BY MARIA TITIZIAN
We left the now-beloved city of Ani behind, but a secret promise was made to return one day only for her. Spending a few hours in that once majestic Armenian capital currently on Turkish territory was fiercely unfair to its history, heritage and legacy…it warranted days, weeks perhaps even a lifetime of introspection and discovery. That was one of the first lessons that I learned on this trip to Western Armenia.
As we drove away Ani got smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared from view. Our van now sped along the lonely stretch of highway toward Doğubayazıt. Crudely made houses, mostly out of mud, had several satellite dishes mounted on their roofs. The juxtaposition of the modern with the ancient left me feeling slightly bewildered, it felt as though we were at the juncture where the old met the new with no common language to bridge the divide. The homeowners and landowners in this region of Turkey were not Turks but Kurds. In fact, most of present-day Western Armenia is inhabited by Turkish-Kurds…
As we drove along the slopes of Mount Ararat we could see the hardened lava flows resulting from volcanic eruptions. Nothing grew there, it almost looked like the surface of some other worldly planet pockmarked with craters and meandering crevices. It was strange to be so close to Ararat and yet so impossibly far. It was also on this point of the journey that we saw Yerevan for the first time from Western Armenia. So often we talk about Mt. Ararat being so close from Yerevan that we feel the need to reach out and touch it…this time I wanted so much to reach out to Yerevan…
In the late afternoon we arrived in Doğubayazıt which lies southwest of Mount Ararat. It was a messy, dirty city teeming with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. We saw a family of five on a motorbike; the father driving, the mother behind him, holding an infant and two more children holding on to their mother for dear life. From Doğubayazıt the smaller of Ararat’s two peaks was almost completely hidden. A large oval shaped cloud sat atop the main peak, resembling a hat as streaks of red and orange pierced the sky as the sun was settling in for the night. We spent the evening in Doğubayazıt, preparing ourselves for the next day’s journey to the city of Van where we would visit the Fortress of Van and then take a short boat ride to Akhtamar Island.
Early the next morning, we began our journey to Van. We were following an old map, trying to make sure we were on the right road. I can’t recall how long it took us to finally see the beautiful shores of Lake Van but I do remember the unbridled excitement in the van when we did see it. It was almost too much to bear. We quickly told the driver to stop so that we could get our first impression of this historic lake. The fusion of discovery and loss was slowly becoming a common theme on this trip. We continued on till we reached the city of Van where our first stop was going to be the famous fortress.
The Van Fortress or Citadel is a colossal and imposing structure built between the 9th and 7th centuries BC by the ancient kingdom of Urartu (prehistoric Iron Age Armenian kingdom centered in Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands).
The fortress was ominous, it could easily provide the perfect backdrop to a nightmare. The sky was overcast and there was a wind that cut to the bone. As we began climbing up, flocks of crows would swoop down upon us and then veer skyward. One of my friends commented that he had heard from someone that crows never leave the site where tragedy had taken place…I was having difficulty breathing not from the climb but from the strange energy that seemed to engulf the structure. I needed to descend, to escape the haunting quality of the place when a small Kurdish boy approached me and started speaking Turkish. I shook my head and said, “Ermeni.” He immediately switched to English and began regurgitating a memorized historical monologue about how the Armenians had once lived here…I quietly listened to him and then began climbing down to escape the suffocating aura of the citadel.
Once we had reassembled at the base of the fortress, a group of local Kurds approached the men in our group and through our Kurdish interpreter wanted to know if we had “the maps” with us. By this they meant had we come to dig up our forefathers’ golds and riches long known (to them) to have been buried at the foot of the fortress before they were massacred or forced off their historic lands. I was nervously watching this warped interchange, feeling sick to my stomach. The Kurds told us to come back at midnight with “the map” to dig up the treasure, which we would then divide equally amongst us….We agreed but never returned. The idea was a knife that cut to our hearts.
