Full text of Canon Patrick Thomas’ presentation at Pembroke College Oxford on June 2 2016 for the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Calouste Gulbenkian Professorship in Armenian Studies

Canon_Patrick_ThomasI am extremely grateful to Professor Theo Maarten van Lint for inviting me here tonight. Perhaps I should begin with an apology. My Medieval Welsh tutor at Cambridge used scathingly to dismiss a well-known Arthurian scholar with the damning words “He knows no Irish.” I am painfully and shamefully aware that my Armenian is limited to a small stock of phrase book expressions and a couple of very brief prayers. I hope you will forgive me for that. My life has, however, been profoundly enriched over the past eleven years by learning something of Armenian history, culture and spirituality, and by getting to know several dear Armenian friends. As a result I have become involved with others in helping to build bridges between the Welsh and the Armenians.

Traditionally Wales is divided into four areas: north-east, north-west, south-east and south-west. They roughly correspond to the four ancient dioceses of the country, and the four basic dialect areas of the Welsh language, a Brythonic Celtic tongue which is still spoken by around twenty per cent of the population of Wales. There are also four Armenian monuments in Wales, one in each of the four quarters of the land. This doesn’t seem to have been intentional, though it is rather wonderful that things have worked out that way. Some years ago Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian invited me to take part in the Armenian Antasdan ceremony, the Blessing of the Four Corners of the World. Accidentally or providentially, the four memorials provide an Armenian blessing for the four corners of Wales.

Each of these four Armenian monuments has a very distinct character. The oldest is a Victorian stained glass window in a medieval church. The second is a khatchkar in the garden of a building erected as a non-denominational centre for peace, healing and reconciliation. The simplest is a plaque with an inscription in three languages (Armenian, Welsh and English) in the foyer of an administrative building. The most recent is a statue that provides a focus for the cloister garden of a cathedral that is generally regarded as the most sacred place in Wales, and one of the holiest sites in the British Isles. Each memorial marks a special stage in the relationship between the Armenians and Wales.

The village of Hawarden, in north-east Wales, was the home of William Ewart Gladstone, the great nineteenth century Liberal politician and prime minister. Gladstone opposed the pro-Ottoman policies of his Conservative rival, Benjamin Disraeli. He was particularly critical of the treatment of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire. In 1876 he responded to the massacre of Bulgarians with a hugely influential pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. On 2nd March 1894 Gladstone’s final term of office came to an end with his resignation as prime minister. The ‘Grand Old Man’, as he was known, was by that time 84 years old. He retired to live in Hawarden Castle.

To many people it must have seemed that Gladstone’s political life had now drawn to a close. However, a major crisis arose which soon stirred him back into action. News was beginning to reach Britain of the massacres of Armenians instigated by the ‘Red Sultan’ Abdul Hamid. When a meeting was held in London on 17th December 1894 to express indignation at the Sultan’s actions, a letter from Gladstone was read out condemning Turkish outrages. The Grand Old Man’s words were enthusiastically received by all those present. Twelve days later Gladstone celebrated his 85th birthday. Among the gifts which he received was one from a source which as unexpected as it was welcome.

The former prime minister was a devout High Church Anglican, whose faith was nourished by a deep devotion to the sacrament of Holy Communion, which he regularly attended in Hawarden’s medieval church of St Deiniol. He was therefore delighted to be given a beautiful silver-gilt chalice to be used in the church. It was inscribed in Armenian with a quotation from Psalm 116: ‘I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord’. Engraved on the underside of the base were the words: ‘To the glory of God in the name of the eternal Trinity. This chalice was presented to the rector of Hawarden by the Armenians of London and Paris, on the 85th anniversary of William Ewart Gladstone, whose loving service on behalf of the persecuted Christians of Turkey they desire humbly to acknowledge, and whose life they pray Almighty God may long preserve.’

The chalice which the Armenian delegation presented to Gladstone is still used regularly at the Anglican services in St Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden. However this beautiful communion cup had never been used for an Armenian service. It seemed appropriate that this should happen. After some negotiating with the present Rector of Hawarden, on 26th May 2013, Armenians from Cardiff and Manchester made a special pilgrimage to St Deiniol’s Church, where Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian celebrated the Badarak, using the chalice given by the Armenians. As well as the Armenian pilgrims, the congregation included many faithful members of the village church, who went out of their way to make their visitors welcome.

