Mouradian: Encounter with a Skull

We stand aghast at the entrance of an Armenian monastery* perched on a hill near Lake Van.

“Is that what I think it is?” I ask George, my companion on a trip to document Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey.

“Can’t be,” he replies in disbelief. “Must be a soccer ball.”

I go past broken khatchkars (Armenian cross-stones) and around large holes dug up by treasure hunters—a familiar site for visitors of historic Armenian churches in Turkey—and shudder.

The orbital cavities of a skull are staring at me.

Nothing could have prepared me for that eye contact with an ancestor who had resurfaced a century after the genocide of my people. (Photo by George Aghjayan)
Nothing could have prepared me for that eye contact with an ancestor who had resurfaced a century after the genocide of my people. (Photo by George Aghjayan)

Nothing could have prepared me for that eye contact with an ancestor who had resurfaced a century after the genocide of my people. Not all the bones and skulls I’ve seen at memorials, not the hundreds of horror stories I’ve heard locals tell of what their forefathers did to Armenians.

I approach and hold the skull in my hands with an affection bordering on the macabre.

Who was this person whose remains were dug out and tossed aside? A clergyman? Perhaps the abbot of the monastery? After all, it was customary to bury clergy inside the narthex.

I can’t help but think that after the murder of a nation, the theft of a people’s land and wealth, and the ongoing denial of the crime, the skeletons are coming out—literally—with a little help from Turks and Kurds who want yet more Armenian gold, more booty, and don’t mind more desecration and destruction.

I don’t want to leave the skull behind, but after a brief discussion with George, we agree to inter it not far away from the hill.

I place the tortured cranium in my hat, and we leave the monastery in search for an inconspicuous—and, hopefully, final—resting place.

Soon I, too, am digging a hole.

We bury the skull, while the breeze over Lake Van whispers a prayer.

At some point on the way back, I realize I am wearing my ash-covered hat. I had unwittingly put it back on after burying the skull.

That evening, the mirror in my hotel room shows a dusting of white ash on my hair.

*The name and exact location of the monastery are withheld out of concerns of further desecration.

Author’s [naïve] question: After decades of actively destroying Armenian cultural and religious sites in Turkey and allowing vandals and treasure hunters to finish the job by digging, drilling and defacing, is it not time for Turkish authorities to break with past practices and initiate a program aimed at stabilizing structures and preventing further vandalism?

We bury the skull, while the breeze over Lake Van whispers a prayer. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)
We bury the skull, while the breeze over Lake Van whispers a prayer. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)
Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

Khatchig Mouradian is the Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist at the Library of Congress and a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He also serves as Co-Principal Investigator of the project on Armenian Genocide Denial at the Global Institute for Advanced Studies, New York University. Mouradian is the author of The Resistance Network: The Armenian Genocide and Humanitarianism in Ottoman Syria, 1915-1918, published in 2021. The book has received the Syrian Studies Association “Honourable Mention 2021.” In 2020, Mouradian was awarded a Humanities War & Peace Initiative Grant from Columbia University. He is the co-editor of a forthcoming book on late-Ottoman history, and the editor of the peer-reviewed journal The Armenian Review.
Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

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  1. This is one of the most heart-breaking photos ever published in AW. This just one of our almost 2 million that lie unmarked on mountain roads and desert paths and the bottoms of rivers.
    thank you Khatchig and George Aghjayan.

  2. Brave Mouradian
    Brave by all means…
    You should create new specialty
    giving it a new name
    Archaeology of “The First Genocide”
    or another name you can choose…!


  3. Thank you, Khatchig. Your few spare words, skillfully chosen, convey so much emotion. I sense both sadness and exhilaration in your unexpected encounter with our ancestor and your tender care of his remains. And like always, you take us back and forward at the same time…step by ash-covered step.

