KAYSERI, Turkey — My wife and I are holding small candles, the yellow flames as thin as the tapers, above a wrought iron sand table at the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Kayseri. Kayseri is a Turkish city 200 miles southeast of Ankara with a population nearing a million. It’s not a part of Turkey where most American tourists venture. Usually when we think Turkey and tourism, we envision the mosques of Istanbul or the beaches of Bodrum. We imagine the Roman ruins in Ephesus. I’ve never been to either Bodrum or Ephesus; the last time I was in Istanbul, it was for a friend’s wedding. Instead I journey to places like Kayseri. Why? Because I am Armenian and that’s where my family once lived.
Saint Gregory’s is one of a small handful of Armenian churches in Turkey outside of Istanbul that are not rubble or ruins, or have not been repurposed into a museum, mosque or (in one case) a fitness center. There is no longer an Armenian congregation in Kayseri, but sporadically — once or a twice a year — descendants of the church’s parishioners who live in Istanbul journey here to worship. I’m not part of that Istanbul community, but my grandfather, Levon Nazareth Bohjalian, was born in Kayseri. It’s likely that he was baptized in this church. It was built in 1856, and named after the man who was raised in this corner of Anatolia and who would bring Christianity to Armenia in the year 301. There is no priest in the city to let us in — virtually no Armenians live in Kayseri — but one of the locals knows someone who knows someone who knows the caretaker who has a key.
This is my third trip in three years with my friend Khatchig Mouradian, a genocide scholar and journalist, to the great swath of Turkey that is Historic Armenia. The area stretches from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and from Ankara to Turkey’s Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Armenian, and Georgian borders. It is the eastern half of Turkey. It is Anatolia. It is Cilicia. And up until 1915, it was where the majority of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire lived.
This year marked the centennial of the start of the Armenian Genocide: it was April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors, and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities — and almost all of them executed. During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire would systematically annihilate 1.5 million of it Armenian citizens, or three out of every four. Most Armenians alive today are descendants of those few survivors — including me. Both of my grandparents were survivors.
It is actually my great-grandfather, however, that I associate most with Kayseri. Nazaret Bedros Bohjalian, Levon’s father, was a nineteenth-century troubadour and poet. Although he was born in Kayseri, he performed in such distant corners of the empire as Jerusalem and Constantinople, singing the poems he had penned. Based on one account of his life in an old Armenian history of Kayseri, I imagine him as a sort of Bruce Springsteen of the Anatolian Plains. He may not have had stadium-sized crowds or rock ’n’ roll T-shirts, but it seems that he had enthusiastic audiences wherever he appeared. Among his works? A seventy-quatrain epic of the Hamidian Massacres — the prequel to the Armenian Genocide named after Sultan Abdul Hamid II in which 250,000 Armenians were butchered. On Nov. 18, 1895, the slaughter came to his city:
“They killed infidels with axes, daggers, and didn’t ask who you were, whether merchant or coolie.”
“They took the babies out of the wombs of their mothers, and those who witnessed lost their minds.”
It is a wrenching, eyewitness testimonial.
Few Armenians remain in Turkey today, outside of the 60,000 or so who live in Istanbul. You want to see the definition of ethnic cleansing? Visit Historic Armenia. You will find Islamized Armenians here and there, the descendants of the Armenians who were forced to become Muslim a century ago, and there is a tiny community of 200 Armenians in Vakifli Koy, one of the six villages on the mountain of Musa Dagh on the Mediterranean Sea. They are descendants of the men and women Franz Werfel made famous in his epic novel of the Armenian resistance to the Genocide in 1915, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” Otherwise, however, it’s rare to find an Armenian.
And yet our footprints are everywhere. Medieval churches. Ancient monasteries. Armenian lettering carved onto village walls or century-old doors. I’ve visited at least 45 different Armenian churches and monasteries, most empty shells and some little more than foundations. Often the ruins have piles of empty soda cans and water bottles, and black fire pits from recent campfires. Occasionally, there are deep holes where treasure hunters have dug up the floor in search of mythical Armenian gold. Usually there is graffiti.
