Musa Dagh, the mountain of resistance


April 1915, one hundred years ago. Five thousand Armenians, persecuted by the Turks, seek refuge on the massif of Musa Dagh, nort of the Bay of Antioch. The following excerpt is taken from Franz Werfel’s historical novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933), which narrates the story of this case of Armenian resistance during the “Great Crime”, in Armenian Medz Yeghern. In this piece, the Armenian Gabriel Bagradian is struggling with the preparations for the defense of Musa Dagh, an “island” of salvation for five thousand Armenians. Every gesture is permeated by precision, from the census of the Armenians of the region, through the mapping of the area, to the analysis of the mountain itself, essential for the defense, despite the scarce military resources. Only a careful preparation and a deep knowledge of the area – do not forget that until 1915, the region was mostly inhabited by Armenians – can help the small group of Armenians to escape the immense tragedy that was taking place at that time.

“Now that he had no Stephan to teach, Samuel Avakian had another, entirely different occupation.Gabriel passed him all the rough notes which he had been collecting for many weeks and asked the student to reduce them to one comprehensive, statistical statement. Avakian was not told why.

His first job was to classify under various headings the population of all the villages, from Wakef, thelace village in the south, to Kebussiye, the bee-keeping village in the north. The information gathered by Bagradian from the village clerk of Yoghonoluk and the other six village elders was to be arranged and checked. By next morning Avakian had the following precise table for Gabriel […]

This census included the Bagradian family, with dependants. But, besides such lists, more exact classifications were drawn up, giving the number of families in each village according to occupation or craft, indeed from every conceivable angle.

But it was not only a matter of human beings. Gabriel had tried to find out the number of head of cattle in the district. That had been by no means an easy task, an only partially successful one, since not even the mukhtars knew the exact figures. Only one thing was certain. There were no big livestock, no oxen or horses. On the other hand, every well-to-do family owned a couple of goats and a donkey, or a riding and sumpter mule. The larger herds of sheep, owned by individual breeders of communes, were driven, in the fashion of all mountaineers, up on to the quiet meadow pasturage – sheltered meadows where they stayed from one shearing to the next in the care of shepherds and shepherds' boys. It proved impossible to get any exact idea of these herds.

The industrious Avakian, to whom every task was a boon, went zealously forth into the villages and had already transformed Bagradian’s study into a kind of statistics bureau. Secretly he rather scoffed at this very elaborate hobby, by which a rich man was attempting to fill up the days of an indefinite period of suspense. Nothing seemed too trifling for this pedant, who had obviously conceived the idea of writing a scientific memoir on the village life around Musa Dagh. He even wanted to know how many tonirs, kneading-troughs walled into the ground, there were in the villages.He investigated the harvests minutely and seemed to be worried by the fact that the mountain folk imported their maize and the reddish Syrian wheat from Mohammedans down in the plain. It seemed to annoy him that there should be no Armenian mills, either in Yoghonoluk and Bitias or elsewhere. He even ventured to trespass on Krikor’s preserve and inquire as to the state of the drug supplies. Krikor, who had expected to display his library, not his pharmacy, traced the curve of the roof with a pair of disillusioned fingers. On two small shelves bottles, jars, and crucibles of all kinds were set out, painted with exotic inscriptions. It was all there was to suggest a chemist's shop. Three big petroleum jars in a corner, a sack of salt, a couple of bales of chibuk-tobacco, and some cheap ironmongery indicated the more active side of the business.

Krikor proudly tapped one of the mystic jars with his long bony fingers. “The whole pharmacopoeia,as St. John Chrysostom pointed out, can be reduced to seven primary substances: lime, sulphur, saltpetre, iodine, poppy, willow-resin, and bay-oil. It’s always the same thing in hundreds of different disguises.” After such a lesson in contemporary pharmaceutics Gabriel made no further inquiries. Luckily he had a fairly extensive medicine chest of his own. But, more significant than all this, was the incident of the small arms. Chaush Nurhan had already dropped some dark hints on the subject. Yet, the instant Gabriel tried to broach it with village notables, they beat hasty retreat. One day, however, he assailed Mukhtar Kebussyan of Yoghonoluk in his best parlor and pinned him down:

“Be frank with me, Thomas Kebussyan. How many rifles have you, and what pattern are they?”

