Visiting Van and Mush in Historical Armenia

Catherine Yesayan
Catherine Yesayan

Catherine Yesayan

BY CATHERINE YESAYAN

On the seventh day of our pilgrimage in Western Armenia we stayed overnight in Mush, which is an ancient settlement where archeological excavations have revealed cuneiform inscriptions from the time of Menua, (c. 800 BC) the most famous king of Urartu kingdom. Ancient records show that the origin of Armenians go back to Urartu civilization.

The name of Mush is derived from the word Mshush which in Armenian means hazy. It is a good descriptive name, because the weather in Mush is usually hazy.

Mush is also famous for the flat and long stretches of plains which surround the city. In Armenian, they call them “Mushi Mshot Dashter,” meaning “Plains of hazy Mush.”

For dinner in Mush, we went to “Locanta Park,” a restaurant that the owner was Armenian. There we met a big group of Armenians that were also visiting Mush from Armenia. They were an energetic group, singing popular Armenian songs.

I approached their table, and met Aragatz Akhoyan, who introduced himself as the president of “Return Foundation,” whose main purpose is to empower Islamized Armenians to be re-introduced to their origins and heritage.

To accomplish that noble quest, twice a year he brings Armenian dance and song ensembles to Turkey, and arranges recitals to entice the Hidden Armenians to reclaim their erased identity.

He told me that the night before in Diyarbakir, he had arranged for 150 people to come together in a restaurant to enjoy Armenian dance and song.

According to a Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, Mush had 27,000 inhabitants in 1913, of which 13,300 were Muslims and 13,700 Armenians.

Today, only a handful of Armenians live in Mush and most of them do not speak Armenian. But there is a movement among the children of Islamized Armenians, who had accepted Islam to avoid persecution, to return to their origin and discover their heritage.

Annie, a member of our tour, had made a prior arrangement to meet with a local guy from Mush whose 117-year-old-father was one of those hidden Armenians.

Before dinner, she went to meet the old man and was quite impressed with her interview. Later, I met his son, who came to have dinner with us. He too, like other children of Hidden Armenians was quite excited about discovering his origins.

My research to write this column revealed that before 1915, there were about 300 Armenian churches in the region of Mush. The most well-known and the most magnificent of all those churches was Surp, or Saint Marineh.

The precarious standing wall from Surp Marineh Church in Mush

The precarious standing wall from Surp Marineh Church in Mush

The morning of our stay in Mush, we headed to the outskirts of the city to visit the ruins of Surp Marineh. The church was known as “Katoghike,” which means Cathedral. Unfortunately, from all that elegance and splendor, the only thing remained is a precarious outer wall.

With a heavy heart at seeing the dilapidated church of Marineh, we boarded our minibus to our next destination, to the village of Por, not far from Mush.

Our tour guide said that our beloved William Saroyan’s great-grandparents were from that village, where an Armenian church still stood.

We arrived at the village before noon. The church of Surp Anania in the village of Por was at the top of a small hill. For more than a hundred years, no Armenians had lived there.

Por, with its twisty dirt roads and rough constructed homes, and people traveling on donkeys, gave me the impression of a village from long ago.

The women, all Muslims, in the middle of summer, wore outfits that covered them from head to toe. The kids, especially the little girls, had mismatched outfits, such as skirts over pants.

When I tried to take pictures, the girls smiled shyly, but the boys, at age 11 or 12, were confident, talkative, and making jokes. They were happy to have the opportunity to practice the English that they had learned at school. The boys were counting “one-two-three” or telling the few words that they knew in English.

Over the dirt road, the kids escorted us to the small (about 30 by 18 feet) church, which was in ruins, though its walls and roof were still standing.

It was hard to believe that the church dated back to the 7th century. The heads of the village assured us that they clean and take care of the church. Outside the church, there were a number of very large and beautiful Armenian Khachkars (cross stones), preserved in pretty good condition.

The next stop was our most anticipated visit to Akhtamar Island in Lake Van.

Like every Armenian child, I grew up hearing the legend of the love story of a princess named Tamar who lived on that island, and her lover, a commoner, who swam every night from the shore to meet her. One night, her father prevents the princess from lighting the lamp that the lover needed to be directed to the island. He, not being able to find his way, drowns, uttering his last word, “Akh-Tamar.” (Akh is an expression of sorrow or lament)

The story created in my mind an incredible image of a place far-far away, and I couldn’t envision myself ever being able to set foot on that island. But I did.

Akhtamar island from the boat

Akhtamar island from the boat

We arrived at the shores of Lake Van, the largest lake in Turkey, with a very high salt level. We boarded a boat, which chugged along for 30 minutes.

All the seats were taken. People were mostly from Turkey. However, I met a family from Iran and another one from India. I realized that this little trip to the island is quite popular. I had no idea that the island would be a tourist attraction. And why didn’t I?

