Why Repeat These Sad Things?

Church of the Redeemer, Ani Ruins, Kars Province, Turkey
The Gamats Group, Church of the Redeemer, Ani Ruins, Kars Province, Turkey, 2005, manipulation of digital photograph , 6 x 4”. Courtesy of the artist.

I heard Sarkis Bey talk only twice about what happened to the Armenians. The first time was at Van Castle, in southeastern Turkey, where most of the Armenians had lived under the Ottoman Empire. The second time was much later.

At Van Castle we met a group of little boys. Sarkis Bey walked up to them and presented a pop quiz: Why were there three different kinds of stones in the castle walls?

“I know,” one of the boys said. “First it was Byzantine Turks. Then it was Seljuk Turks. Then it was Ottoman Turks.”

“What about the Armenians?” said Sarkis Bey.

“I don’t know.”

“Does anybody know what happened to the Armenians?” Sarkis Bey asked.

Another boy spoke up. “Yes. Half of them left, and half of them dropped into foreign lands.”

Sarkis Bey took aside this boy, a 10-year-old named Ridvan who had brown skin and brilliant green eyes, and told him that in fact the first layer of rocks was the work of the Urartians, who were the ancestors of the Armenians. The second layer was probably the work of the Armenians themselves, who lived here in great numbers during the Byzantine era and were known for their stonemasonry. He pointed out the site, in the distance, of the old Armenian quarter, and said that in 1915, to protect themselves from the advancing Ottoman army, the Armenians took refuge in this very castle where we stood. “Many, many Armenians were killed,” he added.

Then, one by one, the little boys sang us love songs in Kurdish and Turkish. Sarkis Bey put an arm around Ridvan. “This boy is especially bright,” he told me, and asked me to take their picture together.

I had never expected to end up in southeastern Turkey, an area the Kurds consider Kurdistan and the Armenians regard as the heart of Medz Hayk: Great Armenia. And it had been great, once—in the first century B.C., to be exact—when the Armenian Kingdom stretched from Syria to Azerbaijan. It’s a long story, but things went downhill from there. Two thousand years later, in the United States, I grew up surrounded by an unabashed hatred for Turkey and Turks. We referred to Turkish coffee, which we drank every day, as “Armenian coffee,” and we refused to buy products labeled “Made in Turkey.” My mother once spent weeks trying to buy a new bathrobe, but at store after store, every single robe declared its Turkish origins: the Turks had cornered the market on terrycloth. One evening, my mom returned home, exhausted, with a large bag from Sears. “Don’t tell anyone,” she warned me, and then held out her plush, pale yellow purchase.

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