BY MARIA TITIZIAN
I went with zero expectations. I was composed and surprisingly calm when we approached the land border crossing between Georgia and Turkey. My heart was not all aflutter, my brain was not in a state of readiness to absorb what I was about to see, there were no butterflies in my stomach. I assumed it would be a life-changing journey, but little did I know that it would take me almost six years to write about the experience. It has been and continues to be a process, both intellectual and spiritual.
A conversation with a colleague about loss, memory and identity, national narratives and the Diaspora’s utopian expectations and distorted perceptions of present-day Republic of Armenia is what made me finally want to write about it.
When our friends suggested we go to Western Armenia back in 2007, we immediately agreed. In retrospect, I can’t imagine why we waited so long, whether it was a matter of finding the convenient time or whether there was some internal resistance we had not vocalized, none of us had ever gone. We would be seeing Mt. Ararat for the first time from the other side…We didn’t hire a tour guide, we didn’t know how the local Kurds and Turks would react when they found out we were Armenian, we had no idea what the condition of the roads were, or where we would stay while passing through the cities of Kars, Doğubayazıt, Van, Mush, Erzerum, Artvin, Hopa…We had a copy of Lonely Planet with us, a driver and a young acquaintance who knew how to speak Kurdish. None of us knew Turkish, none of us knew what we would feel and experience but we intrinsically knew it was time to go. It was all so natural.
Once we passed the border into Turkey, our first stop was the city of Kars, whose streets and architecture were reminiscent of Gyumri. Everything about the city felt strangely familiar, the smell, the food, the faces… That first day we went to the Fortress of Kars but were unable to enter as the gates had been locked and sealed. Beside the fortress stood the besieged 10th century Holy Apostles Armenian Church, built when Kars was part of Bagratid Armenia (940). We did not enter the church, and now all these years later I don’t know why but perhaps because it was functioning as a mosque. (Through the centuries, Holy Apostles Church has changed hands sporadically, initially serving as an Armenian church, and then a mosque, a Russian Orthodox Church (1877), a mosque, a church again, a storage facility, a museum (1969-1980) and currently as the Kumbet Mosque).
Unable to enter the fortress, we walked down the long path towards our car as the sun was setting on the city. Suddenly we heard the Islamic call to prayer blaring from loudspeakers from the Holy Apostles Church. I stood there frozen for a few minutes, my stomach in knots and my eyes burning until my husband came, took my hand and we silently walked away. That night as I lay in bed, I tried to make sense of my first impressions on historic Armenian lands. My dreams were full of shadows…
Early the next morning we proceeded to the ancient, uninhabited Armenian city of Ani. On our way there, passing through vast green fields, we could see the peaks of Mt. Aragats in the distance. They appeared to be suspended in the sky, seemingly held up by the invisible hands of God. Each of the four peaks was distinguishable…Mt. Aragats had never looked as spectacular as it did from Western Armenia.
We finally approached the massive double walls of the city of Ani, studded by semi-circular towers; it was an imposing and magnificent structure, unlike anything I had ever seen in the Republic of Armenia. What initially struck me however was the swastika at the top of one of the archways (The spinning swastika is a symbol of eternity one can see in almost every Armenian church). We walked through one of the gateways and before us lay the city of 1001 churches. It is still achingly difficult to describe in words the images, the panorama, the undulating grass, heaving and surging with the whistling wind as it rushed through the now gutted and empty churches that appeared before us. None of us spoke because words were rendered useless; we couldn’t even look at each other. We began walking in different directions as though we were being pulled by some imperceptible force. We felt like ghosts, apparitions wandering aimlessly in search of an unknown destination. I kept whispering three words over and over again, “Oh my God,” “Oh my God,” “Oh my God…”
I had seen pictures of Ani, of the grounds and its churches but I could not grasp the enormity and scale of the landscape that revealed itself before my unbelieving eyes. I walked toward the Church of the Redeemer (Surb Prkich), built in 1035. It had a huge central dome but the entire structure was sliced in half. Surb Prkich had miraculously stayed intact until 1955 when it split in two during a storm. It was perched on a small hill. As I approached it, I had to catch my breath several times. I was stunned by its size and bearing. Half of it gone, I began wondering how long the other half would remain standing in the face of neglect and disrepair. I placed my hands on the age-worn stones, and rested my cheek on its cool surface and wanted to weep but there were no tears only the sound of the rushing wind…Surb Prkich will forever remain in my memories as the symbol of the Armenian nation, plundered, ravaged and split in two…
I turned away from this magnificent edifice and walked down toward the southern part of the city where the Akhurian River flows. On the other side of the river was the Republic of Armenia. I stood for a long time in that spot to try and understand the proximity between the old, lost, historic lands upon which I was standing, and the barely new, independent, free Republic of Armenia. The closeness enraged me, it enraged me that Mt. Ararat was in my face every single day, it enraged me that Ani was right across the river and I had not claimed her and I had to look away. I walked toward the magnificent Cathedral of Ani to try and find some solace in its soaring pillars and spectacular frescoes.
As we continued to silently walk through the city, we could see rows of buildings that had been excavated…walls of churches lay on the ground in heaps of stones, crushed, destroyed…those that were left standing boasted some of the most spectacular frescoes I have ever seen in Armenian churches, we could read the Armenian script carved into the stones and yet it felt as though we were walking on thousands of years of our peoples history which lay shattered beneath our feet.
Today, I have a glass bowl full of rocks and shards of clay pots on my window sill in Yerevan that I picked from the grounds of this once-magnificent city of 1001 churches. It is a silent reminder of a shattered civilization, of a very personal history that was decimated centuries ago. In my office, on my desk sits a small intricately carved piece of an ancient clay vase that I stumbled upon while in Ani. Perhaps I should have left it there but I needed a physical reminder of what I had experienced and felt. And so now, as it sits on my desk, it sparks interest whenever a guest comes to visit me; they pick it up, examine it and try to guess where it’s from, but for some strange reason they never guess it’s from Ani. It too serves as a daily reminder of a physical place and a tangible piece of my history that lies on the other side of the border.
As we drove away, we left fragments of ourselves behind in the ancient city of Ani. It was a difficult farewell but we needed to continue our journey to Doğubayazıt and then on to the city of Van to get to Akhtamar Island…