The statue of Mother Armenia standing on top of the museum dedicated to the participation of Armenians in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the liberation of Artsakh (photo: Aram Arkun)

An American’s Journey to His Roots

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By Matthew DeLong

As a third generation Armenian-American boy growing up in a southern sunny suburban community nestled within the golden hills of San Jose, Calif., extended family get-togethers around holidays always revolved around retellings of the stories of our ancestors, debating which famous celebrities were suspected of being Armenian, and discussion about school and what the children were learning and what we hoped to become. There was pride in our collective persistence to succeed — a mentality of perseverance in the face of struggle I attribute to my great grandparents, the Armenian immigrants, who had found a new home in Fresno.

Yet somewhere between the stories, our insistence on family gatherings around the holidays, and the indulging in shish-kebab, tolma, kufta, pilaf and other Armenian dishes, the actual place “Armenia” and its people took on almost mythical proportions. In school, I had never met any other Armenian children. My parents didn’t know any other Armenians from the neighborhood — in fact, I’m not sure we knew any other Armenians except those in our extended family. Even as a young child, I remember asking my mother where Armenia was, to which she replied “oh, honey, it’s not a country anymore.”

Even in the second grade, explaining where my ancestors came from for a class project wasn’t as simple for me as other children who could mention immediately recognizable names like Ireland, Germany, or China. I’m sure to many of them it sounded as if the very name were the work of fiction, either made-up or too insignificant to even consider. Looking back on it, it wasn’t too far off from how I thought about it as a child.

It wasn’t until my time in Germany, at the age of 27, that I was able to get to know and befriend other Armenians. Getting to know them felt in some cases like trying to solving this giant puzzle of who my ancestors were while also trying to form a closer bond with the country, its people and the culture itself. I felt that, if I could get to know them, I would understand better where my ancestors came from, and would thus be able to better understand myself.

A few years later, when I was studying at the Humboldt University in Berlin and working as an intern at the Mesrop Center with Prof. Armenuhi Drost-Abgarjan,  I applied to a DAAD-sponsored summer school program taking place in Yerevan. The Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (German Academic Exchange Service) is a government supported organization that promotes international exchange for students and researchers (www.daad.org/en).  For two weeks, there would be lectures with other students who had an interest in Armenia on topics ranging from the language, genealogy, literature, history, politics to post-Soviet Armenian geopolitics. Excursions to many of its oldest and prominent monasteries were planned, as well as to Areni, the world’s oldest-known winemaking region. And in addition, each participant would stay with a host family to practice the language and have the chance to get to know Armenians. It would be a great two weeks to get better acquainted with the country, its culture, history, language and above all — its people.

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My ancestors on my mother’s side came to the US and settled in Fresno. Originally hailing from Bitlis (now part of eastern Turkey), they, like many others there, found refuge in the vast, fertile lands of Fresno. Over time, many others followed like my ancestors, and a vibrant Armenian community developed there with numerous Armenians from Bitlis, among them one of the — if not the most — famous Armenian diaspora writers, William Saroyan.

It was through Saroyan that the diaspora found a unique voice who was able to articulate in beautiful yet somber detail the emotional complexities and mental anguish in one’s yearning for one’s homeland.

I was surprised to find a DAAD-sponsored summer school program for Armenia. Armenia isn’t a country or a culture that people easily find — it must be sought after. I was therefore interested to meet the other students who, like me, had developed an interest in this small, unassuming country in the Southern Caucasus. It’s not every day that one meets someone who knows something — let alone anything — about Armenia. Yet its people who settled in the crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East date back thousands of years to many other commonly known ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Babylonians and Assyrians. Its language, comprising its own branch in the Indo-European language tree, has its own unique alphabet that was created by the early theologian Mesrop Mashtots in 405 A.D. It is also the first nation to have adopted Christianity as its state religion, dating back to 301 A.D. For the richness and longevity of its history, culture, language, it is almost remarkable that such a country and its people continue to remain a mystery to so many. As an Armenian-American, the only reason why I know these facts about Armenia is that my grandmother dutifully insisted on trying to remind us of who and where we were descended from.

