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The Armenian Apostolic Church of
St. John The Baptist
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No history of this church could be written without mentioning the importance of the Armenian traders to the East.
In the late sixteenth century the Armenians in Julfa, in what was then Caucasian Armenia, were driven out by Shah Abbas I of Persia (ruled 1587-1629) and the country was divided up with the Ottoman Turks. Although many Armenians were killed, the merchants of Julfa were given land on the outskirts of Isfahan and encouraged to settle there. Their settlement was christened 'New Julfa,' and here in the 1640's, a traveller describes it:
"Zulpha [Julfa] ...is so much encreas'd for some years since, that it may now pass for a large City, being almost a League and a half long, and near upon half as much broad. There are two principal streets which
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contain near upon the whole length, one whereof has on each side a row of Tchinars, the roots whereof are refresh'd by a small Channel of Water, which by a particular order the Armenians bring to the City, to water their Gardens. The most part of the other streets have also a row of Trees and a Channel and for their houses, they are generally better built, and more cheerful than those of Ispahan."
(Tavernier, Jean Baptiste, The Six Voyages... Through Turkey, into Persia and the East Indies, for the Space of Forty Years, London, 1677.)
Another traveller of the same era, Sir John Chardin, wrote:
"He [Shah Abbas I] brought into the Capital City a Colony of Armenians, who were a Laborious and Industrious people, and had nothing in the World when they came there; but in the space of thirty years they grew so exceeding rich, that there were above three score Merchants among them, who, one with another, we're worth from an hundred thousand Crowns, to two Millions, in money and merchandise."
What was the reason for their success? Shah Abbas had a raw silk industry that he wanted to expand. The Shah's intention to use the Armenians for the advancement of his silk industry was not an accident of war but a purposeful act, as evidenced by the fact that the accompanying peasantry turfed out of old Julfa were immediately put to work in the silk industry.
The Armenian merchants, known as 'Khojas,' had an extensive trading network that reached across most of the world. From their strategically located homeland they travelled routes from the Mediterranean and Black seas to reach Europe, including Venice, Amsterdam and London. Other routes travelled through Central Asia to China, north to Russia and southeast to India , Burma and Southeast Asia. They also travelled by sea from eastern Africa on the Indian Ocean and all the way to the Philippine Islands in the Pacific. One of the most well known ship owners was Khoja Minas.
Many centuries of upheaval in their homeland had not affected their trading abilities, so by the end of the 16th century their reputation as honourable (if somewhat astute) traders and reps. for major European commercial interests in the silk and cloth trade was set. Their methods were to settle trusted family members in key trading ports and cities and build cordial relationships with the inhabitants.
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The Armenian merchants were known for their proficiency in languages, and often took on duties as official interpreters for the rulers of the lands they traded in. Burma was no exception. Some examples:
Makertich J. Mines
Governor of Mellon and customs collector at Pegu, under the reign of King Mindon Minn. He also acted as the interpreter for the 1855 English mission to The court of Ava and was called a Woondouk. Born in Isfahan in 1809, died in Burma in the 1860's.
John Sarkies Manook
Kalawoon or Foreign Minister for King Mindon Minn and was in Mandalay after his successor, King Thibaw was crowned. Manook's wife, Sarah was a Burmese woman who was a cousin of King Thibaw's mother, the Laungshwe Princess. His daughter, Hosannah was the European lady in waiting to Queen Supalayat's court. The Manook family escaped in 1878 to Rangoon. Sarah died in 1894, John in 1899. Hosannah married a cousin, Isaiah Manook. She died during Japanese occupation in 1943.
Other important Armenians:-
A. Khoja Kallendar
Negotiated a treaty with the East India Company in 1688, giving Armenian traders in the East all the rights of British subjects and the right to a church if forty or more members were resident in the community.
The Sarkies brothers
In the early 1900's they built the Strand Hotel in Rangoon and Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Shafraz Road, Rangoon
Named after an Armenian contractor and builder when the city was laid out in the 1850's.
The Balthazar family, Rangoon
Were important auctioneers, traders and commission agents with premises in Phayre street, from the 1880's until 1941, when they escaped the bombing and left two Minuses in temporary charge.
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The Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist, Rangoon:-
This church is the second to be built by the Armenian community. The first one was not far away on the site of the Law courts, built by Gregory Avas with local bricks and a wooden spire, in ca 1766. This was most likely a grant of land from the East India Company, who were so desperate to get their hands on Persian silk they rashly granted all Armenian traders and their families the right to be treated as British subjects in every way, as well as to be given free land for a wooden church to be built at the EIC's expense if they numbered more than 40, until the community could erect a church of a more substantial nature. There were other churches in Syriam, Mandalay and Ava, but no trace of these remain.
