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Exploring the ‘Hayastan’ Most People Don’t See: My Trip to Western Armenia

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By Raffi Yaboujian

As I sat in the airplane bored and tired of watching movies, I began to flip through the pictures I had taken on my iPhone. Like it always happens, my vacation had flown by yet again. I’d been away from home for 21 days, and in those 3 weeks had traveled through 4 different countries, leaving me with 5 different currencies in my backpack and not enough hours of sleep. It was safe to say I was tired. This trip was different, though. This trip was fulfilling. I was leaving Lebanon with something I didn’t have 21 days before.

I remember taking pictures of Mount Ararat from the Turkish side during our trip and quietly hoping that one day we would have Armenians living on both sides of the mountain.

I remember taking pictures of Mount Ararat from the Turkish side during our trip and quietly hoping that one day we would have Armenians living on both sides of the mountain.

Any Armenian who lives in the diaspora and who has traveled to the Motherland knows that it is something that cannot be taken for granted. There is a special bond that every Armenian can feel when arriving in Hayastan. It had been seven years since the last time I was in Yerevan and I could not be more excited to be flying in from Lebanon. I had heard so many great things about the capital city, about the improvements that had been made since the last time I was there, and was happy to see that Yerevan was slowly changing for the better. Two days into arriving in Yerevan, it was time to pack my bags yet again and say goodbye to the AYF internship house that had temporarily housed me. The time had come for one of the two reasons I had traveled halfway across the world (the second reason I’ll keep to myself): It was time to leave Yerevan and head into enemy territory to explore historic Armenia.

We had all agreed to meet at 5:45 a.m. on July 24. Accompanying me were two fellow East Coast AYFers from New Jersey. As we shared a cab in the early hours of the morning to the ARF’s main youth office, none of us really knew what to expect from the next seven nights. People started to scatter outside of the office little by little. All in all there would be 27 of us, plus our 2 drivers. It was a good mix of people from different parts of the world. There was a group from Lebanon, which I had a chance to meet on the plane ride to Yerevan, a few people from Tehran, one girl from Argentina, and the locals who lived in Hayastan. We split into the 15-passenger busses and began our journey to the Armenia-Georgian border. Our trip was going to be eight days and seven nights. Each day we would be traveling through different cities, stopping at a hotel for a few hours of rest and doing it all over again the next day. Our goal was to visit some of the most prominent Armenian villages, churches, castles, and cities before they were snatched away from us during the genocide. We would also be trying to seek out Armenians living in Turkey today, which would prove to be difficult as even now the Turkish government uses fear tactics and other methods to slowly wash away any trace of Armenians that still exist.

Looking back at the Armenian border from Georgia was when it first hit me: I was going to be a part of the tiny percent of Armenians who were fortunate enough to cross the borders and explore what most today consider to be Western Armenia. Our trip through Georgia was short. We had a quick pit stop in Akhalkalak, where the village was predominantly Armenian. In fact the village was so Armenian that there was actually an Armenian church and also a statue of Mesrob Mashdots in the town center. We continued our journey to the Turkish border. The next seven days would fly by. Before I knew it, we had travelled through 13 different cities, seen some breathtaking sights, met some amazing people, heard some astonishing stories, and felt emotions that I cannot put into words. Our busses turned into tight-knit units that will surely last beyond the trip.

Having traveled through Ani, Gars, Van, Mush, Kharpert, Dersim, Tunceli, Erzerum, Ispir, Rize, Hopa, and Ardahan, I can say that each city had its own story and that each brought its own array of emotions, but a few places stuck out to me in particular. Arriving at the Ani ruins, for example, was very special for everybody on the trip. When first pulling up to the ruins and seeing the giant Turkish flag planted on top of the massive walls, I felt a little out of place. It was weird to hear our tour guide explain to us that in its heyday, Ani had a population of more than 100,000 people and that it was one of the most prominent cities at the time. Now we were walking in an open field that had a few churches remaining. It was tough to take in, harder to think knowing what could have been. The Armenian border was so close that I could literally pick up a rock and throw it over the fence that was separating the two countries. This was going to be a feeling that would surface many times over the next seven days.

One of my favorite sights of the entire trip was arriving in the city of Van and laying eyes on Vana leej for the first time. It was pure beauty. Mile after mile and it just wouldn’t end. Our bus kept driving along the crystal blue water and our group grew more and more impatient to jump in, but our ungers who planned the trip had set up a surprise excursion for us. As our bus came to a stop and we got out, our attention was called to stop looking at the water and turn our eyes towards the mountains. Up there was the Soorp Thomas Church. From our bus it looked like a tiny dot on top of one of the gigantic hills. An hour and a half later, and about 50 thorns stuck in my legs, we had made it up the backbreaking mountain. In front of us was the Soorp Thomas Church and according to our tour guide, we would be the first group this size to travel up in about 100 years.

