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On the Road to Exile: 100 Years Later in Kayseri

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Kayseri

While moving forward by rail to the Kayseri provincial borders, we take a two-day break to briefly explore the greatest Armenian Kingdom that ever existed, located at the foothills of Mt. Parsegh (known today as Ali).

Kayseri had a robust Armenian presence up until the 1970’s. Today, there are no active Armenian churches in the city, except for the Krikor Lusavorich Church located in the city center.

An Armenian map of Gesaria (Kayseri) (Efkere in red box)

Armenians also played a role in establishing the fame of the Kayseri sausage and pastirma. In 1915, there were more than 50,000 Armenians living in this large trade city; in 1965, it is said that 130 families still remained. Now, however, there are only a few Armenians left.

The city has an important place in Armenian religious history as well. In its heyday, it was Central Anatolia’s most important city. In 250 A.D., Kayseri had a population of 400,000; it was where St. Krikor grew up, was educated, and converted to Christianity. There are also a number of famous Armenian families, like the oil baron family of the Gulbenkians, who lived here. Their house is currently in use as the “Konak Restaurant.” The employees of this restaurant know and explain that the building used to be the home of some Armenian family, but give no name.

The people of Kayseri and the surrounding villages are not as reluctant to talk about the old days as the inhabitants of some of the other cities.

 

Vartan Village, Now ‘Vatan’

Our first stop in Kayseri is a village that has not seen many visitors: Vartan Village. Or, as it’s now known, “Vatan” (Motherland) village. The people living in the village don’t remember the old name. Or they don’t want to remember. But they know. The old settlement is now in ruins and new buildings rise in the village. Houses and streets are carved into the rocks, and in between animal shelters there are excavations going on. Everywhere one looks there are holes. We don’t know if these holes were dug in order to find treasure, or to protect farm animals from the cold. But at least the holes carved inside the houses tell us that treasure hunters once stopped here.

Vartan (Vatan) village (Photo: Aris Nalci)

No one is in the village except for a few households. From a window, someone yells at us, “They’re using this place as a summer retreat now.”

 

The Treasury Reclaimed the Church, but…

After Vartan, we continue onto Efkere Village (known now as “Bahceli”). Mt. Ali (Parsegh) always helps remind us of our location.

The Armenian Surp Stepanos Church in Efkere (Photo: Aris Nalci)

A majestic church greets us there. The dome has collapsed. We can gather it is an Armenian church from the Armenian “E” letter on the front door. We wander around the back. After we stop to take pictures of the dome and walk back to the front, we find an iron gate where the old door used to be. On top of this gate sits a key. Excited that we can actually enter the church, I turn the key, but the door doesn’t open. I take the key out and try again, but no luck. I’m disappointed.

I learn from the people in the house next door that the village children put this here in order to play a prank. I was probably the only one who was fooled by this practical joke. We continue to wander around the church, hoping to find someone who can unlock the door for us. I see a child watching us from afar and ask him where his mother is. He goes into the house and calls her out, “Mom, come and tell them what happened to the church!”

Efkere and its Armenian church years ago (Photo: Aris Nalci)

The woman leaves the food cooking on the stove and comes to us and says: “The Treasury came and reclaimed the church, and locked the door. And the key was sent to them.” In the past, one of her relatives was living inside the church, she says, but later “someone wrote about it, and they came and closed it up.” She seems unhappy about the incident. In the end, her relatives lost their home.

She adds, “They dug inside the church; it was plundered.”

It’s clear that treasure was searched for. But now the church is empty and abandoned. From what I could see by gazing through a hole in the door, the church was used as a garbage dump for some time. The treasury took it from the villagers, but there is no sign of any intention to begin restoration work.

At one point in the conversation, the woman says, “My food will overcook,” and runs back inside. She does not come back out.

 

Armenians with a Machine that Skins Dogs!

Now we’re in the village of Dersiyak-Kayabag. While walking from the village square to the outer streets, I feel like I’m walking through the non-Muslim quarters of Diyarbakır. Narrow streets, interesting houses with bay windows… At the end of the road there is an old lady sitting on her rooftop. It’s clear she wants to speak with us. We ask her where the church is. She points to the Greek Church across. She tells us how her mother explained to her that there used to be many Greeks living here, and how they were good neighbors. “Sometimes some people come over and ask questions, papers in their hands. But my mother used to say that those who left were far better neighbors. They were scared. The men in their families used to be rarely at home, she said, [so the women] would withdraw to their homes in the evening and wouldn’t go out. But the people of the village would protect them.”

‘Armenians brought a machine,’ the woman says (Photo: Aris Nalci)

Memories of Armenians are rife with gruesome events. Although she talks about the presence of only a few families in the neighborhood, we think that the number is far larger, given her account. Then, she says, “Armenians brought a machine. Somebody from the village saw it. The machine they brought down there is used for skinning dogs. They were supposed to throw people into that machine. Every year, on April 15 I think, they are doing stuff there. Why are they digging [at the past]? As if they haven’t done anything wrong themselves. When they do it, it is OK.”

