A story about the Armenian Alphabet, Vitamin Supplements and the Singapore National Library
Khor Virab is the starting point for this piece of writing. Besides Khor Virab, I will tell you about a number of things, including the National Archives of Singapore and the Armenian Church which is across from it. I will also write about a man whose head and hands are buried in three different places. I will make a suggestion about where to eat in the Armenian Street area. The ending to this piece of writing will be uncanny.
Khor Virab is a hellish place. It is a dungeon, a pit of imprisonment. The man whose head and hands are now buried in different places was kept in Khor Virab for thirteen years. Let me tell you about him.
The man spoke a language we cannot name. Although he was what we now call Armenian, the Armenian language was not a distinct language until about the fifth century, when it became known as Grabar. Before Grabar, the Armenian people used their mouths and ears to exchange sounds in a lingual bouquet of Greek, Farsi and a number of obscure Indo-European languages which have long since withered away.
The man who is buried in two or three places is praised by all Armenians. A man named Mesrob Mashtots also praised him. In the fourth century Mr. Meshtots created an alphabet for the Armenian language. In the 12th century two more letters were added, bringing the total number of Grabarian letters to 38. Was the Armenian alphabet created so as to uniquely capture the rhythms of Armenian speech? Perhaps the alphabet was a spontaneous burst of creativity? A way of maintaining secrecy amidst spies and enemies? A natural evolution driven by business and record-keeping? Perhaps some Armenian text holds the answer to these questions.
Before I return to the story of the man who is buried in two or three places… same topic, different topic. A moment please, while I digress. For artists, feminists and writers, here is a thought: the classical Armenian language is thought to have no feminine gender.
For tourists: if you are now near the Armenian Church, please look at the beautiful examples of the Grabar alphabet inside. They are linguistic fossils. They were written by Persian Armenians, who are now extinct in Singapore. The Armenians living in Singapore now are very likely Turkish Armenians. The fact that the wall plaques were based on the Persian Armenian language of two hundred years ago means they are now, perhaps, merely coded things of beauty. You may want to sit on the benches. They were not present when the building was built in 1835. Historically, churches did not have benches. The benches here were installed in 1890 and cost $600, which was a large amount of money at the time. It was raised by subscription from local and overseas Armenians. According to an article in the December 13, 1914 issue of The Straits Times, the construction cost of the entire Church, in 1835, was $5,058 Spanish dollars.
For all other readers: the architect’s name was George Coleman and he had an Armenian mistress. Did Coleman’s mistress bring him to the Armenian Church? Their daughter was baptized in the nearby St. Andrew’s Cathedral, so it seems that their affair was not extremely secretive. I think Coleman came here and was warmly welcomed. How did the Irishman feel in the midst of a Middle Eastern Christian ceremony, the language of which was probably incomprehensible to him? Did he learn Armenian?
Coleman’s financial situation varied, despite having built most of the city’s landmarks, owning a huge mansion and being employed by the government. Most of the people around him in the Church were likely far richer than he was, including the woman he loved. What went through his mind as he stood next to her, perhaps worried about money, in a church of his own making?
Back to the man buried in two or three places. He is called a number of names:
Krikor Loosavorich (sometimes spelled Lusavoritch)
Grigor Partev (Gregory the Parthian)
Bart Simpson (not true)
However, in the English language, he is usually referred to as St. Gregory the Illuminator*, the man who inspired Armenia’s conversion to Christianity. Let’s look at St. Gregory’s childhood. For now, let’s call him Greg.
*(Phonetically, ‘Illuminator’ is similar to ‘Eliminator’ which means someone or something which eliminates. Eliminator was also the name of ZZ Top’s 1983 album, which spawned the hits “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man” as well as “TV Dinners” and “If I Could Only Flag Her Down. Noted rock critic Jaan Uhelszki has remarked that the album marked a departure from the band’s Delta blues roots and the first time the Texas trio had used studio wizardry “to goose up their meat and potatoes boogie”. In fact, guitarist Billy Gibbons’ experimentation led to a sound that is now called the Eliminator guitar tone.
It should also be noted that the album’s cover featured a cherry red 1933 Ford coupe called the Eliminator. The car, along with the three bearded members of ZZ Top, was omnipresent on the nascent MTV. The car’s last appearance was in the ‘Rough Boy’ video in which the Eliminator is the only customer at a car wash in outer space. )
Greg was born in 256 AD. Life was tough. Greg’s uncle and Greg’s dad were fighting each other in a typical mixed-up crazy case of royal intrigue and lust for power. People were killing people everywhere. Greg’s uncle killed Greg’s father. Relatives quickly and secretly took Greg away before the uncle could kill him too. They took him to a place called Caesarea.
