Sunday, January 11, 2009

April 2007: The Armenian Genocide - An Eventful Year

Since beginning this e-letter, April has been dedicated to the 1915 Genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Turkish Government. This year is no exception in terms of this e-letter. 2007 thus far has been a most eventful year for Armenian-Turkish relations and it is barely one third done. Allow me to reflect on these events.

Hrant Dink (1954 – 2007): First and worst, another Armenian was murdered in Istanbul. On Friday, January 19, 2007, Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos was shot dead as he left the offices. Immediately Armenians around the world were devastated with grief, their hearts incredibly heavy, and the memories of the horrors of 1915 churned up and were shockingly brought into the here and now. Armenians were not alone. (Left hand photo).

Many Turks were also shocked and saddened. There words of grief, condolence, and protest were all over the internet. For me the University of Michigan Armenian Workshop listserv, that I wrote about last April, was the source and center for many of the communications between the scholars and journalists.

There were photos of Dink lying in the street and his murderer, 17 year old Ogun Samast, with a Turkish flag given to him by police officers who posed with him almost smiling, almost proud. There were photos of the unbelievable turnout of citizens of Turkey, Armenian and mostly Turks, numbering 100,000 by most estimates. Most everyone was carrying signs or placards with the saying:
Hepimiz Hrant’iz, Hepimiz Ermeniyiz
We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian

There were articles in the papers around the world condemning the action. Many of these articles were from Turkey. It did my heart good to read such things from Turks and from Turkey.

But, and in the realm of things Armenian and Turkish there are a lot of buts. There were also articles not so complimentary and not so sensitive. One Sedat Laçiner wrote in The Journal of Turkish Weekly:
When Talat Pasha, the Minister of Interior of the Ottoman Empire, was killed by an Armenian named Sogomon Tehliryan on March 15 1921on a crowded Berlin street (Germany), the attitude of the Armenians were not similar to the attitude of today’s Turkey people. Ironically there are many similarities between the murders of Talat Pasha and of Hrant Dink. As the Turkish historian Murat Bardakci wrote in Sabah newspaper dated 21 January 2007, both victims were shot from the back of their head. The bases of the shoes of the both victims were tattered and holed.
My friend Bedross Der Matossian, a PhD student at Columbia University wrote
One of the ugliest pieces I have ever seen on the assassination!!!!! It is a total shame and disgust that both Hrant Dink and Talat Pasha are on the same title. For God's sake Talat(s) was responsible fo rthe killing of an entire nation, while Hrant for speaking the truth about what Talat had committed... and still committing... and committing...

In Arabic there is a good saying which says:
"Bi'til il 'atil wi bimshi bi janaztu" (he kills the deceased and walks in his funeral)
That is how most of us feel about any government statements condemning the death of Hrant Dink, the latest victim of the Armenian Genocide.

One might easily argue that this is just my Armenian paranoia coming through. Yet, consider Orhan Pamuk, the recently named Nobel Prize winner of Literature. He is not Armenian. He is a Turk. Shortly after the Dink murder and after making the following statement
One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands but no one but me dares talk about it.
Pamuk left Turkey and is in the US. Supposedly, he does not plan to return soon as he fears for his life.

Turkey has this insane law, Article 301 of the Penal Code which makes denigrating Turkishness a criminal offense. Hrant Dink was charged under this law as was Orhan Pamuk and others. Oddly, while Hrant Dink was charged under this strange and repressive law, he was actually a supporter of Turkey, his country. He did not want to destroy Turkey or carve it up, he wanted to make it better. He worked to do so as a citizen of the country… and they killed him for it.

The Holy Cross Church on the Island of Aghtamar: Since the Armenians were unceremoniously evicted from the Armenian Highlands, from Anatolia, existence of our presence there has been eroded. Turkey even managed to get the scientific names of animals and plants changed if it included any reference to Armenia or Armenians (and you thought I was paranoid).

The greatest proof and testimony to our having been there are the churches we left behind. Some were grand, others modest, but many were architectural gems dating back to before Turks were there or even considered a people in the area.

