Esteemed guests and dignitaries heard an extraordinary history in the theatrette of the NSW Parliament on May 3, of a man who tried to bring the printed Bible to Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike – a Bible rejected in his own lifetime by both communities.
The achievement of the Armenian printer and Bishop, Voskan Yerevansti (1614-1674) was celebrated at the exclusive event, marking 350 years since the first printing of his Armenian Bible.
The celebration saw a large number of church leaders in attendance from a range of traditions – Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and various Protestant churches.
They gathered with members of the Armenian (Orthodox) Church at the invitation of the NSW Premier and person of Armenian heritage, Gladys Berejiklian, the Hamazkaine Educational and Cultural Society of Australia, and the leader of the Armenian Church in Australia and New Zealand, Bishop Haigazoun Najarian.
Guests were treated to a display of an original 1666-1668, Yerevansti Bible (it took two years to print) and of a 1733 Bible published by the Armenian Catholic community of Venice, as well as an original of the first printed book in Armenian – an Armenian Psalter published in 1512 – among other historic texts.
These were brought to Sydney by the guest orator of the night, National Library of Armenia Director Dr Tigran Zaragaryan, who received a warm welcome from Vicken Kalloghlian of the Hamazkaine Armenian Educational & Cultural Society before being similarly welcomed and then introduced by the Premier.
Dr Zaragaryan gave a potted history of the struggles of the frequently stateless Armenian people who, in 301 AD, became the first nation to officially adopt Christianity – 11 years before the Edict of Milan.
Armenian clergy and lay people kept their heritage alive through church, the living tradition of their language and the preservation of ancient manuscripts – preservation extended through their early and enthusiastic adoption of printing.
The 1666-1668 Bible’s progenitor, Voskan Yerevansti, entered an Armenian Orthodox monastery at New Julfa (the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, Iran) as a teenager and would go on to learn Latin, philosophy, geometry and astronomy from the Catholic priest Paolo Piromalli at St Echmiadzin, modern day Armenia’s fourth largest city. (Piromalli, in exchange, learnt Armenian from Yerevansti).
In later life, he was appointed to head the printing house in Amsterdam amid a thriving Armenian community. Yerevansti set about engaging European printing masters and worked hard to attract financial backing, including from the Pontifical congregations for missions, Propaganda Fides, in Rome.
His principal textual source was the Sis Bible of 1295 (an Armenian Canon that differs from the Latin Vulgate). He also tried to make the text acceptable to Rome by revising it according to the Vulgate. His attempts at accommodation pleased neither side, and it would be left to future generations to appreciate his work.
In his lecture, Dr Zaragaryan cited the words of historian Arakel Grigori Babakhanian in remembering Yerevansti: “If in order to start a new endeavour one should offer a sacrifice, then we can consider Voskan Yerevantsi as the greatest sacrifice that Armenians offered to (printing) … He was one of the publishers who had a comparatively large outlook to publish books not only for clergymen, but also for merchants and lay people.”