A few months after receiving the chalice, Gladstone was given another treasure. This was a sixteenth century Armenian Gospel book, illustrated with beautiful miniatures. It was a gift from the Armenians of Tiflis (Tbilisi). The Grand Old Man placed it in the residential library which he established at Hawarden on his retirement, and it is still carefully and lovingly preserved there. This second sign of Armenian generosity and friendship no doubt helped to keep the plight of the Turkish Armenians at the forefront of the venerable politician’s mind. As the Hamidian massacres intensified, Gladstone’s anxiety and anger grew. On 6th August 1895 the former prime minister addressed a packed meeting in Chester Town Hall, denouncing the Turkish government as ‘perhaps the worst in the world’. He described the Armenians as ‘representatives of one of the oldest civilised Christian races, and being beyond all dispute one of the most pacific, intelligent and industrious in the world’. His speech was reported in the following day’s English newspapers, which were immediately banned by the Turkish censor.

The slaughter of Armenians continued. Gladstone agreed to address a mass protest meeting on 24th September at the Circus Building in Liverpool. It would be his final public engagement. He was in his eighty sixth year, deaf and almost blind, but he still had a powerful voice that could captivate the six thousand people who had crammed into the auditorium to hear him. Thousands more had to be turned away because there was no room for them. Gladstone called for the immediate breaking off of diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire. He noted that ‘The Sultan has added massacre to massacre… He remains unpunished, intact, and boldly asserts his innocence and his merit… Now, as in 1876, to the guilt of massacre is added the impudence of denial, which will continue just as long as Europe is content to listen.’

Gladstone’s final oration made a profound impact on Arakel Zadarouff or Zadourian, an Armenian from Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea. He commissioned a memorial window from the London stained glass artist Edward Frampton, whose work already featured in Hawarden Church. The window shows two central figures from the Armenian Christian tradition: St Bartholomew and St Gregory the Illuminator. A plaque records that it was given ‘To the glory of God and in memory of the Armenians of Turkey who have suffered for the faith, and in undying gratitude for the inspiring example of William Ewart Gladstone. This window is dedicated by Arakel Zadouroff of Baku, Russia A.D. 1897’.

Gladstone died the following year, and was given a state funeral in London. Usually on such occasions the coffin is draped with the national flag, but in his case it was covered with a pall of white, blue and gold silk, presented by the Armenian Church. The former prime minister was buried in Westminster Abbey, but in a village church in north east Wales the stained glass window remains as a memorial both to the Armenian martyrs of the Hamidian massacres, and to the Grand Old Man who spoke up on their behalf.

In 1998, a hundred years after Gladstone’s death, an Armenian choir from London came to sing at an Eisteddfod, a Welsh cultural festival, in the Rhondda valley in South Wales. Helping to arrange this event was Eilian Williams, a sheep farmer from the Welsh-speaking heartland of Snowdonia. Through his contact with the Armenian visitors he became aware both of Armenia’s tragic history and of the struggle to obtain recognition of the Genocide of Armenians during the First World War. Through his initiative the Welsh Baptists became the first organisation in Wales to officially recognise the Armenian Genocide, and a Welsh-Armenian society was formed.

On the face of it, it may seem more than a little improbable that a Welsh sheep farmer should devote himself so passionately to securing justice for the Armenians. However there are several factors that, I imagine, have contributed towards Eilian’s commitment to the Armenian cause. As a Welsh-speaking Welshman he is aware that Welsh history and culture have often been marginalised or ignored – the nineteenth century Encyclopaedia Britannica had the notorious heading ‘For Wales, see England’. The Turkish-sponsored attempt to deny the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide represents an even more striking example of the air-brushing of history. From the 1960s onwards Armenians had been engaged in a struggle for Genocide recognition. During the same period Welsh speakers like Eilian were caught up in a battle to ensure the survival of their ancient tongue, and to establish its status as an official language in Wales. Eilian’s sympathy for the Armenians stems from a deep-rooted hatred of injustice, particularly when applied to vulnerable minorities.