Now, before all of this bloody craziness, an Armenian prince went to Rome for his formal education. His name was Drtad and when he was on his way back to Armenia, he passed through Caesarea where, of all people, who did he happen to meet, but Greg. Greg had become a scribe, meaning all he did was copy words all day. Copy words by hand that is, over and over, the same thing. Over and over. By hand. Yeah.
Prince Drtad thought it would be a good idea to take Greg back to Armenia with him. Split the rent, that sort of thing. Maybe open a restaurant or hey, a bookshop or something like that. Yeah. So off the two went, back to Armenia. On the way the strong and valiant Prince Drtad was shocked that Greg would not do what he wanted. Prince Drtad wanted him to offer sacrifices to a goddess named Anahit.
“Cannot,” said Greg.
“Why cannot?” said Prince Drtad.
“I Christian lah. Do sacrifice to lady god cannot. Then cannot be go to heaven one… She false one. Use your common sense. And besides, I tell you big secret one. My father killed your father.”
Wow! Prince Drtad’s world was rocked by Greg’s words. So unexpected! So what to do? So how?
Khor Virab- that’s how. By this time Prince Drtad had matured enough to become King Drtad. King Drtad tortured Greg in a number of unspeakable and unprintable ways and then threw him into Khor Virab, that deep dungeon I mentioned earlier. Ouch! Big ouch! And talk about being in the dark! Ow!
Although Christianity had been underground since it began, it was now officially outlawed. Rebel stuff. It was considered a great threat to the state and the pagan world. “Death to Christians and their Christian helpers.” That’s what King Drtad said. In Armenian. OK, technically not Armenian, but the language that pre-dated Armenian.
Some people say that Greg was in the pit for 13 years and did not eat the whole time. Some people say the King’s sister was a Christian and she secretly brought him food or vitamin supplements. Armenian protein drinks. Anyway, everyone agrees the following story happened while Greg was in Khor Virab…
There were some Christian virgins. One was very beautiful and the King wanted to have his way with her. The beautiful nun’s name was Hripsime. She said, “No way king” and boom boom boom, the king had her and two other nuns killed.
Legend says this terrible act made King Drtad go insane and act like a wild boar. It must have been very bad for King Drtad to act like a wild boar. He ignored questions and wouldn’t show up for appointments. He was running all over the place and acting in a sexually aggressive manner towards the town, its people and farm animals. So what to do? So how?
Well, the King’s sister had a dream that made her think that Greg could cure the king. So, they called Greg and what do you know, Greg cured the king! Boom, boom, boom. King Drtad found Jesus and ordered everyone else to become Christian- even the army. Armenia became a Christian nation just like that. Wow!
This was truly miraculous, so from that moment on, Greg became known as St. Gregory. This happened in 301 A.D.
Now, King Drtad and St. Gregory got along and they ruled together. They ordered a church to be built where the virgins had been martyred. Pagan pagodas were torn down and the names of the feast days were changed to honor Christian saints.
St. Gregory then went on an Armenian tour and spread the holy light of Christianity throughout the land. The Armenian Church gained lots of followers and lots of land- over 10,000 farms- and signed a contract to provide King Drtad with 5,000 cavalry and 4,000 infantry soldiers whenever he wanted. Armenia was the first Christian nation in the world.
When St. Gregory was on tour in Vaspouragan, he saw Jesus descend from heaven with a golden hammer and hit the ground where he wanted a church to be built. St. Gregory took this very seriously and in the year 303 A.D., St. Gregory built Holy Echmiadzin which is the Mother Cathedral of the Armenian Church. If you visit Vaspourgan, you can see the Holy Altar of Descent-that’s where the golden hammer hit the ground.
St. Gregory had two sons: Aristakes and Vertanes, who became bishops. St. Gregory retired to the mountains where he died in 326 AD. After his death his corpse was removed to the village of Thodanum. His remains were scattered far and near in the reign of Zeno. His head is believed to be now in Italy, his left hand is in Armenia, and his right at the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon.
Different topics, same topic…
For Singapore printers: Illuminator* has two meanings. One refers to something which is a source of light, often used in a spiritual context. The other meaning refers to a scribe, one who writes books by hand, especially those books with illustrations. I believe that St. Gregory the Illuminator was a printer of sorts. A number of portraits show him holding a book, which could support this idea.
