BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
My grandfather died when I was six years old, from the sting of an insect when we were vacationing in a village. For many years after his death, until I was in my 30s, I couldn’t hold back my tears when someone made an endearing comment about him. If must say he was a beloved and well-respected member of the Armenian community and an exceptional grandfather to me. The times I spent with my grandpa are still vivid in my memory and they are among the best times of my childhood.
As I see it, my late grandpa’s life story is commensurate with part of the history of Armenians in Iran, where he was born. With that in mind, first I will share some general facts about him which mirrors the history. Then I will dive into his personal life and my relation with him.
My grandpa, Meykael Stepanian, was born in 1885 in a village called Moujunbar which was mainly populated by Armenians. He was 7 or 8 when his family moved from that village to Tabriz, a city which from the ancient times had a crucial importance, sometimes as a capital of Persia (Iran) and other times as a major city in the landscape of history.
Archeologist David Rohl, in his book, “The Genesis of Civilization,” says, “The Garden of Eden was situated in the North-West of Iran, in the province of Azerbaijan on the same spot that the city of Tabriz stands today.” There’s also a historical reference that Tabriz, which during the third century was called Tauris, was the capital of Armenia.
Today, some of the oldest Armenian churches and monasteries still stand in this northwestern Iranian city, affirming that Armenians have lived thousands of years in that territory called Province of Azerbaijan and that the Armenian highlands extended past today’s borders of Armenia into Iran.
To help you visualize the geography of Iran, I should say that the map of Iran resembles an outline of a sitting cat. The head of the cat is the province of Azerbaijan, where Tabriz is situated, and where Iran and Armenia share a border (see image below).
From thousands of years ago, Armenians might have been among the native ethnic groups of the province of Azerbaijan. However, most Armenians in Iran are descendants of the massive relocation of families that Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty ordered as part of the “Scorched Earth” policy when he was in war with the Ottoman Empire.
In the early 1600s, Shah Abbas forcibly relocated 300,000 Armenians from the border cities of Armenia down to the middle of Iran near the city of Isfahan which, at the time, was the capital of Iran. That encampment later became an Armenian settlement and was called New Julfa in honor of the city of Julfa in Armenia, from which most of the refugees had been evacuated.
Armenians have been a big part of modernization efforts of Tabriz. The reason is obvious. Armenians were Christians. Well-to-do families sent their kids to Europe or Russia to either learn a trade or to get higher education. Armenians were felt superior culturally and were esteemed highly by Persians.
There were many Armenian intellectuals, physicians and other professionals educated in Europe. From the early 19th century through the early 20th Century, Tabriz, due to the presence of Armenians, flourished into an avant-garde and westernized city.
Now, back to my grandpa, Meykael who grew up in Tabriz and graduated from the Haykazian-Tamarian high school in 1903, became a dedicated teacher. Soon he joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation—ARF, the Dashnak party, as an active member.
In 1913, alongside a few other young men, grandpa got a scholarship from the Dashnak party to travel to Geneva, Switzerland to continue his education. During those years, Geneva had become a hub for Armenian intellectuals, and it was customary for Armenians from Middle-east to travel to Geneva to advance their educations. He studied there for couple of years and returned to Tabriz with a diploma under his belt and a degree as a child development specialist.
After his return from Geneva, he was assigned to work in few Armenian schools in different cities such as Tehran, Salmast, Ardabil and Arak. Ultimately, in 1919, he became the headmaster of the acclaimed Aramyan school in Tabriz.
The fact that a boy, born in a village in Iran in 1885 could be sent to Geneva to continue his higher education, and could advance to upper status of social ranks, and become the principal of a renowned school has always baffled me.
Tabriz had two Armenian quarters; one was Lilava and the other Ghaala. The latter was a more prestigious and wealthier neighborhood. It is estimated that in the early part of 20th century, the population of Armenians living in Tabriz was 30,000.
The Aramyan school, where my grandfather worked as the school principal, was located in Ghaala. The school was built in 1836, with fancy architectural details, influenced by the lavish buildings of Europe. The school boasted a concert very similar to a mini opera house. In 1936, when my grandfather was still the headmaster, it celebrated its centennial. To me, the fact that 85 years ago, an Armenian school in Iran celebrated its centennial is very intriguing. It shows how Armenians in Iran had made huge strides both socially and culturally. The Aramyan school was also famous for having a woman teacher in its early days when it was opened.
