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Agence France Presse
November 6, 2002 Wednesday 8:05 AM Eastern Time

Bangladesh's heritage disappearing through neglect


DHAKA, Nov 6

Bangladesh's cultural heritage is slowly vanishing due to a lack of funds and often a lack of interest, experts say.

The nation of 130 million has registered more than 300 archaeological sites and has 14 state-run museums.

But little of the country's foreign aid is geared towards historic preservation and government funding has been falling from already low levels. The state spends only two million taka (about 34,500 dollars) a year on heritage sites, five times less than a decade ago, said Dewan Delwar Hossain, the government's chief archaeologist.

"These sites are roots of our nation and we do want to protect them, but there is an acute fund crisis for such restoration and preservation works," Hossain told AFP.

Along with money problems, many Bangladeshis are simply unaware of the treasures around them.

When a photographer recently opened an exhibition in the capital Dhaka on Bangladesh's architectural heritage, many who attended learned for the first time about the Paharpur Buddhist Vihara, a Buddhist university built in the seventh century AD.

Located in the hills of the northwestern Naogaon district, the Vihara has a temple at its centre.

"This exhibition is definitely the first of its kind in the country and gives the much-needed boost in creating awareness to protect and preserve" Bangladesh's heritage, said Enamul Huq, the former chief of the Bangladesh National Museum.

The 80 photographs taken by Babu Ahmed displayed in Dhaka also feature an Armenian church built in 1781 and a Portuguese church from 1517.

The pictures of the Muslim country's past show that mosques and Hindu temples once had many similarities architecturally, with square patterning and terracotta.

One mosque even has terracotta with human images, which is forbidden by Islam, along with more traditional calligraphy.

The heritage sites reflect the pomp of Bangladesh's succession of rulers, be they Muslim Mughals, Hindu kings, the British Raj or even landlords.

"There is also an influence of Persian art," said Wolfgang Vollman, the director in Bangladesh of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

"It is sad to know that these sites are slowly vanishing," he told AFP at the exhibition.

But he said UNESCO cannot help with money, as in Bangladesh it provides primarily education, not funds.

The urge for quick cash has also led to the plundering of historic sites. In Dhaka, some antique shops have sold terracotta work for thousands of dollars -- and are careful not to give receipts, collectors said.

Ahmed, who took the photographs over 15 years, has grown angry at the disappearance of Bangladesh's heritage. He said economic pressures in the densely populated and impoverished country were also driving the destruction.

"I have been to many places to photograph and I have seen how some of these historical sites were slowly vanishing with villagers taking part by part away to build their own homes," Ahmed said.

"Many are occupied illegally and one of them, a Hindu temple in the Chanchhara area of (western) Jessore district, is now a government powerhouse," he said.

"The fact is, the whole of Bangladesh is a museum itself, but no one's there to take care of it."

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PRESS RELEASE Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Information Services Address: Vagharshapat, Republic of Armenia Contact: Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian Tel: +374-10-517163 Fax: +374-10-517301 E-Mail: Website: November 26, 2008

His Holiness Karekin II visits Dhaka, Bangladesh

On Sunday, November 16, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, paid a one-day visit to the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection, located in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The historic church is located in a district of the city - Armanitola, named after the large Armenian community that once lived there.

The church and cemetery were established in 1781 by the Armenians of Bengal, who were primarily merchants prominent in the jute, textile and silk trades. The community of Dhaka was closely linked to the other Armenian communities of Bengal, including Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), Chinsurah and Saidabad.

During his visit to the church and cemetery, His Holiness met with Mr. Michael Martin, the last permanent Armenian resident of Dhaka, who has been maintaining the church complex for the past few decades. The trip to Dhaka was made during His Holiness' pontifical visit to India.

Accompanying His Holiness to Dhaka were Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian and the Wardens of the Armenian Church Committee of Calcutta - Mr. Sunil Sobti and Mrs. Susan Reuben.

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."

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Armenians in Dhaka

12:00 AM, June 09, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:30 PM, June 17, 2016 Two Genocides, Two Peoples, and One Grievance Adnan Morshed

Turkey seems to have a burlesque history of genocide denial. On June 2, the German Parliament voted to recognise the 1,915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as "genocide." Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's reaction was predictable: “Germany has no right to comment on genocide.” Ankara recalled its ambassador from Berlin.

Sounds familiar? Ankara's recent withdrawal of its ambassador to Bangladesh following the execution of an indicted “war criminal” reveals the Erdogan regime's grotesquely negligent attitude toward the genocide in Bangladesh during 1971.

My goal here today is not to psychoanalyse Turkey's peculiar discomfort with histories of genocide. Rather, I am intrigued by the common history of massacre that Armenians and Bangladeshis share, and how this history, in many ways, shapes the national personality of these two peoples. More fascinating yet that Dhaka presents a robust Armenian history, which I propose to explore through the lens of the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection on Church Road in Old Dhaka.

The church is modest in its architectural scope, yet its history offers a rich tapestry of the Armenian footprint on the commerce, politics, and education of East Bengal. More important, the church is an architectural testament to the story of how the Armenian diasporas spread out from their historic homeland, located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, to far-flung regions, and thrived as a versatile cosmopolitan community.