Over the years the churches, mostly stone structures, have succumbed to earthquake, turned into mosques or farm buildings, and outright destroyed. There are scholars that have slide shows showing what were once there and what is not there or in its place today.

There are photos and stories of how a churches were turned into a barns and stables. There is the case of Khatch Kars (the famous cross stones of Armenian Church architecture) that are now steps in someone’s home. These kinds of stories make Armenians sick.

Yet, there is another side. The Armenians clearly were not returning. The government did not care as the least and encouraged the destruction of these buildings at the worst. So, peasants living in the Armenian areas who needed buildings or stones to build something, simply appropriated the Armenian church for their own use. Voila, after 92 years, what was once there is no more.

This year, for the first time in 92 years, the Turkish Government has taken an Armenian Architectural treasure and restored it. The Holy Cross Church (Soorp Khatch in Armenian transliteration, Surp Haç in Turkish) sits on the Island of Aghtamar (Akdamar in Turkish) in Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. The church was built in the 10th century during the time of King Gagik of Vasburagan. It was the cathedral for the local head of the Armenian Church from 1113 through 1895. (Photo from the March 2007 dedication ceremony is above on the right)

So with Holy Cross Church, there has been a change. A majestic, iconic, historic church has been restored. It is now a museum not a consecrated church. The Turks, as any country would do, as any government would do, opened the finished project with great fanfare on March 29th. There was buzz and self-serving propaganda showing the European Union, which Turkey desires to join, just how open and multi-cultural they are. Whatever their motives, they did restore the church. They invited Armenian dignitaries from both church and state. There was a small contingent. Mostly, Armenians took offense to, one, Holy Cross not being consecrated as a church and, two, this opening coming shortly after the assassination of Hrant Dink. Was this simply another example of Turkish duplicity and hypocrisy? A little of both perhaps. Despite the name Holy Cross, the renovated church/museum does not have one cross inside or out.

I wish they had consecrated Holy Cross as a church. I wish they had seen fit to fly the Armenian flag next to the Turkish flag. Armenians took offense to the flying of the Turkish flag or, at least to displaying it in excess according to our sensibilities. But, really, what flag should have been flown? The flag of New Zealand? Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it our not, this all took place in the Republic of Turkey. It simply shows me just how far apart Turks and Armenians are. They had also hung large photos of Kemal Attaturk, the founder of the Republic. That also bothered many Armenians. I wished they had quoted Kemal Attaturk’s quote that called what the Turks did to the Armenians a “dark chapter” and a “shameful act.” At least the Holy Cross Church of Aghtamar is in good health, albeit in the wrong hands. I would rather see it preserved in any manifestation than to have been destroyed.

Hrant Dink’s last editorial was on the restoration of the Holy Cross Church. He quoted from an editorial he had written ten years earlier
Rather than creating “monsters” in an attempt to draw tourists, try to take care of the historical artifacts that are right in front of your eyes. Why is there any need for such false endeavors? What you call Van is an ocean in terms of historical artifacts. Why is it that no one thinks of properly sitting down and restoring the region in its entirety. They say ‘then Armenians would come,’ so let them come, let them see the places their ancestors lived in, let them satisfy their longing, so what?
Maybe Turkey listened. Maybe Turkey was extending an olive branch to the Armenians. Yet, after thanking the Turkish and Turkish-Armenian architect for a job well done, he criticized the government, and rightly so, for looking to have the opening of the church/museum on April 24th of all days. This is the day that Armenians commemorate the beginning of the Genocide, the day that the Turkish government arrested the leaders of the nation the first act in the massacres and deportations.

April 24th Reflection on a More Personal Note: One of my favorite songs, one that I also love to sing, is an Armenian folk song from Husenig, a village in the Kharpert region. Kharpert is the Armenian name meaning Stone Fort after the castle which still stands albeit in a ruined state. The Turks and foreigners called in Harput. It was in the villayet of Vilayet of Mamuret-el-Aziz. Today, the city is called Elazığ from el-Aziz. Three of my four grandparents were from this region. All of my wife’s grandparents were from there. My children, 92 years later, are 7/8s Kharpertsi, an improbable statistic.