Sometimes the Kurds who live in the area now will share the horrors of how the Armenians were killed or deported, the stories passed down from generation to generation, and sometimes they will tell you that the Armenians simply moved away. They pick a year seemingly at random, but always before 1915. We left, they insist, only because we wanted to be near our families in Aleppo, Syria, or Boston.
And now, of course, with the region so volatile, the Kurds will often share stories of more recent horrors. The day before I was in Sanliurfa, Turkey, this summer, ISIS suicide bombers detonated five trucks filled with explosives in Kobani, Syria, 20 miles from Sanliurfa as the crow flies, killing at least 70 Kurds. Two weeks later in nearby Suruc, Turkey, ISIS killed 33 young Kurdish volunteers — and injured well over 100 — as they prepared to drive to Kobani to help rebuild the city.
Regardless of how you look at the history, however, the 500,000 Armenians who survived the Genocide were never able to return home. It’s why we are a diaspora people. Of the 10 million Armenians in the world today, fewer than 3 million of us actually live in Armenia.
Which brings me back to Kayseri.
Which explains why I keep returning to Historic Armenia, despite the escalating violence.
It’s my ancestral land.
In the mid-1920s, my grandfather traveled to Paris to meet Haigouhi Sherinian, and there they would fall in love and marry. In 1927 he brought her to the United States. The following year, he built the beautiful brick monolith in Tuckahoe, N.Y., where they would raise their children and reside for 40 years.
My father grew up in a house that could only be called exotic by the standards of that particular suburb of New York City. Everyone spoke Armenian behind those brick walls. And so like many daughters and sons of immigrants, my father chose to become as American as he possibly could. He even became that most iconic of mid-20th-century American business professionals, an ad man. A mad man. Think Don Draper. That’s how extensive his reinvention was. And so other than the time I would spend with my grandparents, I did not grow up a part of the Armenian community or with a connection to my Armenian heritage. (The one exception? Our dining room. My Swedish mother figured out quickly that Armenian cuisine is delicious.)
Consequently, it was only at midlife that I felt a deep and relentless tug at my Armenian soul to return. This is, I have come to understand, the ground where the Bohjalians and the Sherinians once built their lives. My grandfather was the youngest of my great-grandfather’s six children, and he was born only a few years before Nazaret Bedros would die in 1902. I will never know precisely which of the Bohjalians left Kayseri after the Hamidian Massacres in 1895 and which would be shot or marched into the desert to die a generation later. Was it within blocks of St. Gregory’s that my grandfather saw the Armenian men killed with axes and daggers? Was it on a nearby block that he witnessed the babies being cut from the wombs of their mothers? Did he himself lose a little of his own mind that day?
The fact is, Kayseri is a home that was taken from my family. It is that injustice – what my non-Armenian wife calls the “sheer unfairness of it” – that draws me back. It’s my small way of saying to anyone who happens to notice, the Bohjalians are still here. Still around. You didn’t quite wipe us out. I always feel acutely alive in Historic Armenia, as if some otherwise napping – untapped even – link in my DNA has been awakened and found its tether to the land.
Could I actually live there? Of course not. My last name alone would make me a pariah in parts of the region, and most of the time I am deeply proud to be an American. I have been (thank you very much) quite happily spoiled by the American way of life. It’s really hard to find Ben & Jerry’s or binge-watch “House of Cards” in Diyarbakir, Kayseri, or Van.
But I also can’t imagine not returning to visit.
After my wife and I had murmured our small prayers at the church in Kayseri and placed the candles in the sand, she said to me, “You’re breathing the same air your grandfather breathed as a little boy.”
I nodded. She had put into words precisely why I was here. It’s not coming home precisely – but it is without question a homecoming.Chris Bohjalian is the author of 18 books. His new novel, “The Guest Room,” will be published on Jan. 5. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.