BELMONT, MA — On March 12, 2019, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) received a rare first-edition set in excellent condition of the landmark work Patmut‘iwn Hayots‘ (History of the Armenians) by Fr. Mikayel Chamchian (1738-1823), published in Venice in 1784-86, from a very generous donor Edward Simsarian of Worcester, MA, whose family had protected these volumes for well over a century.
Father Chamchian was born in Constantinople in 1738, and became an Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist priest, educator, and writer, publishing this three-volume History in Venice in the 1780s.
“Not since Movses Khorenatsi was there such a comprehensive and systematic treatment of Armenian history in its entirety,” noted Dr. Razmik Panossian in his book The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars, calling it “the definitive Armenian history text in this formative period of mass national identity” and remarking that “Chamchian’s book remained the most authoritative source on the subject until the end of the nineteenth century.”
Saved from Destruction in Diarbekir in 1890s
How these volumes survived for over 230 years including the time of turbulence, destruction, and massacres in the late Ottoman Empire and made it to the United States is testament to the reverence and prescience of the Simsarian family for preserving Armenian history for generations to come. “We are truly honored to receive Chamchian’s History and for NAASR to be the last stop on this book’s very long journey,” said NAASR’s Director of Academic Affairs Marc A. Mamigonian. “The story of the continued existence of these books is in many ways emblematic of Armenian survival and rebirth after the destruction of their ancestral homeland.”
The books came into Edward Simsarian’s hands from his father, the late Dicran Simsarian, who was born in Dikranagerd/Diarbekir in 1890. As a young boy at the age of six, Dicran saw his father hiding these precious volumes in tin boxes in their home in Dikranagerd to save them from impending destruction. As Dicran Simsarian wrote, in an account in his own words provided to NAASR:
About the year 1896 when I was living with my parents in Dikranagerd (Diarbekir, Turkey) … because of a rumor that the Turks were searching all the homes for guns and literary material, [my father] physically burned a large amount of books in our court yard. He saved these three volumes and an atlas which he had in specially made tin boxes.
The second floor of our home was layered with dirt and covered with a beautiful oriental rug. The room must have been 20’ x 30’. I remember one day he dug the dirt on the second floor, buried the three tin boxes of books in the floor and covered same with the oriental rug. A few years later after he died when we were preparing to immigrate to America I reminded my mother that father had buried three books in the floor. We dug up the boxes and entrusted them to Mardig Agigian and his wife Lucia who was my aunt’s daughter. We knew they were coming to the United States and we asked them to bring the books with them.
It must have been 1908 when a constitutional form of government was established in Turkey and the inhabitants were permitted to depart. I am not sure of the date, but during that period the Agigians came to the United States and true to their promise brought the books and delivered them to us … These books have been in our home ever since.
Handed Down from Father to Son
Dicran Simarian went on to become a lawyer in New York City and was for decades very involved in Armenian affairs, particularly the AGBU and ADL/Ramgavar party. He died in New Jersey in 1978.
His son Edward Simsarian graduated from Princeton in 1945 and also became a lawyer and partner in the firm of Tashjian & Simsarian LLP in Worcester. Several years ago, he entrusted some of his father’s files and papers to the NAASR library and gave the atlas to Harvard University.
A strikingly vigorous nonagenarian, he welcomed Mamigonian at his office in Worcester on March 12 and handed over these precious volumes.
Honoring a Remarkable Past
Many books in NAASR’s Mardigian Library tell amazing stories, not just in the contents in the books’ pages, but also the journeys of the books themselves—from publishers and printers in Constantinople, Tiflis, Jerusalem, Venice, and many other centers of Armenian culture in Historic Armenia and the diaspora, over the course of hundreds of years, through booksellers in “the old world” and in America, to bookshelves in homes and in libraries, and finally to NAASR.
Although the vast majority of rare books in NAASR’s Mardigian Library are in safe archival storage while its new headquarters is under construction, NAASR continues to add to its holdings through donations from the community and acquisitions, all of which are processed, catalogued, and when necessary repaired by NAASR’s Library Curator Ani Babaian.
For more information about NAASR and its Mardigian Library, visit www.naasr.org or write to [email protected].