From Arthur Hagopian
For three centuries, sleuths, scholars and conspiracy advocates have extrapolated over the identity of the «Man in the Iron Mask,» the enigmatic prisoner of the notorious Bastille.
Ever since the legend was immortalized in the opus of the great French writer, Alexandre Dumas, speculation about who the prisoner was, has been rampant, truth and fiction becoming convoluted, their intermingling making it difficult to give credence to Dumas» tale of treason and intrigue.
The prevailing myth held that the prisoner was a secret twin of the French «Sun King», Louis XIV (1643-1715). And last year, French cryptanalyst Etienne Bazeries claimed to have decoded a cipher which purportedly revealed that the man in the iron mask had been a military officer, identified as Vivien de Bulonde, who was punished for his cowardice in the face of advancing Austrian troops by being forced to wear an iron mask.
But lingering in the forgotten annals of one of Armenia’s greatest historians, Maghakia Ormanian (184-1918), lay a more esoteric plausibility: it is palpable, in fact more than possible, that the prisoner of the Bastille was actually an Armenian clergyman, a prince of the Armenian Apostolic church, a lineage paralleling the royal pedigree of Dumas protagonist prince.
Both princes were contemporaries. Like the mythical twin, the Armenian was an innocent, a victim of political machinations, held in the Bastille and subjected to cruel and abusive punishment. Dumas «Man in the Iron Mask» could thus have easily been inspired by the tale of the misadventures story of the Armenian.
Ormanian recounts that the clergyman, Avedik Yevtogiatsi, had been patriarch of Constantinople and later Jerusalem, around the beginning of the 18th Century, but had fallen afoul of French interests because of his staunch anti-Catholic stance.
In his monumental volume about the lives and times of the Armenian Patriarchs of Jerusalem, which took him ten years to compile, the late researcher and historian Haig A Krikorian, quotes Ormanian as noting that although Avedik had influential friends and loyal followers in the then Ottoman capital (Constantinople), the machinations of the French envoy to the sultan’s court, Charles Ferriol, Marquis d’Argental, eventually brought about the priest’s downfall.
Ferriol became an «active and enthusiastic supporter of the Jesuit campaign to proselytize Armenians» and encourage them to pledge allegiance to the Catholic pope, rather than the Armenian Catholicos, the head of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic church.
Despite the formidable opposition mounted by Avedik, Ferriol would not give up and contrived to convince the Sultan to exile Avedik to an island on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.
«I will never have peace until somehow I topple him,» Ferriol vowed, Ormanian reports.
Clandestinely, Ferriol enlisted the aid of some malicious clergy and prominent merchants to heap more woe on Avedi’s head, fighting a vicious running battle with Avedik supporters.
But the ebb and tide of politics, and vacillating political sympathies, abetted by generous bribes to Turkish officials, derailed Ferriol’s plots and saw Avedik re-instated as Patriarch of Jerusalem, but not before the Sultan, exasperated by the French shenanigans, had decreed that henceforth Avedik would have to relinquish his Constantinople seat and relocate to Jerusalem.
Stymied, Ferriol promptly counter-attacked. As Avedik waited for a ship that would take him to the Holy Land, he was waylaid by a French vice-consul named Bonald who bribed Avedik’s Turkish escort to disappear, and made the Armenian believe that a ship that had just appeared on the horizon was a Venetian vessel bound for Jaffa.
It was a ruse, and it worked. The ship was actually heading west toward Messina on the island of Sicily which at that time was under Spanish sovereignty, Krikorian writes.
Avedik was handicapped by his lack of French and could not understand what was going on between Bonard and his cohorts, which included the ship’s captain who proceeded to strip Avedik as soon as he boarded, of all his possessions, including a pouch containing 180 gold pieces (a hefty sum in those days), his priestly vestments, episcopal ring and pocket watch.
When they reached Messina, the captain handed Avedik over to a waiting French consul, Paul Soulier «who unceremoniously took him to the Inquisition prison on the island, » where he remained for several months.
Somehow, Avedik contrived to smuggle a message to his supporters with the help of a sympathetic Greek seaman, alerting his flock that he had been kidnapped.
The rage and consternation it spawned, spurred the Sultan to give Ferriol a tongue lashing and a demand to produce the missing churchman.
But the wheels of fortune took a wrong turn again when the French king, at the behest of Pope Clement XI, ordered Avedik’s transfer to Marseilles «where he was subjected to abject humiliation.»
«They shaved his beard, removed his priestly garb and dressed him min typical Frenchman’s clothes,» before transporting him in secret to the island prison of Mont Saint Michel, Krikorian quotes Ormanian.
In the dark, dank dungeon there, Avedik could only ponder the ironic misfortunes of a man whose sole purpose in life was serving a benevolent God.
On September 8, in the year 1709, Avedik was again spirited away in secret, this time to the Bastille, and his undoing.
And this was where the legend and confusion with the Man in the Iron Mask were borne.
«It is impossible not to pause and cast a backward glance on the hard working yet painfully tragic personality of Avedik, who at one time, was confused with the Yergateh Timagov Mart (man in the iron mask),» Ormanian states, according to Krikorian.
What transpired in the Bastille remains a mystery. But according to Armenian historians, the Catholic church intervened again in the person of the cardinal of Paris, Louis Antoine Noyal, who entertained high hopes of converting the Apostolic priest.