The Keys of Mother Arax

An essay by Catholicos Karekin II of the Great House of Cilicia (1983-1994), later Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians (1994-1999), collected in his anthology Հող, մարդ եւ գիր (Echmiadzin 1996). This translation is dedicated to the people of Artsakh, whose land will never cease to wait for their return. 


This is the spiritual record of a 1972 pilgrimage along the Iranian side of the River Arax to the ancient monastery of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, elaborated with historical details taken from the chronicles of Arakel Tavrizhetsi, and written particularly under the impression of the desolated landscape of Old Julfa. 


Ruin was on all sides: death, collapse, houses guttering in flames. A baleful desert wind had begun to blow over Armenia, a wind which seemed to hunger for the Armenian highland. Often enough already, it had released its malignant breath over the land and the Armenian people living and creating life upon it. Did it take some pleasure from the Armenian soil? By its bitter-breathed visitation, homes were reduced to rubble, churches to ruins, trees to cinders, fields of grain to trampled straw, and people to corpses or beings like corpses, wearing under the names of “captive,” “exile” and “refugee” the very shadow of death. 

 The seventeenth century had newly opened over Armenia. The yoke of slavery was manacled fast around the necks of the Armenian people. The Ottoman ruined and plundered. Taxes oppressed to the point of strangulation. Even breathing had become a kind of torment. Armenia’s buoyant and invigorating atmosphere had become stifling for her native children. The hope of some reprieve had given way to a passionate thirst for liberation, a prospect whose horizon, however, remained so unfathomably distant as to seem unattainable. 

But a gleam of hope suddenly shone from the East, when the people, stooped and gasping under the weight of oppression, heard that the Shah of the Persians was coming to battle the Ottoman Sultan. When the Shah and the Sultan clashed, when force neutralized force, the Armenian expected the yoke to become lighter upon him, to open his chest and breathe freely and deep, to sing his plow song and enjoy the bounty of the soil with a calm heart and unconstrained delight.

With hope spreading from their hearts to their hands, the Armenians opened their arms to welcome the new king, the mighty lord of Persia, Shah Abbas, whose fame had reached Armenia from distant Isfahan long before he arrived. 

When, crossing the Arax River, the Shah set foot on Armenian soil, the lively people of the flowering settlement of Julfa—princes and nobles, artisans and merchants, city-dwellers and laborers, young people and old adorned in clothing “shot through with gold” and “wonderful to the sight,” priests with burning candles, precious frankincense, smoke ascending ring on ring from brimming thuribles, choirs and musicians with songs “befitting to the day,” pure-hearted children in the tender springtime of life bearing golden cups of sweet and fragrant wine—led the august monarch of Imperial Persia over roads bedecked in many-colored carpets from the bank of the Arax to the center of their prosperous city, the stately home of Khoja Khachik.¹ Perched on his seat of honor in that ornate mansion, the son of the khoja, golden tray in hand, offered gold heaped on gold to the gold-hungry Shah. As though entering into competition with the hospitable Prince Khachik, all the other prominent Armenians brought gifts worthy of their illustrious city, offering the best portions of what they had saved in order to satiate the Shah and to rid themselves of what would otherwise surely be taken by violence—“everything, even all of their livelihood.”²

For three days and three nights, there was revelry in Julfa. The king was honored and welcomed in the most lavish manner, witnessing greater luxuries with each passing day. The people of Julfa fed the Shah with delectable foods and fortified him with wines delicately perfumed with the scent of the flowers of Armenia, rendering to him everything that is fitting to a king…

The king observed, and he saw. But no one else could see what he saw. None could read the thought that was taking form in his mind. The Shah did not see only gold. Beyond the wealth, his gaze found its source, that Armenian facility which had amassed it from stone and soil, sea and river, from distant parts of the world, from all manner of trades and arts: the constructive and creative will which here in the stark isolation of the mountains had built up the city of Julfa into a center of commerce and a haven for new feats of craftsmanship. In the proud testimony of the contemporary historian Arakel Tavrizhetsi, “It was a great and illustrious settlement at that time, renowned in all the Eastern world.”

