SAN FRANCISCO — Heritage pilgrimages to Historic Armenia and other parts of Turkey once populated by Armenians have become more and more common in recent decades, especially thanks to the efforts of pioneer tour leader Armen Aroyan, but academics and serious commentators have paid little attention to this phenomenon.

At a time when the fate of Artsakh or the current regime in Armenia and issues of the remaining Armenian community in Istanbul are considered more important, these heritage pilgrimages may be viewed as simply pleasure trips by well-to-do Armenian-American tourists to their ancestral villages, and as such are relegated to the status of a hobby. Not so, according to new book.

Ironically, the Armenian Genocide and destruction of Armenian life in Turkey is not only being continually denied by Turkey but also relegated to the dusty pages of history by those who wish to turn our attention, however understandably, to the needs of the current Republic, sometimes trivializing the historical experience of the Diaspora in the process. But a new book shows how American-Armenian heritage tourists (or “pilgrims,” as the author insists on referring to them) are, in a way, the last remaining witnesses to what was once the vibrant Armenian life of current-day Eastern and Central Turkey.

Carel Bertram, emerita professor in the Humanities Department of San Francisco State University, has championed the story of heritage pilgrims in her new book, A House In the Homeland, Armenian Pilgrimages to Places of Ancestral Memory (Stanford University Press, 2022). She is a fierce advocate for the survivors and descendants of the Armenian Genocide to lay claim to their historical existence in lands that are now part of the modern Republic of Turkey.

When Bertram first went to Turkey, she found something other than what she expected. The breezy art historian from California, of Sephardic Jewish descent, was fascinated by the domestic architecture of late-Ottoman houses. Travelling to interior towns with surviving 19th-century neighborhoods, she couldn’t stop asking questions about these fascinating abodes. She was surprised to learn that many “well-to-do Ottoman citizens” who originally lived in such houses turned out to be Armenians. She was further surprised that the Turkish government was still adamant in discussing this fact.

Armen Aroyan questions local to find Leo Derderian’s family neighborhood

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Bertram wasn’t a person who set out to make genocidal history her field. She finds the topic uncomfortable. Despite being Jewish, she admits that she has found it difficult to ever set foot in a Holocaust museum. But when introduced to a cousin-by-marriage, Nancy Kezlarian, who had travelled to Sivas and Harput as a heritage pilgrim, Bertram was introduced to “a Turkey I did not know.”

The tours which Armen Aroyan led for decades brought mostly American-Armenians, including Kezlarian, to the Turkish interior to visit the hometowns of their parents and grandparents. Bertram decided to join her first Aroyan trip in 2007.

“I had no idea how powerful or life-changing it was going to be for me,” the scholar said in a recent interview. “My first trip was in 2007 and I was just sitting on the bus and listening. And I didn’t have much to write about, but they were speaking Armenian to each other so I depended on people that would sit by me and tell me what’s going on. I watched what happened and didn’t interview anybody.”

Bertram started as a quiet observer, but her fascination grew, and her fluency in Turkish and familiarity with local culture – as well as an admitted skill for carrying luggage! – made her a sort of right-hand woman to Aroyan on many trips. Fifteen years later, she has interviewed scores of pilgrims and other members of the Armenian community, many of whom she still keeps in touch with.

Gaining a New Perspective on Turkey

“My interest as an academic and scholar is in memory and place,” she says. “I’m trained as an art historian in Islamic art and studied the end of the Ottoman Empire and beginning of the Republic of Turkey. My PhD thesis was on Ottoman Turkish houses, which have a very distinctive look and emotional resonance in Turkey. They connote family and Ottoman ideas, and I thought I was going to study how the windows all look alike, or if they are different depending on the owners’ ethnicity or economic status, or something like that.”

Pilgrim walks through neighborhood in Kharpert searching for house

But Bertram’s encounter with the Armenian pilgrims changed her perspective and interest. “I found out that people had ideas of places they never lived in. My interest turned to the meaning of places rather than architecture. And the period [as described in Turkish scholarship] didn’t talk about the Armenians, so I realized there was this hole. And I said to myself that…I want to tell that story.”

Bertram began to get to know Armenian pilgrims on a personal level, rather than just as two-dimensional ethnic representatives. “Over long period of time, there were extended periods of talking to people, and the enormous generosity I found from people was astounding,” she says.

