Heghnar Z. Watenpaugh, The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Heghnar Watenpaugh (HW): I have been interested in questions about cultural heritage, the destruction of culture, and the ethics of museum collection and display for a long time, and they have become vital public debates in the last decade. In June 2010, I read in the news that the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America had sued the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, seeking the return of eight illuminated pages from a medieval Gospels that had been sundered and stolen during the Armenian Genocide. It resonated with me in many ways. I am an art historian, I had been a Getty Fellow, and the Armenian Genocide is part of my history.

I pulled the legal documents, which made for absorbing reading. They presented a reconstruction of the chain of events that had brought the Canon Tables to Los Angeles, and made arguments about the legal significance of these events. They also raised some tantalizing questions: were these illuminated pages works of art that belonged in a museum, or were they sacred objects of great power that belonged with the living faith community that venerated them? Part of the context of these questions was the evolving debate about the ethics of museum collection, questions of provenance, contests over patrimony, the ongoing destruction and trafficking of art globally. These are complex issues that had not been raised quite so publicly in the case of medieval Armenian art, or art from the Middle East generally (except for antiquities!).

Within a month of the suit being filed, I submitted an op-ed to The Los Angeles Times. Not only did they publish it, but the editor also encouraged me to “tell the story.” As I continued to research the pages at the Getty and their parent manuscript, the Zeytun Gospels, it became clear that not only did the history of this particular manuscript coincide with some crucial episodes in Armenian and Middle Eastern history, but it also intersected with central issues in art history today. The responses to my op-ed suggested that there was tremendous interest in the questions raised by the lawsuit.

I then considered how I would frame this book. Over a series of discussions with Kate Wahl, the Editor-in-Chief at Stanford University Press, we both felt this would be a story with broad appeal, an exciting and moving journey through the history of the illuminated manuscript. I set out to write the book in a way that was broadly accessible yet scholarly. The Missing Pages was the result… many drafts later.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

HW: As mentioned earlier, the book addresses some big issues in art history and the art world today: the looting and trafficking of works of art, the destruction of culture, particularly religious culture, and its relation to genocide, the ethics of museum collection, the rights of communities over their own patrimony, the tension between religious objects and art objects. The Missing Pages is written in such a way that the Zeytun Gospels is, in effect, the main character. Therefore, the book is also informed by recent theoretical discussions in art history and cultural studies about the agency of the object, the “material turn,” “thingness” or thing studies, studies of mobility and circulation as applied to objects.

The book presents the biography of a medieval manuscript and its many functions over its seven hundred years of existence, not only the moment of its creation by the great illuminator Toros Roslin in 1256. It is a specific story that has a larger significance and universal resonance. So, the book touches on many kinds of issues: medieval debates on the significance of religious imagery but also the place of sacred manuscripts in the religious life of Ottoman Armenians on the eve of the Genocide, the complexities of art litigation, the debates over reparations. This book is grounded in art history—my discipline—but is deeply interdisciplinary and draws on a wide variety of evidence, scholarship, and art traditions.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HW: Much of my previous work concerned the urban and architectural history of Ottoman Aleppo. The Missing Pages focuses on an art object rather than architecture, and it covers a much larger chronological period and geographical area, from a castle on the Euphrates where the Zeytun Gospels was created in the mid-thirteenth century to twenty-first-century Los Angeles. But it so happened that some of the places where the Zeytun Gospels spent key periods of its life fell within the Ottoman-era Province of Aleppo, which is, in present day, Southern Turkey and Northern Syria—so it was part of the geographical space that I was familiar with.

Methodologically, I approached the medieval manuscript with some of the methodological tools of the architectural historian. I focused on the spatial contexts of the object, as each chapter centers on a city that was important in the life of the Zeytun Gospels, along with the webs of social relationships that were rooted in space. I insisted on understanding the function of the manuscript as a three-dimensional entity encased in a web of social practices, and not only as a series of two-dimensional pages painted with imagery—however extraordinary these images are. Some great art historians have already researched Toros Roslin, his artistic style, and his place in the tradition of Armenian and Byzantine art. Drawing on my background as an architectural historian, I was able to look at this extraordinary object in a different way. Drawing on “thing theory,” I was interested in the interactions between the object and the people who came into contact with it.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HW: I am tremendously encouraged by and grateful for the responses the book has received thus far—from the press, academic colleagues, museum professionals, attorneys, and most of all from members of the public. It was fantastic to see the New York Times Books section feature it as “New and Noteworthy.” For the last few months, people have been coming up to me at lectures and telling me extraordinary stories of heirlooms and works of art that survived the genocide along with their families. I am reminded of the critical role objects, especially religious objects, play in the mediation of identity, and what art can teach us—not only about destruction, but also about resilience.

