Friday, June 26, 2009

Historic Mush and Kharpert - Vanishing Armenians

Mush - City of Armenians Past

Our drive from Kars & Ani to the City of Mush, southwest of the Armenian border, was long and scenic. The drive took us through mountain roads that followed the river, green valleys, and farmland dotted with herds of goats, cattle, sheep and many beehives. While not as bad as other roads, we continued to encounter roads under construction. These were the mountains that gave rise to the legend of David of Sassoun ("Sassountzi Davit").

About halfway to Mush, Vartan once again stopped at the side of the road and indicated that we should get out and take pictures of the river and remains of a bridge dating back to the 11th century, built by Armenian dynasties. Once again reflecting the typical arches of Armenian style architecture, the Turks attribute the construction of this bridge to 13th century Seljuk Turks.

Lisa and I walked along the bridge toward young teenagers fishing from its center. Most notably, a square access hole glared at us, which, if one of us had lost our footing, would have been our fast trip right down to the water!

As we continued along the long road, I asked Vartan to find me a herd of "gov" in the road -- fat chance of that! Who would have believed that, around the next bend, that is exactly what we found! While typical (the cow wins the road battle), we often saw these herds of domestic animals around dusk, as their owners drove them back to their shelters for the evening. And, the next morning, the trekk to food in the hillsides began again.

We continued our journey to Mush enjoying the spectacular scenery. The town dates back to the 6th century AD, and now it shelters the remains of a couple of citadels and the Aslanhane Caravanserai. It is considered one of the early centers of the Armenian civilization and housed ancient Armenian churches until the 1960s. There are also mosques from the Seljuk period, like the Alaeddin Pasa, Haci Seref and Ulu Mosques. Mus had been under the reign of Urartu, Median, Persian, Armenian, Byzantine, civilizations.

The next morning, Vartan drove us high up into the old roads of Mush to view the Mush Valley, once the home of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The Armenian Monastery of Surb Karapet (the Holy Precursor, St. John the Baptist) in Mush, Turkey, constructed in the tenth century, was at the dawn of the twentieth century one of the three most important sites for Armenian Christian pilgrimage. It was the richest, and most ancient, monastic institutions in Ottoman Armenia. Besides the Church of St. Karapet, the monastery also contained the martyrium of St. John the Baptist, the chapel of St. Georg, the chapel of St. Stepanos and the church of St. Astuacacin. This magnificent example of Armenian architecture has been destroyed to its foundations since the Genocide of 1915.

We visited the remains of one small Armenian church which formed the foundation for what is now a makeshift residence for the Kurds living the village high above the valley. Below, you can see Vartan walking to the edge of the "roof" and looking over the valley toward the Armenian graveyard, where one of the famous Armenian heroes of the early 1900's - Kevork Chavush. The grave of Kevork, who was a legendary "fedayee" of the Ottoman empire, was hidden by his supporters shortly after his death in 1907 to protect his remains from the Ottomans. It has never again been located. Kevork, born in Sasun (Sasoon) and educated in the now obliterated Arekelotz Monastary in Mush, was killed in battle and his remains found two days later under the historic bridge of Sulukh, crossing the Aradzani River, shown in the photo below.

The thousands of Armenians living in Mush before 1915 were targeted for deportation and assassination. Although the Armenians fought bravely to save their homes, today Mush is occupied by Kurds, and evidence of Armenian life of the early 20th Century is gone. Some of those living in Mush, as in neighboring northeastern villages, may have successfully made their way East, to what is now Armenia, and Georgia. However, the vast majority were herded south, like the cattle we saw on the roads, following the river toward the Der Zor desert (south of Mardin). Given the terrain, it would have been virtually impossible for any of those dear people to survive their death march.

Kharpert (Elazig) and Arapkir - Ancestral Homes of Lisa and Debbie's Husband Hagop

The Murad River wandered gently along the road as we made our way to Elazig (Kharpert). The Murad River originates north of Lake Van near Mount Ararat and flows west for nearly 500 miles ending in the Malatya area near Elazig. The river is blocked by Turkey's largest dam, not far from Elazig, which provide power to much of the area.

Before settling in for the night in Elazig, we drove about 35 miles to the town of Arapkir, south west of Elazig. Arapkir is a small village where Debbie's husband Hagop's father was born, and where Lisa's Kalustian grandfather was born. The village of Arapkir was one of the most modern small villages we observed -- the old dilapidated homes that we had seen in most Armenian towns had been replaced by more "modern" masonry buildings (probably no less safe from earthquakes with their simple construction of popular and masonry). Not far from here was the historic Armenian town of Chungush, the home of Lisa's grandmothers. Although we were unable to stop here because of time constraints, we passed in the general vicinity.

We stopped for lunch in Arapkir, after parking in front of the local police station. The restaurant served tanabour, vegetable stew (bamya), grilled lamb and bread. The people were friendly, but distinctly less so than the people we had encountered further west and south of this area. We wondered how many people were hidden behind their doors that were of Armenian ancestry, living as Kurds. So many Armenian children in this general area were taken in by locals during the 1915 deportations that, when you looked in the eyes of these modern day residents, you just knew that some of them were Armenian by blood.

Shortly before we left Arapkir, Vartan struck up a conversation with the police, answering yet again the question "why are you here?" He told them that Lisa's grandparents were from this town. The police offered to call one of the old (80) Armenian residents of the town - "Sarkis" - who might know something about Lisa's grandfather. But, as was unfortunately the case in most towns, our time was so limited that we decided not to wait the hour or so that it might take.

After a short rainstorm, returned to Elazig where we stayed in a very modern hotel for the night. Other than the remains of the old fortress, little remains of historic Harput, located a few miles from our 5 star fancy hotel with a modern day mall attached. Historic Harput - a town inhabited by Armenians before 1915 that served historically as a crossroads between Syria and the Eastern countries, was gone. As in other villages in this areas, evidence of Armenians has been largely obliterated, just as our ancestors were in 1915.

Footnote: As I mentioned earlier, some Armenians from Eastern Anatolya escaped to Georgia and what is today the independent nation of Armenia. In Yerevan, one can find new villages within the city named after the historic towns of Western Armenia, including Nor Kharpert, and Arapkir. These "kughs" honor those who died in historic Western Armenia, and rise anew with life that hopefully will give the future Armenians a sense of pride knowing that those who died before in their historic towns did not die completely in vain.

Tomorrow -- the HIGHLIGHT of our visit to Western Armenia -- two standing 18 foot khachkars, untouched and standing at the top of a 6000 foot peak as a beacon of light over historic Armenia!

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