Pilgrimage to historic Western Armenia

For 15 days in July, Garbis Der Yeghiayan took 30 people on a pilgrimage to historic Western Armenia, what is now Turkey. Here, they stand at the Holy Apostles Cathedral, which is now a mosque in the Kars province. (Photo courtesy of Garbis Der Yeghiayan / August 5, 2014)

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Earlier this month, 30 people, many of them local Armenians belonging to the diaspora, explored historic western Armenia, land that now belongs to Turkey, where many of their grandparents had been born and raised before they were driven out of the area or massacred during the 1915 genocide.

Leading them on the tour was Garbis Der Yeghiayan, who watched as many of them saw the ruins of their ancestral homes for the first time after hearing stories about them for most of their lives.

“I cannot describe in words, the emotional experiences of their faces,” he said. “They were speechless.”

Der Yeghiayan is the president of Mashdots College in Glendale, a campus that offers career technical and certificate programs in areas such as medical billing and early childhood education.

Kevork Agopian of North Hollywood signed up for the 15-day pilgrimage with his wife, Silva, curious to see Dörtyol — the town his grandparents and parents were from, located about 90 kilometers from Adana.

Growing up in Beirut, Agopian, a retired teacher, had heard about Dörtyol and its abundant orange groves.

“My grandparents and their friends used to come together. The topic of their conversation was their town — everyday life there. They used to speak about those orange trees.”

In Dörtyol, Agopian saw the church where his grandparents were married. It was the same one in which his mother and father were baptized, and only its four walls remained.

“It was such an emotional moment,” he said. “There were times you had to cry. Your eyes were wet.”

The journey was also emotional for Dikran Ghorghorian, who also grew up in Beirut and now resides in Toronto.

Initially, he worried about his safety as an Armenian traveling through Turkey.

“If I go there, I’m going to be killed or thrown in prison,” Ghorghorian recalled thinking. “That’s the mentality everybody has.”

However, the real-life-experience was quite different. “I was shocked and surprised how hospitable they were and how they treated us ,” he said of the Turkish residents. “Everywhere we went, we said we were Armenians. They treated us well.”

While on the bus traveling from Ani to Kars, he felt as if he were moving from one area of heaven to another, Ghorghorian said.

“All of our kings and people have worked here, walked here. It was so weird, the feeling. You’re basically in your dream,” he said.

Ghorghorian’s grandfather came from a wealthy family of coppersmiths, but he was only 5 years old when his family was massacred in their home in Sivas. He escaped being killed by hiding under the body of his dead mother. Days later, missionaries discovered him and sent him to an orphanage in Aleppo.

Upon seeing Sivas for the first time, Ghorghorian was overcome with a feeling that “somebody poured cold water on me,” he said.

While at Mt. Ararat, he picked up stones at the base of the mountain, and when he returned home, he delivered them to his daughter.

“What I’m putting in your hand is a piece of Mt. Ararat,” he said, and she nearly came to tears.

Vartkes Kourouyan, a North Hollywood resident whose father was the only survivor in his family, traveled to the area with his wife.

The former school principal took “pages and pages” of notes during the pilgrimage, from which he plans to write at least 15 articles about his experience.

“I think that all western Armenians whose roots are in western Armenia should go and visit,” he said, adding that it is especially important for political leaders supporting Armenians to “go and see with their own eyes.”

“If you go and see by your own eyes, the vastness of the loss…the land, the cities, the churches,” he said, trailing off. “It was an incredible experience.”

Garbis Der Yeghiayan has been making a regular pilgrimage to historic western Armenia since 1987, and he’s come to know the people and landscape well.

“Some people don’t want to visit… after visiting you will have a different understanding of what we have lost,” he said.

Today’s Turkish residents are sincere and hospitable, many with stories about how their grandparents attempted to hide their Armenian neighbors and save their lives.

“They were telling us, ‘Why don’t you come back? We need you. Our grandfathers have told us so many good things about you. We’re so sorry for what happened in 1915. We’re blaming our government for not recognizing it,” he said. “They were using the word ‘genocide.’”

Der Yeghiayan’s hope is that by 2015, when he returns for another pilgrimage to commemorate 100 years since the genocide, the broken bridge separating Armenia and Turkey over the Akhurian River will be repaired.