My hope is that this book will connect with a broad audience and play a role in the tremendous global conversation that is taking place now about the ethics of museums, the repatriation of objects, and issues of representation and inclusion. I mean, even Black Panther (the movie) features a scene in a museum that challenges the provenance of objects on display! I also hope that the book will connect with academics and spark a conversation about how we talk about objects and material culture in Middle East studies. I hope it can remind scholars of aspects of the Armenian Genocide that we do not often consider—the destruction of culture, the impact of the genocide on the many communities in the Middle East, and its lingering effects in our day, seen from a global perspective. And finally, I hope the book helps shed light on the many neglected sources of social and cultural history in the Middle East, especially the many kinds of traces left behind by survivors of the genocide. Intellectuals, but also humble persons, sometimes produced—under very difficult circumstances, and in Armenian or other languages—witness statements, oral histories, and acts of preserving and manipulating objects—all of which show the tremendous risks people took to save works of art.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HW: I have several projects in various stages. Some of the questions discussed in The Missing Pages deserve a deep dive—for instance, the networks of individuals and the processes that ultimately shaped the provenance of artworks from the Middle East that are located today in western collections, and that constitute the canon of what we call “Islamic art” today. There is so much material that is little known or barely discussed, that raises so many complex questions.

Another project is concerned with medieval Armenian architecture as cultural heritage in Turkey today—a companion of sorts to The Missing Pages. It focuses on Ani, an astounding medieval ghost city located on the present-day border between Turkey and Armenia. Ani was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016. It is the largest heritage site in Eastern Turkey, with a history dating back to the Bronze Age. Famous in the Middle Ages as the City of 1001 Churches, its more recent history intersects with the development of archaeology and preservation practices since the nineteenth century. As a city strongly identified with its Armenian layer, Ani has always been burdened by its political context and the Turkish state’s vexed attitudes towards the indigenous Armenian past on its territory. Ani raises many critical issues in cultural heritage today—the politics of preservation, erasure, and outright destruction, the critique of “world heritage” practices, the ongoing conversation about heritage and reconciliation. At the same time, the remaining monuments at Ani are tremendously important in the history of world architecture, and they are unbelievably beautiful. No wonder the ruins of Ani have attracted artists, photographers, adventurers, activists, poets, and mystics.

I also have ongoing projects on Aleppo. I continue to work on the urban history of early modern Aleppo. Only a fraction of the research materials I amassed made it into my first book (on Ottoman Aleppo), and I have found much new material since then. Obviously, working on this subject since the conflict in Syria began means something very different—with the destruction of so much of Syria’s social fabric, architecture, and culture, the tragedies experienced by my Syrian friends and colleagues. It is disconcerting to think about the fact that one’s fieldwork—photographic documentation of buildings, urban spaces and social practice—have become “monuments,” relics of places that have been eradicated.


Excerpt from the book 

From “Prologue”

The attorney watched as the clerk at the Los Angeles County Superior Court stamped the date on his lawsuit. June 1, 2010. He filed it under the wire, just before the statute of limitations ran out. The lawsuit accused the world’s wealthiest art institution, the J. Paul Getty Museum, of holding a sacred object vandalized and plundered during the Armenian Genocide. The plaintiff was a midsized faith group, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. The suit demanded the return of the Canon Tables, a fragment from a medieval Gospels, along with over a hundred million dollars in damages.

The news media soon took hold of the story. The Getty Museum and its parent institution, the J. Paul Getty Trust, made well-chosen targets. Rich, powerful, and glamorous, they nevertheless carried a long and vexed history of buying looted antiquities, getting drawn into dramatic legal battles, and being forced to return artifacts to their rightful owners. The art press took note of a new kind of claimant in the crowded field of litigants seeking restitution: survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their heirs. The case recalled the better-known examples of art looted during the Holocaust, and the tenacious survivors and heroic attorneys who had fought against the odds to win back priceless objects pilfered long ago under the cover of genocide and sequestered in the pristine halls of affluent museums.

The suit avowed that the Canon Tables had been stolen, surreptitiously removed from the manuscript known as the Zeytun Gospels, as a result of the Armenian Genocide. The museum’s legal counsel responded by claiming that the Getty owned the pages as works of art, having acquired them legally, and that the suit should be dismissed without merit. The Church asserted that the Getty knew or should have known it was acquiring purloined goods. The Getty maintained that the Canon Tables had been in the United States for more than ninety years without anyone questioning its legal status.