When we remember that the Master Printer’s Association, the Methodist Book Store and The Straits Times were all at one time based near the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator on Hill Street, we can correctly say that this historic area can be called ‘Singapore’s materialistic and spiritual printer’s hub.’
Here are the English words from one of the plaques inside of the Armenian Church:
The consecration of the Church was officiated, on the hands of the same Parish Rev. Father Krikorian, on March 26th, 1836 A.D. on the commemorative occasion of the entry into the Deep Dungeon (Khor Virab)of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the first Catholicoss of the Church of Armenia.
Here are some other words on the wall:
If you are Armenian (or at least feel so) and would like to join the Armenian community in Singapore, please contact Kani at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is an Armenian writing style known as terchnakir (literally, bird writing), in which birds and animals were shaped into Armenian letters. No examples of this style of writing seem to be visible in the church, unfortunately.
Our simple lunch in the backyard of the Armenian Church is over. We spoke of nothing as we enjoyed the quiet and the soy milk we bought at the little stall near the Killiney Road Kopitiam on the ground floor of the Funan Center where, on the sixth floor, we also purchased reasonably priced nasi lemak and chicken rice.
We walk back up the hill. I go into the Archives. She goes back to make molecular food.
Again, I’m inside the Archives. This was once the Anglo-Chinese School and I wonder if this room was once a classroom. A book catches my eye and I pick it up, thinking it may help with my research.
The book is called One Hundred Years of Singapore and it was printed by the Free Press, the paper started by George Coleman who also built the Church where we just ate. I take this as a good sign. By chance I open to:
ARCHǼOLOGICAL AND HERALDIC NOTES
By Dr. Gilbert Brooke
The early colonial records extend from about the year 1800 to the Colonial office régime in 1867, and consist of nearly 1000 bound volumes of correspondence, returns, gazettes, etc. which are at present filed in the room … on the ground floor at the rear of the block of Government Offices. These records were recently collected, catalogued, and shelved, and have proved to be of great use in disclosing and correcting material which has been used in this History. Often, when the writer has been working late in the evening amongst the dusty tomes, with the silence of the great deserted building above and around, and the cool night breeze bringing confused sounds of life from the river, the ghosts of the past have emerged with a verisimilitude almost uncanny.
I am a writer who finds pieces of the past and then wonders about them. I’ve experienced important moments of my life here in the Archives as well as at the National Library
I am here at this point in time.
My words are here.
You are here.
Like a fourteen story Star Trek hotel, the National Library Building has a garden, a theatre and a place with good food and coffee. The structure has metal arches, Pompidou elevators, lots of glass and things that look like jet engine parts. On Thursday evenings music thumps and blares over lines of sweaty office workers in nylon leotards doing aerobic dancing in the Library’s large, open foyer.
On the eleventh floor are archived materials. Next to the rows and rows of books and dozens of tables, there is a microfilm room. Inside it, silhouetted individuals look at reversed images of newspapers; white text on black. Occasionally a researcher will rewind. Then, the dark quiet room is disturbed with the whirring slapping sounds of film against metal, until there is only the silence of the empty projector; its small beam of white light a form of punctuation.
Often, when the writer has been working late in the afternoon amongst the books and multimedia materials, with the hushed sounds of library activity all around, his perceptions become heightened. The columns begin to glow with a golden color. Eventually, there is a metallic whirring sound and the curtains ascend to the ceiling, revealing grand views of Singapore. A Ferris wheel, the Esplanade, the hideous monument to the glamour of gambling, the green of Fort Canning and the sea are not far away. Raffles Hotel is below. The bright and colorful geometries of Clarke Quay, Orchard Road and Bugis appear. Old churches, the IR and Suntec; all are letting go of the day. The moon appears over housing units waiting by roads full of traffic. Far off in the distance, over Malaysian hills, purple strips of clouds float amidst deepening oranges and blues.
And there, past the Treasury and the Supreme Court, are what used to be the blocks of Government Offices; great deserted buildings now quietly solid against the confused sounds from the river. People walk past them, speaking into phones that hold private lives and a civilization’s worth of stories, information and dreams. Stepping back from the windows, one sees not the city so much as the reflections of those using the library. Like transparent avatars, these studious readers, writers and laptop users seem to float above the Singapore skyline, an illusion with a verisimilitude almost uncanny.