Hovsep Melkonian, Washington DC, 13 November 2011
Mr. Hovsep Melkonian studied at the Mekhitarist Fathers’ school in Hazmieh, Lebanon. After his graduation as an economist in India, he returned to Lebanon and joined the editorial board of Yeridasart Hay (1968 – 1973), a bi-weekly Armenian magazine. He served at the World Bank at its headquarters in Washington D.C. as Financial Specialist, retiring in 2005. Melkonian is a regular contributor to Nor Gyank of Los Angeles. His “Mekhitarist Fathers Mark Bicentennial of Vienna Presence” originally appeared in “Nor Gyank” and subsequently in “the Armenian Reporter”. We belatedly bring it to Keghart.com readers’ attention in commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the establishment of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna. Editor
The Austrian Postal Authorities have already issued a commemorative stamp to mark the occasion. Earlier, the Central Bank of the Republic of Armenia also issued a commemorative coin with a face value of 1000 drams meant to pay tribute to a unique Armenian institution that has played a critical role in engineering the Armenian Renaissance in the 19th century, thus opening new horizons of learning and knowledge before the Armenian people.
The darkest of times: decade and despair in the 18th century
The visionary: Abbot Mekhitar (1676-1749)
The score of Mekhitarist mission
There were two main avenues through which the Mekhitarist Fathers carried out their mission. The first was in the field of linguistics which Mekhitar himself pioneered. In 1727 he published a grammar book for vernacular Armenian and in 1730 a more substantial and authoritative grammar of classical Armenian. The crowning moment of his efforts was the publication in 1749 (three weeks after his death) of Volume I of the first comprehensive dictionary of the Armenian language. Mekhitar had worked on this for over twenty years and produced a definitive dictionary after much research of the original meanings of the words. Volume II was published in 1769. Through his dictionary of classical Armenian, Abbot Mekhitar established the foundations of the Armenian language as a modern and standardized literary medium, expunging from it foreign words and regional variations that had deformed its original and classical beauty.
Publication of Armenian classical texts
The Mekhitarist Fathers were, from the very first day of the establishment of their congregation , instrumental in the study, and publication of texts of classical Armenian authors of the 5th century. This covered historiographical and theological works that were long forgotten and neglected by generations of Armenians. Thanks to these efforts the works of these classical writers and authors (i.e. Khorenatsi, Agathangelos, Goriun, Yeznig, Pausdos, and Yeghisheh etc.) as well as others were brought to the attention and appreciation of Armenian readers. The Mekhitarist Fathers translated a wide range of such works into Latin and other European languages, thus showcasing the treasures of Armenian literature to academic circles. Before long, the Mekhitarist Fathers came to be known as scholars who delivered to Europe the long-lost knowledge of the Armenian past while bringing to Armenians the culture and heritage of Europe, both ancient and modern.
Cleansing of the classical Armenian language
The Mekhitarist Fathers produced and published also grammar books and dictionaries, standardizing the rules of the classical Armenian language. They also adopted modern European techniques (chiefly German) for the study of classical works and pioneered the study of linguistics among Armenians. “The Dictionary of the Armenian Language” prepared by Abbot Mekhitar and published in 1749 was a pioneering work from that perspective. Already in 1727 he had published a grammar book for vernacular Armenian and in 1730 a more substantial and authoritative grammar of classical Armenian. Others soon followed. During 1836-1837 the Mekhitarist Fathers published “The New Dictionary of the Armenian Language” jointly authored by Mekhitarist Fathers Gabriel Avedikian , Khatchadoor Surmelian, and Meguerditch Avkerian. To this eminent list of linguists we must add the names of such luminaries as Father Arsen Pakradouni, (1790-1866 ), Mathew of Eudocia ( 1715-1777) and Meguerditch Asgerian ( 1720-1810) who through translations of foreign texts showed how Armenian could be written in its purest aesthetic form and construction.
Research and Study of Armenian history
The Mekhitarist Fathers also excelled in historiography. The towering figure in this endeavor was Father Mikael Chamchian (1723-1823). Chamchian wrote a three volume “History of the Armenians” (published in 1785 through1786). This became the definitive Armenian history text in this formative period of the modern Armenian scholarship. He used all the available sources of the time, both Armenian and foreign, to author and publish in 1785, the complete history of the Armenian nation. The three-volume publication became the basis of the Armenian critical history.
Translation from and into Armenian
The Mekhitarist scholars translated, between 1825 and 1850, some 130 volumes of European literature, including major works of Greek and Latin as well as Italian and French classics. Translating European literature into Armenian has served the triple purpose of enlightening the uneducated public, perfecting a literary language and catching up with the civilized world. The most important works belonging to antiquity and modern times in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German and English were translated into Armenian by the Mekhitarist fathers during this period. For example, Father Haroutiun Avkerian (1774-1849) translated John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in 1824. Followed translations from Plato, Lamartine, Dante and other major figures of European literature. The Mekhitarist Fathers translated into Latin and Greek also the texts of the early fathers of the church whose originals were lost, but whose Armenian translations dating to the 5th, 7th and 10th centuries were miraculously preserved in Armenian manuscripts. Among these documents were the “Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch”, some works of St. Ephraim the Syrian, notably a “Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul” and an edition of Eusebius’ “Ecclesiastical History”, just to name a few. Father Meguerditch Avgerian (1762-1854) was the scholar who undertook this task. The publication of these works caused a great sensation among academic and church circles in Europe at the time, a fact that enhanced further the reputation of the members of this congregation and the importance of Armenian manuscripts as repository of universal heritage.
Education and the network of Mekhitarist schools
In addition to the literary and historical studies the Mekhitarist fathers created a network of Armenian schools, persuaded that education and enlightenment were essential for saving Armenia and Armenians from darkness and ignorance. These schools were opened particularly in areas where the local Armenian population was devoid of institutions devoted to Armenian learning. The first schools were opened in Hungary in 1746, and then spread to cities and centers of Armenia and Western Armenia from thence to cities in Ottoman Empire and Persia, Iran. After World War I, Mekhitarist Fathers opened schools in Paris, Constantinople, Aleppo, Beirut, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles to cater to the needs of the survivor communities of the Ottoman Genocide of Armenians. The Armenian school in Istanbul today, known as The Pangalti Lyceum, was established in 1825 and is the oldest Mekhitarist School in the world still serving the Armenian community since its inception.
Collection of ancient manuscripts
Abbot Mekhitar and his successors collected Armenian manuscripts and saved them from destruction thus protecting our cultural heritage. With the collection of manuscripts, the Mekhitarist Fathers were also collecting primary sources for further and future research. Thus a treasure began to accumulate first on the island of San Lazzaro, then in Vienna. To-day the Mekhitarist libraries in Venice and Vienna have more than 8000 manuscripts jointly. This collection is second to the collection held in the Armenian Repository of Manuscripts in Yerevan (Madenataran) and the one found at the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
Vienna Mekhitarists’ path to scholarly reputation
Following internal disputes, a number of Mekhitarist Fathers separated from the Mother House in Venice in 1773 and settled first in Trieste then Vienna in 1811. The Mekhitarist Fathers soon were busy there too training new seminarians and organizing missions into historical Armenia in pursuit of the goals and objectives of their founder.
A handful of dedicated , learned and selfless priests, called to action by the vision of their founder, have succeeded in engineering one of the most impressive and awe inspiring miracles in the history of Armenia and Armenians, building upon the work and traditions of St. Mesrob Mashdotz, the creator of the Armenian alphabet and the “Golden Age” in our Literature”. In doing so the Mekhitarist Fathers played the most crucial of roles in the “national awakening” of Armenians in the 19th century.