Return to Bitlis

City of Bitlis Some forty years ago William Saroyan, my grandmother’s first cousin, journeyed to Bitlis, the birthplace of his parents. Tourists were not allowed then, so Saroyan had a personal escort. Such turned out to be the case once again, due to the political situation in the area. A few of us traveled the streets of Bitlis, accompanied by a local official.

My late grandmother, Yeproxie Michaelian, was born in Moush. Her mother, Parantsem, was a Saroyan of Bitlis, and this is where she brought her new daughter to stay with relatives. Almost 100 years later, I became the most recent member to return to the home of the Saroyan clan.

William Saroyan had once told my grandmother’s sister that Bitlis was nothing more than a few rocks and an old man or two sitting around. When I showed her my photographs of this city of 38,000, of the streets and smiling faces, she was in shock. “I feel I was there with you,” she said, keeping several pictures of the city, its stacks of watermelons, and of the road signs to neighboring Moush — the birthplace of her father and my great-grandfather, Vahan Minasian. (It was Vahan’s father, Khachig, who was drowned alongside the great Hunchakian leader, Damadian, in the late 1800s.)

After shouting at our bus driver to stop for pictures pointing to the way from Moush to Bitlis, we entered the town itself. Bitlis is located in a narrow valley with high, rocky mountains on both sides. The Bitlis river runs through the town. From the main street we could see the city’s imposing fortress standing on the mountains to the right. Fortresses such as this were in every major city in Old Armenia.

At this point several of us were scooted off to see the town, the capital of an ancient province, the home of my grandmother.

We stopped at the Armenian church, which had been built in 1884. A guard opened the gate to the compound, quite possibly the first time for visitors. There was no dome, no roof — we wondered of the church’s appearance in the early 1900s. It was sad to think of its short life; an abrupt end was put to its existence, as with all things Armenian in Bitlis.

Our driver signaled us to leave, it was time for our small party to continue.

We stopped amidst a grove of poplars at the highest point of town. I knew this was the time to gather a small amount of soil, to be placed at my grandmother’s grave in Fresno. As I did, a small crowd gathered, mostly children. It was time for more pictures. It didn’t matter that they were Kurds and not Armenians.

My last mission was to collect some melon and pepper seeds to plant at home. Since none were for sale, we collected a watermelon, some peppers, and other local delights from a vendor. I took out my wallet; money was refused.

It was time to leave. The bus began its trek to Dikranagerd in the dusk. I felt like I was leaving home.

In Dikranagerd that night, our group ate the watermelon from Bitlis. Everyone saved the seeds for me. My trip was now complete.


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