As is well known, Sassoun has always had a special place in the history of the Armenian people.

In fact, today, Sasun stands out with some of its characteristics, especially with regard to Islamized and hidden Armenians. It must be said that the region, which is definitely a mountainous region, is currently in a very backward state.  The asphalt road goes all the way to the town of Sasun and from there are no roads to the villages, and only a year or two ago, tractors leveled the narrow roads on the sides of the valleys so that cars can somehow pass.

Local people usually walk to and from the town. There are no schools in many villages and people mostly live in old Armenian houses built before 1915. It is noteworthy that although the state has changed the names of all the villages, the people still use the old names of their geographical locations. For example, the legendary Maruta mountain is now renamed Mount Brightness, but no one calls it by this new name. To this day, Mount Maruta plays the role of a special spiritual symbol for the people of Sasun and is sometimes referred to as an oath.

According to official Turkish state data, Sasun today is inhabited by Turks, Kurds and Arabs. The latter migrated from Basra and speak a unique Arabic dialect. There is also scattered evidence in various sources that there are Armenians who were forcibly Islamized during the Armenian massacres and their descendants in Sasun, some of whom are secret Christians, while others have been Islamized, alienated or have gone down this path. Arabized Armenians and their descendants also live in Sasoun. Among them, one can observe a number of characteristics typical of Islamized Armenians in general. During the Genocide, some of the ancestors of these people were protected and rescued (often for their own benefit) by local Muslim residents, such as Arabs and Kurds. Once rescued, they had to act both ostensibly and in official documents as representatives of the nation that gave them shelter. In a related article, Erdal Yildirim, a representative of the Association of Sasunian operating in Occupied Western Armenia, notes that some Muslims once saved and benefited the rescuers because their grandfathers were craftsmen. 

The “saviors” divided both the Armenians and their property among themselves, so it can be said that Armenians were exploited as slaves, and it is an obvious fact that the concept of “my Armenian” was widespread among the savior aghas. Erdal Yıldırım said the following about this: “Our neighbors, the aghas, divided us among themselves. Each Armenian family was taken by an agha and the problem of “my Armenian” emerged. Since they saw themselves as our masters, they perceived everything that belonged to us as theirs. The surviving Sasun Armenians and their descendants can be divided into two groups:

1. Hidden Armenians, 2. Arabized Armenians, and in the second group we conditionally include descendants of mixed Armenians.

1. Crypto Armenians: Many of them can sometimes only be accepted conditionally.

Some of the Armenians of Sasun are openly or secretly Christian. The people of Sasun, in their own words, proudly confess in their memoirs that every year in July they go to the Church of the Virgin Mary at the top of the Maruta mountain and make sacrifices. They also visit the Gomk Church and light candles.   There are also Armenians of different age groups who speak the Sasun dialect of Armenian.

Many Armenians living in Sasun today, or their descendants, are related to the descendants of Sasounese living in Armenia, especially in the Talin region, and strangely enough, steps of this scale have been taken recently: after decades, people are finding their relatives, some hidden, some Islamized and mongrelized.

In recent years, migration from Sassoun to big cities, especially Constantinople, has also been noticeable. People are forced to emigrate due to poor conditions, but with an interesting regularity they keep in touch with their birthplace and come to visit Sasun once a year, especially in the summer. But there is also a positive side to this migration. Many of those who come to Constantinople are clearly trying to integrate into the Armenian community: They attend church services and are baptized. In other words, emigration allows them to deepen and strengthen their existing Armenian identity. It goes without saying that the courage characteristic of the people of Sasun can be seen in their descendants today. They boldly confess and claim both their identity and their cultural values. Among the Armenian religious and cultural monuments preserved in Sasoun today, the Gomk church at an altitude of 2000 meters and the Church of the Virgin Mary at the top of the Maruta mountain (2973m) continue to play a special role and significance for the people. Even half-ruined, looted and turned into stables, they still attract thousands of pilgrims, mostly hidden and Islamized Armenians and their descendants.

It is known that for years the Turkish state has adopted and implemented a policy of destroying or Islamizing Armenian Christian monuments. The aim, of course, is to erase the Armenian traces of those lands. Different observations lead us to conclude that the Turkish authorities use different methods to destroy Armenian monuments or erase Armenianness:

1. Armenian historical monuments have been abandoned to fate and are being neglected and destroyed over time.

2. Armenian churches are transferred as property to the Turks and Kurds living there and they manage them according to their wishes.

3. Monuments are destroyed under the pretext of state needs.

4. Armenian religious and cultural monuments are Turkified and Islamized in various ways.

2. Arabized Armenians have first and foremost a Muslim self-consciousness, but they do not deny their Armenian origin, but their religious identity is paramount. These people, whose dominant identity is Arab or Kurdish and Muslim, are the descendants of Armenians who were forcibly Islamized during the Armenian massacres and did not retain their identity afterwards. Our observations allow us to say that among the Arabized Armenians of Sassoun, the memory of their Armenian origin is clearly preserved, covered only by the veil of religious affiliation, which helps them a lot to avoid the dangerous question of ethnic identity. Among Arabized Armenians, the mentality that they were Armenians in the past but now they are Muslims is also widespread. The mulattoes who belong to this group, mostly those whose grandmothers were Armenian, have Armenian roots and this fact is present in their memories. In Sasun, as in many other places, this group was formed as a result of the marriage of Armenian girls and women who were kidnapped and hidden during the genocide to Muslims. In the town of Sason, the center of Sasoun, and its villages, you can find people with Armenian features, especially the blue-green eyes and light-colored hair typical of the Armenians of those regions. The mulatto descendants of Islamized Armenians are also aware of their Armenian roots. Almost everyone in the villages of Sasun knows the names of the former owners of Armenian houses. For example, they often use phrases like “Asadur’s House” or “Tigran’s House” in their conversations. Many of them proudly say, for example, that they are Asatur’s descendants on their daughter’s side. And it is the warm memories of their grandmothers that make many people have a positive or at least a different attitude towards Armenians.

To be continued…

Ashkhen Virabyan

Journalist-analyst Westernarmeniatv