He saw. What he saw, he did not say. He stored it away in the folds of his mind and journeyed on into the depths of Armenia—Yerevan and Van, Baghesh and Arjesh, Manzikert and Alashkert, Ani and Berkri, Artske and Basen, Gandzak and Shirak, Kars and Kaghzvan, and he reached as far as Karin. He saw it himself. He saw it through the eyes of his generals and soldiers as well: everywhere the same people, subject to trial and persecution, laboring under the extremest burden of taxation, a people who kept their land green, wrought cathedrals out of the mountain cliffs, a people who marked their graves with curiously woven stones in the image of crosses blooming into flower. A people who turned the deserts³ of their monasteries into oases of the mind, who drew the subtlest colors from the roots of trees, fashioned parchment from animal skins and made pens of reeds, pens which brought forth an abundance of miniatures and illuminated manuscripts. 

The king saw.

And all at once his mind flew back, returned to his newly constructed capital of Isfahan in the arid interior of Persia, and he thought of the glory he had yet to build for himself…The king was a man of lofty dreams. He wished to build a capital to match the greatness and wealth of his empire. He wished to trace the borders of his empire with the compass of his heart’s urgent desire. He needed graceful hands, productive hands, capable merchants, experienced and versatile artists and artisans, whether from Europe or any other part of the world—only let them be in his capital, for his capital. 

The king saw. 

And the idea that had ripened in his mind saw the sun and came to life. He decided to tear these people from their native country, take them from their own land into Persia, and especially to that place for which his heart beat most fervently—Isfahan. 

His order was abrupt and irrevocable. The mighty emperor knew that an even greater force, under the command of Sinan Pasha, was arriving to repel his advance into the depths of Armenia, over which the Ottomans considered themselves lords and masters. Time was short. The people were many. The road was long. It was necessary to move quickly. 

First he sought with persuasive words and rhetorical art to create the semblance of a voluntary exodus. He called for the eminences of the Armenians and said to them: 

“You have heard, no doubt, that the Ottoman armies have reached Karin and even now are on the march into the depths of Armenia. Soon they will arrive. Our army and theirs will surely meet. Among their ranks number many ‘brigands and bandits and rogues,’ adventurers who know neither law nor order, neither authority nor command, men who, heedless of their commanders and careless even of their own lives, will attack simple people, rob, destroy and plunder, commit outrages against families—and you will surely fall victim to ruin or captivity at their hands. In my mercy, I wish to deliver you. Therefore, let all the children of the Armenian nation come out from their homes, their villages and cities and journey ahead for a few days, so that when the Ottoman armies arrive we may do battle against them. If the Almighty graces us with victory, at that time the people will return to their homes and will remain as our subjects. And if the Almighty grants the victory to them, we will depart and you will return to live as their subjects.” 

The council of the Armenians fell to consideration. Their leader and guide was Father Hovhannes, a learned and thoughtful priest, much devoted to the nation, whom the people in their affectionate and familiar way called “Agha Derder.”

It was autumn in Armenia. A green-tinted yellow was scattered over the mountains and fields, like manna from God’s invisible fingers. After the weary effort of spring and summer, the people deservingly waited for the soil to give birth, to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The grain of the fields had come out in golden ears. The threshing grounds had woven towers and walls of grain-sheaves around themselves. The storerooms of the Armenian homesteads were empty, but cleaned and swept in the hope of receiving their winter inhabitants—root vegetables from the Armenian soil. The grapes in their clusters had begun to glimmer yellow and red; they were filled with life-giving juice. The treading-basins had been prepared, and the clay jugs gave off a glint like the light from happy eyes, prepared to receive new wine imbued with life from the sun of the Armenian world. 

The Armenian nobles looked for a long time at the fields and the threshing-floors, the orchards and barns. It was beautiful, this Armenian world. There was a sweet breath of laughter in the lives of the Armenian people as they braided their own pattern upon the work of God’s hands. Armenian life was boiling over with activity. Everyone was ardently given over to his or her own work. They had to provide for the winter ahead. How could they travel at this, of all times? How could they leave the pregnant fields and the laden orchards? How could they bury the hope of tomorrow’s life? How could they abandon a single stone, a single bush or scrap of ground, their ancestral homes, their churches domed on the peaks of hills, standing out of the gorges, embroidered in stone into the mountain slopes? Where else should they go? And why? Especially in this autumn season, their native land was so sweet to them, its scent so enchanting, that going away seemed a thing as grave and as unthinkable as suicide. 

