THE LAND OF ARMENIA
Written by Reverend George Filian and originally published in 1896
Where is Armenia? It seems a simple question, yet during my lecturing in the United States I have met far more people who did not know than who did. That is natural enough, for until the late horrors, it seemed little more than a name of old history, of no present importance; but there is a further reason. The present Sultan forbids the use of the name altogether, and insists on the district being termed Kurdistan, or called by the names of its vilayets, Diarbekr, Van, Erzroom, etc. Many maps do not have the name Armenia at all. A few years ago, when the missionaries of the American Board were organizing the college at Harpoot, now so bloodily famous, they named it Armenia College; but the Sultan forbade it on the ground that there was no longer an Armenia, and the use of the name would encourage the Armenians to revolt. The missionaries were forced to change the name to Euphrates College. If any Turkish subject uses the word, he is fined and imprisoned; if it is used in any book, the book is confiscated, and the author banished or killed. The study of Armenian history is forbidden to the Armenians; they must be kept in ignorance about their own land, so that many of them do not know where Armenia was or what Armenia is. A letter directed to any person or place in Armenia will never reach its destination; for the Turkish postal authorities recognize no such address. There is still another cause for the widespread ignorance concerning Armenia. It has been partitioned between three different powers, Turkey, Russia, and Persia. The northern part, from Batoum on the Black Sea to Baku on the Caspian,—the river Araxes being the boundary to near Mt. Ararat,—belongs to Russia; the southeastern course of the Araxes from near Mt. Ararat, to Persia; the largest and most fertile part, the western, from Mt. Ararat to the Black Sea and the Kizil-Irmak to Turkey. But at the time of its greatest extent and power, when its people were great and its kings were great, long before Alexander’s conquest,—Armenia covered about 500,000 square miles, and stretched from the Black Sea and the Caucasus on the north to Persia, and Syria on the south, from the Caspian and a much smaller Persia on the east, to Cilicia and far beyond the Halys (Kizil-Irmak) on the west, but including also old Media and a part of Mesopotamia.
It is one of the most picturesque of countries; travelers call it the Switzerland of Asia. Its general character is that of a plateau some 4,000 feet above the sea, a natural garden watered by noble streams and studded with beautiful lakes; but the mountain ranges are 7,000 to 8,000 on the average, while that historic land-mark, the superb snow-capped Mt. Ararat, is about 18,000,—towering toward Heaven nearly in the center of Armenia, piercing and ruling over the clouds and the storms.
Armenia is the mother land, the cradle of humanity, and all other lands are her daughters; but she is fairer than any other. Even her mountain tops of perpetual snow are a crown of glory; the sun kisses her brow with the smile of morning; and she supplies the beautiful rivers, Euphrates, Tigris, Pison, Araxes, and many others from the jewels of her crown. These rivers penetrate to every corner of the land; traverse many hundreds of miles to give life to the fields, the vineyards, and the orchards, to turn the mills, and finally close their course in the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Gulf of Persia, carrying the bounty and good-will messages of the mother land to her children in remote parts, to Persia, India, and Russia. From the same inexhaustible reservoir she feeds her noble lakes; Sevan (Gokche), Urumiah, Van and the rest. Lake Sevan is the only sweet-water lake; the others are salt. The most important is Lake Van, probably the most elevated of any large-sized lake in the world; it is 5,400 feet above sea level, and its area is 1,400 square miles. A few words from the author’s respected teacher, Professor Philip Schaff, will not be amiss. Schaff’s Bible Dictionary, page 68, “Physical Features of Armenia,” says: “It is chiefly an elevated plateau about 7,000 feet above the level of the sea, the highest peak being Mt. Ararat. The lower portions of the plateau are broken by valleys and glens, including the fertile valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris. It is watered by four large streams, the Araxes, the Kur, the Euphrates, and the Tigris; also by numerous lakes, one of the largest, the salt Lake Van, being over 5,400 feet above the sea.”
