Mental Snapshots from My 1998 Journey
By Peter Cowe
Los Angeles, CA
My trip to Western Armenia with Armen Aroyan in 1998 was an enormously memorable experience. Armen himself is a true explorer who spends a great deal of time researching and planning all aspects of the tour he is organizing, is very open to accommodating special requests for sites to visit, and is passionate about continually expanding his repertoire of tour venues. Our group itself was very diverse, featuring an archbishop, a few academics, and a number of notables, a well-known photographer and a range of wonderful couples, families, and interesting individuals. We melded together extremely well and developed a real esprit de corps and sense of common purpose. What follows is a set of images that have etched themselves in my memory.
Istanbul: This is where our paths intersected at the beginning of the trip, but it was an event on our return to Istanbul that has stayed with me. A group of us took a taxi on a tip for a good place to go for dinner. As we alighted, a passer-by happened to hear us speaking Armenian and approached. He turned out to be one of those many Armenians from the hinterlands that are only now coming to greater prominence. He ran a rug dealership at the street corner and invited us for coffee afterwards. Aware of his heritage, he was proud of the Armenian language he had been able to learn.
Caesarea: We took a small plane to Kayseri where the trip really got underway with a liturgy at the Church of St. Gregory celebrated by two vardapets from Istanbul. I was struck by the church’s vast internal space and sumptuous gilded woodwork, a testimony to the local community’s piety and craftsmanship. We also visited the other Armenian Church still standing in the city, now a gymnasium, where a judo lesson was in progress. As we continued our journey to Historic Armenia by bus with Jemal and his son, the view was dominated by snow-capped Mt. Argaeus for most of the day, before entering Cappadocia’s lunar landscape around Goreme with its rock-hewn churches.
Palu and Havav: How refreshing the twin springs are there. One of the party found her grandfather’s house in one of the villages. The current inhabitants invited her inside and offered the group tea and water, welcome hospitality under the hot sun.
Kars: Here we were joined by the Scots architect Stevensim, who devotes his summer vacations to reviewing the preservation of Armenian monuments in the region. River, bridge, fortress, and church all conveyed a sense of the city’s importance. Peering through the chinks in the padlocked Arakelots church door, we could see the original high Armenian bema with the tall 19th century Russian iconostasis still in place. Since then it has been partially removed to facilitate the church’s new role as a mosque.
Ani: The site was under military surveillance and cameras were off limits. We lost valuable time waiting for a permit, so the visit onsite was truncated. Amid the splendor of the churches, we could not help observing the sad effects of graffitti, especially over the frescoes in Tigran Honents’ Church of St. Gregory. In the mosque of Manuche one of the soldiers on guard drew me towards the window and, pointing to the Armenian Republic across the Akhurian gorge, shouted, “Ermenistan.” Continuing animatedly in Turkish, he stressed that Armenians are good people. He promptly left as others entered the building. He was probably an Armenian on military service.
Bagaran: It was twilight when we passed the point on the Euphrates where St. Gregory baptized the Armenian court. The site is really numinous, as its name implies. Some day I must go back. Later, the confluence of the Akhurian and Arax Rivers taught us a powerful lesson. Everywhere we went we attested the reality that Western Armenia is a land of water, reaffirming the hero’s words in Hrachya Kochar’s novella Nahapet.
Malatia: After a long day in the bus it was good to stretch our legs in the cool of evening on a quick break in the main square. Suddenly we saw a familiar sight, an Armenian Church in the center of town, now abandoned.
Tigranakert: This was one of the highlights of the trip, across a bridge over the mighty Tigris, its arches highlighting the river’s massive girth. The city is very distinctive with clear indications of its Christian presence; the large Greek church now transformed into the main mosque, the Chaldean Church in a small lane leading to the Armenian one, both still functioning. The latter was impressive with its seven altars. There, too, the woodwork sparkled in its golden hues. The roof of mud and wattle had collapsed during a previous winter under the pressure of a heavy snowfall. This sparked lively discussion about its repair. Then we were treated to hospitality by the one remaining Armenian family next door. The market was also striking with its typically Middle Eastern ambience resembling Jerusalem, Aleppo, and Cairo, a tightly-packed maze of small stalls tempting passers-by with spices, sweetmeats, etc.
Old Walled City of Van: The site evoked so much of Armenian history from the Urartian citadel and the shrine, ‘Mher’s Door’. We witnessed the remnants of churches in the Armenian part of town and wondered about the thriving community they used to serve.
Lake Van: As we rounded the northeast of the lakeshore, we came across a map reference that seemed to indicate the location of the important medieval Armenian scriptorium of Metsop, which aroused the explorer in us. It led us along a small mountain road deep into the countryside. After a while, though, we realized our track was cold. Returning to the lakeside, we headed south into the region of Vaspurakan.
Aghtamar: Hardly had we alighted from the bus when one of the group attracted our attention to the sign near the jetty at Gevash from where we were to take the boat to the island. She had been on Armen’s tour a number of times, but had noticed something new. The reference to Gagik, King of Vaspurakan, responsible for erecting the church, now for the first time, explicitly acknowledged his Armenian identity. Is this linked to a recent spike in Armenian tourism to Eastern Turkey?
After a careful study of the frescoes and sculpture and a moving prayer in the sanctuary, we returned to the shore. The evening provided the end to a perfect day. Sitting upstairs in the restaurant at Gevash, leisurely enjoying a meal of local fish from the lake, we watched the sun’s slow descent over the island.
Khorkom: Our brief evening visit was enchanting: the brightly colored dresses of the local Kurdish women, the reflection of the lakeside waves in the sun, and Mt. Sipan rising in the distance.
