By the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was a significant Armenian Catholic population in the Ottoman Empire and beyond. While the Armenian Apostolic Church had intermittent contact with the Roman Catholic Church since at least the period of the Crusades, the nature of that contact changed dramatically with the establishment of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, known as the Propaganda Fide in 1622. Founded by Pope Gregory XV to coordinate and arrange the missionary activity of the various religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church. Its creation supported an increased missionary activity. In 1627, Pope Urban VII established a training college for missionaries, the Collegio Urbano, where a specifically Armenian branch, the Collegio Armeno opened in 1660. Through the efforts of the missionaries trained at the Collegio Armeno, many Armenian Apostolic Christians converted to Roman Catholicism. Prior to this, there had been high-level ecumenical conversations (most notably including St. Nersess Shnorhali and his nephew, Nersess of Lambron) as well as previous attempts at converting Armenian Christians to Roman Catholicism (such as when Dominican missionaries created the Order of Friars Unitors of Armenia in the fourteenth century). Yet it was not until the work of the Propoganda Fide that large numbers of Armenian Apostolic Christians joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Especially the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople (Istanbul), there was considerable tension between the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch and prominent Armenian families who had joined the Roman Catholic Church. Today, we will not dwell on these issues, but instead will turn to the uniquely Armenian Catholic monastic order known as the Mkitarists, after their founder, Abbot Mkhitar of Sebastia. Crucially, Mkhitar was born in the era of increasing Catholic activity among Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. His given name was Manuk Petrosian. He was born in Sebastia (modern-day Sivas in Turkey) on February 7, 1676, less than twenty years after the establishment of the Collegio Armeno. In fact, it was a graduate of the Collegio Armeno, a young missionary named Boghos, who eventually led the youthful Manuk to the Roman Catholic Church.
Up until that point, young Manuk had travelled around historic Armenia, visiting major monastic centers, including at Etchmiadzin and Lake Sevan. Disappointed by the state of education at the traditional Armenian Christians monasteries and centers of learning, after meeting the missionary Boghos he tried to reach Rome. When an illness ruined his plans, he returned to Sebastia and was ordained a celibate priest in 1696. As Sebouh Aslanian narrates, the monk now known as Mkhitar, “quickly attracted suspicion and opposition by the residents of his hometown and was forced into exile,” heading to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire (87). After further travel and preaching he returned to Istanbul, which was then in the throes of some of the worst confessional strife between the Armenian Apostolic Church and recently converted Armenian Catholics. Under these circumstances, Mkhitar formally joined the Catholic Church, gathered several companions and students around him, and on September 8, 1701, first formed a Catholic religious institute. He and his followers then moved to Venetian-controlled Modon in the Morea region (Peloponnese) and built a monastery in 1708. The Mkhitarist Order was officially recognized by the Vatican in 1712. At the outbreak of war between the Ottomans and the Venetians, the newly formed Mkhitarist Order relocated to Venice, where in 1717 the Doge (the leader of Venice) granted them the island of San Lazzaro, a former leper colony, to house the Order and build a monastery.
Since 1717, the Monastery of the Mkhitarist Order on the island of San Lazzaro has been one of the most important centers of Armenian scholarship and learning in the world. Though the Mkhitarist Order is a Benedictine Catholic monastic order, because the Armenian Catholic Church follows the Armenian Rite, there are many similarities with the liturgy and theology of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Indeed, the Mkhitarists have been some of the great stewards of the Armenian Christian tradition. We have discussed their impressive library of Armenian manuscripts before. This collection of manuscripts started during Abbot Mkhitar’s leadership. A vast manuscript collection helped lay the foundation for the remarkable tradition of scholarship produced by the Mkhitarist Order. Scholarship, along with the teaching and learning that goes along with it, was itself one of the main reasons the Abbot Mkhitar formed the monastic community, and the tradition of Mkhitarist scholarship begins with him. As Aslanian writes, partially quoting the great historian Leo, Mkhitar “devoted his life and the energies of his disciples into rescuing and reforming the Armenian literary heritage. To this end, he transformed San Lazzaro into a ‘nimble and tireless workshop…into a small miniature Armenia, a homeland of books’” (93). Mkhitar himself produced incredible resources for Armenian learning: A Grammar of Classical Armenian (Քերականութիւն գրաբար լեզուի հայկազեան սեռի) in 1730, a two-volume dictionary of Armenian, an edition of the Holy Scriptures, first published in 1733, and a hymnal, among other works, many related to the administration of the monastic order that bears his name. Since his death on April 16, 1749, many other Mkhitarist monks have carried on his legacy of scholarship and education.