The next two weeks would consist of morning language courses in Yerevan’s Brusov State University, even learning the alphabet and how to read. Late morning and afternoon lectures focused on the history of Armenia and the region, Armenian literature, the peculiar origins of Armenian last names, Armenian politics, as well as the conflict with Azerbaijan and the resulting geopolitical situation post-Soviet Armenia finds itself in. As many other students had studied other languages, history or politics from the region, each session ended with lively discussion, with many students chiming in with insights from their own respective academic backgrounds. As one student knew Kurdish, for example, he was able to point out some linguistic similarities between Armenian and Kurdish — something which I had never considered yet, given the history of both peoples having lived side by side for centuries during the Ottoman Empire, is not a stretch of the imagination. In the literature session, for example, a passage from William Saroyan’s book was read and discussed

As much as each session was well-organized and informative, no academic trip to Armenia would be complete without excursions to its vast countryside full of storied, centuries-old monasteries. Khor Virap, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Armenian-Turkish border below the towering Mt. Ararat — the mountain where Noah is said to have landed his Ark — is home to the legend of Tiridates III and Gregory the Illuminator, the latter who is said to have been imprisoned in a dark, windowless pit for over a decade. What follows is the story of Gregory the Illuminator’s release, his healing of Tiridates III’s madness and the declaration of Christianity as the official Armenian religion.

A drive to Lake Sevan and Dilijan also warranted stops at Sevanavank, Haghartsin monastery and Goshavank. Sevanavank and its two monasteries perched atop a hill on the edge of the peninsula used to stand alone together on an island surrounded by the magnificent blue waters of the lake. Once a home of isolation to monks ordered to copy manuscripts and follow a strict regimen from Echmiadzin, the cathedral and see of the Armenian Apostolic Church, it also featured prominently in a cunning and legendary battle between the Armenians and Sajids.

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Haghartsin monastery and Goshavank, both tucked in between the lush, green hills of Dilijan, were interesting to compare and contrast given their common origin in the 13th century. Haghartsin monastery, which has been mostly masterfully renovated, is quite striking with its detailed bas-reliefs and carvings. Goshavank, not as far along with its renovation as Haghartsin, is still nonetheless impressive as one is able to see its age and consider its long history and the many people who walked and roamed its halls.

Though a trip to Armenia can be justified on the merit of its monasteries alone, the history of the country and its people extends much farther beyond that of its religious significance. Areni, a small and inconspicuous rural village, is home to the earliest-known wine-producing settlement. Today, the region still continues this tradition, as one can visit Areni and taste many wines made by local Armenians. Armenia also has its own tradition of dance and music, and instruments like the duduk, an ancient woodwind instrument whose origin is at least a thousand years old, are an important hallmark of Armenia’s musical heritage. All the students and host siblings thus gathered for an intimate evening concert of traditional Armenian music in Yerevan’s city center. Afterwards, we continued on to the Cascades nearby, while crowds of hundreds of Armenians gathered under the setting summer sun as traditional Armenian music rang out with Armenians side-by-side, hands clasped with one another, dancing well into the night.

Our last evening together was spent with the organizers and our host siblings at a restaurant in Yerevan with wine, khorovats, lavash, cheese and dancing. Only this time, one of our host sisters led us and gave us lessons!

As a country and a people that has always existed at the crossroads between East and West, Armenia and its culture also resembles a curious juncture between these different worlds, embodying aspects of all while resembling something completely of its own making. No matter how often throughout their lengthy history the Armenians have been ruled by others, the fact that their culture, traditions and language have persevered and continue to be celebrated and kept intact as keenly as they are today is quite an astonishing feat in itself.

As much as I was impressed by the DAAD summer school program for its mix of history lectures as well as ones touching upon contemporary issues, especially the  recent “Velvet Revolution” that saw Nikol Pashinyan elected as Prime Minister, my experience in Armenia wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the generosity and hospitality of my host family. It is one thing to travel to a country to visit it, but it is another to stay with a local family, to spend time with them, eat with them and get to know them. And while the trips to its many monasteries, the relics of its illustrious past, were enjoyable moments in themselves, traversing the country’s gorgeous landscapes of sprawling golden pastures, soaring mountains and winding rivers was a pleasure to the eyes.

Armenia may never become a well-known travel destination outside of the Armenian diaspora. But for those unacquainted with it, it will surely surprise, amaze and offer a rich and unforgettable experience.

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