Pilgrimage to the Depths of History



At the entrance of St. Giragos Church


By Hagop Vartivarian

Two months ago, I received a warm and touching invitation, by phone, to join a pilgrimage. Suffice it to say that I was in a dream world until my departure for Historical Armenia. Each day of that entire two-month period, I was overcome with emotions and inner, spiritual happiness. A dream was to turn into reality. The realization of a dream nurtured over many long years was imminent, and I would soon be setting foot on our historical lands. I probably had had that same feeling prior to visiting Soviet Armenia for the first time 40 years ago.

Now I would be visiting the other Armenia, which had been a living dream, one that made our daily life complete, as far as my generation was concerned, at least. Thus, it was that happiness that I experienced for 60 days, sometimes unable to hold back my emotions, sometimes with tears in my eyes, with memories from the past and my recent life, but always with the feelings of a plaintiff whose just demands remain unsatisfied.

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Initiative of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate

This was the pilgrimage on which we were preparing to embark. I thanked our Primate, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who had also taken me into consideration to join this pilgrimage, which he himself had previously undertaken. The pilgrims were those with positions of authority within the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America and well-known benefactors of our community. Most probably, he had wished for the presence of this constant friend, who shared the true pains of the nation, to participate in this group, in order to record this singular initiative for history’s sake.

My friend, Hirant Gulian, who was the organizer of this pilgrimage, relayed the good news. Right away, I phoned Archbishop Khajag and thanked him. It just so happened that we had arrived in New York around the same time, 38 years ago — he as a newly ordained archimandrite and I as a political activist. Back then, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian said, “Archimandrite Khajag is here from Jerusalem, he’s practically the same age as you, look after one another like brothers….” Here it is, four decades later, and an indestructible friendship has developed into devotion and loyalty; our good relations continue, becoming an example for others in our community to follow.

Seeing historical Armenia was the only thing left for an Armenian who has visited more than 100 countries, crossed all the continents of the world a few times, from the African jungles to the Arabian deserts to the steppes of Asia, received a fair dose of European civilization and climbed Mayan temples. For that reason, in turn, each day of those two months, daytime and nighttime alike, was constituted of moments of anticipation.

I received an open letter dated September 26 from Oscar Tatosian, chairman of the Diocesan Council and a close friend. It contained the list of participants, as well as his cordial remarks: “I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel extensively abroad. This trip, however, feels to be the most exciting journey in years.” I saw that he too had the same feelings and was preparing to depart for Historical Armenia with the same purely patriotic spirit. We would undoubtedly share those feelings together upon our return.

It bears mentioning that Archbishop Khajag considered the reconsecration of Diyarbakir’s St. Giragos Church as the best opportunity for members of the American-Armenian community, including benefactors, to become acquainted with historical Armenia. According to the itinerary, the journey would begin in Diyarbakir, continue on to Holy Cross Church of Akhtamar and end with visits to Armenian institutions in Istanbul. This pilgrimage would surely be educational for all, some of whom belong to the second and third generations in this community. A few of them perhaps don’t even speak Armenian yet they had already signed up to go on the pilgrimage.

On May 14, when Archbishop Aram Ateshian, deputy patriarch of Turkey, had visited New Jersey and presented the plan for the reopening of St. Giragos Church to the natives and descendants of natives of Dikranagerd at St. Leon Church, perhaps I too, like most of those present, hadn’t been able to grasp the real significance of the reconstruction of that city’s large church. However, like the 500 Dikranagerdtsis assembled there, I remained interested. They had come with a deep love for their homeland and wanted to contribute their share toward the rebuilding of St. Giragos Church, where many of them had been baptized and gotten married. Although some were Turkish speaking, nevertheless it was the call of the Armenian soil that had brought them that evening, to spiritually reconnect with those traditions.

On the Way to Istanbul

On Thursday evening, October 20, the pilgrims from the New York metropolitan area were gathered at Kennedy Airport. Archbishop Khajag, Dr. Raffy and Shoghag Hovanessian (vice chairman of the Diocesan Council), Randy Sapah-Gulian (chairman of Fund for Armenian Relief), Michael and Marie Haratunian, Hratch Toufayan (national benefactor), Hirant and Ruby Gulian, and I, as well as Dr. Garo Garibian and Hovhannes Hash from Philadelphia, were ready for departure to Istanbul.

The following morning, we got settled in the Grand Oztanik Hotel not far from Taksim Square, where the other members of the group had previously arrived: Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate in Washington, DC, and former president of the National Council of Churches; Oscar Tatosian from Chicago; benefactors Kevork Atinizian and Nishan and his wife Margrit Atinizian from Boston; Rafi Bedrosyan from Toronto; benefactor Rouben Terzian from Malibu, Calif.; Sandra Shahinian Leitner from New Jersey; attorney Lisa Esayan and Dr. Ohannes Koroglyan from Chicago; Hagop, Zaven and Sahag Uzatmaciyan brothers from New Jersey; and Ararat Hacet from Wisconsin.

Very Rev. Haigazoun Najarian (Armenian Primate of Central Europe) of Vienna and Papken Megerian of Philadelphia (treasurer of the Diocesan Council) were scheduled to join our group in Diyarbakir.

