Digging for My Roots: A Trip to Historic Armenia and Istanbul



By Linda Boyajian Patterson

The seed for this trip was planted when I was 10 years old. My cousin said to me, “Do you know who those people are in that picture?” I looked at the old black and white portrait that had always hung in my Grandmother Derderian’s house. I never thought about the picture, because no one had ever spoken about it. “No, I said. Who are they?” “They’re Grandma’s family.” and I replied incredulously, “Grandma had a family?”

Yes, Grandma had a family, a family that she lost and never spoke about, but she did write about it. To honor her beloved family and to leave us a legacy, she wrote a book, My Life, by Shooshanig Derderian.

In May, I carried that book to Historic Armenia and went to the only place I could be certain that she had been. I stood on the ground in the upper district of Kharpert, by the hillside that had been filled with a thriving community of homes and the Euphrates College. I held her book and tried to smile as I told my friends about my grandmother’s longing for an education. I stood in front of the ruins of the Surp Hagop Armenian Church, and realized that was surely the church she went to. When I came home I wrote this little piece as a legacy to my children and grandchildren.

Armen Aroyan is from Monrovia, CA. I first heard about him when my Uncle Avie (Avedis James Derderian) traveled with him many years ago. Subsequent to that, I have heard his name mentioned, in glowing terms, many times.

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Lecturers about travels to Historic Armenia would frequently mention Armen’s name. So he came highly recommended by many people. In that part of the world, it is critical to be safe and Armen works continually to maintain connections throughout Turkey. He is very low-key with a gentle personality and approaches people everywhere for local information. One of the keys to his great success is his enormous network of local contacts.

He speaks fluent English, Armenian, Turkish and probably more languages. So often, we heard him ask locals, in Turkish, “Are there any Armenians living around here?” He was on a work assignment, as an engineer, in Germany in 1983, when he had his first opportunity to go to Istanbul. While apprehensive, as any Armenian should have been, he did go and established contacts. He continued to go back to Turkey and began traveling into the interior researching Armenian sites including towns and villages. He is truly an expert on Armenian Church history, geography, architecture, folklore, food and various aspects of Armenian culture.

I mentioned to him, “My Uncle took this trip with you,” and he responded, “Avedis took this trip twice, he wanted to go to Erzinga where Shooshanig was born.” In taking people to their ancestral villages, he is fulfilling his own destiny. It is clear that this work is a calling for him.

He acted as our guide but also our teacher and lectured to us much of the time, as well as teaching us how to locate Armenian artifacts and spot architecture that was clearly Armenian. He showed us where to look and how to spot Armenian writing, a cross that may have been missed in the process of eradicating Armenian traces, etc. He was an anthropological detective and taught us how to be one. He has taken some 1,400 pilgrims to find their ancestral homes.

I told Charlotte, my oldest friend, who took this trip with me, that I knew I was Armenian going on this trip, but I also knew that I would be more Armenian after it, and I could feel it happening every day. It was an emotional, educational and spiritual adventure, exploring our personal heritage.

I saw the sharp steep mountains and terrain covered with large rocks, and my Aunt Roxie’s voice came back to me. Being only 6, her only recollection of escaping was “I was on old granny’s back and she was going down a hill so steep that I was scared and crying.” Looking at the terrain that would challenge a very fit hiker, and thinking of old women with their beloved grandchildren on their backs, with neither food nor water, brought our tragic history clearly into focus.

May 14, Wednesday: We walked to explore Taksim Square, which was nothing more than a big cement plaza, and walked to the shopping district and stopped at a café to people watch. It was so interesting to see the Muslim women walk by. No matter how hot the weather was, they were fully garbed from head to toe. Young Turkish girls walking by in tight clothes, alongside of Muslim women wearing their pup tents while they passed lingerie shops with skimpy lingerie in the window. Strange!

We saw some very young police trainees practicing. They were rushing by in full riot gear. There had been a horrific mining disaster and hundreds of men were injured and killed so people were protesting at the office (SOMA) of the mining company. In weeks to follow, we found out that they had pulled out 276 bodies and 120 were still missing. Later the final count would be 276 dead, but in truth (again, a Turkish whitewash) it was 276 plus 120 for a total of 396 men dead and/ missing. Apparently, the Turkish president changed the number of men killed to suit him and his politics.

May 15, Thursday: Armenian sites of Istanbul and evening flight to Nevshehir: Today we start our Istanbul tour with the group, beginning with the St. Gregory the Illuminator, (Surp Krikor Lusavorich) Church of Galata built in Armenian architectural style, in 1965, by an Armenian architect, Bedros Zobian. The Getronagan High School is next door. We were escorted into the principal’s office, which had a table with food on it ready to be served. Most offices have chairs in front of the desk, but an Armenian’s office has a table to put out food. That seemed so Armenian. I guess feeding people is genetic.