History tells us that King Gagik I, of Vaspurakan dynasty, in 908 A.D. chose the island of Akhtamar as one of his residences, and created a settlement there. Today, the only structure standing from that opulent enclave is the Cathedral, which was built between the years 915-921.

As we got closer to the island, the silhouette of the Cathedral of Surp Khach (Holy Cross) arose, standing lonely, in the middle of the island.

At that moment, most everybody positioned themselves to take pictures of the island and the cathedral. The sight aroused my emotions. Pride and excitement boiled inside me. I couldn’t quite believe that I was seeing the island with my own eyes.

When we landed and approached the cathedral, I saw that its condition was not what I had expected. The outside looked pretty good, especially the carvings or the bas-reliefs of the biblical scenes on the exterior walls; however, the inside frescos were ripped, faded, and decayed. I later learned that the church had undergone a restoration financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

After our visit to the church, we stopped at the beach. A few of our group members took a dip in the water, but I just wet my feet on the pebble beach.

Our visit to the island took about an hour. Afterwards, we re-boarded the boat and returned to the coast, where we stopped at a restaurant and had fish from the lake.

The only fish known to live in the salty and carbonated waters of Lake Van is Tarekh, small size fish. We had fried Tarekh for a late lunch.

The fortress of Van

The fortress of Van

From there, we went to a village to visit another old Armenian church, which was comparatively in a decent condition. At the village, the church had a custodian who looked after it. Inside the church, they had little booth where they sold some religious relics.

One thing that fascinated me during our whole trip in Historical Armenia was that in every city we visited, there was a fortress from long ago. The city of Van had also a fortress, bearing the same name. We arrived at the Van Fortress right before the sunset.

The fortress is not far from the shores of Lake Van, just a few kilometers west of the modern city of Van. It is a massive stone fortification built by the ancient kingdom of Urartu, (9th to 7th centuries B.C.) It is the largest example of this kind of construction.

After visiting the fortress, when it was getting dark we made our last stop to see the cats of Van at a shelter. The cats of Van are relatively large, with a white coat and the odd fact, which they’re famous for is that they have one blue and one amber eye. And I can add that they’re very aggressive.

Akhtamar Surp Khach church

Akhtamar Surp Khach church

As I was doing a little research about this last leg of our pilgrimage, I came upon a wonderful book called, “An American Physician in Turkey,” by Dr. Clarence D. Ussher. The author, who was a physician, was sent to Harput, in the Ottoman Empire, to work as a missionary and a doctor.

He arrived in Harput in 1889, at the age of 29, just a few years after the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the area. He stayed in Harput for a year but then was transferred to Van because the village required a physician.

When he arrived in Van, he noticed that the village was still heavily damaged from the Hamidian massacres. Ussher immediately began his work in the Armenian orphanages of Van, where hundreds of orphans of the Hamidian massacres were being housed.

He writes in detail about the tragedies that faced the Armenians from the early 1900s through the Genocide. His memoir gives us an invaluable insight into the social and political life of Armenians.

To read the book, I went to the National Library of Armenia. I was not allowed to check the book out, but could only study it at the reading room of the library.

In the preface of the book, which Ussher wrote on October 17, 1917, exactly 100 years ago, he says, “I speak of what I do know by the witness of my own eyes and ears, my own nerves quivering in sympathy with the torture of the people I have labored for.”

The book is considered one of the most detailed eyewitness accounts of the Armenian Genocide. The small book has a rich treasure of provocative historical facts illustrating the harsh treatments from the high ranking Turkish officials towards Armenians. It helped me to fully understand the day-to-day life in Van and the massacres that happened.

During my research, I also learned that Armenians of Van are known to be very careful with spending of their money. In that sense they are referred as “Christian Jews.”

A sign at the shelter of Cats of Van

A sign at the shelter of Cats of Van

In Lake Van, there is another less known Armenian Island called “Gdoutz,” which in Armenian means bird’s beak, because the island is narrow and looks like a beak.

The next morning, we headed to the island of Gdoutz. This time, we were the only passengers on the boat. In that island too, a lonely church stood. Again, we marveled at the construction of the church with its tall interior arched walls that told about the splendor it was built in.

Our last overnight stay of our pilgrimage was in the city of Kars, a city that once was populated by wealthy Armenians. Since this an intense topic, I’d like to leave you here and continue to write about visiting Kars and the nearby ruins of city of Ani in my next column.

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2 Comments

  1. A.Napetian said:

    Very impressive short introduction of the area that will certainly encourage tourists and hopefully explorers to visit it which may create encouragement for the “Hidden Armenians” to return to their original identity and that itself in long run be a foundation for a historical Armenian Renascence in Turkey.

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