The conversation shows us how the national education policies of the Turkish Republic have left indelible marks in the minds of even the eldest in the society. Then, we get up and lose ourselves in the back streets of Dersiyak.

 

‘Tavlusun Village Education and Aid Society’

Surp Toros Church in Tavlusun (Photo: Aris Nalci)

There are many stories to hear and places to see in Kayseri. We choose the Surp Toros Church on the Tavlusun hillside as our last stop. “Yes, yes. Armenian and Greek [churches] are side by side,” says the shepherd we ask for directions. We ask if there are any Armenians left and he replies, “No, they are gone.” His response is accompanied by a smile.

Tavlusun Village is now called Aydınlar. The first monument we see upon entry to the village is a Greek church. The garden has been plundered by treasure hunters. We see human bones in what we think could be the grave of a priest. My old companion’s heart goes out to the deceased, and he digs the soil to bury the scattered bones underneath. Two large monasteries stand side by side. Surp Toros Church is right next to the Greek church. There is a signboard by the Tavlusun Village Education and Aid Society hanging on the gate. Apart from the Krikor Lusavoriç Church in the center of Kayseri, this is the only place where Armenian traces are not hidden, are on display even. The village society needs to be congratulated and supported. The murals inside Surp Toros are largely damaged. All is rubble except for a few legible inscriptions on the ceiling. There is a deep hole where what must have been the candle holders on the right side of the altar once stood. Treasure hunters haven’t skipped this part either.

The interior of Surp Toros Church (Photo: Aris Nalci)

‘Cherkessized’ Armenians

There are innumerable destinations in Kayseri to be discovered. But the conversations in a Cherkes breakfast hall called Gubate in the city center opened up a new horizon for me—and doubtless, to many other Armenians. The Armenians rescued by the inhabitants of the Cherkes village and the “Cherkessized” Armenians are still around today, I was told. This is totally new information. I’m sure this is a story that’s been unheard by even most of the historians studying the Armenian Genocide.

I promise myself to visit the village next time I’m on the road. Then I set off with a huge saddlebag of stories and emotions.

 

Author’s acknowledgment: This journey was supported by Open Society Foundation, Istanbul.

A Greek House in Dersiyak (Photo: Aris Nalci)

 

The exterior of Surp Toros Church(Photo: Aris Nalci)

 

The Greek monastery in Tavlusun (Photo: Aris Nalci)

‘We see human bones in what we think could be the grave of a priest.’ (Photo: Aris Nalci)

16 Comments on On the Road to Exile: 100 Years Later in Kayseri

  1. avatar Minas Kojayan // December 11, 2015 at 12:57 pm // Reply

    I highly appreciate and recommend Mr. Aris Nalcis article on Armenian Kesaria, where I have been three times as a scholar and pilgrim. Good job dear compatriot, say the truth to the world.

    M.K.
    Jerusalem/Los Angeles

  2. avatar gregory ketabgain // December 11, 2015 at 1:14 pm // Reply

    Thank you Aris Nalci for your thorough reporting and pictures of the remnants of our culture. My father grew up in Kayseri and I have recently published his memoirs in “Leaving Kayseri” available at Abril Bookstore on line. You might also be interested in seeing the churches in Tomarza and Germer.

  3. Thank you, Aris, for shining a bright light on Armenian Kayseri.

  4. avatar Muriel Altiparmakyan // December 11, 2015 at 6:13 pm // Reply

    MMy husbands family was from Kayseri . I wastld that where the Mayor lives today was their family home. I had aKurdish fellow staying in Canada at my Bed and Breakfast and he told me there were passages between the houses and still today there are pieces of Jewellery found in these tunnels and in the gardens that The Armenians left thinking that they would be back someday.
    Today Kayseri is an Industrial city with very ethnic Muslim people pro Erdogan living there. But aso a lot of Kurdish people.

  5. Very interesting. I loved visiting derelict Christian and Jewish places while traveling around Turkey in 1990-91. I always found the local residents friendly and helpful.

  6. avatar Nouritza Matossian // December 12, 2015 at 8:25 am // Reply

    My maternal grandparents, Nercessians, were from Kayseri. My grandmother Hajigul Boyadjian came from a goldsmith’s family and her husband Artin, my grandfather had a large pastirma business sending dried meat to Ankara. After 1915 They were able to escape to Cyprus.
    This is an excellent article, Aris, matter of fact and very moving in your pared down descriptions. I had visited Kayseri in 1995 but we only saw the Church which was being restored and did not have time to go elsewhere. My Grandmother often spoke of Sourp Garabed on the hill and the summers they spent to escape the heat.
    Your photos also tell a tragic story. Thank you. More power to your writing and reporting skills. I look forward to reading more.