A traveller in 1836 thought Rangoon was nothing but a 'neglected swamp,' with huts of thatch and bamboo, a few wooden houses and only five small brick places of worship - an Armenian church, 3 mosques and a Roman Catholic Church. The only other large building was the brick, wood and thatch house of Mr. Manook, the most important Armenian merchant.
The Government of India sent Lt.-Col. A. P. Phayre (later Sir Arthur Phayre) to oversee the building of a new city on the swampy site of Rangoon in the early 1850's and all existing land immediately became the property of the government. People were allowed to stay, or even squat on unoccupied lots, paying rent, until the government had drawn out the city plan - then the lots would be up for sale or lease. Despite many petitions or 'memorials,' as they were called, proving previous contracts, land sales and grants, all deals were off. Instead, a free grant of land was given to all churches, exempt of purchase price and exempt from taxation. The Armenians were given a site on the southwest corner of Merchant and Sparks streets.
All the records of this church have been lost, so we do not know who designed it. The land was given ca 1853 and the church was consecrated on July 17th 1863. The officiating priest was Rev’d. Fr. Aviet Chaytor.
It makes the most of a high roof and Gothic arch pointed windows. The concessions to the tropical climate are the covered entrance porch and side porch, which serve in both the hot sun and torrential monsoon rains. The pews are not solid, but cane seated, another nod to the heat. The bell, which is still rung by hand during the weekly Sunday service, was cast in England. The roof was redesigned in 1908/9.
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My daughter and I visited the church in January, 2013. The only remaining congregation are a father and daughter, Richard and Rachel Minus, who are my distant cousins (Richard's great grandfather and mine were brothers.)
Some of my relatives:
Inside the covered entrance porch are some memorials:-
Arakiel Mackertich and Woscoom Minus – My great grandparents.
They had only one son, Mackertich Arakiel Minus, my grandfather, and seven daughters. Mackertich and his wife, Lily Howard, were married here in September 1920.
His funeral was here in September 1948.
The memorial is to those daughters and their children who were caught up completely unprepared, as many people in Rangoon were, by the Japanese invasion in 1942. Rangoon was bombed on Dec. 23rd1941 and again on Christmas Day.
Overnight, thousands of Indians left the city, people who worked on the docks, cleared sewage drains, garbage collectors, laundrymen and other workers. The city was on fire - but there were not enough firemen. Shops were closed. Communications were down. No word of what to do until Feb. 20th 1942, when the evacuation notices went up.
Animals were released from the zoo, except the dangerous ones, which were shot.
A decision was made to free all the prisoners in Insein Prison, as well as the inmates of the lunatic asylum. The man who made that decision was so aghast at the results he committed suicide.
Into this maelstrom my relatives, sisters of my grandfather Mackertich and their children, decided to get out to India. There were no boats and the trains were packed. I do not know if they walked all the way, but it
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seems likely. They took the Hukawng Valley route, which was a death trap, forging through thick jungle, picking off leeches, drinking tainted water and starving, suffering from malaria and dysentery. The ones that made it to India got there months later. The ones that didn't are commemorated on this plaque.
Here, for posterity, is a little bit more about them:
Connie Abraham, nee Minus and her four children. Her husband, Vahoo survived, but was so distraught at his loss he had a nervous breakdown and was in and out of the sanatorium. He helped my grandfather and uncle Arthur find work in Rangoon after the war.
Gladys Lawson (nee Minus) and her two children. Patricia was killed by Kachin rebels at Daikpone, according to an eyewitness.
Ester Minus, unmarried, died on the hill route from Sumprabum to Shinbwiyang, reported Nov. 1942.
Phyllis Fairley (nee Seymour, daughter of Bertha, below) and Donald Fairley: no other information.
Terence and Cyril Seymour: one aged 17, reported killed by Kachin rebels by the same eyewitness. Their mother, my great aunt Bertha Seymour (nee Minus) survived and returned to Rangoon and helped my uncle Arthur when he returned.
Priests and others who served the Church:
The records have been lost, so I looked in Thacker's Directories transcribed by the Anglo-Burmese Library and found names for various years. The list is not complete and the spellings are as found in the directories:-
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This potted history by Sharman can also be found at:-