Yessayan: Towards Cilicia

The following is an excerpt from Amid the Ruins (1911), writer Zabel Yessayan’s account of the aftermath of the 1909 massacres in Cilicia. It is translated to English by Jennifer Manoukian.

Towards Cilicia

The steamboat brought us to Cilicia’s port and that last night on the Mediterranean filled me with looming terror and dread. As we gradually approached the threshold of the catastrophe, reality seemed to escape my comprehension, and I could not truly believe that the next morning we would reach Mersine, Adana, Cilicia—the places that we had been reading about for weeks, the places that had lodged themselves in our brains. There, we would find a bloody, open wound, and the thought of touching it sent a painful shudder through me.

Zabel Yessayan

A warm, serene environment surrounded us. Under a star-studded sky, the dark blue waves of the Mediterranean gently rocked the steamboat. There was a conflict between the luminous, immutable beauty of nature and the torturous thoughts racing endlessly through our minds. This conflict became so exhausting that it almost caused physical pain.

The idea of sinking deep into the heart of the catastrophe produced a gloomy impatience in all of us, and although we walked on the deck in silence until late at night without talking about our feelings, I was convinced that everyone’s mind was seized by the same burning curiosity. There were both Turks and Armenians on board. The Patriarchate’s second delegation and the members of the second military bureau were travelling on the same ship. On board were also wounded merchants and relatives of victims, who were rushing to the ruins to see the extent of the catastrophe with their own eyes.

We stayed on deck until well past midnight. Every so often, heart-breaking sighs could be heard from the third class cabins below. On deck, the black hood of an Armenian clergyman could sometimes be seen in the pale rays of light radiating from the ship’s lanterns. The soldiers walked as a group, and as they came closer, I could hear pieces of their conversation:

—The closer we come to Mersine, the more my heart burns with an inexplicable pain.

Below deck, I heard a passenger sigh deeply, as if to second that thought.

Alone in my cabin, I was besieged by the reality that I would see the next day. Until that moment, it was as if my inner being was bathed in an unfamiliar light, which rather than giving my thoughts a distinct shape, muddled them and shrouded them in a haze. In that feverish state of mind, an image stubbornly returned to me in pieces.

Two months earlier, men and women from the Red Cross had left from Galata. They were the very first to leave. The sky wept steadily onto the city below; Stamboul was covered in a humid, grey fog and everything exuded infinite sadness. Behind us, hoarse, passionate, and melancholic songs rose from the cafes along the pier like intense, lamenting cries of pain.

We were all as pale as corpses, but tried in vain to smile at the passengers. The boat started to sail away. A mother’s face was gradually growing fainter as the boat sailed further into the distance. Next to us, her teenage daughter struggled to smile in an attempt to hide all the suffering in her young soul. The combination of the mother’s face disappearing into the grey mist, the mournful melodies flowing out of the cafes on the pier, the patter of the rain—at once cruel and calming—falling on the city exalted my soul with a feeling that made me lightheaded and caused my knees to go weak.

On our way back, we were all sad and absorbed in thought. In a red nightmare, I saw the city in flames, displaced people in a faraway place, enraged girls in mourning and gallows—gallows everywhere!

What was then only a vague nightmare would become my world in a matter of a few hours.

The steamboat stopped. I immediately came up on deck. I thought I would be the first person there, but everyone had already gathered. There was a sickly pallor to everyone’s faces and their sleep-deprived eyes were careful not to meet those of their fellow passengers. The soldiers formed a group of their own and watched Mersine intently with eyes full of sadness. One of the clergymen from the Patriarchate’s delegation turned toward Cilicia, the pale face under his black, velvet hood contorted by his grief.

At the same time, small boats rushed towards us and the soldiers hurried to get off. They passed us trying to avoid our gaze and sorrowfully bid us a quick farewell. Their footsteps were irregular, almost bewildered, and we could hear the sound of their swords dragging on the ground. At that moment, it was difficult to decide who was unhappier: us or them.

Mersine lay before us. Its flat, bluish land extended into the distance towards a chain of mountains enveloped in a haze, and the colorful palette of daybreak lazily billowed across that stretch of rural simplicity. Once again, the nightmare of the catastrophe became a distant thought and I had the urge to smile at the sunny sky. But the delegation was ready and waiting, and our boats were about to arrive. Anxious, somber faces examined us, and everything grew dark in me.

The clergymen were solemn and serious, as if they were preparing for a funeral. We all grew paler. My heart was gripped by limitless grief and I felt as though my veins were freezing.

Those who came to meet us had seen everything. Some had fled fires and swords. Swelling flames danced in their eyes and the bitterness of their memories gave their words an unsettling quickness. In those few minutes, they told us many things. Despite our limitless despair, to them our words seemed to be filled with meaningless optimism. They shook their heads and said:

—How can you be so sure when you’ve only just stepped off the boat?

When we first set foot in Mersine, my impression of it was very clear. It was as though we were crossing the threshold into the realm of death. People received us with unspoken sadness. They shook our hands and passed in front of us. Who knows what was so foreign about us that made them not want to talk to us? Taking refuge in their sorrow, they stood together in a group and watched us, their eyes brimming with tears.

Our hotel was filled with all kinds of displaced people. Here we also found the Catholicos and were immediately introduced to him. All day, it was as if I was seeing everything through a nightmare: There were women dressed in black—the family members of the first victims—and cries and laments of the wounded, the orphans, and the widows whose grief was reignited upon seeing us.

The following day we would go to Adana and be amid the ruins. I thought senselessly about it, and spent another sleepless night with my heart racing, tending to my sorrow.

The night was cool. Moisture rose from the sprawling sea and soared over the sleeping city. The roar of the waves soothed me, as caravans of slow-moving camels passed endlessly through the street, their undulating movements marked by the sound of ringing bells.

Jennifer Manoukian

Jennifer Manoukian

Jennifer Manoukian is a translator of Western Armenian literature. She earned an MA in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies from Columbia University and a BA in French Literature and Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University. Her first book length translation,The Gardens of Silihdar by Zabel Yessayan, was released by AIWA Press in 2014.
Jennifer Manoukian

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1 Comment

  1. Painful article and beautiful translation…
    Let our Armenian students read the story…
    Thanks Jen
    Hope to read more of your work…

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