To gather more insight about my grandpa, I called my uncle, in Tehran, who is 94, born in 1926. He got very excited to hear that I was writing about his father. He said one of his best memories about his father is when he had arranged the centennial celebration of the Aramyan school. He vividly remembered the event that happened outside in the backyard of the school. He said, “Many people including the dignitaries attended the event.” He was only 10 years old, but he could recall how proud he was to see his father, on that day, being the center of attention.
Grandfather married my grandma in 1918. I don’t have many details about their marriage. All I know my grandma was 20 and grandpa was 13 years her senior. Grandma’s family was solidly upper class. Her father was a high-end, master tailor whose client base were the wealthy Armenians of Tabriz. He often travelled to Paris to bring the latest fashions and fabrics to his chic customers. And he was also one of the founders of the Dashnak party in Tabriz. I just assume, since my grandpa also belonged to the Dashnak party, that might have been the reason, he had met my grandma. Perhaps they met during one of the group’s gatherings at their home and they had fallen in love with each other.
One story that I’ve heard from my grandmother was that they got married in the middle of the Spanish Flue pandemic. She told me that for her dowry gift she had ordered an armoire (wardrobe cabinet). In those days, there were no cars and porters used to carry the merchandise from shops to homes on their back. On that day, a friend of the family sees the porter and the armoire on his back and exclaims “Who, in these tough times, has ordered a cabinet?” And when to his astonishment he realizes that the cabinet belongs to my grandma, he goes to her father, the tailor, and asks him, “have you lost your mind” or something to that effect.
My grandpa worked as the headmaster of the Aramyan school, for about 20 years, during which he gained an exceptional respect to the point of adoration from the Armenian community of Tabriz.
While I was growing up in Iran and also here in the United States, I’ve met many people who either they were students at the Aramyan school while my grandpa was the headmaster, or they were just community members during his tenure. All without exception expressed their reverence and love toward Meykael Stepanian.
I recall an incident, when my grandma, in 1980s, was hospitalized in Glendale. A few rooms away there was another woman who had been a student under my grandfather in Tabriz. When accidentally the woman learned that the next door patient, is my grandma, she sent her son to come and tell us how much her mother respected Meykael Stepanian. Hearing such stories, was commonplace.
Around 1938, due to a decree from Reza Shah, the father of the last shah of Iran, all Armenian schools in Iran were officially closed. The Aramyan school, after 100 years of successful operation, closed its doors. My grandpa had to look for another source of income. He, with my grandma’s brother, opened a store to sell merchandise. It was a very different career path after being the principle of the most prestigious Armenian school in Tabriz.
The Armenian schools were re-opened in 1941. At that time grandpa received an offer from Davitian Armenian school in Tehran to work there as a vice principle. The family sold their home in Tabriz and moved to Tehran. He worked there until he died in 1954.
My mother has told me many stories about her childhood, through which I’ve gathered a good sense about the qualities of my grandfather. Let me begin with the village of Moujunbar where grandpa was born.
While I was doing a search to write about this story, by chance I came across a book written on the strategical importance of Moujunbar and the critical role that the village had played in the battle of Zangezur. The book also gives a general history of the village.
According to the book, an archeological research has revealed that the village has been around since 2000 BC and it has always been dwelled in by Armenians. The book is also sprinkled with little stories about the village people. It also says that around the turn of the 20th century there were 300 Armenian families living in Moujunbar. However, in 1946 the number had plummeted to 60 families and by 1954 the village totally had become inhabited by Muslims. The village was 22 miles to the north of Tabriz.
What I’ve heard from my mother, and the book also asserts, Moujunbar must have been a very picturesque village with a fabulous climate. It was built on a hillside, the way the rooftop of one house formed the pathway for the next. My grandpa’s ancestral home was situated on the top behind all of the other houses.
Every summer the family packed up and hit the road to spend the whole summer in the village. Sometimes they took a cousin with them, but mainly it was only their own family—the three kids with their parents. The 22-mile journey from Tabriz to Moujunbar in a horse-drawn carriage took almost a whole day. My mother has recounted many stories of their summer vacations in Moujunbar, and it has created a clear vision in my mind’s eye and I can easily see how their summer vacations would have been a sheer joy.
According to Mom, their daily activities began after breakfast, when the kids would go down to a stream that ran past the village and would play there. My grandfather had instructed them to be home on time for lunch. He also had shown them a trick to know the time. They had to stand towards a specific direction and when their shadow hit the tip of their toes, it was time to head home for lunch. But, of course, being very playful they were always late…
After lunch they would stay home. No more playing outside. Instead, they would take a nap, read a book, or play backgammon. The highlight of everyone’s daily activity came at about 4 pm when several families would gather at a “baghche” or a small meadow, to have afternoon tea. It was like having a very fancy picnic. Each family had their own porters who would come to the house and take their equipment, such as carpets, cushions, teacups, plates and of course the Samovar, down to the meadow.