We passed Dolmabahçe Palace that was built for Sultan Abdulmecit between 1843 and 1856 by Armenian architects, Garabed Balian, his son Nigoghos Balian. All documents omitted that the famous architects were Armenian. They were listed as “Ottoman” architects.

We visited the Shishli Armenian Cemetery, the most beautiful cemetery that I have ever seen. There were photographs on the headstones, each plot was framed in and had beds of flowering plants and bushes. It was a very serene, lovely and pensive place to visit. There is a bust of Patriarch Maghakia Ormanian who wrote the history of the Armenian Church and the last three Patriarchs were buried next to each other. The cemetery was filled with beautiful statuary.

We drove past an ancient Roman aqueduct on the way to the Kumkapi suburb of Istanbul where the poorer Armenians live. Here was the most beautiful cathedral, painted in shades of lavender, pinks and blues. It was so unusual and beautiful. Its elegance was in sharp contrast to their hard lives.

We then proceeded to the grave of Hrant Dink, a journalist murdered in 2007 for saying that Armenians and Turks should make peace. Rest in peace, Armenian Hero.

Later that evening we boarded a plane to fly to the interior, to Nevshehir. All the clay roofs visible from the plane sparkled like copper. It was a beautiful sight to see. When we arrived in Nevshehir, we met our wonderful, handsome driver Selçuk with his comfortable Mercedes van and went off to the elegant Hotel Perissia in Ürgüp.

May 16, Friday: Kayseri, Evereg, Chomaklu, Cappadocia: We drove down steep and sharp curvy roads, which later turned out to be pretty commonplace in this country, and easily handled by Selçuk, into Cappadocia. Cappadocia is like a Turkish Sedona. It’s a location with amazing cliffs with homes carved out of them. They were cool in the summer and warm in the winter and they were wonderful to walk through and imagine what living there was like. This area was populated by Greeks and then later by a small number of Armenians.

We later drove, with the magnificent Archeos Mountain standing proudly in the distance, to the village of Chomaklu, home to the families of John and Souren Farsakian. John Farsakian recited a poem “I will survive,” to honor his uncle who had saved his little sister’s life (the brothers’ mother) and who was a major influence in their lives. He was a much-adored uncle who had no children. Reminded me of my much-loved Uncle Nubie. History was coming to life.

We were constantly being taught how to “find” and uncover things that were Armenian. Armen even pointed out pieces of a church that had been taken apart to use the stones. One part of a wall had Armenian writing on it and there was a pillar base from a church being used as a Lally column. We left this village and drove into the larger town of Evereg.

We went to Surp Toros Church which had been converted to the Asagi Everek Fatih Camii Mosque. They thought that a miracle had occurred because an image of the Virgin Mary had appeared on the side of the altar. When they turned the church into a mosque, they used cheap paint and the beautiful, original paintings were coming through. They then put up plywood to cover them — how horrible to see such beautiful ancient artifacts defaced.

It’s so sad to see all the destruction and desecration that was done to turn this beautiful old cathedral into a mosque. We saw this so many times and it never stopped being sad. We spotted a house across from the church whose door, with Armenian initials on it, had many bullet holes. High on a building and overlooked, we spotted the Armenian symbol for God. They tried to kill all the people and totally wipe out the culture but overlooked some things. This was like anthropological detective work.

Turkish cities are, for the most part very clean, the exception being the most eastern towns of Diyarbakir and Kars. By dramatic contrast, the countryside is littered with debris but only along the road. It appears to be left there by migrant workers who live in the most miserable conditions with their families in tents and scavenge for food.

KAYSERI: We were happy to see that the church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, amazingly, was left untouched. We passed what had been Armenian homes that were broken down with hammers, as the Turks looked for buried gold. It was sad to see what greed did to homes. We were allowed to get out to take photos. Armen told us “to take only five minutes” but did not tell us that it was very dangerous here. This is an area of Muslim extremists.

We saw Armenian mansions that were restored to their original condition. Turks did the restoration for themselves, 100 years later. When the Armenians had occupied this town, it had been a beautiful thriving community of some 20,000.

MAY 17, Saturday: Yozgat, Sivas: We visited the caves of Göreme, a beautiful otherworldly area. It was fascinating, imagining what the lives of the people were like. These caves were formed during prehistoric times.

We learned the origins of Armenian names, based mostly on occupation, father’s first name or town of origin. My maiden name, Boyajian, derives from Boyaji who is someone that is a dyer (of textile) but later came to mean painter. I nearly jumped out of the van the first time I saw a sign that had part of that name in it to get a photograph. Later on the trip, I saw Boya in every town, and realized that I had gone crazy to get a photograph of what was equivalent to Benjamin Moore.

Every place we went, Armen had made arrangements for us have the local specialty, as every town had a different version of kebab, kuftah and lahmejun. We ate in the best restaurants and the food was amazing. There were lots of spices, especially a lot of hot ones, like varieties of the wonderful Turkish red pepper. The restaurants had an odd way of putting whole, long green peppers on things, some of which were sweet, and some were extremely hot. I ate one and it burned for a solid ten minutes.

