Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
It was the dark of night. No stars were visible through the clouds, and the division between sky and ground had disappeared, combining to form a dense, black mass. Everything was silent. The cold night signaled the coming of a storm and rain. Lightning intermittently struck a faraway mountain, and the deafening rumbles of thunder spread through the darkness from the hidden mountaintops.
A few shadows were lurking, like vagabond ghosts. They united, formed a small group as if to ponder something, then separated again and traveled individually to the village of the Saint Bartholomew Monastery.
The village was dark and silent; like a large cemetery, every life was at rest and all was still. From one place, however, rays of light appeared: it was the monastery atop the hill, surrounded by a giant abyss that was now invisible in the darkness. Only the sound of the roaring river interrupted the silence.
If a man were to enter the building—the source of light—at that moment, his eyes would be confronted with a tragic scene. The beautiful temple was now completely stripped of its majestic ornaments, and the area beneath its magnificent arches was governed by emptiness. There were no crosses, books, pictures, or chandeliers. Nothing. The altar looked like something out of a slaughterhouse, covered with blood.
On one side of the temple, horses were grazing; on the other, a group of Kurds sat around a bonfire. They had used the woodwork of the temple—its chairs, desks, and doors—as additional fuel for the fire. A few spits had been placed over the fire and some copper bowls sat in the flames, so hot that they were barely distinguishable from the coals.
Not far from the fire, on the bare pavement, a few fallen people were tied by their arms and legs with twine, awaiting their bitter fate in terror. The expressions on their faces were those of the hopeless inhabitants of hell.
One of the Kurds stood up, approached them and said, “Say, heathens, what else is hidden here? Out with it, if you do not want to die like dogs. Those reddened spits are being prepared for you.”
“Agha, we are your sacrificial lambs,” his victims replied miserably. “That was everything we had, there is nothing left. If there is anything else, may God blind us and send us to hell.”
“You are lying, damn dogs!” the Kurd yelled. “That monastery held a king’s wealth. What happened to it?”
“Agha, let us be the soil beneath your feet. Pity us, do not kill us. Let God destroy us if we lie to you. Everything has been taken, there is nothing left. You know well how many times this monastery was plundered over the course of the last few days. If it had contained an ocean, it would have dried; if it had contained ice, it would have melted.”
Their interlocutor, who appeared to be the leader of the group of Kurds, turned to one of his friends. “Until these giaours get a taste of the spit, they will not speak the truth. Bring them.”
A few of the Kurds approached the bound people and started removing their clothes, while others brought out the spits.
“Begin!” the leader ordered. “Only do it in the form of a cross; they love their cross.”
The killers started inserting the incandescent skewers through the victims’ bare chests and other parts of their bodies, emitting smoke and the smell of burnt skin into the air. They would then exchange those skewers for hotter ones from the fire, and continue their hellish procedure. The victims grimaced and screamed in pain.
“Kill us at once, kill us for the love of God, let us die quickly,” they shouted. But the procedure continued, until their deafening cries were no longer intelligible.
“Enough,” the leader commanded, and turned to one of the victims they had not yet touched. The man was a priest.
“We saved you for last, for the most glorious suffering,” the Kurd said sarcastically.
“Do you see that red-hot copper bowl? It very much resembles a crown. With that I am going to crown your head, because you are a cleric.”
The priest, in a state of religious poignancy, replied, “My Lord bore a crown of thorns, and his servant will gladly accept a crown of copper… but realize, Agha, that there is a God who sees this, and who is our master. He does not allow the bloodshed of innocent humans to go unpunished. Why do you torture us in vain? My friends did not lie, there is nothing left in the monastery. Whatever we had, we gave it to you. All of the hidden storages, we opened before you. Yet you became so ruthless that you even destroyed Saint Bartholomew’s Holy Tomb, thinking that it contained a hidden treasure. Jalaleddin took everything, and ten times as many Kurds came here thereafter. You are the last ones to have arrived—”
“You are lying, you deceitful dog!” the beast yelled. “Bring the bowl.”
One of the Kurds grabbed the incandescent bowl with a pair of tongs. The others uncovered the priest’s white-haired head and prepared to place the glowing cap on top. The guest at God’s table awaited the barbaric procedure with the patience of a martyr. He was silent, but his lips were moving as he recited a prayer in his fatal crisis.
Suddenly, gunshots roared and the Holy temple was full of gun smoke. A few Kurds fell while others grabbed their arms and started wrapping them. This all happened over the course of a few minutes.
“For the love of God, don’t kill them, let them do as they please. They will kill the Armenians,” the priest pleaded.
Although the poor priest did not know who his saviors were, he feared that such a killing in the temple of an Armenian monastery would inspire the revenge of the local Kurds on all Armenians. However, a Kurd would never entertain the suspicion that the timid Armenians could kill people…
The newcomers’ faces were completely covered, except for their eyes. They were dressed in Kurds’ clothing and spoke in Kurdish. They were not great in number, but their ambush was successful.
They untied the priest and his half-dead friends, and told them, “There is still plenty of night. You will be able to reach the Persian border by sunrise, where you will be safe. There are horses waiting for you there. Take what the Kurds had packed for themselves, take their horses, and be on your way.”
“There is no life remaining in my friends,” the priest said.
“Two of us will accompany you,” the strangers replied.
The priest was humbled and went to embrace their feet.
“That is not necessary. Hurry up and get ready.”
“Do I not need to know who is saving us?” the priest asked.
“No, you don’t need to know,” they said.
“What race are you?”
“You don’t need to know that either.”
