last year a long poem of mine was published in The American Journal of Poetry on the subject; it includes pictures of my great-grandfather, David Davtyan, and my great-great-grandfather, Mirijan Davtyan, whose wife, Rebecca, died on a death march in Iraq during the genocide.


The past must not be forgotten, but we, as Armenians, need to do a better job in not letting whatever happened over one hundred years ago define us—I mean this in the most positive sense. A great many of us at home and those living abroad as well know too little about our own history, except for what happened between 1915-1923 under Ottoman rule. I don’t think we can reduce an ancient country to just eight years of history, especially when it was once not only part of the Achaemenid Empire and the Roman Empire, but also amassed a relatively similar glorious kingdom for itself under Tigranes the Great, who more or less posed the biggest threat to Rome at that time; no, it’s not enough for a country that once ruled over a domain which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.

It’s history like this I’m more interested in—the periods where Armenians encountered other peoples, cultures, and languages; indeed, like the Achaemenid Empire, the kingdom of Tigranes the Great was multiethnic and tolerant of others. As stated in Religious Origins of Nations? Tigranes “exemplifies the hybrid character of the period. The court ceremonial was Achaemenid, containing also Parthian elements. However, perhaps due to the influence of the queen, Cleopatra of Pontus, there were Greek rhetoricians and philosophers at court, and Greek actors inaugurated the theatre built in the capital.” Often, those not well-versed in history consider the past to be more barbaric and less cultured than the present; however, anyone even slightly familiar with the nationalistic tendencies of today can see the difference between the isolationist leaders of our time (we’re the best at everything) and kings like Alexander, arguably the most capable general in the history of warfare, who greatly admired the Persians that he conquered, going so far as to marry, Roxana, princess of Bactria, after defeating Darius III.


No, the uncultured leaders exist presently; unlike ancient kings who were able to command people stemming from different cultural backgrounds, our own masters can only rule people they have something in common with. Indeed, was it not the great Persian king, Cyrus the Great, who liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity—a deed which earned him the messianic title of the “anointed” in Isaiah 45:1? The designation “anointed” is synonymous with messiah.


Again, as is usual for these prose entries, things are going slightly off-track, but seeing as how we’re past forty on these diaries, maybe you’ll cut me some slack—what I’ve mentioned so far really is relevant; everything comes back to the fact that modern society is less sophisticated, at least from a cultural standpoint, than ancient civilizations were, which truly lived up to the respective term because they learned to live with difference. In that sense, I would like to see more Armenians like Alexander and Roxana, marrying outside of their racial parameters. Being the small country that Armenia is—a geographically and politically isolated land with its own unique alphabet and language—the practice of endogamy still very much plays a big role in the mindset of many, especially the older generation who encourage their sons and daughters to marry other Armenians so the culture won’t die out. However, if we really stop and think about it: What really is Armenian culture besides the Persian, Greek, Roman, Russian, and yes, Turkish, influences that have all shaped it throughout the years? After all, did Tigranes the Great not himself marry a Pontian princess called Cleopatra? We revere these figures but we learn nothing from them.


The greatest innovations in culture have always happened at the point of contact, at the border, right on the edge of the border, you might even say. In an era of increasing religious intolerance, thus, which is really a product of our time and not so much of the past, we might perhaps, as an example, look to figures like the Mughal Emperor Akbar, whose faith was Sunni Islam, but who nonetheless tolerated other religions so well that he established the Ibadat Khana, literally a House of Worship, into which he invited Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Christians, and even atheists to have discussions. Below is a depiction of one such occasion in which two Jesuit missionaries (wearing black robes) are portrayed: Rodolfo Acquaviva (an Italian missionary to India) and Henrique Henriques (a Portuguese Jesuit priest).

I see very little of that happening today. Instead, in the age of nations, we’re turning inward to an extent that’s really unprecedented in history. Contrary to popular belief, nations aren’t an old phenomenon. There was no such thing as Italy before 1861. Ironically, Rome itself—the capital—wasn’t even annexed to the unified kingdom until 1870. In fact, Italy was so regional in terms of identity and language that the old joke goes as follows: A person from Palermo and someone from Milan had to speak French in order to understand each other; the differences between dialects are truly that big here. Sicilian, for example, is so distinct from standard Italian that it can be considered its own separate language; in fact, along with Neapolitan, these so-called dialects are recognized by UNESCO “as mother tongues in danger of extinction,” according to the Sicilian Post. In fact, there are even regional variations within the Sicilian language itself. What do we mean, then, when we say “Italian?” Does the label even make sense?


Armenians, too, pride themselves on things like being the first nation to accept Christianity, 36 years before Constantine the Great was baptized; however, Armenia hasn’t always been a Christian nation, to say the least. Certainly, Tigranes the Great was no Christian—he died 55 years before the birth of Christ. The language, likewise, must’ve been of a variety that no modern Armenian would probably have understood that well. For God’s sake, even today I have a hard time figuring out what Lebanese Armenians or Persian Armenians are saying sometimes, so who among us can honestly claim they would’ve understood the type of Armenian spoken more than 2,000 years ago?