One pilgrim, Mary Ann Kazanjian, features in the book’s first chapter, as the group travels to her father’s hometown of Yozgat. “I realized that Mary Ann was carrying all of this stuff and was extraordinarily nervous that when she got to Yozgat, Armen would not be able to satisfy all of the questions and feelings that she had. But she also had pictures of grandparents and I realized what people were carrying was very emotionally laden… and I was immersed in their painful stories about what had happened to families.” Kazanjian had pictures of the town that family members had drawn, maps, documents, photographs, and other objects connecting her family to the town. Her family, which was well-to-do, had lived in one of Yozgat’s mansions, which is still standing and is now an ethnographic museum of Ottoman Turkish domestic life. It’s exactly the type of Ottoman-era home that Bertram was studying in her earlier years in academia. The fact that it was owned by an Armenian family is brushed aside by the tour guides in Yozgat and by Turkish academia. This was the very problem that Bertram wanted to solve, the hole in the scholarship that she was looking to fill. And Kazanjian, though she hadn’t been born there, had stories and knowledge of that house and its affective power on its former inhabitants, her father and his family. The story that Bertram wanted to tell would now be driven by the experiences and family memories of people like Kazanjian, rather than some abstract art history theory or what Ottoman Turkish scholarship has to say.

Bertram stresses that the group of pilgrims she studied was “a pivotal generation between leaving Turkey and the Diaspora.” This group of people, who are mostly Bertram’s own age, were born in the Diaspora as children or grandchildren of survivors who were natives of Anatolia. They did not have personal memories of the towns or villages in Turkey which they visited, but they had heard about those places directly from family members who had lived there, that is, from firsthand witnesses. Later generations will not have as close of a connection, Bertram points out, and so she felt a duty to document the stories of this group, a group which she also generationally identified with, before it is too late. “When people were going ‘home’ and to ‘their’ houses it became to connect with people they had known in their real lives,” and not some long-ago ancestor, Bertram points out.

Bertram also notes that the pilgrims’ understanding of Historical Armenia was not driven by a political ideology, but by personal family history and relationship with the parents or grandparents who had raised them, that lived in these places. These were “intimate geographies,” says Bertram. “At the time of the end of the Ottoman Empire, Armenia didn’t have borders. People thought of their ‘Armenia’ in terms of their villages and towns. It was their house and village and area and they carried that to the United States and the Diaspora.” Being born in the Diaspora, the pilgrims didn’t have the direct experience of that land which their parents did, yet its importance was stressed to them growing up, and they finally had an opportunity to make the connection real for themselves. “They aren’t returning as their parents and they aren’t returning for their parents,” Bertram says. Pilgrims made these trips, in other words, to ground their own connection to these historic lands, a connection which had been passed down only verbally from the original inhabitants. The connection was often cemented through various activities, which Bertram, in an anthropological vein, calls “rituals.”

Carel Bertram

Rituals of Homecoming

Rituals form an important part of Bertram’s analysis in the book, as well as the importance of place and the sacred. The seminal work of Romanian-born scholar of comparative religion, Mircea Eliade, plays an important role in the way Bertram looks at the activities of the Armenian pilgrims. Eliade describes the concept of sacred places and spaces throughout various religions, such as in the Old Testament story of Moses who encounters God in a burning bush, prompting him to take off his shoes in what he recognizes as a “sacred” place. Bertram describes Armenian pilgrims’ encounters with their family’s village or house in a similar manner, using academic theories from anthropology and comparative religion to describe familiar practices such as “bringing back soil from the homeland.”

In fact, it was the participation in rituals that caused Bertram to accept the designation of “pilgrim” for these travelers. “The ritual element was overwhelming,” she says. “Which is appropriate to a pilgrim looking for a change, looking for something to happen.”

“Other people have written about rituals like picking up dirt and taking it back home and putting it on graves. I was moved by that. But just saying it for what it was missed something. It’s not just that they thought they were reuniting…the power of ritual is in the activity. So, the digging of the earth did something, it was a ritual that unleashed the spirits of the earth, and that’s why for [one pilgrim] suddenly she started talking to her mother long deceased. And taking it somewhere was an act of connection and filial piety.” Bertram continues, “It wasn’t just performative. It was an interaction with the souls of the past.”

