"Western Armenia" (Now day Turkey) – May 1996
Return to Bitlis
By Andranik Mickaelian
Some forty years ago William Saroyan, my grandmother’s first cousin, journeyed to Bitlis, the birthplace of his parents. Tourists were not allowed then, so Saroyan had a personal escort. Such turned out to be the case once again, due to the political situation in the area. A few of us traveled the streets of Bitlis, accompanied by a local official.
My late grandmother, Yeproxie Michaelian, was born in Moush. Her mother, Parantsem, was a Saroyan of Bitlis, and this is where she brought her new daughter to stay with relatives. Almost 100 years later, I became the most recent member to return to the home of the Saroyan clan.
William Saroyan had once told my grandmother’s sister that Bitlis was nothing more than a few rocks and an old man or two sitting around. When I showed her my photographs of this city of 38,000, of the streets and smiling faces, she was in shock. “I feel I was there with you,” she said, keeping several pictures of the city, its stacks of watermelons, and of the road signs to neighboring Moush — the birthplace of her father and my great-grandfather, Vahan Minasian. (It was Vahan’s father, Khachig, who was drowned alongside the great Hunchakian leader, Damadian, in the late 1800s.)
After shouting at our bus driver to stop for pictures pointing to the way from Moush to Bitlis, we entered the town itself. Bitlis is located in a narrow valley with high, rocky mountains on both sides. The Bitlis river runs through the town. From the main street we could see the city’s imposing fortress standing on the mountains to the right. Fortresses such as this were in every major city in Old Armenia.
At this point several of us were scooted off to see the town, the capital of an ancient province, the home of my grandmother.
We stopped at the Armenian church, which had been built in 1884. A guard opened the gate to the compound, quite possibly the first time for visitors. There was no dome, no roof — we wondered of the church’s appearance in the early 1900s. It was sad to think of its short life; an abrupt end was put to its existence, as with all things Armenian in Bitlis.
Our driver signaled us to leave, it was time for our small party to continue.
We stopped amidst a grove of poplars at the highest point of town. I knew this was the time to gather a small amount of soil, to be placed at my grandmother’s grave in Fresno. As I did, a small crowd gathered, mostly children. It was time for more pictures. It didn’t matter that they were Kurds and not Armenians.
My last mission was to collect some melon and pepper seeds to plant at home. Since none were for sale, we collected a watermelon, some peppers, and other local delights from a vendor. I took out my wallet; money was refused.
It was time to leave. The bus began its trek to Dikranagerd in the dusk. I felt like I was leaving home.
In Dikranagerd that night, our group ate the watermelon from Bitlis. Everyone saved the seeds for me. My trip was now complete.
Sivas – A Hundred Years Full Circle
On a spring day in early 1896, my great-grandmother, Elbiz Chapoutian, waited for her husband Michael to return from work. But she waited in vain: Abdul Hamid’s massacres of that year struck the Chapoutian family, and my great-grandfather and two of his cousins were never heard from again.
A few weeks later, on May 12, my grandfather, Haroutiun, was born. When he grew up, he changed his last name from Chapoutian to Michaelian in honor of the father he never met. One hundred years later, almost to the day, I was part of a pilgrimage to Eastern Anatolia organized by Armen Aroyan that would take me to the home of Michael and Elbiz Chapoutian.
Entering the region of Sebastia, I was amazed at the large number of poplar trees. This land of poplars eventually gave way to the massive Pontic Mountain Range, and the cities of Amasya and Tokat. In Amasya, we visited the burial place of Mithridates, King of Pontus. It was a giant tomb, carved into the side of a huge rocky mountain which faced the city. As the sun set, we drove towards Sivas. We reached the ancient capital of Lesser Armenia in the darkness of the spring night.
I woke up early the next morning. It was barely light when I left the hotel and walked out into the streets my grandfather’s family had lived and worked in 100 years earlier. The street vendors were already setting up shop for the day, and the slightest hesitation in my pace invited a sudden description of someone’s goods in a language I didn’t understand. One boy was selling “simit” bread, a delightful early morning treat. My grandfather had said the bread from Sivas was the best in all of Armenia.
After breakfast in the hotel, a few of us from the group went for a walk, with a famous mosque as our first stop. Nearby, I discovered a stone with inscriptions in Krapar (classical Armenian). Only a few of the words were still legible. Also in the compound was a museum built in the Ottoman period. At this point, a local Turkish student who had just returned from military duty offered to show us part of the old Armenian Quarter of Sivas. On the way, he showed us a huge mosque, completely carpeted and with an unusual number of columns lining the interior. Our guide then pulled back one of the rugs; underneath was an Armenian-made rug from the 1890s, which lay protected from the newer, larger rugs. We asked if pictures were allowed, wanting to capture this ornate treasure of Sivas.