The mukhtar began to squint horribly, and wagged his bald pate.

“Jesus Christ! Do you want to bringill-luck on us all, Effendi?”

“Why should I, of all people, seem so unworthy of your confidence?”

“My wife doesn't know it, my sons don't know it, not even the schoolteachers know it. Not a soul.”

“Did my brother Avetis?”

“Your brother Avetis certainly did, God rest his soul. But he never mentioned it to anyone.”

“Do I look the sort of person who can't keep his mouth shut?”

“If it comes out, we shall all be slaughtered.”

But since Kebussyan, for all his squintings and waggings of the head, could not manage to get away from his guest, he ended at last by double-bolting the parlor door. In a frightened hiss he told his story. In 1908, when Ittihad had gone over to revolution against Abdul Hamid, the Young Turkish agents had distributed weapons to all districts and communes of the empire, especially to the Armenian districts, which were regarded as the chief supporters of the revolt. Enver Pasha had of course known all about it and, when war broke out, his instant order had been to disarm the Armenian population. Naturally the character and methods of the government officials concerned had made a great difference to the way in which the order was carried out. In such vilayets as Erzerum or Sivas, hotbeds of provincial zeal for Ittihad, unarmed people had been forced to buy rifles from the gendarmes, simply to hand them back to the government. To possess no arms in such a district was merely considered a cunning attempt to evade the law.

But here, under Djelal Bey, it naturally had all gone far more smoothly. That admirable governor, whose humane instincts were always in rebellion against the edicts of the pretty war god in Istanbul, carried out such orders very negligently, where he could not simply allow them to disappear in his wastepaper basket. This mildness usually found its echo in the administrative methods of his subordinates, with one harsh exception – the Mutessarif of Marash. The red-haired müdir of Antioch had arrived one day in January in Yoghonoluk, with the chief of the Antioch police, to collect all weapons. He had gone away again quite peacefully on receiving the smiling assurance that no such weapons had been distributed. Luckily the mukhtar of those days had not given the Committee’s agents a written receipt.

“Very good” – Gabriel was delighted with the mayor – “and are these guns worth anything?”

“Fifty Mauser rifles and two hundred and fifty Greek service-carbines. Each has thirty magazines of cartridges, that is, about a hundred and fifty shots.”

Gabriel Bagradian stood reflecting. Really that was scarcely worth talking about. Had the men in the villages no other firearms of any kind?

Kebussyan hesitated again. “That's their business. Lots of them hunt. But what use are a few hundred old blunderbusses, with flint locks?”

Gabriel rose, and held out his hand to the mukhtar. “Thank you, Thomas Kebussyan, for having trusted me. But, now that I know, I'd like you to tell me where you've hidden them.”

“Must you really know that, Effendi?”

“No. But I'm curious, and I don't see why you should keep that secret, now that you've told me all the rest.”

The mukhtar writhed in inner conflict. Apart from his brothers in office, Ter Haigasun, and the sexton, there was not a soul who knew that secret. Yet there was something in Gabriel against which Kebussyan could not hold out. He unburdened himself, after desperate admonitions. The chests containing these rifles and supplies were in the churchyard of Yoghonoluk, buried in what seemed the usual graves, with false inscriptions on the crosses.

“So now I've put my life in your hands, Effendi,” the mukhtar moaned as he opened the door again for his visitor. Gabriel answered him without turning round:

“Perhaps you really have, Thomas Kebussyan.”

