Beloved Armenagan Martyrs: A Cup of Water from Your Birthplace Van as Balm for Your Thirsty Souls

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By Hagop Vartivarian

Translated from the Armenian

VAN (Vasburagan) — I carried out my oath as a political party member this summer, in full, invoking the spiritual words above.

After entering the ranks of the party, I had sworn to pray on my knees to those Armenagan comrades who were the forerunners (mgrdich) on the Armenian plateau of the Armenian liberation struggle and revolution.

We were proud, we Democrat Liberals, of having descended from the Armenagan organization — and especially our generation, which on the 50th anniversary of the Great Crime swore to remain faithful to the creed of our past, believing in the constructive force of our people and the great historical mission reserved to it. We joined the ranks of the Democrat Liberal Party (ADL) with unshakeable optimism, believing that the just solution of our land case and the movement for repatriation would without a doubt be realized. Finally, our oath was through nonnegotiable patriotism to aid at least a tiny bit that wonderful goal and the realization of the dream. This is what was passed down to us from our old comrades, the Armenagans.

Those forerunners or mgrdiches were three: Mgrdich Khrimian Hayrig, Mgrdich Portukalian and Mgrdich Terlemezian-Avedisian. It took forty long years for me to be fully able to realize that dream.

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The first step was my visit to Marseille in August 1989. The local priest, Karekin Vartabed Bekjian (today the Primate of Germany’s Armenians), led me to the grave of one of the three mgrdiches — Portukalian. We prayed there and I renewed my oath to serve my nation, homeland and political party. On that day Portukalian’s relatives entrusted to me relics which I keep to this day like the apple of my eye.

The second took place in July 2000. We came as part of an ADL delegation to visit Echmiadzin and officially meet with Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. Archbishop Mesrob Krikorian, a warm and steadfast friend of the ADL, was with comrades Hagop Avedikian, Rupen Mirzakhanian and Dr. Krikor Adanalian. Before the meeting, the archbishop recited a prayer in front of Mgrdich Khrimian Hayrig’s tomb, which lay at the entrance of the Cathedral, for the latter’s soul. After the meeting with Catholicos Karekin II, the latter invited Krikorian and myself to Haykashen, where his summer residence was.

The third remained, Mgrdich Avedisian, the location of whose tomb is not known.

With a group of American-Armenian pilgrims we visited historical Armenia — our sacred sites, our mountains…and all our lands. Each of those pilgrims is an heir to that land. We conducted our prayer which began with Kars in front of the ruins of Ani, regarding from close at hand the lands of our Republic of Armenia firmly anchored on the other banks of the Akhurian River. Scraping by the west of Ararat we reached Van and traveled to the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar.

The Monastery of St. Partoghimeos (Bartholomew) is not distant, where the immortal Armenagan hero Mgrdich Avedisian was martyred with his lion cubs. It is a two-hour journey. I was able to find a driver in Van who knew where the monastery was, not far from the border of Iran. On September 9 I was able to fulfill my third oath.

Pilgrimage to Van

It is worthy to relate the story, and why one should go on pilgrimage to that monastery.

The Sasun massacre of 1894 caused great emotion not only among Armenians but also in the world of politics. Van, due to its special position and situation remained free of the 1895 general massacre. However, as provincial governor Nazim Pasha was considered incompetent and incapable by the sultan, one of the imperial guards, Ferik Saadeddin Pasha, was sent to Van in order to organize and rouse the Turkish and Kurdish mobs in Van and its environs against the Armenians.

“The Armenagans, guessing the intention of this extraordinary inspector of the sultan, naturally, while employing all means for self-defense, were going to try not to provide any excuse for the excitation of Turkish fanaticism,” as Ardag Tarpinian later recorded in his memoirs.

Mgrdich Avedisian, who had newly returned from Salmas to Van, took on the leadership of the self-defense of Van. He was aided by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation leader Bedo, and the Hnchagist Mardig. Truly, the spring of 1896 turned out to be critical when gradually the specter of massacre turned into a reality. The massacre began on June 5 and the Armenian quarters completely fell victim to Turkish barbarism. Its description is sad.

It became clear in those battles that the youth of Van were best able to understand the meaning and spirit of the revolution which

nspired the Khrimians and Portukalians. The Avedisians became manifest through this self-defense, as well as Yeghishe Kundakjian, Arisdages Akhigian, Krikoris Terlemezian and still other martyred and living dedicated Armenagan revolutionaries. The following certainly will remain as memorable figures of the self-defense battles of Van: Garabed Sanoyan, Hmayeag Tankarajian, Garabed and Manug Sanoyan, Haji (Zeytuntsi), Arshag Chchian, Uzun Ohannes, Sev Laj, Garabed Hiusian, Kevork Ashjian, Arabaji Kaplon, Markar Solakhian, Dikran Mherian and Sahag Pehrizian, all Armenagans. As for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation members, there were Bedo and Vartan, and from the Hnchagists, Mardig, Vahe and Sarkavag. Behold, the number of our martyrs in the self-defense battles in those days formed such proportions. Our revolutionary comrades from all political parties were sacrificed in the self-defense effort, which lasted one week. On the other hand, this successful resistance of the Armenians inspired anxiety not only in the Turkish government but also in the English consul, W.H. Williams. The English government feared that this resistance of the Armenians would form a pretext for the Russian Tsarist government to attack Turkey. Consequently England tried to find an end to this crisis, through its experienced diplomatic machinations.