Through his efforts, the issue of the Armenian Genocide was brought to the attention of the Welsh National Assembly. It was first raised in March 2000 by Rhodri Glyn Thomas, a Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) assembly member. On 24th April 2001, the then First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, laid a wreath of flowers in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, in a ceremony at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff, the Welsh capital. The Temple of Peace is a non-denominational building given to the Welsh people after the First War by Lord Davies of Llandinam as a centre for international understanding, peace and healing.

On October 30th 2002 two thirds of the eligible members of the Welsh National Assembly signed a declaration recognising the Genocide of Armenians during the First World War. The document was sponsored by three leading politicians from Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. It was the first time that a devolved national body in the United Kingdom had taken such a step. The Armenian Ambassador and Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian visited the Assembly to give their thanks to its members.

As a lasting tribute to the Assembly’s act of recognition it was decided to place a memorial to the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide in the garden of the Temple of Peace. The moving spirit behind this development was John Torosyan, the wonderfully enthusiastic and energetic leader of the Armenian community in Cardiff. He received the full and courageous backing of Stephen Thomas, who at the time was in charge of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs at the Temple of Peace. The memorial was a khatchkar. The design by the Welsh sculptor Ieuan Rees was an Armenian cross and symbol of eternity, delicately carved in Welsh slate on a sandstone background. It was sensitively designed to reflect both the Armenian and Welsh Celtic traditions, and the inscription was in Armenian, Welsh and English.

As the first public memorial in the British Isles to the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, the khatchkar, perhaps unsurprisingly, became the focus of a great deal of agitation from official and unofficial Turkish sources. Stephen Thomas was put under enormous pressure to withdraw permission for the khatchkar’s installation. He refused to give in. The project received the support of several leading Welsh figures, including Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the Llywydd or Speaker of the Welsh National Assembly, and Dr Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales.

Eilian Williams asked me to be one of the speakers at the dedication of the khatchkar, on the strength of an article about Wales and Armenia that I had contributed to Cambria magazine. My essay had been entitled ‘A Vanished Hero’, and compared the disappearance of the pioneer Armenian novelist Khachatur Abovian with that of the Welsh heroes Y Brenin Arthur (King Arthur) and Owain Glyndwr, both of whom, according to Welsh folklore, are hiding in mountain caves somewhere in Wales. I described a visit to the Matenadaran in Yerevan, in which I’d been shown the original letter, signed by the Catholicos, which gave Abovian permission to become the first Armenian to climb Mount Ararat, some years before his eventual disappearance.
The article concluded with the words:

‘ “One day Abovian climbed Mount Ararat and vanished…” remarked the guide as she showed us the ornate document. Which conjured up in my mind a picture of the courageous writer struggling back up the holy mountain that had brought him both suffering and fame – and disappearing into the layer of mist which often makes the peaks of Ararat seem to float freely in the air.

Perhaps one day, when Mount Ararat is restored to Armenia, Khachatur Abovian will reappear in his homeland. In the meantime we in our small country can draw inspiration from his dedication to his people and their language and culture, and his determination that, against at times what seemed insuperable odds, their nation would survive.’

The memorial dedication ceremony was held at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff on 3rd November 2007. Three hundred guests had been invited. Over a hundred and fifty very vocal Turkish protestors were also bussed in an attempt to disrupt the proceedings. Coming from peaceful West Wales, I was slightly unnerved by the protestors, but a kindly Armenian took me in hand and skilfully ushered me past them and into the building. The dedication of the khatchkar by Bishop Nathan took place outside in the garden. He was assisted by a deacon and an Armenian choir from London. Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas also took part. The megaphone-wielding objectors were kept back behind a police cordon, from which they attempted to drown out the ceremony by repetitive chanting. The Armenians responded with remarkable calm and impressive dignity. I had never experienced a deliberate attempt to disrupt a religious service before. I felt appalled that such behaviour could take place in the country I love, aimed at people whom I respect.

Worse was to come. In January 2008, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, the khatchkar was deliberately vandalised. The sledge hammer used to smash the slate cross was left at the scene. It was a contemptible hate crime. The Welsh Assembly passed a motion condemning the destruction. John Torosyan and his fellow Welsh Armenians are, however, wonderfully resilient people, and the memorial was soon restored to its original glory. Since then it has become a focus for commemorations on 24th April each year. One of the most memorable was the service held on 24th April 2015 to mark the centenary of the Genocide. A large group of Armenians and Welsh friends, including a retired Welsh bishop, gathered in front of the khatchkar. Father Vrej Nersessian led prayers in Armenian, and I led prayers in Welsh and English, and flowers were placed in memory of the martyrs. A snippet of the service was shown on the BBC Wales television news that evening.