The eminences of the Armenians went to the Shah and said to him:

“Great king, you see that it is autumn now. We have only just celebrated the Feast of the Cross. This season is our time for working. None of the people have made preparations to leave. Everything they own is still in the fields, or on the threshing-floor, or hanging from the branches of trees. We have no pack-animals or other means of transportation ready. How can we take to the road like this? The able-bodied might walk, but what about the elderly and the children? So we ask your Greatness to delay your command until spring, when we will all be ready to leave.” 

After relating this episode in living words gathered from witnesses to the scene, Tavrizhetsi, the historian of the day, adds: “Thus they spoke, that perhaps the hour might pass from them.”

Like their heavenly teacher given over to spiritual agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, they wished for this cup to pass from them, because they sensed that what was offered, presented with such diplomatic cunning, was the cup of death. Their departure from Armenian soil would mean a twin death: the death of the people, and the death of the land. To leave the land for good and all, to renounce the land, would mean subjecting to an earthquake the ground of their collective national existence. 

Like their heavenly teacher given over to spiritual agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, they wished for this cup to pass from them, because they sensed that what was offered, presented with such diplomatic cunning, was the cup of death. Their departure from Armenian soil would mean a twin death: the death of the people, and the death of the land. To leave the land for good and all, to renounce the land, would mean subjecting to an earthquake the ground of their collective national existence. 

But this device of the Armenian elders was all too transparent to the sharp eyes of that seasoned diplomat, the Shah. It was like child’s play to that resourceful master. Shah Abbas’s intention could not be diverted—it was necessary to take the Armenians to populate his country, to mix their sweat with his soil. Such an irrigation would doubtless bear fruit; he himself had seen that rock-quarry called Armenia—and the people who brought forth life and art from the rock. 

Not heeding the pleas of the Armenian leaders, he sent his generals into various provinces of Armenia, some that he had seen, and others he had learned of from his subordinates. Amir-Ghouna, Allahverdi and Mahmoud, along with other commanders who have remained nameless, received an order from the king: “Wheresoever they might undertake it, to drive the people abroad and leave nothing breathing to remain.” With whetted swords and appetites, the generals fell upon the Armenian provinces “as fire driven before the wind passes through dry reeds,” and with swift movements wrested the inhabitants from their native places, turned them out from the homes of their fathers, and drove them like flocks or wild herds to the Ararat Plain. “And they filled the wide plain from horizon to horizon.”

Tears in their eyes, their eyes on the land, the Armenian multitudes looked for a final time at their houses consumed in flames, heard the crackle and shudder of blazing logs. They saw the crops their hands had brought forth going up in fire and smoke, and instead of the smell and taste of warm bread fresh from the tonir they breathed in the stench of the inferno. All of Armenia burned. The country gave way to a spectacle of scorched fields and incinerated forests, shattered villages and cities. 

And all of this was to ensure that the advancing Ottoman army, confronted with a wasteland, would be unable to feed itself and redouble its advance. 

A classic policy…

But not only that. 

So widespread and forceful was the campaign of burning and destruction that in the mind of Shah Abbas it was also and especially a device to break the people from their age-old strongholds and cradles. The first reason was military strategy—to leave desolation in the path of the enemy. But the second motive was a political one. It is to this second intention that the historian alludes when he concludes his description of these heartrending scenes with the words: “So that the people, seeing all of this, would become broken-hearted and never more return.”

Shah Abbas was not afraid of the people. 

But he was afraid of the love for the soil that was nested in their hearts. 


After killing the land—and that in such an excruciating fashion—there followed an attempt to eradicate the love of the soil from the people’s hearts. Because the Shah had not only seen the orderliness of the land and its masters’ skilled industry; his eyes had penetrated further to read the love of the fatherland stored up like blood in the hearts of the people. 

What the Shah had seen was witnessed also by a 17th century Portuguese traveler, the Augustinian priest Father Antonio de Gouvea:

“It moved the heart to see this orphaned people, and what they were doing before the gates of their city. Some fell to the ground, embraced the soil, kissing it again and again; others made their farewells to their fatherland and habitations in such heart-wrenching words that it was as though the very walls had consciousness.”

