A Search for ‘Treasure’ on the Armenian Highland Uncovers a Wealth of History

A Kurdish man struggles to keep his balance while walking on the roof of the Armenian monastery of Soorp Bedros of Gomk, in the Sasun region of Western Armenia. This man bragged to a group of visiting Armenian Americans that he is excavating the site for hidden treasure. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
The floor of an ancient Armenian church has been excavated by treasure hunters who are searching for valubles that Armenians supposedly buried before fleeing during the genocide. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

The floor of an ancient Armenian church has been excavated by treasure hunters who are searching for valubles that Armenians supposedly buried before fleeing during the genocide. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

BY MATTHEW KARANIAN

Editor’s Note: Karanian’s book was launched on April 9, at Abril Bookstore. Story and photos reprinted with permission from ‘The Armenian Highland: Western Armenia and the First Armenian Republic of 1918’ by Matthew Karanian (Stone Garden Press, 2019). Available on April 15, 2019 from bookstores, directly from the publisher, and Amazon.

I was in the region of Mush on the ancient Armenian Highland of Western Armenia, searching for the location of the ruins of Arakelots, when I stopped to ask directions from some local Kurds.

I stopped three, maybe four, times. At each stop, my inquiry prompted the same reply. Ah, you’re looking for the altin? The gold?

These Kurdish villagers made no attempt to conceal their curiosity. Instead, they craned their necks and looked inside my car for the pickaxes and shovels that they knew I must be carrying.

Many of the people who live in the villages near Armenian monuments in Western Armenia assume that if someone is traveling all the way to the ruins of an old Armenian monastery, then the person must be looking for the buried treasure that is supposedly hidden at every Armenian church here.

A Kurdish man struggles to keep his balance while walking on the roof of the Armenian monastery of Soorp Bedros of Gomk, in the Sasun region of Western Armenia. This man bragged to a group of visiting Armenian Americans that he is excavating the site for hidden treasure. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

A Kurdish man struggles to keep his balance while walking on the roof of the Armenian monastery of Soorp Bedros of Gomk, in the Sasun region of Western Armenia. This man bragged to a group of visiting Armenian Americans that he is excavating the site for hidden treasure. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

At countless churches that I visited, not just in Mush, but everywhere in Western Armenia, the areas beneath altars had been excavated. The floors near the entryways had been dug up by these treasure-seekers.

An Armenian khatchkar (stone cross) is toppled beside a freshly plundered grave near a monastery in Havav, in Western Armenia. The grave had been plundered in 2017, more than a century after the genocide. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

An Armenian khatchkar (stone cross) is toppled beside a freshly plundered grave near a monastery in Havav, in Western Armenia. The grave had been plundered in 2017, more than a century after the genocide. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

If anyone really hid any treasure beneath these Armenian churches and monasteries one century ago, then the treasures must certainly have been removed by now. The continued excavations damage the foundations of these buildings, and thus threaten the survival of the real treasures, which are the monuments themselves.

And so in Mush, and elsewhere, I would reply to questions about the so-called gold by saying that I was here only to photograph the ruins.

This, of course, would lead to another question. You have come all the way from the US just to take pictures of stones?

Conversations such as these usually involved a Kurdish man from Diyarbakir named Zulkuf. During the past four years of travels in Western Armenia, Zulkuf has been my driver. But Zulkuf had, over the years, become more than a driver. He had also become a translator and a facilitator during my search for what’s left of Armenia in today’s Turkey.

Yes, Zulkuf would tell the inquisitive villagers, he really wants to make pictures of the stones.

“But,” he would add, “They are the stones of his grandparents. He’s Armenian.”

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