A community with a long history of shaping our capital is now gone
Michael Joseph Martin, the last of the Armenians of Dhaka, passed away recently and with him the story of the Armenians in Dhaka becomes history.
Dhaka is a living, breathing entity that grows and changes with time. It is influenced and shaped by the many different people who have come here, made their lives here, and have become part of the city. Some of those people are no longer part of Dhaka, but their influences live on. The Armenian community is one such group.
The Armenians were once a wealthy and influential community in Bengal. They had settled in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Armenians were willing to learn the local language and soon became intermediaries between Bengalis and Europeans. The Armenian merchants established businesses in Kolkata, Dhaka, and Narayanganj.
They built Armenian churches and thriving settlements. They built a little Armenia in each of these cities. They engaged in the trade of jute, silk, textile, and leather.
The area they lived in Dhaka became known as Armanitola, the place of Armenians. In 1747, it was estimated that Armenian merchants were responsible for at least 23% of the textiles exported from Dhaka.
The community had significant economic and political clout in Bengal. Nicholas Pogose, an Armenian businessman, was a founding member of the Dhaka municipality. He founded the Pogose School, the first private school in Dhaka. The school is one of the best and most prestigious schools in Old Dhaka today.
Herbert Michael Shircore, another Armenian businessman, had served as the chairman of the Narayangaj municipality. He was awarded the Order of the Indian Empire, Companion.
The Armenians were the first to establish European-style grocery stores in Dhaka, where they sold European-made goods catering to the European residents of Dhaka. Sushil Chaudhury, in his book Trade, Politics and Society: The Indian Milieu in the Early Modern Era, credits the Armenian grocers with helping make tea popular in Dhaka. Today tea is the drink of choice for social gatherings and addas.
Michael was the sole custodian of the Armenian Church of Holy Resurrection, which was founded in 1781 in Armanitola, the heart of the Armenian community in Dhaka.
Michael was born on June 6, 1930 in Rangoon, Burma when it was part of British India. His father was Armenian while his mother was Parsi. His family, like many Armenian families, was engaged in the jute trade and moved to Dhaka in the 1940s. Michael became the custodian of the church in 1986, a position he held till 2014.
During his tenure, he led prayers at the church, maintained it, and had Mother Teresa. After the death of his wife in 2014, he moved to Canada. Armen Arslanian, the warden of the church, has been taking care of the church alone since then, but he does not reside in Dhaka.
With the passing of Michael, the last member of this once thriving community, a chapter closes on the history of Dhaka. Today, the institutions they built, like the Pogose School and the Armenian Church are what remain of this community.
Today the neighbourhood of Armanitola contains no Armenians, like Farashganj (French town) contains no French speakers. The Armenian Church has no worshipers. The church now stands as a monument to the community that once thrived in Dhaka and helped shape the city.
The legacy of the Armenian community lives through the cuisine and institutions they founded. The history of the Armenian community is being preserved by the Bangladesh Armenian Heritage Project and its lead researcher, Liz Chater. The church is now a historic building under the government Department of Archaeology.
The Armenian community may no longer be here, but their influence will always be here as an immutable part of Dhaka’s identity.
Mahir Abrar is Lecturer, American International University-Bangladesh.