Thoughts at which he himself began to tremble kept haunting Gabriel Bagradian. They had such power to move his heart that he could not escape them, day or night. Gabriel saw only the first steps, only the parting of the ways. Five paces on from where they branched, and all was darkness and uncertainty.But in every life, as it nears decision, nothing seems more unreal than its own aim.


Yet was it easy to understand why Gabriel, with all his roused-up energy, should have moved only about this narrow valley, avoiding any avenue of escape that might still have been open to him? Why are you wasting time, Bagradian? Why let day after day slip by? Your name is well known, and you have a fortune. Why not throw both these into the scales? Even though you are faced with danger and the greatest difficulties, why not try to reach Aleppo, with Juliette and Stephan? After all, Aleppo is a big town. You have connections there. At least you can put your wife and son under consular  protection. No doubt they’ve been arresting notables everywhere, banishing them, torturing them, putting them to death. Such a journey would certainly be a terrible risk. But is it any less of a risk to stay here? Don’t lose another minute, do something before it's too late to save yourself!

This voice was not always silent. But its cries came muted. Musa Dagh stood serene. Nothing changed. The world around seemed to show that the Agha Rifaat Bereket had been right. Not a breath of outside trouble reached the village. His home, which even now he could still sometimes mistake for a vanished fairy-tale, kept fast hold of Gabriel Bagradian. Juliette lost reality in his eyes. Perhaps, even if he had tried, he might not have freed himself now from Musa Dagh.

He kept his solemn promise not to say a word of the hidden small arms. Even Avakian had learned nothing. On the other hand that tutor was suddenly given a fresh task. He was appointed cartographer. That map of the Damlayik which Stephan, with clumsy markings, had begun early in March, to please his father, gained fresh significance. Avakian was instructed to make an exact, large-scale map of the mountain in three copies. “So he’s come to the end of the valley, with all its livestock and people,” thought the student, “and now he has to go to the hills.”

The Damlayik is, of course, the real heart of Musa Dagh. That spur of mountain disperses itself in many ridges towards the north, where they peter out in the vale of Beilan in dream-like natural citadels and terraces, while southwards it suddenly descends, disordered, embryonic, into the plains around the mouth of the Orontes. In its center, Damlayik, it gathers all its strength, its concentrated purpose. Here, with mighty fists of rock, it drags the vale of the seven villages, like a many-folded coverlet, to its breast. Here its two crests rise almost sheer over Yoghonoluk and Hadji Habibli – the only treeless points, grown over with short crop-grass. The back of the Damlayik forms a fairly wide mountain plateau; at its widest point, between the ilex gorge and the steep, shelving rocks along the coast, it is, as the crow flies (by Avakian’s reckoning), more than three and a half miles across. But what most of all preoccupied Avakian were the curiously sharp demarcation lines which nature seemed to have set round this mountain plateau. There was, first, the indentation towards the north, a narrow defile laced to a ridge between two peaks, even directly approachable from the valley by an old mule-track, which,however, lost itself in undergrowth, since here there was no possibility of reaching the sea across walls of rock. In the south, where the mountain broke off suddenly, there rose, above a sparse, almost arid half-circle of rocky banks, a towering mass of rock fifty feet high. The view from this natural bastion dominated a sweep of sea and the whole plain of the Orontes with its Turkish villages as far as away beyond the heights of the barren Jebel Akra. One could see the massive ruin of the temple and aqueduct of Seleucia, bent under the load of its green creepers; one could see every cart-rut on the important highroad from Antioch to El Eskel and Suedia. The white domino-houses of these towns gleamed, and the big spirit factory on the right bank of the Orontes, in nearest proximity to the sea, stood livid in sunlight.

Every strategic intelligence must perceive at once what an ideal place of defense the Damlayik was. Apart from the arduous climb up the side facing the valley, which exhausted even leisurely sightseers by its rough, uncompromising ascent, there was only one real point of attack – the narrow ridge towards the north. But it was just here that the terrain offered defenders a thousand advantages, and not least the circumstance that the treeless declivities, strewn about with knee-pine, dwarf shrubs, tussock grass, and wild bush growths of every kind, provided a difficult series of obstacles.

