A millennial’s guide to Western Armenia
June 20, 2018
Arakelots Monastery in Mush, Western Armenia
Arakelots was one of the most prominent Armenian religious sites until the Armenian Genocide. According to fable, the monastery was built by St. Gregory the Illuminator (a 3rd-century religious figure who was instrumental in Armenia’s conversion to Christianity). Today, the church ruins are frequented mainly by treasure hunters and wild horses, which roam outside her hallowed halls.
Many lists float around the Interweb for everything from the "Top 10 Reasons to Recycle" to the "11 Best Pizza Toppings, Ranked." Though environmental conservation and delicious pizza are no doubt important, there also exist a range of topics that have not yet been explored, uncovered, or synthesized on the web. To date, no such user-friendly resource exists for visiting the western half of our historic homeland, which we commonly refer to as Western Armenia, but is located today within the confines of the Republic of Turkey. A land that, for over two millennia, teemed with Armenian culture has been all but relegated to our dreams, with few Armenians ever having visited the towns and villages of their ancestors in the past century. We hope to change that with this guide...and with your help!
Why this list?
This list aims to bring Western Armenia alive for you by portraying its small beauties in the present day. The grainy black-and-white photos collecting dust in your grandparents’ attic are great windows into the past but offer little insight into the last 100 years. Indeed, Western Armenia is the past, but it is also the present, and it can soon be the future. Come, explore, meet the Armenians who still live here, and learn about how you can reshape the fate of these ancient lands.
* Disclaimer: This list does not seek to downgrade or downplay the very real concerns of violent appropriation, destruction, and silencing of Armenian culture and way of life by hostile forces. The legacy of devastation is very real and continues to pose a problem for all those who yearn for justice. But, in the midst of so much pain, there is also immense beauty and serenity. It is time to shift the narrative of Western Armenia from a lost relic of the past to a living, breathing treasure trove for generations to uncover and replenish.
Top 10 reasons to visit your ancient homeland
1. Because Diyarbakir is magical
P/Bari yekak! (“Welcome”) This is Diyarbakir’s sole remaining road sign depicting the Armenian language, so of course, we frantically pulled aside to take a snap!
Cafes are truly a transfixing experience here. This coffee shop, Sülüklü Han, dates back several centuries. Its beautiful Arabesque style is a staple of Diyarbakir’s unique architecture. Since the government confiscated the city’s sole remaining Armenian church last year, many hidden Armenians congregate here. (Photo: Laura Michaels)
Mulberry, basil, and rose flavored juice shots with a side of lokum = breakfast of champions? With a sugary spread like this, there is never any shortage of conversation at the table. We sat with a few once-hidden Armenians and listened to their “coming out” stories. I winked at the timid 12-year-old boy sitting across from me. He smiled and leaned into his father, who told us how he hasn’t seen his mother—this boy’s grandmother—in four years, because she refuses to accept them as Armenians. We soon came to realize that this dichotomy of an innocuous exterior masking a sobering truth is the very essence of Diyarbakir.
Pro tip: Order the menengiç kahvesi (the coffee in the photo... the one on the right). This surprisingly non-caffeinated, pistachioed goodness is a game changer for all coffee-based drinks going forward!
Bookstore around the corner
After getting jittery at the cafe, make sure to pay a visit to the small bookstore around the corner, which is run by a hidden Armenian. This dimly lit underground establishment (door on the right) contains several Armenian books, though mainly in the Turkish language, and an assortment of beautiful scarves for purchase.
2 . To climb up these mountains in Sassoun like a fedayee
It’s even more breathtaking in person...
This is the famous Sulukh Bridge in Mush where legendary fedayee (freedom fighter), Gevorg Chavush, was mortally wounded in a battle against the Ottoman army in 1907.
3. To meet some amazing (no-longer) hidden Armenians, some of whom spotlight as tour guides
To say that you will learn a lot from them is an understatement... (Photo: Khatchig Mouradian)
See if you can do it...
Armenian American writer, William Saroyan, said it best: “Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue.” Our meeting with the hidden Armenians of Diyarbakir was not in a beer parlor, but it was during Ramadan, so we rolled with the punches… (Photo: Khatchig Mouradian)
Meet Ohannes (formerly Mustafa): a history professor and connoisseur of all things Armenian in Kharpert.
4. To encounter hospitality that fuels your often-challenging journey
Visit some of the friendly locals in Kharpert for fresh homemade bread and tan (cold yogurt drink).
His home is your home
Sit on the porch of an old man in Erzurum who tells you, a complete stranger, that his home is your home. Then, watch his chickens flock to you. The personal stories of these villagers are truly remarkable; in their eyes, you see just how much they crave truth and justice.
5. To pay respect to those who have passed on
Hardly anyone visits the last Armenian cemetery in Diyarbakir, so a van full of tourists heading in made for some awkward stares from locals.
Pro tip: Wear long pants here and on every hike you take in Western Armenia. Any exposed skin will come under the wrath of long, dry grass, which will cut and itch for days afterward (Unfortunately, I found out about this too late!).
The last Armenian?
Baydzar Eken was long known as the “last Armenian of Diyarbakir.” She spoke in the local Armenian dialect and had just renewed her vows with husband, Sarkis, a month prior to her passing. Shortly after her death, Sarkis passed away and is buried beside her.
