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From Trabzon to Ararat

From Trabzon to Ararat

Cover photo: the face of Holy Mother in Sumela Monastery in Trapizon (Trabzon) was erased by non-christians /  jo.bloor

One of the prominent writers and literary critics of the Armenian people, Levon-Zaven Syurmelian was born in 1907 in Trabzon. He lost his parents during the Genocide and the fate lead him to Yerevan, New Bayazet, Gharaqilisa(Vanadzor), Batumi, Eysk, Krasnodar, Rostov, Constantinople and then to the USA. In 1924, Paris, at the age of fourteen he published his first book of poems “Luys zvart” (“The life-giving light”). He became internationally famous thanks to the autobiography novel “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen”(1945) which was written in English, translated into many languages and in 1980 was published in Armenian  in Yerevan. He is also well known for translating the Armenian epic Daredevils of Sassoun ("Sasna Dzrer") and many Armenian folk tales into English.

We present to you the translation of several episodes from the article “Armenia” written by Levon-Zaven Syurmelian and published in the American journal “Holiday”. The writer died in 1995, in Los-Angeles. 

My father’s pharmacy was situated in the main trade street of Trabzon. Its name – “Pharmacy central” – was written in gold letters on the large signboard in French, Turkish, Armenian and Greek.  Perfect prescription medicine was being made in the pharmacy. My father would be amazed if he saw modern American pharmacies. In the back room of Dr. Andreas Metakhas sick patients were sleeping and some of them had come from distant villages on foot or on their asses.

When Father returns home in the evenings, everybody gathers in the sitting room which is designed in Turkish style, the map of Italy and a writing board hung on the wall. He liked cards. Father takes his black shoes, puts his feet up and sits down on the small sofa near the stove. Victoria – our servant, a very beautiful girl whom accommodated in our house at the age of nine – brings  aperitif on a silver platter. Father with his hands pours vodka into the silver cup, adds a little water and drinks it after which we all say: "Cheers”. Then he wipes his mouth with a napkin, sighs noisily, bites caviar or a piece of Roquefort cheese, or marinated greens, or swallows fresh oyster, adding to it lemon juice.

Panorama of the city of Trabzon /

"I am a lord, lord," – exclaims the father, emphasizing the English meaning of the word, which incorporates a brief description of a good life and complete peace of mind. Then he talks to his wife and four children. What else can one wish? My mother was younger than the father for thirteen years and was taller than him. She looked like a “Circassian princess”: white-skinned, with long blonde hair, while father was dark-skinned. As they say, at the age of nineteen, before getting married, she was so beautiful that a stately Austrian prince, who was exiled to Trabzon from Vena or Polis, wanted to get marry with her. She was the daughter of a rich merchant who played backgammon with the Turkish rulers and was the leader of the Armenian community of Trabzon, later shot in the central square by order of Sultan Abdul Hamid during the suppression of the Armenian "uprising".

Armenians from Trabzon /

The women of Trabzon were well-known for their beauty and were the greatest value of the city in the Middle Ages. Both Western and Eastern rulers were looking for wives there: Burgundian dukes and Polish emperors, Turkmen leaders and Georgian kings were sending delegations to Trabzon to find wives for them. Geneva and Venetian merchants, who had their communities in the city and played an important role in the Black Sea trade, were spreading worldwide the glory of the beauty of the Trabzon women as the most beautiful in the world, and their fascination was an inexhaustible source for the creativity of the French troubadours.

Our dining room was furnished in European style: there was an open copper oven on which we were heating the bread to a golden crust. The map of Greece hung on the wall. Usually, we were drinking tea for dinner. In an hour were coming back to the sitting room, the father was sitting down in the sofa and was reading “Byuzandion” – a conservative magazine which was opposing our passionate revolutionaries.

As a disappointed teacher, my father believed that Mathematics was the essence of all sciences. He was sure that two more things were important for the good education: Greek and Music. My sister Nuard was sent to study in the Greek school, which was true disrespect to the Armenian community, famous for its schools. My brother Onnik took private lessons in the Greek language. Nuard was learning to play the piano, and Onnik – on the violin. I was too young for all that.

In the evenings, my father was playing the violin and singing church songs for us. He always got up and kept the rhythm with his foot or waved his hands, conducting his favorite songs and songs that we performed. When we were having guests and that was quite often, he was starting a musical program in the living room, which was furnished in French manner and decorated with jars brought from Paris. Onnik was supposed to play the violin, Nuard  play  the piano, while I was supposed to read poems, standing on the chair. After that the women and the children were leaving the room so that the men could play cards.

On private holidays the father used to invite the   European orchestra and the  guests danced waltz and quadrille, drank several chests of champagne. Easter was our favorite holiday. The schools were being closed for two weeks. The week was starting by the house cleaning. Mother was making a holiday dinner for Easter Sunday.

On Thursday, Mother took us to a public bathhouse, which was once a Byzantine church and was turned into a bathhouse for infidels “Gyavur hamam”. On the same day, after the bath, we were going to church, where the bishop was washing feet of 12 disciples, including mine. This very touching priesthood symbolizes the Christ washing the feet of his disciples (apostles). After that we were supposed to kiss the Episcopal cross placed in velvet Bible.