Some years before, in March 2004, once again through the initiative of Eilian Williams, Gwynedd County Council in north-west Wales became the first county council in Britain to recognise the Armenian Genocide. The motion was proposed by the Plaid Cymru councillor Dafydd Iwan, who became known throughout Wales in the 1960s for his Welsh language protest songs, and has sometimes been described as ‘the Welsh Bob Dylan’.  Ten years later, on 9th May 2014, a plaque was unveiled in the foyer of the council offices in Caernarfon, not far from the castle. It was intended as a lasting expression of the gratitude of the Welsh Armenian community for the council’s action in recognising the Genocide. Bishop Vahan dedicated the memorial in Armenian, and I dedicated it in Welsh, in the presence of county councillors, Welsh Armenians and a representative from the Armenian Embassy.

The Church in Wales was separated from the Church of England and disestablished in 1920. It became an independent province of the Anglican Communion, with an elected archbishop and bishops, and its own bilingual liturgy and calendar. It has a Governing Body, run on parliamentary lines, which is the equivalent of the Church of England’s General Synod. During ‘question time’ in its September 2012 meeting I asked the Welsh bishops if they would be prepared to designate April 24th as Armenian Genocide Memorial Day and make liturgical provision for it to be commemorated in Welsh churches. They agreed, on condition that I would be responsible for creating suitable liturgical resources in both English and Welsh. Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian kindly helped me by translating appropriate material from Armenian into English, which I then translated into Welsh. The prayers were put on the Church in Wales website, and also appeared as a booklet. It was launched by the Armenian Primate and the Archbishop of Wales at a ceremony in the Cardiff Temple of Peace on 22nd April 2013.

John Torosyan and the Welsh Armenians decided to thank the Welsh Bishops by donating a memorial statue. The obvious place for this was St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. The present cathedral was built by a Norman bishop on the site where St David, the patron saint of Wales, established a community in the sixth century. It is regarded as the mother church of the Church in Wales, and was a centre of pilgrimage for many centuries. In 1876 James Bryce compared it to Etchmiadzin. St Davids still regularly features in lists of the ten holiest places in the British Isles, and attracts a quarter of a million visitors each year.

The memorial statue for St Davids was designed and sculpted by Mariam Torosyan, a young Armenian artist based in Cardiff. It shows a seated Virgin Mary holding the young Jesus, and thus echoes the icon found on Armenian altars. The mother and child image also reflects the suffering and courage of so many Armenian women and children during the Genocide. At Mary’s feet is a reproduction of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, as a sign of the link between the sacred centres of Armenia and Wales. The bronze statue has a remarkable dignity and serenity, and is the focus of the Cathedral’s cloister garden. The plinth on which it stands is inscribed in Armenian, Welsh and English ‘In Memory of the Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide 1915’.

Getting permission for the installation of any kind of memorial in an ancient cathedral is an extremely complicated process, involving several committees and a legal decision. Fortunately the Dean of St Davids, the Very Reverend Jonathan Lean, has been friendly with an Armenian family for many years. He was therefore sympathetic and supportive. As Chancellor and Canon Librarian of the cathedral, I was also in a position to help things along. However, as news of the proposed memorial spread pressure began to be exerted from a not unexpected quarter. On one occasion someone presented the Bishop of St Davids with an enormous box of Turkish delight, apparently in an attempt to persuade him to prevent the statue’s installation, or at very least to delete the word ‘genocide’ from the inscription. More seriously, the Archbishop of Wales received an official protest from the Turkish government. The church leaders stood firm, and permission for the memorial, with its inscription unchanged, was finally received. It was dedicated by His Grace Bishop Hovakim Manoukyan, Primate of the Armenian Church in Britain and Ireland, and the Right Reverend Wyn Evans, Bishop of St Davids, on 19th December 2015 – a fitting conclusion to the Genocide Centenary year, despite the torrential rain (something that we take in our stride in West Wales).

