“My heart is like shattered homes and broken pillars thrown asunder . . . Wild birds will nest in our ruins . . . Let me throw myself into the water and be food for the fish’s babies . . . White waves lap upon the black sea about us and do not mix . . . In this melancholic, bewildered state, what can my darkened heart do?”
— Lyrics translated by Armen Babamian from “Homeless” (Andouni), composed by Gomidas Vartabed in honor of Armenians broken and exiled by the Genocide
Why would I seek out the Der Zor desert — the most infamous of the killings fields in the premeditated extermination of the Armenian people carried out by the Turkish government beginning in 1915?
Most of my extended kin did not survive the darkest period in our people’s history, 1915 to 1923. My four grandparents survived the ordeals, but lost virtually everyone else, or, in some cases, their entire clan. All but one grandparent lost their spouses, yet managed to remarry and raise second families in the United States. My parents, born and raised in the safety of America, were products of those second marriages. My brother and I followed, brought up in a home where Armenian was spoken almost exclusively. Recognizing the value of what had been lost, our three generations vigilantly practiced Armenian customs passed down from our ancestors. In exile, we retained a love for the natural beauty of our ancient native land of Western Armenia, and longed for that land, even as it lay within the borders of present-day Turkey.
How could I let our departed ancestors know that they had not been forgotten and were, in fact, with us in spirit every day? How could I feel closer to them and identify with what they had gone through as they were driven — barefoot and stripped naked, starving and fearful — along wild mountain ranges, all the way to a desolate place where, if they were still breathing, the Turks intended them to die agonizing deaths? How could I let my forebears know that — as I recalled those Armenians whose tongues and teeth were torn out and feet cut off — that we, the grandchildren of survivors, 95 years later, freely and mindfully used our tongues to speak our native language, our voices to sing the folk songs of our elders, and our feet to perform the dances of our native villages? How could I let our ancestors know that the Armenian soul and our dreams of liberty, even in exile, did not die with them?
When I learned that a pilgrimage was being organized to visit the site, formerly in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, where caravans of Armenians were driven to oblivion, a voice inside said that it was time for me to walk in the footsteps of those who perished in or miraculously survived what is now the northern Syrian desert of Der Zor. So I joined other Armenian Americans, led by Vicar General Anoushavan Tanielian and Deacon Shant Kazanjian of the Armenian Prelacy in New York to visit people and places in Lebanon and Syria that were spiritually, historically, and culturally significant to the Armenian nation.
As we were landing at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Airport, the clusters of beige stone houses rising out of the hillsides reminded me of our Western Armenian towns such as Kharpert — less than 650 kilometers away in eastern Turkey — before their destruction. These Lebanese hill dwellings transported me to a place that before this voyage had existed for me only in historical photographs of Western Armenia and in the recesses of my mind.
What exactly is Western Armenia? Armenia can be thought of as having two parts: the eastern part, represented today by the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh/Karabakh; and Western Armenia, consisting of the eastern portion of Turkey as well as the northwest corner of the Mediterranean (known as Cilician Armenia), also occupied by Turkey.
During the Genocide, Turkey liquidated the Armenians of Western Armenia and attempted to do the same to the Republic of Armenia. The descendants of the survivors of the Genocide are often referred to as “Western Armenians.” Most live in diasporan Armenian communities, though large numbers of them also reside in the Republic of Armenia.
As we journeyed about Lebanon to Armenian neighborhoods, community centers and churches, all of which retained a distinct Armenian character despite the passage of time, we seemed to be traveling in a virtual labyrinth, spiraling inward, closer and closer to Der Zor. We were not only homing in on where the unspeakable occurred. In visiting vibrant Armenian communities along the way, some of them settlements that existed long before the trials of Der Zor, we were also drawing closer to the native lands of the Armenians — and my body instinctively knew it. It was as if everything about these territories — particularly later in Syria — had been seen, touched, tasted and lived on by the ancient lifeblood within me.
Inside the Cilicia Museum in Antelias — a district of Beirut — we saw rare clerical vestments, chalices, relics and documents rescued from churches in Western Armenia. Most of these treasures were brought to Lebanon through great personal sacrifices and under difficult circumstances during and after the Genocide. These treasures — including meticulously embroidered burgundy velvet vestments and carnelian, garnet and ruby-encrusted relics — seemed to embody a style that I had long embraced as my own. These engraved silver belts, crosses and prized possessions revealed a decorative flair, refinement, craftsmanship and love of animals and nature that I had always instinctively sensed as being “Armenian.” The timeless style of these treasures spoke to my tastes. It occurred to me that these designs were not just my personal preferences but emblematic of a national character belonging to our people and somehow genetically ingrained in me.
The Armenian Essence: Bourj Hammoud and Anjar
In such surroundings, I did what came naturally — speaking with my fellow travelers, as well as Armenians we met, almost exclusively in the Western Armenian dialect. It was our mother tongue and common language, even if speaking it is becoming less frequent in America’s melting pot.
As we rode along in our travels, I was entertained by Aroussiak, a woman who, as situations arose, recalled just the right, hilarious Armenian proverb. And in the seat ahead sat Azadouhi, whose family, like part of mine, hailed from Dikranagerd, Armenia — today’s Diyarbakir, Turkey. She knew of my interest in the endangered Dikranagerd dialect, and would feed me remarks and phrases from it each time she saw something on the road for which she knew the term. As much as the pilgrimage was a solemn voyage for me, moments like these, when the flames of our language and culture rose tall, gave cause for joy and celebration. Before I knew it, surrounded by majestic mountains leading to the magnificent Jeita Grottoes of Lebanon, the Vicar and I were singing Lerner Hayreni (Mountains of my Fatherland), an Armenian song of exile. Again and again, I stood up in the aisles of the bus, craning my neck to see more and more of the terrain. The lands were unmistakably calling out to me, saying, “We are approaching where you come from.”
Our group spent an afternoon in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut with a sizable Armenian population. In the years following the Genocide, survivors from Der Zor who plod into Lebanon were permitted to build shacks in what was then swampland.
Today, Bourj Hammoud is one of the most densely populated districts in the Middle East. It teems with barbers, cobblers, and sellers of food, clothing, music, books and souvenirs — nearly all of them Armenians. Here we found Armenian churches, compatriotic, athletic and cultural organizations, meeting halls, and the offices of local Armenian newspapers and radio stations. During the Lebanese Civil War, the Armenian community remained neutral. As a result, parts of Bourj Hammoud — now mostly repaired — endured repeated shelling by those who resented that neutrality.