For those who live in “BH,” as it is known for short, it is natural to hear the Armenian language spoken in the streets and Armenian music playing outside. For Armenians visiting from anywhere except Armenia (or, perhaps, Glendale, California), it’s an astonishing experience. Storefront signs appear in Arabic, Armenian, and English or French. Streets are named for cities in Western Armenia such as Adana, Marash and Sis. Perhaps most amusing to an outsider are the scads of identically dressed young Armenian men in their designer t-shirts, jeans, dark sunglasses and five-o’clock-shadows, weaving through thick traffic on their motorbikes.
Upon entering the Bekaa Valley, 50 kilometers northeast of Beirut, a sign overhead announced, “Welcome to Anjar” in Arabic, Armenian and English. Anjar is populated by descendants of the Armenians of the Mediterranean region of Musa Dagh (now In Turkey) who outlasted murderous assaults by the Turkish army in 1915. The Armenian defense stand became a global symbol of resistance memorialized by author Franz Werfel in his renowned “Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” In 1939, Anjar was gifted to Armenians rescued from Musa Dagh and enabled them to begin their lives anew. As our group was introduced to the Anjar community that today clings tenaciously to its proud history and identity, I was overwhelmed that an endangered piece of Western Armenia — Musa Dagh — had been, in a very real sense, relocated and preserved here. During a conversation with the remarkable Reverend Father Ashod Karakashian, I revealed my sorrow about our Armenian condition. His response was inspiring: “The heroes of Sassoun [another Armenian region that endured Turkish assaults] were outnumbered and fought off marauding Turks through their absolute will to survive and live on their native soil in dignity. Where would we be if these Armenians had given up at the first sign of duress?”
As our tour bus ambled along a highway en route to Aleppo, I recognized the tree before me: the slender perennial that is depicted in paintings that hang in Armenian homes throughout the world. In these paintings, two of these trees grow upright in the foreground of the twin peaks of Mt. Ararat — the universal symbol of Armenia, even if the mountain today happens to be within the boundaries of Turkey. This tree is the Mediterranean Cypress, planted centuries ago by conquering Romans extending their empire. I could not help but conjure Armenia in my mind upon seeing thousands of these trees in our travels.
There was something unmistakably familiar about the northwestern Syrian city of “Haleb,” as Armenians call Aleppo: The dense and vibrant Armenian-speaking neighborhoods; the Armenian churches constructed in our traditional architectural style; the narrow, winding, cavernous cobblestone streets; structural motifs that were decidedly “Orientalist;” stone houses that were at once ancient and environmentally conscious; the arid climate; the fruit, nut and olive orchards; the camels, donkeys and bazaar merchants — all these things had an air of familiarity. The absence of over-industrialization which allowed the natural beauty of the terrain to shine through and the lack of blatant consumerism and pop culture were just a few more reasons why Haleb in particular seemed much more native to me than New Jersey or Boston do.
And it’s no wonder. The very first Armenian presence in Haleb dates back to the 1st century BC, when Armenia’s King Dikran I subjugated Syria and chose Antioch (later a chief center of early Christianity) as one of his four capital cities. After 301 AD, when Christianity became the official state religion of Armenia, Haleb developed into an important center for Armenian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. And in the 12th century, when the boundaries of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia were not far from Haleb, Armenian families and merchants settled there in large numbers and established their own businesses, residences, schools and churches. I was, in a very literal sense, hitting close to home.
My eyes grew wide as we were led into the center of the Old City to one of the oldest and largest castles in the world: the extraordinary, towering Citadel of Aleppo. As it turns out, stone inscriptions in this medieval fortified palace tell us in Greek that Armenia’s King Dikran captured it when he took Haleb.
It was often the case that when people heard someone in our group speaking Armenian they would approach us to simply say welcome. This time, it was a tourist from Barcelona inside the Citadel who had come to visit his Syrian relatives. Recognizing our vernacular, he wanted us to know how proud he was that his grandfather had hidden and protected Armenians during the Genocide. As we expressed our gratitude for his grandfather’s righteous deeds, he posed for a photo with members of our group.
It is said that some of the underground passageways built under the gigantic moat surrounding the Citadel lead to the 40 Martyrs Armenian Cathedral more than a kilometer away. It was upon visiting this hauntingly beautiful 15th century Cathedral that I witnessed a most inspiring scene. During the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, it is customary for the Nicene Creed, also known as “Havadamk,” or “We believe,” to be recited as an Armenian declaration of belief in Christ’s single nature with human and divine attributes. Here in the Cathedral, hundreds of worshipers attending mass at the height of summer joined the clergy to recite — in Armenian, of course — this credo in perfect, melodic unison. Chills went down my arms as I remained mute to appreciate the sacred feeling of communal and spiritual oneness that permeated the room. Thus did the echoes of Armenia continue to embrace us.
The Armenian presence in the Kessab region of Syria (about 100 kilometers west of Haleb) predates Christ. Here in Kessab’s village of Kaladouran, the air, the soil, the foliage, the homes, the people and their traditions are Armenian to the core. The Armenians of Kessab, a coniferous forested region that faces the Mediterranean Sea, had endured centuries of persecutions and Turkish attacks. Those unable to resist were death-marched to Der Zor in 1915. In the post-World War I era, Kessab endured further attacks from Turkey. In 1939, Turkey unjustly annexed part of Kessab’s Cassius Mountain range. This included the Barlum Armenian Monastery, farms, fields, properties, laurel tree forests and grazing lands that belonged to the native Armenians. Locals say that in the annexation Turkey managed to capture enough land to ensure that it possessed the pristine, sandy beaches surrounding the Kessab region and not the rocky ones, which were left to Syria.
It was only through the efforts and perseverance of the Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia Cardinal Krikor Aghajanian and Remi Leprert, the Papal representative in Syria and Lebanon, that Kessab remained under Syrian jurisdiction. From Kessab, Turkey is a mere 3 kilometers to the north, and Musa Dagh 50 kilometers further. A bright spot in the annals of Armenian history is that a vibrant, Western Armenian way of life, and Kessab’s unique Armenian dialect, still thrive in this coastal town and surrounding villages. Let us rejoice that Armenians freely live and prosper in a remnant of the majestic lands of the Armenian Cilician Kingdom.
Seeing magnificent Kessab again was a homecoming. Twenty years ago as a college graduation present, I was permitted to come to Kessab to rebuild the then nearly vanished Sourp Stepanos chapel with the organization named Yergir yev Mushagouyt (Land and Culture). Today, as I stepped out of our group’s van, entered the finished sanctuary and marveled at its rustic beauty, I knelt down, prayed, and then kissed the beams of the chapel, grateful to witness a miracle: a restored piece of Western Armenia that others and I had in some small way helped to make a reality.
And yet, in a moment of grief, I lamented aloud the burdens we Armenians bear. A resolute voice among us, Reverend Father Datev Mikaelian of Aleppo, again brought reassurance: “Gather your strength by looking at Kessab’s mountains and breathing deeply. Think of all our compatriots who resisted, sacrificed their lives, and are buried under these mountains. We cannot falter.”