Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What Happened to Armenia’s Famous Tibetan Bell?

    • This is a guest blog written by Simon Maghakyan, University of Colorado Denver lecturer in international relations and independent researcher of heritage crime. He is best known for his groundbreaking exposé of the covert 1997-2006 erasure of an estimated 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments in post-Soviet Nakhichevan. 
    • Since 2006, several past Tibeto-logic blog entries, more recently one entitled That Tibetan Bell in Armenia Once More, tried to learn more about a large bell with Tibetan letters on it once there to be seen in the bell towers of Etchmiadzin Cathedral. That’s about 2,700 miles from Lhasa. Apart from various speculations we have been unable to say much about what happened to it in recent times, and no one has been able to tell us where it is. To our amazement, a piece of the mystery has now been solved.



In April 2003, as a 16-year-old, I was permitted to do the unthinkable: explore the bells of the Armenian Church’s headquarters, the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, in my teenage quest for a medieval Tibetan bell. This meant climbing on the roof of the world’s most sacred Armenian structure, which made me feel guilty. Alas, despite relentless searches and interviews, I did not find the bell. But I eventually found the only living person who knew what had happened to it.


There were numerous eyewitness mentions of the Tibetan bell throughout history, mostly in the 19th century, and as late as the 1920s. Since books were of no help (an otherwise respected and detailed encyclopedia of toponyms published in 1988 made a reference to the bell in the present tense), I had to interview potential eyewitnesses to the bell’s disappearance. 


I found a perfect source, the now late architect Varazdat Harutyunyan, one of the folks in charge of the Holy See’s major renovations in the 1950s. He told me that he oversaw the restoration of the bell tower. The prominent architect and historian insisted, however, that there was no Tibetan bell in the 1950s at Etchmiadzin. “That’s not something I would have forgotten,” he told me. 


So the Tibetan bell disappeared between the 1920s and 1950s. Apparently there was only one man alive who knew the story, a retired monk at Etchmiadzin: now late Archbishop Husik Santuryan. He used to curate the Holy See. I finally met him after insisting to his successor to talk to elders, since all of my searches were proving to be fruitless. 


Archbishop Santuryan told me that after he arrived at Etchmiadzin in 1951, he befriended a custodian named Yegho Bidza [Old man Elisha], who prided himself as having been the horse-keeper for the epic Catholicos Khrimyan Hayrik. Apparently Yegho Bidza had witnessed what happened to the Tibetan bell. According to Yegho Bidza, passed to me through Archbishop Santuryan, in 1938 the Soviet authorities decided to convert Etchmiadzin into a museum after the “death” of the Armenian Catholicos. 


What followed was a double looting of the Cathedral by Soviet officials and some unethical monks. The looting and desecration included the carving of “STALIN” on a stone inside Etchmiadzin, which was later reversed. The head of the operation was a Soviet official first named Levon, whom “God soon punished” for shining his shoes with the holy myrrh inside the Cathedral. In order to silence the Holy See, its bells were taken down [not sure how many or if any were returned] after a Soviet apparatchik produced a document claiming local complaints of “noise nuisance.”

The bells, including the Tibetan one, were placed on a donkey cart and hauled away. Some items were in later years retrieved through auction, including a large carpet in the Cathedral. But the Tibetan bell was never heard of again.


Some of the elders I interviewed suggested that the Tibetan bell might be at other churches throughout Armenia or at Armenia’s history museum and its branches. I inspected several churches myself, with no traces of the Tibetan bell. A researcher at the history museum spent a week, as per my request, looking for the bell in their inventory; she didn’t find it either. I even got into a verbal fight with China’s cultural attaché at Beijing’s Embassy in Armenia, who refused to help me in translating the Tibetan inscription preserved in sketches.  


It is not out of the question that Armenia’s famous Tibetan bell may still exist. But it certainly left Holy Etchmiadzin in the late 1930s on a donkey cart.



  1. If you want translation of Tibetan writing/symbols, ask any Tibetan, not the Chinese.

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