  4. A friend of mine who is Turkish is supporting the protests ongoing in Istanbul now. While I think it is too bad there is only Kemal as the alternative image, I do hope for the possibility that there are Turks who wish the total truth about their country to be open, especially all the different ethnic strains that can be recognized, and cultures supported openly. I know that is just a dream but if I have one friend who embraces that truth perhaps there are many other Turks who want that too. Someday I hope your question at the end of the article will be answered with an affirmative yes for all of us, and you can be just the first among us to travel freely to see wonders of our culture

  5. My Heart and Spirit are deeply disturbed and moved by this very visceral, very physical and real evidence and factual closeness to the horrific reality of truth and our history.
    God Bless and Protect and watch over you all and give you and your colleagues wisdom and intelligent insight and shrewdness to see, record and know what to do and how to value and use this experience and information for the best and most constructive results, healing and ultimate good benefit.
    Thank you for your heart and spirit of faith and truth.

  6. No visit to any isolated church in eastern Turkey comes without seeing desecrated graves complete with bones. In some little plastic bags I’ve got some bone fragments of Saint Stepanos, rescued from Argelanivank, and some others from the Gechivan martyrs that were buried at Khtzkonk, and a few fragments of some Bagratid-era Pahlavuni I found after their graves at Ani were smashed open by treasure hunters. I remember hearing on a hillside near Ahlat that was littered with recently dug-up Armenian graves, the disturbing noise of dozens of bones being crunched up by a herd of sheep (they must contain minerals sheep need).

    I’ve found that the people doing the desecration are, overwhelmingly, Kurds. I don’t see how the Turkish authorities can prevent such activities by protecting the monuments – it is a social custom amongst the locals to go treasure hunting, and they do it in secret and at night mostly. Most will even smash bones to check there is no gold inside. That is also why they smash up khachkars – it is not done for religious reasons but because there is a folk belief that gold can be found inside the stone.

    • Perhaps you’re right David, and the skull is not the remains of an Armenian. So what then? Does it change anything about an Armenian encountering human remains in the ruins of an Armenian church and being transported back in time by the echo of his ancestors cries. The event would evoke no less for most Armenians. It is rife with symbolism and exposes the truth that can’t be buried.

  7. Most historic revelations point to the rise and fall of societies. One being the Roman Empire. The Ottoman empire has a similar heritage and now the remnants seem to be in two camps. One in denial, the other looking to find a way to reconcile and move on. With articles like this, hopefully, the transparency of what happened will be clearer and we can find a way to move on. Recognizing what happened is important, living a life in peace with our neighbours should always be the goal.

  8. The enormity of what was done to our people is far beyond the comprehension of one mind – even those of us who know the details, the reality sinks in slowly with each new encounter in unimaginable ways. And so, Khatchig who knows so much already and has seen and read, comes literally face to face with a victim and anew — what happened to us is given another dimension. Face to face — suddenly — we are all brought once more to the edge of the precipice – for like Vartabed Gomidas if we werere to really comprehend the enormity of what the Turks did, we would go mad. Thank you for writing and showing us again.

  9. Carolann,
    “… for like Vartabed Gomidas if we were to really comprehend the enormity of what the Turks did, we would go mad.”
    This is why we need a better word than “survivor.” Those who “survived” continued to suffer profound emotional anguish for the rest of their lives. You cannot see a parent butchered in front of you, a sibling raped and then murdered, or a child cut out of a living womb, and be described as a survivor. There has been a mountain of research done on this topic. Every bit of it asserts that the descendants of these “survivors” are marked in ways that they themselves are not always aware of. And, absolutely, the effects of Genocide are passed down for many generations. Some of us know how. My mother never stepped out of her house for the rest of her life without looking both ways up and down the street – just in case.


    • There are very few sites that match the description (church with a narthex and overlooking Lake Van) – so unnamed monastery is probably the St. Thomas monastery or the monastery at Deveburnu. Both are on the Deveboynu peninsula, which is far away from Van city.

  11. Yes Harry, innocent blood of Armenian Genocide victims still is fresh. Bones and skulls of victims, scattered all over Western Armenia…unfortunately world’s dirty politics stay as they were in 1915, when Barbaric Turks slaughtered defenseless Armenian women and children. Beheading “gavurs” in front of raped Armenian women was a common practice, where Jihadism, fanaticism and adventurism and orgy killing of indigenous people by Altai invaders was part of their indisputable culture and civilization, and way of life…

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