Armenian American Pilgrims Pay Homage in Lebanon, Syria and Der Zor
Armenian American Pilgrims Pay Homage in Lebanon, Syria and Der Zor
By Lucine Kasbarian
Published in Crossroads News (Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Eastern USA), The Armenian Reporter International and elsewhere
August 19, 2010
The Armenian Americans traveling through Lebanon and Syria on a pilgrimage organized by the St. Gregory of Datev Institute and the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, on the occasion of the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide have now concluded their journey and returned to the United States. Led by His Grace Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Vicar of the Prelacy, and Deacon Shant Kazanjian, Director of the Prelacy’s Armenian Religious Education Council, a group of 30 Armenian Americans, many of them students and graduates of the Datev Institute, visited people and places spiritually, historically and culturally significant to the Armenian people.
The Prelate, His Eminence Archbishop Oshagan, praised the pilgrimage and blessed the pilgrims for undertaking this “sentimental journey” in this 95th anniversary year. “It is an experience the pilgrims will remember forever,” he said.
While in Lebanon, the pilgrims completed a tour of the Armenian Catholicosate complex in Antelias. They prayed inside the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator—an impressive building constructed according to the Armenian architectural style under the guidance of architect Mardiros Altounian. Pilgrims also paid respects at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Chapel, which contains the remnant bones of those martyred during the Genocide. Inside the “Cilicia” Museum, pilgrims had the privilege of seeing rare church vestments, chalices, relics and documents rescued from churches in Western Armenia. Most of the religious treasures displayed in the Museum were brought to Antelias under severe circumstances around the time of the Genocide.
When asked why he embarked on this pilgrimage, Garo Tashian, a Datev Institute student from Providence, Rhode Island, said, “I came to see how my relatives endured the journey that brought them to Der Zor and which led to my family’s settling in Syria. Some still live here, and I will get to see them. I also wanted to see how different societies who believe in the same religion may celebrate and practice their Christian faith differently.”
In Lebanon, the group visited the self-sustaining Armenian town of Anjar, which was gifted in 1939 to Armenian refugees rescued from the besieged Armenian province of Musa Dagh and which enabled Armenians to start their lives anew in the aftermath of the Genocide. There, pilgrims were greeted by Reverend Father Ashod Karakashian and Mayor Harout Lakissian, who both spoke about the people of Anjar and their unwavering commitment to Armenian life and traditions. The esteemed leaders gave the pilgrims a tour of the Sourp Boghos Armenian Church, the Sarkis Zeitlian Community Center—named for the slain ARF leader—local Armenian schools and the Musa Dagh Memorial Monument.
Among other marvels in Lebanon, the group visited Baalbek – the largest and best preserved Roman temple in the world today, the magnificent ancient caves of the Jeita Grottoes, and the Cedars of Lebanon – a national forest from which Lebanon’s flag derived its inspiration. To the group’s amazement, Armenian components were found in exhibits displayed at the Kahlil Gibran Museum located in the former Mar Sarkis Hermitage in Bsharri, Lebanon. One was an anguished letter from Gibran to friend Mary Haskell, describing how the same Turkish Genocide that befell the Armenians was now recurring to the Christian Lebanese. The other was an ancient Armenian altar tapestry of Christ’s image that Gibran had purchased in New York and which he felt revealed the specific expressions and characteristics Gibran looked for in “his Jesus,” the Jesus he sought for inspiration all his life. Experts will soon evaluate this rare tapestry for further identification and restoration.
In Syria, the pilgrims journeyed to important Christian sites such as the Ma’alula and Saydnaya Monasteries, which are embedded in stone, and where local residents still speak Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus Christ. As centers of Christian pilgrimage, Ma’alula and Saydnaya are second only to Jerusalem as popular sites for healing and a renewal of faith.
While in Aleppo, the group participated in a brilliant Sunday Badarak (Divine Liturgy) at the hauntingly beautiful Forty Martyrs Armenian Cathedral. This 15th century church, located in the Old Christian district and which houses more than 30 ancient and modern icons, was named in honor of a group of Roman soldiers who faced martyrdom for their Christian beliefs near the city of Sepastia in Armenia. Pilgrims received the blessings of Aleppo Prelate His Grace Bishop Shahan Sarkissian who in welcoming the pilgrims, emphasized that Der Zor belongs to every Armenian around the world. He introduced his community to the group, reiterating what the pilgrims themselves had come to witness first hand: that Syria and Lebanon are at the center of Western Armenian culture, religion and traditions and where our language and practices are alive in the streets, shops, schools and community centers.
