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The Daily Star (Lebanon)
March 01, 2002

Want an entire museum to yourself?
Cilicia has plenty of history on display, but sadly, it usually goes unseen

Stephanie Saldana
Daily Star staff

When a group of Armenian monks carted the remains of their church from former Turkish Armenia to Lebanon almost 90 years ago, they fought through trials worthy of The Legends of the Saints, Marvel Comics and possibly even the Exodus plagues.

They had no idea that their cargo would become one of the most impressive, and most anonymous, museums in modern Lebanon.

Inaugurated in 1998, the Cilicia Museum is Lebanon's third-largest museum, ranking behind only the National Museum and the Sursock Museum in size. While it may be a trifle smaller than these giants, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the quality and quantity of its collection.

With no less than 230 rare medieval Armenian manuscripts, row upon row of delicate silver chalices and altar pieces, reliquaries, a stash of 2,000 ancient coins and an entire floor of modern Armenian paintings, the Cilicia Museum is said to be the most extensive collection of Christian artifacts in the country. It is the largest collection of Armenian artifacts in the world outside of Armenia itself.

But in Lebanon, where the fate of the collection at the National Museum bears witness to the toll war can take on the past, and where antiquities are still said to be leaving the country, the story behind the creation of the Cilicia Museum is also a heartening reminder of what can happen when people are willing to carry the past on their backs rather than let go of it.

In September 1915, Armenian monks from the Monastery of Sis in Cilicia, in what was formerly Turkish Armenia, were given the news that they had 10 days to pack their belongings before they had to flee to Aleppo. The reality of the Armenian genocide had become apparent, and thousands were evacuating Cilicia in an effort to escape widespread persecution from the Turks.

Recognizing that the Monastery of Sis would soon be in flames, the monks of the Catholicosate of Cilicia grabbed everything they could ­ chalices, ancient manuscripts, tapestries, coins, photographs ­ packed them up in boxes, loaded them onto donkeys and often onto their backs, and began the journey to Aleppo and later into Lebanon.

Accounts of the 23-day ordeal from Sis to Aleppo vary, but the monks themselves have taken on a mythical status usually reserved for cartoon heroes and medieval saints.

According to eyewitness Bishop Adjapahyan, on that first day of traveling in 1915, a wagon carrying the bulk of the monastery's treasures collapsed into a river and monks braved the currents, diving to the bottom to recover them. They then stumbled through deserts. The wheels on their carriages broke. They escaped bandits. Then, when they finally arrived in Aleppo and later in Antelias, they carried with them the foundations for what would become the most astonishing museum you've probably never seen in Lebanon.

More than collection of artifacts, the museum seems an almost surreal miracle, the remnants of the Monastery of Sis disassembled in Cilicia and reconstructed in Lebanon over 80 years later. It is a monument in stone to the changes Armenian art and the Armenians themselves have undergone, particularly in the past 1000 years.

Archbishop Yeprem Tabakian, the museum's director, explains that the museum attempts to display not just artifacts of Armenian history, but the story of that history itself.

`This is a museum, but at the same time this museum reflects our history, our participation in the civilization of the world,' he said. `The Armenian history and the Armenian religion go together. Here the items are religious, but at the same time historical and national.'

Beyond all of this, for the casual observer at least, the museum is a fantastic collection of art. Entering the ground floor, one is immediately faced with the bulk of the artifacts from the Sis Monastery, a collection of such magnitude and quality that it seems both astonishing and embarrassing that so few have shown up to see it.

The centerpiece is the newly restored Gospel of Partserpet, which dates from 1248 and features illustrations that are almost flawless in their detail. Beside it, the Vessel of the Holy Oil dominates the room. An enormous silver chalice-like object, it was designed in 1817 in Constantinople and detailed with the lives of saints. Originally created to mix baptismal oil, a process that takes 40 days and requires 40 types of herbs, today it is still removed once every seven years in order fulfil its purpose.

Those fascinated by the architecture of the original Monastery of Sis will no doubt find the three pure silver chandeliers ­ broader than hoopskirts and dismantled in Cilicia piece by piece and carted away ­ to be masterpieces not only on artistry, but of human perseverance.

For medievalists, the second floor showcases the finest of the museum's 230 numbered medieval manuscripts. The oldest of them date from the ninth and 10th centuries, and those from later centuries are opened to pages revealing extraordinary miniatures. The facial details vary in technique and color according to the region and influence of their origin. The variety of influence exhibited in these manuscripts is a testament to the depth of the medieval Armenian tradition.

Those with a critical eye may appreciate the repetition of the color red ­ the red pigment was extracted from worms that thrived only in Armenia.

For those with modern tastes, the third floor reveals a sizable collection of more-recent Armenian paintings from throughout the diaspora, the highlight being the 1884 oil painting The Ocean and the Boat by Russian-Armenian master Ivan Ayvazovski. Depicting a single boat lost on violent waters, it seems a sad premonition of Armenian history.

No matter when you show up, chances are high that you'll have the collection to yourself. Museum guide Annie Boghossian admits that only one fourth of the visitors to the Cilicia Museum are actually Lebanese, and that many who do visit hear about it only from friends who have visited from other countries.

This seems a shame. Not only is the collection extraordinary in its own right, but those who trudged through the desert with its contents deserve some form of homage. As Boghossian explains: `The museum … is symbolic of the survival of one life in another. Every single item is a witness to those days, to everything that has happened.'

The Armenian Museum is located at the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias. It is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm and 10am to 1pm on Sunday. Admission is free. Call 04-410-001 or see

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