American Armenians and Western Armenia: Rebuilding the Connection

For many decades, generations in this country have uttered, “We are Vanetzi” or “Our family is Kharpetzi.” Another popular one is, “We are proud Sepastiatzis.” To some, especially the new generation, the question is what does that mean? Well literally, it refers to a family lineage from a particular region of our historical homeland in western Armenia. In past generations, the location of your birth was a proud identifier since an independent sovereign state had been denied to the Armenians. After the genocide and the forced expulsion of our ancestors from a land they had known for several millennia, many of the new immigrants formed compatriotic unions or organizations of people from the same area. Some still exist today. My own grandfather and several relatives belonged to the Koch Hisar Miyoutouyn which consisted of individuals from that village region in Sepastia. As time marched on and the organizations gave way to new groups, the distinct geographic labels continued with succeeding generations. Whether it is for preserving local cuisine or family history, it has continued in some form to this day.

For several years, I taught Armenian history at a summer camp. I would always ask my students if they knew where their geographic roots were as we studied geography. Several were aware and would share their knowledge with the class. For those who were unaware, I would encourage them to speak with their parents and grandparents to seek answers. It was always gratifying to meet students during the year at public events, and they would share their new knowledge of their identity. Many would point to a map exactly where their immigrating generation had come from.

Can our history survive solely on surface knowledge?  

But what does this mean to third and fourth generation removed (from the homeland) American Armenians? How do we make our currently lost Western Armenia a reality for our young people and not a seemingly distant footnote in our vast history? Can our history survive solely on surface knowledge? I believe there is an answer to these questions that is both contemporary as well as historical. We are fortunate. We can prevent the loss to this generation. We have opportunities that range from personal/family connections to important work on the contemporary impact of the removal of Armenians from this historic land. Similar to most work in our greater nation, it has both personal and communal benefit.

The emergence of genealogy as a method to connect the missing dots of our lineage has given many with western Armenian roots access to new information concerning their family trees, origins and ancestry. DNA testing and genealogical analysis have even opened the possibility of discovering “new” family members. It has revealed an exciting sense of identity for those two or three generations removed from the immigration. George Aghjayan, who recently wrote about a personal search for family in his native region, has provided incredible leadership in Armenian genealogical processes by conducting several workshops around the United States. He has also maintained a sustained effort of new research and is always advising and supporting an interested public. George is lending a valuable service as knowledge and personal connections are part of the first step in preserving our western Armenian identity. The beauty of this opportunity is that it is personal and literally available to all of us. I would encourage all Armenian families to explore their family history and build a renewed identity with their roots through the available genealogical work. It is a gift for your children and grandchildren that they will cherish.

Another area of identity with Western Armenia is one that takes on a more communal and immediate need that requires a concerted effort to save our churches, monasteries and other relics in the historic homeland. Most lie in ruins waiting for the elements or local intervention to complete their destruction. Some such as the majestic architectural gem of Mren have serious structural damage and risk total collapse. Others such as the cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar have been superficially restored to benefit Turkish tourism, while on occasion “allowing” the Armenian pilgrims one badarak per year. The ruins of Ani have aroused the economic interests of the Turks. Imagine the cruel irony that the Turkish government murders and deports the faithful and now seeks “blood money” from the tourism. Even the restored and functioning St. Giragos in Diyarbakir was severely damaged and impounded by the government during the Turkish assault on the regional Kurdish population.

The cut in half Church of the Redeemer in Ani (Photo: Flickr/Christian Koehn)

What is additionally disturbing is the silence of the Armenian church to restore and recover the many vestiges of our civilization. Whether it is the Patriarchate in Istanbul or the Holy See of Cilicia or the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, this issue has been generally ignored as time marches on. Where are the grassroots campaigns? Where is the political pressure? Where are the teams of Armenian engineers, architects and activists working to apply influence to international groups? How about all of us who proudly claim to be Vanetzisor Kharpetzis or Dickranagerdtzis applying that identity to a real contemporary issue that connects our lineage to today?

Some of you may remember the lawsuit filed by the Holy See in Antelias for the recovery of property in Sis (the seat of the Holy See until the genocide). It was rejected by the Turkish courts (no surprise) but also by the European Court, because it was not appealed first to the highest Turkish court. Despite the tactical flaws, this is an excellent strategy to bring visibility and restoration to our properties. The Patriarchate in Istanbul has negotiated some property recovery in Istanbul only, but the leadership has been unstable and the Turkish “decisions” are duplicitous and politically motivated. Is it possible that the churches’ absence has been a jurisdictional issue? With the Patriarchate unstable from this and other issues of need, perhaps others are reluctant to cross traditional jurisdictional boundaries. Regardless, a pan-Armenian effort should be created that brings together the disciplines of political activism, art, architecture and engineering to address this challenge. It will be difficult to organize and to secure success, but if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Some of these churches date back to the 7th century. This is our civilization. As the descendants of the victims, we are the caretakers. Their loss will be permanent and on our watch! Matthew Karanian’s recently published book The Armenian Highland is a superb source of information that illustrates where these monuments and churches are located. I would suggest using this text as a means of education in order to encourage activism. We must first start by applying pressure to our own institutions to embrace this important issue. The lonely and abandoned await our decision.

