Sivas – A Hundred Years Full Circle

Arax River - Eastern Anatolia On a spring day in early 1896, my great-grandmother, Elbiz Chapoutian, waited for her husband Michael to return from work. But she waited in vain: Abdul Hamid’s massacres of that year struck the Chapoutian family, and my great-grandfather and two of his cousins were never heard from again.

A few weeks later, on May 12, my grandfather, Haroutiun, was born. When he grew up, he changed his last name from Chapoutian to Michaelian in honor of the father he never met. One hundred years later, almost to the day, I was part of a pilgrimage to Eastern Anatolia organized by Armen Aroyan that would take me to the home of Michael and Elbiz Chapoutian.

Entering the region of Sebastia, I was amazed at the large number of poplar trees. This land of poplars eventually gave way to the massive Pontic Mountain Range, and the cities of Amasya and Tokat. In Amasya, we visited the burial place of Mithridates, King of Pontus. It was a giant tomb, carved into the side of a huge rocky mountain which faced the city. As the sun set, we drove towards Sivas. We reached the ancient capital of Lesser Armenia in the darkness of the spring night.

I woke up early the next morning. It was barely light when I left the hotel and walked out into the streets my grandfather’s family had lived and worked in 100 years earlier. The street vendors were already setting up shop for the day, and the slightest hesitation in my pace invited a sudden description of someone’s goods in a language I didn’t understand. One boy was selling “simit” bread, a delightful early morning treat. My grandfather had said the bread from Sivas was the best in all of Armenia.

After breakfast in the hotel, a few of us from the group went for a walk, with a famous mosque as our first stop. Nearby, I discovered a stone with inscriptions in Krapar (classical Armenian). Only a few of the words were still legible. Also in the compound was a museum built in the Ottoman period. At this point, a local Turkish student who had just returned from military duty offered to show us part of the old Armenian Quarter of Sivas. On the way, he showed us a huge mosque, completely carpeted and with an unusual number of columns lining the interior. Our guide then pulled back one of the rugs; underneath was an Armenian-made rug from the 1890s, which lay protected from the newer, larger rugs. We asked if pictures were allowed, wanting to capture this ornate treasure of Sivas.

We walked on toward the Armenian Quarter, occasionally seeing Armenian-built houses, which had a kind of balcony we soon were adept at identifying. Old women and children waved and smiled at us from their open windows. An older man with a rifle pointed his gun skyward, then gave it to one of our group and pointed at an imaginary target. After several pictures were taken, we walked slowly back to the hotel.

In the hotel lobby, an Armenian resident of the city had arrived, and was talking with members of our group. I told him of my family. He knew the name, and the location of the Chapoutian house, which he said was now in ruins.

Our brief meeting came to a close, and our luggage was gathered and put on the bus. I waved at the Armenian from Sivas, thinking about 1896, and about 1915.

Shortly after leaving Sivas, we stopped at a bridge on the Halys River for a group picture. The bridge was built in the 1200s by King Senekerim. (Many Sebastatsis name their children Senekerim and Halys). Near the river, I gathered some soil and found a rock to place at my grandfather’s gravesite in Fresno.

My grandfather didn’t talk much about Sivas, unlike my grandmother’s Mshetsi relatives. But he was proud of his birthplace, and would have been proud of my journey to Sivas.


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