A bishops' pilgrimage to Western Armenia

by Bishop Sebouh Chouljian

Published: Saturday December 12, 2009

Ruins of Moush's Holy Apostles Monastery.


Bishops' Pilgrimage to Western Armenia

Yerevan - This article originally appeared in Armenian in Azg on September 12. It was translated by Rev. Fr. Simeon Odabashian.

The bishops' first pilgrimage

In August 2007 Bishop Sebouh Chouljian, primate of the Gougarats Diocese in Armenia, yearning to visit his birthplace in the homeland and feeling the need to quench the thirst of his soul, together with Bishop Mikael Ajapahian, primate of the Shirak Diocese in Armenia, traveled to eastern Turkey - or Western Armenia - for the first time. The pilgrim bishops toured once-glorious monasteries and churches, ancient cities and villages of the lost Yergir. Some monuments were half-standing, some were ruined, and others were leveled to their very foundations. They saw and reverently experienced everything that still retains the Armenians' soul and breath, bears the Armenian scent and seal, and waits with a longing hope and faith for the good news of the homecoming of her children.

The pilgrimage, however desirable and impressive, nevertheless awakened troubling feelings and memories in the hearts of the bishops, since they were standing on a land that was both familiar and foreign. It was familiar because, like their forebears, they were also born there and were nourished by that land's endless blessings, the soul's thirst having been satisfied with the cool water of that place's pure springs. The earth of the native land while being so close, nevertheless felt so much more distant.... The total realization and feeling of the loss of the historical patrimony in all aspects were greater than each uncovered historical fact.

Immediately upon his return from Western Armenia, Bishop Sebouh delivered lectures to students, professors, and intellectuals in Vanadzor. Without hiding his emotions, he expressed with pain and regret, "We have lost not only our people, land and culture; we have lost an entire world; Armenians' ancient and historically rich world, whose loss is hardly possible to express in words."

The 2007 pilgrimage included the following destinations: Kars, Ani, Van, Aghtamar, Shatakh, Tigranakert, Malatia, Adiyaman, Arabkir, Erzincan (Yerznka), Terjan (Derjan), Baberd, Ardvin, and Hopa. The pilgrims visited the ruins of the ancient capital Ani, Kars' Holy Apostles Church, Tgori, Houskan Vordi, Varak, the Holy Cross Church of Aghtamar, Karmir, Tordan, the monastery of St. Daniel in the village of Aprank and the hermitage of St. Gregory of Narek. They saw the ruined relics of our homeland.

Bishop Sebouh emotionally described his birthplace and home in Malatia, its Holy Trinity Church and monastery of St. Gregory the Illuminator. In Adiyaman he found the home of his grandfather, Dzeroun, and partook of the fruit of the fig tree planted by his grandfather and washed in the waters of his well.

During the months of June and July 2009, Bishop Sebouh Chouljian and Bishop Mikael Ajapahian, having in mind what they saw and heard during their first pilgrimage (see box), departed once again for Western Armenia, this time to include a visit to Cilician Armenia. The geography of the second pilgrimage was more expansive. The bishops, during their one-month trip, visited the cities of Ardahan, Kars, Igdir, Ahlat (Khlat), Doghu Peyazit (Bayazet), Moush, Chengili (St. Karapet), Tatvan (Datvan), Bitlis (Baghesh), Sgherd, Midiat, Mardin, Derik, Musaybin (Mdzbin), Oorfa-Kharan (Yetesia), Ayntap, Kilis, Zeytoun, Kurkughan, Marash, Samandagh-Vaguf (Musa Ler), Antakia (Antioch), Iskenterun (Aleksandret), Payas, Dyortyol (Chorek Marzpan), Ayas, Anavarza, Adana, Misis (Mamestia), Korikos, Tarsus (Tarson), Kozan-Sis, Kesaria-Cappadocia, Svaz (Sebastia), Devrik, Elazugh-Kharberd, Balou, Bingyol (Japaghjur), Erzroum (Karin), Olti, and Yusufeli.

In Bishop Sebouh's words, "The loss of historical memory is restored in the very place where one has lost it."

We visited, toured and photographed all of the preserved as well as destroyed Armenian monasteries and churches of the above mentioned cities and their neighboring villages. In addition, we visited the remnants of Armenians who still live on their ancestral land and have been able to preserve their national identity. The reception we received in the Armenian village of Vaguf in Musa Ler (120 Armenians) was very warm.

We pilgrim bishops celebrated the Divine Liturgy and conducted the liturgy of the hours in that village's Holy Mother of God (Soorp Astavadzadzin) Church. We met and conversed with Armenians living in Elazughum-Kharberd, whose number is 52, with 65 Armenians living in Sebastia, four in Kesaria, eighty in Iskenderun, and six in Adana. In every place the conversation between the small groups of Armenians and us two clergymen was sincere, warm, and void of interpretive stories of the cruel happenings of the distant past.

The meetings with them were emotional and comforting, because after 1915 these people stubbornly continued living and working in Turkey, while keeping their identity, traditions, and national character. Although they could barely speak Armenian, they no longer concealed their being Armenian. In fact, they proudly spoke of their national identity and Christian faith. That final remnant of Armenians, in addition to having a yearning to keep their identity, to have a church, and to learn Armenian, have numerous problems related to their future existence.

We visited a number of famous monasteries and village churches. Despite its almost-impossible-to-reach and barely accessible geographical location, we pilgrims managed to reach and pray at the Aghbrik Monastery, which is dwarfed by high mountains near Mush's Ikizler (Khzank) village.

We went to Mush's (Chengeli) famous Saint Karapet Monastery, Mush's (Kepenek) Holy Apostles, Ardzaber (Altun Sach) monasteries on Van's southern shore, Deghirmen Altu (Por) village's Narek Church, where we came upon large khatchkars (stone-crosses), masterpieces from the early middle ages. At another monastery outside the village we also found such khatchkars. On the road to Elazugh near the village Shahin Kaya we visited a monastery called Houleh. We enjoyed the hospitality of clergy at Assyrian monasteries in Midiat and Mardin. At the monastery of St. James of Nisibis we offered prayers unto God, asking for the saints' intercessions, and in Oorfa we visited shrines dedicated to Blessed Job and Father Abraham.

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