The current entrance of the Armenian church. The old door and windows were replaced when the church was converted to a cultural hall. The author is on the left with the visitor tag, the middle two men are representatives of the mayor (muhtar) of the town, and the author's driver is on the right.

Commemorating Genocide: Return to the White City – Akshehir

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By Agop Y. Bedikian MD and Margaret A. Bedikian

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, the fifth of six children, to an Armenian family. My parents left their birthplace, Akshehir (literally, “white city” in Turkish) in Turkey during the First World War at a very young age and took refuge in Lebanon.

My father worked as a contractor building houses. After finishing preparatory school, my two older brothers joined him in his trade in order to support the family of eight. I was the first in the family to have the opportunity to attend high school and then university. My parents encouraged us to get an education even though they themselves had no formal schooling. My original plan was to study engineering so that I could work with my father and brothers. However, during my sophomore year, my father, who had smoked from a very young age, developed hoarseness of voice, cough and hemoptysis. I took him to the American University Medical Center where an Otolaryngologist told us he had a locally-advanced, unresectable cancer in his throat. Radiotherapy was administered for palliation. Unfortunately, a few months later, the doctors found that the cancer had spread to his liver, which led to his death a short two months later.

The reception hall of the Armenian school that is located adjacent to the church. It is converted to a school dedicated to Kemal Ataturk. The reception hall walls depict the history of Akshehir as related to the first Turkish president, who was stationed in this town during the liberation of Western Turkey from 1921 to 1923.

Through this difficult process, I found out how little the doctors could do to help patients with advanced cancer. I changed my major to medicine to become a cancer specialist and graduated in June of 1971. I did my internal medicine internship and residency in St. Louis, Missouri and my oncology fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas where I eventually joined the medical staff and worked as a teacher, clinician and researcher. Over the course of my work there, I conducted protocol-based clinical trials to evaluate safety and efficacy of new anticancer agents and multidrug combinations.

As a part of my work with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, I traveled to make presentations at medical conferences around the globe. In the spring of 1997, one such international medical congress gave me the opportunity to go to Antalya in Turkey and visit to my parents’ birthplace in Turkey.

On April 21, 1997, I boarded the plane to go to Antalya, to attend the twelfth National Cancer Congress organized by the Turkish Association for Cancer Research. I was scheduled to make a presentation on the management of metastatic melanoma. I had mixed feelings about this trip. I was very excited because I had plans to take a side trip to visit Akshehir, my parents’ birthplace. But at the same time, I was apprehensive because I was going there just a few days before April 24. Contrary to what many historians have determined, the Turkish government’s official narrative of the events has remained quite different for decades: according to the Turkish version of events, millions, including the Armenians living in Ottoman Empire, perished as a result of the war that engulfed the region in 1915. As long as I can remember, every year as we approach April 24, the emotions get fired up on both sides. In making my trip to Turkey so close to the genocide commemoration date, I had no intention of broaching this touchy subject. It simply was not the reason for my trip nor a discussion I had wished to enter into knowing the contention that remains to this day around the events of 1915.

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The Congress opened on April 23 as scheduled. I made my presentation on the 24th and afterwards, I was surrounded by many colleagues, including the organizers of the Congress who were eager to ask questions. Having heard that I was an Armenian attending the Congress, a reporter approached for an interview. I responded to his questions and mentioned that I had come from Houston, Texas, and that I was excited to visit Akshehir, located just a few miles from Antalya, where my parents were born.

He asked my opinion about the Armenian Genocide. I told him that as a cancer specialist, I had devoted my life to saving lives of patients with cancer, and that I had come to share my experience with my Turkish colleagues for the benefit of their patients. I calmly explained that that was my purpose of attending the Congress, not to enter into a contentious debate. He interrupted me saying that I should not believe the lies the Armenians in the diaspora have disseminated, and repeatedly interjected that there is no way that the Turks had committed genocide.

I briefly responded that there should be a logical explanation as to why the numbers of the Armenian population in Turkey decreased from 2 million before 1915 to the less than 60,000 currently officially reported. The following day, I left town in a taxi on my way to the White City with this conversation on my mind. Although in my response to the reporter, I stuck to logic and facts, the reality was, I had a much more personal connection and truth when it comes to the Armenian Genocide, a narrative I knew was not going to change the mind of a demanding reporter at a medical conference.