In relation to Eliade’s idea of sacred places, “something happens and people realize they are on sacred ground. That connects them with a pole of some kind, to the transcendent. People were realizing that they were on sacred space. And what erupted from them were stories [i.e. recalling stories about the region told to them by parents or grandparents].” Were the pilgrims expecting this kind of reaction? “They weren’t expecting it all,” says Bertram. “They were hit by the power of place. [But] they were expecting change. So they were nervous before they got there, and so relieved after they left.”

Current remnants of Kharpert’s Veri Tagh (Upper Quarter), including part of Soorp Hagop church

It was these types of reactions that made Bertram understand the deep, real meaning that these regions and locations in Historic Armenia had for those visiting. “How these places were so integral to them and to their souls, when I saw that and realized that I was talking about the soul and real people being moved in ways that only poetry does, I realized that I was in an area that was unfamiliar to me as a scholar, and I became nervous. Although what I was doing was authentic, it didn’t fit into an academic discipline. The soul, memory, loss, trauma – the sense of interiority overwhelmed me. How the Genocide has affected their family and them though this generation.” Thus, how the art historian turned to theories of comparative religion and spirituality to explain what was happening with a group of Diasporan Armenians returning to their parents’ Anatolian villages.

Music Ties Generations to the Homeland

As Bertram got closer to the pilgrims, she began to realize that music was also a major component of their identification with Historic Armenia. The subject of music takes up an entire large section of her book, and songs tied to homeland locations pop up throughout the entire work.

“The music also surprised me,” Bertram says. “I didn’t know a lot, but listening to Chuck [Deacon Charles Hardy of Racine, WI, one of the primary figures in the book who made several pilgrimages] singing and many people singing songs and listening to music that encapsulated so much to them, was such a major part of the story.” Hardy had been visiting his father’s native village of Khulakiugh in the Kharpert region, and upon arrival, sang specific Armenian songs that were sung to him by his father, which he associated in one way or another with that place.

Just as the pilgrims’ relationship to the land was informed by an “intimate geography” of family relationships with actual natives of these regions, rather than any political ideology, the music which they identified with their homelands was also derived from personal experience with natives who sang particular songs or listened to particular types of music, rather than music promulgated officially by Armenian political or cultural organizations. Even when “officially accepted” Armenian songs like Giligia (Cilicia) were a part of the pilgrims’ experience, they seem to only have taken on relevance due to being associated with a family member. Hardy, visiting Kharpert, sang various songs that have nothing to do with Kharpert in particular (like the ashughagan song Kna Plpul, which was written by the poet Ashugh Sheram in far-off Gyumri) because his father had sung these to him, he was in his father’s village, and because the lyrics had a meaning that he could connect with his father’s life and which even his father had connected with the Genocide or with exile from his hometown.

“Arslanian Mansion” in Yozgat where Mary Ann Kazanjian’s father lived

Metro Detroit’s well-known clarinetist Hachig Kazarian plays a major role in the book. He learned folk and dance music directly from his parents, grandparents, and their friends, all of whom were natives of Van. Returning to the Van-Vasbouragan region to visit his father’s native village of Ankugh, Kazarian performed Van melodies as well as dance songs that other pilgrims would be familiar with and would dance to, because they corresponded to Western Armenian dance styles that have been passed down in the US. Local Kurdish and Turkish individuals showed familiarity with the rhythms and musical styles, cementing the connection of these songs and the Armenians who played them to Van, as well as other areas of Anatolia. The irony commented on by Bertram was that some of these songs, even if they have Armenian lyrics, would be out of place in Yerevan while right at home in Eastern Turkey or in the Armenian Diaspora.

Of course, even Turkish-language songs were not omitted from these experiences. The story of Araxie Hardy’s visit to her father’s native village of Efkere in the Kayseri region includes the song Gesi Baglari, a well-known Turkish-language ballad of the region, which in the book is described as the story of a kidnapped Armenian woman whose lover is searching for her. Araxie Hardy, who was born in Beirut, learned this song from her father who used to sing it constantly. She connected the lyrics about the loss of a sweetheart to her father’s loss of his younger brother, who was a small child during the Genocide, adopted by a Muslim family and stayed in Efkere.

