Sunday, February 17, 2019

Birth of Clement Sibilian (February 17, 1824)

The nineteenth century was the time for the rediscovery of the Armenian past, with the two branches of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice and Vienna leading the charge. A monk from Vienna, Rev. Clement Sibilian, would become the pioneer of Armenian numismatics.

Born Mgrdich Sibilian in Constantinople on February 17, 1824, he entered the Mekhitarist monastery of Vienna in 1838. He became a member of the congregation in 1842 and was ordained a celibate priest in 1845, taking the name of Clement (Կղեմես in Armenian). He had started learning numismatics in the classes of Abbot Aristakes Azarian, who had begun the collection of coins of the Congregation in 1825. In 1846 he started writing what would be his magnum opus, Classification of Rupenian Coins, but he left the manuscript aside when he understood the lack of primary research in the field. He traveled through Armenia Minor in 1847-1849. In 1851 he published two books of general interest in Vienna: Hernán Cortés or the Conquest of Mexico as Continuation of Christopher Columbus and Terdat’s Isolation, the Last Days, and the Death (the latter was about Armenian king Terdat III). He was in Smyrna from 1853-1855. An attempt to go on a scientific expedition to Cilicia was botched by his superiors’ decision to send him to Constantinople and then, in October 1856, to Persia (Iran), where he spent twelve years at the helm of the Armenian Catholic community in Ispahan. In the meantime, he had started publishing articles on numismatics and antiquities in Armenian and European journals.

Golden coin of King Levon I
During his sojourn in Persia, Sibilian visited Tehran (1857), Tiflis and Echmiadzin (1864). Thus, he got acquainted with both the past of Armenia, his subject of interest, and the present. He returned to Constantinople in 1868 and went out in another field trip to Asia Minor until 1870. Each of his travels was an opportunity to collect coins and other antiquities, which he donated both to the museum of the Congregation and to other European institutions. After a short return to Vienna, he went back to Constantinople, where he started collaborating with all Armenian cultural institutions of the city. He gave lectures in the schools and published a textbook, Brief Geography for Children of Elementary School (1877).

In 1875 Sibilian was designated corresponding member of the Numismatic Society of Vienna as an expert in Greek and Armenian coins. He classified the ancient materials of the Ottoman Museum of Constantinople and in 1876 Sultan Abdul Aziz, in appreciation of his talents, designated him second director of the museum. In late 1876 he finally was able to visit Cilicia, and in April 1877 he was commissioned by the museum to go to Mesopotamia to acquire materials. This trip would prove fatal. Sibilian, physically weakened by continuous traveling, caught dysentery and arrived in a semi-comatose state to Diarbekir, where he passed away eight days later, on May 23, 1878, and was buried.

Shortly before his death, Sibilian had completed Classification of Rupenian Coins, where he processed, classified, and chronologically established for the first time more than two thousand coins of the Armenian state of Cilicia. The manuscript remained in the family until the Mekhitarist Congregation bought it and published it in 1892, in an edition prepared and updated by Rev. Fr. Krikoris Kalemkiarian. In the preface, the editor noted that the Mekhitarists of Vienna possessed a collection of 15,000 coins, including 220 coins from the Arsacid dynasty and 2,232 coins from the Cilician period, thanks to Sibilian’s continuous efforts. A review in the journal Ararat of the Catholicosate of Holy Echmiadzin remarked in 1893: “Here is a book that deserves to ornate the table of each Armenian, if the memorials of his ancestors are valuable to him, if he wants to have a permanent image of those memorials before him.” The Armenian Numismatic Society of California published a commemorative volume in 1980 on the centennial of Sibilian’s death.