Within a few minutes, the strangers had prepared the Kurds’ horses and loaded the saddlebags. They sat the injured victims on the horses and prepared them to go on their way.
Before mounting his horse, the priest approached the strangers again. “At least permit me to bless you.”
“That, too, is not necessary,” one of the strangers replied. “Just answer my questions.”
“Is there anyone left in the village of this monastery?”
“What happened to them?”
“Some traveled toward Persia, some were killed, and some were taken captive.”
“Did you know the villager by the name of H—, who had been a homeowner here?”
“Yes. I am the priest of the village.”
“Do you know what happened to their family?”
“They killed the homeowner. His sons weren’t at home, they got away, but the Kurds took his daughter.”
Those last words struck the stranger’s heart like lightning. He fell into a momentary confusion, and then asked, “If you could tell me where they took her or the tribe of her captors, I would be thankful.”
“Where they took her, I cannot say; but the captors were of the Shekak tribe, Cholak-Ahmet’s people.”
“That will do, you may go now.”
The priest and his friends went on their way. Two of the strangers accompanied them to the Persian border, while the remaining twelve stayed behind in the temple of the monastery. When one of them unwrapped his face for a breath of air, the light of the fire revealed Sarhat’s deathly pale face.
He was sitting near the fire for a rest. His friends had slaughtered a few wild hogs, fastened the meat to their bayonets, and were roasting them over the fire. They were all happy, except for Město who looked with sympathy at his master as though he was trying to read the expression of Sarhat’s heart through the expression on his face.
The unfortunate young man only had one solace that he was now deprived of. He had hoped to find the graceful creature that belonged to his heart near this monastery, the only being he loved in a world that he hated. But she was not here, and she had disappeared in horrible circumstances.
With respect to women, the heart of a brave man can harbor one other feeling besides love, which we often mistakenly call envy, jealousy or zealousness. It is a feeling that is impossible to describe with words. It is a passion that respects the dedication of women, for which the Hellenes fought for ten years in the walls of Troy.
Sarhat was not only grieving for having lost his beloved; he also grieved because she was now in foreign and impure hands. But how many innocent mortals had been subjected to such circumstances? Who cared for them? Perhaps their parents, if they were still alive. But did the people care, the Armenian people? No, that requires a Hellenic zeal…
Stepping under the sad arches of the monastery, Sarhat’s old wounds reopened. The temple evoked many memories in his soul. He had spent the most precious years of his childhood here. Cloistered under the supervision of the monks, he had learned about his religion and the Holy Bible, what it could inspire in men and the distress it has the power to relieve, but also its ability to kill the soul and dull the mind. Next to the walls of the same monastery, a beautiful angel had inspired him. She had resuscitated his heart after it had succumbed to the monastic plague and rescued him from the dark by pulling him into the light of the world. Now that angel was gone.
While the melancholy young man was engulfed in his sad musings, his friends had arranged a splendid table that was reminiscent of Homer’s heroes. Many glasses of wine passed from hand to hand, and the roasted meat was pulled fresh off the bayonets. None of the men wanted to interrupt Sarhat’s lamentation, so they did not invite him to join them at the table. But he awoke from his musings when Deli-Baba stood, lifted his glass, turned to the stage of temple, and made the following significant speech:
“Fathers and forefathers, I drink of this cup, but I do not dedicate it to your bones. If instead of these monasteries, of which our country is full, you had built forts… if instead of using your wealth to make Holy crosses and chalices, you had bought guns… if instead of the incense that perfumes our temples, you had lit gunpowder… we would now be more fortunate. The Kurds would not be destroying our country, killing our children and stealing our women. The destruction of our country stemmed from these monasteries, which seized our hearts and sapped our strength, and which left us in slavery ever since that day Tiridates III set down his sword and crown in favor of the cross, and maniacally endeavored to burn down our old pagan monuments. To our ancient Armenian gods! To Anahit1, Vahakn2, Hayk3! I toast this glass to your sacred memory, save us.”
And so this dreadful man, once a priest and now a thug, poured all the bitterness of his heart into that glass of wine, and made the others happy.
Another of the thugs, the teacher Kitap-Delisi, then followed Deli-Baba’s lead, and made the following toast:
“I do not raise this cup to education. You did not provide us with what is necessary for life and the real world. You filled our minds with fragile and abstract concepts. You did not introduce us to the needs of man, and you did not give us that which is needed to live comfortable and fortunate lives. You fostered in us prejudice and closed our eyes from seeing the truth. You made corpses of us, corpses that contain none of man’s highest and most noble sentiments. You tightened the shackles of slavery and trained us to carry its heavy and dishonorable yoke. We owe our present misfortunates to you, education. You did not give us healthy minds or healthy concepts, and in depriving us of true and real knowledge, you deprived us of life. Long live those pens that breathe new life in us, invigorate our diminished strengths, introduce us to the real needs of life, and prepare us to make virtuous men of ourselves.”
That is what the man whom they called “having gone mad from reading too many books” had to say. Books had rendered him foolish and ignorant, but having realized this, he had since grown vigilant.
Sarhat listened to these speeches with sympathy, for they helped him forget the pain that caused him to suffer so greatly. He also let go of that graceful individual who had been the sole occupant of his thoughts and started to think more generally. The love he had for that particular person began to transform into a general love for his people and for the other daughters and women who had also been captured. This caused him to dismissively accept the words of Město, who approached him and said quietly, “Let my master not torture himself. Město has the scenting ability of a dog; if she is in the depths of the ocean, he will find her, and if she is up in the sky, he will bring her down to earth.”
Sarhat did not respond and failed to notice when his trusty servant covertly left the monastery.