I knew some individuals personally, others by name only, while a few were complete strangers, yet for an entire week the members of the group would share impressions and exciting moments together — all in all, the whole experience occasioned by this pilgrimage. However, strangely enough, from the very first minute, it seemed that owing to a gift from Providence, a warm relationship was created among the members of the group, as if they were old friends. Whether born in Chicago, Aleppo, Beirut, Cairo, New York, Diyarbakir, Istanbul, Siirt or Arapkir, they all had one thing in common: they represented the true picture of the Armenian people.

It was difficult for us to believe only a decade ago that it would have been impossible to organize such an official pilgrimage; to go to our fatherland — usurped Historical Armenia — and carry out the re-consecration of the church according to our national and Christian traditions; to be present and pray and then share a sacrificial meal with the people. The grace of God was mingled with the Armenian people’s will.

The members of the group were free in the afternoon. Headed by Archbishop Khajag, the rest of the group visited Istanbul’s famous Covered Market, whereas Hirant, Ruby and I went separately to visit the Armenian cemetery of Shishli, where our deceased patriarchs of Constantinople, intellectuals and other prominent members of the Constantinople Armenian community rest in peace. Hirant’s twin brother, Yervant, is buried there. We visited the tombs of Patriarchs Malachia Ormanian and Shnork Kaloustian, the journalist Puzant Ketchian and others; we reflected at length in front of the tombstone of Hagop Martayian (Dilachar), which had newly been installed. At Mustafa Kemal’s request, this Armenian, who was a linguist and a friend of  doctor professor Hrachya Ajarian, had come to Turkey from Bulgaria in the early 1930s and engaged in ground-breaking study and research on the Turkish language until his death in 1979.

In the evening, we were the guests of Archbishop Vicken Aykazian’s cousin, Boghos Yilan (that evening, we christened him with the nickname Otsnetsi), who took us to the moorage in the town of Kuler on the shores of the Bosphorus, where Archbishop Ateshian and Vazken Baron, the Armenian deputy mayor of the district of Shishli with a population of two million, were to join us at the Balik restaurant. The Bolsetsis (residents of Istanbul) would say “Siro Seghan,” we say dinner party, but that of the Bolsetsis is more intimate; ultimately it was love that had joined us and brought us under one roof.

According to the Armenian customs, heartfelt words and greetings were expressed. Welcoming remarks were made by Archbishop Khajag, who, being familiar with all present, also served unofficially as toastmaster. The first to speak was Archbishop Ateshian, who pointed out the importance of St. Giragos Church for the Kurdified and Islamicized Armenians living in those regions. He said that the Armenian Church should open its doors without hesitation to welcome the future generations, who will be baptized as Armenian Christians. He also announced that approximately 20 apostate Armenians had already returned to the house of their faith.

Then Nishan Atinizian gave a brief account of the sacred work that had already been started in 2001 through the initiative of Archbishops Mutafyan and Ateshian. Being the largest house of worship in the Middle East, this church has a critical significance in our national life. Like Archbishop Ateshian, the deputy patriarch of Istanbul, Atinizian was born in Diyarbakir and baptized in that church.

Vazken Baron, the most high-ranking political figure of the Istanbul-Armenian community, gave ample information about the origin of his name. He received this name from Archbishop Shahan Svajian, when he had been a student at the Holy Cross Seminary. His real name had been Jemil but being baptized with the name of the then-catholicos, Vazken I, gave new meaning to his life. Mr. Baron concluded his remarks by reciting an excerpt from the immortal poet Vahan Tekeyan’s poem “The Armenian Church.”

Others who spoke at the dinner were Kevork Atinizian, who underscored the Armenian people’s spirit of patience; Archbishop Vicken, who extolled the virtues of the Shishli mayor, and Hratch Toufayan, who stressed the importance of this pilgrimage.

In my remarks, I said that St. Giragos will become a pilgrimage site not only for former residents of Dikranagerd but also for the Armenian people as a whole, to show our young generation that our sanctuaries on the Armenian plateau of Historical Armenia still appeal to us to return to the homeland and baptize our children there, as in Dikranagerd, so too in the Armenian churches of Sepastia, Ankara, Mersin, Malatia and Kayseri, thereby renewing their vow to pursue our great dream.

Dr. Raffy Hovanessian spoke from the heart, expressing feelings suitable for the occasion as he focused on the importance of this pilgrimage, as did Michael Haratunian, Lisa Esayan and Randy Sapah-Gulian.

On the shores of the Bosporus, the pilgrims pose with Istanbul Mayor Dr. Kadir Topbash in the center, standing

On to Dikranagerd

Early the next morning, Saturday, October 22, we took a flight to Diyarbakir that lasted an hour and a half. The members of the Parish Council of St. Giragos Church greeted us upon arrival. We were taken by bus to the Dedeman Hotel, where Papken Megerian, who had come by car from Armenia via Georgia, was already waiting for us. He had left his wife Anahid in Van for two days. We embraced. Thus, we four ungers with Ramgavar ideology were part of the group: Rouben Terzian, Papken Megerian, Oscar Tatosian and I.