In addition to her many interviews, Bertram also takes a look at memoirs written by earlier generations of pilgrims, those who were born and raised in Historical Armenia and bravely decided to make the trip back to their homes when travel opened up in the 1950s. One of these individuals, known by the pen name “Kavar,” was a native of Agn, an area known for its music, and Bertram goes into great detail relating his experiences with homeland music and especially the famous melodies of Agn and “andouni” songs, which even before 1915 were known as representative of migration and exile from one’s homeland. Such songs took on even deeper meaning after the Genocide, and in Kavar’s memoirs, he returns to his hometown of Agn in the 1950s and hears locals singing these songs in Turkish, as well as encountering a remaining Armenian oud player who performs for him the well-known Groong, which has now become a pan-Armenian anthem of dispersion.

“Kavar goes to Agn and listens to music and it means so much to him. And Hardy is singing in Khulakiugh, he’s bringing there the music that was so profoundly important to his father and reliving it there,” says Bertram. “It surprised me because it’s not what I would have expected from my own history. As a Jew, I wouldn’t have sung songs that my parents sung about their villages…so that was new to me.” The author goes on, “It’s deeply meaningful because individuals know in their own lives the importance of music but don’t always tie it to a sense of community. Music was integral to the understand of being Armenian and of homeland.”

The Story is Not Finished

The book will certainly have a different impact on readers depending on their background. Armenians who have roots in Anatolia or who have gone on these pilgrimages themselves, will, naturally, most closely identify with the story Bertram tells. When asked how Turks and Kurds might receive the book, the author says: “I think that for those Turks willing to read it, it will hit home, because Turkish culture of that generation understands the attachment to place, village, house, music, and the land. They will say, ‘oh, yes,’ and it will ring true to them, and be eye-opening.” As for other Armenians, particularly those without a direct connection to the experiences described in the book: “I hope that it reopens this once-large population group and brings them back as an ‘owner of history.’”

Does Bertram think that the book will resonate outside these primary ethnic communities? “I’m hoping it can be used theoretically, methodologically for understanding group attachment to their past. It could be used in various classes and various disciplines.” And as to non-Armenian and non-Turkish people who have read the book, Bertram shares that “They were deeply moved by it and realized that, oh, they know Armenians, but they didn’t know Armenians.” The author explains that they might have Armenian friends, colleagues, and even relatives, but this was a side of the Armenians — including American-Armenians whom they thought they knew well — that they weren’t aware of. “That’s one, and then Jews will immediately identify with trauma and genocide, so that population will be interested. And it will bring the story of the Genocide out.” Bertram adds that in her university courses, “I taught it over several years. My students, who I thought I was forcing it on, thanked me, saying ‘I never knew about this.’”

Artistic sketch by Carel Bertram of a remaining Armenian home in Sivas (Sepastia)

One of the hot-button issues lately in regard to the subject matter of this book is that of Hidden Armenians. Descendants of those Armenians who had either accepted Islam or kept their Christian religion secret, and remained in Anatolia, have increasingly started coming forward. Bertram mentions that although arguably it is outside the scope of her research, she felt it was important in the final book. “I wanted to put this in because I felt there was another Turkey emerging that Armenians were going to visit. The nature of what Turkey is, was going to have to change if they [the hidden Armenians] came out of hiding. That’s why I put them in the book, because people [including pilgrims] were reacting to them and they became now another part of the landscape. When people go, they aren’t just afraid of Turks and Kurds, but they know there are Armenians there.”

Bertram continues, “So, Turkey’s changing and I wanted to put in that the pro-Kurdish movement has a lot to do with it. So of course they [the pilgrims] go and all these things hit them. And they don’t know, and some learn, that there is a whole pro-Kurdish movement, and [its leaders] now after 2016 are in jail for life. This presents another face of Turkey, so it’s not just a place that’s a door closed.”

Something is brewing in Turkey, despite the regime’s fight against it. The story is not finished. But as for Bertram, her passion is to make sure the story of the Diaspora Armenians of her generation is told, the last generation to have heard first-hand accounts of Armenian life in Eastern Turkey. “This is on the ground; this is the real story, or a real story.”

A House in the Homeland is available at all major bookstores as well as on the website of the Stanford University Press,

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