Visit Vakifli, Turkey's Last Armenian Village—Before It Disappears

It survived the Ottomans and later the Syrians before managing to stay alive in modern-day Turkey. But a new implacable foe may spell its doom.

May 21, 2018 (released May 21, 2018)
Source: The Daily Beast

By Kristen McTighe

The tales of horror trickled in to the villages of Musa Dagh, or Mount Moses, in the spring and summer of 1915 from army deserters, traveling merchants, and a terrified Protestant priest.

On April 24th in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman empire, hundreds of Armenian notables were accused as traitors, rounded up, deported and later killed. In May, Ottoman authorities issued deportations orders and Armenians across the empire were herded towards the Syrian desert, starved, dehydrated, and left behind to die.

In July, when Ottoman forces arrived in Kessab, a nearby Armenian town, the residents of Musa Dagh knew time was running out. Village leaders called a meeting at the home of Father Der Kalousdian, a well-respected priest, and debated two options of how to respond: obey the orders and risk death or stand up and resist.

“I was born here, I will die here. I will not go as a slave to die with tortures under the enemy’s order,” the leaders said, according to testimony of a Musa Dagh survivor recorded in a book by Verjiné Svazlian. “I will die here, with a gun in my hand, but I will not become an emigrant.”

So, when the Ottomans arrived days later, two thirds of the population had to climb up the mountain, choosing to fight for their lives.

More than 100 years after the villages of Musa Dagh waged a successful resistance and survived the mass killings of Armenians during World War I, Vakifli is the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey. As its population dwindles, the village is drawing tourists with its stunning views of the surrounding mountains and Mediterranean Sea, complicated history, and a chance to experience its culture before it disappears.

Perched on the slopes of Musa Dagh, in the southern Turkish province of Hatay near the Syrian border, Vakifli is a 15 minute drive by car or taxi from Samandag, a dusty beach town at the mouth of the Asi River on the Mediterranean sea. Leaving Samandag, travelers ascend rugged, mountain roads past hills blanketed in fruit trees.

At the entrance of Vakifli, the bumpy roads make way to a newly paved street, lined with fragrant orange and lemon trees. Bright pink and red roses fill gardens near old stone houses. Windmills rotate on hilltops off in the distance to the east. Looking out to the more to the west, lush green hills roll out to meet the Mediterranean sea.

On a breezy afternoon earlier this spring, two men picked loquats from a tree off the main road that loops through the village, giving handfuls to tourists as they walked by.

Home to some 135 mostly middle-aged and elderly residents who are the descendants of the Armenians who stood up to the Ottoman army in 1915, every corner of this tiny, tranquil village is suffused with its past.

“[My great-grandmother] had two small children, and she couldn’t carry both, so she was forced to leave one baby behind,” said Cem Capar, the grandson of survivors from Vakifli who is now the chairman of the Foundation of the Vakifli Surp Asdvadzadzin church. “She planned to return and climb the mountain again, but her father-in-law panicked when he found out she had left the baby behind and went back and carried the baby himself.”

After fortifying themselves at the top of the mountain, the villagers repelled attacks for 53 days, with little more than hunting rifles and small guns. Layers of fog often worked to their advantage and they knew the terrain better than their aggressors.

But as the days dragged on, their situation became dire. The economy of Musa Dagh had been hit hard in the lead up to war, according to Vahram Shammassian, a professor at California State University, Northridge, who has written extensively on Vakifli. In a scene reminiscent of the Bible, locusts had invaded in June and destroyed Musa Dagh’s crops.

“They went up the mountain, hoping against all hope, that they would encounter a battleship [to rescue them],” Shemmassian said.

On the side of the mountain facing the sea, villagers hung a large banner that read, “Christians in distress: rescue,” and with luck, a passing French warship spotted the sign on September 5th. Days later they returned with more warships. Villagers were rescued and transported to Port Said, Egypt, where they lived for four years as refugees.

The riveting story of Musa Dagh’s survival was later told by Austrian-Bohemian author Franz Werfel in his 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, changing 53 days to 40 days in a biblical reference. The book drew attention to the persecution of Armenians and is also said to have served as a source of inspiration for European Jews during the Holocaust.

Upon the return of Musa Dagh refugees from Egypt in the summer and fall of 1919, the mountain villages became part of Syria under the French mandate. But in 1939, after a controversial referendum, Turkey annexed the land, a move that remains unrecognized by Syria to this day. With the atrocities of World War I still fresh in their heads, all but six percent of the Armenians from Musa Dagh fled, mostly to Anjar, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The vast majority of those who stayed were from Vakifli.

“They thought they could live harmoniously under the new Turkish regime,” said Shemmassian, who was born and raised in Lebanon and is the grandson of Armenians who left Musa Dagh.

“I would never leave this village,” said Panos Caparyan, who at 86 years old is one of the oldest residents of Vakifli. Born in 1932, he was there when the majority of Armenian from other villages moved away. “Tell Americans to visit, Vakifli is safe,” he said, before pulling out his wooden flute, and beginning to play traditional Armenian tunes. When he stopped, he began to sing for a table of visitors from Istanbul.