We didn’t have much time, as we were due at St. Giragos for the re-consecration ceremony three hours later. We did have the opportunity to wander about old Dikranagerd and the fortified city of Sour with its Armenian and Assyrian past. Undoubtedly this is the most scenic and memorable area of Diyarbakir. “The Armenians are coming…” was the impression gotten by the curious onlookers standing on the sidewalks and in front of the houses. More accurately, they were returning. Perhaps the grandfathers and grandmothers of many of those Kurdish children surrounding us had been Armenians. Language wasn’t important there; it was the warm Armenian feeling that enveloped us every step of the way. Who will be that blessed fool who will go and collect those scattered Armenians, then bring them back to the fold of our people? I wonder, who will be the one within the confines of St. Giragos Church to organize that retrieval and to open an Armenian school where the history of their forefather, Tigranes the Great, the conquering Armenian king, will be taught.


The large announcements about the re-consecration of St. Giragos Church, written in three languages with the words “Welcome to your home,” were visible on the city’s bustling boulevards and intersections, as well as its squares. As it was, those huge banners were facing us every step of the way. Our dear Dikranagerdtsis were experiencing moments of exhilaration.

The Dikranagerdtsis have yet another Armenian Church in town, St. Sarkis, whose fate was similar to that of St. Giragos. The half-ruined church has the same architectural style as St. Giragos. All of us pilgrims also joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer with Archbishop Khajag. We continued our fast pace to see a lot in a short period of time. We visited a caravanserai, which had been a safe refuge for caravans coming from the four corners of the Ottoman Empire, but which had since been converted into a hotel. We also visited the mansion of an eminent Armenian, which the government is renovating and plans to turn into a museum.

St. Giragos Again Becomes an Armenian Church

We were at St. Giragos Church by 4 p.m. Very strict security measures had been taken both along the roads leading to the church and in its confines. Everywhere in the city there were cards announcing this event in Armenian and Turkish but excitement and indifference, sometimes even inimical attitudes, were simultaneously noticeable. During those days, some people even heard cursing and ugly remarks in the streets.

Several thousand Armenians  had come from all corners of the world. It was the call of the Dikranagerdtsis’ soil that invited them to return to their historical lands. The Armenians having come from Syria and Lebanon, Armenia, Germany, Holland, Canada and Istanbul constituted an unprecedented scene. An assemblage of Armenians never before seen, added to which were the Kurdish-speaking faithful. Are they Armenian or not? Two young girls were standing near me in the church and praying with hands open. In answer to my question, they said that they were attending university in Istanbul and that their mother had said that they were Armenian. They wish to return to the Armenian fold. They only know one prayer. It’s their dream to learn the Armenian language.

All in all, it was too much to take in. As if the significance of the day, which already made one emotional, weren’t enough, now there were these two lovely Armenian girls who wished to learn Armenian…I, for one, didn’t want to be privy to that…when our young generation in America has every freedom and means to learn their mother language, yet it is those coming from the depths of Anatolia who wish to learn Armenian.

On the altar were: Archbishop Aram Ateshian, Archbishop Barsamian, Archbishop Aykazian, Bishop Shahan Sarkissian (Primate of the Diocese of Aleppo), Bishop Sahag Mashalian and Very Rev. Haigazoun Najarian, Pontifical Legate for Central Europe. Also present were the clergy of the Patriarchate of Istanbul: Very Rev. Tatoul Anoushian, Very Rev. Zakeos Ohanian and priests.

Scott Kilner, consul general of the United States; Darion Darnel, American consul in Adana; Osman Baydemir, mayor of Diyarbakir; Abdullah Demirbash, mayor of the Sour municipality in the Ichi region and Scott Avedisian, mayor of Warwick, RI, had taken their places inside the church.

The church’s five altars were re-consecrated. The service, with the participation of the choir from the Vartanantz Church of Istanbul, was soul-stirring. The singing of the hymns was just right, as they can only be heard in the Armenian churches of Istanbul.

Fifty gilt crosses prepared in New York by Gulian, a New Jersey resident originally from Dikranagerd, were given to the church for placement on its columns.

At the end of the ceremony, Baydemir welcomed the visitors first in Armenian, then Kurdish, Turkish, English and Arabic. He said to the pilgrims, “Pari yegak tser dune” (Welcome to your home.) At that, all had goose bumps. Our home? “You are not guests here, this is your home. Every time you come here, you will have come to your home. Today is a happy and exceptional day not only for you but for us all. We all know about the events of the past, and it is our wish that our children jointly celebrate the future successes.” These statements by the Kurdish mayor were often interrupted with applause. Both inside and outside the church, the attendees expressed their gratitude for the firm statement that this city had truly been a historical Armenian center. (Mayor Baydemir is now facing a possible 28 years in prison, for attending the funeral of a Kurdish freedom fighter who was killed by the Turkish army in early November)

Raffi Hovannisian, the first foreign minister of the Republic of Armenia and the chairman of the Heritage Party in that country, was a part of the group, also. My friend Shahen Khachatrian, art historian and former director of the Sarian Museum and State Museum of Art in Yerevan, was there too, as was Kapriel Chemberdji, the Damascus-Armenian national benefactor, along with other familiar Armenians.

Hereafter, St. Giragos Church will become a functioning church.