Many of us grew up with the notion that western Armenia was depopulated of its indigenous Armenians through the murder and deportations of the genocide. Rumors persisted of Armenians who survived and were subjected to forced conversion to Islam or grew up as ethnic Turks or Kurds. The last 20 years has brought forth the miracle of the “hidden Armenians.” These are the descendants of survivors who either secretly have retained their identity or are rediscovering that lost identity. Imagine the courage and perseverance to not only retain, but pass on that connection to their descendants. Simply remarkable. The question remains: how will their Western Armenian brethren respond? Will we acknowledge their plight but keep our distance? Will we use our resources to encourage their journey? After all, the difference between us is insignificant if you consider our ancestors may have been on the same death march. The margin of survival was small when one managed to escape and one was perhaps abducted or taken in by a Turkish or Kurdish family. Yet today, we live in the comfort of life in this country, and they struggle with who they are in a perpetually hostile environment. At times we choose to ignore our identity, while they take courageous steps to recover. Such irony! These are unexplained differences in our fate, yet 100 years later, there is an opportunity for our paths to cross.

Is it possible for Armenians not to be of the Christian faith?  

I have often thought…how is it that we were graced with opportunity of this country after the tragedy of the genocide? Today, I believe that it is our responsibility to use our blessings for the benefit of others. It is what inspires many to contribute to Armenia and Artsakh. It should also be what inspires us to understand and support the emerging “hidden Armenian” community. Similar to working for Armenia, the personal benefits of this effort will far outweigh our investments. It is a complex issue. Most do not speak Armenian, but many are learning especially in the Diryarbakir region. Many are obviously raised as Muslims but converting to Christianity or have secretly retained their Christian identity. An interesting question for all of us to consider: is there room in our hearts for those who wish to discover their ethnicity but not convert to Christianity? The churches’ response thus far has to welcome those who convert but ambivalence towards others. Is it possible for Armenians not to be of the Christian faith? Is there a difference between converted Armenians to Islam and Armenians who are atheists or secular? Difficult questions indeed that may rock the core of who we are, but it is our reality. Incredible as it sounds, the impact of the genocide leads to new discoveries over 100 years later. This can be part of a greater recovery that starts with awareness. I highly recommend Avedis Hadjian’s Secret Nation as a great source of information about this journey of identity survival. From there, let your heart guide you.

Well, there you have it. Three contemporary opportunities to exercise your western Armenian lineage and contribute to pan-Armenian challenges. We must teach our children the depth of their heritage by finding connection points in our language, music, literature, history and politics. Our lost brethren and standing churches are waiting for the opportunity to reconnect with the descendants of those who were forced to leave. If our culture is to survive in the diaspora, our connection must be deeper than occasional pronouncements of our geographic roots. It can be much more rewarding. Our churches and monuments must be saved. Our people emerging from a period of wandering are returning. Imagine…restored churches and Armenians in the western highlands. It is a noble vision. Your presence and actions will help make this vision a reality. Our international church has a responsibility, but it’s our responsibility to remind them and urge a call to action. The Turkish government is not friendly, and the odds are long. To that, I say who would have predicted that in 2019, Armenia and Artsakh would be celebrating their 28th year of independence? We have witnessed miracles, and with faith, we will experience this revival.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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  1. A wonderful, thought-provoking article, Stepan! Thank you. In answer to your question, “Is it possible for Armenians not to be of the Christian faith?” I would say, of course! Hamshens/Hemshins as wells as Armenians who are atheists, Buddhists, and Baha’i, just to name a few!

  2. Thank you Stepan for reminding those reading that Western Armenia is not a forgone conclusion. Rather it’s a geographical and cultural reality that must not be forgotten, but rather reclaimed, albeit with careful analysis and caution so that efforts are successful. One step at a time as they say.

  3. Why does no one ever talk about the tens of Armenian castles in Cilicia? We spend all day complaining about ruined churches while we forget that we also have a lot more heritage which is not ruined. We have a lot more cultural history than churches which needs to be remembered.

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