The crater in the Houghton Library Syriac manuscript (photo courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Syriac 139)

Slash and Burn: Merian Explains How Two Manuscripts Survived the Hamidian Massacres


MEDFORD, Mass. – On the evening of April 18, the Darakjian-Jafarian Chair in Armenian History, the Department of History, the Armenian Club, the Executive Administrative Dean and the Armenian Club, all part of Tufts University, together with the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), sponsored a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at Goddard Chapel at Tufts with Dr. Sylvie L. Merian delivering an illustrated talk dramatically titled “Slash and Burn: How Two Manuscripts Survived a Violent Past.”

Professor Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, holder of the Darakjian-Jafarian Chair, thanked the donors supporting the commemoration, including Joyce Barsam, and dedicated the event to Merian’s great-grandfather, Hagop Babigian, a lawyer and member of the Ottoman Parliament. Babigian, sent to Cilicia to investigate the 1909 massacres of Armenians, wrote a report but mysteriously died before able to present it. Foul play was suspected.

Prof. Ina Baghdiantz McCabe (photo: Aram Arkun)

Baghdiantz McCabe introduced Merian, who received her PhD in Armenian Studies from Columbia University’s Department of Middle East Languages and Cultures, where the two studied together with Prof. Nina Garsoïan. Merian has published and lectured internationally on Armenian codicology, bookbinding, silverwork, manuscript illumination, and the history of the book.

Dr. Sylvie Merian (photo: Aram Arkun)

She is one of the few specialists writing on Armenian manuscripts, bindings and books in this continent. Merian is currently Reader Services Librarian at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and at present is preparing entries for the catalogue of the upcoming Metropolitan Museum of Art Armenian exhibition. Baghdiantz McCabe provided some background to the work of Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide.

Merian expressed her gratitude to the organizers and sponsors of the evening, as well as the Houghton Library of Harvard University for the Katherine F. Pantzer Jr. Fellowship in Descriptive Bibliography and the help of its staff for her research. She recognized in the audience Nancy Keeler, who along with her late sister Ester Seferian shared information about one of the manuscripts she was going to speak about.

Merian delivered a very accessible talk accompanied with illustrations in which she explained all the academic terms used. She started by explaining that a manuscript is a handwritten book produced without a printing press by a highly trained scribe, often with decorations by an artist. It can be on paper or parchment, which is made from specially prepared animal skin, stronger than paper but more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Most Armenian manuscripts at their conclusion, she said, contain colophons (hishadagaran in Armenian), inscriptions usually written by the scribe which include where and when the manuscript was completed, the names of everyone who helped produce it, the name of the sponsors who commissioned and paid for the work, historical information and detailed information about the scribe’s own family.

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Merian declared that she came to do research at Harvard’s Houghton Library and on April 10, 2009 requested Armenian manuscript number 12 from its collection. This was a synaxarion, or haysmavurk in Armenian, which basically is a book of commemoration of saints in order of their dates. It was very thick—about six inches at the spine, made of parchment and in a huge box. The manuscript was very damaged, with the leaves at the start and end missing, including the final colophon. Its date of origin is unclear but may be either from 1418 or the 17th century.

Merian became more and more agitated as she examined this manuscript. It had slits and marks of being hacked with a sword or axe with a lot of force while open. The slashes went through 46 sheets of parchment. Merian said that for her, it was like disrespectfully staring at a mutilated body. There even was a page with stains which looked like blood.

Houghton Library Armenian manuscript with slashes (photo courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Arm 12)

She realized there must be an important story behind this manuscript and found out that it was donated in 1965 by Paul O. Boghossian, Jr., Mrs. A. Holopigian, Mrs. Peter R. Keeler, and Mrs. Ralph Seferian. She did some detective work and found the obituary of Ralph Seferian. Eerily its date was April 10, 1999 exactly 10 years before Merian saw the manuscript. She tracked down surviving family members and met with Nancy Boghossian Keeler, who explained that her family was from Kharpert, where massacres of Armenians took place in the period of Sultan Abdulhamid II, led by Kurdish brigands. Not only did the Kurds kill people, but they also attacked the Armenian cultural heritage. Armenian holy books were symbolic of the despised enemy.

While there are no details on what the Boghossians themselves experienced in 1895, evidently some of them survived to emigrate to the US, while others who survived the Armenian Genocide came later after World War I. This damaged manuscript was found after the massacres in or near Kharpert in the gutter, explaining its water damage. The person who found it brought it to Vosgan Boghossian, the family patriarch, who bought it from him. Boghossian’s son Sarkis took it to Leipzig, Germany to show to scholars there, and when he immigrated to the US in 1903, brought it with him. Sarkis returned to Kharpert prior to 1915 to help his family but never returned to the US. He was presumed killed, and the manuscript was passed down in the family, which eventually donated it to Houghton Library.

A presumed bullet hole in the Houghton Library Syriac manuscript (photo of Houghton Library MS Syriac 139 courtesy of Dr. Sylvie Merian)

The second manuscript Merian spoke about was a Syriac lectionary, or collection of scripture readings for specific days, from the 11th to 12th centuries (Houghton manuscript Syriac number 139). Christians like the Assyrians suffered in 1895 as well as Armenians. This manuscript, like the Armenian one, was made of parchment and had no covers. It was extremely damaged, with a crater approximately 7 ½ by 11 inches wide and 1 ½ inches deep, burnt areas and cut out designs or medallions.

Merian was puzzled and then noticed a small hole at the back of the manuscript. She suspected that was where a bullet entered, which upon exiting formed the crater. A colleague familiar with forensics and guns agreed that this might be the case. There is no information on the incident, but a note included with the manuscript stated that it was burned during the 1895-96 massacres. It was sold to the Semitic Museum of Harvard University by Rev. James L. Barton in 1900. Barton was a missionary who had been given the manuscript by another missionary, Rev. Alpheus N. Andrus of Mardin on behalf of a native seller.

Mardin was primarily a Syriac town, mostly undisturbed during the 1895 massacres allegedly due to a powerful Kurdish tribe on friendly terms with the American missionaries. This manuscript will be on display at Houghton Library’s “Passports” exhibition from April 30.

Merian spoke of similar incidents of cultural destruction in earlier and current time periods. The Gospels of 1266 made for King Hetum of Cilician Armenia by Toros Roslin (Matenadaran Manuscript 5458) fell victim to Timurlane’s invasions. Books were bombed during the English bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 and a volume ironically titled Defensor Pacis [Defender of Peace] was hit as collateral damage. It was a first printed edition from 1522 in Basel.

In recent times, the sixth-century Buddha statues of Bamiyan were destroyed in 2001 by the Ta

Tufts Armenian students and alumni join Prof. Baghdiantz McCabe for a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Armenian Genocide (photo: Aram Arkun)

liban as idols, and the Der Zor (Deir ez-Zor) Holy Martyrs Armenian Church with its Genocide Memorial was bombed on September 21, 2014 by ISIS.

Merian concluded by reiterating that Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, included the deliberate aim of eliminating a people’s cultural legacy as a component. The destruction of a people’s artifacts, Merian said, is a further attempt at annihilation and a way to try to destroy their soul. However, some artifacts do survive and in the Armenian case are keys to the stubborn survival of the Armenian people.

At the end of the lecture, Baghdiantz McCabe invited all Tufts Armenian students and alumni to the front for a moment of silence, after which those who wished could place carnations on the plaque outside the chapel dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. A reception in the Coolidge Room of neighboring Ballou Hall in Tufts allowed for further discussion.

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