Sad History of St. Giragos Church

According to the inscription at the entrance of the church, St. Giragos was founded in 1376. The first mention of St. Giragos Church is contained in the volume titled Ughekrutiun [Travel Accounts] of the Armenian traveler Simeon Lehatsi (Simeon of Poland, 1584-1637), which was written during the years 1619-1625 in the city of Lvov, Ukraine. According to Simeon of Poland, after seizing Dikranagerd in 1515, the Ottomans converted the city’s St. Theodoros Cathedral to a mosque in 1515-1518, naming it Kurshunlu Cami. Other churches too were converted to mosques. After St. Theodoros was converted to a mosque, the Armenians built the Armenian St. Giragos Church on the grounds of the cemetery having belonged to the church. However, the actual year of the construction is not known precisely. The church was renovated in 1722 and expanded in 1729 during the reign of Hovhannes Golod of Paghish as patriarch (1715-1741). St. Sarkis Church and St. Hagop Chapel were located within the church complex.

In 1881, the church was damaged by fire and once again was renovated. In 1913, lightning struck the onion-shaped dome and belfry. As a result of this, a new belfry was built in the same year in Gothic style at a height of 29 meters (95 feet); a bell made by the famous Zildjians and a golden cross were installed in it. During World War I, St. Giragos Church was used by the Germans as an arsenal, and after the war it served as a warehouse. In 1960, the church was returned to the Armenians of Dikranagerd, but it remained in a neglected state for years, owing to insufficient financial means.

After the 1915 Genocide, the Armenians of Dikranagerd continued their ecclesiastical life by remaining around St. Giragos. Their emigration from the city began in 1950, such that by 1990 the city was already emptied of its Armenian inhabitants, and the church’s roof had collapsed.

In 2008, new laws permitted those living away from Dikranagerd to be elected as executives of St. Giragos Church. Subsequently, the St. Giragos Foundation, was formed in Istanbul. After consulting with the Patriarchate, the executive committee of the fund decided to renovate the church in 1992 and not add it to the list of approximately 2,000 lost churches. The cost of the church’s rebuilding was $2,400,000, while that of the belfry was $250,000.

Commenting on the city’s history, Mayor Baydemir stated, “Diyarbakir is a multi-religious, multicultural and multilingual city. It belongs to the Christians as much as it belongs to the Muslims. At one time, the Armenians and Assyrians were our compatriots. Although today they are scattered all over the world. I hope that one day they will return to their home.”

The mayor also said, “If a mosque doesn’t have a minaret, it can’t be considered a mosque. So too, a church can’t become a complete religious structure without a cross. Therefore, St. Giragos’s dome will have its cross.”

At the time, when Vartkes Ergun Ayik, chairman of the St. Giragos Foundation, had contacted the municipality, he had obtained a promise of $660,000 from them. The municipality also had promised to return to the church the lands and properties that had been seized from it, the income of which would cover the church’s current expenses.

The overwhelming majority of the city’s population — 90 percent — is Kurdish. The Kurdish language is no longer prohibited. A booklet about Dikranagerd has been published in Armenian, as well as a book of Armenian and Turkish for children.

This is the past and present of Dikranagerd-Diyarbakir, presented in brief.

Mayor Honors Guests from Abroad

That same evening, a reception was given at Diyarbakir’s Park Restaurant in honor of the clergymen, guests and former residents of Dikranagerd who had come from abroad. Our diocese in America would label that evening as a “Day of Hope.”

Mayor Baydemir treated us with a banquet. Among the approximate 200 invited guests were the Consul General of the United States in Istanbul and the Consul in Adana.

Vartkes Ayik, chairman of the St. Giragos Foundation, welcomed the attendees, expressed his thanks to all those who had contributed financially toward the expenses of renovating the church, and invited Archbishop Khajag Barsamian to deliver his message.

Among other things, the archbishop said (in Turkish, which he hasn’t forgotten), “The success accomplished today has great significance for us all. Owing to general and joint efforts, we have every hope that today will be a day of hope, most of all a day to look to the future with greater optimism. As pilgrims from America, we are fortunate to have participated in this historic event. We share the hope of optimism.” Archbishop Khajag’s words of tempered and cautious optimism also had political significance. He gave the St. Vartan medal to Baydemir and Municipal Chief Demirbash. Archbishop Ateshian, in turn, gave silver gifts to both mayors and the architect of the church’s renovation plan.

Mayor Baydemir concluded the day’s program by saying, “today is not just an opportunity for celebration but also a day to express our forgiveness for the regrettable incidents of the past. We wish for you to come again, not as tourists but as compatriots returning to your home. Here it is not tolerance that will be shown toward you but respect as well.”

Scheduled to take place in addition to the religious ceremonies was an artistic program at the initiative of the Anatolia Cultural Foundation. Bedri Ayseli, a singer from Istanbul originally from Dikranagerd, oudist Yervant from Los Angeles, Sahag Uzatmaciyan from New Jersey, and Gurgen Dabaghian from Armenia were to perform in a concert together. Local Kurds and Turks had also organized art and photo exhibits. However, because of the attacks made two days earlier by Kurds of northern Iraq, 24 Turkish soldiers were killed and national mourning was declared throughout Turkey. For this reason, unfortunately, the artistic programs were cancelled.

Jets from the Turkish Air Force frequently made flights in the vicinity of the airport.

