Forty MartyrsThis unique short recording captures chants from an endangered community and language.

Label: Lost Origin Sounds Series
Time:  8 tracks / 18 mins.

Armenians have chanted in Aleppo's Forty Martyrs Armenian Apostolic Church since 1429, but Syria's current civil war has endangered its Christian communities and made large parts of the city uninhabitable and unsafe for all Aleppans, regardless of creed. The language of these chants, West Armenian, once spoken in what is now Turkey, seems destined to die out in a generation.

Bizarrely, it is an American punk drummer who has recorded the sounds of Armenian chanting there, while the language is still spoken. When Jason Hamacher, son of a Baptist minister, faced a band break up and a cancelled tour, he asked himself whether he wanted to continue playing punk for the rest of his life. His answer was, “No.” Instead he decided to seek out and record the world’s oldest Christian music.

Hamacher read about ancient Christian music in the book “From the Holy Mountain” by British writer William Dalrymple, and found himself in Syria in 2005 as a guest of the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop, who has since been kidnapped by rebels. Staying in Aleppo’s Christian quarter, Hamacher stumbled upon the Forty Martyrs Cathedral and met The Very Reverend Yeznig Zegchanian, who chanted the Lord’s Prayer for him.

On a subsequent visit, the two met up, but the priest would only record some more music if they did it there and then, and only once.

After rushing back to the hotel to gather equipment and getting a translator, Hamacher recorded him. The result is this 18 minute selection of unaccompanied chants. The earliest (“Great and Wondrous Mystery”) dates back to the 5th-century. Other titles include (translated) "Lord have Mercy" and "Today he Rose From the Dead."

Captured à capella within the resonant acoustics of the cathedral, the priest, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, has a rich and soulful voice, which reflects by turns the dignity of his subject and the tragedy of his situation.

This is admittedly a niche release, but as well as for Armenians caught up in another diaspora, these recordings could be of interest to churches in the context of prayer for beleaguered believers or for illustrating the unity of Christians in very different circumstances.

Derek Walker

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