As we checked out the church more closely, the second reoccurring theme of my trip was once again present: Everywhere we visited had traces of Armenians around. Whether it was a khatchkar in stone or Armenian writings on the walls, the proof was undeniable. What made the journey up the mountain just a little sweeter was the fact that we had taken an Armenian flag up with us. So for those 30 minutes or so that we spent up there, we were able to reignite some of the Armenian roots that Soorp Thomas once had. The view of Vana Lake from atop the sacred church was alone worth the struggle to reach the top, but now it was time to go back down and actually jump in. The water up close was just as we had imagined it from the car—warm and clear and the ultimate refreshment after a tiring day.

The next day we would travel to one of my favorite spots, the Sulukh Bridge in Mush. This is where the legendary Armenian Fedayi Kevork Chavush was wounded and eventually died during the course of battle. To actually see the locations that I have heard in stories and sung in revolutionary songs was surreal. Chavush is a legendary icon to every Armenian for his heroic battles for freedom against the Turkish and Kurdish opposition. Until this day, he is celebrated through his stories and songs and will be forever remembered as one of the greatest revolutionaries in Armenia’s rich history.

On the final day of our journey, we found ourselves in the city of Hopa. Our agenda was a very simple one: We would travel up the mountainous parts of the region to nosebleed altitudes to see a small village of Hamshentsi Armenians. We were able to visit three families on that day. We met the most memorable of those families during our final stop, when we met an old Armenian grandmother with her two daughters and grandchildren. They had Armenian roots and although the daughters and grandchildren didn’t have any real recollection of their Armenian heritage, the grandmother would eventually reconnect with her Armenian roots right in front of us. After sitting down in their patio and offering tea for 30 people–which showed how Armenians are always hospitable to other Armenians no matter where you go–one of the main organizers of our trip, U. Haygaz, began to talk to our Hemshentsi nene. After 30 minutes of warming up to her, plus a bit of pleading mixed with arguing, he was finally able to convince her to sing for us. As our group sat there focused solely on her song, I felt as comfortable as I had ever been during our trip. To see and hear with my own eyes and ears that Armenians still existed in these remote villages was a high unlike any other. And as happy as that family was to see all of us, I think they’re the ones who would be leaving us with their lasting impressions.

So as I looked out the window of the airplane heading back to Boston, there were a few things running through my head. The first and most important was the new perspective I had gained. Since I was a little boy, I was taught about the Armenian Genocide and the atrocities that had occurred. I was told about the 1.5 million Armenians that were slaughtered and the vast amounts of land that were taken from us. I was taught the importance of being Armenian and keeping my culture, language, and history alive. Although it is difficult for me as a 25-year-old living in the diaspora to really grasp what it genuinely means to lose 1.5 million brothers and sisters, what I am capable of doing today because of my trip to Western Armenia is to truly appreciate how important it is for us to remain strong in our fight for recognition and reparations.

To have been able to make a tangible connection with the land—walking through the streets, swimming in the water, hiking up the mountains, and even breathing the air—really brought me to the realization that we had been robbed of our most prestigious and scenic real estate. I kept thinking over and over how each place we visited was more beautiful than the place before, and what Armenia would be like today had these lands still been in our grasp.

This is where the motivation for our future generations is going to come from. We as Armenians have to start making it a point to place more value on the Western part of Armenia. And just like it is an obligation for every Armenian outside of Armenia to visit the Motherland, the Western part of Armenia should be no exception. I am so thankful to the AYF-YOARF for giving me the opportunity to represent the Eastern Region as a member of the AYF and ARF. I remember taking pictures of Mount Ararat from the Turkish side during our trip and quietly hoping that one day we would have Armenians living on both sides of the mountain. Although this is a dream that could take another 50-100 years to come true, now I know what my ancestors died for and what we as the current generation of Armenians continue to fight for.

9 Comments on Exploring the ‘Hayastan’ Most People Don’t See: My Trip to Western Armenia

  1. avatar Connie Koumjian // August 23, 2013 at 10:00 am // Reply

    Thank-you for your article on this a most important topic – the Armenian quest for recognition of the genocide by the world and reparations .. especially wonerful is your description of the “nene”
    in Hopa, a part of the Hamshentsi Armenians… God Bless You Raffi Yaboujian- Did you know there is a street in Yerevan named “Raffi Street”? It is in a section of town called “Bangla Desh near Malatia section of Yerevan ….Connie Koumjian(sisterrose427@yahoo.com)

  2. avatar sylva-MD-poetry // August 25, 2013 at 12:13 pm // Reply

    Beautiful…Beautiful
    Soulful…hearty phrases
    I can add more…
    More and more…

    I repeat…”Keghezig”…Beautiful
    Once you read the real passionate love
    in Raffi’s heart and how He wrote
    with his eyes
    with his soul
    You want to read more
    more and more…

    I felt as if I was with him
    with his beloveds from every site
    United to see with their both eyes…
    what treasures they lost
    Hopping to gain their lands again…

    I say when …?!?! and when…!?!?
    That will happen in which century
    only the mount Ararat knows
    The arriving wind from the west
    in their dreams can guess…

    only the time one day
    will speak
    will tell…
    we are back in our lost lands
    we stand here…!

