Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Elyse Semerdjian reviews The Missing Pages

Heghnar Zeitlian WatenpaughThe Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2019. 402 pp.

Review by Elyse Semerdjian

An illuminated manuscript containing the Gospels rests in an archive in Yerevan, Armenia, while eight missing pages of canon tables––concordance lists of related biblical passages––are housed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Missing Pages is Heghnar Watenpaugh’s biography of a “survivor object,” the Zeytun Gospels. The dismembered manuscript is a potent metaphor for the Armenian community scattered across the earth like looted pages during a genocide campaign that began in 1915. The missing canon tables were the subject of a 2010 lawsuit initiated by the Armenian Western Prelacy against the Getty Museum in Los Angeles over ownership of stolen Armenian heritage.

Watenpaugh’s study will be appreciated by audiences hungry for excellent story telling as she unfurls the mystery of how the manuscript was cloven in two and how its legacy spread across seven countries concluding with a lawsuit that left eight missing pages in Los Angeles. The chapters begin with creator Toros Roslin painting the sacred text within Hromkla fortress in 1256, a pristine rural enclave near present day Şanlıurfa. The manuscript was moved to Marash before it was uprooted from Anatolia and brought to America. Who stole the missing pages will not be revealed in this review, but readers are sure to be surprised. While the mother manuscript traveled to the Matenadaran Repository of Manuscripts in Yerevan, the canon tables were held for seventy years by the Atamian family until sold to the Getty in 1994.

The author’s personal relationship to the Getty controversy prompts her to embrace a role as public intellectual and a more personal narrative style in this work––a refreshing break from the conventions of history writing that is sure to invite a broader audience to the conversation. With other Armenian pilgrims, Watepaugh visits the Getty Center in Los Angeles to interact with the sacred object within the church-like museum, a “gleaming white citadel of art” that mirrors in awe-inspiring wonder the “God-protected castle” of Hromkla where Toros Roslin originally ornamented the pages in luxurious jeweled colors. Watenpaugh’s talents as a scholar of material culture allows her to skillfully read the traces of exile on the manuscript’s surface. A large crease in the looted pages prompts her “to imagine how, at some point, unknown hands removed the Canon Tables from the mother manuscript, how they folded it, perhaps tucked it in a pocket or in the folds of a fabric belt like the ones men worse in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire” (p. 22).  

It is important to emphasize that The Missing Pages is a work that only Watenpaugh could write with her mastery of Arabic, Turkish, and especially Western Armenian, a language listed by UNESCO as endangered because of the destruction of Armenian cultural centers during the genocide. Through such access, pregenocide Zeytun and Marash are brought to life with her access to the prolific writing culture that Armenians had established in Anatolia and brought with them to diaspora. From these sources, she captures a moving image of Armenian Archbishop of Aleppo Ardavast Surmeian “choking” when he observed a vender in Erzurum wrapping olives in a page of manuscript containing medieval Armenian script (p. 181). Armenian books, like the Armenian people, were subjected to both casual and ritualized violence as they were stabbed, defaced, and despoiled. She estimates that these uninventoried and missing Armenian manuscripts could number as high as 30,000, explaining why the survival of the Zeytun Gospels is so meaningful to the Armenian community.

Watenpaugh offers vivid ethnographic writing of her experiences as an Armenian inside postgenocide Turkey. In those moments, she interacts with current residents of Zeytun––the descendants of those who perpetrated the killings and deportations that left the region without a single Armenian. She describes both the warm and awkward exchanges with those living among Armenian ruins they don’t recognize due to a state policy that expunged public memory of the Armenians who once lived there a century ago. She boards a boat on the flooded plain that now surrounds the Hromkla citadel, intentional flooding that continues the process of erasure that began with the 1915 genocide. The author analyzes defaced inscriptions on barely accessible architectural ruins. The destruction of heritage was a criterion of genocide that Raphael Lemkin considered but did not finally include in the final draft of the UN Convention for the Prevention of Genocide (1948). The Missing Pages effectively resuscitates his project making the case for heritage as a human right and the destruction of art as an act of cultural genocide.

The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues, ISIS’s destruction of Palmyra, Syria, and recent threats by the US president to target Iranian heritage with military strikes are stark examples of how heritage is endangered by both political extremism and war. The questions raised by The Missing Pages are ones that will continue to haunt humanity as war threatens to erase the heritage that importantly once supported the shared public memory of communities, the kind of memory erased in places like Zeytun. By raising these important questions, Watenpaugh is certain to attract the attention of scholars outside her field promising to usher forth a conversation about the relationship between cultural heritage and human rights.