The pilgrims toured the awe-inspiring, faithfully preserved Citadel of Aleppo, which King Dikran I of Armenia conquered in ancient times. The group was taken to various Armenian community centers and observed local Armenians in their element. Pilgrims had the good fortune to have local Armenians such as Talin Giragosian, Avo Tashjian and Kevork Hagopjian accompany them to the Khan al-Jumruk—one of the oldest and best indoor bazaars in the Middle East—to haggle for spices, sweets, textiles, jewelry and souvenirs.
The journey’s main purpose, to pay homage to Armenian martyrs and survivors on the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, was completed with a trek into the Der Zor Desert—the killing fields for Armenians driven from their homeland during the Genocide. Guided by Aleppo’s Rev. Fr. Datev Mikaelian on board the group’s bus, pilgrims passed through towns that once housed Armenian refugees, many of whom either assimilated into Syrian society or eventually departed for other lands. Once in the barren desert, the pilgrims symbolically walked in the footsteps of their ancestors and said prayers for martyrs, survivors, family and nation. The pilgrims also ceremoniously tossed flowers into the Euphrates River, where many persecuted Armenians had met their end. As if performing on cue, local Bedouin boys seeking amusement in the hot weather waited for pilgrims to arrive, after which the youngsters dove from the rails of a bridge into the Euphrates below. Their acts recalled for many pilgrims the deeds of those Armenian women who valiantly flung themselves into those very waters to avoid violation and abduction during the Genocide. The group participated in a Hokehankisd (Requiem Service) at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church of Der Zor and visited the Genocide Museum located in the Church complex. The museum featured a monument containing bones gathered from the Der Zor desert belonging to Genocide victims, and also housed historic exhibits, period photos, rare artifacts gathered from Genocide survivors, and even documentary footage of the Genocide in progress that had been filmed by missionaries.
Despite suffering a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down, Araxie Bakalian of New York City joined this pilgrimage with her two sisters, Azadouhi Vartanian and Ovsanna Tatarian. “I came to honor our ancestors who went through hell during the Genocide,” she said. Motivated by her faith and sheer willpower – both which helped her to miraculously walk with crutches throughout the pilgrimage—Araxie said, “My condition is nothing compared to what the martyrs and survivors went through. If I can walk even a little and drink a bit of water during this journey, my condition is still better than that of our martyrs and survivors who saw Der Zor.” Araxie hopes the Prelacy will organize a Der Zor pilgrimage every year and invite Armenian youth to attend so that they can witness where and how their ancestors struggled for survival and died for their beliefs.
On their way back to Lebanon, the group made a stop in the Mediterranean town of Kessab, Syria – an ancient Armenian enclave which is part of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, and that today, borders with Turkey. Kessab is famous for laurel soaps, flavorful apples, its own Armenian dialect, and for being a popular summer resort for Armenians and Syrians alike. In the Armenian village of Kaladouran within Kessab, the group prayed in the new St. Mary Armenian Church, which was rebuilt last year on a crumbling predecessor, as well as the 900 year-old Sourp Stepanos chapel, fully restored by Armenians from the Land & Culture Organization.
Back in Lebanon, the pilgrims visited the Armenian Theological Seminary in Bikfaya. There, they met with His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, with each pilgrim receiving from him an Armenian cross. The group toured the Seminary, paid their respects at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Monument, and participated in a massive, community-wide outdoor Badarak on the occasion of Asdvadzadzin (Assumption) celebrations, the blessing of the grapes, and the distribution of herisseh.
With the assistance of local Armenian guides, such as Yeretzgin Christine Sarkisian and Janine Markarian, pilgrims were taken to the Armenian enclave of Bourj Hammoud, another district that had been gifted to the Armenians in the aftermath of the Genocide. There, pilgrims had the unique opportunity to circulate through a suburb of Beirut in which Armenian could be heard spoken in the streets, where Armenian fraternal and political organizations are housed, and where the majority of shops, restaurants and groceries are Armenian-owned and operated.
The group participated in one final Badarak at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Antelias, with Seminary choristers filling the Cathedral with stunning melody. A farewell dinner was organized at a seaside restaurant in Beirut with the help of local Armenians Nareg and Sevan Meguerian, and where pilgrims raised toasts to thank their organizers and hosts for their kindness and fellowship.
Traveling to ancient sites, many of which transported pilgrims to another time, witnessing where defenseless Armenians were slaughtered en masse, standing where spiritual miracles occurred and where the faithful pray, all gave pilgrims the opportunity to remember the past, renew their faith, share their hopes for spiritual renewal, and become inspired by Armenian communities that persist in their cultural practices. For this writer, participating in this pilgrimage on the occasion of the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was the best way possible to honor and witness a tremendous living culture which has survived against all odds, to remember the ordeals the Armenians endured, and to renew our commitment to our ancient faith and to justice for the Armenian nation.