by Vahan Edward Benglian Jr.

For two weeks in May (7-20) a group of faithful Armenians – 16 from the Toronto area, 3 from Montreal and one from Moscow – experienced the trip-of-a-lifetime. It was a pilgrimage to various Armenian heritage sites in Turkey. In this mission, where possible, the group joined local clergy and congregations in fellowship and solidarity. The trip was also a special personal journey for each participant, as it was an extraordinary opportunity to get closer to one’s family roots, both geographically and spiritually. Along the way, we “pilgrims” bonded with one another and came to a keen appreciation of our kinship with Armenians (and other folks) beyond our usual circles.

We acknowledge with gratitude all those responsible for contributing to the success of the trip. In the first place, the trip was conceived and authorized by His Grace Bishop Abgar Hovakimyan, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Canada. It was further developed and organized by the Women’s Guild Central Council, led by Anita Ohanessian (Chair), Ayda Afarian, Diana Bogosyan and Silva Mermer, all of whom in turn worked in close collaboration with the team of Kevork Sabuncu of Oselo International Tours.

The trip officially began in Istanbul, with three sessions devoted to the Armenian presence in the city. The group went to the Old Armenian Quarter in the Kumkapi neighborhood where a short service was celebrated at Surp Asdvadzadzin [Holy Mother of God] Patriarchal Church, after which we visited the offices of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople where we had an audience with the Vicar General and other key clergy. The following day the group visited the historic Surp Hreshdagabet [Holy Archangel] Armenian Church in the Balat neighborhood. Finally, the group visited the Shishli Armenian Cemetery in the Beyoglu neighborhood, where many prominent leaders of the community are buried. Amidst the ornate tombstones lies a memorial to poet Taniel Varoujan (1884-1915) which contains a few lines from his poem Andastan.

The core mission of the trip was related to sites such as these, but our journey also became a multifaceted and wide-ranging learning experience. The land we visited is a kaleidoscope of colors, patterns, spaces, landscapes, cultures and civilizations. Its history, like the land itself, is endlessly layered, complicated and full of twists and turns.

The rest of our time in Istanbul was devoted seeing its famous sites. We visited the Byzantine-era Basilica of the Hagia Sophia [Holy Wisdom] (inaugurated in 537 A.D.), as well as the nearby Ottoman-era Blue Mosque (built 1609-1617). We explored an ancient underground cistern, took a scenic boat cruise along the Bosphorus, and enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding city from several hilltop lookout points. We encountered stunning examples of imperial opulence and architectural splendor in the case of Topkapı Palace (originally built 1459-1465) and Beylerbeyi Palace (designed by Sarkis Balyan and built during the 1860s). We entered the maze of alleys within the Grand Bazaar and were confronted by the overwhelming profusion of goods displayed for sale.

Special mention must be made of the side trip we took along the shore of the Sea of Marmara to the city of Tekirdagh (Rodosto), once home to a thriving Armenian community. We sampled its famous kefte for lunch, had a relaxing walk along its seaside boardwalk and visited a small boutique vineyard in a nearby farming area.

En route to our next base of operations in Izmir (Smyrna), we stopped in the town of Iznik (Nicaea). It was here that the church fathers met at the first Ecumenical Council in 325 A.D. and adopted the Nicene Creed. While in the town, we visited the reconstructed remains of an ancient church. Also called the Hagia Sophia but much smaller in size than its namesake in Istanbul, it was the site of the seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 A.D.

The next day – Mother’s Day – we went to the House of the Virgin Mary, a Catholic shrine on a mountainside near Ephesus. We then visited Ephesus itself where we explored the majestic ruins of this ancient Greek city, a place where the Apostle Paul practiced his ministry for several years (c. 52-55 A.D.). We proceeded to the nearby village of Shirince and its picturesque hillside setting. This had been a Greek village up until it was abandoned near the end of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922). In recent decades efforts have been made to preserve and restore its historic houses and buildings.

On the way to Cappadocia, we visited the white travertine terraces at Pamukkale, walked barefoot in pools of warm mineral water and explored the ruins of the adjacent Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis [Holy City].

In Cappadocia we visited various geological sites featuring the bizarre craggy landscapes and enigmatic fairy chimneys the region is known for. A number of brave souls from our group went so far as to view this magical setting at sunrise from the vantage point of a soaring hot air balloon. Back down on earth, we went to the Ihlara Valley, descended to the bottom and then climbed up long steep staircases to enter the Byzantine cave churches and monastic spaces that were carved out of the rock on the high canyon walls. At the Göreme Open Air Museum, we encountered other more elaborate examples of such rock-cut churches and monasteries.

As we made our way towards Adana, we stopped in Kayseri to visit the Surp Krikor Lusavorich [Saint Gregory the Illuminator] Armenian Church. The area around the church is rather desolate and dreary, and the structure of the church has had to be reinforced in many places by steel bars. But the beautiful chestnut trees and lush almond trees standing near the entrance seem to promise something more hopeful and vital. Inside the church and with the memorial candles lit, a hokehankist [requiem service] was held for the deceased relatives of those who participated in the pilgrimage.

Afterwards, we travelled up the side of a hill to an area identified as Talas, which offered a panoramic view of Kayseri with its mountainous backdrop. By the early 20th century, Talas served as the headquarters for the American and Canadian missionaries and relief workers in this part of Turkey. (The remarkable story of how this group saved the lives of thousands of orphans, as written by Canadian author Wendy Elliott, was published last year by the Gomidas Institute.)

The road from Kayseri to the Adana area offered a last glimpse of Mount Erciyes (Argaeus) and took us through a magnificent series of ever-changing mountain scenes, reminiscent of the Rockies or the Alps. The land flattened out as we continued on to Karataş, a resort town on the Mediterranean Sea.

From this base of operations, we travelled to the port city of Iskenderun (Alexandretta) where we visited the Karasun Manuk [Forty Infants] Armenian Church on a narrow commercial street and met the young priest who is now serving the area. We then continued on to the Armenian village of Vakıflı, located on a lower part of the south face of the utterly massive Musa Dagh, where we visited its Surp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Church. After the service was over, outside among the tall cypress trees, we were warmly embraced by the congregation.

We had dinner further up the road at a hillside restaurant in the middle of an orange grove. Its outdoor patio afforded a view of the valley floor below, with a mist-covered sea and shoreline to the right, and a mountain ridge behind the valley plunging into the sea. It’s not clear if anyone in the group was aware of it at the time, but directly behind that mountain was the Syrian border and the town of Kessab.

The following day in Karatash we spent some time on the beach, and in the evening we were looking forward to a celebration, since we were flying back to Istanbul the next day. As we arrived for dinner at an open-air restaurant overlooking the sea, Mother Nature surprised us with one more amazing scene. We were treated to the sublime sight of a perfect full moon, set against a jet-black sky, low above the horizon, its reflection shimmering across the surface of the water. It felt as if an iconic seascape by the 19th century Russian-Armenia painter Ivan Aivazovsky had suddenly come to life on a very grand scale.

A couple of things remain to be said. First, our group found the food to be consistently fresh and delicious. This confirms the oft-stated opinion from the older generation that food always tasted better in the Old Country. Second, the author noticed that in his various interactions with the local population, everyone was unfailingly friendly, considerate and kind.

All in all, the trip was an eye-opening and thought-provoking experience on many levels. It was an emotional homecoming for those of us with family roots in this part of the world, and it served to strengthen and enrich one’s sense of what it means to be an Armenian.