In identity with their inhabitants, the walls became “walls of lamentation” at the moment of their distress. After such long years of intimacy and friendship, those walls could not have failed to receive the love and spirit of their inhabitants, whose warm breath and hands’ caresses were traced layer upon layer into the very stone and mortar. 

It was as though the land bore as much love for the people as the people had for the land, suffering with them often, rejoicing on rare occasions. When the people were with the land, a fountain rose up from it. When they mixed their hands in the soil, grain and grape, bread and wine, life and gladness sprang forth. When the cliffs felt the fine and able touch of their masters’ wonder-working hands, they ceased to be cliffs and became sacredly carved, patterned and eloquent stones, column and statue, arch and dome, khachkar and monument. 

The land has a heart of its own, if we have a heart to feel its heart beating.

The land has a life of its own, if we have breath to feel its life breathing.

Fire could burn the grass of the field, the stalks and the heads of the grain, the branches and fruit of the trees, the posts and beams of the houses. Blows could break down wall and pillar, pulverize statue and khachkar. But neither fire nor violence could reach the heart of the land and of the stones, where the Armenian heart also beats. 

The heart of the land belongs to the Armenian people. Its secret ways are known to them alone, because they have put their heart there, sowed their life there. Because their ‘treasure’ is there, their entire history. And the people know well the words of their beloved Heavenly Teacher, Jesus: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

But it would be premature to submit ourselves to the overwhelming current of such meditations. I will continue to follow the historian and his account; there is still much to see in his picture of this people, depicted on the road of exile with the love of the land remaining its soul. 


The land has a heart of its own, if we have a heart to feel its heart beating.  The land has a life of its own, if we have breath to feel its life breathing.  Fire could burn the grass of the field, the stalks and the heads of the grain, the branches and fruit of the trees, the posts and beams of the houses. Blows could break down wall and pillar, pulverize statue and khachkar. But neither fire nor violence could reach the heart of the land and of the stones, where the Armenian heart also beats. 

Amassed in hundreds of thousands, in great haste because the Ottoman army was at the Persians’ heels, the Armenian people were brought out of the heart of their country, the Ararat Plain, and driven into Iran. 

The crossing of the River Arax is one of the most calamitous events in the known history of the Armenian people. I will pass over it, so as not to repeat descriptions so often repeated, sketched in stark black lines by the pens of Armenian chroniclers, annalists and historians, descriptions of a kind which send anguish spiraling from the heart to the bowels. The many drowned in the water were joined by the many devoured by the sword. When all was done, the number of the dead equaled the number of the living survivors. 

Here is just one small corner of that panorama of human destruction, like a single detail in a heaving seascape summoned up by Aivazovsky’s brush. A detail which is the most significant of all, the most characteristic of our people and its sacred marriage with the land. There is an invisible, mystical narod4 binding our people with its natural world. 

A narod which many men and states have tried to unravel, supposing that the divorce of the two would be the death of both.  

A narod which Armenian grandfathers have always passed down to Armenian grandchildren, with a Khrimianesque blessing.5

A narod whose history has been told in a thousand and one episodes by the likes of Tlgadintsi, Zartarian, Hamastegh and Oshagan; those who immortalized the Armenian soil with the wondrously formed power of our written language before returning to dust and earth themselves.

And here is one scene in the history of that narod, which shines forth lucidly in the otherwise sad and revolting, death-colored history of the Armenian people’s exodus from Julfa. 

The Shah had seen Julfa. The luster of the Julfans’ golden presents had shone into his eyes and remained there. As a guest in the house of Khoja Khachig he had seen what skilled tradespeople they were, their facility for commerce. Among all the people deported from Armenia, the Julfans had a special place in the mind of the Shah. With care and caution he made arrangements for their exodus to Isfahan. 

He assigned this delicate task to his general Tahmazghuli, a Christian apostate of Georgian origin. The Shah prepared a decree instructing him to drive the people of Julfa “expeditiously” into Persia “and leave none to reside there, not even a one.” For him, the skill and grace of every last Julfan was a stone in the city which he would build to his glory. 

