Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
Not a single Armenian remained in the entire province of Aghbak. Twenty-four villages were ruined and deserted. The Kurds had killed some of the inhabitants and taken others captive, while the remainder had fled across the Persian border to Salmast and Soma to stay with the local Armenians. The raid had been so sudden and unexpected that those who fled had barely gotten away, and had left their homes, goods, animals and everything else behind.
Jalaleddin’s incursion was like a flood; it did not stop at once, it merely receded before it returned again with greater intensity. At first, the Sheikh only had five thousand cavalrymen with whom he had left Aghbak before heading toward Bayazit, leaving ruins and desertion along the way. The faraway Kurds, having heard of his raid, then came out in groups to serve their army leaders and Jalaleddin’s campaign. The eddies of the flood then repeated, resulting in the same country facing several such incursions.
Jalaleddin, as Sheikh and General, was the only one who could lead the Kurds to the battlefield; but behind the Kurds, instigating their madness, was another Sheikh who was stationary. Sheikh Ubeydullah was the spiritual leader of all Kurdistan, exerting his influence on the Kurdish beys, ghazis and muftis1 with his Holy documents. That faithful enemy of Christianity had permitted all kinds of ruthlessness, and ordered no one to be spared.
The motivation of the Kurds was a combination of blind bigotry and a thirst for pillaging. Two passions, the spiritual and the material, were at play within them. The first drove them to slaughter those who did not adhere to their religion, and the second fulfilled their desire to plunder their victims’ wealth and belongings. This was the reason Jalaleddin’s army was moving so slowly. After reaping their harvest, their men needed to deliver their spoils home before returning to arms and continuing their course to Bayazit. This was also the reason for the constant splitting and rejoining of the troops. Jalaleddin was leading the way to Bayazit.
But one should not write off honest people among the Kurds. They also include good people who did not partake in such evil acts. Omar Agha was one such person. He was the leader of his small village and was rich, with herds of sheep and horses. He did not participate in Jalaleddin’s incursions. Indeed, hearing of the old man’s intent, he made his way to the Saint Bartholomew Monastery, and informed Abbot Eleazar of the bitter fate that the Armenians of Aghbak would face in a few days’ time. He advised the abbot to allow the local Armenians to use that impregnable fortress to resist the enemy and safeguard their wealth. Omar Agha promised to join the abbot in this resistance. He, too, feared Jalaleddin for having not participated in his campaign, and expected retaliation. Consequently, he gathered all his wealth and took it to the monastery, and he and his people were ready to unite with the Armenians when necessary to resist the enemy.
Abbot Eleazar accepted his old friend Omar Agha’s advice, whose faithfulness he repaid with his own. He had all the Armenians from the surrounding villages, along with their goods and animals, come to the monastery.
The Saint Bartholomew Monastery was ancient. This massive monument to old Armenian religious architecture had withstood war, the austerities of nature, and barbarians. It stood witness to many a crime, including the ruthless Arab and Mongol invasions. Its grand walls bore the scars of past wounds that had been renovated many times through Armenian fervency.
The monastery was strongly positioned. It was built atop a plateau surrounded on three sides by a valley, through which one of the upper tributaries of the Tigris, known as the “Monastic River,” flowed. The fourth side of the plateau joined the base of a mountain, on which an Armenian village, known as the “Monastic Village,” was located. The village, about one hundred steps away, belonged to the monastery.
The monastery was fortified. Within its walls lay a great temple, monastic cells, and covers for farmhands and livestock. When word of Jalaleddin’s campaign reached the area, all of the dwellings in the monastery quickly became occupied with the residents of Aghbak, whose valuables were placed in hidden quarters of the temple, and with the livestock from the “Monastic Village.”
The “Monastic River” was surrounded by wide, grassy banks that resembled plains and were covered with yellow flowers at the start of spring. Horses grazed in these meadows.
One morning the locals noticed with concern that many tents had sprung up on the plain near the river. Kurdish shepherds did not have the right to set up camp on the property of the monastery, so these must have been the tents of those self-invited guests that the monks and locals had been anticipating with great fear. From all sides, livestock was brought into the village. The fear grew even greater when a local shepherd notified the abbot that Jalaleddin and his troops had settled on the meadows of the monastery.
