Return to Moush

St. Karapet - From left, Alex Egetian, Andranik Michaelian; third from right, Yessai Harutyunyan (click to enlarge) In 1908, the same year William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, my Mshetsi great-grandfather, Vahan Minasian, and his wife, Parantsem Saroyan, originally from Bitlis and the sister of the author’s mother Takoohi, left Vahan’s ancestral home of Moush for America. With them were my grandmother, Yeproxie, and her younger brother, Zaven. In 1912, Vahan’s brother, Khoren, continued the family’s exodus from Moush. He left with his mother, Alik Naneh, whose husband Khachik had helped found the Hunchakian party in Moush before being imprisoned and eventually drowned by Turks in Bitlis. A cousin, Artashes Egetian, traveled with them. Many years later, my family and I maintained close ties with the Minasians and their offspring in the Fresno and San Francisco Bay areas. I also kept in touch with Artashes Egetian’s son, Alex.

For years, Alex and I talked about making a pilgrimage to Moush. It was more than just a dream. It was necessary to see, with our own eyes, the houses and streets of our ancestral home, the place our relatives had left behind, never to return.

Entering Moush was like entering a mythical world. Since my youth, I had heard stories about life in Moush before the Genocide. Once, my grandmother’s sister told us, two Turkish soldiers brought the body of Alik Naneh’s brother, a well known singer, and dumped it in front of her and Parantsem, then a new bride in the Minasian home. “Here he is,” they said. “What can you do now?” When Alik Naneh rushed at the soldiers, one of them raised his sword to kill her. But the other soldier stopped him and said, “Let them live. They will suffer more alive than dead.” On another occasion, a baby girl, my grandmother’s younger sister, was somehow burned by flames from a tonir oven. Deep inside, Alik Naneh understood the child’s fate. With solemn conviction, she proclaimed the little girl would be dead in forty days. Forty days later, to the day, the baby died.

Hasmik Harutyunyan, standing; Armenian girl from Moush, left; Annik Harutyunyan, right (click to enlarge) Our small group of Mshetsi pilgrims included my wife, Hasmik, her brother and sister, and Alex Egetian and his wife. Like myself, Alex had roots in the Jigrashen district of Moush. Upon entering the town and pulling into a bus station, we spotted a water fountain with stone carvings typical of Armenian craftsmen. We drank the icy-cold water and washed our faces before approaching a crowd of Kurdish men. The thought of finding a hotel not even crossing our minds, we asked them the location of Jigrashen. None of the men had heard of Jigrashen, as the names of the districts had been changed to Turkish or Kurdish names. But a Kurd, who said he was part Armenian, said he knew someone who could take us to our destination. A phone call resulted in the arrival of a new friend, an Armenian now living in Moush.

Early the next morning, we drove down the modern main street and up the hill to Jigrashen, which is located in a hilly area on the western edge of the city. Reaching the district where the Minasians and Egetians had lived just 100 years earlier, we climbed out of the minivan and began walking the narrow, cobbled roads, past large, two-story Armenian-built houses. Our Mshetsi guide told us about an Armenian who knew the location of the family homes of that era. Unfortunately, that person was away from Moush for a few days. Nonetheless, as we walked the roads of Jigrashen, we tried to guess which homes belonged to our relatives. None of the houses had undergone any sort of renovation. It was plain what appearance they had some 100 years ago. Curious women stared at us from balconies. The Kurdish men of Jigrashen invited us to drink tea, and happily stood for photographs. One old man greeted us in Armenian. In front of St. Kirakos, the church of Jigrashen, we drank tea and laughed with several Kurdish men, all the while remembering our ancestors who had attended church here. St. Kirakos is now a mosque. Only a small cross, carved into the wall, speaks of the past.

From Jigrashen, we walked to St. Marineh church, one of the eight churches of old Moush. St. Marineh had been the main church of Moush, and was also known as “Kathoghike.” Only parts of the walls still stand. The inside of the church is being used as a garbage dump. Climbing over rocks and trash into the church through a side door, we walked through the church remains, then lit candles and placed them in cracks in the walls.

In Moush restaurant (click to enlarge) Later, we drove from St. Marineh to Verin Tagh, where we would gather soil for a relative in Fresno. I walked off alone to the edge of a Kurdish cemetery at the end of Verin Tagh. Kurdish children smiled and waved as their parents, working in their gardens, looked on. Across a small gorge, on the side of a mountain, an old Armenian cemetery lay in neglect. The mountain was the beginning of a mountain chain separating Moush from Sassoun. From there, I photographed Moush.

Before leaving the old part of Moush, we went back to Jigrashen to collect soil. By then, a large crowd of Kurds had gathered, inviting us to stay and have lunch or drink tea. After expressing our appreciation, we left the place that now seemed so familiar, the birthplace of the Minasians and Egetians, and others who had lived, died, or been massacred, or, in the case of some, had somehow survived or been saved and whose offspring now live in Moush. Before leaving, I again walked the streets of Jigrashen. For a time, I pictured myself back in 1908, and my grandmother, who was only eight years old, running and playing. I thought of her parents, who were preparing to leave the place where they all should have lived and died.

Alex Egetian at Sulukh Bridge (click to enlarge)The Plains of Moush
With our Mshetsi friend showing the way, we drove onto the Plains of Moush, to the Murat River, which, along with Meghraget (River of Honey), is one of the two main rivers of Moush. Our destination was the Sulukh Bridge, the place where the great fedayee leader Gevorg Chavoush died. Workers were repairing one end of the thirteenth-century bridge, blown up by a Turk angered over Armenian successes during the war in Karabagh. After throwing water on his face, my wife’s brother sang a song dedicated to Chavoush, as we remembered the famous leader feared by Turks and Kurds alike.

Knowing the importance and fame of St. Arakelots Monastery, and that our Uncle Khoren had gone to school there, we asked about making the difficult journey up the mountain where Arakelots is located, but the danger and length of the climb made us change our plans. We moved on instead to St. Karapet, known before the massacres as a place of pilgrimage and advanced learning, where many manuscripts had been written and illustrated. While driving up the winding road from the Plains of Moush to the monastery, a Kurdish shepherd stopped us and asked for a ride to his village. Reaching St. Karapet, he stepped out from the van and disappeared into one of the houses.

St. Karapet - Kurds making lavash (click to enlarge) The condition of St. Karapet was dismal. We knew it was in ruins, but not that only a small section of a single wall remained. A half-wild Kurdish tribe lives there. They have taken khachkars and carved stones from the monastery to build their houses. The children crowded around us, begging for candy, pulling at our clothes. St. Karapet has come to this. The people of the village have offered to sell the village to Armenians, after which they would leave and live elsewhere. But for St. Karapet, it is too late. Nothing remains.

Back in Moush, along the main street and a side street, we went into stores looking for souvenirs. Occasionally, we met Armenian merchants. At night, we had dinner at a restaurant owned by our Mshetsi friend’s uncle. We ate food that reminded us of the distinctive cuisine our Moush-born ancestors brought with them to Fresno. We talked about the Armenians living in Moush today, who number about 1,000, and those in nearby villages. Most don’t speak Armenian. But they live as Armenians. Perhaps not exactly like the Armenians of old Moush, but like Armenians.

To see more pictures from Moush and Western Armenia, visit the Western Armenia, Faces of Armenia,
and Statues and Monuments sections of the Photo Gallery.

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