Thursday, December 4, 2014

December 4, 1738: Birth of Mikayel Chamchian

Fifth century historian Movses Khorenatsi has been commonly labeled as the Father of Armenian History. It is not unfair to call Father Mikayel Chamchian the Father of Modern Armenian Historiography.

Chamchian was born in Constantinople. He was initially homeschooled and then attended the local Catholic school. He later studied jewelry with Mikayel chelebi Diuzian, imperial jeweler and a distant relative. The young Garabed (that was Chamchian’s baptismal name) was so famous in town for his talent as a jeweler that a contemporary wrote: “Not even one was found like him.” Diuzian thought of turning him into his business partner and even arranging marriage with his daughter. However, in 1757, barely eighteen, Chamchian left his promising career and went to the island of San Lazzaro, in Venice, to enter the Mekhitarist monastery and satisfy his thirst for knowledge. His elder brother Hagopos was a member of the Mekhitarist Congregation.

After graduating from the island’s school in 1762, Chamchian joined the congregation and became a teacher at the school. His scholarly studies were interrupted in 1769, when he was consecrated vartabed and sent to serve the Armenian Catholic community of Basra (Iraq). He traveled through the Armenian communities of the Middle East (Alexandria, Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, etcetera) and collected manuscripts for the library of the monastery. In the 1770s he wrote a four-volume polemical work (each volume contained 800-900 pages) entitledShield of Orthodoxy. This work was destined to demonstrate “the orthodox doctrine of the Armenian Church.” His enemies robbed this work from his room, and the Vatican called him for an interrogation, since his defense of Catholicism seemed to have been accompanied with some sympathy for the “schismatic” Armenian Apostolic Church.

He returned to the monastery in 1775 and taught at the seminary for the next fourteen years. Many of the best scholars of the congregation in the next several decades were his students. He produced a remarkable grammar of Classical Armenian in 1779, which he abridged in 1801 and became the main textbook of Armenian schools in the nineteenth century (eleven reprints).

Between 1780 and 1788, Chamchian dedicated himself to write the first comprehensive history of Armenia from the origins to his days. The author was an enormously fastidious writer and made countless changes and additions in his volumes until they went into printing. The thick three volumes, which had the publishing dates 1784-1786, were actually published between 1785 and 1788. Chamchian’s History of Armenia would become a reference work for Armenian Studies scholars for over a century and, besides, it would offer a full picture of the past for a people that were trying to construct their national identity.

Afterwards, he devoted himself to religious and theological works. Due to his poor health, the congregation sent him back to Constantinople as its resident representative. He would remain in the capital of the Ottoman Empire and he would continue producing with incredible fecundity; among other works, he published a ten-volume commentary of the Psalms, more than 6,000 pages (1815-1823). He also worked on a project to create a school of Armenian higher education in any European university town. Besides a history of the Ottoman Empire that remained unpublished, he produced an abridged version of his History of Armenia, both in Armenia (1811) and in Turkish (1812). The Armenian version was translated into English and published in Calcutta in 1827.

Following the ecumenic orientation that had been the focus of the founder of the congregation, Mekhitar of Sepastia, Chamchian dedicated himself also to solve the disputes among Armenian Apostolics and Catholics in Constantinople, in the understanding that the Armenian Church was not heretic, as it was frequently portrayed at the time, and there was no need to shock the Armenian nation with new quarrels. He even tried to unify both communities. During four decades (1776-1815), he wrote a theological work of some 900 pages, Shield of Faith, Which Confirms the Orthodoxy of the Armenian Church from St. Gregory, the Illuminator of Armenia, until Today. Another Catholic priest robbed the book and took it to Rome, where it had the impact of a bomb. After four years of discussions and debates, the book was destroyed by order of the Propaganda Fide and only an abridged version was published half a century after Chamchian’s death (Calcutta, 1873).

Chamchian passed away on November 30, 1823 and was buried in the Armenian cemetery of Pera (today Beyoglu). His History of Armenia still remains as a classic, and has been the foundation of his intellectual fame.