An Incredible Armenian Who Retrieved Armenian Orphans from the Syrian Desert

Columnist Harut Sassounian x
Columnist Harut Sassounian

Columnist Harut Sassounian


Parnag Shishigyan is a heroic Zeytountsi who retrieved hundreds of Armenian orphans from Arab families in the Syrian desert after the Armenian Genocide. His name is not known to most Armenians. Therefore it is worthwhile to focus attention on his life and his good deeds. He is buried in the little town of Hovdashad, a few miles outside of Yerevan.

Last month, Zarmik Sargsyan from Yerevan posted on her Facebook page a very moving tribute to Parnag Shishigyan after visiting his grave. The only reference to his unique accomplishment is a booklet published 30 years ago by Hagop Jghlyan whose family he had rescued. The book was aptly titled, “A Life Left in the Shadows.” Sargsyan attempted to take Shishigyan’s life out of the shadows and present him to the public at large.

From April 10 to May 18, 1915, the heroic town of Zeytoun in Cilicia was depopulated. The men were herded into the infamous Ottoman Turkish “Labor Battalions.” On the road to Deir Zor, Syria, 14-year-old Parnag, ignoring the snakes and scorpions around him, spent days cuddling the corpse of his mother who was killed by the sword of a Turkish soldier. He was rescued by a Bedouin Arab from the Shammar tribe, who, after digging a grave in the sand for Parnag’s mother with his dagger, placed the young boy on his horse and took him to his home.

Young Parnag who already knew Armenian, German and Turkish, soon also learned Arabic. Besides herding sheep and camels, Parnag, renamed Ahmet El Jezza, taught the tribesmen how to write in Arabic. He became very popular in the region because of his diligence, humility, and serious demeanor.

Soon, in the course of herding sheep, Parnag came across in the desert many Armenian children adopted by local Arabs. He reminded them of their Armenian heritage and began to write down their names and places of residence in a notebook.

In 1924, 23-year-old “Ahmet”, as a trusted and literate young man, was asked to deliver a herd of sheep bought by wealthy Arabs from Aleppo. Once in Aleppo, he was surprised to see Armenian signs on store fronts and people speaking in Armenian. He was offered a job and a place to stay by local Armenians, but he turned down the offers, saying he had a family in the desert and could not abandon them. He then showed to an Armenian shoemaker his notebook listing the names and places of Armenian children living in the desert with Arab families. He had promised himself to gather these Armenian children, help them marry each other and find their relatives, if still alive. It was a very difficult task. Most of the children, having lived with Arab families for several years, did not remember their heritage and did not know that there were other Armenians still in existence. But Parnag persisted despite the obstacles.

The shoemaker Panos, President of the Rescue Committee of Armenian orphans from Arab and Kurdish tribes, was stunned. During the last few months, the Committee had barely rescued a couple of children, and now Panos was seeing an entire notebook full of Armenian names.

After returning to his tribe, Parnag kept sending list after list of Armenian children to Aleppo. The Rescue Committee would then go to the desert, pay off the tribesmen and take the Armenian children to Aleppo or Beirut.

Eventually, the Syrian government allocated two villages in the desert to Armenians. Parnag got married to an Armenian woman by the name of Wadha who later changed her name to Siranoush. Respecting their adoptive Arab parents, they agreed to have the marriage ceremony performed by a Muslim Sheikh. The couple planned to have an Armenian wedding later on. Parnag’s four Arab “brothers” were not happy that he was leaving them to go and settle in the new Armenian village of Tel El-Brak. They divided the family belongings into five. Parnag took with him 100 sheep, five camels, a horse, a rifle, and household items.

Parnag brought the hundreds of Arabized Armenians to his village, gave them Armenian names and arranged their marriages. He organized the young men of the village to collect the bones of Armenian martyrs from Deir Zor, Raqqa, around the Euphrates and Khabour rivers and the tragic cave of Sheddedeh. Parnag held a memorial ceremony for the souls of the deceased!
The two Armenian villages in the desert soon prospered. They formed a sports organization and a music band. In 1947, when Parnag became aware of the mass migration back to Soviet Armenia he decided to return to the homeland! He left all his possessions behind except for one thing, his Arabian horse, which he donated to a horse ranch after arriving in Armenia.
Parnag’s family settled in Hovdashad, a village near Echmiadzin where he worked as a farmer. His wife, Siranoush, had five more children in Armenia. Even though Parnag had retrieved hundreds of Armenian children, he always thought of the hundreds of other children who were not, including his wife, Siranoush’s sister.

In the Hovdashad cemetery, there is a statue of Parnag in Arabic attire. The house that Parnag built in 1956 in that village is now like a museum, where his clothes and his photos are displayed. Facebook writer Zarmik Sargsyan recalls that Parnag’s great-grandson Hagop was married in Los Angeles on April 17, 1997, in the presence of his seven siblings. It is ironic that the descendants of the man, who had sacrificed so much to rescue Armenians and moved to the homeland, now live far away from Armenia, in Los Angeles!

Armenians both in Armenia and the Diaspora should visit the village of Hovdashad and Parnag’s grave to pay tribute to the man who retrieved hundreds of Armenian orphans and returned them to their heritage.

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  1. Berge said:

    Thank you Harut. Very moving. One way to reach the village of Hovtashat from Yerevan is by taking the airport road M5 (heading west), make a U-turn near the Zvartnots Cathderal ruins; at a short-distance take the H13 road (heading south) 4 miles to the town of Hayanist; take a right-turn at Hayanist, driving 2.5 miles to Hovtashat.