We had “Ayran’” every night; most was homemade, though it also came boxed. It’s a wonderful blended version of tan (yogurt and water). Our reservations were called in, so when we arrived, we were immediately taken to a table and then the food started arriving and arriving and arriving. There were too many courses to count and all were accompanied by different kinds of wonderful bread.

It got so that I would be eating something and would say, “I don’t know what it is, but it is wonderful.” One night when we were going to have the special ice cream of Marash, Mark commented, “You know that you’re going to get some serious dessert when they serve it with a knife.” He was right. You needed a knife for that ice cream.

The 2½-hour ride to Sivas, a town of 300,000, was along lush rolling hills. We went out of our way to see a bridge dating from the 12th century and Selçuk took his Mercedes van off the road, onto a dirt path to get to it. Armen and Selçuk did find the bridge. We had to walk over to the other side and use a telephoto lens to see that the plaque had Armenian writing. So much was destroyed that showed any evidence of a thriving, successful, religious civilization, that dıscoverıng these snippets was a treasure.

We went to Govdun, the village of Margaret’s grandfather. Armen took us to a stone barn and told us to go inside. We had to crawl around a big tractor and went into the dark barn. Inside, we discovered, by the writing on the stones and remnants of altars, that it had once been the Armenian Church of Surp Asdvadzadzin. This was very emotional for Margaret who knew that her grandfather had been baptized there.

The owner, while willing to let us look inside, told Armen five times, “I paid for this.” He wanted to be clear that he had not taken it, that he had bought it. Certainly, the people were encouraged to take what they wanted from the Armenians as they were forced out, but it is unclear if the government stole or just the people. Most likely, both did.

We were told the story of “Ays dune kuget e te ims.” It’s about an Armenian who visits his family’s home, now occupied by a Turk, who welcomes him in. They spend a wonderful day together but at the end, the Turk asks “Is this house yours or mine?”

We were so very lucky to have this wonderful team working for our benefit. This trip is beyond adventure and beyond travel.

May 18, Sunday: In the Armenian section of Sivas, we saw inscribed on the façade of a house the seventh in the Armenian alphabet, a symbol denoting God. Again, in this neighborhood, we saw Armenian homes being restored by Turks.

Armen stops people everywhere (generally men) and engages them in conversation. He pieces information from many sources to put together the jigsaw puzzle of facts. He often knows the general location of where something “used to be.” It was here that we saw the Kolej Market, which is how we discovered exactly where the American College used to be.

The uneducated villagers gave more information without being subjected to the Turkish government’s cleaned-up version of the facts. These people got their information handed down to them by their families who were eyewitnesses to what really happened. Ironically, the educated people are the ones who are misinformed.

On the road to Malatya! The landscape is beautiful and varied. We pass large flat fields surrounded by mountains. The terrain is rocky, with natural layers creating stripes, nature’s version of fashion. We pass lush green, rolling farmlands and such a beautiful and diverse countryside. I never expected such beauty.

We enter Gürün, a lush village in the midst of rocky terrain. It is surrounded by rocks, reminding me of the Grand Canyon. We see a woman who has taken all the wool out of a comforter and is beating it with a stick to fluff it up. I still have one that my grandmother made; heavy but nothing is warmer than that.

We visit another old Armenian church and pass ancient caves dating from the Hittite period. Again, old and new Turkey collides. In the Armenian section of Gürün, we see how the plaques, inscribed with Armenian names over the doors, had been cut out. It never stopped hurting to see the way things were destroyed. We had a beautiful ride out of Gürün, but on the way, we passed Derende, where the death march went by. It was so hard to look at that rugged brutal terrain and think of the suffering of all those people, our people, our families.

In Malatya, we visited an old Armenian Church, (Holy Trinity) which is being turned into possibly a concert hall. It has been gutted inside. When we came out, we saw a farmer riding his tractor down a city street. We visited the only Christian cemetery in Malatya and the grave of a young German missionary killed by Muslim extremists for distributing Christian literature.

May 19, Monday: Zeytun, Aintab/Gaziantep: We went down narrow curving roads, passed the Ceyhan River, started climbing mountains and came across a brilliant turquoise blue lake. The color of the lake took your breath away. The long winding road into Zeytun was a natural geographic defense for the lovely village.

Zeytun is beyond beautiful; it’s like a Swiss village. There was something about Zeytun that just grabbed my heart. It was such a place of serenity and beauty and so removed from the rest of the country, being isolated by the one narrow road through the mountains to reach it. It had such an idyllic surrounding that I could picture villagers with their cows and sheep grazing on the steep hills. Plots of land were still gardened, and it was easy to visualize a self-sufficient and happy community living here.

When the villagers heard about potential deportations of the other villages, they decided to hold their ground and fight. Zeytun was a natural fortress, as you could only enter from one direction. The Turks used religious men including the Catholicos to convince the Zeytuntsis to give up their arms and in return avoid deportation. The Zeytuntsis reluctantly agreed and were soon deported and killed en masse.