|Reflections of Armenian Identity in History and Historiography||An excellent collection of essays edited by Houri Berberian and Touraj Daryaee that contains the piece by Sebouh Aslanian detailing the formation of the Mkhitarist Order as well as the early schism between the Venice and Vienna branches. You can also access Aslanian’s essay here, through his academia.edu page.|
|Vark‘ Mkhitʿaray Abbayi Sebastatsʿwoy||One of the most clear and informative biographies of Abbot Mkhitar of Sebastia, written by Hovhannes Torosian. Abbot Mkhitar was the subject of several biographies, often in the style of the old Armenian hagiographies, including one written by his disciple Matthew of Tokat shortly after his death. This biography by Torosian is a clear narrative and more easily accessible than some of the earlier biographies. In Armenian.|
|Hushikkʻ hayreneatsʻ Hayotsʻ||One of the many books written by Ghevont Alishan. The “Remembrances of the Armenian Homeland” describes the geography of historic Armenia and the monuments and ruins found there. Along the way, he describes important figures and events in Armenian history. In Armenian.|
Of the many notable scholars of Armenian history, theology, and Christianity to come from the monastic order of the Mkhitarists, today we will focus on Ghevont Alishan (Ղևոնդ Ալիշան), who was born nearly 200 years ago on July 6, 1820. As we mentioned last week, for the next few weeks we will discuss important figures of the Armenian Christian tradition and Armenian history who have anniversaries of their birth this year. Kerovpe Alishan, as he was known before his ordination, was born to Armenian Catholic parents in an Istanbul that was increasingly more accommodating to Armenian Catholics than the one Mkhitar had known. In fact, in 1831, when Alishan was still a child, an official Armenian Catholic millet, a confessional administrative minority group in the Ottoman Empire, was recognized by the Sultan. Young Kerovpe began his education in Istanbul, but because of his aptitudes and inclinations asked his parents to let him study at the Mkhitarist monastery on the island of San Lazzaro. So, in 1832, at the age of twelve, Kerovpe (along with his brother Serovpe), travelled to Venice to begin studying with the Mkhitarist monks. On April 20, 1836, at the young age of 16, Alishan was ordained a celibate priest and took the priestly name Ghevont.
Alishan was clearly one of the most brilliant members of the Mkhitarist Brotherhood. He quickly was given many duties, including the head instructor of the monastic seminary. At the same time, he began to write for publication. Accomplished in several genres, his first publications were poetry. Critics and readers well beyond the confines of those interested in Armenian Christianity adore Alishan’s poetry. Dn. Timothy Aznavourian, a graduating student at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary who wrote his Master’s Thesis on Alishan’s portrayal of the great saint John Chrysostom (you can watch Dn. Timothy present some of this material at a recent Zohrab Information Center Enrichment Evening on the Facebook page of the Zohrab Center) quotes literary critic Vachagan Grigoryan, who says that “the goal of this poet-teacher was the instruction of the citizen dedicated to his homeland.” Alishan’s poetry, for instance his collection Նուագք/Nuavk, meaning “Instrumentations,” first published in 1857, is often described as patriotic poetry. This patriotic aspect of Alishan’s work, especially his poetry, has garnered him wide acclaim among Armenians.
Though Alishan’s most widespread acclaim comes from his reputation as a great nineteenth century Armenian patriot—he is credited with developing the first national Armenian flag—he was also a sophisticated scholar and tireless intellectual. In this capacity, one of his most consequential endeavors was the creation of the journal of the Mkhitarist Brotherhood, Բազմավէպ (Bazmavep or Pazmaveb, meaning “Polyhistory”). According to Robert Hewsen in his gorgeous and informative Armenia: A Historical Atlas, Bazmavep is the very first Armenian scholarly journal. It was founded in 1843 by Alishan and fellow Mkhitarist Gabriel Aivazovsky. Many of Alishan’s academic, geographical, and historical studies first appeared in the pages of Bazmavep. Over the years, the journal has published important Armenian scholarship, ranging in topics from Christian theology to linguistics. Still printing today, it is the longest continuously running Armenian periodical in the world.
In addition to his work with Bazmavep, Alishan published several books during his lifetime. Many of these were reprinted multiple times, recognized as valuable Armenian scholarship. The Zohrab Information Center has several books by Alishan, including some first editions. Alishan wrote most prodigiously about geography and history. Though he himself never traveled historical Armenia, the manuscript library at the Mkhitarist Monastery in Venice provided him ample material to collect and reflect on historical Armenia. He wrote detailed geographies, such as his Kaghakakan ashkharhagrutiwn (“Civil Geography”) and he also penned a monumental work describing both the land of Armenia and its history, the Hushikk Hayreneats Hayots, the “Remembrances of the Armenian Homeland.” In this book, Alishan discusses important figures and events in Armenian history, such as St. John Chrysostom, the focus of Dn. Timothy Aznavourian’s work. Another well-known book is his Sisuan, detailing the Armenian Kingdom of Cilica. Alishan’s wide-ranging works on Armenian Christianity and Armenian history, together with his influential patriotic poetry, have secured his legacy as one of the most important Armenian scholars of recent history. He died in 1901 at the age of 81. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, we can rightly celebrate his incredible contributions and his role as a major source of Armenian knowledge!
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter for more pictures related to the Mkhitarist Congregation! Don’t forget to like us on Facebook! And check out @vemkarofficial, the new Instagram of Vemkar. Join us there for a weekly “ZIC Challenge.”