100 years in 10 days: (Re)Discovering Sasun and the beauty of the Armenian Highlands
May 21, 2018
Sasun: The birthplace of fedayis
This breathtaking landscape—the towering mountains, sloping from the fluffy clouds above our heads to the prickly dirt beneath our feet, and the steadfast trees whose eyes bear witness to unquantifiable history—is difficult to encapsulate in one picture, but here’s my attempt.
One of the few constants in my life has been Sasun, a land on which no living relative has ever set foot. In the summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to discover the homeland of my ancestors, and along the way, encountered a lost branch of my family tree— of our collective Armenian family. Our survivor great-grandparents would describe those who were “left behind” during the genocide. These Armenians remained in what became the Republic of Turkey and were forced to hide or completely forgo their Armenian identities, living out the rest of their days as Kurds or Turks. We had the privilege to meet with some of these “Hidden Armenians,” who taught us that, just as 19th-century Sasun is impossible to imagine without Armenians, an Armenian resurgence in 21st-century Sasun can only happen with their inclusion.
What is home?
Abraham “Ipro” Areyan was no more than 12 when violence and chaos forced him to flee from his village of Khndzorik in Sasun; he and other Khndzortsi refugees sought safe haven in what would soon become the First Republic of Armenia, settling in the village of Nerkin Sasnashen, meaning ‘inner land of Sasun ’. But this makeshift Sasun was no replacement for the home young Ipro left behind. He yearned for Sasun every day—especially as he inched closer to death—and would spend his final years speaking with the ghosts of his past, their voices echoing and reverberating through the walls of his son’s little Yerevan apartment.
Ipro was my great-grandfather. He and my great-grandmother, Seydé, were born in Sasun, their children in Sasnashen, my mother in Yerevan, and I, in Boston. As we enter the fourth generation of Armenians torn apart by and dispersed due to genocide, we must ask ourselves: Does home remain stagnant, even when everything else changes? Does it necessitate land? Assuming that Western Armenia was our rightful home and all else mere provisional lodgings, if I returned to Sasun, would I feel some visceral connection that no one in three generations has felt?
This was the moment I realized the desire to set foot on my ancestral lands.
The road to hell (is paved with good intentions)
Not long after, the opportunity arose to embark on the journey of a lifetime. I received a message from my friend, academic, and Western Armenia guru, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian. “You want to come to Western Armenia in mid-June? And see where Gevorg (Kevork) Chavush is buried?” I immediately booked my ticket, and the next two weeks were a whirlwind of preparations and sleepless anticipation. For the first time in my life, I was nervous for my birthday. (I’ve since been told to get used to this sensation, albeit for different reasons.) At the airport, my mother wished me a happy birthday and, in a tight embrace, pleaded, “Please, please be safe. Remember, it’s their country.”
Landing in Istanbul, the first thing I saw outside my window was a huge Turkish flag—just in case I forgot 100 years of history. The harshness and disarray of this clustered city yields many surprises, sometimes unwelcomed and uncomfortable for an Armenian.
On my second day, I inadvertently stumbled upon the Talaat Pasha House Museum with a couple of my dearest Turkish friends. In any other circumstance, their sullen necks, pointed at their shoes, would have made me feel some guilt. But I was lost in my rage. The Talaat Pasha—the master orchestrator of the Armenian Genocide. Heeding my mother’s words, I silently repeated to myself, “It’s their country. What can you do about this right here, right now?” Mustering all of my courage to fight the build-up of tears, I said something trivial to break the painful silence and walked away.
“If I can’t keep it together here, how am I going to handle Sasun?” I thought.
