First Christian Nation

When searching for information about the Armenian language, one fact about Mesrob Mashdotz drew my interest. The person who encouraged him to form the alphabet was Sahag the leader of the Armenian Christian Church. As early as the fourth century, Armenia had a growing Christian community and needed the Bible translated into its own language for its believers to flourish. By 433 A.D., scholars completed the translation of the Bible into Armenian. Hmm… How did Armenians even become Christians?

While I knew that the Book of II Kings (chapter 20, sentence 37) in the Bible mentions the land of Armenia (dating its existence around 681 years before Jesus’ birth) and the Book of Acts in the Bible describes the journeys of Paul, the Apostle, to cities of what is the western part of modern day Turkey, I had never learned how the people of Armenia became Christians. A little digging revealed the following story.

The few Armenians that heard about and practiced Christianity between 60 and 301 A.D. were persecuted by the Armenian kings. Late in the third century, a man named Grigor Lousavoritch went to Caesarea. While there, he became a Christian and brought his new faith back to Armenia. His attempts to share his faith landed him in the Armenian king’s dungeon. There Grigor languished for fifteen years. Grigor was suddenly released in 301 A.D. after the king’s sister had a dream. In her dream, an angel told her that their persecution of Christians must stop. Grigor was not only released, but he also baptized the king and his family at their request. Armenia became the first people to adopt Christianity as their national religion.

That means that prior to 1915, Armenians had identified themselves as Christians for one thousand six hundred fourteen years, long before Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia or the Turks even became Muslims.

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Two Pebbles from the Beach of History

How does one tell the story of another people, that isn’t one’s own? By turning over one pebble at a time. When writing fiction based on a people’s history, the writer must figure out which pebbles require his or her attention. How does the writer know which ones to turn over? By sleuthing the answers to specific questions. 

Perpetually curious about Asian folk, in the 1970s I befriended a Vietnamese refugee newly-arrived in the Oregon community where I was living at the time. While my main goal was to help the woman and her family with their adjustment to life in the U.S., I wanted to find out some things about Vietnam, especially the language. I thought it totally unlikely for an Asian country like Vietnam to use Romanized script like English, Spanish, or German did. When my new friend wrote out the Vietnamese words for the the numbers one through ten, the basic colors, and common names for girls and women, I thought, Vietnamese looks like a Frenchman designed the spelling of the vowels  for the Vietnamese language. I decided to research the answer to the question, “Did a Frenchman have anything to do with the formation of the script for the Vietnamese language?”

My delight grew into wonder as I did my research. In the early 1600s, a Frenchman named Alexandre de Rhodes left Portugal to serve as a Jesuit missionary in Japan. Due to the persecution of Christians in Japan, de Rhodes went, instead, to Macao and then Vietnam. He learned Vietnamese and gave the language a Romanized phonetic script called quoc ngu that has been used since. WhenVietnamese rulers exiled Alexandre de Rhodes from their country, he was reassigned by the Jesuits to Persia. De Rhodes, the French linguist who gave the Vietnamese their script, was buried in the Armenian Cemetery of the New Julfa quarter of Isfahan, Persia.

Ten years after I had met the Vietnamese refugee, another question directed the turning over of another pebble. In my English as a Second Language (ESL) night class, one of the Armenian students repeatedly asked, “Teacher, who write English?” At first, his question seemed nonsensical, but he always asked the same question whenever he became frustrated with the spelling of English words. My student was implying, “Whoever developed the English writing and spelling system must have been crazy!” Guessing that the student’s question came out of his knowledge of the history of his own language, I asked myself, “Did a specific person design the Armenian writing and spelling system?” After all a specific person had done that for the Vietnamese language.

Research showed me that, indeed, one man had. Mesrob Mashdots was an Armenian scholar of the Greek, Syrian, and Persian languages. Armenian  up to Mesrob’s time had been an unwritten language. Late in the fourth or early in the fifth century, Mesrob invented the symbols for the seven Armenian vowels. By borrowing symbols from the Greek and Assyrian languages, Mesrob added twenty-nine consonants to form the original thirty-six lettered Armenian alphabet. With the later addition of two letters, this same Armenian alphabet has remained in continuous use for sixteen hundred years. The fact that the Armenian alphabet bears no resemblance to a Romanized script reinforces, in my mind at least, the alphabet’s antiquity.

Two questions, then, had piqued my curiosity, and initiated my research. But they hadn’t as yet compelled me to write a story that must be told. That came later.

A Story Makes a Writer

A tall, slim, ebony-skinned young woman bursts through the door into the dorm room where Carolyn and I are sitting. Tossing her suitcase and backpack onto one vacant bed, the newcomer sinks into the mattress of the next. Flashing her deep brown eyes at Carolyn and me, the young woman declares, “I’m NOT a writer!”

My crooked smile reflecting my disbelief, I protest. “Not a writer? How can that be?” I frown and glance at Carolyn who is still holding her manuscript she has been showing me.

“You say you’re not a writer, ” I continue, “but you are at a writers’ conference. You must have some reason for coming.”

The young woman pushes her black, multi-braided hair behind her shoulders and flops her long, slender hands into her lap. “I do. I believe I have a story to tell.”

My ears tuned by a quarter of a century of listening to English language learners in my classroom, I guess that Carolyn’s roommate hasn’t originated from the east coast of the U.S. from where her day’s flights have brought her. I place her accent as coming from Africa.

“You’ve heard of the genocide in Rwanda, haven’t you?” she asks.

When I nod, she adds, “Well, I’m a survivor of that. My parents were killed…”

My mouth drops open. “I’m sorry. … How old were you when that happened?”

“Thirteen. And I was such a baby. Ididn’t know how to do anything…”

When she hesitates, I suggest, ” … to help yourself?”

She nods.

I put out my hand and introduce myself. “My name’s Patricia. My room is down the hall. And your roommate at this conference is Carolyn.”

The young woman rises to shake my hand and Carolyn’s. “My name is Alphonsine.”

Carolyn and I stumble through the sounds we think we hear, but neither of us gets them right.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. “Could you spell it – your name?”

When Alphonsine does, Carolyn and I get better at pronouncing her name.

“Anyway,” Alphonsine continues, “that’s why I’ve come. I believe I have a story that must be told.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

In fact, most writers write because they have stories that must be told. Sometimes, ordinary people become writers for that very reason.

I, too, have a story that must be told. But, unlike, Alphonsine, the story isn’t my own. It’s another’s.