Buried gold and jewels...
The gatekeeper (left), a Kurdish man with Armenian roots, is the third generation in his family to care for the cemetery and has had serious altercations with gravediggers who loot the site at night to search for buried gold and jewels.
Beaming with pride
His teenage son, beaming with pride for his father, is poised to take the reins after him.
6. To see where Mashtots found inspiration to create our alphabet
You may be familiar with Mesrop Mashtots, the monk who is credited with creating the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century. Well, he reportedly lived in one of these caves, up in the mountains of Palu.
Ancient Urartian stones
The entire expanse is scattered with Ancient Urartian stones and carvings. Similar to Romans being the forefathers of today’s Italians, many regard Urartians as a proto or pre-Armenian civilization.
Steep cliffs, rolling hills, lush greens, winding rivers—is this Western Armenia or Middle Earth? If you’re an Armenian from Detroit or Rhode Island or Worcester, Mass., chances are you have an ancestor from Kharpert (or one of its surrounding villages). This image of the scenery in Palu is proof that the exquisite beauty your grandparents described to you is, truly, not an exaggeration. Feel like packing your bags yet?
7. Because Lake Van is breathtaking
When you think of Lake Van, what comes to mind? Perhaps an image of ancient royals vacationing on her blue waters, or the story of Tamar and her lover who drowned while swimming to her in the middle of the night? Well, the reality is equally as dazzling as the fables. Think Albert Hitchcock’s "Birds" combined with Elysian Fields; that is Gdouts island (meaning “bird’s nest”) in a nutshell. One of four islands on Lake Van, Gdouts is the perfect combination of secluded paradise and rackety ghost town—or, in this case, isle.
Keep your head down...
Birds migrate to this uninhabited island in the summer to lay their eggs.
Pro tip: If you choose to visit during this season, keep your head down and covered, unless you really want that avian “good luck".
Feel like swimming?
Swimming in Lake Van. Do it.
Because of this 9th century B.C. Urartian fortress, which overlooks the old town of Van.
Old Van marketplace
And these serene trees that mark the old Van marketplace, inside the walls of the fortress. Armenian merchants used to congregate here to sell their products.
8. To see resilience and hope, even in the midst of ruins
With the exception of Akhtamar, all of the islands of Lake Van contain graffitied and dilapidated Armenian churches. However, in this church, the writing on the wall is different from the rest. The translation: “Long live a free, independent, and united Armenia.”
9 . Because Ani is beautiful
How many Armenians do you know named Ani? This isn’t really a coincidence. Known as the “City of 1001 Churches,” Ani was once the seat of a medieval Armenian dynasty and was renowned for its bustling trading routes, religious buildings, and artistic structures. At its height, it was one of the world’s most formidable cities. After invasions, earthquakes, and a host of other disasters, this once amazing city became largely forgotten for several centuries. Today, it is an uninhabited museum just a stone’s throw away from the Armenian border. The official border is the Akhurian River (right).
Let me see Ani before I die
Walking through the main path, poet Hovhannes Shiraz’s words, “Let me see Ani before I die” imbue a sense of rejuvenation. Instead of resigning to defeat, one becomes more empowered here. Perhaps it’s the Armenian flag and village in the distance. We even spotted a white horse roaming free by the horizon (that white speck near the top of the photo).
Pro tip: Since Ani is now a paid museum, plan to spend about three hours roaming the complex. Though none of the signs mention the Armenian history of the city, you can use the opportunity to politely educate oblivious tourists, should you choose (But exercise caution. Kars is a known hostile city for Armenians).
Church at the border
A panorama of an Armenian church in Kars, north of Ani. The Armenian border is in the horizon.
10. To have the most intense sensations of pride, rage, melancholy, and joy
A khachkar (cross-stone) in the rubble, outside the ruins of an Armenian church in Mush. Some who visit Western Armenia choose to take a piece or two back to their homes in the diaspora, but this is where they belong—on this land, with their creators.
The other side
We’ve all seen the iconic pictures of Mount Ararat; those who are lucky enough to have witnessed their beauty from Armenia know just how breathtaking the view is in person. Here is a look from the “other side,” where Masis is on the left and Sis is on the right.
In due time...
The Tigris River: It is said that during the genocide, this river ran red with the blood of Armenian victims. Today, the bodies have been washed away but their souls never left. They patiently await our return.
Discover this land. Make your own memories. Keep Western Armenia alive...
For more resources on Western Armenia, please visit westernarmenia.weebly.com.
Also, check out Matthew Karanian’s photographic guidebook. Historic Armenia After 100 Years is one of the only resources of its kind to show Western Armenia as it exists today in great detail. It contains a wealth of useful historical and background information. You won't be disappointed!
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If you could have dinner with any person in the world—dead or alive—who would you choose? My answer, every time, is my great grandparents. Many of us have us wondered how we would feel if we ever ventured to the lands from which we have collectively been exiled for the last four generations. Upon returning from my trip to Western Armenia, I encountered the spirit of our ancestors and their will to build again, love again, and rejoice again, in the most unlikely of places: a sandwich.