Families made their way to the picnic area in a procession and when they arrived, they spread carpets to sit on, and then while waiting for the tea to get ready, women would start beating the egg yolks with sugar to make “Goggly,” which is a Russian treat. When I was growing up in Tehran, whenever we had an afternoon tea at home, “Goggly” was a staple on our table,
The families would stay at the meadow for couple of hours until sundown. The kids would play, adults would schmooze with each other, some would play backgammon, and some would play cards. Afterwards the porters would bring everything back to the house and repeat it the next day. Needless to say, both the kids and the adults would dress up for the occasion.
While I was leafing through the book on Moujunbar, to my amazement, I saw a reference to the practice of having afternoon tea. Even more amazing, the book said that my grandpa was the responsible party to find a proper meadow for the picnic area to use it for the afternoon tea.
When my grandparents and their family relocated to Tehran, they would not abandon this wonderful tradition of spending time in a village, but had to adapt to a new location. Some Armenian families had already started to spend their summer vacations in Aab-Ask, a village in the vicinity of Tehran, where the ski resorts are located today. So grandpa moved the tradition of spending summers in Aab-Ask.
The first time my family went to Aab-Ask, for our summer vacation, I was five and my younger brother was two. Despite my young age, I have numerous memories of that trip. It was the summer of 1953, a decisive and a tumulus time in the history of Iran.
The Shah with his queen Soraya had fled the country because his prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was leading a revolt against him. The Toudeh party, which was a Communist political organization, backed Mossadeq. In the meantime, the United States had orchestrated a coup-d’état to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister in favor of the Shah as a monarch.
My mom had a story about that time. On August 19, 1953, we were returning home from Aab-Ask, in a rented car. It was the critical day when the “Coup d’état” towards the mob and the ruling of Mossadeq happened. In Farsi: کودتای ۲۸ مرداد. Mom said that the driver of the car carried two different pictures. One was of the Shah and the other one of Mossadeq. The driver was uncertain of which picture he should put on the windshield of the car as they got closer to Tehran. On that day, the riots came to an end when the army captured Mossadeq by firing at his residence from a tank. The Shah, who had fled the country, came back and peace returned. The Shah’s exile with queen Soraya had lasted only one week.
As I said, I carry numerous memories of Aab-Ask from our first visit of 1953. The house where we stayed had a wraparound porch, from where we could enter the individual rooms. Each room was assigned to a family. The house was surrounded by tall poplar trees, and when the wind blew into them, I could hear the hissing sound of trembling of the leaves. Even today when I hear that swish sound, it takes me to Aab-Ask and I can feel that crisp cold weather on my skin.
The village had hot springs and adults profited from those therapeutic sulfurous waters by immersing in the spa like ponds— albeit primitive. Some parts of the village smelled like rotten eggs, I guess that was because there was sulfur in the soil. Aab-Aask also had a drinking mineral spring. The water coming out of the source was bubbly and naturally carbonated with a very strong taste.
The following summer, in 1954, I’m not sure why, but my parents couldn’t travel to Aab-Ask. So my father, always the liberal thinker, told my mom to let me go with my grandparents to the village. Neither my mom nor my grandfather were keen on that idea. My mother was the protective type and always wanted her kids to be by her side. And grandpa thought it was a big responsibility for them. But in any case, they did send me to the village.
Unfortunately, that summer things turned sour. In that summer of 1954, my grandpa Meykael died from the sting of an insect. This is the story Mom has told me: When my grandparents, with me in tow, arrived at Aab-Ask they learned that their regular lodging was already taken. So they had to look for another room. Apparently, this new place was not properly sprayed with insecticide or it was not sprayed at all.
In Farsi, this deadly insect is called “Garib-Gaz” which if translated word for word would be “Stings-Foreigners.” That means the locals are immune to its sting—not outsiders.
Frankly, I’m appalled to consider how dangerous it was to send me to that village. Of course, at the time I was thrilled to spend the summer with my grandparents. But when I think back today, I realize that they were really taking a risk to send a six-year-old child to a remote village, during a time when there were no paved roads, no sanitary measures and no communications. And on top of that, they probably knew about the danger of being stung by an insect.
