We stand aghast at the entrance of an Armenian monastery* perched on a hill near Lake Van.
“Is that what I think it is?” I ask George, my companion on a trip to document Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey.
“Can’t be,” he replies in disbelief. “Must be a soccer ball.”
I go past broken khatchkars (Armenian cross-stones) and around
large holes dug up by treasure hunters—a familiar site for visitors of
historic Armenian churches in Turkey—and shudder.
The orbital cavities of a skull are staring at me.
Nothing could have prepared me for that eye contact with an ancestor
who had resurfaced a century after the genocide of my people. Not all
the bones and skulls I’ve seen at memorials, not the hundreds of horror
stories I’ve heard locals tell of what their forefathers did to
I approach and hold the skull in my hands with an affection bordering on the macabre.
Who was this person whose remains were dug out and tossed aside? A
clergyman? Perhaps the abbot of the monastery? After all, it was
customary to bury clergy inside the narthex.
I can’t help but think that after the murder of a nation, the theft
of a people’s land and wealth, and the ongoing denial of the crime, the
skeletons are coming out—literally—with a little help from Turks and
Kurds who want yet more Armenian gold, more booty, and don’t mind more desecration and destruction.
I don’t want to leave the skull behind, but after a brief discussion
with George, we agree to inter it not far away from the hill.
I place the tortured cranium in my hat and we leave the monastery in
search for an inconspicuous—and, hopefully, final—resting place.
Soon I, too, am digging a hole.
We bury the skull, while the breeze over Lake Van whispers a prayer.
At some point on the way back, I realize I am wearing my ash-covered
hat. I had unwittingly put it back on after burying the skull.
That evening, the mirror in my hotel room shows a dusting of white ash on my hair.
*The name and exact location of the monastery are withheld out of concerns of further desecration.
Author’s [naïve] question: After decades of actively destroying
Armenian cultural and religious sites in Turkey and allowing vandals and
treasure hunters to finish the job by digging, drilling, and defacing,
is it not time for Turkish authorities to break with past practices and
initiate a program aimed at stabilizing structures and preventing