It may seem surprising that Wales should have these four Armenian monuments or memorials. One Welsh politician whom I approached about an Armenian matter automatically assumed that there must be a huge Armenian diaspora on our side of Offa’s Dyke. In fact the number of Armenians in Wales is quite small, perhaps two or three hundred at the most, but they might well echo the poet’s words ‘Քիչ ենք, բայց Հայ ենք’ (‘We are small, but we are Armenian’). The Welsh Armenians are an extremely effective lobbying group, thanks to the dedicated leadership of John Torosyan and Dr Ara Kanekanian, as well as the support of Eilian Williams and other good Welsh friends.

The title of this lecture is ‘Four Monuments and a Pilgrimage’, and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I now turn to my personal pilgrimage, and explain how and why Armenia and Armenians have become so important to me. Over the years I’ve written books on a variety of subjects, ranging from a scholarly edition of the poems and letters of a seventeenth century English woman writer to studies of early Welsh Christian spirituality, some meditations on the psalms in Welsh, and English translations of a major twentieth century Welsh language poet. However, my two most recent publications (apart from a couple of children’s books about a church cat) have been concerned with Armenia and Armenians: From Carmarthen to Karabagh: a Welsh discovery of Armenia and Remembering the Armenian Genocide 1915.

This is quite surprising because eleven years ago I knew next to nothing about Armenia and had never to my knowledge met an Armenian, whereas now I have the joy and privilege of counting several Armenians among my dearest and most valued friends. It all stems from a small advertisement at the back of a church newspaper. The early months of 2005 were a rather grim time for me and my family. I had two churches, one English-language and one Welsh-language, which had effectively been at war with one another for a hundred and fifty years. Part of one of the church buildings collapsed and, despite strenuous fund-raising efforts, it proved too expensive to repair. Helping the two congregations to settle under one roof and begin to live peacefully together was extremely stressful. I was also having problems with my then bishop and my then publisher, and my youngest daughter was showing signs of the serious illness which has blighted her life ever since. Generally things were rather bleak.

I was thumbing through the Church Times one morning, when a small ad caught my eye. “Your old vicar’s leading a pilgrimage to Armenia,” I remarked to my wife. “You’d better go on it then,” she said. “It’ll do you good, and Father Hugh will make sure that you don’t get lost.” So a few months later I woke up in a hotel room in Yerevan and, looking through the window, caught my first glimpse of the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat, floating mysteriously above a layer of cloud which seemed to separate it from the earth. During the days that followed I was introduced to a culture, a history and a strand of Christianity of which I had previously been almost entirely ignorant, and which proved utterly enthralling. On returning home I visited my mother. She told me that she hadn’t seen me looking so cheerful for years, and offered to pay for me to visit Armenia again.

The Church in Wales awarded me a research grant to return to Armenia a third time, on condition that I wrote a book about it. This gave me a chance to visit areas that I hadn’t seen before, including Gyumri, Tavush and Nagorno-Karabagh. A fourth visit was with a group led by the formidable but wonderful Baroness Caroline Cox, whom I described in one of my books as ‘an impressive but slightly terrifying combination of Florence Nightingale, Margaret Thatcher and Joan of Arc: forthright, determined and with nerves of steel’. It included another visit to Artsakh and an audience with His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II in Holy Etchmiadzin. I’d assumed that that would be my last Armenian trip, but then Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian invited me to join the party of British Armenian pilgrims who were attending his consecration. I later also accompanied him on a couple of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, with visits to the Armenian convents in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Joppa. This October I shall broaden my Armenian experience even further when I visit Antelias in Lebanon as a member of the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Commission.

I was sitting in a café in Yerevan with an Armenian guide on my first visit to the country, when he suddenly burst into tears, no doubt partly prompted by the plaintive duduk music in the background. “The trouble with our history,” he said, “is that it is so sad. Again and again terrible things happen to us.” That is true, of course. Repeatedly in its long history Armenia has fallen victim to great powers and savage invaders, often being crushed between rival empires. And yet that is far from the whole story. Armenians have been victims, but they have also been survivors. In the midst of immense pressures and difficulties they have created a fascinating culture that enriches the rest of humankind.