The next day, we headed toward the small dock where a boat would take us to the island of Akhtamar where we would finally get to see the 10th century Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross, a masterpiece of Armenian church architecture…The exterior of the church is covered in bas-relief carvings depicting scenes from the Bible. We could not enter the church because it was under renovation by the government of Turkey. We were able to explore the island where we stumbled upon countless stone crosses and other artifacts strewn about. The island was covered with almond trees and as we roamed about the grounds we felt suspended in time and space. Our friend brought almonds back to Armenia with him from Akhtamar Island. He planted them on his property, where they continue to live and thrive today. We filled old water bottles with soil which we also brought back and mixed with our soil in Armenia. We collected pieces of rocks and stones, took videos and photos and stood on the cliffs of the island to let the spirit of the lake fill our lungs and feed our souls. The overwhelming sense of loss that I had felt in Ani did not follow me here to the island…here, I felt light and radiant, and instead of loss, the discovery of the Holy Cross Church, of this spectacular monument that had somehow survived the onslaught of hatred and annihilation filled me with pride.
We left the island and returned to the sand-covered beach by the dock. My husband announced that he had not come all this way not to dip his feet into the waters of Lake Van and proceeded to take off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants and walked into the frigid waters. In his hand he had two water bottles which he proceeded to fill with the salty waters of the lake while I stayed a safe distance inland to videotape his labors. Talking incessantly while filming to ensure that our children had a recorded memento of our trip to the “other side of the border” a strong wave unexpectedly rolled in, almost knocking my husband over and completely derailing my plans for staying dry. It was the first time we had laughed in days and truly felt light hearted as the waves kept coming…it was as though the lake was sending us a message, beseeching us to return. I will never forget that moment full of such joy and an almost irreverent peacefulness and oneness with our history.
When he left Van, we drove through the cities of Mush, Erzerum, Ardvin and then on to Hopa on the shores of the Black Sea until we crossed the border into Georgia and spent the night in Batumi.
The stories along the way are countless. We traveled back in time, through time and with the spirit and love, memories and narratives of our grandparents on our shoulders. We witnessed greatness and loss, we saw the ghostly towns and cities of our forefathers now inhabited by Kurds and Turks. We saw churches that had been destroyed or converted into mosques or had undergone controversial “renovations.” We had lived and breathed the past with all its trajectories.
Among the multi-layered stories and experiences we were blessed with on this journey, a particular one will forever stay with me. One of our friends discovered that in the dark forgotten recesses of her memory, she had stored much of the Turkish language she had heard as a child from her grandmother and which she thought she had forever lost. As the days wore on and as we moved from city to city, traveling through the past, she slowly began to remember and by the time we reached the city of Hopa she was able to converse in Turkish. I wonder how deeply and profoundly she must have been affected by this journey to be able to recall a language she thought was lost… such was the power of the past.
For my part, the defining moment was when we approached the Armenian border. It was bittersweet because I desperately wanted to get back to Yerevan where we had left our children alone for the first time ever yet I knew that our very short sojourn into the past was coming to an end. I would be entering the borders of present-day Armenia but what I didn’t know is that I would be making the re-entry as a different person. We got out of the car to present our passports and clear Armenian customs. I had to suppress the urge to walk up to the young Armenian soldiers at the border and embrace them and thank them for protecting all that is left of the ancient Armenian Kingdom…for I had see all that we had lost and because I had seen it, I appreciated even more what is left. I appreciated it with my heart and my head for I finally began to understand the value of what it meant to have an independent state.
This is the message, the story, the narrative that I want to impart. Without ceasing to demand for the restoration of our historical rights, we need to simultaneously and with the same passion embrace the Armenia we have today. We have to accept it and love it and put aside unrealistic expectations and faulty notions. It is not the homeland that existed in the dreams of our grandparents, it never will be. We have to create and construct the modern homeland of our dreams, not theirs. We are living the dream. We are free and independent, we have the makings for democracy, stability and prosperity, we have the institutions and the resources, we just now need to find the will, define the mechanisms, and utilize our capacity to make it stronger and better. This is the burden of our generation, of the Armenians living in the homeland and in the Diaspora. The historical imperative to move forward with a new narrative has never been so pressing then it is today. I cannot imagine nor do I want to imagine a day that these liberated lands that I have the honor to walk on become a story of loss and memory…