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.”
Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.
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|Friday, 10 January, 2003, 15:30 GMT
The mission of Dhaka’s last Armenian
Once a thriving community in South Asia, the number of Armenians has dwindled to such an extent that in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka only one man remains.He is known by his Anglicised name of Michael Joseph Martin.
When Mr Martin, 73, dies, it will not only mark the end of an era, but will throw into doubt the future of one of Dhaka’s most beautiful churches.
Nestling in one of the busiest parts of Old Dhaka, Armenian Street used to be a thriving business area, but its Armenian community has vanished.
Little evidence remains of its presence, even though centuries ago Armenians were at the heart of Bengal’s jute and leather trade.
But one prominent Armenian landmark does remain.
It is an 18th century church, described by visitors who explore it as a haven amid the traffic chaos and crowded streets outside.
Yet its future is uncertain.
The caretaker Mr Martin, whose Armenian name is Mikel Housep Martirossian, lovingly preserves the building against the ravages of the weather and pollution.
He keeps the centuries-old births, deaths and marriages register and looks after the ancient tombstones that chronicle the history of the Armenian community in Bengal.
But when Mr Martin dies, there will be no more Armenians to look after the church.
”Whatever happens I’m determined not to let this church go to rack and ruin,” he says.
”I may be the last resident Armenian in Bangladesh, but I will do everything in my power to ensure that an Armenian from abroad takes over the job I have been doing. Otherwise centuries of tradition will be disappear overnight.”
The church’s graveyard is like a giant history book, chronicling the history of the Armenian people in the region.
Armenians – like Bengalis – are renowned for their love of trading.
They are believed to have arrived in the region in the 12th century.
”This person died on the high seas, they were killed by pirates,” says Mr Martin, pointing at two gravestones that carry carvings of a skull and crossbones.
”They were Armenians and their bodies were brought and buried over here in 1783.”
Pointing at another gravestone he says: ”This man’s father married into the British royal family, and he did the same thing. They had money and power, and were also the biggest jute merchants in the country.
”But that couldn’t stop their children from dying of diphtheria. In the 18th century even minor royals couldn’t save the lives of the children.”
The interior of the church is looking a little the worse for wear after numerous robberies, but the central attractions – portraits of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper – remain.
They are believed to have been done by a prominent European artist.
The church may be rooted in history, but it is located in one of the busiest parts of the city.
Roads nearby are so crowded that services cannot be held during the working week because the multi-denominational expatriate congregation would never get there on time.
But even if it is no longer possible to hold regular services, Mr Martin says the future of this valuable piece of history will be secured.
Until someone is found among the Armenian community abroad, he says he will carry on as caretaker.
”While most Armenians have left Bangladesh, as the last to remain it’s my mission in life to make sure this relic from a bygone age will not be allowed to disappear.”