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Ancient Armenian books tell a story not written in their pages
Agence France-Presse, PTI
Yerevan, April 22, 2005
First Published: 16:35 IST(22/4/2005)
Last Updated: 16:35 IST(22/4/2005)

Over a meter wide when opened and weighing 32 kilograms, the Homilies of Mush is the largest ancient Armenian book to be rescued from eastern Anatolia during anti-Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey almost a century ago.

Archivists say the story of how the manuscript and many others like it were saved could be more telling of the plight of the Armenian people then what the intricate Armenian lettering describes within the pages.

Armenia marks the 90th anniversary on Sunday of mass killings by the Ottoman Turks, a slaughter that is among the most painful episodes of Armenia's history, the costs of which Armenians measure not only in lost lives but also a destroyed cultural heritage.

Some 9,000 rare manuscripts are estimated to have been destroyed as Armenians were driven from their homeland in World War I, but about 30 books currently on display in Armenia's Archive of Ancient Manuscripts are believed to have been rescued by fleeing peasants.

One of these texts are the Mush Homilies. In 1915 when Ottoman forces attacked Mush, an illiterate peasant woman is said to have found the massive book in the courtyard of a church.

Too heavy to carry whole, she cut the 800-year-old book in half and took one half, according to the director of the Archive, Sem Arevshatyan.

The unnamed woman initially brought the text to the seat of Armenia's Gregorian Apostolic church in Echmitzin where it was later to be joined by the other half, discovered by a retreating Russian colonel named Nikolai de Roberti.

"Many of these books were brought by illiterate, unread people, who nevertheless understood that these texts were immensely important," Areshatyan said.

"Instead of taking their personal belongings they carried these books."

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kinsmen perished in orchestrated killings between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire executed a genocidal plan to wipe Armenians and their culture off of the map.

Ankara counters that 300,000 Armenians and thousands of Turks were killed in "civil strife" during World War I when the Armenians rose against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.

Either way, little today is left of the numerous Armenian settlements that once characterized Eastern Anatolia, known as Western Armenia to Armenians.

Many churches have since been converted to mosques or taken apart so their stones could be used to build homes, and the some 40,000 Armenians that remain in Turkey rarely speak the language outdoors.

According to Arevshatyan not all of the attacking Turks were willing to follow through completely on the alleged plan.

"Many books were destroyed but some were sold to collectors in Europe by Turkish officers who understood that they had value," Arevshatyan said.

A slow trickle of antique texts continues to fill the archive's shelves to this day as more Armenian works pillaged in Anatolia are discovered by collectors around the world and donated to the repository.

Earlier this week a Diaspora Armenian from Paris was able to convince the sister of a collector who recently passed away to donate a page from a lost tenth century bible to the archive.

"Hopefully when she sees that it is good hands she will be willing to donate more works from the collection," said Claude Mutafrian, a 62-year-old historian on medieval Armenia who carried the sheepskin sheet to Yerevan from Paris.


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