Monday, October 28, 2013

Dual Survival: Man and Church in the Lake Van Region of Historic Armenia

Story and photos by Mathhew Karanian
(Special to the Armenian Weekly)
If you’ve ever watched a reality survival show on television—one of those shows were a couple of adventurers get dropped off in a desert with instructions to survive long enough to make it back home—then you might be able to conjure up an image of me hiking in Historic Armenia.
I was on the shore of Lake Van, researching and photographing the Armenian churches of the region.
My goal for this day was modest: hike to the ancient Armenian monastery of St. Thomas, a monastery that looks older than the treeless mountain that it’s perched upon. Survival was the last thing on my mind.
But my priority for the day changed when I was about mid-way through the 90-minute trek to the top.
©2013MKaranian 0318 AW3 Dual Survival: Man and Church in the Lake Van Region of Historic Armenia
The 10th to 11th century Armenian Monastery of St. Thomas rests on a hilltop above the southeast shore of Lake Van. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
This was roughly about the same time that my supply of water ran out. Remember, survival had been the last thing on my mind. So, of course I hadn’t carried any water.
The mid-day temperature was pushing closer to 100 degrees, and I had begun to reminisce about better times—like the time, earlier that day, when the mercury hadn’t yet risen above 90.
©2013MKaranian 0277 AW 199x300 Dual Survival: Man and Church in the Lake Van Region of Historic Armenia
The mid-day temperature was pushing closer to 100 degrees, and I had begun to reminisce about better times—like the time, earlier that day, when the mercury hadn’t yet risen above 90. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
I still wanted to see the church.
But now that the risks of dehydration and heat stroke had been added to my itinerary, my priority was to make it back down the mountain. I wanted it all! I wanted to see the church, and I also wanted to survive.
I was hiking with Khatchig Mouradian, the Editor of the Armenian Weekly. He and I had the same goals. Better yet, he also had some water. He offered me half of what remained in his bottle. We were brothers in arms, and would share our water supply, 50-50. I reached for the bottle. It contained about two ounces of warm water.
I was incredulous. “Really, Khatchig, I can only have one ounce?”
Yes, he replied. “We will need the rest to survive.”
I took a drink, and we continued our ascent.
There were no trees to shelter us from the sun as we scrambled up the mountain, but every two or three hundred feet there was some dwarf scrub that cast just enough shade to offer a bit of relief from the heat. We dashed from brush to brush, like soldiers in battle, until we had reached the monastic walls of St. Thomas.
©2013MKaranian 0279 AW Dual Survival: Man and Church in the Lake Van Region of Historic Armenia
We dashed from brush to brush, like soldiers in battle, until we had reached the monastic walls of St. Thomas. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
We discovered that the survival of the church was also at risk.
A Remote Treasure
The buildings of St. Thomas were constructed in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and are stoically sited on a mountaintop overlooking the southeast shore of Lake Van. The main surviving building, the cathedral, is about one thousand years old.
The current peril to the structure is caused, at least in part, by local people who are acting upon a long-discredited myth. Some of the Kurds who now live in Historic Armenia believe, incorrectly, that there is buried treasure at Armenian churches.
And so some of these treasure seekers dig for gold and jewels wherever they see the ruins of an Armenian site. Judging from what I observed at St Thomas last month, some people appear to have believed that there was treasure hidden in the ground beneath this church, too.
We saw holes dug in the earth near the foundation, at the entrance, and in the church yard. These excavations have undermined the foundation of St. Thomas, and similar burrowing undermines other churches, such as the nearby Karmravank, where treasure hunters have also sought supposedly long lost gold.
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The ruins of Karmravank, on the southeast shore of Lake Van, a short distance from the Monastery of St. Thomas. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
According to the discredited myth, Armenians buried gold and other valuables beneath the altars and near the points of entry to their churches. Ask a Kurdish villager if the Armenians supposedly did this while fleeing during the Genocide, or whether they buried their gold as a matter of routine in the years before the Genocide, and they are apt to just shrug their shoulders.
The odds of buying a winning lottery ticket are better than the odds of finding buried treasure at an Armenian church, because the odds of finding the buried treasure are zero. There’s no treasure. But people still buy lotto and they still dig for treasure.
Even if the legend was true, which it isn’t, any treasure would surely have been dug up many years ago. Still, logic and truth have not deterred treasure hunters, even now, a century after the Armenians were expelled from this area.
As a result, the only treasures that really exist in places such as St. Thomas and at nearby Karmravank—the sacred structures themselves—are at risk of being destroyed.
We made it safely back down the mountainside, and found plenty of shade and water. We lived to share the story of yet another ancient Armenian site that may not survive.