The song Husenig Sazeruh begins with the lines:
Husenigin Sazeruh
Yotnagi bagh chooreruh
Most people that still sing this song, my contemporaries and younger learned this song from the famed oudist Richard Hagopian. Almost no one gets these two lines right, me included.

Husenig Sazeruh meant the Sazes of Husenig. The saz is a long necked lute indigenous to the peoples of the region. Almost everyone gets this line right. It is the second line of the song that we butchered. Yotnagi bagh chooreruh. Bagh Chooreruh was easy. Bagh means cold. Choor is water. The cold waters of something. So, the confusion really boiled down to Yotnag whatever that was or is. I didn’t know. None of us knew. I have heard people sing it as mumbles Yotnazi, Yotneri, Yotnalli, and any variety of mumbles copied from Richard’s unique singing voice. I suppose we could have just asked Richard. Maybe someone did, I never thought about it.

Thinking I was clever, for the longest time, I would sing the second line as Yepradi bagh chooreruh. Yeprad is the Armenian name for the Euphrates river which originated in the vicinity of Kharpert. . Actually the headwaters of the Tigris are closer to Kharpert. Yet, Yeprad sounded closer to the song. I figured I was at least directionally correct.

I had bought a book by Marderos Deranian entitled Hussenig: The origin, history and destruction of an Armenian town. Marderos Deranian was a son of Hussenig. He was a survivor of the Genocide. He was born in 1882 and died in 1957. In his later years, he spent fifteen years writing this book. His son, Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, had the book translated and published first in 1981 and a second edition in 1994.

I eventually read the book sometime in the early 1997 or 1998. I read it to learn about the region my people come from. I read it because I love the song about Hussenig. I had a spine tingling revelation upon reaching page 12 of this book. There I found a photo of a rocky crag with water flowing, cascading from about a third of the way up this formation. The caption read: The Seven Springs (Yotnag). Mystery solved. Yot definitely means seven and using all the deductive powers of my advanced degrees in mathematics and operations research, I concluded that nag must mean spring in Armenian, Turkish or the local dialect. There after I always sang the song with the proper words. Yotnagi bagh chooreruh. Now both Richard and I knew the right words to the song.

On reflection, how could any of us born here to parents born here know this basically obscure fact? In the large scheme of things, it does not matter very much. Yet, in the smaller scheme of my life it most certainly does. I have no clue if the Yotang Spring is still springing. I have no clue as to how old the photo in the book of the Seven Springs is. Is it still natural, is it part of the city of Elaziğ? Are the waters still cold? Potable? The photo is only credited to the Melikian Studio Collection. From the looks of the photo and total lack of civilization around it, I am assuming the photo is 50-100 years old.

I would love to know about the Seven Springs. I would love to see what it is today. I would love to walk on the site where the St. Varvar church of Hussenig stood and see if there is any sign at all that it had ever been there. A photo in the book, taken in 1933, showed only a fragment of a wall still standing.
There are two quotes in the front of this book.
Yea I have a goodly heritage
- Psalms 16, verse 6

What you have inherited from your father, you must earn over again, or it will not be yours.
- Goethe
This truly sums up why I think about these things so much. I am trying to earn my heritage, to keep it alive, to drink now and then from the cold waters of the Yotnag.


  1. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. As a fellow Kharpertsi, I too am eager to return and explore the site of Husenig. I wonder if you have seen the PBS documentary out recently that chronicles the Rustigian family's pilgrimage to Husenig to find the site of their historical family home. It's fascinating!

    I am conducting extensive research into the history of Husenig, and attempting to contact as many living descendants of Husenigtsi as I possible can.

    Please send me an e-mail if you have a moment and let me know whether anyone in your family derives from Husenig itself.

    I too have wondered about the 7 Springs while looking at the map in the Deranian book. If we are able to trade contact info, I will be sure to let you know when I visit Husenig whether I am able to find the springs. :)


  2. My grandparents came from Husenig, a village my husband, children, and I visited in 2005. I cannot recall seeing Seven Springs, but then again I was not looking for it. Our goal was to find my grandfather's street. With the help of a kind lady who used to live in Husenig and then a local school teacher, we not only found the street but the remnants of his home. We hope to return to Husenig in the next couple of years and promise to look for Seven Springs.