December 5, 2008
Source: The New York Times

By Peter Balakian

For Armenians, Der Zor has come to have a meaning approximate to Auschwitz. Each, in different ways, an epicenter of death and a systematic process of mass-killing; each a symbolic place, an epigrammatic name on a dark map. Der Zor is a term that sticks with you, or sticks on you, like a burr or thorn: “r” “z” “or” — hard, sawing, knifelike. Der Zor: A place to which hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 were forced to march, a final destination in the genocide of the Armenians carried out by the Ottoman Turkish government under the cover of World War I.

In May 2005, after I was invited to lecture in Beirut through the auspices of the U.S. State Department, the Armenian church arranged for me to travel into Syria — to Aleppo, an important city of refuge during the Armenian genocide, and farther east to Der Zor.

The highway from Aleppo followed the Euphrates River through Syria toward the Iraqi border. The river appeared and then disappeared, fresh and flowing and teal green, not brown and sluggish as I had imagined it, and certainly not red with blood and clogged with corpses as recorded by eyewitnesses during the worst period of the genocide.

By noon we were passing through the commercial district of Der Zor city. The streets buzzed with cars and mopeds as we drove up to the high stone facade of the Armenian church, called Holy Martyrs. The Der Hayr (parish priest) ushered us inside. Downstairs, under the sanctuary, there were archways and a giant marble pillar that rose up within a large opening in the ceiling. Circling the pillar were glass cases containing bones and soil. Hundreds of bones: partial skulls, femurs, tibias, clavicles, eye sockets, teeth. Case by case. Bones and more bones.

I asked the Der Hayr where they came from. “You’ll see soon,” he said. And after mezze we were off farther to the east. I realized now that Der Zor was a huge region of arid land. After a couple of hours of nothing but the occasional flock of sheep, the car stopped in the middle of nowhere, and up the hill at the side of the road I saw a small chapel of white stone.

“This is Margadeh,” my guide, Father Nerseh, said. “About 15 years ago, the Syrian government was doing some exploration for oil here and put their steam shovels in the ground, and piles of bones came up.”

“Right here,” I said pointing down.

“Yes.” He explained that the Syrian government had offered the Armenian church a plot of land for a memorial.

I walked up the slope toward the chapel. I put my hand in the dirt, grazing the ground, and came up with hard white pieces. “Our ancestors are here,” I muttered. Then I began, without thinking, picking up handfuls of dirt, sifting out the bones and stuffing them in my pockets. I felt the porous, chalky, dirt-saturated, hard, infrangible stuff in my hands. A piece of hip socket, part of a skull. Nine decades later.

I filled my pockets with bones, compelled to have these fragments with me as I continued up the hill to the chapel. The floor was cool, and behind the altar was a wall of alabaster with a carved cross. With the evening sun pouring through a yellow glass window, the whole space was floating in saffron light. I tried to empty my head and let go of the graveyard I was standing in, to let go of myself. Let the breath go in, go out.

On the plane back to the United States, I kept waking and sleeping. It wasn’t until we were over Labrador that I realized I was carrying organic matter from another country. The declaration card asked: Are you bringing with you fruits, plants, cell cultures, “soil, or have you visited a farm/ranch/pasture outside the United States?” The bones, now in resealable bags, were caked with soil, and although they weren’t cell cultures, what were they now, 90 years later?

I reached down into my briefcase and felt them through the plastic, glancing around to see if a flight attendant might be looking. What could I say? These are bones of my countrymen? I had visited a pasture of bones in the Syrian desert? This one might be from my grandmother’s first husband; this one from a farmer from Sivas. I filled out my declaration card. “Are you bringing with you … ?”

I put an X in the “No” column.

As I stood in line at customs at Kennedy Airport, I remembered my State Department hosts telling me that, because of where I’d been, they might want to check my bags. But the customs agent looked at my passport, looked at me, then stamped the passport and said, “Welcome back.”

Peter Balakian is the author of “Black Dog of Fate,” a memoir. This essay is adapted from a new chapter that will appear in a 10th-anniversary edition, to be published in February.