Perhaps the most significant encounter that came from that first pilgrimage was discovering St Grigor Narekatsi. Actually, there is a sense in which he found me. I was wandering through the Vernissage in Yerevan when I saw a fairly large and impressive icon of a saint. He had a rather fierce expression and a look in his eyes that it was very difficult to escape from. To my surprise I noticed that the lettering on the icon was in Armenian, which suggested that he must be an Armenian saint. I only had fifty dollars on me, and assumed that the icon would be far beyond what I could afford. I tried to wander on, but the stern-faced holy man kept drawing me back. In the end I gave in, and tried to convey by sign language to the two ancient stall-holders that I was interested in the icon. One of them called to a younger man with dark glasses and a black leather jacket, who had a smattering of English. I asked him the price of the icon. “Sixty dollars,” he said. “Fifty,” I suggested nervously. He agreed, and mumbled something about “Grigor” as he slipped the icon into a plastic bag. I assumed that he meant that the icon was of St Gregory the Illuminator, though every picture that I had seen of the latter showed him wearing an enormous Armenian mitre, whereas the saint on the icon was bare headed.

A couple of days later I found out his identity. With the help of a dictionary I had worked out that the inscription said ‘St Gregory the Ascetic’. Then I came across a picture almost identical to the icon on the cover of a small French volume. Its title informed me that he was ‘Grégoire de Narek’. On the way back from dinner that evening I found a café-bookshop that was still open, and was able to purchase a copy of Thomas Samuelian’s translation of the prayer-poems of St Grigor Narekatsi. The Narek has been my spiritual companion ever since, while the icon still gazes down on me from my study wall.

Admittedly I’m entirely dependent on English and French versions of Narekatsi’s work. One of my sons kindly tracked down a copy of Annie and Jean-Pierre Mahé’s scholarly French translation and gave it to me as a surprise Christmas present after my first visit to Armenia. As a translator of poetry myself, I’m well aware of the way in which the subtleties and nuances of a language can easily be distorted or lost altogether in translation. Nevertheless, even through reading Grigor Narekatsi’s masterpiece at second hand, I have come to realise why Professor Mahé set him alongside St Francis and the Buddha as one of the great comforters of the human spirit.

Grigor Narekatsi described his ‘new book of psalms’ as being composed ‘for all thinking people the world over, expressing all human passions and serving with its images as an encyclopaedic companion to our human condition, for the entire, mixed congregation of the Church universal’. On the face of it, this might seem to be an absurd ambition for a tenth century monk by a lakeside in the remote and fragile kingdom of Vaspurakan, writing in medieval Armenian. Yet there is a language from the depths of the heart, rooted in profound religious experience that transcends the limitations of time and space. That may be the reason why Grigor Narekatsi is still able to be the rather improbable but very effective spiritual companion and guide of an aging twenty-first century Welsh clergyman.

Initially Narekatsi’s searing self-analysis comes as a shock to someone softened by the ego-massaging, self-affirming nature of most contemporary spirituality. Grigor allows no space for self-deception. He probes and penetrates the darkest corners of human consciousness with a skilful use of paradox and a sometimes overwhelming exuberance of imagery informed by a profound knowledge of Scripture. At first this may seem quite shattering and deeply negative. But then the light bursts through. Grigor Narekatsi may be aware that his faults and failings, if put on the scales would outweigh Mount Ararat, and yet, nevertheless, God’s love through the crucified Christ constantly reaches out to rescue him.

Praying the Narek is, by its very nature, intensely personal. It goes far deeper than the cold analysis of a literary text. My experience of it therefore is inevitably subjective, shaped by my own personal circumstances. For me it has been an invaluable spiritual guide and a constant source of consolation. On the eve of my first visit to Armenia I was summoned to see Dean Wyn Evans (who has since become my Bishop) for one of those appraisals that have crept into almost every area of employment by now. He concluded his advice by saying, “What you really need is a new spiritual director”. Not long after my return I was able to inform him that I had found someone to take on the task. He was rather less impressed when he discovered that my new spiritual director was a tenth century Armenian monk. Since then, of course, St Grigor Narekatsi has been proclaimed as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis, so perhaps Bishop Wyn may feel more kindly about my choice.

Something else that I acquired on my first pilgrimage to the land beyond Ararat was a love of the miniature paintings in Armenian manuscripts. They remain a source of joy and delight. I’ve long had a fondness for religious art. It often seems to me a far more effective way of conveying theological concepts than the writing of enormous tomes in impenetrable language. The treasures in the Matenadaran were therefore a glorious discovery. Two artists in particular made a lasting impression on me. One was the prolific Cilician miniature painter Sargis Pitsak, whose unique style is immediately recognisable. His clearly delineated figures, set against a gold background, combine serenity and individuality. It is astonishing to think that such calm and detailed masterpieces were produced at a time when Cilician Armenia was subject to enormous external and internal pressure, and chaos constantly threatened to overwhelm it.