The American officials approached our group and met each of us.

This was also an opportunity to become closely acquainted with the other pilgrims having come from various foreign countries. Among them, intellectuals, writers and artists constituted a noticeable presence.

Inaugural Divine Liturgy

On Sunday morning, October 23, the Divine liturgy was offered in the re-consecrated St. Giragos Church; subsequently, Archbishop Ateshian gave the sermon. The Komitas mass was superbly sung by the members of the choir of Saints Vartanants Church in the Ferekoy section of Istanbul, conducted by Adroushan Haladjian. Kevork Atinizian of Boston joined joined them as a guest member of the choir. The singing of the choir resounded from the church’s newly-built arches. The organ was played by Lucy Kahvejioglu, a singer in the choir with a beautiful voice. Also present next to the Armenian clergymen were the bishop of the Assyrian Orthodox Church of Abiden, Bishop Melki Yurek, the representative of the Greek Patriarch, and the two mayors.

It is worth noting that some Kurds and Turks had come from Ourfa, Adana, Merdin and various provinces of Turkey to honor the memory of their apostate forefathers.

Arcbishop Ateshian preached, first in Armenian, then in Turkish. At the end, he offered good wishes in Kurdish, which were received with applause. He stated that he would have been happier that day, if the patriarch, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, had been present too with his flock. He expressed thanks to the Patriarchate’s clerics and the clergymen having come from abroad, as well as the benefactors and the vestrymen having supervised the renovations. He evoked the memory of the monks and priests having served in this church over the centuries.

Subsequently, a pectoral cross was given by Archbishop Aram to Avedis Tabashian, the priest of Iskenderun and the village of Vakif. Then a general confession was performed by Bishop Shahan, followed by Holy Communion, which was received by numerous pilgrims.

Among those present were the well-known Turkish intellectuals Osman Koker, Osman Kavala and Ragip Zarakolu, Deputy Leyla Zana and others. A group of 47 individuals, headed by Aragats Akoyian, National Assembly deputy, and including Raffi Hovannisian as well as Tigran Harutiunian, director of the Noyan Tapan news agency, had come from Armenia.

An exhibit titled “Armenians of Old Dikranagerd,” prepared by Osman Koker in Armenian, Turkish and English, was on display along the exterior walls of the church.

Hustle and bustle prevailed in the church garden. There was a crowd of some four thousand Armenians…this church had never had so many Armenians and will probably not have such a large number again. Television reporters and radio correspondents were everywhere.                                                                             

In the afternoon of the same day, the Trnpatsek (Opening of the Doors) ceremony took place, led by Archpriest Krikor Damadian. Thus, the church’s door was opened not only as a simple religious ceremony but also as a gesture of remembering and evoking the past. The chancels and altars were consecrated with canonical prayers, followed by vespers. Very Rev. Tatoul read the address of Egemen Bagis, chief negotiator with the European Union. Then the first baptism took place. A family formerly of Dikranagerd, which currently resides in Holland, had wished to baptize their 1-year-old daughter. Damadian performed the baptismal ceremony and Archbishop Ateshian the rite of confirmation. The child was named Rosalynn-Vartouhi.

To Van and Back Again

The same day, Sunday, we were scheduled to go to Van, in order to visit Holy Cross Church of Akhtamar. We had already set out when Archbishop Barsamian received an unexpected phone call from the US Embassy with instructions for the group not to go to Van because of the earthquake. Thus, this visit was cancelled.

Perhaps I was sadder than the rest of the members of the group. For me, the pilgrimage was incomplete. The birth of our political party had been in Van with the Armenagans, and this year marked the 90th anniversary of the ADL. I had made a vow to go there, and now that vow was to be broken. I was extremely disappointed. However, we were more concerned about Father Haigazoun and Papken Megerian who had already left for Van by car in the morning. After not receiving any word from them for a few days, we finally found out that they had safely crossed the Georgian border. On the way they had also visited the island of Akhtamar but the church had been closed because of the earthquake.

We pilgrims visited the only Armenian Church located in the region called Derek near Merdin. Named St. Kevork, it was built in the 17th century and renovated through the efforts of Patriarch Mutafyan. We met the church’s caretaker, Jersalem — the town’s only Armenian woman — and her daughter, little Nazeli. We bowed down in front of a 300-year-old Bible. A hymnal was also kept in the church. On this visit, we became acquainted with the Kurdish intellectual Eyub Guven, who is the author of a book titled Kohar [Jewel], the biography of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Here too, led by Archbishops Khajag and Vicken, we sang the Lord’s Prayer. Still standing next to the church and surrounded by a flower garden is a building that once housed an Armenian College, where higher education was provided; even the French language and French literature were taught there. The school had two sections: one for boys, the other for girls.

Outside, locals approached us and revealed that they were of Armenian descent. One by one, Archbishop Vicken questioned them in Turkish. Some of them went further and began to point out others, who also had Armenian blood. It was impossible not to be moved by this scene. All around us were Armenians and we were incapable of being helpful to them. Too bad!..

Istanbul and the National Central School

On Monday morning, October 24, we returned to the same hotel in Istanbul, where we had stayed the first night. After having lunch at the famous Haji Baba restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), part of the group headed for the Central School (Getronagan Lycée).

