Searching for Historic Armenia after 100 Years

…And Finding that There’s Enough to Fill a Book

Special for the Armenian Weekly

The last boat had just departed Aghtamar Island and I was on board, heading back to the mainland near Van, when a young Kurdish man sat next to me.

He was wearing a sweatshirt from an American college and after we both realized that we shared a common language—English—he told me his story.

He and his wife were on spring break and he was visiting his in-laws in Van. When break was over, they’d return to school in Michigan. They had jobs awaiting them in Batman, a town not far from Lake Van’s southern shore, after graduation. He, his wife, and both their families were all natives of Van.

And me? I was an American, I told them, and I was traveling around Turkey.

I try to keep a low profile when I travel, and I didn’t see any reason to mention that I was an Armenian American.

But clearly, my acquaintance was puzzled. Americans rarely travel to eastern Turkey, and they seldom spend so much time in remote locales such as Van, Diyarbakir, and Kars—three of the places I told him I had recently visited.

As the boat approached the shore, my Kurdish acquaintance sought clarification. “So, you’re American? Or you’re Armenian?”

I acknowledged that I was both. And I told him that my family, too, was from Van.

My enthusiasm about traveling in this part of the world had made him suspect I was more than just American. That, “plus you look Armenian,” he said. With that, our conversation stalled.

Western Armenia doesn’t get many foreign visitors. Even Armenians—the people for whom this land is named—mostly stay away. So it was not surprising that my presence on the boat would arouse mild curiosity among the Kurdish passengers.

I traveled to Western Armenia in search of an Armenia that I wasn’t sure still existed. And I told anyone who asked that I was just a visitor from the U.S.

I understand why we Armenians have stayed away.

My four grandparents are from Western Armenia. Both of my grandmothers survived the death marches that swept them away during the summer of 1915. So I understand that this is not a vacation destination, and that no Armenian wants to unwittingly support the Turkish economy by traveling to this part of Armenia.

But for many years, I have wanted to find out if we Armenians were wrong to have stayed away during the century following the Armenian Genocide.

This is the heart of the Armenian homeland, and after a century of absence, I also wanted to find out if there was anything Armenian there that was left to see.

So I traveled to Western Armenia in search of an Armenia that I wasn’t sure still existed. And I told anyone who asked that I was just a visitor from the U.S.

Two Armenian clerics, including the Acting Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, officiate at the annual Badarak at Soorp Khatch, on the island of Aghtamar, on Lake Van. Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, reprinted with permission.
Two Armenian clerics, including the Acting Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, officiate at the annual Badarak at Soorp Khatch, on the island of Aghtamar, on Lake Van. Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, reprinted with permission.

 

Searching for Armenia

Armenia’s a big place. It shouldn’t be hard to find. If you were a migratory bird, you would fly over it when you visited the region’s three great lakes: Sevan, Van, and Urmia. This is the Armenian Highland, a place that for endless centuries has also been known as the Armenian Plateau.

Those lakes are still there, but these ancient geographic names have been erased from most modern maps during the past century. The native inhabitants of these lands have also been removed and replaced.

Finding the Armenia in this land, therefore, would not be as easy as just checking a map, or knocking on someone’s door. Finding Armenia would require more effort than a single trip or pilgrimage. Armenia is too big and has become too hidden for any of that.

Finding the Armenia in this land, therefore, would not be as easy as just checking a map, or knocking on someone’s door. Finding Armenia would require more effort than a single trip or pilgrimage. Armenia is too big and has become too hidden for any of that.

Instead, finding the Armenia in Western Armenia would become, for me, a project. This was fitting. I was a professor when I first traveled to Armenia, and as everyone knows, when professors, or writers or photographers, travel, they are almost always working on a project.

I started my project in Van, back in 1997.

Karmravank, on the southern shore of Lake Van, stands in defiance of the significant vandalism it has suffered during the past century. Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, Reprinted with Permission.
Karmravank, on the southern shore of Lake Van, stands in defiance of the significant vandalism it has suffered during the past century. Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, Reprinted with Permission.