The other artist who caught my eye came from Vaspurakan, and lived at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century. Tzerun’s miniatures are much simpler and more cartoon-like than those of Sargis Pitsak, but have a remarkable vivacity and charm. One of my favourites shows the wedding at Cana, with a cross-eyed groom in an amazing Mongol hat, who has clearly already been imbibing energetically, and is now delighted to receive the water miraculously turned into excellent wine. Wandering through the duty free in Zvartnots airport I was overjoyed to see that an enterprising wine producer had used Tzerun’s Cana miniature on the label of one of his bottles. I couldn’t resist buying it. It was rather good.

The traditional architecture of Armenian churches was also a wonderful discovery. If I was asked to nominate the most aesthetically pleasing exterior of any building that I have ever seen, I would probably choose the church of St Hripsime in Etchmiadzin. It has a simplicity and purity of line that is echoed by many other Armenian church buildings. From the outside the dome is a reminder of Mount Ararat, while from the inside it becomes the vault of heaven from which divine light descends. Beneath the dome is the cruciform church. The symbolic message is both that the light of heaven enables us to endure the cross, and that through the cross we can be drawn to heaven.

The solidity of the building emphasises not just the resilience of Armenian faith, but also the very practical reality that the church is built to be earthquake-proof. As I mentioned earlier, part of one of my own churches had recently collapsed. Large stones had fallen from a height of forty feet or more onto the place where I had been saying my prayers a couple of hours before. It had been an object lesson in the dubious methods used by the worst kind of Victorian church-builders. I was therefore both fascinated and impressed to learn about early Armenian concrete, which involved the use of egg-white to bind together the rubble that fills the space between the blocks of pastel-coloured tuff that form the inner and outer shell of the walls. Had such a technique been used in building my church, I suspect that it wouldn’t have fallen down.

Armenians have often been described as ‘the people of the cross,’ and an awareness of what they have suffered across the centuries, and particularly during the Genocide, was something else that I brought home from that first pilgrimage. Since then I have acquired some dear Armenian friends, and several of them have told me heart-breaking stories about the impact of the Genocide on their families. It was partly out of respect for them that I decided to write a book about the Armenian Genocide as a part of Wales’ contribution to the 2015 centenary commemorations.

There were also two other reasons. Over the past few years I had been asked to give addresses and talks about Armenia and the Armenians to a wide variety of different organisations in South and West Wales. Inevitably I would mention the Genocide, and the response was almost always the same. Members of the audience looked horrified and said, “But we’ve never heard about this before – no one has ever mentioned it.” There was an obvious need for education. People would not recognise the true nature of the appalling events of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey if they were completely unaware of them.

And yet, of course, there are still those (most notably the Turkish authorities) who continue to deny the reality of the genocide of Armenians. A genocide denied and deliberately swept under the carpet encourages future perpetrators of genocide. Making an admittedly very small contribution to try to ensure that this did not happen was my third motive for writing the book. As I tapped away at my laptop in the summer of 2014, the news bulletins were full of horrifying reports from the territories occupied by Daesh, the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Many of them mentioned places in northern Syria that I was writing about, like Rakka and Deir Zor. The fear that history was beginning to repeat itself was very real.

The book was not intended to be a ground-breakingly original work. It did however have to be carefully researched. As an American Armenian historian recently pointed out, the documentary and eye-witness evidence for the Genocide is so vast that it would take over a lifetime to read it all. Fortunately a great deal of the most important material is now readily accessible even to a writer marooned in West Wales.  I was able to draw on the authoritative scholarship of Ara Sarafian, Raymond Kévorkian, Wolfgang Gust, Taner Akçam, Verjiné Svazlian, Richard Hovannisian and a great many others, as the foundation for the book.

