BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
The morning we were going to start our trip, I woke up to a phone call. I picked up the phone, and a man said in Armenian, “Mrs. Catherine, it’s 5:30.” I couldn’t believe that I had overslept. The night before, instead of setting the alarm to 4:30am, I had by mistake set it to pm mode.
We were supposed to start our trip at 5 in the morning. In a calm voice, he said, “I’m coming to get you.” In no time, I got up, got dressed, picked up my suitcase, and rushed downstairs.
Tigran was in his car waiting for me. And so the much-anticipated 10-day tour to our ancestral land in Eastern Turkey started with a huge embarrassment. However, everyone put me at ease by greeting me with big smiles.
Our meeting point was in front of the Golden Tulip hotel on Abovyan Street in Yerevan. As we situated ourselves, our minibus headed down Abovyan Street and crossed the magnificent and imposing Republic Square, where, at the break of dawn, its pinkish walls and the emptiness of the square left me in a melancholy mood.
Anyone who knows me would not be surprised to hear how emotional I was to leave Yerevan for my first visit to our ancestral lands of historical Armenia, or what is now the modern-day Eastern Turkey.
We were a group of ten, but a married couple who live in Istanbul was going to join us in Erzurum, the first city where we were going to stay overnight.
Crossing Georgian border —Javakhk
At around 9:30am, we crossed the Georgian border and arrived in Javakh, to a region called Ninotsminda, which is a municipality within Javakhk.
The province of Javakhk is situated in southern Georgia, and the majority of the population (95%) is Armenians, who have immigrated, in different waves, mainly from the province of Erzurum in the Ottoman Empire, starting about 200 years ago.
One of our most famous Romantic poets, Vahan Terian, was born in a village in the Ninotsminda region. He is known for his sorrowful, romantic poems, which are soaked in images of rain and mist. His words reveal the nature of Javakhk – rainy, sad, and hopeless.
In Ninotsminda, we stopped at an Armenian village in front of a café which was not yet open, but it had benches and tables outside. We noticed that the names of the streets in the village were written in both Armenian and Georgian.
In front of the closed café, using their tables and benches, we enjoyed a simple breakfast, which had been prepared and packed by our tour leader—coffee, bread, butter, boiled eggs etc.
After breakfast, we walked next door to an Armenian home. The family was outside on the green. The grandmother was peeling eggplants to make a salad for their winter provision while she also looked after her grandson.
It was a typical scene of an Armenian family. The laundry hung on the line. The grandfather, disconnected from the rest of the family, was pacing in front of the house with hands behind his back. The family consisted of the grandmother, the grandfather and their two sons, one of whom was married with two children.
Our next stop in Georgia, before crossing the border to Turkey, was Akhalkalaki, the largest city in Javakhk, with a population close to 10,000. It was evident that the majority of the population was Armenian. We went up and down a street and saw many store-front businesses that were owned by Armenians. We stopped and talked to a few Armenians who were strolling on that street.
Crossing the Turkish border
We arrived at the Georgia-Turkish border around noon. At that time of the day there were no queues and we could have passed the border much faster, if all of us had Turkish E-visa.
I’m not sure why our tour organizer had not recommended that we get visas online. It took us more than an hour to finish the process, because we had to walk very long corridors to go to the Turkey side to get the visa, and then return to the Georgian border to get approved.
After crossing the Turkish border at around 4pm, we had a late lunch at a restaurant by Tortum Waterfalls, which supposedly are the largest waterfalls in Turkey. Fascinating views—definitely worth visiting.
We arrived at Erzurum at around 8pm. Erzurum is another ancient Armenian town. There’s evidence that it existed during the Urartu time. Erzurum was the location of the ancient city of Garin (Karin), in historic Armenia.
The population of Erzurum was majority Armenian until 1830, when around that time thousands of Armenians, to avoid persecution, left the area, and migrated to Javakhk in Georgia. There, they made a new home for themselves, constructing new churches and schools. After the genocide, the entire Armenian population of Erzurum was completely gone.
Today, Erzurum has some of the finest winter sports facilities in Turkey. In our hotel, we met school kids who had come for ice skating competitions. Erzurum is a modern city with a population of about 700,000.
The following morning, we visited the dilapidated Armenian quarters, where the office of Tashnags and the Harach newspaper were situated, and from where an underground tunnel connected the offices to the Armenian church on the other side of the street. We just observed the buildings from outside. The church had been turned into a mosque, but we could enter it.
