Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
The sun was about to set when our weary traveler arrived at a fork in the road: the path on his right led to Başkale, and the path on his left led to Saint Bartholomew monastery1. He chose the latter.
The twilight had never ornamented the clouds as beautifully as it did that night, nor had the soft, fresh mountain air ever been so invigorating. But the young man was impervious to nature’s beauty for there was a disconnection between his inner and outer worlds.
The darkness grew dense and the stars shone magnificently bright. The air was still and calm. Although the sounds of grazing sheep would typically be heard on the mountains at this time of night—the loud reverberations of which had once given the young man fond memories of pastoral life—this night was silent, ruled by a deathly calm.
The young man had already traveled a long way when he saw gunfire in the distance. The shots sometimes appeared to be expanding, sometimes contracting, and sometimes shooting up toward the sky like the fire-breath of a dragon in the dark. Then, everything suddenly stopped and a crescendo of fire appeared.
He came to a standstill and watched the horrendous scene for several minutes. What had happened? At first he thought that bales of hay were being burned, but he soon doubted this possibility because he was familiar with his surroundings and knew that hay burning was not a common practice in this area. He also knew that Armenian villages were located in these valleys.
The young man felt lost. It was as though he was being confronted by a procession of terrible images in a nightmare.
Leaving the path, he climbed a big hill that was surrounded by small shrubs. It was midnight. He looked up at the starry sky for the first time and noticed that Tiridates’ cross2 was on the zenith. He sat on a rock for a short rest, hunger and fatigue having consumed his energy. From the height of the hill, he could see the fire more easily and kept watching with a cold heart.
He then heard a few muffled voices, and it sounded as though people were passing at the base of the hill.
“Where will we go, God…”
“Let’s keep going. We will arrive somewhere.”
“My knees are shaking… my child is about to faint.”
“Give me the child.”
“Girl, why are you falling behind?”
“Mama, the rocks are hurting my feet.”
The voices stopped.
After a moment of silence, they started again.
“It is still burning. Oh, how it’s burning…”
“Woman, reassure the children. It is good that we fled.”
“Blood is dripping from your head again, and you’re swaying.”
“There is no harm, the head wrap has come undone.”
“Come here, let me tie it.”
“Let’s go, let’s escape… now is not the time…”
The voices stopped again.
The fire now started to burn so intensely that it lit the foot of the hill like a burst of lightning and illuminated the terrible scene. The conversation was taking place between a villager and his wife. The husband was carrying his young child and blood was dripping down his forehead and face onto his child’s head below. His wife was next to him, holding their little girl. Both husband and wife were fatigued and were walking laboriously.
Then darkness fell once more and the voices were heard again:
“Oh, what a slaughter—”
“Oh, how they burned everything down—”
“They spared nothing.”
“Where do we go now? Oh, God!”
“Mama, I want bread.”
“Don’t cry, now.”
The voices stopped.
Often, a miserable event that should evoke sadness instead fosters disgust and bitter hatred. That was the impression these observations had on our young traveler. The fire was burning the peace-loving peasants’ huts, people were burying their animals in the cemetery of fire, and their valuables were being seized by barbarians. A wounded father and exhausted mother were having a painful conversation, their children crying and crooning, as the family tried desperately to escape. Watching callously from atop the hill, the young man felt as though his hellish lips were about to utter the following fateful words:
“You are deserving of the condition you have created for yourselves. The arsonists and murderers are not guilty.”
The most frightening form of hatred stems from love; it is the hatred of one’s brother that arises when he fails to fight for his own life and existence.
Before this form of hatred comes a respectable anger, with which man reaches extremes, sets limits on what he is willing to tolerate regarding the conditions of his people, and requires him to choose between life and death. “He who has failed to understand, or does not wish to understand, the conditions of life,” this anger says, “is not entitled to live.” These rules depend upon the requirements of life: when it is necessary to be smart, man must use his brain, but when it is necessary to bear arms to defend oneself, man must have a weapon in his hand. Thus, life is like a fight; he who is unable to face it in all its variety will fall and cease to exist.
But our traveler’s anger did not arise on the basis of such a deep examination; he was not familiar with philosophy. His understanding of life was based on the simplest observations of nature. He believed that for lambs to coexist with wolves, they must develop wolves’ teeth to avoid being preyed upon.
The circumstances of his life had led him, against his will, to become a wolf, with all its mercilessness. When he was a boy, his family had abused him and banished him from his home, claiming that he was immoral. He did not find acceptance in his community, either; everyone soon grew tired of him and treated him as though his presence was a plague. Thereafter, he surrendered to his fate, first becoming a venture wanderer, then a cruel bandit who vowed to punish people in retaliation for having been punished himself.
Even though he was a bandit, he had the majesty of a lion who does not attack weak or powerless animals and leaves large portions of his prey for smaller animals to consume.
The young man had been away from his homeland for ten years and had only embarked upon his return when he heard that danger had struck. He did not return to save his homeland; he could hardly protect himself against the dangers his people faced, so he knew that he could not save them. Instead, he had returned to save one beautiful creature. She was the only person he had ever loved and was the only person in the world who had loved him, despite everyone else having hated him. That was his consolation. In the whole world, the unfortunate man had not enjoyed a single peace, pause, or place to rest his head; he only had one woman’s warm heart, where he could live, breathe and forget about the bitterness of life, even though it had been more than ten years since he had last seen her.
Why had the young man grown so unsympathetic toward his current surroundings and what was taking place, even though he was simultaneously being driven into the world of his past as if persecuted by evil spirits? Nature asks for what she desires.
He had been traveling for several days, and it had been just as long since he had last slept. His energy had depleted and he was starting to weaken. When he climbed the hill and sat down to have a rest, his head suddenly felt heavy, his eyes closed, and he fell backward onto the soft grass. He had not fallen asleep; he was in that stupor that can overcome a man in his wakeful state when he is in utter moral and physical distress.
- Saint Bartholomew Monastery is a medieval Armenian monastery in what was once the province of Vaspurakan near Lake Van, that is presently in Başkale.
- Raffi notes that Tiridates’ cross is the name of a constellation. Tiridates III, or Tiridates the Great, was an Armenian King during the Arsacid dynasty. Under the influence of Gregory the Illuminator, he was the first Armenian ruler to convert to Christianity.