Avakian's map-drawing efforts took a long time to satisfy Gabriel. Again and again he discovered fresh mistakes and inadequacies. The student began to be afraid that his employer's hobby had little by little become a mania. He had still no inkling. Now they spent whole days on the Damlayik. Bagradian, the artillery officer of the Balkan war, still possessed field-glasses, a measuring-gauge, a magnetic compass, and other, similar surveying-instruments. They came in very useful now. With stubborn insistence he made certain that the course of every stream, each tall tree, big block of granite, was being marked. And red, green, and blue markings did not suffice him. Strange words and signs were added.

Between the dome-shaped peaks and the northern saddle there was a very extensive gentle declivity. Since it was overgrown with lush and excellent grass, it was here that they always found themselves in the midst of herds of sheep, black and white, with shepherds who, like the shepherds of antiquity, drowsed above their flocks in sheepskins, summer and winter. Gabriel and Avakian, counting their steps, got the exact boundaries of this pasturage. Gabriel pointed out two streams which, above, on the verge of the meadow, forced their way through thick growths of fern.“That's very lucky,” he said; “write above that, in red pencil: ʻtown enclosure.’”

There was no end of such secret terminology. Gabriel seemed to be looking with particular zest for some spot which he would choose for its quiet, sheltered beauty. He found it. And it, too, was near a well-spring, but nearer the sea, in a place between high plateaus of sheer rock, where a dark-green girdle of myrtles and rhododendron bushes extended.

“Pick that out, Avakian, and write over it, in red: ʻThree-Tent Square.’”

Avakian could not manage not to ask: “What do you mean by ʻThree-Tent Square’?”

But Gabriel had already gone on and did not hear him.

“Must I help him dream his dreams?_2 the student thought. Yet only two days later he was to learn exactly what was meant by “Three-Tent Square.”



The mountain of Musa Dagh as seen from the see, and from the land with the village of Yoghonoluk. From the blog of Georg Pfarl, written about his visit to the place in 2011. Below: Musa Dagh marked in blue on the map of the massacres and deportations of 1915


Armenian pictures, 1977


We do not have to present Gábor Illés to our readers. Those who travel with us, know him well from the trips of río Wang, and those who only read us, from his fantastic photos regularly published in the reports “Together in…”, following our trips (collected here). This is his first independent post here in río Wang, which proves that thirty-eight years ago he was just as good photographer. Historical pictures from a former province of a vanished empire.

In a 2013 post (Armenia – stops, movement, colors), Catherine painted a rather depressing picture of the current state of affairs in Armenia. Above all, of the “cities of the valleys”, sacrificed to 19th-century industrialization, and definitively marginalized by Communism and Stalinism of the 20th century. She contrasts them with the “hills overlooking the valleys”, where villages and churches lived back then, and “opened doors to the passer-by, the traveler, the wanderer.”

And, in spite of this, to have a positive final word, she closes her post with the photo (from around 1910) of a young Armenian woman in festive dress, standing in fresh springtime surroundings, with this phrase: ”Spring will certainly come soon.”

I cannot argue with her.

Either with the diagnosis, or with the fact that there is always hope.

I am grateful to fate, that in 1977 I could spend a long month in Armenia. The occasion was offered by a youth exchange camp, common among the countries of the Socialist block. By now I have managed to digitize most of the three hundred color slides taken then, and it is with great pleasure that I entrust to the host of this blog the composition of them into a photo post.

I feel like my photos, taken 38 years ago, support Catherine’s article. The vast majority of them represent the monasteries standing for centuries, or more than a thousand of years in the highlands, the incredibly elaborate cross-stones, and the beautiful Armenian scenery. And it’s no accident that almost no city (no modern city) pops up among them. If it does, it is rather for the sake of contrast (a deterrent example).