Armenia occupies a crucial geographic location at the intersection of various civilisations and trading routes, such as the Silk Road from China to Rome. A vital link between East and West, the country was under the domination of various competing political powers, including the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Persians again, the Ottomans, and the Russians. Their long political subjugation, on the one hand, made it difficult for them to maintain their Christian faith, language, culture, and national identity. (The Armenians were the first people to embrace Christianity as a state religion in 301 CE). On the other hand, challenging circumstances exhorted Armenians to be resilient in the face of political repression, to develop entrepreneurial acumen and mediating skills, and to be a “trade diaspora.” Wherever the Armenians went to trade, they typically learned the local language - unlike other Asian or European merchants - and they benefitted from the ability to communicate with primary producers.

The Armenians also played a significant role in the history of world architecture. In the early medieval period, when the Byzantine world abandoned classical stonework in favour of brick masonry (the sixth-century Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is basically a brick construction), only the Armenians retained the knowledge of concrete work and continued the Hellenistic attitude to buildings as a compact, object-like impression in space. Their contribution had a crucial influence on subsequent development of church architecture in Europe.

There is no consensus on exactly when the Armenians arrived in Dhaka. Some historians, however, suggest that they were in Bengal in the early 17th century, most likely arriving with the southbound migration of Armenian diasporas from Persia. During the Safavid-Ottoman wars of 1603-1605, the Safavid monarch Shah Abbas (r. 1587-1629) deported up to 300,000 Armenians from the Armenian mercantile town of Old Julfa to what became known as New Julfa in the suburb of Isfahan.

Because the official language of the Mughal court was Persian, the Persian-speaking Armenians could easily adapt to the life in the Mughal Empire. Being skillful in the textile business, the Armenians naturally gravitated to Dhaka, one of the trading hubs for fine textile, contributing significantly to the city's commercial life. In addition to textile and raw silk, the Armenians engaged in the trade of saltpeter (used as gunpowder), salt, and betel nut. They pioneered jute-trading in the second half of the 19th century and popularised tea-drinking in Bengal. When they began to lose the textile business to the British private traders in the late 18th century, the Armenians reoriented their focus to landholding, eventually becoming prominent and wealthy zamindars (or landowners). Examples of Armenian zamindars in Dhaka include: Agha Aratoon Michael, Agha Sarkies, and Nicholas Marcar Pogose.

Another major Armenian contribution to Dhaka was the introduction of the ticca-garry (or horse-carriage), which became the main mode of transportation in the city until the first decade of the 20th century. Armenians also introduced western-style department stores for European and British goods, including wines, spirits, cigars, bacon, reading lamps, shoes, toys, table cutlery, shaving soap, saucepans, frying pans, traveling bags, and umbrellas, among other items.

The Armenian community contributed significantly to Dhaka's civic life and urban administrative bureaucracy. Nicholas Pogose founded the first private school of the city, Pogose School, in 1848. It still functions as a prestigious school in Old Dhaka. In response to Nicholas Pogose's resolution that the Dhaka Municipality Committee had no corporate entity and that steps should be taken to remedy the problem, the British colonial administration enacted the District Municipality Act of 1864. Subsequently, the Dhaka Municipality became a statutory body with its own legal jurisdiction.

Compared to those in Calcutta and Madras, Dhaka's well-knit Armenian community was small but wealthy, exerting a great deal of influence on local and regional businesses. The Armenians resided in Armanitola, an Old Dhaka neighbourhood that was named after their colony where they once lived (although not all Armenians lived there).

Many of Dhaka's wealthy Armenians lived in European-style bungalows in Old Dhaka. One of the most famous was the Ruplal House (now derelict), built by the Armenian zamindar Aratoon. The religious life of the community revolved around the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection, built in 1781 on the ruins of an earlier chapel and cemetery. The land for the Armenian Church was originally gifted by the Armenian noble man Agha Catchick Minas, whose wife died in 1764 and is buried inside the church.

The Armenian Church stands today like a quiet and dignified monument amidst the frenzied urban growth surrounding it. Residential apartment towers dwarf its two-story structure and the belfry (or the bell tower). The oblong plan of the church is a simple basilica type with a double-height nave flanked by a pair of one-story, 14-foot wide arcades that open to the surrounding graveyard. The three-tier bell tower, capped with a conical roof, on the west provides a square-shaped and arched vestibule, followed by a ceremonial entrance to the nave.

The high boundary wall around the Armenian Church in Dhaka shields the property from rampant land speculation that characterises the capital city today. The main entrance to the site is from the east, near the circular apse. Visitors must walk through the graveyard all the way to the western forecourt of the church. Reading the tombstones of the graveyard feels like a journey back to a time when the Armenians played pivotal roles in the life of the city.

It is hard not to feel empathy for the Armenians, particularly in light of their and our “neglected” genocides.

The author is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He teaches architecture and architectural history in Washington, DC, and is the author of Oculus: A Decade of Insights into Bangladeshi Affairs (2012) and Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015).

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