There is a bridge in Zeytun called the Bloody Bridge because many persons were thrown off, to their certain death, into the deep ravine.

The town was renamed Suleymanli to cover up the history of Zeytun, yet later, when we talked to Turkish people and referred to Suleymanli, no one knew what we were talking about. However they recognized the name Zeytun immediately. We passed a monument dedicated to “the heroic Turkish soldiers that were killed by the ‘Ermeni.’” It was awful seeing that monument, knowing that the intruders who were going to murder innocent people in their own homes, were then glorified as heroes.

We drove into Marash and went to a restaurant on the top of the hill. Enjoying a panoramic view of the city, we had a fabulous dinner that included the local specialty of long flat loaves of bread.

May 20, Tuesday: Antep/Gaziantep: Armen arranged to have an architect friend tour with us for the day, to help explain the architecture and point out things. We stopped at St. Mary’s Armenian Church designed by the famous Armenian architect, Sarkis Balian, to find that it had been converted into the Kurtulus Mosque. The church, built in 1892, is one of the largest Armenian churches in the Middle East.

On the far side wall of the church was a huge Turkish flag. Despite all that was done to desecrate the church, there were imprints left on the wall that could not be removed so they covered it with that flag. Somehow, that leftover imprint on the wall made us all feel good.

We toured the Armenian section of Aintab where many of the wealthy Armenians had lived. The homes were large and beautiful and though more than 100 years old, many had held up. It has become easy to spot the Armenian style of architecture with the second floor protruding over the first floor. What a magnificent city it must have been in its time. Wherever the Armenians were, there were thriving communities, churches and businesses, but never was that more evident than in Aintab (Gaziantep).

We went to the estate of the wealthy Karamanukian family, which comprised several buildings and a beautiful courtyard. The Jebejian house next door had been converted into a toy museum. We saw displays of handkerchiefs, with elaborate ornate crochet lace, much like the ones my grandmothers did.

Having gone to Armen’s school of locating details that proved the buildings had been Armenian, we had become much more observant. While shopping in the market place, we looked up and saw a white plaque that had Armenian writing on it, and when we went in, saw that the old building had been a mall. We realized that it had been owned by the Kurkjian family.

We stopped at a chai house and in a lovely courtyard, had the local drink, a sort of grain which was horrible. It was a lovely setting and we went upstairs and into the rooms. The chai house had been the home of Nazarian family and had been created with loving craftsmanship and details. It was ornate without being ostentatious.

Our beautiful Annie had created an Armenian Heritage Facebook page. She received a message from a man in Turkey who had discovered her site. He said that he and his wife had purchased a home and found a plaque on the wall of a neighbor and thought that it could have been Armenian letters.

He emailed a photograph of the plaque to Annie, who reads Armenian. She saw that it was Armenian but couldn’t make sense of it, so she sent it to Armen. Armen, responded, “Ask the man if he is from Antep” and of course he was, though he was shocked to get that question. It turned out that the inscription was in Turkish using the Armenian alphabet.

Armenians were forbidden from speaking their language. Everywhere we turned, we were confronted with the barbaric treatment of innocent Armenian people. All of this makes me want to learn to speak Armenian better and the desecration of the churches makes me want to go to church. John Farsakian, can you hear my voice saying, “I will survive!”

That man that had communicated on Facebook and his wife welcomed us to their home and showed us around including another inscribed plaque high on the façade of their house. Armen translated the plaque, and it read “Lord Protect this House.” This was in Armenian using Armenian letters.

This was the day we were scheduled to go to Musa Dagh. Most of us had read the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a famous place of resistance. The villagers had received information about what the Turks had done in other villages, and were determined to save their lives. They went into the mountains and held off the Turks. Annie’s grandfather was one of the resistance fighters, so going to Musa Dagh with one of the fighters’ granddaughters would have been something really special to do.

Musa Dagh is a small peninsular of land with water on its west side and is surrounded by Syria on the other sides. The current civil war in Syria made it very dangerous to go there. The place was swarming with Al Qaeda and we sadly voted not to go there.

May 21, Wednesday: Antep: We took the road to Birejik, crossing the Euphrates River, passing by Syrian refugee camps. We passed by areas of parched soil in which pistachio trees thrived and headed down the Euphrates River valley to a boat ride on the beautiful river. The water was pristine. It looked so lovely, so serene without homes surrounding it. Just the beautiful winding river and the tall golden walls of stone interspersed with steep pastures to the fortress of Hromgla, the seat of Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali in the 12th century.

It was so peaceful that it was hard to imagine all that we had read about this river being full of corpses. Images rushed through my mind of tragic stories of women crazed with hunger and thirst who couldn’t bear the anguish of their young children and together, singing prayers, threw their children to their deaths to end their suffering. This was the river that was reported to have “run red with blood.” How could this beautiful place have such a hideous history? It was all so hard to process.

