Prof. Hovannisian Reflects on Lost Lands of Cilicia at NAASR Lecture



By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Prof. Richard Hovannisian brought his sharp wit and extensive knowledge to the Holy Translators Church here on April 17 at a program about a tour that the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) had sponsored to Cilicia last year.

Stepan Piligian opened the program, welcoming all to the church.

Then, Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs at NAASR, and Raffi Yeghiayan, the chairman of the Board of NAASR, spoke.

Yeghiayan said NAASR has sponsored a couple of trips to Western Armenian lands and to have Hovannisian as the resident historian on board was “a privilege.” He also spoke about NAASR’s expanding role in the West Coast, as well as in some southern states.

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Hovannisian said that when he first traveled to Armenian lands in Turkey, along with his wife, Dr. Vartiter Hovannisian, he was sure that he would never want to go back.

He was wrong. “I thought I didn’t want to see what I would see. I resisted for a very long time. It was very surprising when I went for the first time, not with an Armenian group, but with a Turkish colleague, [Fatma] Muge Goçek.”

He touched on the changing nature of Turkish scholars versus their Armenian counterparts. “It is only in the last two decades that things have changed,” he said. “But there have been more changes among Turkish scholars. They are increasingly challenging the government viewpoint.”

Hovannisian also spoke about his first trip to Turkey, in which he said he saw first-hand the great contradictions of that country. For example, he said, the city of Trabizond was where the Armenian massacres of 1895 had started. It is a city full of extremists, from which the murderer of Hrant Dink and several other Christians in Turkey had emerged, yet the city itself had been welcoming to them and a local Turk had invited them to see the new preduction of the play “Baghdasar Aghbar” by Hagop Baronian.

The second contradiction, he said, was the Kurdish nature of the city. “We were received so cordially, so warmly. They told us how sorry they were. The acknowledged that they are sitting on Armenian lands and they were sorry that they had been used by the Turks in the persecution and elimination of the Armenians,” he recalled.

At the same time, he said, he and the members of his party were followed closely by the authorities.

The focus of the NAASR-sponsored trip during which Hovannisian was the resident scholar was Cilicia, the last Armenian kingdom, which began in 1078 and ceased to exist in 1375 after an invasion by the Mameluks. The last king, Levon Lusignan, ended up in France, an intermediary between that country and England, during the 100 Year War.

The lecture was accompanied by pictures from one of the tour guests, which captured both the joy many of the visitors felt, as well as the utter sense of grief and bewilderment at some of the sites, including one destroyed church, which was currently being used to store manure and many buildings in these cities and towns which, when looked at closely, contained bricks with Armenian letters or even khatchkars, taken out of cemeteries.

As for the Cilicia trip, he said it was increasingly difficult to find traces of Armenian heritage, not only for the obvious reasons of the government removing the old Armenian reminders, but because of the tremendous growth of cities there. The region, he said, is a major tourist attraction.

The Tarsus Mountains, he said, separate Cilicia in the south from Antelias in the north. Gesaria, their point of entry, is now a city of 500,000. Against trend, the Soorp Garabed Church there, in the oldest part of the city, which still belongs to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, is being renovated by two brothers who hail from the city.

The group then visited Talas, a summer town above Gesaria and then Develi or Everig.

Particularly moving were shots of some of the remnants of buildings, for example a girls’ school in Hajin (now Saimbeyli) that was built in 1912, only to be razed two years later by the authorities. He noted that the people of the city had defended themselves from February to October 1920, as they were beset by Kemalists.

Sis, the capital of Cilicia, had been a fortress city. Of the cathedral of St. Sophia, a glorious structure with walls that were several feet thick, only one wall remained. The rest of the walls were razed so that the residents of the city could use the bricks in their homes.

Fortunately, Hovannisian said, as the Genocide was beginning, many of the treasures of the cathedral were hauled by cart to Antelias, where they were spared destruction.

Also visited was Adana, now one of the largest cities in Turkey, Merzin, Tarsus, Dorkyol, Sanjak, Musa Dagh, Bitlis, Mush, Aintab, Zeytoon and Marash. A question-and-answer period followed the talk.

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