Van didn’t have many visitors back then. The region’s Kurds were fighting for independence, and the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish nationalist group PKK had deterred most foreign travelers. I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when I was greeted on the airport tarmac by a phalanx of armed Turkish soldiers, their automatic rifles at the ready.

I had been warned that Van was dangerous, and that I shouldn’t wander the city alone at any hour of day. I was also told to stay off all roads after dark, because of banditry. So I instead made my way to Aghtamar—the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Aghtamar Island that is located just about an hour outside of Van. I was the only non-Kurdish person on the boat to the island that morning, and when I entered the church, I was alone.

Aghtamar is a sanctuary that can make a person forget time.

Inside the cathedral, my mind did the wandering that I had been forbidden from doing elsewhere in Van. I thought about the siege of Van. I thought about the centuries that preceded the siege, and about leaders from Van such as Khrimian Hayrig. I wondered about the large branch of my family that is from Van, and which, according to some historians, participated in the Defense of Van.

After a while, after I don’t know how long, a group of visitors entered the cathedral and interrupted my wanderings. I looked and watched as Archbishop Mesrop Ashjian walked through the door, followed by his entourage. My lament that I was the only Armenian at Aghtamar ended as we sang the “Hayr Mer,” and listened to the words reverberate across the ancient walls and spill over the weary hills.

Sixteen years later, I was back at Aghtamar again. This time, in 2013, Van was safe for travelers. This time, instead of singing the “Hayr Mer” secretly, and with a concern that the authorities might arrest us for doing so, we were singing openly. This time, we were singing as part of the annual Badarak that the authorities now permit to be observed at the cathedral.

Someone told me that if Armenia was an iceberg, then Aghtamar would be the small part that you can see above the waterline. But is this the right metaphor? For me it seemed too clean, too sanitized.

I thought of Der Zor, the killing zone in the Syrian Desert that was the final destination of the death marches. The sand is thick with the bones of genocide victims there. In some parts of this desert it has been said that if you kick the sand, Armenian bones will rise to the top.

Maybe Aghtamar is one of those bone fragments. Maybe the rest of Western Armenia is hidden just beneath the soil, or has turned to dust. Maybe if I kicked the soil a little, I could uncover the Armenia that was destroyed in 1915.

Maybe Aghtamar is one of those bone fragments. Maybe the rest of Western Armenia is hidden just beneath the soil, or has turned to dust. Maybe if I kicked the soil a little, I could uncover the Armenia that was destroyed in 1915.

From 1997 until this past year, my search for what is hidden beneath the soil in Western Armenia would eventually take me to all six Armenian provinces—to Erzerum and Kharpert, to Bitlis and Sebastia, and to Diyarbakir and Van.

At times I traveled with a Kurdish driver. He would frequently stop and ask villagers for directions to a remote Armenian monastery or church. During my research in Mush, their reply was always the same: You’re looking for the gold?

I had been looking for Soorp Arakelots, a monastery that was standing tall in 1915, but which is today reduced to ruins. Soorp Arakelots is deemed by many locals to be a source of great wealth. For a century, vandals have chiseled at its foundation and excavated beneath its altars, searching for the treasures that the Armenians are supposed to have hidden before they were expelled. Armenians know, however, that the true treasure is located above the ground, in the form of the church, itself.

In Palu and Chunkush, and in the hills surrounding Van, I observed the same conditions at Armenian churches. Deep holes have been dug beneath the altars, and at the entrances. When the vandals discover that there’s no gold or treasure, they leave, disappointed. But they don’t restore the condition of the church. The excavations weaken the structures, and in time the churches collapse.

Children walk in the churchyard of Soorp Echmiadzin, a sixth century church in the region of Van in historic Western Armenia. Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, Reprinted with Permission.
Children walk in the churchyard of Soorp Echmiadzin, a sixth century church in the region of Van in historic Western Armenia. Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, Reprinted with Permission.

 

Looking for the ‘hidden Armenians’

My search for the Armenia in Western Armenia went beyond churches and stone crosses, or khatchkars. I also sought out the descendants of the genocide. I found some.

In Zara, a small town outside of Sebastia, I met two brothers who say they are certain that they are 100 percent Armenian. They were reluctant to meet with me at first, unsure of who I was, and unsure if it would be safe to be open about their Armenian identity to a stranger.