Once again we were on the road and on our way to Jibin. This town is where Armen’s family came from. He had developed a friendship with Nuri, the last Armenian speaking person, who has since passed away. We stopped at his grave to pay respects to this old blind man who had sung songs to Armen in Armenian. Armen told us about the 30 young Armenian girls left behind during the deportations in the care of their Turkish neighbors in Jibin. These girls were married off to Turkish boys and now a sizeable portion of the village population has Armenian roots. Armen had interviewed one of those girls, then an old woman, who cried and asked, ‘”Why did they abandon us?” The scars of the Genocide affect the living even after 80 years.

We saw a woman whose beautiful face was clearly Armenian and history became real. I can’t even think of having to leave my daughter behind for her own safety.

At one point, seeing strangers, one woman ran into her home and brought out a tray and pitcher with Ayran (tan) for us to drink. We were all very nervous, knowing that Ayran is yogurt mixed with water, and we were afraid to drink the local water. But since she handed me one, I didn’t want to be rude, and took a drink. It was the most extraordinary tan that I had ever had.

I handed it to John K. and to Mark and said, “Oh, you’ve got to try it.” We talked about it, the entire rest of the trip and to our great relief and surprise, we didn’t get sick and for the risk, had the most amazing Ayran of our lives.

The kindness and hospitality of the Turkish villagers was evident everywhere. Many Turks had resisted harming their Armenian neighbors and friends in 1915 and were punished if not killed for their moral conviction.

Later that night, we went to another fabulous outdoor restaurant. Armen had a very generous and typically Armenian way of including people for our meals. That night there were 20 of us. We had the most wonderful and unusual meal of sour plum kebab, and Antep lahmejun.

After we were introduced to the man who owned the newspaper, he started talking about the town. I wasn’t sure that I trusted him, thinking of all the beautiful estates lost by the Armenians there, until he made a point of seeking out John Kassabian.

I listened as the newspaper owner spoke glowingly about John’s grandfather and what a wonderful man he was and how what happened was horrible. He apologized many times and shook John’s hand. John told us later that he had just found some family history that had never been discussed. He knew that his grandfather had been an important official in Aintab, but never knew that the Turks came in and forced him to transfer all the deeds of the Armenians homes over to the Turkish municipality.

They made sure that they not only killed all the Armenians, but that there would be no documentation for them to be able to reclaim their homes. This story was a family shame, though everyone certainly understood how it happened. It did appear that he was able to “lose” the deed to the hospital so that remained, to this day, an Armenian hospital. John felt comforted by the apology and by the fact that the important people in Aintab, knew what had happened to his grandfather.

May 22, Thursday: Urfa, Diyarbakir: We made a stop in Nizip and saw a church being turned into a mosque, completely eradicating anything that showed it was Armenian. Sarine and I covered our heads, removed our shoes and took photos of carved crosses. We became so overwhelmed with emotion that we held hands and said the Hayr Mer where the altar had been, while a Muslim service was going on in the other room.

We took a photo of the town symbol, the pistachio, which, to any New Englander, looks like a Cape Cod clam. It’s the symbol of Aintab aka Gaziantep, which is the third largest producer of pistachios, after Iran and California. This was Selçuk’s hometown and his beautiful wife and three sons joined us for dinner.

We headed to Urfa, where another magnificent Armenian cathedral had been turned into a mosque. Even our solitary Odar (non-Armenian), Debbie, blurted out, “Look what they’ve done to us!” As we left the church, we saw a hill and the fortress of Urfa where not long ago, the Turks, without warning, set up cannons and started firing into the Armenian quarter.

We went to Abraham’s Pool: A very large pool surrounded by columns and beautiful architecture designed by an Armenian architect, Panos. This is a lovely place.

While the Ottoman Empire was engaged with the German and Austro-Hungarian empires in a battle against the British and tsarist Russia, Urfa was hit by the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide in 1915 and 1916. More than 40 percent of Urfa’s population, mostly Christians, was massacred. The British occupation of the city of Urfa lasted until October 30, 1919. French forces took over and stayed until April 11, 1920, when local Turkish forces defeated them. The French retreat from the city of Urfa was conducted under an agreement reached between the occupying forces and the representatives of the local forces, commanded by Captain Ali Saip Bey, assigned from Ankara. The withdrawal was meant to take place peacefully, but was disrupted by an ambush on the French units by Turkish and Kurdish forces at the Şebeke Pass on the way to Syria, leading to 296 casualties among the French and even more among the ambushers.

We went to the newly discovered and most ancient (12,000 years old) of all archeological digs – the world’s oldest discovered sanctuary. Göbeklitepe changed everything we knew about the Stone Age people.

We passed through rock-filled harsh Kurdish lands on the way to Diyarbakir. It was filled with shepherds, flocks of sheep and herds of cows. It was here that we saw the peculiar, carefully placed rock piles. Armen said that it is a way of communicating between shepherds. It was a simple way of handling soil erosion. My assumption is that when a shepherd grazed with his flock, he would place a stone there and when the piles got too big, they would avoid that area for a while so that it could replenish.

