BY GARBIS DER-YEGHIAYAN
The history of the Armenian people is a story stained with tragedy, destruction, and injustice – but, nevertheless, also a story of faith, perseverance, accomplishment, and hope.
Although brutally massacred and ruthlessly driven from our homeland and denied our precious liberties, we have never forgotten our precious heritage and have carried with us our deep pride and resolved to prevail wherever we have settled. No one has expressed this notion better than William Saroyan in his famous quote: “When two of them meet anywhere in the world see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
Mashdots College’s annual pilgrimage to Western Armenia, Cilicia, and Cappadocia, July 5-20, 2014 not only depicted the beauty and spirit of our ancestral homeland, but it also served to strengthen our bonds as a people, and helped us to better understand and appreciate our centuries-old precious heritage and to observe first-hand the unparalleled accomplishments of our martyred ancestors and the immense sacrifices endured by the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. For if we are to perpetuate our treasured traditions and sacred values, we must never forget what it means to be an Armenian. This incredible experience also offered us a panorama of unforgettable moments. Suddenly, the past and the present fused seamlessly. These are no ordinary sightseeing trips but a fateful encounter with our historical roots. As we walked through the ancient streets of our ancestral lands, from village to village, from city to city, we were beholden in awe the priceless Armenian treasures “hidden” in plain sight. This sky, this very same earth, this very land was where our parents and grandparents were born, grew up, lived, toiled, and worshipped in churches that now lie in various stages of neglect, ruin and outright desecration. Yet, we experienced heart-warming and triumphant moments as well. As we crisscrossed this historically rich land, time and again we are transfixed by the historical sites, structures and objects that trumpeted the golden age of our courageous people’s history.
The pilgrimage covered the following regions and cities: Adana, Deort-Yol, Aintab, Berejik, Urfa, Dikranagerd, Bitlis, Van-Aghtamar, Pergri, Igdir, Bayazid, Mt. Ararat, Ani, Kars, Garin-Erzurum, Mush, Kharpert, Zara, Seoastia-Sivas, Gessaria, and Uchisar-Pasabagi, Cavusin, Urgup, Goreme and Kaymakli Underground City in Cappadocia.
Special Moments with our History:
MAJESTIC MT. ARARAT — As we approached the town of Bayazid, a distant view suddenly took our first-time visiting pilgrims by surprise. Across the northeastern horizon rose a breathtakingly beautiful scene, Mount Ararat, dwarfing the other ranges in view. From a distance its most distinguished feature was its gracefully outlined ascending, capped by ice fields. We were all transfixed wanting to feast our eyes on the symbol of our survival. Perhaps nothing will ever rival the emotions we all felt during our face-to-face encounter with Mt. Ararat. As we symbolically climbed our majestic mountain we enjoyed an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience – “the dream of our life” as described by the pilgrimage participants. It was a spiritual lift that inspired hope within us for a brighter future for all Armenians.
ANI — Needless to say, we were deeply touched by our visit to our 10th century capital City of Ani. When our first steps touched the earth inside the city walls, our thoughts soared to the majesty of our kingdom at its finest. Before us stretched fields of tall grass punctuated periodically by outcroppings of stones, some alone, others in randomly arranged piles and still others in neat rows forming walls. We moved around reverently so that we could attach the umbilical cord of our soul. Ani spreads in a triangular plan more than two kilometers long from the north to the south walls. The city grew from the seventh to eleventh centuries to acquire the characteristics of an urban center with a population of 100,000 Armenians. This site – at the crossroads of trade routes and positioned typography to enhance the physical safety of its inhabitants – had been chosen by the Armenian Bagratid sovereigns as the religious and political capital of Armenia. During the thirty-year reign of Gagik I, Armenian Renaissance in the arts and politics flourished. Once known as the City of 1001 Churches, it became known beyond the Armenian Kingdom as a Christian metropolis. It was a special thrill to marvel at the Ani school of architecture with its complex spatial geometry, yet how saddening to realize that at the main gate and at church entrances, descriptive inscriptions and signs did not include the word “Armenian”, what a travesty and a doomed effort to rewrite history! We visited the Church of the Redeemer (under reconstruction), Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honentz, the Mother Cathedral (under reconstruction), Church of our Lady, Church of Saint Gregory of Abughamrentz, Church of the Apostles, and the Monastery of Holy Virgins. We were only a few yards away from the rushing water of the Akhurian River, and which joins the Araxes River. The Republic of Armenia lays just a stone’s throw from where we were standing. The river demarcates the border between Armenia and Turkey. A bridge, now ruined, spans the Akhurian River in a single arch 30 meters in length.