Varag: The well-preserved monastic complex with a church, gavit and other structures stands right in the center of a Kurdish village. Next to it a mosque has recently been built. The encounter between Archbishop Ashjian and the Imam was fascinating. The latter was enormously proud to be talking to the Archbishop in Arabic, the sacred language, a point he made several times to the group of villagers that gradually formed around them. This was their second meeting. On a previous trip the Archbishop had appealed to him as men of God to safeguard the sanctity of the Christian shrine from litter. The Imam had kept his word and the church was spotlessly clean. The Archbishop asked him to maintain his vigilance and said he would try to come again. Individual initiatives do have an effect.
Mush: We arrived at the hotel to an unusually warm welcome. The hotelier and local tourism director greeted us at the door with bouquets and folk musicians. We were escorted to a banquet hall on the third floor for a spread of food, drink, and entertainment. It turns out we were the first large tour group to stay there since the establishment was refurbished. In the evening, talk turned to issues of Genocide, and we had one of the frankest discussions with some of the locals on the topic. The next morning, on a tour of the city, a local guide pointed out some houses said to have been built with ‘Armenian gold’.
Msho Sultan Surb Karapet: Our visit to the famous monastery of St. Karapet (John the Precursor) outside Mush was one of Armen’s major new successes. The significance of the event was marked by a Turkish military escort and the televising of the requiem service and interchange with the Kurdish community that now inhabits the structures, originally built to accommodate the continual flow of pilgrims to the shrine. The extensive ruins of the main church and subsidiary chapels with cross-stones (khachkars) and inscriptions were an impressive sight, heightened by the physical setting on an eminence, commanding a spectacular view of the plain below.
Sasun: There is only so much you can see in two weeks. This time around, Sasun was not one of them. However, as we sped along the main road we came across a sign indicating “Sason” was 40 km up a side road and decided to stop for a photo op. By the time we got out, the sign was gone. Two workmen had removed it and were now in the process of dismantling the sign for traffic in the opposite direction. A new road had been built some kilometers ahead, due to the construction, of a dam and the signs were to be relocated. Ergonomics.
Bitlis: Passing through the Bitlis gorge was another natural wonder of the trip. The deep valley with jutting cliffs, thick, dark green foliage, and a narrow winding road clinging to the edge, is a memorable sight. We experienced a typical feature of its microclimate. A violent rainstorm raged for about an hour as the bus gradually struggled up the cliffside. When it abated, we looked back down the valley to see a beautiful double rainbow. We stopped briefly at the city itself in the late afternoon. It, too, is an impressive piece of town planning terraced on ridges down the mountainside, in its own inimitable way.
Erznka: The region of Ekegheats‘ in the far northwest of traditional Armenia preserves a range of important sites from different periods. Originally part of the royal lands, it maintains some distant ties with the Arshakuni house, such as the tradition that King Trdat III is buried at Tordan. The Armenian Church there is still intact because the villagers are Alewi and have no formal mosque structure. Its unusually intricate and finely-carved dome seems independent of the lower part of the church. Our visit coincided with that of two brothers originating from the village, now wealthy businessmen in Istanbul. Still, they were concerned about improving the supply of water and electricity to the village and discussed the possibility of repairs to the church in the context of heightening the village’s tourist profile.
The major earthquake in the Shirak region of 1988 reminds us that Armenia lies on an active seismic zone. The modern hotel we stayed at in the regional capital of Erzincan was architecturally one with the city as a whole. All the buildings were post-war. Nothing is left from older times. Human ties are much more enduring. Despite the prevailing taboo to be open about Armenian family ties, one of the friendly young waiters at breakfast mentioned, very matter-of-factly, that his late uncle was Armenian.
Avag Vank‘: Our visit to this significant medieval Armenian monastery and school was another of Armen’s new achievements. The two remaining churches are located in an idyllic setting high in the mountains overlooking a river. Its relatively inaccessible landscape required a walk of about one and a half hours from the main road. The escort of Turkish soldiers proved very valuable in assisting many of the older but fiercely intrepid group members, who refused to stay by the bus and forego the hike. At some point, as we walked along the riverbank, I met a group of four local boys playing around, obviously curious about our group and its mission. As we were to discover, the monastery has excellent natural camouflage and cannot be seen from the valley floor. At a confluence where the river divided into two and I was considering which way to proceed, the boys ran ahead and beckoned me to follow up the steep ascent to the monastery. Returning to the bus a little worse for wear but enormously exhilarated, we all contributed to give a gift to the soldiers as a sign of our appreciation for their assistance. For their part, they courteously declined. It was all in a day’s work.
Sebastia: We arrived at this capital of Lesser Armenia by night and had some time the next morning to explore the center before a sub-group continued on to Cilicia. After visiting the exquisite Seljuk medrese, some of us checked out the wares at a local rug dealer. Those on sale in the main store were modern, so we asked to see some older samples. For that, we were ushered into another warehouse on the other side of an inner courtyard. The owner showed us a beautiful example from Karabagh, in red and powder blue. Too bad, I didn’t have my credit card with me. One of the group asked whether he had any Armenian carpets. He showed us a rather small plain rug in yellow-brown with no design. The date, which was woven into the rug, however, spoke volumes. Stitched into the upper part were the digits “1915”.
Cilicia: Passing the military compound that encloses the remains of the monastery of St. Nshan on the outskirts of Sebastia, we made our way south to Cilicia. Four days there is not enough to take in all the Armenian legacy that remains, but provided an excellent introduction to return to another time: the rivers, ports, hill country, passes, and forts that lend the region its distinctive character. Sis, Tarsus, Adana, Lambron, Anazarba, Korikos and Ayas all beckon the traveler back for a deeper acquaintance….. some day, with Armen, in the not too distant future. Yeghitsi!