Thus, nationalism, and likewise the obsession with purity and consistency, is a false myth because nothing stays the same. Our language will surely change and people will be affected by those changes. Maybe it’s because “Armenia is the only country remaining from 3,000 year old maps of Anatolia,” which slightly contradicts what I’ve said above, that gives rise to some of the nationalistic tendencies, but the map of our country today doesn’t look anything like the one from 3,000 years ago. What did those ancient Armenians even look like? Certainly, to some extent quite, quite different, we might say.


After a few brandies, the old folks around the dinner table always love to start banter about the fact that Armenians had blonde hair and blue eyes in the past; well, if you want that to be true so badly, what the hell would you—a chip off the old Mediterranean block—have in common with those people anyways, if that really was correct? Truly, as you’ll see from the picture below, discussions like that are all in good fun; however, what I do know for certain is that unlike our own people, ancient Armenians were more receptive towards contact with other cultures, as I’m sure other ethnic groups which constitute nations today probably were as well in the past. I don’t know; these are just flights of fancy, but reasonable ones, I guess, given history’s trajectory.


It’s in that spirit of contact, proximity, and exposure that I would like to commemorate this day. My brother and I have the privilege of living in Italy, where the Armenian community isn’t so big like the one in France, Russia, or the US; nevertheless, the impact we’ve collectively made on this culture is vast. Starting from the Byzantine Empire, Justinian’s general, Narses (who certainly doesn’t look blonde-haired and blue-eyed to me), was Armenian. He won such renown as a general that he’s depicted next to Justinian (immediately to the right of the emperor) in the impressive mosaic work inside the Basilica di San Vitale.

There’s also Isaac the Armenian, who ruled the Exarchate of Italy from 625 to 644. There are plenty of sarcophagi outside of San Vitale; however, Isaac’s is the only one which resides inside the church. A picture of it can be found in a previous article I wrote about Ravenna. In more modern times, Giorgio Baglivi was another prominent figure who served as the personal physician to Clement XI. In Venice, Armenians have always played crucial roles as merchants and educators. To this day, there’s even a sotopòrtego named in their honor. One of the most unique characteristics of Venice architecture, the function of these sotopòrtegos is to connect a calle (a typical Venetian street) or courtyard with another calle.

The door that you see leads straight into the Santa Croce degli Armeni, which isn’t far from Basilica di San Marco. The church dates back to at least the 15th century, when “An altar and chapel were erected on the premises of the Armenian fondaco,” according to UCLA scholar Sebouh Aslanian. We didn’t get a chance to actually go inside as the monks only hold services once a month there.

Other important Armenian contributions to Venice include the founding of Moorat Raphael College, where the great poet Daniel Varoujan (a victim of the genocide) studied for some time; although the college closed somewhat recently, the well-known Mekhitarist order, established in 1717 by Mkhitar Sebastatsi on the island of San Lazzaro, continues its work to this day.


It’s here truly that the monks lived in near isolation; paradoxically, however, they didn’t just concern themselves with religion and Armenia, but preserved around 3,000 manuscripts and artifacts from various parts of the world, such as Egypt, Greece, Italy, just to name a few. The most famous visitor to the island was Lord Byron—himself an admirer of Armenian culture, who spent a considerable amount of time at the monastery studying the language he loved so much. The room where he stayed is part of the tour; unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed, so we took a photo of the plaque outside.

The list of visitors is long and impressive—even US President Ulysses S. Grant and British Prime Minister William Gladstone journeyed there. Certainly, yes, the island doesn’t have the tourist appeal of Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge, so we were both relieved to see quite a few non-Armenians there as well.

In the spirit of truly embracing differences, these monks didn’t retreat into their religious dungeons; no, in almost-near isolation they created a bridge between Armenia and the rest of the world—to such an extent that when Napoleon abolished the Venetian Republic in 1797 and subsequently shut down all monasteries in 1810, San Lazzaro itself wasn’t closed; the monks were able to convince the Corsican emperor that their order was more than just a monastery, but an academy—a place of learning (a distinction it has even today). Napoleon himself visited the island and was so impressed that he did, in fact, declare the Mekhitarist order as such, allowing it to remain open.

Why am I saying all this? Again, like the monks of San Lazzaro, Armenians can only survive by embracing other cultures, not by isolating themselves from diversity to protect what little they have. We can only be great by innovating, and these things happen when we embrace differences—when we make contact with cultures that aren’t like our own. Yes, big Armenian families with only Armenian people do go a long way in preserving our language (for now), but had the Mekhitarists chosen that very same strategy—concerning themselves only with Armenian Orthodox monastic life—Napoleon would’ve dismissed them as just another monastic order and we wouldn’t have known about them today. Armenia, likewise, must be more than just Armenia; it has to embrace the West, the East, the North, and the South. We must stop obsessing about the genocide and not necessarily move on from it, but move along with it, for lack of better words. US recognition has come after all. Let’s re-evaluate our strategy—enough being the victim already.


I would like to end with a quote from Hrand Nazariantz, an Armenian poet, who fled Ottoman persecution to settle in Italy. An admired poet in these parts, his name was considered for the Nobel Prize, but, unfortunately it went to Winston Churchill. I do hope that another Armenian poet much greater than myself will have the honor to do what Nazariantz came so close to achieving in this country, but we’ll leave that for now in favor of Nazariantz’s actual lines (the whole poem can be read here).

I’ll leave you with this: Բարի լույս. Literally, it means “good light,” but we use it to say “good morning.” I prefer the former—may good light always be with you.


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