We walked on toward the Armenian Quarter, occasionally seeing Armenian-built houses, which had a kind of balcony we soon were adept at identifying. Old women and children waved and smiled at us from their open windows. An older man with a rifle pointed his gun skyward, then gave it to one of our group and pointed at an imaginary target. After several pictures were taken, we walked slowly back to the hotel.
In the hotel lobby, an Armenian resident of the city had arrived, and was talking with members of our group. I told him of my family. He knew the name, and the location of the Chapoutian house, which he said was now in ruins.
Our brief meeting came to a close, and our luggage was gathered and put on the bus. I waved at the Armenian from Sivas, thinking about 1896, and about 1915.
Shortly after leaving Sivas, we stopped at a bridge on the Halys River for a group picture. The bridge was built in the 1200s by King Senekerim. (Many Sebastatsis name their children Senekerim and Halys). Near the river, I gathered some soil and found a rock to place at my grandfather’s gravesite in Fresno.
My grandfather didn’t talk much about Sivas, unlike my grandmother’s Mshetsi relatives. But he was proud of his birthplace, and would have been proud of my journey to Sivas.
Impressions of Ani
Note: Ani, “City of 1,001 Churches,” was the capital of the Bagratid Dynasty in Medieval Armenia, and it was home to over 100,000 inhabitants. The nearby city of Kars was part of the Republic of Armenia from mid-1919 through 1920.
Three of us began our day with an early morning walk in the old fortress town of Kars. These morning excursions had become almost ritual for several of us in the group; not a day passed without a surprise of some sort. As our walk through the streets of Kars was about to end, we witnessed an impressive parade commemorating an Iranian religious leader from several centuries past. This adventure prepared us for the coming events that day — visiting the fabled city of Ani.
After viewing the magnificent Church of the Holy Apostles, we left Kars, which was once part of the Bagratid Kingdom, and departed for Ani. It was a cloudy day; rain dampened the countryside. As we approached the walled city, the rain stopped. It was time to walk the steps of the Bagratid Kings, and of Marco Polo.
After passing through the main entrance, I stood in awe of this masterpiece of man and nature. I couldn’t wait for the others in our group to arrive, and started walking briskly toward the cathedral, twisting and turning to capture every possible angle. Inside, as I viewed the altar and gazed into the invisible dome, my imagination recalled images of the past, of kings and princes, of the church being alive with music and incense. The howling wind brought back the present, the cathedral standing alone, silent in time.
The sound of thunder was followed by a downpour, while walking towards the Church of the Holy Saviour. My walk became a frantic run, to avoid being drenched. While waiting under a crumbling archway of the church, I studied the terrain, wondering which path to take when the rain stopped. My next destination was the Church of the Abughamrents Family, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the ruins of a mosque built in 1318. From inside the mosque, I took several pictures of the ravine below, the Akhurian River, and the Marco Polo Bridge.
After walking the large expanse of the city several times, I realized I hadn’t found the Church of Tigran Honents. It had always been my favorite, along with the famous cathedral. Since it was located on a road leading down to the Akhurian River, it had escaped my earlier searches. It stood proudly as in all the photographs I had seen; now it was my turn to try and capture its beauty.
I walked around the area several times, crawling up rocky hills and then down a portion of the old Silk Road, down to the banks of the river. I wanted to see the church from every possible angle. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a few Kurdish boys appeared. They were trying to sell some old Byzantine coins, but with darkness approaching, there was no time — I motioned them to leave. Before dark, I photographed the frescoes in the interior, and the still-intact dome. Built in the 1200s, the church stood as if ready to face another 800 years.
Outside, looking down towards the river, I noticed several caves, possibly entrances to the underground city of Ani, which at one time had its own living quarters, churches, and burial places. After a few tentative steps, the sliding rocks and near darkness convinced me to postpone this venture. I started back to the entrance of the city and back to the bus.
With the sound of thunder and more rain beginning to fall, I started running, reaching the archway just before the next downpour.
The cloudburst passed. In the fading light, just before stepping back onto the bus, there was still time for one last picture of the city walls.
Van – Armenian Stronghold
On an unusually clear day, with the province of Vasbouragan as our destination, we left the Ararat Plain. Images of Mt. Ararat, the Armenian national symbol affectionately known as Massis, lingered with us as we journeyed towards Van.
We arrived in the city of Van in late afternoon. Crossing the narrow street in front of the hotel, two of us walked into a small store, which had room for no more than five or six customers. There were pistachios, dried fruit, cigarettes, and fruit juice. After the usual confusion over prices, we settled on cranberry and apricot juice. Our thirst now quenched, we pondered whether to shop for rugs or go to Varak Monastery. My decision was easy: I wanted to go see Varak, where Khrimian Hayrig had lived and taught near the turn of the century.