Matthew Karanian is an author and attorney, and he practices law in Pasadena, Calif.  He has spent several years working in Armenia as both law professor and Associate Dean at the American University of Armenia. His latest book is ‘Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide. He is currently working on a new book about Historic Armenia that will be published in 2015. Book details at and at

Thursday, October 24, 2013

‘Something Broke Inside Me’: Armenians Who Fled Azerbaijan Speak

The Armenian Weekly August 2013 Magazine
The woman sitting across from me stopped speaking. Tilting her chin downward she closed her eyes and shook her head slightly.
Oh, I said, startled as I looked up from my notebook. I saw there were tears running down her face. Oh, it’s OK. You don’t have to go on. I turned to my interpreter. Please tell her she doesn’t have to continue if she doesn’t feel comfortable. I wanted to reach across the table and place my hand on her arm, to offer a reassuring touch. A sign of consolation. A pause. She nodded through the tears. A stiff smile crossed her face for a second, revealing a trace of relief. Her hands in her lap, she remained motionless.
I’m so sorry, I said. Please tell her I didn’t mean to make her uncomfortable.
The woman had stopped herself midsentence, choking up while recounting the story of her neighbor in Baku. They had lived in the same apartment building for years. It was where, in the courtyard, the resident families would hold cookouts during warm summer evenings, where their children would play together, and where they would share meals during the holidays. It was the same building where she and her husband spent years remodeling the floors, the bathroom, and the kitchen to make it truly comfortable. And it was where one night a group of angry Azerbaijanis broke down her neighbor’s door, grabbed her by the arms, and threw her from the window, four stories to her death on the concrete below. Then, in some twisted final act, the Azerbaijani men combined their might to hurl her large wooden bureau out of the window so that it landed on top of her.
I took a breath. Where to go from here? I thought.
This woman was one of the many displaced Armenians from Baku who I interviewed for my master’s thesis. The quest to complete the thesis was bumpy, to say the least; I switched topics at least three times over the course of several months before settling on one that continues to fascinate me—the human face of violence and war. I did so by focusing on the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, specifically the pogroms of Baku, and the Armenians who fled Azerbaijan because of them. Setting out on an equally trying road of finding people to interview, I spent weeks searching, traveling up and down the East Coast to interview those who were forced from a place that their families had called home for generations. Through my interviews I tried to figure out how conflict-induced displacement had impacted the cultural identity of some of Baku’s Armenians, now members of the Armenian Diaspora. I set out to explore the way people relate to others within their own ethnic group and their sense of belonging to that group. And while I focused on how this group of people expressed their identities through symbolic ethnicity—like language and the Armenian Church, for example—what moved me the most was much of the material I didn’t include in the final product: the stories of abrupt and horrific violence, the heart-wrenching and shocking tales of neighbors turning against neighbors, incredible loss, struggle, survival, and subsequent rebirth.
After some silence the woman suddenly surprised me by continuing. After that, I hid, all night long in a closet and then again for the entire next day. As soon as I could, I left on the ferry to Turkmenistan.
The long-simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh finally erupted into violent clashes in 1988 when pogroms were waged against Armenians by Azerbaijanis, first in the small industrial city of Sumgait, located about 20 miles outside of Baku. While tensions had culminated in several episodes of violence around Armenia and Azerbaijan up until that point, they were nothing compared to the gruesome violence of Sumgait. When about 50 people assembled in Sumgait’s Lenin Square for a rally protesting Karabagh’s unification with Armenia and demanded that Armenians leave Azerbaijan, violence exploded on a seemingly unimaginable scale, engulfing the city as gangs tore through, vandalizing property, looting and destroying homes, and smashing and burning cars. People were hacked to death with axes. Metal pipes were used as crude weapons. Homes were destroyed. Women were gang raped in public. Some people were dismembered, some were set on fire. Thirty-two people died in the Sumgait pogroms—26 Armenians and six Azerbaijanis.
