UVM senior treks back into her Armenian past

Just how small is this world really? Sarah Aghjayan, 21, has been going to the University of Vermont since the autumn of 2010 and will begin her senior year there this September. Our paths have never crossed in Vermont. Yet last month we met seven time zones to the east in a now largely Kurdish section of Turkey.

Sarah and I were two of seven Armenian-American pilgrims on a journey into the geography of our past. I’ve chosen the word geography carefully. Her father, George Aghjayan, was with us and he was quite literally charting our route via GPS and locking in the coordinates. Once upon a time — actually, up until 98 years ago — this part of Turkey was a land of Turks, Kurds, Assyrians and Armenians. In the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915, three out of every four Armenians in the Ottoman Empire — 1.5 million people — were systematically slaughtered and the hallmarks of their culture here all but obliterated. Over the course of one week in May, the seven of us traveled from village to village to see the remains of the monasteries and churches, some massive, and the communities that anchored this part of Historic Armenia.

And among the places we visited was a tiny Kurdish community now called Yazibashi. A century ago, when it was populated with Armenians, it was known as Sakrat. The hamlet is a far cry from the Boston suburbs where Sarah grew up, her family diehard Patriots fans and her father an executive with a software company that specializes in structured finance. But some of her Armenian roots are here. This is where her great-grandfather, Giragos Der Manouelian, was born. All that remains of the Armenian church in Sakrat today is a part of the altar, a stone arch, but this is the very church where Giragos was baptized. The arch towers over a small barn and a single-story cement block home.

“I never knew my great-grandfather,” Sarah told me, “but I’ve heard my dad recount numerous stories of him, so this was a very special experience for me. It’s very emotional for me.”

This was Sarah’s second pilgrimage with her father: “I make these journeys to learn more about my family’s history. It’s not everyday that Armenians get to visit the remote villages of our ancestors and speak with the people who live there now.” Usually, she said, the villagers are gracious. When we were in Sakrat last month, the farmer who owns the land that once was the Armenian church insisted that we stay and share glasses of thick tahn — a yogurt drink — with him.

None of us brought up the reality that much of this land once belonged to Armenians, because that wasn’t why we were there. This was about what Thomas Moore calls the “care of the soul,” not real estate. As we sipped our tahn, George and Sarah wanted to be sure that our translator conveyed to our host how grateful they were that he was preserving the arch. He wasn’t tearing it down, he wasn’t allowing it to sink further into the earth.

That’s one of the things that made the journey so poignant: Most of the time, there is no one or no group looking after these remnants. Moreover, the ruins we saw were often parts of active, thriving communities as recently as 98 years ago. This wasn’t Pompeii. These weren’t medieval castles in Scotland. There may still be people alive today who sat in some of these pews.

Which perhaps explains what Sarah said was her favorite moment on the trip: Our visit to Ktuts Island in Lake Van, and the ancient monastery there that’s now home only to thousands of seagulls. “Armenians have a knack for picking the most beautiful locations for their monasteries and churches, and that one takes the cake,” she said. “The monastery was in decent shape, which made the experience even better; there was no heart-wrenching destruction to it.”

Ruins, according to Moore, “show us that something remains of beauty in a thing when its function has departed.” It’s a part of the reason we’re drawn to them. This was Sarah’s second journey to her ancestral homeland. It’s clear that it won’t be her last.

(This column appeared originally on June 8, 2013 in the Burlington Free Press. Chris’s new novel, “Hour of the Witch,” was published in May.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.