This visit was a must, especially for our American-born pilgrims to see under what conditions a 125-year-old school has been kept open, what important national figures have studied there and what educators have taught generation upon generation there. It was there that they would see the procession of our illustrious intellectuals.

The school’s principal, Silva Kouyoumdjian, warmly greeted us in the teachers’ room; with her were some of the Armenian-language teachers. The Primate, Archbishop Barsamian, introduced each member of our group, giving their qualifications. During the reception, the principal reflected considerably on the historical role played by the school, as well as presenting its current situation fraught with financial and other difficulties. Mrs. Kouyoumdjian, who has been the principal since 1980, proudly stated that the school’s graduates don’t have any difficulty in attending the universities of Istanbul. She has always had friendly ties with the deans of colleges and universities.

The school has 235 pupils and 42 teachers; there are 12 classrooms and three labs. The annual budget is $1,157,000, while the tuition is $4,923 per pupil. Of course, it is difficult for students to manage the payment of almost $5,000 per year, therefore the Board of Trustees, chaired by Haroutiun Ebeoglu, relies on donations from charitable organizations and individual benefactors.

Adjoining the school is the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church of Galata, which was built in 1391. The present-day Central School was erected in place of the All-Savior Elementary School in 1878, with Patriarch Nerses Varjabedian leading the fundraising campaign. The remains of Patriarch Golod, known for his great works, are buried in the church.

The school was expanded in 2008 by taking over a section of the adjacent Keoshe Khan. As it is, today’s Central School has assumed a lovely and complete appearance through a combination of the old and new. The principal showed us the various departments of the school, after which we climbed up to the historic hall, where she emotionally recalled the national figures having appeared there and whose photographs are hanging appropriately on its walls until now.

Among the first students of the Central School were Arshag Chobanian and Papken Suni. The first principal was Minas Cheraz (1886-1888); Vahan Tekeyan held the post of principal there for three months in 1922. The immortal Komitas and Tigran Chouhajian taught there. After the Bank Ottoman incident of 1896, the school was in shambles for more than 10 years; the same thing happened in 1915-1917 too.

The sight of this “museum” can only produce a fusion of emotion and pride. Here is the piano that Komitas played on. The school’s music teacher elevates our spirits with a rendition of the Armenian song Yerevan-Erebuni. Meanwhile, the school has a centralized sound system, through which Armenian classical and popular music and songs are heard in all the rooms, so that Armenian song will forever remain in the students’ subconsciousness.

When the time came for us to leave, the principal gave each of us booklets about various Armenian writers, which were printed on the occasion of the school’s 125th anniversary.

The American-born members of our group were greatly impressed by the tremendous work done by this educational institution and were thankful that they had at least visited a living Armenian “sanctuary,” a true “hearth” of the Armenian mind and soul.

We left the Central School with a feeling of pride.

In the evening, we had free time.

I had invited an old acquaintance from my youth, Gulen Aktash, an educator and currently vice president of Bogazici University (Robert College), and his wife, Toni, who, like her father, was an instructor of history in the same university. On this occasion, I also invited Silva, the principal of Central School, with whom my acquaintance dates back a decade, and her husband Ardash, who is the director of Araz Publishing House. They too had been friends of my Turkish guest at the university.

I learned from Gulen that the Armenian studies courses begun recently in the university were being continued, attracting wide interest among students. I broached issues pertaining to Armenian life and, in particular, the new tolerant policy regarding minorities that had been adopted by Turkey’s new government and the mutual trust engendered by it. Conversations also took place about the renovation of Armenian sanctuaries and, more recently, the return of properties.

My friends gave every reason for optimism.

The opportunity arose in the hotel to introduce Gulen Aktash to Archbishop Khajag Barsamian.

Visit to Armenian Patriarchate

A full schedule awaited us on Tuesday, October 25. In the morning, we went by bus to the Armenian Patriarchate in Kumkapu (Kumkapi), where Archbishop Ateshian was waiting for us. Patriarch Mutafyan had undertaken the project of renovating the building and refurnishing it anew. Fortunately, he had completed that work just prior to his illness, rendering it into a first class institution. You’d think it was a small palace, made resplendent with works of Armenian art and tasteful furniture. After all, this was the national home that reflected the past glory of the Constantinople-Armenian community, where patriarchs Malachia Ormanian, Nerses Varjabedian and Megerdich Khrimian (Hairig), among others, had resided.

Archbishop Ateshian received us in the great assembly room, where he briefly presented the patriarchate’s past and present. He also gave us a general account of today’s Istanbul-Armenian community, with its churches, schools, Holy Savior National Hospital and cemeteries, as well as an overview of its cultural life. He gave assessments of families from Armenia having found refuge in Turkey — often sad and sometimes favorable. He also mentioned, on a sad note, that Armenian women sometimes engaged in unsuitable, immoral behavior. He gave explanations about the new laws regarding the education of the children of those families in Istanbul-Armenian schools.

He also discussed the overall condition of our sanctuaries on Turkish territory and the possibilities of the return of Kurdified Armenians to the Mother Church, giving satisfactory explanations.

He spoke too about the close relationship with the Mother See, as well as highlighting the necessity of preparing clergymen for the Istanbul-Armenian churches.