It was a slow drive up the mountain through narrow streets that snaked in between the pine trees in a thick forest. As we gained altitude, I noticed the streets getting wet and slippery from the small brooks trickling in between the pine trees. I could see the mountain peaks covered with snow. After we reached the other flank of the mountain, I saw the blue–green lake my parents had described so many times. As we traveled, the flicker of light in-between the trees was hypnotizing.

I immediately connected to the visual impression my parents had on their young minds as they left their birthplace at the ages of just 6 and 9 years old to escape the coming horrors. On many occasions when they sat down with their relatives in Beirut, they talked about the staggering beauty of Akshehir, which at the time made me wonder if they were exaggerating because they were homesick. From the hill top, now I could see the beautiful image of the city at the edge of the pristine aquamarine lake surrounded by mountains and hilltops covered by snow. I started to imagine the agony my relatives felt when they were hastily uprooted from this paradise-like environment and driven to the barren deserts of Anatolia and Syria.

When my mother was terminally ill in Beirut, she asked me what I wanted her to bequeath to me. Because the Lebanese Civil War made it impossible for me to be with her in person, I asked her to write down her life story so that I could know my roots. She granted my request and dictated one last letter which was transcribed by her granddaughter. Although I have translated the letter, in any of the quotes included below, I have not altered her words in anyway.

Topics: Lebanon, Turkey

My Mother’s Story

She began, “My son, in response to my last letter, you indicated that you do not want me to leave anything of monetary value after I die. As painful as it is, on my death bed I decided to use my last breath to tell you our life story…”

In the first part of the letter, she recapped the centuries of Armenian history that had led to our family settling in Akshehir. She described a happy and pampered early childhood with a caring nanny.

“My grandfather was Haji Daniel Papazian. He had two brothers and three sons including my father Mesrob and his brothers Bedros and Hagop. My father and his brothers were tailors by trade. They brought linen and clothing material from Istanbul and sewed the ethic traditional dresses that the villagers wear such as shalvar and salta in Akshehir. They visited the nearby villages and sold the dresses and finished goods. If farmers did not have cash, in return as payment they received wool, barley and wheat, which they sold then in Istanbul. They became well-to-do traders. They bought properties, leased them to the farmers and shared the profit. They bought motels (khans) in the big towns between Akshehir and Istanbul to rest during travel, built shops to sell goods and become rich.”

Life was good. But soon, things began to change. Initially, there was no interference from the Turkish government in the lives of the Armenians in Akshehir as they were over 700 miles from the eastern frontier and were not involved in nationalistic activities. But as the methodical removal of Armenians that began in the East progressed, those policies made their way to my parents’ town.

“First, my uncle Hagop was displaced with his 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. A few days later, my aunt was separated from her two sons without saying goodbye. And then it was our turn. We went to the railway station with my parents and sister-in-law, Shahnar. My two brothers Ardashes and Vahan brought clothing and tents and joined us. We travelled by train eastward until we crossed through the pass of Bozante mountain chain and reached Islahiye. There we met my maternal grandmother.

“Then, the local military administrators separated the men and women with trades and sent them to Damascus. The rest of us continued our journey eastward on horse-driven carts, passed through Ghanle Getchide [Bloody Pass] and came to Intelli where we stayed for two months together with the displaced people who came from the north.

“One day, early in the morning, soldiers carrying rifles and bayonets attacked us. Those who owned carts escaped immediately. Those with no means of transportation, including the women and children, were killed. Passing in between the dead, we made our way to Akderun where we set the tent and slept. In the morning, the area was covered with snow.

“Then a typhoid fever epidemic got spread. Many people became very sick, suffered from fever, abdominal pain, confusion and disorientation. After suffering for 21 days they either recovered or died. We left the place as soon as we could and moved to Meskene close to Euphrates River. While we were there my father received a letter from my uncle in which he wrote, ‘Mesrob we have come to Miadin City in Der Zor, I opened a store here and am trading, come and join me.’

“Then we heard about massacres in Ras El-Ain, Intilli’s and Der Zor. A few days later we were surrounded by the military. We were ordered to vacate the tents. We remained surrounded, without food and water for several days. While the military was waiting for orders deciding our fate, notice came that the war was over. We were set free to go to our tents.”

The family lost contact with her uncles for two years; it turned out they were alive and forced to transport ammunition for the Turks and Germans fighting in Iraq. Her mother and relatives who stayed with us moved to Aleppo, Syria where the women sewed military uniforms and linens. Then they moved to Damascus where her mother worked odd jobs to make it through the rest of the war. After the war was over they moved to Beirut from where they boarded a ship to return to Akshehir through Izmir.