Hidden no more
The first stop of our Western Armenia trip was Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Northern Kurdistan. A beautiful, yet deeply troubled city, decades of Kurdish-Turkish conflict has made it one of the most militarized cities in the Middle East. After a full day of exploring the narrow Arabesque roads and ancient city walls, we had an evening meeting with the city’s “hidden” Armenians, congregants of the St. Giragos Armenian Church—the sole functioning Armenian Church in Turkey east of Istanbul, which the government closed down a few months prior. We gathered in an open-air café for chai and dondurma (our lifesaver during Ramadan, dondurma [ice cream] quickly became our group’s favorite Turkish word.)
There were about a dozen people—most of them fellow Sasuntsis (native of Sasun). Despite a tangible language barrier, we immediately sparked like fireworks. Not a single moment passed in silence as we laughed, sang, and cried together; we discussed politics and history and culture and art—one of the kids even showed off his Star Wars impersonations. Conversations were light, but at times, laced with profound sadness and tears. After a century of silence and separation, we were reunited. Each of us comprised a puzzle piece; together, we were whole; together, we were family. Together, we were rebuilding what was nearly destroyed.
One of my new Sasuntsi brothers—who now affectionately calls me “abla” (big sister, in Turkish) and I share the same birthday. Our amazing professor, Dr. Mouradian, surprised us with cakes to celebrate; a new sister gifted me a bracelet. The kindness and hospitality of this group was overwhelming.
Nearly every hidden Armenian we met grew up as Kurds, discovering their Armenian heritage later in life. When Dilek found out that her grandmother was Armenian, she embraced her newfound identity by attending church, learning Armenian songs, and even making a trip to Armenia recently. The irony that one must leave Western Armenia to learn about their Armenian identity is not lost on her.
As dusk turned to night, we had to bid farewell to our new family. Dilek pulled me close. Sobbing, we tightly held unto each other, as though to freeze time. When we finished embracing, I could read in her eyes that there was so much she wanted to say. Our tearful smiles told the story of our journeys to this place, at this moment, where we found each other.
How could I express to her how much I admired her, how I could not imagine the dangers she was exposing herself to by choosing to live with an identity that occupies the lowest rung in Turkish society? How could I convey to her that she was my hero, that she was the embodiment of a Sasuntsi fedayee (freedom fighter) to me?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had already found what I came on this trip for.
From apples to onions: Returning to Sasun
The next morning, we left Diyarbakir and made our way to Sasun. Due to its history of rebel activity, Turkish gendarmes and Kurdish irregulars razed nearly all of Sasun to the ground before and during the genocide. Fast forward to 2017: Perpetual conflict and violence between Kurds and the Turkish government has made the region inhospitable to visitors; our group needed permission from the local municipality to simply enter Sasun.
After doing some frantic research the night before, we discovered that Khndzorik (also spelled Khntsorig, meaning “little apple”) is likely the present-day village of Soğanlı (soğan meaning “onion” in Turkish). Upon arriving, we discovered that this village not only exists, but it is the highest populated village on Mt. Maratoug, straddling the Taron Ashkharh, with Sasun on one side and Mush on the other. It also overlooks the ruins of Gomk Monastery, the last Armenian church standing in Sasun.
We hiked up to the monastery, which is at the mercy of ruthless treasure hunters, whose digging and demolishing will lead to the structure’s eventual collapse. I sped past our group and pulled my neck back to watch the clouds above me, moving and disappearing behind the mountains. I pictured my great-grandfather as a child, cheeky and toothy-grinned. I don’t know what he actually looked like, but at that moment, he was just your average schoolboy, frolicking in his playground. Most of my relatives are named after family members who perished or survived the genocide. I don’t have to become very creative in picturing my family in these mountains. The image of this playground becoming a graveyard flittered my eyes before my tears batted it away.
When I close my eyes now, I can still see the wild, cascading mountains swaying past each other like a "Msho khr" dance, beckoning spectators. No wonder why our people are so fierce—just look at these mountains! In the land, I saw strength. In Diyarbakir, this strength was alive and well in the marvelous individuals we met the night prior.