  7. My father grew up in Kayseri, left on the trek to Aleppo when his father was hung. He and my mother visited in the 1970s with a tour of other Armenians. When he learned that the tourists were Armenian one of the residents said “there are a lot of Armenians in Kayseri”. There are? “Yes, buried” as he flashed a big smile and pointed at the ground.

  8. Wonderful article. Very sad, but glad to see some traces of our roots in our historical lands. Thanks for your efforts!

  9. avatar Nadya Esenyan // December 12, 2015 at 10:37 pm // Reply

    Fabolous article.thankyou! My mother was born in Everek, Kayseri right after the Genocide as my great parents survived many years of Der el Zor.. my husband and I went to Everek this July. The Armenian church is also called Surp Toros has been converted into a mosque.we met the imam and he showed the house right across from the church and explained to us that the priest used to live here!!

  10. Thanks for all the comments. More articles will be coming on Armenian Weekly about other cities and in 2016 we will be continuing our job with a book and exhibition… Aris

  11. avatar Vicky Dilsizian Kherlopian // December 14, 2015 at 11:52 am // Reply

    Thanks for keeping our history alive. My father was 2 years old when he left Kayseri to go to Aleppo Syria. His father had lost his first wife and had to marry a relative because he would have ended up with a Turkish wife if he stayed single. That was the practice for women without husbands or men without wives so they can really integrate them to Turkish life.
    My father and his sister were born from this marriage but sadly after few years the first wife was found and even when they did not have children the church gave the honor to the first wife and my father’s mom left to Armenia with her daughter and my father stayed with his father and step mother in Aleppo. My father saw his mom when he was 65 years old visiting Armenia from the US.
    I feel so happy they survived yet so sad to hear about so many sad events.
    My father’s grandfather was a mayor of a small town and because he did his communications in Armenian they had to cut his tongue and their name changed from Deukmejian to Dilsizian without a tongue. My father’s dream was for his daughter to be an Armenian language teacher to change history from his childhood. I became an Armenian teacher and a principal later in the US. This fulfilled his dream. WE CAN do it he said! My powerful father…God bless his memory.
    Vicky Dilsizian Kherlopian
    Belmont Ma.

  12. avatar Katherine Sirian Shahinian // December 14, 2015 at 8:10 pm // Reply

    My parents were from Efkere, my father was able to escape but his entire family was killed. My mother at 8years of age was sent out on the road with her sisters and sister in law. Her mother in a wheel chair was left behind and killed, her father who accompanied them was killed at the first town and the girls were left on the road of misery. As everyone knows those who survived were sent to orphanages in Greece and Beirut. My mother was in Greece, my aunt in Beirut. I have no desire to visit this area as it is extremely painful to know what happened there. Thank you for the article and the insight you gained by exploring our past.

  13. avatar Sosy Kevonian // December 14, 2015 at 10:03 pm // Reply

    My paternal ancestors were from Gesaria, my maternal ancestors from Aksaray. I recently published my grandfather’s, Haig Ghazarian, memoires The Gesaria Carnages sold at Abril bookstore. My grandfather’s family were prominent in business and he himself studied at Robert College in Constantinople and was destined to manage their Manchester branch but because of his father’s illness he stayed in Gesaria and in 1915 was tortured and later deported to Aleppo than to Lebanon and so on…….

  14. avatar TrudyKasbarian // January 8, 2016 at 1:56 am // Reply

    My grandfather came from Kayseri…his name was Nishon Kasbarian. His wife, my grandmother was Lucia. I’d have to go back and look for the correct spelling but Lucia’s maiden name sounded like “Misourlian”. They came to the USA in approx 1919 (grandfather) followed by my grandmother and their 3yr old daughter Mary and arrived July 4, 1921. My dad was first one born in USA in 1922. So honored and blessed by my rich Armenian heritage and Christianity. God’s hand was on their lives and we are here today because of it.

  15. Im a Cerkez From kayseri. I know many Armenians were save by Cerkez at Pınarbaşı (it was Aziziye in Sivas)my village is Uzunpınar. There was very good relationship between Armenians and Cerkez. Maybe becouse of both of us have similar history.

  16. Excellent article, but I take exception to the statement that the dome of Surp Stepanos church has collapsed. What are you basing this on?

    True, the dome is not present, but it has been missing since at least 1919.

    The church is built solidly, and I think it far more likely that the dome was removed, in whole or in part, rather than that it collapsed on its own. The picture of the church is a bit misleading, as the building is built into the side of a steep hill. Thus, the area where the dome once was can be accessed fairly easily.

    True, removing it would be no small feet. It I think it even more improbable that it collapsed on this relatively new edifice that was constructed in the nineteenth century.

    Sorry to be so nit picky on this, but “collapsed” just seems to connote that it fell apart on its own, rather than having been purposely removed, or destroyed

    That being said, I applaud your excellent, and important, article.
    Jonathan Varjabedian
    http://www.Efkere.com

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