The Contributions of Mkhitar of Sivas and the Mkhitarists to the Armenian Identity

Mkhitar of Sivas (1676-1749), who was a Catholic priest, and his students played a large role in the birth of Armenian nationalism. Mkhitar, whose real name was Manuk, was born in Sivas on 7 February 1676. He learned to read and write when he was five and started his education at the Surp Nishan Monastery when he was around nine-to-ten years of age. Manuk finished his education in 1691, he became a monk when he was around fourteen-to-fifteen years old, and he became a priest when he was nineteen. Manuk took the name ‘Mkhitar-Mığitar,’ which means the “one who comforts, consoles”, in 1691. Then he went to Ecmiyazin to enter a monastery. He started to advocate for raising the cultural level of Armenians, because he thought that there was a prevalent backwardness among them.

Mkhitar went to Istanbul in 1700 with these thoughts. The first thing he planned to do there was to enlighten the Armenian people by opening a school. He founded the “Mkhitaryan Union” together with about ten-to-fifteen of his students on 8 September 1701 in order to wake up the Armenian nation in the realm of ideas and religion (Dabağyan, 2006: 474-475; Göyünç, 1983:53; Badzik, 1991: 4).

Mkhitar continued his educational activities in Istanbul and was pressured by the Gregorian Armenians. He went to Modon, which was under the rule of Venice, in 1703 in order to get away from pressures and to continue his work in a more conducive environment. He settled on the St. Lazar island in 1715 (Kurkjian, 1958: 408; Pamukciyan,2003: 326). His life there became a turning point for himself and for the Armenian community. Mkhitar and his students established an Armenian Academy on this island. Mikhtar continued his work there until 1749, which is the year he died. After his death, his students continued their activities in Venice and Vienna.

The Services of Mkhitar to the Armenian Culture

The academy that Mkhitar established on St. Lazar island in Venice in 1715 was a great contribution to the Armenian culture and enlightenment. Its role, especially in the formation of the Armenian national identity, was great. Mkhitar thoughts about being an Armenian can be summed up like this: “I would not sacrifice my nation for my belief and I would not sacrifice my belief for my nation.” These words of his show his loyalty to national unity and his being against denominational discrimination (Nalbandian, 1959: 17; Zekiyan, 2001: 71; Cöhce, 2003: 50).

Mkhitar was focused on two basic objectives. The first of these was to cultivate students that could run the work of the order on their own, and the second was to ensure the spiritual and intellectual enlightenment of the Armenian nation. In line with these objectives, he and his students provided remarkable contributions to the Armenian culture (Bardakjian, 1976: 4).

Mkhitar and his students started to affect Europe two centuries ago and succeeded in having the Armenian society adopt humanism, which was the cause for the birth of a new spirit. Although the Mkhitarist institution, having the identity of a monastery, brought some restrictions, Armenians had never had such a close, large-scale, and permanent contact with Western culture. Therefore, the path that led to the subsequent changes and transformations was opened thanks to this contact in the most efficient period of the Mkitarist school (Cöhce, 2003:47).

Mkhitarists not only expanded the sphere of influence of the Catholic Church, but also ensured the spread of the European enlightenment philisophy and national awakening among the Ottoman Armenians (Zekiyan, 2001:70). In addition, they made significant contributions to the building of a bridge between the Western states and the Armenians, the increased integration of the Armenians with the Western culture and politics, and the acceptance of the Armenians by the Western culture. In short, the Armenian intellectual awakening which was started by the group named Mkhitarist began to develop at the end of the 18th century (Taşdemirci, 2001: 15).

Mkhitarists worked for the education of Armenian youth, keeping alive the religious and national spirit, and the protection of Armenian sciences and arts. In addition, they made important contributions to the Armenian language, history, theology, and philosophy (Badzik, 1991: 4).

Educational Activities

Mkhitar attributed great importance to education and he wanted his followers to be priests who had high culture, who were serious, compliant with the rules, religious, intellectual, and nationalist. What was emphasized in the Mkhitarist education was the spiritual, intellectual, and material development of the student. Apart from religious education, the students were educated in areas such as several foreign languages, literature, history, physics, chemistry, biology, music, art, and sports. Mkhitarist schools considered their students as members of their family. The basic philosophy of the schools was to raise patriotic Armenians and religious Christians (Bardakjian, 1976: 22-23).

St. Lazar Academy, which was the first educational institution established by the Mkhitarists, was both a school and an institute. The most famous works of Europe were translated into Armenian here, and they were sent to the Armenian centers in the Ottoman Empire, especially in Istanbul and other places. The works on the subjects of the Armenian language, history, and religion, which were prepared by Mkhitarist priests, were smuggled into the Ottoman territories easily and then distributed at schools (Akçura, 1940: 21; Kılıç, 2000: 110).

Within this framework, the students of Mkhitar opened schools in Turkey firstly, but then also in different regions of the world such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Crimea, Caucasus, Egypt, Syria, and the U.S.A. Also apart from schools, various centers were active in countries such as Russia, Iran, India, and Lebanon, where Armenians lived. Some of these institutions still continue their activities.