Tahmazghuli gave his assignment a ceremonious character. He called for the city elders. In the public square, in the presence of the people, he read the decree in which it was plainly ordered “that they should rise up out of their places and go into the land of Persia.” He threatened to put to death by torture anyone who dared to disobey the rule of the all-powerful Shah. Then heralds ascended to the rooftops of the city and with voices like alarm bells proclaimed the order to every Armenian household. In their high, strained voices, the heralds screamed:

“We give you three days’ term to leave the city and to set out for Persia. In three days, if any man is still found in the city, we will punish him and his entire family with death, and appropriate all of his goods. And as for malingerers or those who try to hide, their properties will belong to whoever can reveal their hiding places, and their heads will belong to the King.”

The command smelled of death to a people who had witnessed much death already. Their minds and hearts had no more room for the idea of death, for more grief and anguish. The reddened waters of the Arax were reflected red in their pupils, like a fog darkening the sun. With tears in their eyes, the natives of Julfa began to gather their belongings in preparation to depart. 

Many of the soldiers, along with bandits gathered like predatory birds from the surrounding Turkic villages, entered the city, and the looting began. It was a marvelous opportunity—not one to be missed. The plunder was rich, their appetites sharp and insatiable. 

Abandoned in spirit, drained of strength, broken-hearted and plundered, the people of Julfa left their homes and, stream on stream, began to pass over the roads of their city toward the edge of the Arax River. They had heard the river’s monotonous sound every day of their lives. But it was a song sweet to their ears, sweet as a folktale telling of centuries long gone by.6 The river was the source of all the order of their lives. The gentlest and most loyal friend they had known. They had woven songs on its banks, joined in play with its lapping and chuckling waves and their thousands of graceful games. And now, for those who had fallen into the waters and remained there, the river had become an all-consuming grave, and, for those who passed over alive, a barrier of thorns separating them from their fatherland. 

Like rivulets of tears, the people passed side by side over the roads of Julfa to gather under the city walls. The walls defending the city had become walls of lamentation. Some of the people mourned for their homes and workshops, others for their native soil, some for the churches and others for the graves of their forebears. With piteous voices, with tearful laments, they departed from all they had built up with fervent songs of love and exultation.  

Near the city gate was located the Church of the Holy Mother of God. The priests had convened there, and they had gathered together the keys of all the churches, intending to hand them over to the Blessed Virgin for protection. The multitude pressed in around the priests. They brought the keys of their own homes, joined them to the keys of God’s House, and together with the priests, they began in a unanimous voice to bring their hearts forth from their lips; beseeching with every thread of their being, they prayed:

“Holy Mother of God, you who gave us the Key of Life, our beloved Jesus, you who know that we have opened the doors of our hearts with His heavenly key, the Holy Gospel, you who know that we have cast all of our keys in the type and likeness of your Holy Son, we now entrust the keys of our churches and homes to you, so that you may return us from those foreign places where we are being driven.” 

Love for the land.

Veneration for the native home.

Did they depart, or did they remain?

They were departing with that which was bodily removable—their fleshly existence. But they would remain with that which was above the conditions of time and space—with their soul, which that day had absorbed like a sponge all their love for their native soil, their fatherland, their unbreakable feeling for their own country. 

The River Arax flooded over strangely that day. The reason was not the streams of tears welling over from Armenian eyes. Mother Arax, that age-old witness of Armenian suffering, had taken many tears into herself already. 

The river ran over that day because, after committing the keys of their spiritual and physical homes to the protection of the Holy Mother of God, the Armenian priests and people cast them into the Arax, and the Armenian river took them like holy relics and stored them away in its bed. 

The last consolation for a people orphaned from their land—with a sacred covenant, they entrusted their patrimony to their mother, the Arax River.  

And this took place in the year ՌԾԴ of the Armenian calendar, 1605 A.D.

Artsakh Armenians on the road from Stepanakert to Goris (Siranush Sargsyan)


It was the month of May in the year ՌՆԻԲ of the Armenians, the year of our Lord 1973. 

I was walking on the old road along the bank of the Arax. Spring was on all sides. The river was high, cloudy water surging up against the banks all along its wandering course, and clamoring endlessly. On the opposite bank was the stateliest cemetery of the Armenian people, the eternal habitation of many thousands of Armenians whose good fortune it was to close their eyes and take their rest in Armenian soil. 