My task was to create a readable account which would be accessible to those who had previously known next to nothing about the subject. My publisher, Myrddin ap Dafydd of Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, is a distinguished Welsh poet whose list normally consists of Welsh-language books and books about Wales in English. He had, however, published my earlier effort, From Carmarthen to Karabagh – a Welsh Discovery of Armenia, which had proved unexpectedly successful. He was also extremely sympathetic towards the Armenians. Myrddin agreed, without any hesitation, to accept Remembering the Armenian Genocide, and the book was also awarded a publication grant by the Welsh Books Council (which means that there was a sense in which it was actually subsidised, albeit indirectly, by the British government).

Stalin is reputed to have said that ‘the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic’. When genocide takes place on a massive scale there is always the danger that each of those individual tragedies may lose its true significance. On my first visit to the Genocide Museum in Yerevan I found the statistics of the vast numbers killed in the different provinces appalling. The numbers were so great that they left me numb. Yet what made an even more profound impression was seeing a single skull of an Armenian victim, brought back from the Syrian desert. It was a reminder that every one of those killed in the Genocide was an infinitely precious human being: somebody’s mother or father, uncle or aunt, brother or sister, daughter or son.

Much of the raw material for the volume was profoundly distressing. When the book appeared one reviewer described it as a ‘harrowing account’. Several people told me that they had started reading it, and then had to put it aside for a time before feeling able to finish it, because of some of the events that were described. A Canadian priest told me that he is hardly ever reduced to tears by a book, but that he had wept openly while reading some of the passages in Remembering the Armenian Genocide. Yet what I described was only a brief glimpse of the terrifying reality.

The book was launched in the Pierhouse Building of the National Assembly of Wales on the afternoon of 24th April 2015. For me the most memorable and moving part of the occasion came when Dr Ara Kanekanian read a translation of a poem written by his father, an orphan of the Genocide. It described a nightmare in which he relived the horrors that he had seen as a small child. They were things that no child anywhere in the world should ever have to witness. The poem was a stark reminder of why the Armenian Genocide should never be denied or forgotten.

Yet thankfully, despite its hideous reality, the Genocide failed. Although Enver and Talaat’s ambition to create an ‘Armenia without Armenians’ was tragically fulfilled in Western Armenia, the Armenians have survived. It is not for nothing that the quintessential Armenian symbol is the khatchkar, combining as it does the Cross of suffering with the Tree of Life. There is an austere simplicity about the ninth century khatchkars, with their simple crosses beginning to sprout leaves. The form develops into the breathtaking complexity of the thirteenth century masterpieces of Poghos and Momik with their astonishingly detailed lace-like designs. And then there are the tall, slender, delicately carved late sixteenth and early seventeenth century khatchkars  from Nakhichevan, almost all of which have been deliberately destroyed by the Azeris. Despite such shameful vandalism, the khatchkar remains a powerful sign of hope and resurrection. It reflects not only Armenian faith but also Armenian resilience.

Coming so unexpectedly into contact with Armenians and Armenian culture and spirituality has been an enormous privilege. The Armenian Badarak is the most beautiful liturgy that I have ever experienced, and whenever I attend it its music echoes in my mind for days afterwards. Despite the tragedies that their people have suffered across the centuries, my Armenian friends are among the most joyful and generous-hearted people that I’ve ever met – and it goes without saying that Armenians dance with an exuberance that is rarely come across elsewhere. Underlying it all is that astonishing resilience which the khatchkar symbolises so powerfully.

I mentioned earlier that the motion to recognise the Armenian genocide was presented to Gwynedd County Council by the folk-singer turned politician Dafydd Iwan. One of Dafydd Iwan’s most popular songs begins by referring to Magnus Maximus, or Macsen Wledig as he’s known in Welsh. He left Britain in 383, taking his legions with him, in an abortive attempt to become Emperor of Rome. For the Welsh folk-singer and many others, 383 was the date when the Romano-Britons became the Welsh. The song’s chorus goes:

Ry’n ni yma o hyd!
Er gwaetha’ pawb a phopeth,
Ry’n ni yma o hyd!

[‘We’re still here! In spite of everyone and everything, we’re still here!]

The same is also true of the Armenians. In spite of Tamerlane, Abdul Hamid, Talaat and similar monsters the Armenians have survived. As for those of us who have the privilege of being friends of Armenia and Armenians, perhaps Mr Gladstone put it best when he said, “to serve the Armenians is to serve civilization.”

Շնորհակալ եմ։  Thank you for listening so patiently.

Patrick Thomas