Unfortunately, I did not meet a single Armenian—hidden or otherwise—in Sasun. Instead, I shared my “homecoming” experience with a couple of Kurdish hooligans, who accompanied us to Gomk, just to have us lead them to supposed treasures, all the while, proclaiming that the mountain and the monastery were their private property because someone "gave" it to their grandfather. “They don’t deserve these lands,” I thought. “They don’t deserve these mountains and the people who died on them.”
As we made our way to the river to cool down after our hike, an ever-wise friend said to me, “They took your land; don’t let them take your experience, too.” Despite knowing better, I did let them taint my perception of Sasun. Going forward, I will not allow these trying encounters to bring out the worst in me again. That’s the beautiful thing about Western Armenia; it pushes you to a point where you find the strength you didn’t even know you had.
Resilience and fortitude on an abused land
During our last dinner, I remarked how Sasun felt like a graveyard to me. Someone countered, “Sasun is only a graveyard when you’re not there. When you’re there, it’s a graveyard plus one.” I did not understand it at the time; today, it is tough to imagine an Armenian resurgence in Sasun, even in the faintest of our imaginations.
But perhaps Sasun, like a century ago, holds the answers to our liberation. After meeting with hidden Armenians in Diyarbakir, Mush, and Kharpert, I am imbued with that same sense of passion and fighting spirit that my ancestors had. Hope is not lost unless we resign to the belief that it is.
This is not to say that it will be an easy road. Visiting this part of the world as an Armenian and witnessing unquantifiable devastation and loss is a very painful, emotional journey, akin to the five stages of grief. The past slices you like a shard of glass; there is no escaping it anywhere. In many ways, the genocide has not yet concluded on these lands. Whatever was left of Armenian culture and way of life has either been (and continues to be) appropriated and repurposed or destroyed.
But imagine the Armenians who still live on the scene of the crime—and many crimes to have followed since? How can we not admire and support their bravery, resilience, resolve, and desire to live on our ancestral lands as Armenians? In order to give Sasun and Dikranagerd and Van and Karin and Sepastia meaning today, we have to support the people who still live there.
After returning to the United States, I received messages from several Armenians living in Turkey, informing me that there are still Armenians living in Sasun—even in Khndzorik! The community has kept some of the pre-genocide traditions, such as the old village-style weddings—the kind even my family has forgotten. Through social media, I was invited to one such wedding this fall.
The unimaginable has happened: My love affair with Western Armenia has begun. I will return soon. Next time, I will bring my mother. Someday, I will bring my children. I want to discover and rediscover the lands of my ancestors with the eyes of all those who came after them. I want to see this place teeming with Armenian culture again. Perhaps we—diasporans, Hayastantsis, hidden Armenians, Bolsahais, and allies—working together can, one day, make that a reality.
Քէլէ լաօ, քէլէ էրթանք մեր էրկիր..
Qele lao, qele ertanq mr ergir...
Come, child. Let’s go to our homeland...
Liked what you read? Check this out!
Check out this riveting Armenian-language documentary on the Armenian community of current-day Sasun. The video, titled “Hayeren chum ginuh” (“I do not speak Armenian” in the Sasuntsi dialect) is produced by Sona Hakobyan, a journalist from Armenia, who journeyed west of the border to meet with those who never left their ancestral lands.
- The author in Sasun (Photo courtesy of Lilly Torosyan)
- Outside the monastery (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- View of Gomk Monastery (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- Inside the monastery (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- The author in Gomk Monastery (Photo courtesy of Lilly Torosyan)
- Inside the monastery (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- Inside the monastery (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- “If only the trees could talk…” (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- Our team hiking to the monastery (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- Racing cows (Photo courtesy of Lilly Torosyan)
- Apparently, the road to Batman’s house goes through Sasun (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
- The Sasun River (Photo: Lilly Torosyan)
"Հայերէն չըմ գինը" (“I do not speak Armenian")
(Video: Sofia Agopyan YouTube page)
"Հայերէն չըմ գինը" (“I do not speak Armenian")
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