The story of the rescue of the Homilary of Moush, the largest surviving Armenian manuscript, has for many years traveled through Armenian memories and legends. It- like Franz Werfel’s epic of Musa Dagh is one of the few stories that are source of pride and honor for this defeated and humiliated people. Now dispersed in every corner of the world, having been almost completely destroyed by the 1915 genocide, the Armenians have had their ancestral land taken from them forever.
Even the architectural monuments – the “crystal churches” the gigantic stone crosses, the palaces, and the ancient cemeteries of a once-great civilization were demolished year after year with harsh thoroughness and blind determination. This is why the miraculous physical survival of that famous manuscript of 1202, the treasure of the Holy Apostles Monastery, has taken on such great symbolic importance.
The high valley of Moush is not far from Lake Van. Isolated and flat, rich and fertile thanks to the many rivers that flow through it, it is encircled by impervious mountains. Toward the end of 1915, almost all of its Armenian inhabitants-about one hundred thousand people: men, women, and children-were slaughtered.
The massacres at Moush and other villages in the valley were bloodcurdling. Very few survivors, women and children especially, were able to reach Russian-occupied territory.
According to the most widely diffused legend, two women found the book in the rubble of the monastery and carried it to safety by dividing it into two. One of the women died, after having buried her half of the book. That half was discovered by a Russian officer and taken to Tbilisi, while the other half was taken to Yerevan and given to the monks of Etchmiadzin.
The book was put back together in the 1920s. A few of its pages, removed in the nineteenth century, are conserved in the collection of Mekhitarist fathers in Venice and Vienna.
Until a few years ago, very few details of the massacre of Moush were known. In recent years, several crucial eyewitness accounts of the events have been published.These include the firsthand accounts of Swedish nurse Alma Johansson and her Norwegian colleague Bodil Katharine Biorn. The two women ran an orphanage in Moush, and their charges were literally ripped from their hands and killed. Bodil Biorn also took a series of startling photographs, including a tender one from 1916 of a group of girls dressed in festive clothes, each with a doll in her hand, and some twenty shots of the terrible misery of the women who survived.
This story was born from them. May the patient reader accept it like a fruit from Armenia – a winter pomegranate or a sweet apricot – and taste it as one tastes Armenian Fairy tales on a winter night around the hearth. These fairy tales always begin with an auspicious phrase that prepares everyone for the tale:
Once upon a time, there was and there was not…
And they would end like this:
Three apples fall from the sky: the first for the story-teller; the second for the listener; the third for the whole world.
“Silent Angel” A 112 page novella is translated from Italian into English by Siobhan Nash-Marshall and is published by Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press. It is on sale at Amazon.