The fortification surrounding the old city was covered with graffiti and looked more broken down and in a state of disrepair than old, as in the other cities. The city had a seedy look to it, a little dangerous, and the look wasn’t wrong. Armen told us to not plan on going out at night. We went out to eat as a group and Selçuk stood by the van watching out for his flock.

We got to do some great shopping in Diyarbakır. I helped John K. pick out a necklace and got the price so greatly reduced.

Entering the courtyard, we saw hundred-year old plus photographs of Armenian families and people. This was a first, to see anything that clearly showed that an Armenian population had been here. It was very touching to see the portraits of the families, despite the certainty that most had been murdered. We entered the huge gray cathedral, Surp Giragos, which was such a moving experience for all of us. We discovered that it had been restored and services were occasionally held here.

It was beautiful and filled with a spiritual feeling. We lit candles in honor of our lost relatives, we held hands and said the Hayr Mer. Spontaneously Armen and John F. sang Der Voghormya in their beautiful voices. It was a memorable experience to be able to do that, in a living Armenian Church.

We climbed the steep stairs to the top of the ancient Byzantine fortress and took photos. The vista of surrounding farmlands was beautiful.

MAY 23, Friday: Elazig and villages of Husenig and Morenig: Kharpert is a large area, like Boston, and it has many districts and villages. For example, Husenig is a village that is part of greater Kharpert. Most of my family came from this area. My aunt, Roxie Derderian, and my mother, Ann, were born in Kharpert. My Uncle Avie was born in Dersim, which is some 40 miles north of Kharpert , as was my aunt Agnes. My paternal grandfather Boyajian was from Husenig and I’m certain that his bride, my grandmother, Bandoian Boyajian, was from Husenig as well. So was my Uncle Martin Deranian’s father. Therefore, this large area was where most of my relatives came from. On the drive into Kharpert, we passed beautiful, but very harsh terrain. We saw steep mountains and large jagged rock covering the ground. It was impossible to not think of my family being driven down these roads and trying to escape over those steep mountains with children on their backs and without food or water.

There’s a backstory needed here. As Charlotte and I were planning this trip, we tried to locate our grandparents’ hometowns. Charlotte remembered her tall handsome grandfather talking about fishing in a very big lake and saying he was Dzovktsi’. Since Dzov means sea, both she and I assumed that he was from a seacoast area so logically, we thought of the Black Sea.

Armen told me, “No, he probably said he was Dzovktsi, because there is a village called Dzovk and the people from there were called Dzovktsi.” I got so excited that I nearly hung up on him and immediately called Charlotte. I was so fired up that I could barely talk, “Armen knows where your grandfather was from.”

Upon seeing a sign pointing to Hazar Lake, we turned off the main road onto a narrow curving road. I knew that Charlotte had to be very excited, imagining her grandfather as a young orphan, walking down this road. (His parents had died of natural causes and he had an older sister who looked after him.)

We turned around the corner to a huge lake, stretching far beyond what we could see and knew we were in the right place. Armen motioned to a couple walking by to come so that he could obtain some information. The man approached us and before anyone said anything to him, he began apologizing profusely saying, “Terrible things happened here.” This was the area where the Turks gathered up 10,000 Armenians — men, women, children and infants — and marched them into the lake to drown. The oral history handed down to the villagers was far more accurate than anything the Turkish government ever said. After taking photos with these people, they became very fearful and said, “Please don’t get us into trouble.”

Yes, truth will always get the Turkish Government into trouble. This is the area where Stephen Kinzer, a journalist, had spent some time and upon his return to America wrote a story in the New York Times, titled, Turkish Region recalls Massacre of Armenians, published May 10, 2000. Because of that story, this area, until recently, had been closed off to tourists.

We drove on toward Elazig, along this beautiful large aquamarine colored, sparkling lake, feeling so sad about its tragic past. Grandfather Minasian’s sister, who had taken care of him, remained behind when he went to America and surely she was killed in those massacres. This is where history cuts close to the bone.

Along the way, in villages or on small roads, the van would stop and Armen would try to engage passersby to get information. Selçuk got out and tried to talk to a woman tending a cow but she kept walking away. People are fearful to say anything, but the locals are some of Armen’s greatest sources of information.

The Kharpert valley is described as The Golden Plain because of the color of the wheat fields during harvest time. We stopped at the village of Morenig, the birthplace of Margaret’s grandmother. We asked around and were told where the oldest man in the village lived, hoping to get some information. A man hopped into the van and directed us to the old man’s house. The old man came out and wasn’t very helpful, but the man who guided us, suddenly became solemn and tears ran down his cheeks as he told us, “My grandmother was Armenian.”

As we were about to depart, a rose was quickly handed in the door to Margaret, such a lovely parting gesture.