Many Bakvetsis were incredulous; the violence that struck Sumgait was atrocious, so horrifying, that most never believed it would be able to permeate a multicultural, downright cosmopolitan city like Baku—where Russians, Jews, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, and Armenians not only intermingled but were friends. While discrimination was embedded in the social strata, the differences between these ethnic groups were mostly overlooked in daily life.
In no other capital in the Soviet Union were people as proud as they were of being from Baku. After the genocide took place, these were the people who accepted us. Azeris were the people who accepted us, one man told me.
There were streets named after Armenians in Baku, there were Armenian schools and churches, and a specific neighborhood in the center of the city called Armenikend, or “Armenian Village.” Armenians for the most part considered themselves integral to the history and the strength of the city.
Life in Baku, it was beautiful, many of them told me. Parties. Concerts. Barbeques. Family gatherings. Some had salvaged photos, which they spread out across coffee tables and in their dining rooms, showing me life as they had once known it. Birthday cakes. Singing around pianos. Vacations to the Black Sea in the summer, sunlight dripping off the palm trees. Sure, Armenians were second-class citizens, but everyone was friends with everyone else for the most part, they told me. Life was rich.
After Sumgait happened, Baku was relatively quiet until a certain tension and fear gripped the streets, permeating the fabric of the city. It’s not going to happen in Baku. It’s never going to happen in Baku, was what many of the people I interviewed said they thought after Sumgait. It could never happen here.
Then it all changed.
Things continued to shift, Armenians were targeted more and more. They feared for their safety when they were outside. Some were followed by Azerbaijanis and forced to make a quick escape by hiding in nearby buildings. Mobs of Azerbaijanis, sometimes as big as 30 or 40 people, would comb the city, pulling people off of buses and out of crowds in an attempt to “catch” Armenians. If they couldn’t identify Armenians based on physical characteristics, the Azerbaijanis would also run “tests” of shibboleths, like the pronunciation of the Azeri word for “hazelnut,” (fundukh), which Armenians tended to say with a “p” instead of an “f” sound.
Eventually, a curfew was imposed. Threats increased. Many Armenians began to trade their apartments and sell their belongings in preparation for a way out of Azerbaijan.
In January 1990, rallies eventually broke out in the north of the country and in Baku following the decision of the Armenian Parliament to include Karabagh in its budget. When a list of Armenians’ addresses was posted on the front door of the Azerbaijani Popular Front headquarters in public view, violence erupted in Baku. Ninety people died in the pogroms, known as “Black January,” in violence just as horrific as Sumgait.
For one week, it was a bloodbath with no one to stop it, one man told me.
Azerbaijanis would break into homes, searching for Armenians, vandalizing everything. Once again, people were assaulted, killed, raped, and mutilated.
For many Armenians fearing for their lives, the acquaintances and the neighbors they had known for years turned their backs on them. There were those who helped, too, of course, like the Azerbaijani neighbor who harbored one woman and her daughter in his apartment for days until they could finally be evacuated by a relative in the KGB, who escorted them out with the Russian families being evacuated from Baku. And there was the young group of Azerbaijanis who saved one of their friends from an inquisitive mob, insisting he was just one of them—a Tartar who couldn’t speak Azeri. Or the kind neighbor who hid her Armenian friends in her closets and under her bed while Azerbaijanis raided her apartment building.
We are left with broken hearts, one woman told me. My students asked me, ‘Why did you leave?’ I tell them that it’s not like they knocked on my door nicely and said, ‘Go.’ They killed and they raped. Something broke inside me.
The violence in Baku essentially drove the rest of the Armenian population out of Azerbaijan. Most—about 200,000—had left by the end of 1989 and had resettled in Armenia, Russia, and other former Soviet republics. Over the course of several days during and after the pogroms, the Armenians of Baku fled for their lives, gathering up their families and whatever few possessions they could to leave by plane or by train or by truck or ferry. They left everything behind, and their stomachs were weighed down with the horrible feeling that they were probably never going to come back. The 18 Armenians that I interviewed went to Armenia, and Moscow or southern Russia, primarily because they had some kind of personal connection to someone living in the country at the time, some family or friends who could provide support. Eventually, these 18 people came to the United States, primarily as refugees, where they started over a second time.