The survivors of Old Julfa had crossed over to this side of the river and traveled deep into the southern provinces of Iran. The dead had remained on the other bank and, mingling with the soil, returned flesh and bone to the earth, but remained alive thanks to the Julfa khachkars, those most beautiful examples of the Armenian art of memorial sculpture, immortalizing their memory and preserving their spirit.7

My eyes linger very long over this forest of tombstones. The words of the poet suddenly take life in my memory, circling over the distant landscape. 

As a tree to my dead have I planted this cross.”8 

It seems to me that in the absence of their living people the khachkars have become trees, symbols of the endurance of the Armenian people, of our nation’s forward-looking life. Some are grown over with moss. Some have lain down on the ground. Some have slumped halfway to the earth. Many have remained standing, proud even in their four hundred years of orphanhood. 

There is nobody there to light a candle upon them, to burn incense on their pedestals, to recite a litany for the souls at rest and sing “In Supernal Jerusalem” in their memory.9

All at once, the stark mountains of Armenia meet my eyes like inextinguishable candles grouped around the khachkars, the clouds around their skirts like bands of fragrant smoke, the melodious chuckle of the Arax River like a hymn inaudible to mortal ears.  

O happy dead! 

I sit on the bank of the Arax, on a cliff unviolated by the long centuries, and I watch the river. Memories of centuries long past rise again in my mind. And at that moment, the most insistent of those memories is that of the keys to the churches and households of Julfa…

Where are they now, those keys? In what crevice of the riverbed are they hidden; under what layer of murk are they buried? My eyes search in vain. The Arax is impenetrably cloudy. And cloudy it must remain, in order that none might search out and discover the keys of Armenia, which have locked inside themselves the love of Armenia’s soil and homes, of the Church and of the Fatherland. The keys were cast into the water with prayer, with tears, with sacramental mystery. They, too, have hearts, and they know their true owners. The Arax has spread its heavy gray sheet over them. The river has promised to keep them until their owners’ return. And the Arax will not run clear until her people come home. But before the eyes of the Armenians, the river is always prepared to tear open her curtains of silt, to become as transparent as a tear, as mirror-glass, so that all the keys of Armenia might come to light once more. 

And my mind encounters in the waters of the Arax all of those keys which the people of Armenia have buried in the land, concealed in the clefts of the mountains, kept under stones or in caves. 

And these are suddenly coupled with a memory from my childhood in the village of Kessab. Whenever we villagers left home as a family, after locking the door, we would keep the key in a hole in the wall, or under a stone, or in an opening in the trunk of a tree, someplace where it would remain far from the crooked gazes of crooked men. 

So when the Armenians were forced to depart once and for all from the homes of their fathers, having at best a faint hope of return in their hearts despite their unyielding faith and burning will to come home, where did they keep their keys? 

In the riverbeds and deepest gorges of the Arax and the Akhurian, under the pillars of Ani, inside of walls, wherever the keys would remain concealed from sidelong eyes, not fall captive, so that the enemy would never use their tongues to open the houses of Armenians. 

Let them break in and destroy. Have they not destroyed enough already?

But let them never rule over the Armenians’ land, their private homes—the highest and most inalienable of human and national rights—with Armenian keys made by Armenian hands. 

Keys, keys of Mother Arax—

Admit no rust to yourselves. The Armenian hands which made you, used you, kept you sacred, which wait for you even now—you will always belong to these hands, which long for you eternally.  

Keys, keys of Mother Arax—

When the clamor of the river subsides for a moment, open your ears and hear the song of your makers’ children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the new and unswerving generations of Mother Ararat. 

From the depths of my heart, I die with longing for the land of Armenia.10

Keys, keys of Mother Arax— 

Your sleep has lasted very long. Do not fear. Your master is awake. Alongside with you, the water has kept the voices of your owners, who entrusted you to the maternal protection of Mother Arax and the Mother of God. Let these voices, mingled into the current of the Arax, fresh and evergreen as unfading flowers,11 be as a melancholy lullaby to your centuries-long slumber, sounding in chorus:

Return us from those foreign places where we are being driven.

Sleep easy, until the day when you hear your owners again, the voices of the sons of the sons of the sons of their sons, singing:

“Awake, new people!”12

And at that time—

May the doors of hope be opened once more for the ineradicable nation of the Armenians.13


1For Persian Armenians of the 16th to 18th century, khoja or khawaja was an honorific used for prominent merchants.