The See of Constantinople was established in the 10th century during the period of Byzantium’s Latin kingdom. In the days following the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks (1453), Fatih Sultan Mehmed II of Bursa recognized Archbishop Hovagim (Joachim) as the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire (1461). On the eve of World War I, the spiritual jurisdiction of the patriarchal see extended from Anatolia to Northern Africa, from Thrace to Europe, and subsequently to the newly established communities in America. Presently, the patriarchal see wields spiritual authority over Turkey and Crete.

While the renovations were going on, a section of the previous patriarchate was uncovered in the basement, which has been rendered into a beautiful museum. The museum is filled with Armenian icons, ecclesiastical garments, pectoral crosses, staffs and other religious objects. It is possible to have a museum with three times the space, considering the historical items placed there, about which the priest in charge gave ample explanations.

Archbishop Ateshian proceeded to escort us to the St. Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God, or Holy Virgin Mary) Cathedral, the seat of the patriarchal see, and another church adjoining it, which also serves as a hall. The patriarchal see was transferred from Samatia to Kumkapu in 1641. Adjoining the church is the Bezdjian School, named after Haroutiun Amira Bezdjian, whose charitable acts greatly benefitted the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The group departed from the patriarchal complex with the best of impressions.

Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan, who hasn’t been able to function normally for several years, lives in the detached house surrounded by the garden behind the patriarchate. For a moment, I imperceptibly left from the group and prayed for him by the garden.

Guests of Istanbul Mayor

At 1 p.m., our group was invited to Feriye restaurant, one of the most luxurious restaurants on the shores of the Bosphorus, by Dr. Kadir Topbashi, mayor of Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul. Also present was Francis Ricciardone Jr., US ambassador in Turkey, who was appointed to this position on January 1 of this year. (The American ambassador left early so he didn’t have the opportunity to speak.)

The guests were introduced, one by one. On behalf of his municipality, the mayor welcomed us and painted a rosy picture of the economic and social life of present-day Istanbul with its population of almost 15 million. Generally speaking, he found the brisk activity of investors in the financial and manufacturing realms promising insofar as Turkey’s future is concerned. As it is, his country occupies the 20th place among the economically-advanced countries of the world.

He highlighted the multicultural aspect of Istanbul and stressed the place of the old Armenian community in this mosaic. Likewise, he praised the creative genius of the Armenian architects as manifested in the monumental structures of this city. He spoke about the benefits of the present-day government’s open policy and considered the decision adopted by the state regarding tolerance of minorities to be very helpful.

Archbishop Barsamian also spoke and presented the mayor with a replica of the porcelain model of New York’s St. Vartan Cathedral.

The mayor spoke at length in connection with the questions raised by our group, giving balanced and convincing answers.

When the lunch was over, we pilgrims received, as gifts, lavish albums titled “Istanbul – City of Reminiscences and Memories” and Nusret Choban’s “Miniature Istanbul,” as well as a porcelain model of old Istanbul.

Right after lunch, the well-known Turkish industrialist Ahmet Calik had wished to meet with us pilgrims from America in Kempinski Hotel. Also present at this meeting was Kaan Soyak, chairman of the Turkish Armenian Business Development Council, who knows the American-Armenian community well, in particular.

Calik called for joint economic cooperation, from which the Republic of Armenia would also benefit.

Of course, it wasn’t possible to have a more intensive and serious conversation within those narrow time limits, but he held forth with the prospect of creating possibilities for mutual profitable economic cooperation.

Meeting the Istanbul-Armenian Community

The Mavi Yeshil restaurant was the rendezvous of high-ranking clergymen, benefactors, executive committee members and intellectuals known in the Istanbul-Armenian community and holding positions of authority therein – more than 150 individuals. Also present were Archbishop Ateshian, national benefactors Bedros Shirinoglu, Haig Arslanian, Onnig Nalbandghazaroglu and others. A true “Siro Seghan.”

Kind, heartfelt words were spoken by the clergymen at the head table, as well as the guests. There was no shortage of expressions of thanks and gratitude.

The closeness between the members of our group and the Istanbul-Armenian nationals was palpable right from the beginning. It was as if there was a friendship of many years between us and the representatives of this long-established and venerable community.

Our pilgrimage ended thus, with a prevailing mood of contentment.

The Mayor of Istanbul with Harry Toufayan


Sweet Memories

Every evening, when the formal agenda came to an end, a few of us would keep the evening going by getting together in the ground-floor restaurant of the hotel or a nearby café and speak through the wee hours of the morning. Forming part of this group were Archbishop Vicken, Randy Sapah-Gulian, Oscar Tatosian, Rouben Terzian, Ararat Hacet and Ohannes Koroglyan. This time spent together was the happiest for us — to get to know one another and tell jokes, stories and memorable occurrences from our daily life in an intimate atmosphere. The six days really passed too quickly. Each of us experienced the satisfaction of forming new friendships.

Some of us, as Dr. Raffy Hovanessian attested, had often gone on such pilgrimages but this one was truly different in nature, quality and the constitution of the group. If Archbishop Khajag decides to organize such a trip next year, I am certain that this group in its entirety will want to sign up for it.

