History Of Melkonian Educational Institute

Artsakank has asked scholar and researcher of the Armenian community, Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra to post an article every day as a tribute to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide who fled to Cyprus a century ago. 10 selected articles will appear from 20-30 April 2020.

8/10 - The establishment of the Melkonian Educational Institute

Between 1915-1923, more than 1.500.000 innocent Armenians (amongst them 500.000 children) were massacred or were deported and led to forced death marches towards the inhospitable Der Zor desert in Syria, whereas over 880.000 Armenians became refugees (of whom 80.000 within Turkey) and about 95.000 others were Islamised.

Subsequently, 800.000 Armenian refugees were dispersed originally to the Middle East and the Balkans and, later on, around the world. Moreover, 65.000 Armenian children were adopted by Turks, Kurds and Arabs, were Islamised or were sold to harems and slave markets. Finally, about 50.000 Armenian orphans were saved and helped to flee to Cyprus , Palestine , Lebanon , Syria , the Caucasus, Greece , Bulgaria , Romania and elsewhere by the Red Cross, the Near East Relief Foundation, ships of foreign countries and brave volunteers and missionaries, at grave risk of their own lives.

The Armenian Genocide and the establishment of the Armenian Republic in the Caucasus in 1918 did not leave the philanthropist Melkonian brothers unmoved; although they had only attended the Gumushian Elementary School in Gessaria, Krikor (1843-1920) and Garabed Melkonian (1849-1934) greatly appreciated the value of education: the former wanted to establish a girls’ school, while the latter wanted both a girls’ and a boys’ school.

As they both were old and unmarried, they deemed that this would be the proper way to invest their immense wealth, which they had accumulated over the years from their most profitable production of cigarettes in Egypt . In 1920, as soon as his brother died, Garabed Melkonian made their entire fortune available to the newly-established Republic of Armenia , for which he was honoured by becoming its first overseas citizen. As the Soviet regime was established on 2 December 1920, this donation never materialised.

The following year the benefactor bequeathed all his fortune - worth about 500.000 Egyptian or 600.000 English pounds - to the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Zaven Der Yeghiayian, in order to construct and maintain three (3) schools in Turkey and Cilicia , which had been under the French mandate since 1918. This bequest was the result of nine (9) years of exhortations by the Adana Archbishop, Moushegh Seropian, and was realised by two (2) notarised acts, dated 25 July 1921 and 2 June 1922.

The first impediment to realising the benefactor’s vision came in August 1921, when Artaki Melkonian, the son of his late older brother, Hagop, filed a lawsuit against him, unsuccessfully claiming part of the will: he claimed that, since the benefactor was no longer an Ottoman subject, he was not entitled to inherit his brother’s fortune. Artaki returned with a new legal battle in December 1923, causing a prolonged unrest to the benefactor. In 1925 Boghos Noubar Pasha intervened, giving him £62.000 and preventing any further claims.

Unfortunately, the political developments in Turkey and the ultimate occupation of Cilicia in 1921 made the realisation of the benefactor’s original vision impossible. So, both he and the Patriarch began working towards the establishment of a large co-educational orphanage somewhere else. Consequently, the restrictions placed on the location were lifted by a third notarised act, dated 5 January 1924.

Initially, Syria , Lebanon , Greece , even Italy were considered. Eventually, however, Cyprus was chosen, which was located to the south of Cilicia , in the elusive hope it would someday be liberated from the Turkish yoke. Additionally, our island was located relatively close to the large Armenian colonies of the Middle East , it was home to a historic and prominent Armenian community, it was under British rule, and also stability and tranquillity prevailed.

There were also some personal connections: the benefactor knew about Cyprus from his commercial transactions and also because his late brother had financially supported the National Educational Orphanage of Vahan M. Kurkjian (Pagouran), which operated in Nicosia between 1897-1904. He was also friends with the architect Garo Balian, who in turn was acquainted with the well-known Nicosia-based businessman Dickran Ouzounian; the two men would later become in-laws. Finally, Seropian had secured funding, via the AGBU, for the construction of the Mousheghian National School in Larnaca in 1909 and was also well acquainted with the Armenian Bishop of Cyprus , Bedros Saradjian.

According to a well-known apocryphal story, the benefactor came to Nicosia in late 1923; he set off from the Venetian walls, heading southbound, alongside “Larnaca road” (present-day Limassol Avenue ). From a point onwards, after walking for 100-200 metres he would stop, rotate and carry on. Upon reaching the site, about 3 km away from the old city, he repeated this process, hit his walking stick on the ground and stated that he wished for the school to be built there. Everyone in his entourage was puzzled, as that was an arid and deserted locality, known as Σπήλιος του Καλόγερου, (Cave of the Monk): the benefactor explained that no minaret top was visible from there, since that would have been a disturbing sight for the poor orphans, who had just recently escaped from Turkish persecution.

