For a number of Armenia’s in Syria estivation offered a respite from resettlement hardships after the World War I genocide and the scorching summer heat characteristic to cities and other habitations. It also constituted a channel for refugees to reconnect spiritually with their lost village life in the homeland, by sojourning at Armenian-inhabited hamlets nestled on hills in the host country. Other Armenia’s and ethnically diverse people came from Egypt, France, and elsewhere. This activity took place mainly in the autonomous Sanjak (county) of Alexandretta/Iskenderun (hereafter the Sanjak) in the northwestern corner of Syria, then under French mandate.
Tourism and estivation in Syria and Lebanon developed with some success under French mandate. Although political upheavals during 1925-1927, the world economic depression later in the decade and in the 1930s, and an aggressive campaign by other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean such as Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey to attract travelers had had an adverse impact on vacationing in French-mandated territories, still several thousand visitors came particularly from Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. The Sanjak benefited from this trend as well.
Four main areas of Armenian concentration existed in the Sanjak. The first encompassed the synonymous coastal town of Alexandretta and several communities perched on the surrounding uplands. The second included the rural towns of Kirik Khan and Rihaniye. The third engulfed Musa Dagh and Antioch city. The fourth consisted of Kesab (Kasab) on Jabal Aqra/Mount Cassius and its satellite hamlets. Whereas the hilly habitations around Alexandretta town as well as Musa Dagh became centers of estivation during the period under study, Kirik Khan and Rihaniye did not develop as such. Kesab, on the other hand, emerged as a summer resort after 1939 especially, when France ceded the Sanjak to Turkey, with Kesab, despite sustaining territorial losses in the process, remaining within the redrawn map of Syria.
Estivation in Musa Dagh, as elsewhere in the Sanjak, started slowly, because until the mid-1920s transportation to and from the Armenian villages was conducted via donkeys, horses, and mules. In order to modernize communications, the French authorities attached great importance to the construction of roads across Syria and Lebanon. Northwestern Syria thus witnessed a rapid expansion of the road network. By the summer of 1926 automobiles could access Kheder Beg by trekking the Antioch-Svedia route.
The Antioch-Svedia road was also important because it covered two-third of the distance between Antioch and Bitias; the remaining segment of about 8 kilometers was completed in 1927. Its inauguration took place on Sunday, December 4, with great fanfare. Armenian, Arabic, and French newspapers in Antioch, Alexandretta, and Beirut covered the event. The construction of roads in the region continued for several more years, connecting Beirut-Latakia-Kesab-Antioch, Bitias-Kheder Beg, and Aleppo-Antioch. Only Kabusiye remained inaccessible by car.
Sources of Attraction
Several factors propelled Musa Dagh in general and Bitias in particular into prominence as a summer resort. First and foremost, the name Musa Dagh evoked romanticism, pride, admiration, and a sense of indebtedness, all inextricably associated with the heroic exploit of its people against the Ottoman Turkish genocidal campaign in 1915. Indeed, the publication of Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in 1933 and its subsequent rendition from the original German into numerous languages captured the imagination of the international readership, making Musa Dagh a household name in various parts of the world. Second, for Armenian estivators especially, this “little Armenia,” i.e. Bitias, with its dialect, customs, folklore, and hospitality, epitomized the traditional village in the Armenian homeland now vanished as a result of the genocide. Third, Musa Dagh’s beautiful landscape, water springs and streams, and salubrious climate offered urbanites a much needed respite from the relatively hectic and stressful life and excessive summer heat in the cities. Fourth, the proximity of the larger towns, especially Aleppo, made it possible for working fathers to visit their families over weekends. Fifth, life was inexpensive; locally produced vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and other foodstuffs were cheaper than those sold in the cities.
In addition, certain individuals and groups visited Musa Dagh as part of archeological expeditions to the historical sites abounding the general vicinity, from Antioch to the Seleucid ruins scattered along the Mediterranean coast. Although no agencies or tour guides existed to organize excursions for the general public, Movses Der Kalusdian, Serop Sherbetjian, and Fr. Benoit, the resident Capuchin missionary at Kheder Beg, furnished useful information for curious tourists.
The improvemen’s effected in transportation and the heightened public awareness about Musa Dagh as a viable resort spurred a surge in the number of visitors after the mid-1920s. Not only did this “growing development” lure Armenia’s from Aleppo, Beirut, Alexandretta, Egypt, Iraq, and the Sudan, but also Arabs, Turks, Jews, and Frenchmen. Some members of the Aleppo Armenian elite, particularly from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Tashnagtsutiun (ARF) circle, often visited or summered at Bitias, and two ARF general congresses of Syria and Lebanon convened there. Here, too, camped boy scouts from the Aleppo and Kirik Khan branches of the Armenian General Athletic Association (Hay Marmnamarzagan Enthanur Miutiun). In addition, guest physicians, often acting on behalf of the Syrian Armenian Relief Cross (Suriahay Oknutian Khach), rendered free health services to estivators and natives alike. Among the non-Armenian vacationers mention is made of the governor of Aleppo, the mayors of Antioch and Alexandretta, the commander-in-chief of French troops in north Syria and other French military officers, and several prominent Antioch families. While certain individuals and groups spent limited time at Bitias, families staying the entire summer season constituted the bulk of vacationers, their number growing from eighty households in the late 1920s to 400 households by 1937.
