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During my studies into the former lazaret (leprosarium or leper colony) on Moreton Bay’s Peel Island, people often asked me where the term lazaretoriginated. The obvious connection is with the biblical parables about Lazarus: ‘The rich man and Lazarus’ (who was a leper) and ‘Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead’ (another Lazarus who was not a leper). Perhaps it was the conflation (often erroneous merging) of these two parables that led to the declaration of Lazarus as a saint.

Saint Lazarus Island

In the 12th century, leprosy appeared in Venice as a result of trade with the Levant (Middle East). Thus, a leper colony—hospital for people with leprosy—was established at the island, which was chosen for that purpose due to its relative distance from the principal islands forming the city of Venice. It received its name from St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. The church of Saint Lazarus (San Lazzaro) was founded there in 1348. Leprosy declined by the mid-1500s and the island was abandoned by 1601. Over the following years, the island was leased to various religious groups but by the early 18th century only a few crumbling ruins remained.In 1717 the island was ceded by the Republic of Venice to an Armenian Catholic monk, who established a monastery with his followers. It has since been the headquarters of the Mekhitarists and, as such, one of the world’s prominent centers of Armenian culture and Armenian studies.

Saint Lazarus Island in 2013 (photo Anton Nossik)

During the nineteenth century, many prominent people visited the island: the English Romantic poet Lord Byron from November 1816 to February 1817; composers such as Offenbach, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner; writers included George Sand and Marcel Proust; monarchs from Spain, Austria, Britain, and France. 

Today Saint Lazarus Island continues as an important centre for Armenian studies, and is a popular tourist destination.