On Easter, everyone wore their best outfits. Even the poorest bought for themselves at least a couple of new shoes. Fashion women went out in dresses of the latest French fashion, despite the fact that the bishop did not approve of it.

The next important holiday was the Ascension Day. We were spending several days in the Armenian temple the windows of which were facing the Xenophon camp. The temple was situated near Erzrum, on the top of the hill. Wits its thick walls and tower it was reminding of a castle. Mother was renting a room for us in a house for pilgrims. A corridor ran along the length of the house. From there we could observe the quadrangular platform below, where the poor people, peasants and musicians were housed with their musical instruments: zurna, kamancha, dhol. When the peasants started dancing, the young unmarried girls were showing themselves in all their glory , and the young guys, were looking for  brides among them.

According to custom, the people were supposed to bypass the temple three times with rams for sacrifice, on whose horns lit candles were attached. Then, under an oak or a nut, the people were cutting them, making a shish kebab out of them and giving away to everyone for saving the souls of the deceased. All this was accompanied by the play of a pair of blind goons on the violin, who sang their heroic and lyric songs, or sang the works of Sayat-Nova ashugh Jivani and other famous gusans.

From Trabzon to Erzurum you can reach by bus, passing through Armenia along the road leading to Samarkand. From Erzurum to Kars you can get by rail or by bus. If you travel by bus, you will pass Sarykamysh, which is situated at an attitude of 7500 steps above sea level. Because of the cedar forests, you might think you are in Switzerland with a sole difference that in winter there is up to 30 degrees frost there.

The two-headed Ararat, like a guard, stands confidently over Yerevan. No other city in Europe and the world has such a location. There are no other mountains near Ararat. It seems that the Armenian giant does not tolerate anyone's presence. This is the reason that it is so high. I compare Kazbek with Ararat. Both mountains have practically the same height, but the Georgian giant seems to be half as large.

Big Ararat with a peak among the swirling clouds, is like a mighty biblical old man. Next to it, Small Ararat, having a perfect conical form, appears in the image of his devoted friend. It seems that this royal couple, with the power of God, faithfully rules the amber, pomegranate and amethyst kingdom, stretched out before them. It allows Yerevan to be very close, but its peaks are 22 miles, on Turkish soil. And yet Ararat appears on the state seals of Armenia, since this mountain, regardless of international agreements, is the eternal symbol of our people.

A postcard with the image of Ararat /

Armenians, as much as they love their homeland, still do not adapt very well to their native environment. Turks, Georgians, Persians, as a rule, did not move to other places so much. Armenians always preferred to go to the West. Soul and heart with Europe – this thought is very firmly seated in us. We are a small nation, squashed by giant neighbors and repeatedly trampled by them. Very close to the world civilization from the first days of our history, and in the camp of emerging empires, we went our own way. We were the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity and for a long time fought for it both with the help of our own army, and thanks to the Byzantine Armenian emperors and generals. They took up swords, cleaned them more than once, and miraculously revived, once again entering the arena with their enemies.

Our history is an endless series of wars, bloodshed, revolutions and revival. And now we live in greater fear of being destroyed than before. Armenians are completely uprooted along with 4/5 of our homeland. No other Armenian can live in Trabzon, Kars, Erzurum, Van. In the past, Armenian colonies were assimilated in Poland, Hungary and Romania, becoming a part of  general population. And think about how much we can endure this time, fearing that 3 million Armenians residing in the Soviet Union will be Russified, and although I do not live in Armenia, I am sure and aware that we will not be able to continue our existence in the colonies abroad.

“There will no Armenian left after  our death” – you hear these lamentations in all communities. We will listen to our music and poems side by side, we will dance, holding hands, and we will always argue about how to liberate Armenia.

Destroyed, torn to pieces and scattered all over the world, the Armenian people are struggling with their identity, refusing to renounce their dreams until the destructive floods pass through the last remaining obstacles and the walls disappear under our feet.

Undoubtedly, Armenians are insane. They are mad because they sing an immortal song in cruel times. Babylon, Assyria, the Hittite state, Media, Rome, Byzantium, and Parthenon – all of them disappeared from the face of the earth, while their contemporary lives to this day. In spite of everything, our poets are writing, architects are building, musicians are composing, and merchants are rendering assistance to national interests. There will be no end to this. There are still Armenian schools in Beirut and Aleppo, in poor neighborhoods, in dilapidated old buildings or in Arab villages on the banks of the Euphrates.

The boys are barefoot, whose parents have been refugees for 40 years, but still learn the Armenian alphabet, sing folk songs and read favorite poems of national poets.

We can see in their faces a trace of restlessness, but Tigran the Great entered Antioch with a 500,000 army and destroyed the Parthian cavalry, the battle led by the brave Saint Vardan defended the right of the church and people to remain Christians, and Armenia continues to guard the eastern borders of Christianity as the vanguard of Western civilization on the East. The West and the East simultaneously penetrate into the soul of the Armenian, while from time immemorial they collide with each other. And I will show in the example of Armenia how peaceful and united the world can be.

Translated from Armenian. "Dzayn Hamshenakan", october 2004


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