HOLY CROSS ARMENIAN CATHEDRAL – This exquisite 10th century edifice is the birthplace of our soul. When we arrived at the dock for the motorboat to the Island of Aghtamar, we had just enough time to jump on board. As the boat approached the island, the façade of the renovated church loomed larger and larger, with our emotions growing in amplitude. Manuel, a distinguished Armenian architect under commission, oversaw the construction of this marvel of Armenian architecture from 915 to 921A.D. including the cathedral, a monastery, and a palace. What a strong commitment our ancestors should have possessed to have built over one thousand years ago such a magnificent masterpiece. Building the cathedral alone on this same site today would be considered a major construction project requiring the cooperation of hundreds of planners, organizers, designers, workers, and benefactors. One could have nothing but admiration and pride for the accomplishments of those who turned the island into Manuel’s unusually insightful architectural and artistic design for King Gagik Ardzrouni. When we finally reached the island, we began our ascent up the narrow path toward the church several hundred feet away. We stood in awe and stopped several times to look around and take pictures. The church is captivating. The exterior of the church is in superb condition and boasts a remarkable series of bas-relief carvings and friezes representing biblical stories as well as depictions of heroic events in Armenian history. Its classical beauty makes this one of the most photographed edifices in Western Armenia.
WORSHIPPING IN OUR CHURCHES – Yes, functioning, but also ruined and converted! We prayed and sang sharagans at the following sites: Adana – Sourp Hagop (now Yagh mosque), Deort Yol – Sourp Asdvadzadzin, Aintab – Sourp Asdvadzadzin (now Kurtulush mosque), Urfa – Sourp Asdvadzadzin (now Salaheddine Ayoubi mosque) and Armenian Evangelical (now Firfirli mosque), Dikranagerd – Sourp Giragos, Van – Sourp Khach, Ani – Mother Cathedral, Kars – Holy Apostles (now Kumbet mosque), Erzurum – Sourp Minas, Mush – Sourp Asdvadzadzin, Kharpert – Sourp Asdvadzadzin, Sourp Garabed, Sourp Varvara, as well as the Assyrian Church, Bolis – Sourp Asdvadzadzin Patriarchal Cathedral.
LOCATING ANCESTRAL HOMES – What an emotional encounter, what an indescribable moment to witness the tears of joy when several of our pilgrimage participants carrying pictures of their ancestral homes could locate them! Rightful owners and current residents embracing each other . . . what an incredible scene!
SPECIAL VISITS – The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople (established in 1461), and worshipping at the Sourp Asvadzadzin Patriarchal Cathedral. Our local Armenian tour guide informed us that there are more than 2,500 Armenian churches and monasteries in Turkey, the majority of which are either in ruins or are being used for other purposes. The vibrant Armenian community is Istanbul takes special pride in its 40 active Armenian Apostolic, nine Armenian Catholic, and three Armenian Evangelical Churches. In addition, there are 18 day schools in Istanbul: Thirteen K-8, two 9-12, and three K-12. It is estimated that 70,000 Armenians live in Turkey today and the overwhelming majority is concentrated in Istanbul. The Armenian presence in Turkey is reinforced by a constant flow of illegal immigrants from Armenia who settle in Turkey in search of better job opportunities. The official numbers are not validated, as it is a highly seasonal process, but estimates vary between 40,000 and 50,000. Visiting the editorial offices of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos in honor and memory of its visionary editor-in-chief, Hrant Dink, who was assassinated on January 19, 2007 by a 17-year old Turkish nationalist. Dink was best known for advocating Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and human and minority rights in Turkey.
For me, these annual pilgrimages reinvigorate and rejuvenate me to renew my vow, to strengthen my faith and to continue my mission with renewed vision, commitment, and hope as an Armenian educator serving our youth in the United States. Each and every pilgrimage represents the elegy of a grateful grandchild and son who has come to tombstone of his forefathers to shed tears that have welled up in his heart for so long. It is the bitter-sweet reminiscences of a devoted grandchild and son who has come to pay tribute to his people. Our Ancestral Lands welcomed us with open arms and heart. The pilgrimage forged a special bond among the participants who experienced stunning moments with our history. After all, we saw the amazing treasures together, we felt vivid emotions together, we prayed and sang together, we shed tears together, we smiled and laughed together, and . . . we paid a special tribute together to our people, who preferred torture and death to slavery and injustice, cognizant that the seeds of their sacred faith shall bud and blossom and that over death Armenia shall rise in glorious victory.
As we boarded the plane, elated for having tested and overcome the challenges of the legacy that our ancestors had bequeathed to us, we were all smiling with the knowledge that we were carrying out of our lands pictures and stories that would uniquely impact our lives and redefine our legacy.
During the flight, thousands of feet above the land, we continued enjoying a supreme closeness with our ancestors. Their spirit was more real to us than it had ever been before. It was as sacred, solid and enduring in its reality as the Holy Cross Church on the Island of Aghtamar, and as strong as our proud Majestic Mt. Ararat.