2See Mark 12:44. 

3Անապատ, “desert” in Armenian, is the name for the part of a monastery reserved for postulants and anchorites.

4A narod is a string wound from white and red threads representing the water and blood that ran from Christ’s side at His Crucifixion (John 19:34), used to place the cross around a child’s neck at baptism. Kept throughout life, the baptismal narod is traditionally used to crown bride and groom during the marriage ceremony, and finally interred with the dead. 

5Mkrtich Khrimian, popularly known as Khrimian Hayrik, was the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople and the Catholicos of the Armenian Church from 1893 until his death in 1907. Karekin is referring to his work “Պապիկ և Թոռնիկ,” “Grandfather and Grandson,” a book of instruction and exhortation addressed with parental warmth by Khrimian to the Armenian people.  

6This sentence quotes from the poem “The Tears of the Arax” (Արաքսի արտասունքը) by Raphayel Patkanian (1830-1892).

7Since the time of Karekin’s writing, the ancient cemetery of Julfa and its tens of thousands of khachkars dating back to the sixth century have been systematically destroyed by the government of Azerbaijan, which currently controls the province of Nakhichevan. 

8The quotation is from Levon Zaven Syurmelian, (1905-1995), a survivor and orphan of the eradication of the Armenians of Trabizon in 1915. Karekin intentionally exchanges the positions of “cross” and “tree” in the original line.

9A requiem hymn of the Armenian Apostolic Church: In supernal Jerusalem, in the dwelling-place of angels, where Enoch and Elijah grow old like doves, worthily glorified in Edenic paradise, Merciful Lord, have mercy on those souls of ours who have fallen asleep.

10Words from a 20th-century Armenian popular song.

11A reference to the hymn Antaram dzaghig (“Unfading Flower”) dedicated to the Virgin Mary, attributed to the fifth century historian St. Movses Khorenatsi. 

12From a 12th-century hymn written by St. Nerses Shnorhali, sung during the nighttime offices of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The full line reads: “Awake new people, taking up a new song to Him who renews all things.”

13“The doors of hope” is a quotation from the poem “Cilicia” by Nahabed Rusinian, which, set to music by Ottoman Armenian composer Gabriel Yeranian (1827-1862), has become a beloved Armenian song.

Thomas Toghramadjian

Thomas Toghramadjian

Thomas Toghramadjian is a deacon of the Armenian Church and a graduate student of Armenian literature at Yerevan State University.
Thomas Toghramadjian

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  1. I went along that same old road in 1993, in a jeep with an Iranian soldier who prevented me taking any photos. On the Azeri side a ruined medieval mausoleum stood alone among green fields – it has since been so over-restored by Azerbaijan that it looks newly built. Then came the celebrated ruined bridge with its central pillar still standing in the middle of the Arax river, and a huge ruined caravanserai; Iran has since given the latter a heavy Iranian-style “restoration” and a vast park and leisure complex, complete with mosque, holiday chalets and dozens of picnic gazebos, has been laid out next to it. Then on the Azeri side came a little medieval chapel, named “Hoviv” or Church of the Shepherd, built half way up the cliffs. It was demolished a few years before the Julfa cemetery’s destruction. Next, on the Iranian side, was another “Church of the Shepherd” that closely resembled its namesake in Azerbaijan. Despite being located near the road, I was not allowed to get out of the car or photograph it. This medieval church also no longer exists: after a disastrous “restoration” attempt it was demolished to hide the mistakes, and then rebuilt, then demolished again since the rebuilt form did not look anything like an Armenian church, then rebuilt a second time and opened as a working church. News of this off-message fiasco was suppressed by Armenian Church authorities and community groups in the name of good relations with Iran. Then came the famous Julfa cemetery, like “hundreds of spikes on a hedgehog” I recall thinking at the time. I also recall thinking how remote and forgotten this whole ensemble of monuments was, and that surely their very remoteness will protect them. In 1993 I could never have envisioned the calamitous destructions that were to come.

  2. I delight in: reading this excellent translation, learning of Karekin as an engaging and heartfelt story teller, learning of our Julfa history.
    Thank you!

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