The letter continues, describing frequent moves from one city to the next, all over this region of the world, uniting with and being separated from various relatives constantly. Interspersed in the letter are the incredible sad stories of friends or villagers that she describes matter-of-factly.

“We found out that my paternal aunt and her two daughters had stayed in Akshehir. The husband of her older daughter was conscribed to the army. He had sent his two boys and two girls to the orphanage in Konya. The younger daughter had married Garabed Kojakafayan, who was engineer with American citizenship. They had three children. They stayed in Akshehir. “Unfortunately, one day the local Turks took him to the lake and drowned him. The three children were left with a 29-year-old widow with no help. When we returned to Akshehir, their house was empty without the basic necessity. My father sold 2 pieces of property and bought food, clothing and bedding for them.”

During this time, Turkey was fighting a war with Greece – a war that affected the Armenians once again. My mother and her family were once again driven from their home and set off on a series of moves.

“Mustafa Kemal’s army occupied Istanbul, Izmir and Konya and with his Fourth Army brigade he was based in Akshehir. The army started hanging the people loyal to the Greek king. Young Greek and Armenian men were torched on Nasreddin Hoja Square to terrorize the Christian population. They collected the wealthy Armenian men and sent them to exile. There were no males over ten-years-old left in the city. Two years later, they told us that the exiled men would not be returning. The women were told that they could stay in town and live in their property if they changed their faith to Islam.

“About 1000 families, including ours, refused to change their faith, left hometown and went to Mersin. There we joined the Greeks who were leaving western Turkey to go to Greece. The ship took us to the Greek island of Corfu, where we were fed with bread and sweat potatoes. There we met the Armenian orphans, including my paternal aunt’s children, who were transferred from Konya’s orphanage. After five months of stay on the island, the orphans, including my aunt’s children, were taken to Marseille, France. Then we heard that the Armenian men who were exiled by the Fourth Brigade had mostly perished and the few who survived were taken to Syria.

“In 1921, while in Corfu, we received a letter informing us that my brothers were in Syria. With their financial help and new passports, we went to Perie near Athens from where we set sail to Beirut.”

With no work available in Beirut, the family moved to Damascus for a few years, where my mother attended an Armenian Catholic School. However, war soon caught up to the family, as the French and the Druze, an indigenous Arab population, started warring in Syria. The family was forced to return to Beirut via train and living in a tent set in a shanty quarter. My mother lost her father to pneumonia and her mother worked mending clothes.

While my mother and her family were continually being uprooted and moved, separated and reunited, and living a life of uncertainty, at the same time, my father’s family was enduring much of the same. Unfortunately, because of my father’s premature death from cancer, I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him do the same as my mother and write down his history. So I asked my mother to include my father’s story in her letter to me. She did.

My Father’s Story

“Your father, who was nine-years-old when he left Akshehir, told us that in the city called Ziyarat, located three hours walking distance to Der Zor, he lost his father who was a dressmaker. He was left with his two sisters to take care of. Earlier, one of his sisters and a brother had died during the forced marches in the Deir Zor desert. He had no information about his remaining 2 brothers.

“He had earned his living and supported his two sisters by taking care of the horses of gendarmes as they moved from town to town pushing the Armenians southward towards the Syrian desert. The gendarmes provided him with food and water in return for his services. One day the gendarmes told him that they have received orders to separate the families of the military from the refugees, move them to Rakka while pushing the refugees to Der Zor for extermination. He immediately took his sisters to Rakka as the military was going to provide them with food and shelter. Unfortunately, five days after arriving in Rakka, his sisters died of starvation. He was left alone in the tent without food and water.”

At this point, my father was the lucky beneficiary of some unexpected kindness. An Arab Bedouin took my father under his wing and fed him to bring him back to health. He employed my father as a shepherd. And even more importantly, he taught my father verses from the Koran for his protection: in case he should get caught, he was to recite those verses in order to be spared without harm. After four years of working for this man, my father, along with a group of other male Armenian orphans, began a treacherous journey to Aleppo. On this trek, he again was met with unexpected kindness.

“After five hours of walking, my feet swelled up and it was impossible to walk, he told my mother. When we reached the place called Nahar Deheb [golden river], I could not walk any more. I got separated from the others and I sat on a piece of rock to rest. As it was getting dark, an Arab widowed Bedouin woman approached me on horseback. Noticing I was in poor condition and unable to walk, she helped me mount the horse and took me to her house. She put my feet in warm water daily until the swelling came down and I was able to walk again.”