Lodging and Other Services
The demand for accommodation was commensurate with the increase in the number of vacationers each summer. Three hotels in Bitias satisfied partially this need. Taniel Chaparian’s inn, originally a two-story silk house, consisted of several renovated rooms with comfortable European-style beds, a restaurant, a bath, and a covered dance floor in the backyard where many soirees took place. The second inn emerged as follows. The local Church Lovers’ Association (Yegeghetsasirats Miutiun), in search of a suitable parochial school facility, leased a religious endowment to Aharon Izmirlian, a restaurateur from Antioch, with the understanding that he would build a hotel on the land, operate it for ten years without rent, and turn it over to the parish council during off season to be used as school.
Around 1930, Nasib Khuri, the owner of Hotel Silpius in Antioch, forged a partnership with the brothers Garabed and Serop Keoseian of Bitias, whereby the latter made their two-story, ten-room house available to Khuri, who furnished it (moderately) as a hotel. After a year the Keoseians paid their partner off and became the sole owners of Hotel Khuri, renaming it Hotel Jabal Musa. The hotel fee of 6 Syrian pounds per customer per day covered three meals as well, served table d’h?te, that is, with a fixed menu and at scheduled times. Breakfast included milk, eggs, jam, butter, olives, and five kinds of cheese to choose from; lunch consisted of five entrees, fruit, and coffee; and dinner comprised four entrees, soup, fruit, and coffee. Drinks cost extra. Since on any given day most customers were the families of French military and civilian officials, chefs Iskender Khamisian and Setrak Libaridian prepared mainly European dishes. In the absence of electricity and refrigerators, ice in the form of frozen snow gathered during winter and preserved by a company in Antioch was utilized to keep perishable edibles fresh.
The three hotels alone could not accommodate the numerous visitors seeking lodging. The solution rested in the unfurnished and furnished housing provided by the natives themselves. Accordingly, virtually every household in Bitias was converted into some kind of a pension. Finding vacancies on the spot without advanced booking sometimes proved difficult. In order to facilitate the search for available lodging, a special village committee assigned one or two men (usually the municipal guards) to await the arrival of cars at the parking lot near Hetum’s Caf?, guide the passengers to available guest rooms for a commission, and mediate disputes arising between homeowners and tenants. Sometimes street-smart lads upstaged the official middlemen to earn pocket money.
Income from the sale of homegrown and/or homemade food and other commodities augmented the revenues from rents. Many households kept a few goats and/or cows, chickens, and beehives to produce milk, yogurt, cheese, other dairy products, eggs, and honey for personal consumption as well as to generate extra cash. They also grew vegetables and fruits which were sold fresh, dried, or cooked. For example, vacationers purchased sun-dried eggplants, zucchini, and peppers, tomato and pepper paste, and jam for winter rations. Tonir (hearth) bread was likewise in great demand, as were wooden combs, ladles, and charcoal produced by local manufacturers. The vacationers similarly frequented a daily bazaar of fresh produce at a neighborhood called Kabirlik In addition to the home industries and the bazaar, there existed a number of businesses to satisfy similar and other needs.
The importance of tourism in Musa Dagh was also underscored by the relocation of the district’s governorship from its seat at Kheder Beg to Bitias during the summer season beginning with 1927. This move must also be credited for the introduction of public services not available before. For example, uniformed municipal guards watched security, lit “Lux” lamps on street corners from sunset until midnight, and visited the daily bazaar at Kabirlik to tax vendors (usually Alawi farmers from neighboring villages) and to make sure consumers were not ripped off. They similarly collected garbage, swept the streets with bellan bushes, and sprayed water to settle dust. Last but not least, the Bitias municipality, located at the house of Sargis Sherpetjian (“Khashtakints”) next to Hotel Aharon, established a central telephone and telegraph system and initiated a regular postal service between Antioch and Bitias. These modernizing measures, however elementary, simple, and/or limited in scope and application, improved the overall standard of living.
The atmosphere in Bitias during the summer months could be characterized as festive. Hiking, camping, picnicking, flower and thyme picking, promenading, and serenading by amorous couples in nature’s bosom occurred daily. After dark, families visited each other, chit-chatted, drank spirits, and sang folk, love, and patriotic songs. In turn, children improvised toys from rudimen’s, played “Lido,” watched water crabs, threw stones at walnut trees in hopes of obtaining some walnuts, climbed trees, or simply frolicked carefree. They likewise joined adults in swimming outings.