None of us had any plan for what to see in this country. At that time, you know, there was no internet, no Lonely Planet. To tell the truth, we should have not even expected to travel. We were young, we had almost no money, and in terms of the Soviet laws of those times we should have not even go into the countryside without a special permit. It turned out that there, hitchhiking worked very well, and that there was virtually no control. From Sevan (our town) and Yerevan we could reach any point of the country, and even Tbilisi, in Georgia!

Regarding the targets, we relied – apart of our instincts and, of course, good luck – on the postcards bought there, in which fantastic historic churches lured us on to more and more adventures. Over time, a poster entitled “Illustrated Guide-Map of Historical Architectural Monuments of Soviet Armenia”, became our Bible, which roughly showed the approximate location of the most important monuments.

As for the photos, I only had a 50 mm kit lense to my Practica Super TL, and the raw material was limited to 7 or 8 rolls of Orwo (East Germany) slide film.

Many photos would of course require a story, but now let the pictures speak for themselves.

Gábor

Hasmik Harutyunyan: Nazani. From the album Armenia Anthology.

The peaks of the Caucasus from the plane Kiev-Yerevan

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Across the mountains, to the north of Sevan

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Hovhannavank (see also here and here)

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Landscape near Geghard

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Map of Armenian monasteries with Armenian and English text
Below: The photographed monasteries on the modern map



Happiness


“Before I die I want to…”

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Marcas


Tbilisi vive sobre una encrucijada, sobre una línea de fractura cultural entre Occidente y Oriente. Y puede que también entre Norte y Sur. Mucho han rondado la región sus poderosos vecinos, es la niña de sus ojos; y mucho han competido por tener aquí un lugar propio, un centro de poder. En consecuencia, Tbilisi ha sido sitiada, arrasada y reconstruida unas cuantas veces en el curso de la historia.

Un paseo por las zonas centrales de la ciudad lo evidencia, ciertamente, pero hay que decir también que la arquitectura, con excepción de algunas edificaciones históricas notables (iglesias, en su mayoría), es en general de factura reciente, es decir, del siglo XIX en adelante. Lo más sugerente y evocador de la ciudad es, quizás, la red de pequeñas calles que entretejen los barrios de edificios destartalados, donde las reparaciones, cuando se molestan en emprenderlas, tienen una cualidad decididamente improvisada

Esta actitud algo dejada también se refleja en las paredes de los edificios que forman la telaraña de callejas y callejuelas. Es sorprendente no sólo la abundancia de marcas y señales anotadas a mano, sino también cómo hacen alusión de manera tangencial a la historia profundamente estratificada y multiétnica de esta vieja ciudad. Escrituras, marcas grabadas y señales en al menos tres alfabetos y muchos más idiomas saltan a la vista por doquier, en cualquier calle donde los promotores inmobiliarios aún no hayan penetrado.

Todo tiene un aire efímero, etéreo, demasiado frágil para pensar que pueda durar mucho. Uno espera que a cada paso salga un fantasma de entre las sombras. Tbilisi se está desarrollando rápido, y es una incógnita cuánto tiempo seguirán así estos barrios, con sus esquinas oscuras y pintorescas, con la gente mayor vestida de negro esforzándose por las calles empinadas sin pavimentar, con los chicos que juegan en el polvo y los gatos tranquilos al sol.


Ensemble Soinari: Nobody refused. Del álbum Idjassi (2005)


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Marks


Tbilisi is a city that lies on a crossroads, a cultural fault line, between the West and the East; and perhaps it should also be said, between North and South. Long have its powerful neighbors held the region as the apple of their eyes, and long have they vied for a foothold, a base of power here. As a result, Tbilisi has been beseiged, destroyed, and rebuilt many times in the course of history.