  2. Barséghian Ardachèce said:

    Sir, you discover beautiful pages of history, moving, which nourishes my will to serve my country, according to my modest means, even to live there. For centuries, our elders have never ceased to be humiliated, violent, martyred, our parents have been hunted from their towns and villages, abandoning their land, tribulationed by the world, they have constantly preserved their culture thanks to our intellectuals and volunteers who have been able to organize themselves with patriotic ideas in order to protect us from assimilation and we rise from our ashes. This story represents the ultimate humiliation. hardly believable, which obliges us all to be. I know perfectly well that at the forefront of the national consciousness are women and men who, like you, sacrifice their social promotion to the detriment of their families and lead us to this national memory in the noble revolutionary sense to repair these sufferings and plunders. Thank you to all of you who maintain and promote this community consciousness with success and dignity.

  3. Anahid Dixon said:

    My father Karnig Takhtaborounian was also adopted by a Bedwin Arab the same way in Ras Ul Ain When he was 8 yrs old clinging to his mother’s dead corpse He too lived a similar life with the kind family they even told him he was a Christian didn’t need to fast in Ramadan At the age of 13 he was sent to Aleppo to see a doctor for his Malaria virus He has a photo also wearing the full Bedwin dress Luckyly he found his older brother in Aleppo & stayed, but never lost in touch with his adoptive parents Plus he never told us his Arab name

    • Barséghian Ardachèce said:

      It is moving but not surprising that in the name of Islam with a large I, men and families have reached out and their hearts to save women and children from humiliation, martyrdom once again in the name of ISLAM. I would recognize the rest of my life to all those Islamic countries that have welcomed the Armenian country rescues in the lesquerls they have found refuge until today, with our churches, our schools, our culture opening us political expression. No one in the world can understand the posture of the new Kalif of Constantinople who sadistically persecutes his Chretian minorities cannot be Muslim in the same way as Hitler claimed to be Catholic

  4. Antoine S. Terjanian said:

    Thank you Mr. Sassounian for this very informative article. I will definitely visit Parnak’s grave and his house museum.
    My father had told me about the Armenian children adopted/salvaged by Arab bedouins. He recounted to me how an Armenian-American had sent resources to an organisation in Haleb to look for his own brother. The brother was found in a bedouin tribe and my father witnessed the emotional embrace of this “American” recognising his totally “bedouanized” brother.
    Incidentally if anyone wants to locate Tel el Brak on Googlemaps, it is near Qamishly in North-East Syria, Google spells it “Tell Brak”.

  5. Bedros Zerdelian said:

    My heartfelt thanks and appreciation for this touchy and impressive historical story.

  6. Vars Injijian said:

    Once again Harout, a big thank you for researching and writing so many historical moments in our lives. My father, we believe at age 5 or 6, was saved during a death march in the desert, either by a Kurdish or Arab Bedouin family, and taken to their home as their child. When the father of that family passed away a few years later, the mother did not want to take care of their adopted son, so my father was turned over to an orphanage with other Armenians. Palestine became home until emigrating to America.

  7. Barséghian Ardachèce said:

    I knew that I was unscientist but respectful at the highest level towards all men of the beliefs of this world who teach “to reach out, to love one’s neighbour” not to insult him, to humiliate him with a visceral intolerance that betrayed his own religious precepts, to persecute, to martyr him. I maintain that the Ottomans, the young Turks up to erdoran cannot usurp the fact of declared themselves Muslim.

  8. Harout Mardirossian said:

    My paternal grand parents were from Zeitun and Sassoun, who ended up in Aleppo. While growing there as preschooler, my grandmother used to gather ladies who had gone through the trauma of the genocide. Every Wednesday afternoon, they came to our home where my grandmother used to roast coffee, grind it and serve her guests. While sipping their coffees, each one lamented her own experience surpassing the other. To my surprise one day, a lady joined them in her Abaya. I was weary until she joined the conversation in Turkish. Her name was Aghavni, with blonde and blue eyes, with tattoos on her forehead and below her lips. As to why she still wore her Abaya, it still remains a mystery to me. Like Parnag, there were others who were engaged in the rescue operations. She was rescued by Der Muegerdich a priest and Levon Apkarian [the father of Sebouh Apkarian/ Kohar Dance Ensemble]. The Hokedoun of Aleppo became an address of transition of these rescued, where there may be worthy records to reconstruct these pages of heroic past.

  9. Satenik said:

    Very touching, it gave me goosebumps . He was a true hero and his memory and heroic actions will be remembered by those he rescued. Yes it is ironic that his grandson live in foreign lands ….

  10. John Ohanian, Jr said:

    I am so grateful that my father’s parents and their families made it out of Turkey, got to Cyprus and met each other. The journey continued to Brooklyn and then eventually Long Island. I tell my kids, things could have been very different and to stay brave.

  11. hovanes Boyadjian said:

    We all have stories of survival from our parents and grandparents.This story is how my grandfather found his brother.My grandfather had left his native town of Urfa before WW1for Alexandria ,Egypt.Urfa had resisted the deportation but could not hold out for long and because of their defiance,the Turks were particularly harsh with the Armenians and very few from Urfa survived.But his very young brother did and was adopted by an Arab who some years later took him to the Armenian church in Aleppo.It was through a listing in the Armenian newspaper in Egypt that my grandfather found out about his brother and had him sent to Egypt.