Bourdj Hammoud, 37° C: On the Trail of Ottoman Armenian Treasures

“If only you’d come here a few years earlier. I threw away a lot of papers and other photographs.”
“If only you’d come here a few years earlier. I threw away a lot of papers and other photographs.”

It’s likely many of you have had this same experience: You live far away from your birthplace, in a very different social environment, and when you get the opportunity to return, you are euphoric about the journey. Your imagination takes flight, and you begin to form plans in your mind—meeting friends old and new, visiting places known and unknown, eating delicious authentic meals. Then, you reach your birthplace…and suddenly are faced with its negative aspects which, it seems, were set aside and forgotten in all that enthusiasm. The dreadful noise, indescribable traffic, terrible heat, damp air—it had slipped from your memory. At the end, you’ve only achieved a few of your plans and, satisfied with that little, you return to your country of residence.

It was as if I started my journey from Berlin to Beirut with those same initial feelings. One of the aims of my two-week visit to Lebanon this summer was to collect materials remaining from the Ottoman-Armenian era for the Houshamdyan website (www.houshamadyan.org). Our site has been up for over a year and it is our aim—through articles, photographs, sound recordings, and other multimedia tools—to reconstruct the Ottoman-Armenians’ rich legacy of the past.

This is why, when I was in Lebanon last February, I, along with the president of Haigazian Armenian University, Rev. Paul Haidostian, and the director of Haigazian’s Armenian Diaspora Research Center, Antranik Dakessian, decided to organize a three-day event in the Armenian Evangelical Shamlian-Tatigian Secondary School in Bourdj Hammoud in the summer. It was to be a collaborative event between the Houshamadyan Association and Haigazian University. Our group would, beginning in the morning, wait for local Armenians to meet us, bringing items linked to their memories. We would photograph these materials and return them to their owners. To generate interest in the event, we printed and flyers that were distributed through the Armenian churches and schools. Elke Hartmann (my wife and the chair of the Houshamadyan Association) and I would also give two lectures on the subject of our website and project.

This was our plan for when we reached Lebanon. We were excited by the initiative, and had already pinned our hopes on it. We had forgotten the other realities of the country—the unstable political situation, the terrible heat and dampness, the many effects of the war in Syria, the economic situation. And we felt their oppressive presence in those few days in Lebanon. The contradiction was obvious: We had come on the trail of the recent and distant past of the Lebanese Armenians, when at that same time, the present state of the country and its people was not very bright.

It is July 5, and the day of our first big disappointment. Elke and I are to give a lecture on Houshamadyan in Beirut’s Haigazian University. But we aren’t able to project our website on the screen set up in the hall. The reason? The whole of Lebanon has been having trouble with the internet for the last two days and it has stopped working altogether. So we are going to speak without being able to show the website live. The positive side is that over 50 people are there, and are listening to our lecture with interest. The same lecture is repeated a few days later in Bourdj Hammoud, in the Armenian Catholic Mesrobian School hall. The same number of people are present, with the same level of interest. Future TV’s Armenian department and Radio Sevan also conduct interviews with us.

It is a rich treasure, containing many things from the 19th century, all of them beautifully looked after: old photographs; land deeds (tapu); a family tree starting in 1654; a wedding dress from Harpout; a silver belt from Van; a woman’s cap, with its various ornaments; a silk skirt from Harpout; a scarf; a printed cloth; a baptismal box.

It is a rich treasure, containing many things from the 19th century, all of them beautifully looked after: old photographs; land deeds (tapu); a family tree starting in 1654; a wedding dress from Harpout; a silver belt from Van; a woman’s cap, with its various ornaments; a silk skirt from Harpout; a scarf; a printed cloth; a baptismal box.

All this has happened to prepare the atmosphere for the real day, the 10th of July—that is, the day when the event in the Shamlian-Tatigian is due to start. That Monday morning is extremely hot. We have to go from Antelias to Bourdj Hammoud. We’ve had another disappointment the previous evening, when we heard that the main road along the coast, which is the only way there, is going to be closed because of a demonstration at the road junction. Under these circumstances it will be impossible to reach Bourdj Hammoud before mid-day. But the demonstration doesn’t take place, and we get to Bourdj Hammoud at the right time.

The school’s directors have assigned a nice room to us, and Antranik Dakessian is already seated. Two female student volunteers, Sanahin and Arin, quickly join us. On the final day, Lory and Shogher, other volunteers, are also going to work with us. The first “customers” aren’t late, and bring with them the first treasures of memory. Among them is a small bell, a toy that had belonged to a little girl from Marash. She had taken it with her on the road to exile and brought it as far as Lebanon, where it is still kept by her family’s descendants. There is also a Bible brought from Sis. We photograph the first objects and scan the photographs with enthusiasm, then return them to their owners.

It is already mid-day. The temperature is 37° C. Although we have three electric fans in our room, we are hot and sweating. How can we stand this Bourdj Hammoud summer dampness? Only the members of our group remain in the room. We are convinced that it will be a rest period for us. I am already working out in my mind which shop I will go to and which tasty sandwich I will order. I still haven’t decided between a sujukh or chicken with garlic sandwich. I have missed both very much. At this moment Dzovig, followed by Garo, enter the room. Both are friends. When they see our “inactivity,” they immediately get out their cellphones, and begin phoning friends, asking if they know anyone who might have items of interest. They find three or four people, and hand the phone over to me so that we can discuss how to see the items.

Time passes. I’m forced to forget tasty sandwiches. An old lady, Mrs. V.A., enters the room, walking quickly with a flyer in hand. Her family is from Sis; she has lived her whole life in the New Sis quarter of Bourdj Hammoud. She is taciturn. She’s brought two wonderful photographs with her: One is of her entire family in Sis, and the other is of her mother, with her two sisters, photographed in Adana. We ask her the usual questions concerning the identity of the people in the photographs, scanning them at the same time. Many of the people appearing in the photographs were killed in 1915; Mrs. V.A. is named after one of those innocent victims. The others emigrated to Argentina and Brazil after the end of the First World War. We have the impression that it is difficult for Mrs. V.A. to talk about all this again. She hurries to leave. We quickly try to return the photographs. “What am I going to do from now on? You keep them,” she replies. We are dumbstruck, and cannot even utter a word of thanks. She leaves with the same quick steps… We look at one another; it is an emotional moment for all of us. Two photographs, two fragments, remain on the table, surrounded by all of us, while their owner has left, never to return. It seems that Mrs. V.A. had been waiting for us for years, for this moment, to give us these family relics and…leave.

Fortunately Shogher and Movses arrive a little while later and extricate us from the oppressive situation. Both of them are friends of the Houshamadyan website; originally from Lebanon, they now live in Brussels, Belgium. They have brought with them Movses’s mother’s family’s (Garoian) family album, rich with photographs taken in Beylan and Kirik Khan in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Movses has also brought various articles belonging to the Garoians. Both these places were part of the sandjak of Alexandretta (now called Hatay); the entire area only became part of Turkey in 1939. The Garoians, like thousands of other Armenians, left their ancestral homes and re-established themselves in Lebanon. Movses personally tries to give the details of the photographs. It proves to be a difficult task. His cellphone comes to his aid several times, as he uses it to talk with his elderly aunt (his mother’s sister) and ask for clarification of various details. It is obvious that the explanations don’t satisfy Movses, who had decided that all of the album’s “secrets” should be passed on to us. Disappointed with his aunt, he makes another call and this time, in a decisive voice, says, “What’s mother doing? Bring her here.” A short time later his mother arrives. She is younger than her sister, comparatively speaking, but succeeds in naming the people in the photographs, as well as adding personal recollections. It is possible, through the Garoians’ personal album, to reconstruct the life of an ordinary family: marriage, birth, picnics, family events, then the sad times of exile, the beginning of a new life in Lebanon.

Our next appointment is on July 12. It is going to be a very full day. People arrive bringing with them photographs from Malatya, Adana, Marash, Urfa, Nigde, Kayseri. One brings a Bible in Turkish, with the text in the Armenian alphabet, that was printed in Istanbul; its owner brought it from Marash. B.E. also arrives; he is a friend and hands us five old photographs, one of which shows two Armenian soldiers in Ottoman Army uniform. B.E. gifts us all of the photographs and adds, “If only you’d come here a few years earlier. I threw away a lot of papers and other photographs.” We are amazed, but have heard similar stories of things thrown away over the last few days. In the case of B.E., at least a few photographs were saved. Then I meet Mrs. S. She is carrying a bag and somewhat hesitantly says, “I’m not sure that these will interest you, but have a look at them.” There, rolled up in the bag, are over 40 thick papers. I take one out and listen to her stories at the same time. Her grandfather had been the owner of a carpet factory in Kayseri. When they were exiled from the city, he took the carpet weaving patterns and prototypes with him. Now they are in my hands, wonderful relics of an ancient craft. Many different patterns of eastern carpets are drawn beautifully, in color, on these thick pieces of paper. We could consider our day’s work to be satisfactory with just these, but in the afternoon another delightful surprise awaits us.

The temperature has again risen to 37° C. These are the hottest hours in Bourdj Hammoud. A taxi enters the schoolyard. A small woman emerges from the sun-drenched taxi, bathed in perspiration, and says, “Come and help me. This heat will make us mad, but I’ve come for Houshamadyan…” All of us stand around her. The trunk of the taxi opens and we take out a large traveling suitcase, which we bring into our workroom. We are to spend the next few hours, until evening, with Mrs. H.Kh. and the treasures she has brought. She had heard about us from people around her, had collected the legacy left by her forefathers who lived in Kharpert, added other things obtained from neighbors and relatives, and brought them all to our Bourdj Hammoud center. It is a rich treasure, containing many things from the 19th century, all of them beautifully looked after: old photographs; land deeds (tapu); a family tree starting in 1654; a wedding dress from Harpout; a silver belt from Van; a woman’s cap, with its various ornaments; a silk skirt from Harpout; a scarf; a printed cloth; a baptismal box.

The third day is, by now, a usual one; we look at the remains of treasures. Mrs A.F. donates two cloth dresses left from her mother’s dowry, who was born in Sis. Among the things brought to us was an Armenian’s graduation certificate from St. Paul’s College in Darson (Tarsus) about 60 cm. (2 ft.) long; a spice mill from Tomarza; and copper vessels from Beylan, Urfa, and Sis. We receive, as a gift, a scarf made in Gürün. All of these things have their micro-histories. We record every detail of them. It is possible, through the stories of a belt, a scarf, a wedding dress, a photograph, or a Bible, to reconstruct the movement through time of a whole family and—why not—that of a village, town or community. Clearly each item has the passage of life in it, a family history, whose roots extend back to its ancestral homeland. Then the Great Crime (Medz Yeghern) took place and the articles, with their owners, moved away; many of the owners were killed, while others, like them, survived and finally settled in Lebanon.

Our three-day-long endeavor has ended. We say goodbye to Bourdj Hammoud and Lebanon, and decide to repeat our initiative in the near future. Our first attempt to find Ottoman-Armenian treasures is a success. Not only have we collected various materials, but have also succeeded in awakening the idea of finding such legacies, and realizing their importance, among many people. We are convinced that in a place like Lebanon (the same can certainly be said for Syria) one relic from an ancestral home can be found in almost every family. Many might say that that this initiative should have happened decades ago. Yes, we agree! But our three-day experience is enough to convince us that it is still not too late. Hidden treasures still exist. We must excavate them, invite their owners to understand what they are, list them, digitize their images, record each of their stories, and find ways of preserving these materials to immortalize them.

After leaving Lebanon, we hear that the temperature has reached 40° C, that the continuing war in Syria has become fiercer, that thousands of refugees have flooded into Lebanon. The treasures that we sought are still there, with many Lebanese-Armenian families. At the same time, we know the process of throwing things away continues, and perhaps other disasters will annihilate these treasures that symbolize the history of the Ottoman-Armenians—our forefathers—once and for all.

Translated from Armenian by Ara Stepan Melkonian

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