Other sorts of entertainment added to the merriment. Armenian classical music, interpreted by violinist Hagop Nalbandian and vocalist Hovsep Seraydarian on businessman-producer Khachadur Shahin’s “Odeon” records filled the air. Kemanchisd Rupen (Sapszian) in 1930 gave a solo concert with his traditional folk instrument. To the natives’ delight, composer-songwriter Parsegh Ganachian in 1933 arranged the popular local folksong “Hele-Hele Ninnoye” and presented it for the first time as part of his choral repertoire in a concert at Hotel Aharon. In the same vein, actor-director Parsegh Apovian in the summer of 1931 toured Musa Dagh staging “Ashkharhi tadasdane” (The Judgment of the World) at Bitias and Kabusiye, and “Ashik Gharib” (The Amorous Stranger or Minstrel) at Kheder Beg. Another servant of the theater, known by the singular name of Chaprast, produced his own shows.
Two Armenian religious-national holidays attracted thousands of celebrants to Bitias and Damlajik, a central spot on Musa Dagh where the 1915 resistance had taken place. The first event, held in mid-August, was dedicated to Surp Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God). After collecting donations of sacrificial lambs, wheat, salt, and wood from the natives, the parish council oversaw the cooking of the traditional food of harisa in large copper kettles in ceremonious rituals that lasted from Saturday evening until Sunday morning. Following mass, the priest blessed the harisa before it was distributed to impatient congregants pushing and shoving each other to fill their plates.
The second feast, commemorating Musa Dagh’s successful resistance to the Turkish genocide in 1915, took place at Damlajik, where a pile of rocks had served as a makeshift altar during the actual fights. For almost a decade mass was celebrated at this site, and requiem for the repose of those who had fallen in the battlefield was conducted in a nearby lot where eighteen wooden crosses were stuck into the ground. But in 1932 this rough arrangement was replaced by a more fitting graveyard that included eighteen tombstones, each inscribed with the name of a fallen fighter. The celebrants, including natives and vacationers alike, congregated at Damlajik from Saturday until Sunday afternoon, making their way on foot in several hours through difficult terrain. Once there, they hoisted the Armenian and French tricolors and indulged themselves in feasting, fireworks, singing and dancing, reciting poetry, and reminiscing myriad details pertaining to the resistance. Sunday morning was reserved for the official program consisting of mass, requiem, and speeches by Armenian and French dignitaries. The organizers likewise sent telegrams to the French Minister of the Marine and the High Commissioner of Syria and Lebanon to express their appreciation and gratitude for the French goodwill vis-?-vis the Armenia’s of Musa Dagh.
The seventeenth anniversary celebrations took place on 18 September 1932 with pomp and circumstance as a new monument glorifying the resistance was unveiled. The inauguration began with the “Marseillaise,” after which Movses Der Kalusdian thanked and praised “magnificent France” for using its weapons not to destroy, but rather to safeguard peace. Sarkis Tosunian, chairman of the monument building committee, delivered “a beautiful address” in French. Speaking on behalf of the High Commissioner, Colonel Huguenet surveyed amicable Franco-Armenian bonds through the course of history, considering the French assistance in 1915 a natural continuation of that close relationship. Finally, Admiral Joubert, commander of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, paid homage to the Armenian martyrs. The celebrations continued with an official banquet held in the shade of the centuries-old plane tree of Kheder Beg.
Outdoor caf?s were popular pastime spots. There were six caf?s in Bitias, all established near waters. One of them, that of Hetum Filian, was arranged around a large pool built by a retired British diplomat called John Barker (The Frank, i.e., European) a century before. This caf?, like the rest, offered coffee, hookahs, and lokhum (a sweet), in addition to a pleasant ambience in which families and friends gathered together to have fun, chit-chat, knit, play cards and backgammon, and listen to music broadcast via a “His Master’s Voice” gramophone.
Ominous political clouds marred the 1938 vacation season. Referring to the new Franco- Turkish regime in the Sanjak, now called the Republic of Hatay, an Armenian newspaper asked: “Who can think about estivation in this political turmoil when the general mood is one of changing places, that is, leaving the Sanjak altogether?” Despite the nice weather and the abundance and affordability of fruits, the number of vacationers dropped by 75 percent, from 400 families in the previous year to 100 families. In addition to voluntary restraints, there existed official restrictions. And in the following summer most Armenia’s and other ethnicities exited the Sanjak fearful of direct Turkish rule (to be established on 23 July 1939).
As the Armenia’s of Musa Dagh resettled in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, their new home, called Anjar, emerged gradually as a summer resort for a number of Lebanese and Syrian Armenia’s. This reincarnation has retained some of the features characteristic to the bygone days in Bitias and Musa Dagh in general.