The winding road to the monastery was little more than a path. Since the bus was unable to navigate the narrow road, we took a van, which easily reached its mountain destination. We were met by local Kurdish villagers whose homes were in the area immediately surrounding the vank.
Khrimian Hayrig had come here to awaken the silent Varakavank. Now, most of the several church buildings had only walls remaining; an exquisite khatchkar and other ornate carvings decorated the walls of the 17th century monastery. After a brief struggle, we climbed a collapsing wall to part of a roof, where one could view the inside of the churches and the surrounding village houses.
After climbing down, young and old of this small Kurdish settlement gathered to meet our curious group. Some of us bought slippers made by the villagers; a few pictures were taken, and the teenaged girls ran away giggling. A young boy was sick — his father asked us if we would take him to the city. The father and son joined us in the van, where on the way back the driver treated us to a Kurdish song of the fields, a plowing song. That night in the hotel, I was again entertained by music of the area; men from a nearby gathering were singing Kurdish folk songs.
Our first stop the next morning was the Old City of Van and its fortress. After stopping at one side of the fortress, we drove to the site of the Old City, the desolate area where the Vanetsi Armenians had fought in 1915. Two brave souls in our group had meanwhile walked the massive fortress; they now emerged, exhausted and covered with dirt. (Perhaps they were searching for the legendary Mher’s Door, where the giant Mher waits to free the land of Armenia from tyranny….)
As we traveled to Lake Van, I asked the location of the Rushdooni stronghold. Its direction was pointed out by the leader of our pilgrimage, Armen Aroyan. (My aunt had married a descendant of the famous Rushdooni family). The deep blue waters of Van now came into view. The lake stretched on for miles. We reached the spot where a boat would take us to Aghtamar Island and the well-known Sourp Khatch, the Church of the Holy Cross, built in the 10th century by the architect Manuel.
Once on the island, our group went directly inside the church and, facing the altar, sang the Hayr Mer. After being told the history of Aghtamar, and being shown the upper level balcony that King Gagik used during church services, we spread in all directions outside the sanctuary, taking pictures of the church, the beautiful wall carvings, and Lake Van. While traversing the island, I came across several khatchkars, standing alone amongst the trees and bushes. After listening to a Japanese tour guide (“Armenian” was the only word I understood), I sat alongside the ruins of the palace, eating green almonds and thinking of how this island paradise must have looked 1,000 years earlier….
As our boat left Aghtamar, a female member of our group swam the waters of Van. She had also trekked the entire Van fortress, and now, after leaving Lake Van, led us to Khorkom, the birthplace of the famous painter, Arshile Gorky (family name, Adoyan). This picturesque village, with tall mountains and Lake Van in the background, had the remnants of a small church, and a grove of poplars, where crows were nesting. This was our last stop in Vasbouragan….
Return to Moush
In 1908, the same year William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, my Mshetsi great-grandfather, Vahan Minasian, and his wife, Parantsem Saroyan, originally from Bitlis and the sister of the author’s mother Takoohi, left Vahan’s ancestral home of Moush for America. With them were my grandmother, Yeproxie, and her younger brother, Zaven. In 1912, Vahan’s brother, Khoren, continued the family’s exodus from Moush. He left with his mother, Alik Naneh, whose husband Khachik had helped found the Hunchakian party in Moush before being imprisoned and eventually drowned by Turks in Bitlis. A cousin, Artashes Egetian, traveled with them. Many years later, my family and I maintained close ties with the Minasians and their offspring in the Fresno and San Francisco Bay areas. I also kept in touch with Artashes Egetian’s son, Alex.
For years, Alex and I talked about making a pilgrimage to Moush. It was more than just a dream. It was necessary to see, with our own eyes, the houses and streets of our ancestral home, the place our relatives had left behind, never to return.
Entering Moush was like entering a mythical world. Since my youth, I had heard stories about life in Moush before the Genocide. Once, my grandmother’s sister told us, two Turkish soldiers brought the body of Alik Naneh’s brother, a well known singer, and dumped it in front of her and Parantsem, then a new bride in the Minasian home. “Here he is,” they said. “What can you do now?” When Alik Naneh rushed at the soldiers, one of them raised his sword to kill her. But the other soldier stopped him and said, “Let them live. They will suffer more alive than dead.” On another occasion, a baby girl, my grandmother’s younger sister, was somehow burned by flames from a tonir oven. Deep inside, Alik Naneh understood the child’s fate. With solemn conviction, she proclaimed the little girl would be dead in forty days. Forty days later, to the day, the baby died.