A stroll through the central parts of the city reveals some evidence of this, but it must be said that architecturally, with the exception of some noteworthy historic structures (churches, mostly), its buildings are, by and large, of recent vintage, that is to say, from the 19th century to the present day. The most suggestive and evocative structures of the city are perhaps the network of small streets that pass through neighborhoods of ramshackle buildings, where repairs, when they are even bothered with, have a decidedly improvised quality.

This almost casual attitude is also reflected in the walls of the buildings that limn this spider’s web of alleys and lanes. They are striking not only for the copiousness of their handwritten marks, but also for the way they hint, in foreshortened form, at this old city’s profoundly layered and multi-ethnic history. Writing, carving, and signage in at least three alphabets, and even more languages, are commonly seen by those passing down any of the streets where the property developers have not yet taken hold.

It seems a delicate thing, almost ethereal, too fragile for us to believe it will exist for long. One expects, at every turn, the ghosts to step out of the shadows. But Tbilisi is developing rapidly, and how long these picturesque quarters will last, with their shadowy and romantic scenes, where old people dressed in black struggle up steep unpaved streets, young boys play games in the dust, and cats bathe lazily in the sun, is anyone’s guess.


Ensemble Soinari: Nobody refused. From the album Idjassi (2005)


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Armenian Iran, from Tabriz to Jolfa


Earlier:
Armenian monasteries in Iran
Armenian cemetery in Julfa
I arrived in Tabriz in the late afternoon. Near the Blue Mosque, I met the girl who would be my host for the week. Wrapped in her black Islamic dress, she was francophone, lively, eager for debate and for knowledge. Together with her and her friend, a capricious teenager, we roamed Tabriz as the day waned. I do not know how she came to speak to me about the Armenians of Tabriz: they are Christians, that should interest me. Yes, they are many, no, she does not know them, yes, they have schools and meeting places, and even churches. Who knows, perhaps one ought to be able to learn Armenian in Tabriz.

The churches.

She became enthusiastic. Yes, there are churches, but she does not exactly know, where. No, she has never been there, she does not know what a church is like, and besides, she thought that as a Muslim, she was forbidden to enter a church. However, says her friend, this prohibition does not apply to me… but by that time it was already dark. They asked the shopkeepers of the area. Yes, the church has to be hidden there, in that block of houses. We had to go down many small alleys, a dead end, and there we were. A gate, an intercom, a long discussion. The caretaker who opens the gate for us glances at the girl wrapped in her chador, and lets her in first: “who could see you?” Buildings in the courtyard, with closed windows, he must take the chains off the door – the church is open to the faithful only at Christmas and Easter. It is a new church, an empty and ugly one, but the caretaker who tells us these things, the mounting excitement, the questions, the hands that reach out and shake each other, the thanks.

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And the girl? When she told her mother how she went with me at night to visit the Armenian church hidden deep in the maze of streets, in an enclosed courtyard behind high blank walls, and how the caretaker explained to her about the paintings, the four Evangelists, Christ on the cross in the choir, the tombstones with their long epitaphs on the sidewalls, and how the three of us were talking with the old caretaker in the shadows, her mother warmly congratulated her.

Afterward, we went with her father to visit other Armenian churches, lost in the mountains, far from the eyes of passersby. He, too, wanted to see a church.

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From Tabriz we went up to Jolfa, on the border with Nakhichevan, an enclave of Azerbaijan between Armenia and Iran. On the other side of the river Araz – the ancient Araxes – a bare hilly landscape, red earth, and in the center, a pale blue mountain, like a cone. This is Ilandag, the Snake Mountain, a huge blue fang that dominates the landscape of Nakhichevan; probably a volcano, about which it is said to have been struck by Noah’s Ark while drifting in the floodwaters. It is seen from far away. I did not enter Nakhichevan, I just admired it from the Iranian bank of the Araz, which borders it; on the other side, at the foot of the red cliffs, a railway, barracks and watchtowers.



