BY MATTHEW KARANIAN and ROBERT KURKJIAN
We had just arrived in central Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, when we noticed there was no sky.
Or, more precisely, we noticed that the blue part of the sky was missing. The midday sun appeared as a giant ball of fire filtered through a thick stew of smoke and sand-brown dust.
The streets, by contrast, appeared to be rivers of green.
Swarms of three-wheeled vehicles, each painted the same shade of dark green, raced through the streets like bands of mosquitoes searching for prey.
The daring drivers of these motorized tricycles darted left and right through the streets and alleys—and sometimes the sidewalks—of Dhaka, taking their passengers through a thicket that might otherwise be impassable.
These tiny two-passenger vehicles are known as CNGs to the people of Bangladesh. Apparently this is because there’s a small sticker on the rear of each of them that says CNG. That, and maybe because they are fueled by natural gas.
Whatever their name, they’re nimble, they’re agile, and the fare to ride is just pennies—a few Bangladeshi “takas.” So, with just one afternoon free from the humanitarian work that had brought us to Bangladesh, we set off in a CNG in search of the most anomalous of Bangladeshi sites: an old Armenian church.
As we left the heart of Dhaka and headed out toward the direction of the church, the modernity of the city diminished. With each passing kilometer, the streets of Dhaka became older, more narrow, more crowded, and more chaotic.
By the time we approached the Armenian church, in a neighborhood in Old Dhaka that is known as Armentola, on a road called Armenia Street, the wide avenues on which we had started our journey had narrowed to alleys that were perhaps best suited for rickshaws and motorized tricycles.
Shops hawking everything from light bulbs to watermelon to hot plates of rice and chicken tika lined these alleys, further restricting the room for our three-wheeled vehicle to maneuver around the rickshaws and the throngs of people.
Some of the shops in the Armentola neighborhood are owned by the Armenian church of Dhaka, and are leased to shopkeepers. The rent from the shops helps pay for the upkeep of the church.
And just across the street from these shops stood the jarring site that we had come to survey: the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection.
The site has its share of superlatives. It’s the only Armenian church in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country. It’s also one of the oldest Christian sites in the country.
Most jarring of all: the church is empty. The last surviving member of Dhaka’s Armenian community died a couple of years ago.
And so we wondered: why does a country with no Armenians have a functioning Armenian church? For the answer, we turned to couple of Armenians who live not in Dhaka, but in Los Angeles and London.
Recent Travails of the Church
Armen Arslanian is an Armenian American from Los Angeles who travels frequently to Dhaka for business. He was there in 2010 when he says he “discovered” the church.
He also discovered that the church had a caretaker, an old Armenian man known to all as Michael Martin. Mr. Martin was born in Burma (now Myanmar) as Mikhael Mardirossian, and then moved to Dhaka, where he assumed the role of savior of the church.
When Mr. Martin arrived in Dhaka, the Armenian church was derelict and empty. The building and surrounding grounds were the last surviving relics of the centuries-old Armenian community of Bangladesh.
So Mr. Martin assumed control of the church. He took possession of it—literally. And he saved the building from destruction or, equally likely, from seizure by thieves who might want to take title to the valuable property.
“Mr. Martin, he was a hero,” Arslanian told me during a phone conversation a few weeks before I made my journey to Bangladesh.
“He could have taken the church and put everything in his name. But he didn’t. He was a true Armenian,” said Arslanian.
Mr. Martin maintained the vacant church. He made repairs. And he stayed on the property, serving as a deterrent to those who might try to take up residence, or assert ownership, of an otherwise abandoned property.
During one of Arslanian’s business trips to Dhaka in 2013, Arslanian arrived to discover that the elderly Mr. Martin had just had a stroke. Mr. Martin knew that he needed to find someone to take over the upkeep and care of the church.
Mr. Martin liked Arslanian. He trusted Arslanian. And there weren’t exactly a lot of others to whom he could turn for help. So Mr. Martin selected Arslanian to fill his role. Arslanian has been managing the affairs of the church ever since.
By all accounts, Mr. Martin—the man who passed the baton to Arslanian—was a bit of an eccentric.
Liz Chater offers some perspective. Chater is an Armenian who lives in the UK and who discovered her Armenian roots later in life. She has never traveled to Dhaka, but she nevertheless is active in the cultural preservation of the church.
She connected with Arslanian through social media several years ago, after Arslanian had posted about the church. They found that they had a shared interest in the preservation and study of the church’s heritage.
I spoke to Chater by phone shortly before I traveled to Dhaka. I had wanted to know how this centuries-old Armenian church had managed to survive for so many years without a parish to support it.
The answer, it seems, was Mr. Martin, a reclusive old man who was suspicious of everyone. “It took a lot to get him to trust you,” Chater told me.
This suspicion may have served him well. Arslanian describes the challenges of doing business in Dhaka. “One of the main threats is local groups stealing land,” he said.
And the challenges that confronted Mr. Martin as he tried to hang on to the church?
“He was isolated there,” says Arslanian. He was the last Armenian.
“He would tell me about his fears for the [survival of the] church.” He feared that powerful local groups, or even the government, might seize it, said Arslanian.
Arslanian and the elderly Mr. Martin “clicked,” says Arslanian.
After his stroke, an ailing Mr. Martin said to Arslanian “here are the titles, here are the documents, here are the keys. He put all that trust in me” to assure that the site would be preserved as an Armenian site. “I was honored,” said Arslanian.
A short time later, Arslanian hired a Dhaka law firm to make sure title to the church was secure. He set up a trust that took ownership of the site. Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church, is the beneficiary.