Activities in the Areas of Armenian Language and History

The works of the people who were educated in the Mkhitarist Academy in the areas of Armenian philology and literature are very important. The Venice Academy, which was establihsed by Mkhitar and his followers, published scientific works thanks to its students who knew Western languages and proclaimed Armenian ideas and thoughts in Europe and America.

The most significant impact of the Mkhitarists was their reminding that the Church could comply with the daily Armenian language, not with a language that could not be understood by the people (Bardakjian, 1976, p. 8), because the Armenian nation and nationalism awakened with the transfer of the people’s language to writing, newspaper and books. Guides, preachers, teachers, priests, and authors managed to talk about all kinds of subjects with the people using the language of the people (Muallim Cevdet, 1924: 773). Mkhitarists paid attention to not “becoming Latin” while conducting studies related to language (Bardakjian, 1976: 8).

Mkhitar and the priests who were his followers did research on the history, language, and literature of the Armenian society and published numerous works. Mkhitar himself wrote a large number of books. In addition, he translated literature works written in ancient Greek, Latin, and European languages into Armenian or had them translated (Göyünç, 1983: 53).

Studies on language and history played important roles in the Armenian nation acquiring a national identity and the preservation and development of this situation. Armenians, whose population and economic power increased unde the Ottoman administration and whose cultural level rose, were influenced by Mikhitar and the activities of the Mkhitarist order to a great extent.

Activities in the Area of the Printing Press and Publishing

Mkhitar realized the importance of the printing press and publishing to create an intellectual society. The works that were published in the printing presses of the Mkhitarists were geared towards a very large geography. Armenian printing presses were active from Singapore to Madras, Calcutta, Bombay, and Isfahan and then to Jerusalem, Alexandria, Venice, Geneva, Amsterdam, Moscow, Tiblisi, Baku, Yerivan, Warsaw, Paris, London, and New York; their newspapers and books changed many hands (Muallim Cevdet, 1978: 113-114).

Most of the well-known works in Europe were translated into Armenian in two centers: Venice and Vienna. Works on the subjects of science, mathematics, history, geography, religion, and the nation were published in the printing presses there and then they were sent to the Ottoman country or the other regions where Armenians lived (Ergin, 1977: 799). These works, which were mostly harmful and provoking the Armenians, were sometimes inspected by the official authorities (BOA, HR.MKT., No. 66/99; No. 74/7; No. 45/532; No. 2/746).

The publishing activities of the Mkhitarists had a big role in the Gregorian Turks becoming Armenian (Bozkuş, 2004: 128-129). However, these publications had their primary impact on the Gregorian Armenians; many of them became Catholics thanks to the publications, and they led to Armenian nationalism becoming deeper.

Conclusion

Mkhitar’s ideas and activities made a big contribution and played a large role in relation to Armenian nationalism and Armenian enlightenment. The cultural foundations of the Armenian national identity were formed thanks to the work of Mkhitar and his students.

After the death of Mkhitar, his students developed the Mkhitaryan unity. The Mkhitarist community established schools and monasteries in the centers of Europe such as Venice, Vienna, and Pari and played a pioneering role in the opening of such institutions among the Ottoman Armenians.

The ideas of Mkhitar and his students prepared the environment for the politicization of the Armenian movement. There was an effort to give a prominent place to the Armenian identity in the Mkhitarist philosophy. The Armenian opposition, which the Mkhitarists started culturally and in terms of ideas, turned into a political movement some time later.

Bibliography

Archive Documents

Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (BOA), HR.MKT., nr. 66/99; nr. 74/7; nr. 45/532; nr. 2/746.

Books and Articles

Akçura, Yusuf (1940), Osmanlı Devleti’nin Dağılma Devri, XVIII. ve XIX. Asırda,    İstanbul.

Badzik, Stephen K. (1991), Mehkitarist Congregation in Vienna a Histrorical Survey, Vienna.

Bardakjian, Kevork B. (1976), The Mekhitarist Contributions to Armenian Culture and Scholarship.

Bozkuş, Yıldız Deveci (2004), “Bir Başka Açıdan Ermenilerde Din”, Ermeni Araştırmaları, C. 4, S. 14-15, s. 115-130.

Cöhce, Salim (2003), “Osmanlı Ermeni Toplumunda Siyasallaşma Çabaları”, Ermeni Araştırmaları, C. 2, Sayı 8, s. 50.

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Kurkjian, Vahan M. (1958), A History of Armenia.

Muallim Cevdet (1924), “Ermeni Mesâi-i İlmiyesi: Venedik’te “Saint Lazare” Dervişleri Akademisi”, Muallimler Mecmuası, Sayı 23, s. 764-778.

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Taşdemirci, Ersoy (2001), “Türk Eğitim Tarihinde Azınlık Okulları Ve Yabancı Okullar”, Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi, Sayı: 10, s. 13-30.

Zekiyan, Boğos Levon (2001), Ermeniler ve Modernite, Gelenek ve Yenileşme/Özgüllük ve Evrensellik Arasında Ermeni Kimliği, (çev. Altuğ Yılmaz), İstanbul.

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