Like most of the village’s men, Caparyan spends his days at Garbis’ Place, the town’s only cafe, which is named after its owner. Caparyan has become somewhat of a celebrity for tourists passing through. Every day he walks with a cane from his home, overlooking rolling orchards and the Mediterranean Sea, to sit and converse with friends and tourists.

In spring and summer, the cafe fills with tourists, and large, Turkish-style breakfasts of cheeses, jams, olives, bread and eggs are served. On weekends, they serve large flat bread covered in spicy harissa and baked in a traditional oven outside the cafe. Men sit outside playing backgammon on plastic chairs from morning to sunset, across from a shop that sells homemade jams, spices, olives fruit liquors and wine.

Up from the cafe is the main square, where women from the village also sit labeling and selling jams and preserves, including sweet preserved eggplant and walnuts - a specialty here. There are homemade liquors and an array of wines made in villagers’ homes, including mulberry, blueberry, cherry, and other fruit wines. Laurel soap and handcrafts are also sold.

Beyond the square is the church, originally built in 1910 but restored and inaugurated in 1997 with the approval Turkish authorities. There is no resident priest - every two weeks Father Avedis comes, splitting his time between Vakifli and Iskanderun, another larger town in Hatay.

Past the church is the cemetery, where stone tombs bear the names of residents from the past two centuries - witnesses to the village’s tumultuous history. Although Vakifli’s identity was shaped by the events of 1915, most residents avoid speaking about the subject to curious outsiders fascinated by the history.

Historians largely agree that the mass deportations and massacres of Armenians constituted the first genocide of the twentieth century, but Turkey disputes the deaths toll and denies they were planned with the intention of mass extermination. The killings were a tragic loss of life in a war where all sides suffered, the government says.

In a country where using the word genocide to describe the events of 1915 has led to prosecution, observing and protecting traditions has not always been easy for Turkey’s Armenian minorities.

After 1939, the residents were forced to change their family names and the only school - where the Armenian language was taught—was closed. When it reopened years later, there was only one Turkish teacher. Villagers were forced to send their children to Istanbul to study Armenian.

Apart from education, the village also lacked economic opportunities, which led many residents to leave for larger cities over the years. Today, the biggest threat to Vakifli has been emigration. Men also greatly outnumber women, who often leave when they marry men from outside the village.

In 1997, as Turkey moved towards membership in the European Union, authorities approved the renovation of Vakifli’s church. The newly renovated church helped jump-start tourism, as did an ecotourism program.

Then in 2004, the town was chosen for an organic farming project and became one of the first and only places in the region to receive EU certification. In recent years, however, that project was abandoned because it became too expensive to keep their certificate updated, according to Berc Karton, the moktar, or village leader. Their produce and food products are still natural, he said, and help keep the village financially afloat.

Several festivals during late summer and early fall also draw crowds, including the Holy Mother of God feast in mid-August, which coincides with the village’s traditional blessing of grapes. In the main square, villagers serve harissa to those who gather, a large number Armenian. One month later in September, the village celebrates Holy Cross Sunday, which often draws Armenian pilgrims from Istanbul and across the globe.

“We can find different tastes here and a different culture,” said Tayfun Turkmen, a Turkish tourist sitting at the village cafe with his mother and sister, visiting for the second time from Istanbul, where he works as an engineer. “We would like to experience Kurdish culture, but a lot of places are dangerous and there is violence. Here we can come and it is safe.”

While the village is safe, more recently, the war in neighboring Syria, which is within eyesight of Vakifli, caused alarm and deterred tourists. In March 2014, residents watched with unease as the Syrian town of Kessab, was overrun by extremists, some linked to Al Qaeda. Twenty of Kessab’s Armenian residents from briefly took refuge in Vakifli.

“People here are so friendly and this region is multicultural,” said Cigdem Turkmen, Tayfun’s sister, about Hatay, one of Turkey’s most religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse provinces. Here, the mix includes Sunni, Alawite, and Alevi Muslims, as well as Christians of various denominations and a small Jewish presence. The diverse ethnic groups include Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Kurds and Armenians and both Turkish and Arabic are spoken on the streets.

Most tourists like the Turkmens chose to stay in nearby Antakya, the biblical town of Antioch, rather than one of the small guest houses in Vakifli.

“In Antakya there are Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, but now politicians don’t care,” Cigdem Turkmen said, fearing that the country’s diverse cultures are being neglected.

While the Armenian population, and Vakifli as it stands today, could all but disappear within a generation, like their ancestors who fought for their existence, today’s villagers and their families are fighting to keep their village, culture, and traditions alive.

A new museum is planned, where artifacts from villagers, stories of its people will and recordings of the local dialect which is fading away will be documented, preserved and on display.

“I feel a deep sadness thinking about how our village might disappear, but we are looking forward,” said Cem Capar, sitting in the empty hall that will soon house the museum. Outside, the evening call to prayer echoes out over the hills from a former Armenian church that was converted to a mosque after the village’s Armenians left in 1939.

“We know the past and we remember the past, but we live for now and protect our future,” Capar said.