IN SEARCH OF OUR ROOTS
An Armenian Odyssey
By Archdeacon Charles Hardy
In May of 2000, we journeyed to Historic Armenia and Cilicia, longing to find traces of the lives of our uprooted ancestors. Our group of nineteen was led by Armen Aroyan.
The journey began in Gesaria (Kayseri) where we were met by our two drivers who took us to the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, one of the few functioning Armenian churches in the interior. Its altar reminded me of the altar of St. Mesrob Church in Racine. There we had a prayer service and visited Antranik Erkuyumju, the chairman of the parish council. The Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul arranges annual pilgrimages to this church on the feast days of St. Gregory.
A short distance away in the hills is the town of Talas. There we toured the building and grounds of the former Talas American College where many Armenians had once studied. Continuing our trek, we found the home of Sarkis Tekyan and his mother, Vehanoush Maryam, the only Armenians left in Talas. During our visit, Sarkis took me to what was once the home of the Racine Gulbankian family so that I could take a picture to bring back to my friends.
Having lived in Racine all my life among Armenians who are mostly Tomarzatsis, I had heard much about their Surp Asdvadzazin Vank (Holy Mother of God Monastery) and the Church of Sts. Paul and Peter. What was once a large complex, the monastery has been reduced to a few layers of stone here and there and a semi-circular structure which had once been the altar site. With me was my Tomarzatsi friend and fellow Racinetsi, John Barootian, who had brought with him a book about Tomarza written by his father Haroutune. I had brought a copy of a picture of the exterior and interior of the monastery as it stood during its prime and gave it to John as he told about the places mentioned in his father’s book. When the local Turks saw the picture, they became excited and inquisitive. One of them went inside a building and made copies.
A short distance from the monastery is the Church of Sts. Paul and Peter, now used for storage by the municipality. The exterior is intact. What was most interesting was the interior. There are discernible frescoes on the walls, and the rail of the altar curtain is still there. Above the altar area is an inscription which is still very legible, taken from one of our sharagans. “This is the table of holiness and here is Christ the sacrificial lamb of God.”
As we visited the vank and church, my mind went back to my childhood and growing up years. I thought of Haji Mugurditch Hajinian and John’s father, Haroutune Barootian, with whom I had sung sharagans at St. Mesrob years ago. I also thought of my beloved Armenian school teacher, Khacher Dadian, better known as Varjabed (teacher). He had been a teacher in Tomarza and was an authority on Armenian liturgical music, having written a two-volume book published by the Mkhitarists of Venice in the late 1950’s. These men, long deceased, had once sung in these sacred places. I was again hearing their voices, but this time in their beloved Tomarza.
Our journey continued to other places in the province of Gesaria. We walked down the streets of Evereg (Develi) and located the Surp Toros (St. Theodorus) Church now used as a mosque. Armenian inscriptions imbedded in its exterior walls are vivid reminders of what was once there.
Efkere (Bahceli) was the village of my father-in-law. Still standing there is the Surp Stepanos (St. Stephen) Church. While its exterior is intact, the interior is in ruins. Yet within these walls can be seen frescoes of the four evangelists as well as numerous crosses adorning what was once the altar and the church’s dome. As we walked through the village, we saw some ladies sitting in front their house. We asked if there are any Armenians living in Efkere. One elderly woman sadly shook her head and said, “How we wish they were still here. They were good people.”
We left Gesaria and headed toward Sepasdia (Sivas). Three siblings in our group, Vahan and Zarouhi Sarkisian and Almast Sahagian had parents who were from two of its villages. We listened silently as they retold the stories they had heard from their parents.
Khorsana (Dikmencik) was the first village. There we met a couple of Turkish men who were very cordial and took us to the area where the Armenians had lived. We located the well that the Sarkisian family used. Nearby were the foundation stones of the homes. It was heartbreaking to hear them tell their mother’s story.
While visiting their father’s village, Gavra (Durulmus), we were wandering through the narrow dirt streets looking for any evidence of what might have been a church. As we were walking, I spotted a cave-like structure and entered. What I found was amazing. There on the walls were carved small crosses and a couple of niches. This must have been a worship site, perhaps part of church or chapel. There we sang the sharagon of St. Nersess Shnorhali, “Aravod Looso” (Morning Light), in honor of their father who had once sung in the village church.
Tokat, the home of Zaroohi Der Mugrdechian’s grandmother, is a picturesque hilly town. We climbed its winding streets to the old Armenian neighborhood and listened as Zaroohi told the sad stories of her grandmother’s life. Wherever we went, the same questions entered our minds. Does our family house still exist? Which one might it be?
Marzvan (Merzifon), the town where Armen Dildilian’s father lived and worked as a photographer, was also the home of Beverly Ghazarian’s mother. Armen was able to find his father’s home and studio. Anatolia College, founded by American missionaries, is where his parents were married. Today it is used by the military.
Kars, once a capital of ancient Armenia, is the location of one of the most historic Armenian churches, Surp Arakelots (Holy Apostles), built by the Armenian Bagratid King Abas in 938 A.D. I had seen the church when I visited Kars in September of 1999. At the time, it was locked, and we were unable to see its interior. When we questioned the locals, they told us that it had been a church, then converted into a mosque, and that it would soon become a museum.