They are open about one thing, however. They are to be the last Armenians of Zara. The two men each married a Turkish woman, and their children will be raised as Muslims. There’s no option for them, they say, in a town without an Armenian community.

In Diyarbakir, my search for Armenia reached its zenith. Soorp Giragos, the Armenian church in the center of town, has been renovated and restored to use as a church, and not merely as a museum, as is the case with the cathedral at Aghtamar. The Kurdish community has welcomed the return of Armenians, and Diyarbakir’s leadership has expressed its desire to see Armenians reintegrate into society.

I met with members of the Armenian community of Diyarbakir—a small group that mostly avoids the spotlight, but that nevertheless exists. We know them as the “hidden Armenians” because they have, for one century, kept their identities secret in order to avoid persecution. Today, however, they are becoming more open and more accepted.

One century after the genocide, attitudes toward Armenians in some parts of Western Armenia, by some people, are slowly evolving. Despite this modest change, I mostly kept a low profile during my travels as I went about my business of researching and photographing the surviving Armenian churches, monuments, and people.

I discovered that there is still a wealth of Armenian sites that are worth visiting, and preserving, all throughout Western Armenia. The region of Kars and the capital of Ani, which are both in the geographic region known as Eastern Armenia, are also a treasure trove of Armenian history. There are enough sites here to fill a book. And so I did.

A Kurdish child walks past the memorial to the Armenian Genocide in Diyarbakir. The message on the memorial is written in several languages, including in Armenian, and states "We shared the pains so that they are not suffered again." Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, Reprinted with Permission.
A Kurdish child walks past the memorial to the Armenian Genocide in Diyarbakir. The message on the memorial is written in several languages, including in Armenian, and states “We shared the pains so that they are not suffered again.” Photo © 2014 Matthew Karanian, Reprinted with Permission.

 

What the future holds

One century after the genocide, everything hasn’t been lost. This Centennial year of the Armenian Genocide presents an opportunity for us to reflect on how to preserve and restore and rebuild what’s left of our homeland.

One century after the genocide, everything hasn’t been lost. This Centennial year of the Armenian Genocide presents an opportunity for us to reflect on how to preserve and restore and rebuild what’s left of our homeland.

It’s impossible to generalize about an area as vast as Western Armenia, or about the attitudes of everyone who now inhabits this land. Some of the current inhabitants speak warmly of the missing Armenians, and express sympathy for what happened in 1915. In Diyarbakir, they’ve even erected a memorial. Elsewhere, there are many who still express hostility toward Armenians.

Earlier this year I was a passenger in a cab on the Asia side of Istanbul, and had just finished explaining my destination to the driver when the cabbie asked me if I was Armenian. I answered truthfully.

The driver’s question had been prompted by a question of my own. I had asked the cab driver to take me to an Armenian church. He drove 100 meters and then pulled over and told me to get out, surrendering a good fare for the satisfaction of tossing an Armenian onto an unfamiliar street.

When I finally made it to the church with the help of another cabbie, someone more hospitable, the Armenian priest wouldn’t talk to me.

A parishioner told me the reason. I had been asking a lot of questions about the history of the Armenian community in Turkey. The parishioner knew otherwise, but he couldn’t persuade the Der Hayr that I wasn’t really a spy. Hostility and mistrust are just two of the issues that will confront Turks and Armenians if we attempt to rebuild and recover what we’ve lost.

After all that I’ve seen, however, I still don’t have an answer to one of the leading questions that I had sought to answer. Were we Armenians wrong to have stayed away from our own homeland for the past century?

Instead, my travels raised yet another: If we Armenians stay away for another hundred years, what will we have left to commemorate in Western Armenia in 2115?

 

Matthew Karanian, Esq., is the author of Historic Armenia after 100 Years (Stone Garden Press, $39.95, pub. date Feb. 15, 2015). This is the first guide to the culture and history of Ani, Kars, and the six provinces of Western Armenia. Order now for the pre-publication price of $35 postpaid in the U.S. from Stone Garden Productions; PO Box 7758; Northridge, CA 91327, or order online at www.HistoricArmeniaBook.com.