And there were also other watchtowers all along the border, and anti-aircraft guns, and dusty and unshaven soldiers, bored in their forts, forgotten on this and that side of the Araz. At one point we stopped to take photos of the landscape on the other side of the river, the ragged red and brown and rose and white mountains, and in the distance the Ilandag. A loud voice called us from a little bastion that sat there, almost on the bank of the Araz, “forbidden”, said the voice. No pictures then, so we get back to the car, go ahead a hundred meters, and after the turn stop again. The angle is less good, but no soldiers in sight. Further on, we are halted. The two soldiers are young and hilarious, you cannot go further, they say, there is a chemical contamination. Impossible, really dangerous. Sepideh and her father try to convince them, we came so far (especially me), all for nothing, such a shame. The soldiers bend down to see me, and they suggest that we see their superior. We leave. A dirt road, a concrete cube surrounded by barbed wire under a blazing sun; under a tamarisk, a yellow dog watching me without moving, as I come closer. In the background, the Araz, moving green water, red mountains, and the gray-blue Ilandag. Stifling air, blinding light, heat. Not yet the terrible heat of the desert, that came only later, but at that very moment it seemed to be the hottest heat I could bear.

The superior comes out from the concrete cube, he pulls back the barbed wire fence, and comes toward us. A weary grimace on his young face, his eyes looking at me sideways. A handsome blond boy, bored in his guard post. He listens to the request, shrugs his shoulders, and pulls out a pen from his pocket. He draws a pass in fine arabesques in the palm of the guide’s hand, directly on his skin. We pass the road block. A few hundred meters further, they are re-asphalting the road – that must be it, the chemical contamination.

Beyond that, the road starts winding between the cliffs, it climbs up, descends a steep slope, with the green river far below. The cliffs are barren, purple, orange, punctuated with yellow bushes. The guide slows down and points at a pile of rocks on a hill. These are the remains of a small church, the church of the shepherds, Kelisâ-ye Chupân, founded in 1518.

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Ten kilometers ahead, in a place which suddenly becomes like an oasis, a jumble of trees in a grove, we arrive to one of the most beautiful Armenian churches of Iran, the fortified monastery of St. Stepanos. The valley is deserted, nobody has lived here for centuries. Once Armenia stretched from here to Lake Van, Tabriz was its last point towards the East, and Jolfa an important stop on the Silk Road, a city of esteemed artisans and merchants. During the Renaissance, Jolfa had commercial representatives even in Amsterdam.


However, trapped between the Persians, the Russians and the Turks, the region could not remain forever outside of the conflicts which for centuries roiled the Caucasus. And in 1606, when Shah Abbas began the construction of Isfahan, he invited the artisans of Jolfa to settle there and to be its master builders – and at the end he resettled the entire population of Jolfa to Isfahan. During WWI the region was under Ottoman control, and after 1915 the Turks tried to erase all traces of the Armenian presence. No villages have survived, only a few churches. The only remains of Jolfa in the present enclave of Nakhichevan, an Armenian cemetery consisting of nearly ten thousand headstones carved before the 17th century, were entirely destroyed in 2005 by the Azerbaijani army. Or rather, in the words of Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, “no Armenian cemetery was destroyed, since there were never any Armenians in Nakhichevan.”

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The monastery of St. Stepanos was probably founded before the 7th century (tradition traces it back to the Apostle Bartholomew). It occupies an area of approximately 70 × 50 m, encircled with high fortified walls and circular or semicircular towers. It has two internal courts, the one outside the church, the other within the monastery buildings. The bell tower is built close to the southern wall of the church. The recently restored church has a cruciform plan with three apses, and an elaborately carved exterior, which shows various influences, including Seljuk artistry, whose revival was characteristic of the Armenian Renaissance during the Safavid period in the 17th century.

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The place was not entirely deserted, all doors were open, the caretakers were smiling and talkative, the very few tourists curious and attentive. Only Iranians. Or maybe Armenians. Yes, the caretaker was too proud of the expertise of the Armenian craftsmen to not to be one of their descendants.