Then, we visited the Sanassarian school, which put us in awe. The school, which was called a college, was founded by Mkrtich Sanassarian, a wealthy Armenian merchant, in 1881. It was a high school with a nine-year course. The school operated until 1915, when most of the teachers were killed, and the deportation of Armenians and the Genocide began.
The building of the school has been preserved and turned into a museum, because it was used as an assembly center for the Turkish National Movement which created and shaped the modern Republic of Turkey.
We visited one of the classrooms, which was used as a conference room during the assembly, The actual desks still remain from the time when the school was working. The architecture of the building, including the hallways and the staircase, was fitted for a king—it was just incredible.
Isabella Bird, an English woman explorer, had visited the school in late 1880s, and she describes it as follows:
“One of the most interesting sights in Erzerum is the Sanassarian College, founded and handsomely endowed by the liberality of an Armenian merchant.
The fine buildings are of the best construction, and are admirably suited for educational purposes, and the equipment is of the latest and most complete description.
The education and the moral and intellectual training are of a very high type, and the personal influence of the three directors, who were educated in Germany and England, altogether “makes for righteousness.”
The graduation course is nine years. The students, numbering 120, wear a uniform, and there is no distinction of class among them. They are, almost without exception, manly, earnest, and studious, and are full of enthusiasm and esprit de corps. Much may be hoped for in the future from the admirable moral training and thorough education given in this college, which is one of the few bright spots in Armenia.”
The second night, we stayed at a hotel in Erzincan, another ancient Armenian city where there was a pre-Christian shrine dedicated to the Armenian goddess Anahit.
Aganthangerghos, our historian, reports that once King Trdat I visited Anahit’s temple to offer sacrifice. He then ordered Gregory the Illuminator, who was secretly a Christian, to make an offering at its altar. When Gregory refused, he was taken captive and tortured. Most Armenians know the rest of the story.
The same king Trdat I, in 301 A.D., proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia, making the Armenian kingdom to be the first state to officially embrace Christianity.
The Armenian population in Erzincan before the mass deportation and genocide was about 15,000, and there were Armenian schools and churches.
After we left Erzincan on the third day of our road trip, we stopped at Kemakh Gorge – a very sad page in our history. It is said that in one day, 25,000 Armenians were killed at Kemakh and the victims were thrown off a steep gorge into the Euphrates river.
After the Kemakh Gorge, we stopped for lunch in Kemaliye, or Agn, another Armenian town which has produced numerous Armenian poets and writers, including Siamanto, Missak Metzarentz, Grigor Zohrab, and more.
Kemaliye reminded us of villages in Switzerland. The town was flanked by high mountains and had steep streets — the prettiest nature I’ve seen. No wonder it has produced so many writers. The houses were like cottages from fairy tales.
Not too far from Kemaliye lies the old town of Arapkir, which was founded by the Armenian King Senek’erim-Hovhannes in 1021.
At Arabkir, our tour guide had arranged for a local Turkish man to welcome and direct us to the Armenian cemetery where for the first time I saw tombstones that had a hole in the middle where flowers could be planted. It seemed that all the tombstones had been recently refurbished, because all looked in excellent condition.
The parents and family of one of our tour members, Marguerite, were from Arabkir, so she wanted to visit her relatives at the cemetery. After the cemetery, we visited a home which had previously belonged to a wealthy Armenian family that Marguerite knew about. The house was recently renovated and they had kept the basic structures. It was built in three stories on a narrow lot.
Marguerite, whose mother was the last survivor of Arabkir, told us some stories that she had heard from her about the town, while she was growing up there.
Then we visited the ruins of a “hammam” (Turkish bath) from outside, Marguerite said her mother for a short while managed the “hammam.”
Marguerite’s mother Varsen Oruncakciel, who was born in 1914 in Arabkir, has written a book called “The Last Remaining Arapgirtsi,” where she talks about her memories of Arabkir, and also about the stories she had heard from her parents. It’s a well written that I highly recommend.
On the third night, we stayed at the Ramada Inn of Malatya. The next morning, we visited the Armenian cemetery of Malatya. There, we met the priest of the church, connected to the cemetery. However to my surprise the priest didn’t speak Armenian.
Afterwards, we stopped over to see an Armenian church which was under renovation. And then we walked to the house where Hrant Dink was born, but just from the outside.
Turkey is the world leader of dried apricot production, and the best region to grow apricots is in Malatya. We stopped to buy apricots at a roadside stand. The price was about three dollars for a kilo. They were extremely sweet. I bought two kilos and later wished that I had bought more.
The following day we travelled to Diyarbakir of which I’ve already written in depth. In my next column, I will continue with the 6th day of our tour, when we took a boat to Akhtamar Island.