As we neared this church on my second visit, we heard the muezzins’ call to prayer from two opposite directions. Noticing that the church door was open, I ran inside and quickly took a picture. The rest of our group followed. The muzzein, however, was very obstinate and did not permit us to enter further. This gem of Armenian Church architecture is a mosque now!!!
Richard Mushegain’s father was from a nearby village known as Karakala. In September 1999, our group tried to locate it and found two sites but unable to determine which was the actual village site. This time a family we had met the year before took us to a different place located next to Lake Aygir and told us that this was once Karakala. There were patterns of stones throughout the area which appeared to be foundations of houses and roads. Will we ever know the exact location of this village?
As we drove south, we stopped at the Arax River. There on its banks we sang the beloved song, “Mayr Araxie” (Mother Arax).
After visiting Ani, Aghtamar and Van, our next stop was Bitlis, the ancestral home of Rev. James Kizirian’s grandfather. We located Djaboorgor, his grandfather’s neighborhood, and the former Armenian homes. Some had Armenian letters carved into the blocks and dates as well.
Rich in Armenian history is the Sultan Surp Garabed (the Forerunner, one of the names of John the Baptist) Vank located near Moush (Mus). Its origins date back to the time of St. Gregory the Illuminator. This place is often off limits to tourists because of the ongoing fighting between the Turks and the Kurds. We obtained permission to visit but had to be taken there with a military escort of two jeeps of armed soldiers and an ambulance.
The present name of the village is Changli. As we entered, the villagers congregated around us. They were very eager to show us Armenian inscriptions and designs on houses made of recycled stones that had been taken from the dismantled monastery.
The vank is completely in ruins. Remaining are a few stone structures facing each other about thirty feet apart. Here we offered a Hokehankisd (Requiem) for all of our departed ancestors. Our group sang “Ee Verin Yerusaghem” (In the Heavenly Jerusalem) and concluded with the singing of “Der Voghormia” (Lord Have Mercy) and the Hayr Mer (Lord’s Prayer). When the service was over, a Kurdish man who was standing a short distance from us murmured softly, “Efferim” (bravo).
While in the Moush region, we drove to the Aradzani River and walked on the bridge of Sulukh. Part of the bridge was dynamited a few years ago to prevent Kurdish raids. It was here in the plain of Moush where the valiant freedom fighter Kevork Chavoush was killed in battle.
Our next stop was the province of Kharpert (Harput). We visited the village of Hussenig (Ulukent), the ancestral home of Robert Janigian, Charlene and Anne Zartarian, and Barbara Baljian. What an emotional experience it was for them to find their grandparents’ homes. The present owners were very friendly and hospitable and invited us into their homes. All that is left of the Surp Varvar (St. Barbara) Church, once considered the largest in the province of Kharpert, is a small wall. In the middle of the village is an old grain mill built by the Armenians.
While visiting the ruins of an Armenian church near Tadem (Tadim), our group met a young boy not more than eleven years old. He sang for us in Turkish. One of the songs was an Armenian favorite often sung by my father known as “Dele Yaman”.
The village of Ganavik (Kurucu) was the home of Louise Janigian’s mother. She had been taken from one orphanage to another, first in Kharpert, then Istanbul, and finally in Corinth, Greece, before she married and settled in France.
Not far from Kharpert is Chungush (Cungus), the ancestral town of Margaret Dildilian”s father. Most of the villagers during the Genocide were thrown into an abyss that is located nearby. Chungushtsis knew it as “Dudanin Antuntuh”. It is truly a bottomless pit. We watched a group of young boys throw huge rocks which never seemed to reach bottom. Margaret told us her father’s tragic story, and before we left, we offered a prayer for all who had perished there.
Our next destination was Dikranagerd (Dyarbakir). Lauren Mushegain vividly recalled her grandmother describing her horrible experiences during the Genocide. Its huge church, “Surp Giragos ( St. Ciriacus),” stands barren except for its basic structure and seven bare altars. Adjoining the church is a small chapel where visiting clergy conduct services a few times a year. Antranig Zoryan, the caretaker, is one of the few Armenians still living in Dikranagerd. We entered the chapel and had a service of prayers and hymns.
Marash (Kahramanmaras) was the city where John Avakian’s mother once lived. The memory of her years there left an indelible mark upon her life. John related to us those horrible and unforgettable experiences.
Urfa (Sanliurfa), was one of the last cities we visited. The former Der Bedrosian mansion has been converted into a hotel and restaurant. In one of the rooms on the second floor, on a wall, is an inscription written in Armenian by a man bidding his friends farewell. The year was 1922.
Our pilgrimage to Historic Armenia and Cilicia took us to many other places, among them Amasia (Amasya), Erzurum, Malatia (Malatya) and Antep (Gaziantep). Each place we visited is a precious link that binds us together as Armenians sharing a common heritage. Wherever we went, we saw evidence of the Armenian presence that had existed there. We walked the same earth our parents walked, their words, “Mer Yergiruh” (our country), ringing in our ears. We relived the memories they shared with us. Those memories we shared with each other. Together we searched for what is left of a glorious and rich past, their legacy to us.
May God bless their memory and grant rest to their longing souls and look kindly upon our people in this new millennium.