In the Fall of 2007 finally, I got a chance to make a trip to Historic Armenia, Պատմական Հայաստան also known as Western Armenia. Since the Armenian Genocide of 1915, there is hardly any Armenian living on those lands that currently is populated by Turks and Kurds.
During the past decade or so, there are many “Islam-ized” (converted to Islam) Armenians who are coming forward and claiming their Armenian identity and it seems that there are significant numbers of them living on the land of their ancestors.
(Islam-ized Armenians are mostly the descendants of the Armenian children kidnapped by Turks and Kurds during the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and raised as Islams. They were married very young to Turks or Kurds, and raised their families as such).
Since I do not have family roots in the region, for me, this trip was not a pilgrimage as many Armenians do to trace their family roots, rather I wanted to visit and trace the Armenian history. I was having difficulty finding a tour that included mostly the closest regions to the Republic of Armenia. One day while searching the internet for Erzurum (Garin), I came across an advertisement for a tour almost exactly what I wanted.
I got in touch with a good friend of mine Vazken Terzian, whose wife Lucy, was operating a travel agency and within a short time, nine of us mostly from Toronto, including Vazken and Lucy, were on our way from Toronto to Yerevan. The tour agency was “Ani Tour” of Yerevan, owned and operated by a very knowledgeable Armenian historian, Volodia Arushanyan, and his wife Hripsime.
From Armenia to Kars city, the first overnight stop that is about one and half hour drive from Gumry (if the border with Turkey and Armenia was open), took us about twelve hours via Georgia, and at the time with terrible road conditions. After lengthy delays at the three border crossings, the late at night we arrived in Kars.
As an early riser, I got up early and took a walk to a park close to the hotel at a busy intersection. There was a large statue that I thought it might be that of Kemal Ataturk the founder of modern Turkey, but it was not. To my surprise, it was the statue of Heydar Aliyev the president of Azerbaijan.
Our first stop in Kars was an old, very small, and abandoned wreck of a house where the famous Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents was born. Then we visited the Arakelots Church which was converted to a mosque and was under a major renovation. The mosque was without any doubt looked more like a church than a mosque. The whole building was nothing but a masterpiece of Armenian church architecture including Christian symbols and carvings, that thankfully were kept in their original form.
The next stop was the famous Kars castle that dominates the city. Standing on the high point of the castle, I thought and wondered about the occupation of the castle by the Turkish army and the panicky retreat of Armenians in 1919 that I have read about, especially in a booklet written by Karekin Vehapar Hovsepian of Cilicia.
(At the time a bishop, Karekin Vehapar Hovsepian had brokered a cease-fire and saved many lives. The fall of the castle was a devastating and demoralizing defeat for Armenians especially so, due to the fact that it was heavily armed. It is one of the saddest and most controversial stories of the Armenian history of that time).
The next stop was Kars Museum which was under renovation and closed to the public. The part of the museum that included the train wagon on which the Treaty of Kars was signed between the Soviet Union and Turks was open. It was not hard to imagine the Turks who see and pride themselves on the lavishly decorated wagon with pictures of their glorious military leaders who signed the treaty of Kars that was very favorable for Turkey at the expense of Armenia.
The next stop was the historic city of Ani. Armenians call it the city of 1001 churches. During its glorious days, it was the capital city of the Armenian kingdom with many churches. It is over half an hour drive from Kars. Just a few kilometers before reaching Ani, there was a big surprise for us. It was a fairly new monument for victims of the nearby Turkish village that is claimed to have been massacred by Armenians on April 24, 1918.
(It might sound possible, but the specific date of April 24 1918 makes it suspicious. At that specific date, there were hardly any Armenian left in that area, and the Turkish army had advanced way beyond that point and reached the outskirts of Yerevan where the decisive battle of 1918 May 28 took place. But for visiting Turks, that truth will not be known, and the monument for sure will promote hatred towards Armenians among the visiting Turks).
Prior to starting the tour I had read, and watched pictures and videos, about the major historic sites that we were going to visit, including that of Ani. Everything at Ani looked so familiar to me as if I had already been there.
The main Cathedral was very impressive. Although one of the best-kept buildings of all the ruins of Ani, it was in danger of collapse, and in need of some temporary reinforcements. We lit candles, and said prayers, before leaving the cathedral. (We did the same at every church or monastery that we visited during the tour).
What impressed me most, was the gorge that divides Turkey and Armenia. It is deep and wide, indicative of the divide between the Armenian and Turkish people with a centuries-old bloody history, and hatred towards each other. The Russian army base on the opposite side of Armenia is so close that you can see the Russian soldiers without any binoculars.
You feel even closer to Armenia when walking down the halfway of the gorge to visit the ruins of the “Honents Church”, and come closer to the Akhooryan river flowing at the bottom of the gorge. Close, yet so distant, and as I said earlier, filled with a bloody history, and hatred, between these two people.
(The cover of a book titled “Two Close Peoples, Two Distant Neighbors” where Hrant Dink sadly, and thoughtfully, is watching the gorge from the Turkish side, best portrays that feeling. The book was written by Hrant Dink in the Turkish language and published in Istanbul in 2008. The English translation is published in 2014 and is available from Amazon.com. A must-read for English-speaking Armenians and Turks as well).
The next overnight stop was Dogubayazit, but for that next.
Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian