A House in the Homeland
Armenian Pilgrimages to Places of Ancestral Memory
Carel Bertram



FOLLOWING THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE OF 1915, the United States became an important refuge for genocide survivors. It was a host-land to those who had suffered unspeakable brutalities and were anguished by the loss of a wholeness they had lived with their families in towns and villages in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire—which later became eastern and southeastern Turkey. For these survivors, even the idea of returning to a homeland emptied of Armenians and filled with memories of death and terror was unthinkable, and few ever saw their beloved homes again. But starting in the 1950s, and with increasing momentum in the 1990s, the survivors’ children, and then their grandchildren, began to make forays to Turkey in search of their families’ lost houses in the towns and villages that they had heard so much about. Although they had never traveled to Turkey before, they bristled at the term tourists, as their profound attachments made them feel they were hardly just curious visitors but were, in a sense, returning home. Instead, many called their journeys pilgrimages, and referred to themselves as pilgrims. These are the people you will meet in this book, and as we follow them, we will refer to them as pilgrims too. Osky was one of them.

Almost eighty years after her mother had survived the Armenian genocide, Osky travelled from Rhode Island to Govdun, a village near Sivas in today’s Turkey, in search of her mother’s family house. She found no trace of it, nor were there any Armenians left. Yet “the Armenians” were still part of village memory, and finding that some older villagers knew stories about her mother’s famous Uncle Murad, she felt moved to stoop down and dig some earth from an empty plot to take home. Then, suddenly, Osky stood up and began to talk to her mother, who had died years before: “OK, Ma, you got your dream. Ma, I’m here. I’m here on your land. And I know that you never really ever thought I’d ever come here. You had no idea that I’d come here! But here I am! And I’m beginning to become proud, Ma. I wish you could have come back to see it.” It seemed that by digging the earth Osky had activated its spirits, opening a channel to her mother. Using experiences like these, this book identifies the many but specific ways in which such encounters can change the pilgrim. In the process, this book also changes our understanding of what pilgrimages can do.

The stories these pilgrims bring with them are part of an Armenian saga that stems from what is often considered one of the earliest modern instances of genocide, and a defining event of the 20th century: that is, the Armenians’ traumatic annihilation in—or exile from—their own homeland in eastern and southeastern Anatolia.1 For them, this area was the western part of a larger Armenia, where Armenian communities had lived for thousands of years, even since time immemorial. By the 16th century, however, these communities had been incorporated into the growing Ottoman Empire, an Islamic state that came to encompass a variety of ethnic and religious enclaves from the Balkans through North Africa and into the Middle East. Then, in the 19th century, the Ottomans began to lose territory as the rising nationalism of its subsumed groups led to the formation of autonomous states such as Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. The Ottomans responded with a nationalism of their own in which they defined their authentic core as an ethnically Turkish and religiously Sunni Muslim population.2 This was coupled with the intention of providing this core with an exclusive homeland in Thrace (including Istanbul) and Anatolia. Thus, between 1915 and 1918 especially, Ottoman campaigns targeted this area’s Christian populations—Assyrian, Greek, and Armenian—all of whom were then living in their ancestral homelands as Ottoman citizens. For the Armenian community, the new Ottoman Turkish nationalism led to the systematic, town by town and village by village murders of Armenian men. These murders were followed by forced, usually fatal, marches of the remaining Armenian women and children to the deserts near Deir al-Zor, then in Ottoman Syria. Estimates of the numbers who died hover between one and one and a half million, or at least half of the total number of Armenians who had once lived in what had been referred to as the “Armenian provinces” in eastern and southeastern Anatolia.

The Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I finally ended the genocide, but that empire’s successor, the Republic of Turkey (established in 1923), continued to carry out the Ottomans’ nationalist program. It denied the genocide, which it variously rebranded either as internal civil strife or as the deserved punishment of a seditious group (although never described as state policy). It also continued the appropriation of Armenian property, while prohibiting the return of those exiled Armenians who had survived. Furthermore, successive Turkish administrations have not only criminalized the very discussion of the genocide, but have worked to erase any memory of local Armenian history by denying it a place in school curricula and by supporting a continual destruction of Armenian churches, monasteries and schools as well as the obliteration of Armenian village names.

Many survivors of the genocide made their way from their Armenian communities in Ottoman Armenia to Eastern Armenia, which was then part of Tsarist Russia; later they would become citizens of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Many others fled west, to Istanbul, where an Armenian population had established roots even before the Ottomans arrived. Those who gave shape to what would become the great Armenian diaspora, however, went in every direction: to Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece and France, for example. Large numbers went to the Americas, especially to the United States, rescued by fathers and uncles, brothers and husbands who had left their Ottoman Armenian homeland earlier, usually with a plan either to return with funds for their houses and farms or to send for their families to join them. But in 1915, all their correspondence from home suddenly stopped. Only through a network of missionaries, newspapers and word of mouth would reunions be made possible, allowing the Armenian-American diaspora to settle and grow in safety.

Osky’s mother was one example. In about 1910, her husband had left her and their small daughter in the village of Govdun and emigrated, finally finding work in Providence, Rhode Island. He lost contact with her in 1915 when she and their daughter were taken up in the Ottoman mass village deportation marches. Their small daughter died along the way, but Osky’s mother survived, and within a few years she was able to make contact with her husband and was brought to the United States. There, they had three more children. The first was named for the child who was lost. Osky was the second. The third was named for Uncle Murad.3


It was only in the 1950s, upon the relaxation of Turkish laws that restricted general travel into the interior of the country, that Turkey became a feasible travel destination for the exiled or their descendants. Even then, only a rare few had the resources and the stomach—or courage—to find their remote home villages, at that time often accessible only on horseback or on foot.4

It was not until the 1990s that someone ventured to take Armenians of the diaspora to the place that so many considered to be their real homeland, that is, their villages, a term that I often use to stand for what we might call their hometowns. For even if their ancestors had come from larger enclaves such as Lidje, or even towns and cities such as Yozgat, Marash and Diyarbakir, the pilgrims’ focus was on the close-knit Armenian neighborhoods where their family house had been. The person who would take them there was Armen Aroyan, an Armenian living in California but born in Egypt to a family exiled from southeastern Anatolia. In 1988, as an American engineer who traveled to Turkey for professional reasons, Aroyan had been able to visit his father’s village of Jibin, by then made accessible via a network of newly built highways, even if they still led to dirt roads. When Aroyan returned to the United States and spoke to church and community groups about his journey, an excited ripple of possibility went through the diaspora’s soul, spreading by word of mouth to exiled Armenians and their descendants in the American host-land and even beyond. Aroyan’s decision to guide a few Armenians in finding their ancestral villages grew to the point that his helpful shepherding soon became his life’s work. And so, starting in the early 1990s, he cautiously began to lead small groups into a country that denied that the genocide had ever happened, and that was angry that Armenians still existed to bring the subject up. By 2015, he had taken as many as two thousand pilgrims “home.”5

Osky, traveling in 1994, was on one of Aroyan’s earliest trips.6 In those early years, Aroyan cautioned pilgrims to ask little about the past, and not to speak Armenian unless they were inside the bus. Tensions relaxed somewhat over time, but were again heightened in 2007 with the assassination of Hrank Dink, the editor of Istanbul’s Armenian newspaper, Agos, although his violent death also opened a window to hear the many voices of those in Turkey who were sympathetic to Armenians and angry about their current and historical mistreatment. In fact, by the time of the genocide’s centennial commemoration, in April of 2015, pilgrims rarely hid their identities and their quests. But almost immediately afterward, following the Turkish state’s reaction to electoral gains by the Armenian-friendly pro-Kurdish party in June of 2015, followed by a coup attempt in July of 2016, the state shone a searchlight on every supposed “enemy,” which, together with the state’s resurgent nationalism, again made being openly Armenian problematic for pilgrims, a situation that poses a continuing risk for Armenians still living in Turkey. Thus, the displacement and liquidation of the Armenian populations of the Ottoman Empire not only constituted a formative Armenian historical trauma, but it remains raw.

Central to the present study are over a dozen of these Aroyan group pilgrimages that I accompanied between 2007 and 2015, along with several of my own trips with individual pilgrims. These experiences made clear how the homeland was defined by the house, or by the village where that house once stood (Figure 1). Aroyan organized his trips around groups whose home villages were somewhat near to one another, although traveling between them could still turn out to be difficult because the land is often mountainous, and villages that seem close on a map may be separated by many hours of driving on tortuous roads. Our days were long and hard, often with no places for food or rest stops, but not as hard for us as they were for Aroyan, who daily gave every ounce of energy to finding everyone’s village, getting there, and then helping pilgrims locate markers of their family memories: he remembered such things as a pilgrim’s having spoken about the large tree that a grandparent had described; if it was there, he would find it, even if the house itself was gone. Calling ahead from the front of the bus as it began to get dark, he arranged for dinners to appear long after everything was closed, often surprising pilgrims with familiar local dishes; and at the end of each day, we found that he had reserved (always adequate but most often quite luxurious) accommodations for tired travelers returning from their long day’s journey.

The difficulty of travel, including finding villages that seemed to have disappeared, or whose names had been changed, meant that only a relatively small number of pilgrims would travel alone. A few traveled in groups led by organizers other than Aroyan. I am able to draw on a relatively large group of pilgrims because, along with my personal observations of well over one hundred pilgrims, including conversations and written communications that span an eight-year travel period, I have also constructed an archive of several hundred other pilgrims’ journals, memoirs, blogs, photographs, letters, maps, drawings and creative works. Many of these travelers were among the several thousand pilgrims who have traveled with Aroyan over the years, and my information about them comes in part from the videos Aroyan took during every pilgrimage (now in the Armen Aroyan Collection at the University of Southern California Institute of Armenian Studies) as well as from the many articles about their trips that they wrote and then sent to him for a collection that is yet unpublished. I also found and personally contacted many of these pilgrims, whether they had traveled with Aroyan, alone, or with others. Although most of the pilgrims I follow are from the American diaspora, some are from outside it including some Armenians who had fled to Istanbul.7 I also have materials from pilgrimages that predate these contemporary trips. None of them traveled because they wanted to see the tourists sites of Turkey; their goal was the little known, often hard to find and hard to reach domestic places in the interior, and when asked “Why?” each would surely give the same answer Chris Bohjalian gave: “Because I am Armenian and that’s where my family once lived.”8 In all, my archive spans over fifty years.

FIGURE 1. A pilgrim, hoping to find her ancestral house, walks as she photographs an old neighborhood in Kharpert, 2007. Photo by the author, Carel Bertram.

I treat both the experiences I witnessed and the documents I collected as ethnographies that disclose individual, shared, and communal memories and sensibilities, and it is these experiences and documents that anchor my analyses. The earliest of the materials concern return journeys made by survivors, whom I term natives; these pilgrims search for their houses in the neighborhoods where they were born and that feature in their personal memories from before the genocide. However, most of the travelers presented in this book are descendants, the children or grandchildren of survivors who have no personal memories of these places, yet learned early on that the family house was the central marker of homeland. This is made clear in the descendants’ memory-stories, the term I use for what inspired, even impelled, their journeys: that is, the stories and attachments heard or learned from their survivor parents and grandparents, and which they have assembled as their received truths.

However, this book also goes further, and identifies what happens when these assemblages of memory-stories arrive at the places where they took place; there the pilgrims’ stories are reassembled when, by the pilgrims’ actions, they are forced into the house’s story, giving it a new meaning and even new permanence. Pilgrims’ responses include imaginatively inhabiting real and proxy houses; using poetry and song to insert themselves into a house’s lost world; and inventing a group of rituals that, by defying time, satisfy a range of spiritual yearnings. I focus on a select few pilgrims to illustrate particular types of responses, such as the collection of relics or the ritual of communion. However, other pilgrims, drawn from a multitude of examples, may make cameo appearances when what they said, saw, did or felt, corroborates the larger patterns that I have discovered. In all cases, I attempt to honor these pilgrims by using their real first names.


When we understand the house, or its village or the hometown, as the pilgrim’s primary goal, we come to understand homeland from a changed perspective. At the very least, the centrality of the house, whether found or not, was rooted in a materiality that was visceral and mappable, in fact pilgrims’ houses were in villages that most often could be found on a map of the Six Vilayets (provinces) that made up Ottoman Armenia: Van, Bitlis, Erzurum, Diyarbakir, Sivas, and Mamuret-ul-Aziz (Kharpert). Ottoman Armenia was a term that the Russians were forced to accept as they withdrew from eastern Turkey in 1878, at the end of the Russo-Turkish War. As the language of the pilgrims’ own parents or grandparents shows, the use of this name continued, undeterred by Sultan Abdul Hamid who, around the time of the treaty, banned his subjects from using the term Armenia at all; no doubt hoping that by imperial decree, an Armenian identity would cease to exist.9

This Ottoman Armenia is not to be confused with what would become today’s Republic of Armenia, an eastern part of historical Armenia that had been ruled by the Russian tsars from 1828 until, after a brief moment of independence, it became a part of the Soviet Union in 1922. Only in 1991 did it finally become the fully independent Armenia that we know today. Nonetheless, most of the pilgrims we will follow, like most Armenians in their various diasporas, feel a compelling, even loving attachment to this Republic, which also houses the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, with a cathedral rooted in the establishment of Armenia in the third century CE as Christianity’s first Christian nation. It also holds an array of intact ancient and medieval sites whose counterparts in Anatolia have mostly been lost. But most precious of all, it offers the security of knowing that it holds the safety of home for all Armenians, even if they do not live there.

Yet an affective loyalty to the Republic of Armenia does not replace the pilgrims’ sense of rootedness in the Western Armenia of Ottoman lands, with its distinctive history and culture that differ significantly from those of Eastern Armenia. For example, over the centuries, the Armenian language developed into markedly different Eastern and Western dialects, and Eastern and Western cultural forms took on their own characteristic musical, culinary and other traditions. Eastern Armenian traditions were influenced by the cultures of the Iranian and later Russian empires, while Western Armenian cultural practices overlapped with Ottoman ones. It is these Western forms that survivors took to the diaspora as their own. However, many pilgrims felt that with the loss of the preponderance of Western Armenian culture, Eastern Armenian traditions were establishing a cultural hegemony that suggested not only that Eastern Armenian music and foods were more authentic but that Ottoman Armenian cultural forms were tainted by their association with Turkish culture. This put pilgrims in an uncomfortable position, as many pilgrimage stories show. On the one hand, pilgrims often felt alien when they traveled to the Republic of Armenia while they felt at home with the music they heard in Turkey, and the foods there seemed as if made in their mothers’ kitchens.10 On the other hand, they could not identify with the local Turkish and Kurdish citizens, whose culture (but not their religion or language) they sometimes shared. Instead, the pilgrims carried their knowledge of genocide and erasure as both facts and feelings. Thus, just as their rage must be understood, so too must their bravery not be understated as they searched for their homes in an inhospitable homeland.

In the end, pilgrims found no single comfortable name for their longed-for homeland: sometimes they used Armenia (although not referencing the current country of Armenia); sometimes they used Western Armenia (often suggestive of their hope for a future reunification with the Republic of Armenia in the east); and sometimes historical Armenia (or occasionally Ottoman Armenia, referring to the western part of a greater Armenia that had lost its Armenian population following 1915). This book uses the term historical Armenia, with a sense more geographical than political. However, another frequently used, and perhaps better term may be yergir, to which pilgrims gave more homey associations. Meaning “the land,” yergir might be translated as “the old country” by pilgrims whose elders used it to mean a homeland imagined as a conflation of their individual home and a cultural landscape of lost Armenian towns and villages with local idioms, music, and food, and with the comfortingly familiar rituals of school, markets, and church. The one name that pilgrims never used for homeland was Turkey.

As time passes, fewer and fewer pilgrims have been able to find their houses or even identifiable remains of their ancestral pasts; in part this is because their memory-stories hold fewer clues, in part this is because old neighborhoods continue to have their Armenian traces demolished, and in part this is because of the march of modernity. Nonetheless, a softening political climate at the beginning of the 21st century allowed pilgrims to encounter their homeland in a radically new way, as they increasingly found what formerly seemed almost inconceivable: Muslim Armenians—even some who were relatives. Although the effect this discovery has had on identity for both groups continues, the opening of opportunities to explore these connections unfortunately did not.11 Furthermore, facing a series of new political difficulties in Turkey, Aroyan, having long put off retirement in order to help his community fulfill its dreams, ended his career. His protégé, Annie Kahkejian, has continued his mission, and the historical Armenia scholars Khatchig Mouradian and George Aghjayan continue to use their skills to help descendants find their ancestral homes; but each increasingly guides travelers who, unlike Osky, did not learn the stories of their ancestral homes directly from the people who were forced to leave them, changing the quality—although not the level—of their attachments. With fewer first- and second-generation descendants, and without Aroyan’s leadership, 2015 may mark the waning of this generation of pilgrims. In many ways, then, this book preserves a series of linked moments in time as well as generational links that won’t be seen again for this community.

In the following pages, I hope to show how pilgrimage powerfully connects memory and place. As a granular ethnography discloses the porous boundaries between house and homeland and even host-land—as well as between past and present—these Armenian pilgrimages from the American diaspora reflect the brutal reach of trauma, separation, and exile. As examples of the interactions between private, shared, and collective memory, they show how the forces of family bonds, real, mythical, lost and enduring, as well as social and religious communities, tie cherished identities together. Above all, as this book shows, they document how a confrontation of memory and place, when that place evokes the meaning of home, can open a space for the soul, release the powers of the spiritual, and perhaps most importantly, expose a wellspring of humanity, such as when, even as they suspect that those they meet are the descendants of perpetrators, Armenian pilgrims embrace the Turkish children who live in their ancestral villages. The ethnographic detail that follows invites you, the reader, to share in the intimate experiences of these pilgrims’ journeys. Moreover, as an exploration of memory and place, house and home, loss and wholeness, this Armenian story might well resonate with something that each of us, whatever our history, will recognize in ourselves.


1. Although the exact nature of the events discussed here and, in particular, the role of the Ottoman government in them remains disputed by the Republic of Turkey that replaced that government, the scholarly community in general, including a new generation of Turkish scholars, finds the genocidal character of those events to be irrefutable. Of the many sources, see especially Suny, Göçek, and Naimark, Question of Genocide; and Göçek, Denial of Violence, 422. Among other important works are Akçam, Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity; Üngör, Making of Modern Turkey; and Kezer, Building Modern Turkey.

2. But see Christine Philliou, who brings in oppositional voices, especially in regard to the period between 1919 and 1922, the critical period of change from empire to nation. She cautions against treating “the Ottomans,” or even “the Ottomans at the end of the Empire,” as a usable phrase. Philliou, Turkey: A Past against History.

3. Osky’s brother used the Frenchified spelling of “Mourad,” preferred by Armenians to the more Turkish Murad. Its importance amplified as it was given as his son’s middle name.

4. My research suggests that, as individuals, Ottoman Armenians in the diaspora often felt these villages represented their true homeland; yet their early limited travel opportunities meant they could hope to visit only larger cities and communal sites. In 1967, for example, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) promoted perhaps the earliest organized “Heritage Tour” from America. The itinerary included major cities with Armenian importance, such as Jerusalem, but also many sites in Turkey, including towns that once had substantial Armenian populations and institutions, such as Gaziantep, Marash, and Malatya. The tour’s highlights were to be the ruins of the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Aghtamar Island in Lake Van; a view of Mount Ararat, the sacred mountain where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed; the ruins of Ani, the 10th- to 11th-century capital of the medieval Armenian Baghratid kingdom; and the beautiful and impressively large Surp Giragos (St. Cyriacus) Church in Diyarbakir. Thank you to Marc Mamigonian for this information.

5. A good overview of his journeys is given in Adar and Bakalian, “Interview with Anny Bakalian.”

6. Aroyan, Armen Aroyan Collection, “Video: Pilgrimage to Western Armenia,” September 1994; all quotations from Osky are from this video.

7. For pilgrimages of Ottoman Armenians from Armenia, see Korkmaz, “Our Sacred Native Land.”

8. Bohjalian, “Going Home Again.”

9. See Balakian, Burning Tigris, 36, referencing Pears, Life of Abdul Hamid, 228.

10. Bertram, “Dinner in the Homeland”; and Bertram, “Role and Realm of Music.”

11. Kricorian, “Name of This Place.”