    Sylva-MD-Poetry
    written instantly
    August 25, 2013

  3. avatar Virginia Hekinian // August 26, 2013 at 4:01 am // Reply

    The tragedy of the lost Armenian lands in Anatolia (in Kharpert, Ani, etc) is that fewer and fewer traces of the previous Armenian culture are still there. Not one house remains in Kharpert, in many villages the ruins of churches and crushed gravestones are all that attest to the 3000 year presence of Armenians in this part of the world. The genocide continues with the continuous erasing of Armenian history by the present day Turkish government. According to signs at the site, Ani was built by “a king”, but not an Armenian King. The ruined churches you come across are now part of the “Ottoman heritage”… not Armenian! Any Armenian who manages to visit this part of our world will most likely be heartbroken by the desecration, but you may also be surprised by the attitude of the Kurds living there now. If you can speak Kurdish, it may even be possible to meet “lost grandmothers” who were taken into Turkish homes during and soon after the genocide, and who have hidden their past in a dark, forgotten corner of their minds.

  4. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL, TOUCHING, PENETRATING, WONDERFUL ARTICLE…THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS WITH US…LOVED IT IMMENSELY. AT 82 AND NOT WELL, IT’S THOUGHTFUL, CARING, PEOPLE LIKE YOU THAT KEEPS ALL OF US INVOLVED SO THAT WE NEVER FORGET…YOU AND OTHERS KEEP OUR HOPES ALIVE. :))))))))))))))

  5. avatar Linnea Olesen // August 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm // Reply

    20 years since I was in Armenia.. I was a lucky member of the very first US Peace Corps group (over 40 of us) to arrive in Yerevan, Dec , 1992… and begin our volunteer work in education and business. We were fortunate, though COLD in winter,as our gas supply trains were damaged as they came through Georgia. I didn’t want to go to Turkey on “vacation” with other volunteers. Maybe now I will get up the nerve!.lso

  6. My experience of these large Armenia-based Armenia to Turkey tour groups is that they are just hasty and superficial commercial tourism. I recommend that nobody who wants to properly see and experience the Armenian sites in Eastern Turkey should be in one of those groups. They also break numerous laws in Turkey (such as not having proper vehicle insurance) but are allowed to continue because the Turkish government, for political reasons, finds it advantageous to allow them to continue. That alone should arouse suspicions. However, for me, what is particularly disappointing is the lie-filled propaganda that some of the tours tell their participants (not all of them do it – Volodya’s AniTour, whose groups are mostly smaller in scale, seemed OK). I hope Raffi Yaboujian’s group was not a victim of that sort of ugliness, being perhaps told that the little mosque in Erzurum’s castle was actually a converted Armenian church. Try to point out the ludicrousness of that lie and you will get threats of violence (and even death threats) from the group leaders.

  7. avatar Ara Toroyan // August 26, 2013 at 7:57 pm // Reply

    I traveled to present day Armenia back in ’89 and ’97 with Land and Culture. It was a great experience and I am grateful that I had the opportunity. I’m so glad that you were able to go to western Armenia. Congratulations to you. It would be nice to see some of your favorite pictures as well!

  8. avatar Kevork Gulluian // August 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm // Reply

    Hello! I am 82 years old, I do not have College degrees, but I do have life experiance, becaose I born in Istanbul, you knows what I mine, My educations was on street, and I was a genoside survived son. We Armenians are very integent, that is our Nations problems. If we have 10 smart and eteligent person and 100 ustuped, we be world lieaders and we newer lost our lands which we lived more than 2000 years. Now our new born Armenia is 20 years old unexperiansed yung boy. We must be help hime, by support hime as much we can. Firtstable me must honereble tax payer, like we do in USA. Sorry no more space.have a nice days.

  9. I have traveled to Historic (Western) Armenia three times to visit my father’s village of Sis in Shabin Karahissar and to my mother’s village of Goteh in the Provence of Erzerum. We went in 1993, 2005, & 2012. Whatever villages we went to Turks & Kurds would tell us that their Grandmother was Armenian. Their is no Mongol look in the faces of the Turks. They are so intermixed with all the Christian people they so conquered from 1064 when the Seljuk Turks invaded our Historic lands. Then came the Mongol Turks in the 12th century and after the Ottoman Turks whom all devastated the area and with forcible assimilation. For those whom want to see the villages where their parents came from should make the trip there and to record their parents history so we don’t forget what the Turks did to civilization and to our people.

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