The church had been saved. But there was still much work to do.
“The church was really run down and neglected,” said Chater. “Mr. Martin was pivotal in the rescue of the church, but he had no money. The walls were collapsing.”
Now that the ownership was secure, Chater and Arslanian oversaw repairs. They fixed the walls, and the roof. They repaired the windows. And they secured the gate. Now that repairs have been made, “it’s got a very secure future,” says Chater.
History of the Armenian Church in Dhaka
Armenians first settled this region in the early 1700s, and by 1781 they had erected the church that now stands in Dhaka, on a parcel of land that had served as Dhaka’s Armenian cemetery. Many of the tombstones from that era have survived, and now flank the church.
Chater took an interest in the history of the tombstones, researched them, and eventually published a book about their history.
The oldest of the tombstones marks the grave of an Armenian merchant named Avietes and is dated August 15, 1714. It was in this graveyard that the early Armenians of Dhaka built their first chapel. When the community grew, they razed the chapel and replaced it with the church that stands today.
At its zenith, the Armenian community had a population of about 300. Despite the community’s small size, it played a large role in business life in Dhaka and it was influential in the city’s affairs.
The community had all but vanished by the 1980s, and eventually only Mr. Martin would remain, as the church’s sole caretaker. He was also the last surviving member of the Armenian community. When he died in 2020, the day to day care of the church building was passed on to a local Bangladeshi, a 63-year old man named Shankar Ghosh.
We met Mr. Ghosh when we visited the church in February. He was warm and effusive and insisted on showing us around. We also happened to meet his adult grandson, who was also at the church that day.
Mr. Ghosh is not Armenian. He is Hindu. His connection to this church dates back to 1985, when Mr. Martin invited him to become a live-in caretaker for the church. He’s lived there ever since.
On the day of our visit, Mr. Ghosh greeted us at the church gate, and ushered us onto the grounds. “Sign the book, sign the book,” he urged us, so that he could have a record of our visit in the guest book.
Several other visitors were at the church on the day of our visit—an ordinary weekday afternoon. “It’s a prime tourist spot,” Chater had told me. “It’s popular with the Instagram people,” she said. “And we also get backpackers.” I saw that she was correct.
And each week on Thursdays, the church gets hundreds of local visitors. This is the day when the church sponsors a food distribution program—a soup kitchen of sorts, for the neighborhood’s needy people. “We call it Mr. Martin’s Food Drive. Mothers come with their babies in their arms,” says Arslanian. The babies receive milk. The others receive full meals. Funding comes in part from the rent on the properties that the church owns.
And sometime soon, perhaps in the next few months, the church will receive a resident priest. “It’s a done deal,” says Arslanian. “Echmiadzin [the seat of the Armenian Church] has already agreed.”
The priest will be in residence at the church in Dhaka for most of each month, but will also be available to tend to the needs of the Armenian communities of Singapore and Myanmar. “It’s just a 40 minute flight to Myanmar,” says Arslanian. “And they already have a beautiful [Armenian] church there.”
Bringing in a resident priest will help raise the profile of the church. Arslanian says he would like the church to add an educational program for the neighborhood children. Even without a congregation, the resident priest will be busy with community outreach, says Arslanian.
And of course there’s also the matter of maintaining the physical structure of the church building, itself.
“People [from out of town] are astounded that there’s a church in Bangladesh, and what brilliant condition it’s in,” says Chater.
But for the people of Dhaka, there’s a bit less astonishment. For them, the church is an established part of the community.
How established? In 2001 the Bangladesh Post Office commemorated the history of the Armenian church of Dhaka with a postage stamp. (Armenia’s post office released its own stamp—21 years later).
This was the answer to our question. Dhaka has an Armenian church because it’s part of the country’s heritage. Proud Armenians have maintained the church for more than 200 years. And the people of Dhaka have accepted the Armenians.
Robert Kurkjian, a scientist, is a board member of the international humanitarian organization Chemists Without Borders. Their mission in Bangladesh is to test wells for arsenic and to develop water sharing programs so that residents will have access to safer sources of water.
Matthew Karanian, a lawyer, served as a policy specialist on the project in Bangladesh with Kurkjian and Chemists Without Borders.
Robert Kurkjian and Matthew Karanian had traveled to the Armenian church during a humanitarian trip to Bangladesh, where they worked on a project to bring safer water to Bangladesh’s rural communities.
Bangladesh Neighborhood, Yerevan
There’s a neighborhood in Yerevan that everyone calls Bangladesh.
It looks nothing like the country of Bangladesh. The people who live there are Armenian. And the architecture is more or less what you’d expect to see in Armenia.
There’s also no community of Bangladeshis who live in Yerevan, certainly not in numbers that would warrant naming a community after them.
So why do Armenians refer to the Malatia-Sebastia district of Yerevan by the nickname Bangladesh?
Ask someone today in Yerevan and they will be likely to tell you what I was told whenever I asked. The neighborhood is called Bangladesh because it’s far from the center of Yerevan, and getting there is inconvenient.
The nickname gained traction right around the time that Bangladesh became an independent state, some fifty years ago. This has led some to speculate that the nickname was intended to honor the new republic. I’m not aware of any other newly-independent states being so honored in Armenia, so I’ll go with the far, far away theory.
For an Armenian tribute to Bangladesh that’s a bit easier to understand, look to Hay Post, the Armenian post office. They released a postage stamp last year that commemorates the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The stamp has a face value of 320 dram, which is enough to pay the rate for mailing a letter from Yerevan to the neighborhood (but not the country) of Bangladesh.