Abbot Eleazar was a great man. He was old and had poor hearing, but he had worked so often with the Kurds that it was said he had turned “half-Kurdish,” meaning that he had developed the heart of a fearless man. When the shepherd delivered his news, the abbot did not experience the hopelessness that overtakes weak-hearted people in moments of fear. He had been sitting in his small cell with a Kurdish prince who had a sympathetic face, Omar Agha. Upon hearing the news, they exited the monastery and headed toward the Eastern wall, from where they could see the Sheikh’s army. The abbot and the Kurdish gentleman looked down upon the army for several minutes.
“That’s him,” Omar Agha said indignantly. “The old thief has gathered a big army.”
“What should be done?” the abbot asked, becoming agitated.
“There is no other way,” the Kurd answered, this time with greater hostility. “Tell the people to gather within the walls of the monastery and have the doors shut. The monastery can withstand force.”
“I think so, too,” the abbot agreed. “I have been storing guns and ammunition for a long time, in case they should be needed. I will bring them out. We need to distribute them to those who have enough skill to use them; I know those who would be willing to do so.”
“My people are also on their way,” the Kurd said. “We must not lose time—whatever you are going to do, do not wait.”
The abbot left to make the necessary preparations, and Omar Agha remained standing in the same spot, looking out with his binoculars in hand. The Kurds are divided into many sects, with Omar Agha belonging to a sect that was opposed to the Sheikh’s fanatical branch of Islam. Sectarian membership discriminates among Kurds in the same way that racial or tribal differences discriminate between other peoples, especially when the relationships between the groups are adversarial, and Omar Agha’s tribe considered itself distinct from those tribes that followed the Sheikh.
Abbot Eleazar faced serious obstacles when he spoke to his people; no one dared to support him in bearing arms.
“They will kill us all,” the people said. “Who are we attacking? It is impossible to touch even one hair of a Kurd. They will incinerate us, our children and our women. We will not be able to withstand them. Let them come and take whatever they want, only let them spare us and our children…”
“They will take all of your belongings and they will spare neither you nor your children,” the abbot pleaded poignantly. “Listen to me: Our holy monastery will protect us. Let us put our faith in that. There are many young men among us. Omar Agha is also with us.”
No one wanted to listen to him.
“Impossible!” the people yelled. “If you want to save us, persuade the other monks and landlords to approach the Sheikh, kiss his feet, beg him, beseech him, and tell him that we will give him whatever he wants, if he will only let us live.”
The brave abbot kept trying to encourage the people to fight, but the weak-hearted and slavish men and women did not accept his advice. In the end, he agreed to gather a few elderly people and priests, to make an appeal to the Sheikh.
Omar Agha approached him when he saw this, and said, “I knew this would happen, but you are going in vain. They will capture you, keep you there, and possibly kill you.”
“I will go because there is no other solution. Let them kill me,” the dejected priest said. “The people are insisting.”
“In that case, I am not needed here,” the Kurdish gentleman responded.
“And I would not advise you to stay,” the abbot replied. “Go, and may God be with you. Only, accept my final wish: Take my key and open the cabinet where your belongings are stored. There you will see two boxes containing the monastery’s sacred property; take them with you and don’t let the thieves take them from you. You have always had great faith in our monastery, more so than any Christian.”
“I will take them,” the Kurd replied, “but take one of my men with you. He will follow you from afar, and if they happen to capture you, he will inform me.”
The abbot embraced his friend and started toward the Sheikh’s army. He did not have any faith that he would return to see his friend again.
Soon after this, Omar’s men arrived with thirty horses to transport the goods he had brought to the monastery for safekeeping just a few days earlier. He did not forget to take the two boxes, as the abbot had asked of him. When he was ready, the gatekeeper opened concealed doors and the trusty Kurd kissed the altar of the temple with a sad heart before going on his way. Meanwhile, Abbot Eleazar approached the Sheikh’s army, never to return.
A few hours later, the Kurds went into the “Monastic Village” in groups. They emptied the homes, loaded goods onto the animals and went on their way. When they finished with the village, they entered the monastery where all the riches of the region were stored and started to remove them. The desperate cries and wails of the people, their bitter moans, did not in the least affect the cruel hearts of the thieves, and the smallest resistance was met with sword and pistol.
After this terrible event took place, Sarhat’s gang, following their courageous campaign at Sakal-Tutan, approached the Saint Bartholomew monastery one night.
What could that miserable young man have been looking for in that half-destroyed and deserted monastery?