Matthew Karanian
Matthew Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif. He is the author of ‘The Armenian Highland: Western Armenia and the First Armenian Republic of 1918’ (Stone Garden Press, 2019). For more information, visit www.historicarmeniabook.com
Matthew Karanian

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15 Comments

  1. we don’t need to see historical ruins or be present in Armenian communities or speak the language to retain our Armenian identity many in silence keep the heritage alive with or without the church but we share an obligation to let our children be aware of their glorious past.

  2. Great piece! You really capture the uncertainty of these interactions well. I remember having the same feeling (“do I tell?”) when I was in Istanbul and Diyarbakir, and I was lucky to have positive experiences when I did answer truthfully. Nice pictures as well!

  3. Why hide you are Armenian when in Turkey? When you duck the question, you arouse more suspicion. When I am in Turkey I always say I am Armenian when asked. 95% of the time, I get positive reactions. For the others, too bad for them.

    • “Why hide you are Armenian when in Turkey?”

      because you might be attacked, savagely beaten, or even worse ?

      [Turkish taxi driver attacks Armenian woman beating her]
      http://www.panorama.am/en/law/2011/10/10/turkey-taxi/

      {A Turkish taxi driver has become furious when he heard his passenger was an Armenian; he insulted and attacked the Armenian woman beating on her face, Armenian language “Marmara” magazine writes.

      According to the source, the Armenian woman, whose name is preferred not to be mentioned, called a taxi and having a different accent she was asked about her nationality. “Are you Jewish or Armenian? When the taxi driver heard the woman was an Armenian, he attacked her, beat her and threw her out of the car.}

      happened Oct 2011.

  4. I travel frequently in Turkey, including Western Armenia. I tell everyone who asks me why I’m in Turkey that I am an American Armenian and I am visiting my grandparents homeland. If they ask further, I tell them that my grandfather was from Adana, and my grandmother from AfyonKaraHissar. I will tell them as much as I can before our interaction is over. Why? Because they do not know their history. Because they have been lied to. Because in meeting me they come face to face with the faceless Armenians. I have never been treated poorly. I have only been met with great hospitality from a curious people. I had a woman in Istanbul apologize to me on behalf of her family for any involvement they had in the genocide. It is time to stop holding accountable an uneducated people and focus our blame on the deniers.

  5. I was cruising The Black Sea in Oct. 2014 including Istanbul, Trabzon & other parts of Western Armenia. To some nozy Turks being Canadian was not enough answer, they ask my ethnic background. O.K. You want to know, my ancestors are from URFA, I am GAVOUR Armenian. Suddenly they come to their senses and apologize “NO Sir, we don’t say that anymore”.

  6. . As a 100 % Armenian, I want nothing to do with a Muslim controlled land, no matter that it is our homeland.
    I take no comfort in seeing the destruction of our churches, persecution of hidden Christians, and the remnants of our noble civilization.
    It is only heartbreaking.
    Look to the future and build a New Armenia in land we control.
    Strengthen Yerevan.
    Build our communities in the Diaspora.

  7. I would never tell Turks in Turkey I am Armenian.
    First of all, what business is it of theirs?
    Are they planning a dinner perhaps, in my honor?
    I think not!

  8. We shouldn’t avoid visiting the homeland, see it, feel it, touch it…we shouldn’t avoid the reality of today as painful as it can be…

  9. If a curious Turk questions ones ethnicity reply with the following response Ben bir ermeni olduğumu diyene ne mutlu which translates as how happy is the one who says I am an Armenian:)

  10. j have been to turkey on numerous occasions,and found that no one bothered me when i told them i was Armenian,in fact it seemed as they were told not to cause a disturbment with us,i tried to get a reaction from many turks,to no response.i even told them i speak turkish,and swear @ them still no reaction, i truly feel they have been told to stay away from any altercation with Armenians.

  11. It is very dangerous almost suicidal to say your Armenian in a cab being a woman alone!!!! However if you are skilled in the martial arts SCREAM YES I AM

  12. I truly cherish the writer, photojournalist, historian and a true Armenian Proff. Mathew for sharing such a vivid presentation and description on our ancient homeland .

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