The study of archival sources in the Cyprus State Archives, however, reveals a different story: on 15 December 1923 Seropian and Bishop Saradjian secured approval by the High Commissioner, Sir Malcolm Stevenson, to establish an Armenian orphanage in Nicosia or Larnaca. Seropian returned on 4 February 1924, together with Garo Balian, with the intent of purchasing land in Larnaca, where Adana Bishop Yeghishe Garoyian had settled, as well as over 1,500 Armenian refugees, mostly from Adana .

Saradjian, though, convinced them to opt for Nicosia: for starters, it was the capital and the largest city; moreover, it was home to a well-structured and affluent Armenian community; additionally it had a much better climate than Larnaca (which had high humidity and many more mosquitoes) and also better water quality; a final reason had to do with Saradjian’s long-drawn dispute with the somehow arrogant Garoyian.

Following a visit to the location, the land was purchased on 8 February 1924 for the sum of £350 from Hadjimichael Hadjijoseph of Strovolos, in the name of Archbishop Zaven. The residents of nearby Ayia Paraskevi and Aglandjia celebrated this with a feast, as they never
thought that anyone would actually buy that bone-dry and wind-swept land, full of foxes, for which later on large sums of money were spent to be cultivated! The total area of 139¼ Cyprus donums (18,63 hectares) included 37 donums (4,95 hectares) that were purchased from the government between 1924-1925, for the purpose of squaring the area, which henceforth became known as Ծաղկաբլուր (Flower Hill), a euphemism coined by Seropian.

On 15 February 1924, at a majestic ceremony in the presence of a large number of officials and ordinary people, the High Commissioner, Sir Malcolm Stevenson, laid the foundation stone of the compound. The workers, the iron and the cement came from Egypt , timber came from the forests of Norway and Sweden , whereas sandstone came from the nearby quarries of Ayia Paraskevi. The architect was Garo Balian, the contractor was an Italian man called Ventura , of the French Ledru-Rollin Company.

The compound consisted of about 20 buildings (twin buildings, villa, infirmary, teachers’ flats, kitchen, bathrooms/wash-houses, workshops, machine room, guard’s house, warehouses, farm, power station, and animals’ lodgings), two windmills and the legendary water tower.
The first 75 orphans disembarked at Famagusta harbour on 26 January 1926. When the boys’ section opened on 3 February 1926, it had only four (4) classes and just 78 children, who by March had become 105; following the opening of the girls’ section in May, their number rose to 231. The grove in front of the Melkonian was planted by those first orphans, in memory of their massacred relatives: each cypress tree is like a cross for a family perished in the Genocide. Nowhere else in the world is the memory of the Armenian martyrs commemorated in this way, not even in Armenia .

The official inauguration of the Institute was performed on 13 February 1926 by the first Headmaster, Archbishop Zaven Der Yeghiayian, who had undertaken the task of collecting the first orphans from Syria , Palestine , Lebanon , Mesopotamia , Egypt , Greece and France . Right from the beginning, the Melkonian had been a safe haven for the orphaned or poor Armenian children, where they received all the necessary physical, spiritual and mental care in a wonderful environment of collectiveness and mutual help, reminiscent of a family. In fact, for the first orphans, it was their only family.

Due to his frail health, the great benefactor was unable to attend either ceremony and sent a telegram instead. Earlier on, he had conveyed his thoughts about his school in a document dated 29 January 1924: “I am building this school to take revenge for my nation… The Turk has decimated us. He first massacred our leaders, our rulers, and then our abandoned nation… These young orphans must re-build their ancestral homes and we must prepare them to be our leaders… It is my desire that the Melkonian Educational Institute continues to exist for centuries to come and be used as a cradle of enlightenment, which will produce useful and virtuous members of the Armenian nation, the Armenian homeland and mankind”.

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Understandably, there was some uncertainty about the future of Armenian institutions in the newly-established Republic of Turkey . Consequently, Archbishop Zaven - with the consent of the patriarchal locum tenens, Archbishop Kevork Arslanian, and the benefactor himself - transferred the endowment to the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) via a notarised act, dated 28 December 1925. The AGBU undertook the obligation to equip and maintain the Institute for up to 500 students and provide a number of subsidies.

The final notarised act at the Mixed Court of Alexandria, dated 15 December 1926, granted absolute ownership of the Melkonian to the AGBU and removed the previously existing provision that - in the event of the AGBU’s dissolution - the custodians of the endowment would be the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem or the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin. The existence of this provision leads us to infer that the benefactor had envisioned the AGBU closing, but not his school! Up there where he is, looking at us from the Heavens together with his brother, he will surely have filled the rivers of paradise with his tears…