The complaint made for absorbing reading. In a few pages it attempted to reconstruct the chain of events that had brought the Canon Tables to Los Angeles. Copied and illuminated in 1256, the manuscript had been kept in a church in Zeytun, a rugged town in the Taurus Mountains, as a revered relic and liturgical object. But the manuscript had its own agency as well, protecting the town and its people and accomplishing miracles among the congregants over the centuries. Fast-forward to the spring of 1915. As World War I engulfed the world, the Ottoman Empire initiated the exile and extermination of its own Armenian population in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide. When the inhabitants of Zeytun were cast out of their homes and set upon exile where most of them would perish, the Zeytun Gospels too was taken out of its church. It passed from hand to hand. During and after the genocide, the Zeytun Gospels intersected with the lives of individuals who venerated it, coveted it, treasured it, saved it, lost it, feared it, entrusted it to others, remembered it, and wrote about it. Decades later, when the Zeytun Gospels ended up in the Mesrob Mashtots Institute for Ancient Manuscripts (known as the Matenadaran) in the Republic of Armenia, its Canon Tables was absent. These missing pages, removed from the manuscript, had made their separate way to the United States in the possession of an Armenian family. The Getty Museum purchased the Canon Tables from the family in 1994.

At the center of the legal battle, competing arguments, and splashy news stories, the enigmatic Canon Tables stood still. Originally, the pages had appeared at the beginning of the manuscript where they functioned as index tables of sorts, listing passages that narrate the same events in different Gospels. The illuminator, Toros Roslin, turned these eight pages into visual feasts of calligraphy, abstract ornament, and dynamic images observed from nature, including birds, fish, trees, and fruit. He set them in architectural frames highlighted in gold and vivid jewel-like colors. For centuries the artist’s name was virtually unknown. Yet by the time the Canon Tables entered the Getty collection, art historians had recognized Roslin as one of the greatest artists of medieval Armenian art. The sacred relic had become a work of art of inestimable value.

I kept thinking about the Canon Tables. I pictured the Zeytun Gospels as a complete manuscript. Priests and congregants, hymns and prayers, and the gentle smoke of incense burners encircled the holy object in its special relic box, far above the ravine in the mountain stronghold of Zeytun. I returned to Los Angeles to look at the Canon Tables. I scrutinized archival photographs, zooming in on details. I reexamined everything I knew about Zeytun, Roslin, medieval art, the Armenian Genocide, the destruction of cultural heritage, the liturgy of the Armenian Church, and art-related litigation. The court filings in the Canon Tables case offered a tantalizing look into the life of an Armenian manuscript caught in the vagaries of war, genocide, exile, and the art market. This was the kind of history of art that art history rarely addressed head-on. Yet it also prompted questions. What functions did the manuscript fulfill in the religious life of Zeytun? Was it possible to reconstruct each and every step of the journey the mother manuscript and the Canon Tables had embarked on? Which individuals had come into contact with the holy pages, and how had the pages changed them? Who exactly was Roslin, and how did he rise from obscurity to become the acclaimed master of medieval Armenian art? How does the saga of the Canon Tables shed light on Armenian cultural heritage and the genocide? The Zeytun Gospels was exerting the same strong pull on me as it had on so many others before.

Retracing the steps of the Gospels showed me that the genocide, the expulsion of Armenians from their homeland, and the relentless erasure of Armenian traces in Turkey ever since had very nearly severed the connection between the Zeytun Gospels and the places where it was created, worshipped, and treasured for centuries. The Armenian traces of Hromkla, Zeytun, and Marash had been expunged many times over. The manuscript had fallen victim to the genocide along with its people. It had survived, and it had followed the fate of the Armenians–cast out of its homeland, cleaved into two, and dispersed.

Back in Los Angeles, after five years of litigation and mediation, the Western Prelacy and the Getty Museum reached a settlement. The Canon Tables would remain at the Getty, and the museum acknowledged their connection to the Church. The settlement, welcomed by the parties, nonetheless did little to clarify the puzzles the manuscript presented. My quest continued–to understand the holy book and its people, to reconstruct its biography, to examine what the manuscript meant to those who had come into contact with it, and how the manuscript itself had changed. The saga of the Zeytun Gospels, of a sacred relic and an art object, of the fragment and the whole, of its perilous journey through time and space, mirrors the stories of survivors and refugees and their paths toward remaking their lives and creating new futures. The story of a trafficked object and of its people reveals much about the nature of survival and how art and cultural heritage are central to it. This book tells the story of the Zeytun Gospels, the paths it crossed and the places it encountered along with the Armenian people, as well as the gaps and mysteries that still shroud its journey, and likely always will.