From there we went to Husenig where the Boyajians and my paternal grandmother (Bandoian) were born. The fortress of Kharpert, high above on the hill, looms over the village, just as it is described in the book, In the Shadow of the Fortress. Husenig is a dismal looking, run-down unappealing village with a lot of graffiti. At one time, it must have been very nice and the fact that it had gone to ruin, made it look so much worse. I walked around just a bit but didn’t feel any connection to this locale. My grandparents were married and had found safe haven in the U.S. prior to the genocide. My dad was born in Providence, RI, in 1913.

From Husenig we went to Kharpert, high on the hill. The location of the Euphrates College which was the focus of young Shooshanig Palanjian’s dream, was desolate land.

I was so excited to be there looking out onto rolling grass-covered mounds where homes use to be and saw the front and back stone walls of an old church. I turned away as my friends took photos and tried to speak without crying, and said, “This was my grandmother’s dream to come here and I know that she went to that church.” I held the book she wrote and tried to smile while tears involuntarily poured down my face, hoping that somehow my grandmother would know that I made this pilgrimage to the land of her dreams and her later nightmares. This was a very emotional spot for me, and for the whole trip, this place was my Hayastan.

When we went back to the van, a Turkish man came up holding a photograph showing old Kharpert as a beautiful thriving community of homes, with the large college buildings in the background. The photograph was from a book, Days of Tragedy in Armenia: Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917 By the American missionary Henry Riggs. So much tragedy, so much destruction, so much loss and Turkey did not gain; they are farther behind than ever before. The villages and towns were thriving and beautiful and well kept. Now what little is left, is in ruins or has been stripped or turned into a mosque.

Poor Shooshanig, because of the unrest, was unable to finish college. Neither could her first born, my Uncle Avedis, who later provided a college education for nine children, keeping my grandmother’s legacy alive.

Kharpert, prior to 1915, was a region of 210,000 Armenians. In 1919 only 3000 were left alive.

May 24, Saturday: Bitlis, Van: Armen made every effort to accommodate a request to go to an out of the way village. Sometimes, he didn’t know how the time would play out, but other times it was because he liked to surprise you en route. This morning we had a long seven-hour ride to Van, but without any advance notice, he told me we were going on a side trip to Charsanjak in Dersim County, the birthplace of my Uncle Avie and the place where my grandmother and grandfather had hidden among the Zaza Kurds who were friendly to the Armenians.

I had done a search and found a website titled Genocide Survivors. With great excitement I found my grandfather listed as Derderian, Krikor, Charsanjak, Kharpert. This was the only information that narrowed down where he was from. Armen said that Charsanjak (also known as Karachor) is the southern part of the Dersim County and is located north of the Euphrates River across from Kharpert and that Peri (Akpazar) is its main town.

For safety and protection, my grandfather (being from Charsanjak, Kharpert) took his pregnant wife further to the north into the heart of Dersim. My dearly beloved aunt Agnes was born in Dersim also (in 1921) about two years after my Uncle Avie (1919). Until only a few years ago this area was forbidden for tourists. Sadly, my uncle took this trip twice and still was unable to see his birthplace.

Approaching Peri, we passed two men and stopped to ask if we were going the right way. Selçuk, spoke to them and when they found out that we were Armenians, said to him, “We are brothers.” The population in this area was Zaza, who protected the Armenians in remote villages during the Genocide. A few years later, the Turks came in and slaughtered the Zazas. So yes, we are brothers, brothers in blood.

My friends took photos of me in the town square. It was a rare dreary day, but I was so happy to have found this area and to have pinpointed the birthplace of my grandfather. Quite a few of the men in this village are of Armenian descent. We passed the Euphrates River that my grandmother wrote about in her book.

On the way to Bitlis, we came to the plains of Mus (pronounced Moosh). We saw the Sasun mountains in the distance, where the massacres of 1895 (The Hamidian Massacres) started and consequently some 300,000 Armenians were killed. Mus, being a Kurdish area, had not been open for tourism until a few years ago. Recently, Mus was part of a controversy because all the ancient Armenian homes were being bulldozed. An old church (Surp Mariane) was all that was left.

Everywhere people are curious and friendly. They generally knew that we were Armenian because of the things we were seeking, and they were not only friendly but helpful to us. May 25, Sunday: Lake Van/Aghtamar Island: Lake Van is huge, with a shore length of 270 miles. It has a high level of salinity with only one type of fish. I was excited to see it since I’d always associated the name ‘Lake Van’ with Armenia, second only to Mount. Ararat. Van was a walled city with a population 10,000 living within the walls. We went by an excavation site near the entrance of the Old City and hiked all over the mounds.

We saw crosses carved on the Rock of Van, the outcropping on which the fortress of Van was built. This was a way of a visitor leaving his mark. At one church, the crosses were very ornate and beautiful. Armen told us that there were special craftsmen hired by visiting pilgrims to carve on site. The crosses on the wall were a form of a religious graffiti guest book.

