Bangladesh’s Last Armenian Prays For Unlikely Future
By Shafiq Alam, AFP
Michael Joseph Martin is guarded about his exact age and reluctant to accept he will be the last in a long line of Armenians to make a major contribution to the history of Bangladesh.
Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, was once home to thousands of migrants from the former Soviet republic who grew to dominate the city’s trade and business life. But Martin, aged in his 70s, is now the only one left.
“When I die, maybe one of my three daughters will fly in from Canada to keep our presence here alive,” Martin said hopefully, speaking broken Bengali with a thick accent.. “Or perhaps other Armenians will come from somewhere else.”
Martin came to Dhaka in 1942 during World War II, following in the footsteps of his father who had settled in the region decades earlier. They joined an Armenian community in Bangladesh dating back to the 16th century, but now Martin worries about who will look after the large Armenian church in the city’s old quarter.
“This is a blessed place and God won’t leave it unprotected and uncared for,” he said of the Church of Holy Resurrection, which was built in 1781 in the Armanitola, or Armenian district.
Martin — whose full name is Mikel Housep Martirossian — looks after the church and its graveyard where 400 of his countrymen are buried, including his wife who died three years ago. When their children, all Bangladeshi passport-holders, left the country along, Martin became the sole remaining Armenian here. He now lives alone in an enormous mansion in the church grounds.
“When I walk, sometimes I feel spirits moving around. These are the spirits of my ancestors. They were noble men and women, now resting in peace,” said Martin, who is stooped and frail but retains a detailed knowledge of the Armenian history in Dhaka.
Marble tombstones display family names such as Sarkies, Manook and Aratoon from a time when Armenians were Dhaka’s wealthiest merchants with palatial homes who traded jute, spices, indigo and leather. Among the dead are M. David Alexander, the biggest jute trader of the late 19th century, and Nicholas Peter Poghose who set up Bangladesh’s first private school in the 1830s and died in 1876.
Martin, himself a former trader, said the Armenians, persecuted by Turks and Persians, were embraced in what is now Bangladesh first by the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries and then by the British colonial empire. Fluent in Persian — the court language of the Mughals and the first half of the British empire in India — Armenians were commonly lawyers, merchants and officials holding senior public positions.
They were also devout Christians who built some of the most beautiful churches in the Indian subcontinent. “Their numbers fluctuated with the prospects in trading in Dhaka,” said Muntasir Mamun, a historian at Dhaka University.
“Sometimes there were several thousand Armenians trading in the Bengal region. They were always an important community in Dhaka and dominated the country’s trading. They were the who’s who in town. They celebrated all their religious festivals with pomp and style.”
The decline came gradually after the British left India and the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 with Dhaka becoming the capital of East Pakistan and then of Bangladesh after it gained independence in 1971.
These days, the Armenian Church holds only occasional services on important dates in the Orthodox Christian calendar, with a Catholic priest from a nearby seminary coming in to lead prayers at Christmas. Martin said the once-busy social scene came to a halt after the last Orthodox priest left in the late 1960s, but he is determined to ensure the church’s legacy endures.
“Every Sunday was a day of festival for us. Almost every Armenian would attend the service, no matter how big he was in social position. The church was the centre of all activities,” he said.
“I’ve seen bad days before, but we always bounced back. I am sure Armenians will come back here for trade and business. I will then rest in peace beside my wife.”