With his sociable personality, Archbishop Vicken became everybody’s friend. As much as we continued to show him respect, considering his position as clergyman, we were nevertheless surprised by his warmth and degree of communicativeness. The more we delved into conversation with him about ecumenical relations, the more we noticed that he is a true defender of the authority, stability and immovability of the Mother See. That, in turn, was enough for us to love him more.

I had always been on formal terms with Hratch (Harry) Toufayan. Despite his princely acts of charity, he is equally a model of humility. Throughout his life, he has continued to display the warmth of his native Cairo. He has a unique and quick wit, which he reveals to close friends. He always has a smile on his face, is in a good mood and is ready to help the nation and homeland.

Despite familial relations that go back years, whether with Dr. Raffy’s parents or with Shoghag’s, our beloved Sisag and Araxie Varjabedian, I saw during this trip the Hovannessians’ uncompromising devotion to our national values. Their service, first to the AGBU and now to the Eastern Diocese, became a boon to both institutions. Dr. Raffy, with his circumspect character, unbiased modus operandi and avoidance of extremes, brings a balance to our otherwise turbulent community life.

Despite our relationship of many years as ADL members, it was because of this pilgrimage that I got to know Rouben Terzian as a fellow Armenian, a believer in his ideology and a tactful individual, through his intricate and edifying stories, which sometimes required two days to complete.

Oscar Tatosian, the chairman of the Diocesan Council and a rug maker by profession, is without a doubt a beloved unger, with his broad range of interests, his knowledge of the minutia of the Diocese, his concern for our national cause, his love of culture and his ability to undertake new projects.

Randy Sapah-Gulian is always ready to party and have a good time. Despite having a large company and extensive means, he is always modest. He has probably inherited that trait from his grandfather, the Hunchak leader Stepan Sapah-Gulian, or his mother, Armenine. He got involved in Armenian life through the Antranig Dance Ensemble and became the worthy successor to the late benefactor Kevork Hovnanian, as chairman of the Fund for the Armenian Relief. On the last evening of our trip, I shared a table with the Istanbul-Armenian intellectual Arsen Yarman, and the topic of conversation turned to the traditional political parties, during which he made it known to me that he had Hunchak leanings. When I said that Randy Sapah-Gulian was with us, he jumped up and went over to him, staying with him the remainder of the evening. I noticed that slowly but surely it was becoming my turn to make a toast.

Rafy Bedrosyan is a serious intellectual with a probing mind. He also has serious interests connected with our past. I invited him to contribute to our official organ, the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.

For me, Ararat Hacet became a true revelation with his broad interests in the social and political realms of Armenian national life. He spoke extensively about Turkish life, Istanbul and Armenian affairs.

It was a pleasure to become acquainted with Sandra and Lisa; it was only with them that we had the opportunity to speak English. They were ready to savor every aspect of the pilgrimage, paying close attention. Sandra is the daughter of George and Shake Shahinian from the parish of St. Thomas Church in Tenafly, NJ. She continues to seek new sources of revenue for the Diocese. Lisa, in turn, successful attorney, is already a committed member of the Diocesan Council.

Shoghag, who is interested in the minutest details, offers congratulations on every work completed to perfection. For example, a few Aivazovski paintings were on display in the halls of the Patriarchate. Approaching one oil painting, she turned to Archbishop Aram and drew his attention to it, saying that the painting needed restoration and that it was a shame to keep an oil painting like that for such a long time. If Shoghag lived in Istanbul, that painting would have already been immediately restored, without a doubt.

Michael Haratunian is a respected personality within the Amrenian community. As for his wife, Marie, those of us who knew French had all the opportunity to speak French with her. When we were going from Diyarbakir to Derek, Michael Haratunian experienced inner turmoil, realizing that Armenian deportees had walked along those roads. Meanwhile, I said, “Our fedayees too.”

Of course, it wasn’t possible to have such a well-organized pilgrimage as this, if it hadn’t been for Hirant Gulian. Every step of the way, he took charge of the programs, menus and bus schedules, calmly and capably. As for his gracious wife, Ruby, she helped out immeasurably and was a pleasant fellow traveler. I had a lot of topics to discuss with this daughter of the renowned Bakalian family of Beirut, which pertained to the period of the repatriation to Armenia, her paternal uncle living in Lome (Togo, Africa), the Hovnanian School of New Jersey and other matters of national concern. Ruby became my inseparable companion on buses and in reception rooms. And, besides all this, her photographs will remain the permanent recorder of memories from the trip.

Finally, it remains for me to express thanks to the Primate, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian. With such group pilgrimages, it is difficult for a high-ranking clergyman to maintain the solemnity of his rank; however, as much as he was on an intimate basis with us, to the same extent he maintained his serious demeanor as he led this pilgrimage.

As for me, I continued my journey the next day, October 26, and headed for Beirut. I visited the cemetery of the Armenian Evangelical community of Furn El Chebbak, where Kersam Aharonian, the Traveller towards the Great Dream, is buried. I had promised him that I would visit Historical Armenia. However, that was left undone since we hadn’t been able to go to Van because of the earthquake.

However, once again I made a promise to him as I bowed in respect to his memory. “Unger Kersam, certainly, next year in Van.”

 (Translated by Aris G. Sevag)


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