Then we headed to Lake Van for our boat ride to Aghtamar Island. The water was turquoise and Lake Van was such a beautiful place. The lake is surrounded by rolling green pastures, and framed by high jagged mountains. We had a beautiful boat ride out to the island and a lovely day was spent there. The Cathedral was beautiful and felt like such a spiritual place.

The only structure standing is the Cathedral, built during the years 915-921. In 1915, during the Armenian Genocide, the monks of Aghtamar were massacred, the church looted and the monastic buildings destroyed. The church fell into disuse through the decades after 1915. When the writer Yasar Kemal visited the island of Aghtamar in 1951, he discovered that the Cathedral it was about to be demolished. Using his contacts he helped stop the planned destruction.

May 26, Monday: Ararat, Kars: Prior to leaving Van we made a stop at the ‘Van Cat House’. The Van Cat is a beautiful fluffy white cat with eyes of different colors, one blue and one green. It is an unusual cat because it can swim, whereas most cats do not like getting wet.

We had an amazing day on the road. We stopped by the picturesque Muradiye (Pergri) Waterfalls, We took photos in front of Mount Ararat, which, sadly, was capped in clouds, but nonetheless, it was Ararat and we were there!! We held up a sign made by Sarine which said, “Ararat, still ours.” Our van traveled along the Iranian border, and passed by Igdir, the gateway city to Azerbaijan. We drove past piles of pitch-black volcanic rock with green patches interspersed. We crossed over the Arax River, which divides Turkey and Armenia further downstream. I took photos with Armenia in the background.

The further east we go, the more ‘Third World’ it becomes. Transportation is either on foot, or donkey or, if you’re lucky, horse. You do see an occasional car in the village. We took a detour and went down a narrow, bumpy, steep and curving village road. Bless Seljuk; he has taken us safely down some treacherous roads. We came to a Kurdish Village, Kilittashi, where, in the distance, we were able to see two ancient stone churches, Surp Shushan and Surp Kevork.

I felt as if we had traveled back in history. There were cows and sheep grazing on steep terrain along with shepherds nearby. There were donkeys and wild horses loose in the field. The fields were very lush and looked like carpeting in places. May was ideal for taking this trip. In this area of the country, there is a lot of poverty. The people live in ramshackle homes and don’t have much of anything, (always a dish for TV, though) and yet, in a strange way, they don’t seem poor. When s.

We stopped to take a photo of a famous 7th century Armenian cathedral, Mren, in the Kars region, near the border of Armenia. We passed yet another monument to the “heroic” Turks that were killed by Armenian “rebels.” Each of us smiled when we saw that the lettering had been scraped off.

The haverzhutyun, is an Armenian religious symbol denoting eternity that looks like a butter cookie. This symbol is visible on the tower over the main entrance gate in Ani. We looked for this on homes and buildings that had been converted into mosques. The symbol identified that they were built by Armenians.

May 27, Tuesday: Ani/Evening flight to Istanbul: The walled city of Ani (established as a capital city in 961 AD) had a population of 100,000 and was said to have had 1001 churches. So, the first thing we learn about the residents of Ani is that they were very religious and were prone to exaggeration. This was a memorable stop. It was an Armenian Pompeii. We went into the walled city and walked around getting a feeling for the civilization that went before. It was mindboggling to think of a city this ancient. On the border was a very deep ravine, like a grand canyon and on the other side was Armenia. I wished we had an Armenian flag to wave at the guard in the watchtower.

I hiked all over the ruins of the ghost town and stepped over and around bits and pieces of old houses. I passed by the sign pointing to the Silk Road. A church in the round had only one half standing, as if sawed in half. The Church of St. Gregory had the most amazingly preserved frescos. It was astonishing to see a place that old, with frescos so clear that you could see the Bible stories that they told.

The Cathedral of Ani was awe-inspiring. I’m not sure if it was the biggest cathedral I’d ever been in, or just seemed so because it was vacant. It appeared to be able to hold at least 1000 people. It was magnificent and only when you saw a photograph with someone in the cathedral, did you have a sense of the enormity of the edifice. I felt the same kind of sadness that I felt at Pompeii for a lost civilization, but this was even more so; for all the suffering of the Armenians in this city that was once the ‘center of the universe’, a city on the Silk Road, competing in importance with Constantinople and Baghdad.

We ended our day at the Kars Museum. We saw a set of old doors on which beautiful Armenian khachkars (crosses) had been carved. We noticed that a part of each of the crosses on the door had been sliced off, so that they were ruined.

It took a long time to take my notes and try to make sense of them, but I felt that not only was it important for me to do this for my memories, but also is essential for my family to have a part of their legacy and their history documented. It was more than simply the best trip of my life; it was a life changing experience and in digging for my roots, I found myself.

(Linda Boyajian Patterson is a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She went on a tour by Armen Aroyan in May 2014. Tour coordinator was Annie Kahkejian and the driver was Selçuk.)


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