A group of American Armenians stood at a green iron gate in eastern Turkey and rattled it. No one answered. They had found the right house—an eye doctor had lived there during the slaughter that came to be known as the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and sheltered the grandfather of one of them. But there was no one at home.
Then two women in headscarves in the house opposite called out and invited us across the narrow street. Instinctively the Muslim mother and daughter had understood that this was an Armenian group.
The mother disappeared and re-emerged with a worn black-and-white photograph of 11 family members. She pointed to an old woman in the picture wearing a white scarf and staring straight at the camera: That had been Veronica, the late mother of her late husband—and an Armenian.
There was much smiling, gesturing and photographing. Calls were made. An hour later we were all crammed into the tiny office of a jolly insurance broker named Kadir, drinking glasses of tea.
Kadir had a drawer full of more black-and-white photographs. One of the pictures was of five men in Syria in the 1950s. The man in the middle, he said, was Setrak Kherlakian, his father.
Several conversations broke out at once. One of the Armenians volunteered, "One of the wealthiest men in Sao Paulo is a Kherlakian." Someone else commented, "His great-grandfather saved the life of my grandfather's father and brother."
In 1915 and 1916, in the midst of World War I, much of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire was destroyed on the orders of the radical young leaders of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians were deported en masse to the deserts of Syria.
One Million Died
Perhaps 1 million people died, and an ancient culture was erased. Since then, most Armenians and Turks have been separated by trauma, geography and politics. Tens of thousands of Armenian women and children who were left behind and absorbed into Muslim families, either by violence or through acts of charity, apparently disappeared into history.
Except that they did not. On that day in the southeastern Turkish town of Maras, century-old snapped Armenian-Turkish threads came back together. Today, parts of the broken tapestry of Turkey's past are being mended.
Since the election of the government of the Islamist AK Party, Turkey has awkwardly begun to open up to its past. A space has opened up which has allowed diaspora Armenians, whose grandparents were deported in 1915 from the Ottoman Empire, to travel to their former homeland in greater numbers and citizens of Turkey to own up to their formerly hidden Armenian grandparents.
These trips and these encounters have been possible thanks to the courage of a few pioneering Armenians who have begun to build bridges and make contacts in Turkey.
Bishop Khajag Barsamian of the Eastern Diocese of the United States—effectively the Armenian bishop of New York—is one of them. He led this pilgrimage through Turkey. Serene, soft-spoken but tough-willed, he was born in Turkey and lived there in his childhood until he began a peripatetic life training for the priesthood and moving across the world.
Many of the Armenians had been fearful to join a trip back to the lands where their grandparents had been forcibly deported from a century before. "But the bishop persuaded me, and I am glad I came," said more than one of the pilgrims.
The group was warmly welcomed in tea shops and hotels. Every step of our journey brought moments of recognition and revelation. "This smells just like my mother's kitchen!" exclaimed one middle-aged man over lunch one day. “I find something here in my DNA I didn’t find in Armenia,” observed a younger woman.
Many of them discovered that they could speak more Turkish than they knew: It had been the second and sometimes the first language of their parents.
Finding themselves in the land of their ancestors, Armenians recalled terrible family stories. “My great-grandmother was a desert-walker," Maria told me. "Before she used to go to bed, she would attach all her jewelry to her underwear. I would ask her, 'Grandma, why?' and she would say ‘You never know when you have to leave in a hurry.'"
Barsamian was the leader and pastor of the Armenian group, while also taking time to talk to every Turkish official or tea-shop owner we met on the road. He understood both cultures. “On one side there is a feeling of pride, on the other is pain,” he said.
He was born in the central Turkish town of Arapgir in 1951. His grandmother was a powerful influence on him as a child. In 1915, her husband had been taken away when she was three months pregnant, but “I never felt hatred in her, only pain.” Although all the churches were destroyed, she taught her family to pray and read to them from the Bible. “I became a priest because of her.”
The most powerful encounter came in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir. Turkey's Kurdish political party, now called the HDP, has moved furthest in recognizing the cruelty committed against the Armenians in 1915 and has formally apologized to them.
A Radical Step
Naturally, this had a political element to it—the Kurds are challenging the idea of a Turkey in which ethnic Turks are at the top of the hierarchy. But it is a radical step, especially as individual Kurds were the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities in the deportations of the Armenians.
On a hot September evening, the Kurdish mayor of Diyarbakir welcomed the Armenian bishop and the group to the newly rebuilt and reopened Armenian church in the city. He called out, “Welcome, my brothers and sisters! We are very glad to see you in your own country, your own city!”
Surp Giragos church, the largest Armenian church in the greater Middle East, had been restored with the help of the local city municipality. The mayor arranged for a concert to be played in the church with one of the traveling Armenians playing the piano.
The next day—which also happened to be September 11—the bishop sang a requiem service for the dead. We stood in the serene tall-arched church and heard a long list of Armenian names—the souls of the departed. “May the lord bless the souls of our departed. We also remember those who died on 9/11," the bishop concluded in English for those of us who did not know Armenian. The choir lifted its unearthly singing. The congregation lined up to kiss the bishop's ring.
The evening before, a neat elderly couple came to the concert. For years, they had been officially the only two registered Armenians still living in the city—a place that was home to tens of thousands of Armenians before the killings of 1915.
The couple had been married in a civil ceremony in their youth. In April 2014, they were finally driven in a carriage to Surp Giragos for a church wedding, with the mayor of the city present. It was a small fragment of Armenian survival in Turkey and a tentative token for new beginnings.