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 Friday, 10 January, 2003, 15:30 GMT
The mission of Dhaka's last Armenian
Dhaka church
The church is a quiet haven in the noisy metropolis
Alastair Lawson

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.

Michael Joseph Martin
Whatever happens, I'm determined not to let this church go to rack and ruin

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.

Chronicle

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.

Church graveyard
Mr Martin tends the tombstones that chronicle Armenian life

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.''

Pirate deaths

The church's graveyard is like a giant history book, chronicling the history of the Armenian people in the region.

Dhaka church
Mr Martin tries to counter the ravages of weather and pollution

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.''

Busy location

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.

I may be the last resident Armenian in Bangladesh, but I will do everything in my power to ensure an Armenian from abroad takes over the job

Michael Martin

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."

See also:

16 Dec 02 | South Asia
10 Dec 02 | South Asia
30 Oct 02 | South Asia
05 Oct 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
01 Oct 02 | South Asia
01 Jun 02 | South Asia
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