Our small group of Mshetsi pilgrims included my wife, Hasmik, her brother and sister, and Alex Egetian and his wife. Like myself, Alex had roots in the Jigrashen district of Moush. Upon entering the town and pulling into a bus station, we spotted a water fountain with stone carvings typical of Armenian craftsmen. We drank the icy-cold water and washed our faces before approaching a crowd of Kurdish men. The thought of finding a hotel not even crossing our minds, we asked them the location of Jigrashen. None of the men had heard of Jigrashen, as the names of the districts had been changed to Turkish or Kurdish names. But a Kurd, who said he was part Armenian, said he knew someone who could take us to our destination. A phone call resulted in the arrival of a new friend, an Armenian now living in Moush.
Early the next morning, we drove down the modern main street and up the hill to Jigrashen, which is located in a hilly area on the western edge of the city. Reaching the district where the Minasians and Egetians had lived just 100 years earlier, we climbed out of the minivan and began walking the narrow, cobbled roads, past large, two-story Armenian-built houses. Our Mshetsi guide told us about an Armenian who knew the location of the family homes of that era. Unfortunately, that person was away from Moush for a few days. Nonetheless, as we walked the roads of Jigrashen, we tried to guess which homes belonged to our relatives. None of the houses had undergone any sort of renovation. It was plain what appearance they had some 100 years ago. Curious women stared at us from balconies. The Kurdish men of Jigrashen invited us to drink tea, and happily stood for photographs. One old man greeted us in Armenian. In front of St. Kirakos, the church of Jigrashen, we drank tea and laughed with several Kurdish men, all the while remembering our ancestors who had attended church here. St. Kirakos is now a mosque. Only a small cross, carved into the wall, speaks of the past.
From Jigrashen, we walked to St. Marineh church, one of the eight churches of old Moush. St. Marineh had been the main church of Moush, and was also known as “Kathoghike.” Only parts of the walls still stand. The inside of the church is being used as a garbage dump. Climbing over rocks and trash into the church through a side door, we walked through the church remains, then lit candles and placed them in cracks in the walls.
Later, we drove from St. Marineh to Verin Tagh, where we would gather soil for a relative in Fresno. I walked off alone to the edge of a Kurdish cemetery at the end of Verin Tagh. Kurdish children smiled and waved as their parents, working in their gardens, looked on. Across a small gorge, on the side of a mountain, an old Armenian cemetery lay in neglect. The mountain was the beginning of a mountain chain separating Moush from Sassoun. From there, I photographed Moush.
Before leaving the old part of Moush, we went back to Jigrashen to collect soil. By then, a large crowd of Kurds had gathered, inviting us to stay and have lunch or drink tea. After expressing our appreciation, we left the place that now seemed so familiar, the birthplace of the Minasians and Egetians, and others who had lived, died, or been massacred, or, in the case of some, had somehow survived or been saved and whose offspring now live in Moush. Before leaving, I again walked the streets of Jigrashen. For a time, I pictured myself back in 1908, and my grandmother, who was only eight years old, running and playing. I thought of her parents, who were preparing to leave the place where they all should have lived and died.
The Plains of Moush
With our Mshetsi friend showing the way, we drove onto the Plains of Moush, to the Murat River, which, along with Meghraget (River of Honey), is one of the two main rivers of Moush. Our destination was the Sulukh Bridge, the place where the great fedayee leader Gevorg Chavoush died. Workers were repairing one end of the thirteenth-century bridge, blown up by a Turk angered over Armenian successes during the war in Karabagh. After throwing water on his face, my wife’s brother sang a song dedicated to Chavoush, as we remembered the famous leader feared by Turks and Kurds alike.
Knowing the importance and fame of St. Arakelots Monastery, and that our Uncle Khoren had gone to school there, we asked about making the difficult journey up the mountain where Arakelots is located, but the danger and length of the climb made us change our plans. We moved on instead to St. Karapet, known before the massacres as a place of pilgrimage and advanced learning, where many manuscripts had been written and illustrated. While driving up the winding road from the Plains of Moush to the monastery, a Kurdish shepherd stopped us and asked for a ride to his village. Reaching St. Karapet, he stepped out from the van and disappeared into one of the houses.
The condition of St. Karapet was dismal. We knew it was in ruins, but not that only a small section of a single wall remained. A half-wild Kurdish tribe lives there. They have taken khachkars and carved stones from the monastery to build their houses. The children crowded around us, begging for candy, pulling at our clothes. St. Karapet has come to this. The people of the village have offered to sell the village to Armenians, after which they would leave and live elsewhere. But for St. Karapet, it is too late. Nothing remains.
Back in Moush, along the main street and a side street, we went into stores looking for souvenirs. Occasionally, we met Armenian merchants. At night, we had dinner at a restaurant owned by our Mshetsi friend’s uncle. We ate food that reminded us of the distinctive cuisine our Moush-born ancestors brought with them to Fresno. We talked about the Armenians living in Moush today, who number about 1,000, and those in nearby villages. Most don’t speak Armenian. But they live as Armenians. Perhaps not exactly like the Armenians of old Moush, but like Armenians.