The Armenians, fearing Williams’ dishonest behavior, demanded that the other consuls in Van, the French, Persian and Russian, participate in peace negotiations. The populace, for the sake of safety, took refuge with the American missionaries and Persian and Russian consulates. Here, too, however, the sad role of the English consul was going to have decisive consequences. The men crowded into the American establishments, especially the youth, received the command to leave. If they did not, they were threatened with surrender to the government.

And he, Williams, succeeded. After the negotiations, it was demanded from the Armenians that the fighters leave Van for Persia. It was promised that nobody would pursue them on this journey, while the Armenians of Van and its surrounding villages would be left free. Consequently, the important notables of Van, holding a consultative assembly, decided to send the fighting youth with their weapons to Persia.

Later events showed that Williams’ promise was mere trickery. His permanent fear was a Russian intervention, so he rushed as quickly as possible to suppress the fighting and remove the Armenagans from Van. Our revolutionaries who were struggling for self-defense and independence encountered only harm from the Christian Great Powers of the West, just as later Mihran Damadian and his fighters with the Armenians withdrew from Cilicia thanks to French intervention. And for this reason, Armenians were only able to find constant friendship from the sole Christian state of the east, Russia.

Nearly 1,000 Armenians assembled at night at Varak Mountain. The Armenagans, 600 strong, led by Mgrdich Avedisian, were going to go to Persia via by the Chukh and Bashkale route, through St. Partoghimeos Monastery. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) members and Hnchagists, around 60 in num

ber, after waiting several more days on the mountain to see how events were developing, were going by a different route to the same place.

Of course, with the densely Armenian-populated Aykesdan district of Van defenseless, the Turkish and Kurdish mob again attacked, massacring 600-700 people. Saadeddin Pasha was in great joy. With the departure of the Armenian youth, the control of Van was left in his hands.

The Armenagans who left with Avedisian, who were the elite of the intellectual youth of Van, took the Aghpag road. Contrary to the promises that were made, 8 to 10 thousand Turkish soldiers and Kurdish Hamidiye regiment members began to harass the departing group starting at the outskirts of Van, especially at the passes of Rukh and Giuzel Dere. After a 24-hour battle, and several dead, the group succeeded in breaking through the siege lines and advanced toward Aghpag. During this period, around 40 fighters succeeded in returning to Van.

The group, increasingly exhausted and persecuted, succeeded in arriving in front of Surp Partoghimeos Monastery, which was not far from the Persian border. The group attempted to take refuge in the sturdy monastery. It did not succeed in this. Not only the monastery, but all the important positions around it, had previously been surrounded by the enemy. The Armenians were caught in an unequal battle of one against ten, a description of which unfortunately is lacking. Avedisian and five hundred men of his brave group of dedicated Armenagans fell there.

The members of the Hnchagist and ARF group, who from the start separated from Avedisian’s group, after waiting about a week at Varak Mountain, decide to go to Persia, but they too on the road are completely annihilated by Kurds.

As a result of this great loss, Van remained without youth. It was an irreparable loss. It was the promising youth born of the inspiration of Portukalian and Khrimian who disappeared, leaving behind very few Armenagans, such as Panos Terlemezian, Krikor Beozigian, Karekin Pagheshtsian (Manugian), Mikayel Natanian, Rupen Shadvorian, Krikor Ajemian.

This disappearance of intellectuals was more costly for Vasburagan and all Armenians than even the actual massacre of Van.

In the Field of Heroes

Certainly after the final evacuation of Van, no ideological fighter visited this holy place, the plain of the apostle Bartholomew, where the Armenagan fighters are buried. The car hastened from Van toward the aforementioned monastery. These are our fields and hills…it is after all the nature of the homeland which I am enjoying from within my thoughts. Alone. I follow step by step that road on which our Armenagan comrades going toward martyrdom walked.

Meanwhile I go over my memories stretching over more than forty years of political party life to each stage, and sometimes I get emotional, but often I become happy with the experiences that I have had. I spend the approximately two hour trip with its vicissitudes, enthusiasms and disappointments, and successes and failures.

And the Armenian world’s nature and land still grow more beautiful to my eyes.

We are now in the Albayrak village near the monastery. It is populated by Kurds.

It is forbidden to ascend to the monastery, which possessed great military significance as it was on a hill. The soldiers defending the border have occupied the church. Over there we see Persia. The plain of Apostle Bartholomew, where our heroes, including our Avedisian, were martyred, lies at the foot of the monastery. I take out of my bag a bottle of water which I had taken this morning from Lake Van. First I recite a prayer aloud for the souls of the dead and then the Lord’s Prayer and then I sing the ADL march. I have also brought with me our political party’s coat of arms lapel pin, which I mix into our native soil, I sprinkle Van’s water on the red soil of the martyrs, on their thirsty and parched souls as balm.

I also pray individually for the souls of Khrimian, Portukalian and Avedisian — those who taught us to be revolutionary, but cautious; revolutionary, but thirsty for education and progressive; revolutionary, always being led by the supreme interests of the nation and the people.

I experience the inner satisfaction of having carried out my obligations. I see at this stage of my life, over sixty, the carrying out of a dream, an oath. Carrying out this last one was the most difficult.

We return. It is already dusk. The land of the Armenians is orange, the color of apricots. Lake Van appears from a distance, and I go to the shore of the lake and I say, “Lands of the Armenians, new generations of Armenagans will come from every corner of the world and from our Armenia here and again make the lands of the Armenians flourish.”

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