For some, seeking refuge in their historic homeland, Armenia, after the pogroms seemed logical. Even though they spoke Russian at home instead of Armenian, and even if they had no family members to host them, they thought they would have the space and the support to rebuild their lives in Armenia, and the shock of displacement would be lessened. For some it was a source of pride. This was our land, our soil. We’re going to have our roots there, they said.
Sometimes it was viewed as the only option. We left Azerbaijan to go to Armenia because we had no other choice, one told me. There was nowhere else we could go. But it wasn’t always the easiest experience.
For some, life in Armenia meant struggle, and they were treated as outsiders. Some were criticized for having lived so far from the motherland or for not being able to speak Armenian. Others told me of being yelled at or even spit on, being called “Turks” or shortvatz (flipped) Armenians who had been happy living with the enemy.
Having come from a cosmopolitan city like Baku, many were in shock when they suddenly found themselves living in refugee housing in rural areas, where they were forced to grow their own food or wash their laundry by hand. Our house became a refugee camp, said one person whose three-room apartment in Abovyan was typically filled with 17 displaced relatives at any given time.
Others had similar experiences living in Russia, where they were called “black,” a derogatory name for people from the Caucasus, or where they were physically assaulted simply because they were perceived as being different. This discrimination grew more persistent after the fall of the Soviet Union, concurrent with the rise of Russian nationalism.
During the 1990s, the United States allowed those fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union to come to the U.S. as refugees. Many Armenians—up to 100,000—came to the United States between 1989 and 1996, and many received priority refugee status in the early 1990s. Most of the people I interviewed arrived on U.S. soil with next to nothing—broken suitcases and no more than $300 in their pockets. As adults who had established themselves as engineers, teachers, musicians, and scientists back in Baku, they had to reinvent themselves.
Some took jobs in factories or cafeterias while they tried to learn English. Others pursued their educations and tried to get ahead. Struggles continued for some, and lasted longer than expected. And often, a question arose: Did we make the right
decision to come here?
For most I spoke with, the answer is yes. Armenians are no strangers to collective trauma and violence. It’s no surprise these 18 people displayed the resiliency and the strength needed to not only rebuild their lives, but to succeed after being affected both directly and indirectly by violence that is so often the consequence of geopolitics.
I’ve lived in Azerbaijan. I’ve lived in Armenia, Russia, and now I live in America. Obviously I can adapt, one participant said. You have to lose part of you to become part of something else.
Over the course of more than two decades they have turned themselves back into engineers and teachers. Some have become activists and writers in places like New Jersey and Boston and Washington. Some have become mothers and fathers and grandparents. Some have connected more to their Armenian roots. Others say they are indifferent.
Those I interviewed had many ways of describing how they thought of Baku now: a shut door, a closed page, a home erased, just as evidence of the Armenian presence in Baku has been washed away with the defacement and destruction of monuments and cemeteries.
For many, Baku is now just a piece of their history, the memories of which remain in the recesses of their minds. Perhaps that’s what happens when there is really no way of going back home. Very few said they would ever go back, even if they were allowed to.
There is no such place, one woman told me. That’s all. It’s gone.
While researching this topic, I found that while the violence of the pogroms was recorded, the long-term impact they had on the Armenians from Baku had scarcely been touched. More than once I was asked why I was interested in this topic. No one really cares about this anymore anyway, some said. Still, I was fascinated. And perhaps at the very least, I hoped to make some contribution to documenting stories that haven’t really been told.
Toward the end of my interviews, one woman made a remark about how Baku Armenians are a dying people. My generation, that’s it. Our kids–they won’t remember, they won’t know. I will try to pass the memories, though. We still remember my dad’s aunt. She was a Genocide survivor. She was 8 or 10 years old and they escaped the Genocide. We still remember her telling us about it. So we will probably do the same with our kids.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Armenian Life Returns to Diyarbakir