In gratitude, my father began working for this woman. He took care of her herd of sheep, sold milk, yogurt and dairy products to the local shops and bought food and clothes on her behalf in return. He gained her trust, staying in her town.

Purely coincidentally, while in town doing chores, my father happened to notice a neighbor from back home in Akshehir and introduced himself. That neighbor began spreading the word about my father which fortuitously led to his reunion with a few remaining members of his family. He learned that American missionaries were collecting Armenian orphans. Together with his friends, he registered with them. With their assistance, he was taken as an apprentice by a carpenter and taught the trade.

After years and years of upheaval, pain, and so much loss for both of my parents, it was at this point that fate would step in and his path would cross my mother’s. They decided to get married and settle in Beirut, eventually having me and my five siblings to create our family of eight. As a contractor and carpenter, he employed Syrian famers who came to work in Beirut each summer. As token of gratitude, these farmers brought samples of their prize product, tobacco leaves as a gift. He started to chain smoke at a very young age. He smoked until he died of throat cancer at the age of 65.

As we approached the lake that day in Turkey in 1997, I noticed Akshehir was no longer a village: it had transformed into a thriving metropolis. My driver started asking for direction so we could locate the Armenian churches. Before World War I, there were two Armenian churches in Akshehir, St. Peter & Paul Church and the St. Trinity Church. They served the spiritual and cultural needs of 4,950 Armenian parishioners living in the area. We met the local administrators of the city and municipality who took us to the only structure remnant of one of the churches. From the outside, it was not recognizable as a church. The crosses had been removed from the dome and the façade of the church. He showed us the inside of the remaining structure, indicating that it is used as a cultural hall. The altar had been demolished, the frescoes on the inside of the cathedral had been painted and all crosses had been destroyed from the window panels. The ancillary building belonging to the church had been converted to an elementary school. At the entrance hall the walls were covered by pictures of the first president of the Republic of Turkey who had used Akshehir as a military base prior to cleansing the western Turkey from the Greek, Armenian and other Christian communities and proclaiming the new Turkish republic.

Frantically, we tried to find my grandfather’s mansion – we had heard it had been transformed into a school. Unfortunately, we were told the structure was demolished after it was destroyed by a fire. We looked for the Armenian cemetery; it was no longer in existence. We asked if any Armenian families are living in the area. We were told they were not aware of a single one.

As I walked down the main street, I looked for old shops with inscriptions of ownership; I could not find a single one suggesting potential prior Armenian ownership. With no local Armenian population, there was no attempt to preserve the Armenian culture. It was a devastating experience.

Then we visited the mausoleum of Nasreddin Hoja, a well-known humorist and the town’s most famous citizen. For those of you who are not familiar with Nasreddin Hoja, many funny anecdotes and jokes are attributed to him. As we stopped at his mausoleum, I thought of many of his jokes my father used to tell us when we were young to make us laugh. One quick example that I remember from memory, having heard and laughed at it often while growing up:

A Vizier was invited to Hoja’s house for dinner in winter. The hostess cooked a turkey and placed it on the table before the guest arrived. While waiting impatiently for the arrival of the Vizier, Hoja paces in the house. He frequently visits the dining room to smell the cooked turkey. Finally, unable to resist the temptation he pulled off a drumstick and ate it. When he arrived, the Vizier was invited to sit at the head of the table. The Vizier and hostess noticed that the turkey had a drumstick missing. Astonished, they look at Hoja waiting for an explanation. Hoja turns to the Vizier and says, “This part of the town, it was exceptionally cold this year. It was so cold that the turkey was standing on one leg at a time to avoid freezing off both legs. Unfortunately he lost a leg in the process.”

Although such an innocent and silly story, I remembered how much we laughed about this tale among the many that described Hoja’s shenanigans. However, this time, it felt different. The true memory was how funny we used to think it was. As I reflected on it at the end of my visit to the White City, the story had lost its humor.

Many people view the Armenian Genocide through a lens with conclusions based on historical research, facts, and numbers. Rereading my mom’s letter about my parents’ long and arduous journeys from Akshehir to Beirut, one thing is clear: the Genocide has affected and shaped my life in a way that could never be captured in numbers or in a debate with a pushy reporter at a Medical Conference. For me, it is a much more personal story.

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