This trauma stayed with me for a long time. Many years later when I was in 7th grade, our biology teacher Ms Nina was lecturing about different kinds of insects and ticks, she came upon that lethal insect. Hoping to demonstrate how serious that tick was, she mentioned that she knew someone who was bitten by it and who had passed away as a result. That someone was my dear grandpa Meykael. Realizing Ms Nina was talking about my grandpa, tears started rolling down my cheeks. Little by little my silent weeping turned into a loud crying, which astounded the class, especially Ms Nina, who had become very embarrassed about the whole situation.
In another incident, here in the States, I met a woman at a reception and when she found out Meykael Stepanian was my grandpa, she told me a memory from her childhood. She said, “I remember the summer when your grandpa died.” She explained that her family wanted to spend their summer vacation in that village. When they arrived there, they learned about my grandpa’s accident. So their family decided not to stay and returned home to the city on the same day.
On another occasion, I met a woman who told me that on the day of my grandpa’s funeral she was chosen from her classroom to walk at the procession. When I called my 94 year-old uncle, to tell him that I was writing about his father, he mentioned that actually the funeral procession happened and the coffin was shouldered by pallbearers for a few blocks in the streets of Tehran. He was so respected, and his sudden death was a shock to the community.
In the evenings of that fateful summer, in the village, I remember we used to gather with our neighbors, and sit around a kerosene light and have conversation. On one of the occasions I remember overhearing the grownups say that to become immune to the sting of a Garib-Gaz, we needed to have a dead one to be put in an empty medicine capsule and to swallow it. But my guess is, it was not easy to find a dead insect.
Before my grandpa was stung by that nasty bug and how, in a rush, we had to leave the village to get to Tehran for medical assistance, I was blessed to have spent many, many hours with him. The highlight of our activities (me and grandpa), over that summer, was to wake up early in the morning and walk to the river to wash our hands and face, then we would return home to have breakfast. Since the walking trail was bumpy and full of rocks, he had made two walking sticks from tree branches—one for me and one for him. I have many other fond memories and interactions we had together over that summer. All demonstrated his gentle and caring attitude and his love towards me. My best memories of my childhood come from that summer that I traveled with my grandparents to the village of Aab-Ask.
I also have many fond memories of the time I spent with my grandpa in Tehran before that ominous summer. My grandparents lived next door from us in another apartment building. Every day after school, he would pick me up from the kindergarten and we would walk home together. It was a great opportunity to bond with each other. We would talk all the way home. He was a loving grandpa, soft-spoken, intelligent, and with mild manners. He had a way with everybody—whether young or old, people genuinely loved him.
I cannot forget when one day, he showed me that if I put my small doll on top of the flat surface of a radio, the doll would start to turn by the vibration. And if there was loud music, it seemed as if the doll was dancing. That was very amusing and it’s one of my happiest childhood moments.
Although I generally have good photographic memory that I carry from my childhood, I have absolutely no recollection about the chaotic situation that ensued after that nasty bug bit my Pa. How did we return back home, how he was treated, or how after his death the grieving and mourning went on? They told me he was sent to America. I don’t remember how and when I found out that my beloved grandpa had died.
To finish this “epic” story, I want to tell you about an “epic” job my grandfather, along with some of his colleagues, did. They published early reading books for first graders, all the way up to 12th grade. Through those language books, all the children of my generation and maybe the next generation as well, have learned the Armenian alphabet and notable pieces of literature. All the books from the first grade to the 12th carried the same design on the covers—a school in the background, on the left side a burning torch, and also some pictures of our most iconic writers.
Some of the little tales for the first graders, are still remembered by many. Such stories are: “Emil’s Donkey” or the “Yes or No sisters” — “Ayo Yev Voch.” They were appropriate stories to learn the alphabet with a chuckle. He also with his colleagues published a children’s magazine called “Lousaber,” full of interesting little insightful stories to encourage young readers and also give them a taste of Armenian culture.
Mikael Stepanian was a man from a small village who accomplished so much with his time on earth. He started out in a world of horses, buggies and dusty roads, but was able to use his mind to further his education, travel internationally, improve his station in life, apply himself to community service and, best of all, use his love of children to encourage young Armenians to learn their language and culture. He survived political upheavals, pandemic disease, but kept moving forward despite the setbacks.
Although I had only a short time with my grandfather, the treasured memories and his devotion to “Armenian Cause” have inspired me to follow in his footsteps in my own fashion. I hope that he would be proud that I also celebrated the Armenian culture by reaching out to different communities throughout the world and have chronicled them and have encouraged others to keep up with our heritage.