Armenian Life Returns to Diyarbakir

St. Giragos Church, located within the historic walls of the city of Diyarbakir, has been renovated. (photo by

By: Vicken Cheterian Translated from Al-Hayat (Pan Arab).
اقرا المقال الأصلي باللغة العربية
It was on a hot Sunday in the summer when I visited St. Giragos Church, located within the historic walls of the city of Diyarbakir. A small crowd gathered inside the building, which had recently been renovated. That morning, I not only got the chance to meet new people, but was also acquainted with new ways of self-identifying.

About This Article

Summary :
Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey, is rediscovering its Armenian roots.
Publisher: Al-Hayat (Pan Arab)
Original Title:
Armenian Life Suddenly Returns to the City of Diyarbakir
Author: Vicken Cheterian
First Published: October 11, 2013
Posted on: October 16 2013
Translated by: Sami-Joe Abboud and Pascale El-Khoury
Categories : Turkey  
I met Ramzi Demir, a construction-equipment vendor and Kurdish Muslim who is well aware of his Armenian roots. I also met Chetin Yilmaz, an ethnic Turk from the city of Gallipoli. Yilmaz was sent to the southeast of the country to teach Turkish “to help Kurds be good Turkish citizens. However, they opted for the Christian religion instead,” as he put it.
A group of young people visiting the church included Nisreen and Habon, who decided to come after they discovered their Armenian origins. I also met Armin Demerjian, the deacon of the Church of St. Giragos. He was once called Abdur Rahim Zorusselan, before he returned to his original religion. Armin welcomed me with a joyful grin and told me in Armenian, “Welcome, my little brother!”
Demerjian is in his mid 50s. He was born in the town of Liga, north of Diyarbakir, from where his ancestors hail. His family was exterminated during the massacres of 1915, but a five-year-old child named Hocep survived, saved by influential Turkish tribal leader in the region, Haji Zubair.
When Hocep grew up, his name was changed to Abdullah. He converted to Islam and married the daughter of Haji Zubair. He became a famous baker in the town of Liga. Everyone saw him as a good Armenian man.
I walked with Armin around the church. The building, which was meticulously built seven centuries ago, has been renovated, adding a touch of beauty to the impoverished neighborhood. We went to a hall where the walls were decorated with photographs of the Armenian way of life in Diyarbakir before the great massacre. There hung a photo of two Armenian schools, one for boys and one for girls, and a photo of the newspaper Independent Tigris with pictures of craftsmen, coppersmiths, jewelry makers, weavers and a brass band. There was also an old postcard in French portraying the Armenian neighborhood and the high church bell towers. The black-and-white photographs created a sad memorial, not only because they brought back memories of the past, but because they remind us that an entire way of life has been wiped away.
There was once a large Armenian community in Diyarbakir. Most of its members were craftsmen and traders. In 1915, when the Committee of Union and Progress, the powerful party that pushed the Ottoman Empire to fight in the First World War, decided to get rid of the Armenians living in the empire. Approximately 120,000 Armenians in the province were sent outside the city walls and massacred. The survivors, mostly women and orphans, went to camps in the Syrian desert. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Armenians living in villages and towns in the province moved to Diyarbakir to form a new, small community. More left the villages after the war broke out in the southeast of the country between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish army. Today, a descendant of the survivors is forming a new Armenian community in this historic city.
When I started to take pictures, Armin grabbed an Armenian-language instruction book and held it to his chest in front of the camera.
Armin's son, Hassan Zor Aslan, recently finished his university education and wants to become a teacher. He is fluent in English and Turkish, and his mother tongue is Kurdish. When coffee was served, Hassan did not take a cup. It was Ramadan, and Hassan was fasting. While his father was forced to rediscover his Armenian past and deep Christian roots, Hassan, 21, found his path through Islam.
“We are Muslims, but we know that we are Armenians,” he told me. In 2006, when the students of Diyarbakir revolted against the Turkish police and the army there, Hassan was sent to his uncle's house in the town of Bursa in western Turkey to continue his education away from the trouble.
Hassan continued, “I faced an identity crisis there. There, I decided to be a Muslim.” It was there that he also decided to become a professor. When asked how he sees his father, who returned to the Armenian Apostolic Church, he said, “I am happy to see my father getting back in touch with his Armenian identity. However, I am afraid not only of the state but also of militant groups.”
Gafur Torqay is the one who pushed for the renovation of the church. His story is no different from those of the others. His father is called Ba Ohanian, and he hails from the mountainous area of Sason, northeast of Diyarbakir. During the genocide, everyone there was killed, and only three children survived: a girl and two boys. The girl became a refugee in Syria and emigrated from there to Armenia, while the boys remained in Turkey and converted to Islam.
He proudly stated, “Thanks to the two boys, the number of our family members reached 500. These boys spoke Kurdish at home, but when they were sent to school they were prohibited from speaking the Kurdish and Armenian languages and forced to communicate in Turkish.” Gafur criticized Turkish naturalization policies, saying, “After being forced to become a Kurd, we were taught how to become Turks.”
Furthermore, with the emergence of the Kurdish national identity in the past decade, Armenian descendants who had changed their religion claimed their right to the Armenian identity regardless of religious affiliation.
Gafur recalls the first time he visited St. Giragos Church in the 1980s. Back then, there were 30 families living in the vicinity of the Armenian church in the Sur District of Diyarbakir, known as the Infidels District. This is also the title of a novel written by Mgrdich Margossian, who wrote about the life of the Armenian community.
In this city, Gafur met his wife and his family. He believes that the renovation of the church — which was destroyed after the departure of the last Armenian family — is the most important step yet. The church has been renovated thanks to the efforts of a small group of people who exerted tremendous efforts to collect the necessary funds. The municipality of Diyarbakir, controlled by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, paid a third of the renovation costs. The church was reopened in October 2011, with thousands of Armenians coming from all over the world to participate in the event.
Today, the Diyarbakir municipality has begun organizing classes to teach the Armenian language. In 2012, 35 students were registered in language classes and in the following year this number rose to 65. Gafur pointed out that 80% of the students are Muslim Armenians, while there is a Christian or Kurdish Armenian minority.
Gafur recalled how his neighbors found out he was of Armenian descent and how they thought that he and his family had converted to another religion. Families with Armenian roots try to arrange marriages among themselves, he added, stressing, “We are the third generation after the genocide. The second generation knew nothing about Armenian heritage. They were afraid. If we do not act to revive the Armenian identity here, we will lose it.” He hopes that the young people of Armenian descent rediscover their original identity and Armenian culture without questioning their Islamic religious identity.
From there, Gafur took me to St. Sarkis Church. At the entrance, we could see that a Kurdish family had taken residence in the few rooms that remained undestroyed. The architectural style is reminiscent of St. Giragos with its beautiful domes, though wrecked. Projects are in the works for the renovation of this church, too.
At the altar, Gafur pointed to a hole and angrily said, “They are trying to find gold. I was here two weeks ago; this hole was not there.” Similar holes can be found in Armenian churches across eastern Turkey as residents still search for old Armenian gold after 98 years.
Then we headed to the Armenian cemetery. Years ago, the famous musician Aram Dikran wanted to be buried there after his death, but the Turkish state did not allow it. Today, two stones are placed as a sign for the chosen cemetery of Aram Dikran.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Skulls and Bones Exposed in Mass Grave Near Van

VAN, Turkey (A.W.)—Skulls and bones, possibly from the Armenian Genocide, protrude from the soil near a school in the district of Westan in Van, according to a newspaper report.
skulls 300x199 Skulls and Bones Exposed in Mass Grave Near Van
Skulls and bones, possibly from the Armenian genocide, protrude from the soil.
The pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem reported that in the village of Ili in the district of Westan (current name Gevaş), a mass grave believed to be from the Armenian genocide has been unearthed during the construction of the Dağyöre Elementary School last year.
The bones remain there, protruding from the soil, to this day. Villagers say the mass grave is likely that of the Armenians who lived in the village a century ago.
The village, Ili (current name Dağyöre), southwest of Gevaş (Armenian name Vosdan), had 21 Armenian households prior to the Armenian Genocide.
school Skulls and Bones Exposed in Mass Grave Near Van
The mass grave is near the elementary school of the village.