The mineral wealth of Armenia is very great; but like the other potential riches of the Turkish Empire, it profits nobody, not even the greedy despot whose word is death. Gold, silver, copper, iron, and minor metals, besides marble and other beautiful stones, are present in abundance. About three miles from Marsovan, where I preached, is a mountain called Tarshan Dagh (rabbit mountain), rich in gold; another called Goomish Dagh, about eight miles west, is laden with silver; and they are likely to remain so, for no one will rifle them of their treasures while Turkey endures. The Sultan, it is true, sends an officer from Constantinople under large salary, to take out the precious metals, but that person does very little work. He lives like a lord, lets things go as they will, bribes the palace officials, and all the gold and silver extracted does not pay his wages. The Sultan will not permit Christians to work mines, and if they did, he would rob them of the proceeds. Everywhere the condition is the same. Though Armenia is the oldest inhabited country, she is, in utilization, the newest; much newer than the United States, for indeed she does not exist yet. She is a virgin land, her mines not open, her soil not half tilled. The Turks and the Kurds are lazy and stagnant; they will do nothing, and they will not permit the industrious Armenian Christians to do anything of importance.
The country has all the old fertility which made Asia Minor under the Byzantine Empire the garden of the world, till the Turks half turned it into a desert, as they do every spot accursed by their presence. The grain, the fruit, the vegetables are hardly, if at all, to be equaled. The watermelons raised on the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris are the largest and sweetest of their kind; two melons are sometimes a camel’s load. It is impossible for a family to use the whole of such a melon, which has to be cut up and sold in pieces. The grapes, either fresh or in the shape of wine or raisins, are of the first rank. Many varieties when cured and dried as raisins exceed in size the plumpest grapes of other lands. Nearly everything is raised or grows wild in Armenia which is to be had in the Northern or Southern States of America, though of course each country has some things peculiar to itself. The products of the North are paralleled by those of the rugged picturesque highlands of North Turkish and Russian Armenia, with their cold, snowy winters, short, hot summers, and mild intervening seasons; those of the South find their counterparts from the rich upland valleys, or the lowland plains needing irrigation, of Kurdistan and Persian Armenia (Azerbijan), with its semi-tropical climate, and alternations of wet and dry seasons. The grain crops are wheat, Indian corn, barley, and oats. Cotton is one of the main products; a great deal of tobacco and rice are raised; and sugar is made in the Persian part. In the fields and gardens you can find not only the wonderful melons I have just spoken of, but pumpkins and squashes, lettuce and egg-plant, and indeed most of the vegetables that come to an American table. As to fruits, all that you know we know also, only of finer flavors. Asia Minor is the original home of the quince, the apricot, and the nectarine, and I believe of the peach too; while our apples, pears, and plums are incomparable. The Muscat apples of Amassia are exceptional even there. After eating them, one hardly wonders that Adam and Eve could not resist the temptation of doing the same, at the cost of innocence and Eden. The pears of Malatia keep them company; and the quince grows sometimes as large as a man’s head. Another fruit equally important is the mulberry for silk-worms. The olive and fig are cultivated and also grow wild, and filberts and walnuts can be gathered anywhere in the woods, as well as orchards; of course not the American “hickory nuts,” but the “English walnuts” of the groceries.
In spite of the dreadful roads, and the lack of protection for travelers, the Armenians manage to send a good deal of grown or manufactured stuff to the ports on the Black and Caspian seas,—Trebizond, Batoum, Poti, Baku,—silk and cotton, and fabrics made from them; hides and leather, including lambskins; wine, dried fruits, raisins, tobacco, drugs, and dyestuffs, wax, and other things.
Methods of cultivation are probably much like what they were in Abraham’s time; there are no very modern machines or even tools. The plough is not quite the mere scratching-stick of the savages, to be sure; but it is only a crooked piece of wood with a bit of iron fastened to the end that touches the ground, drawn by oxen and held by the farmer. The fields of grain are reaped by the sickle as of old; it takes as long to cut down one acre so as fifty by a common mowing machine. The sheaves are carried to a gal or threshing floor near the house, an open platform, not sheltered from the weather; and there the grain is separated from the straw by a process so curious that I doubt if any American, save a missionary to Armenia, has ever heard of it. It is not treading it out under the feet of the cattle, as pictured in the Bible, nor beating it out with a flail; both these methods kept the straw whole. A threshing board is made by fastening hundreds of sharp flints into a wooden frame; the grain is placed between this and the threshing floor, the oxen attached to the board, and the farmer sitting on it drives them round and round in a circle until the straw is cut fine, and the grain well rubbed and shaken loose. Then, on the first windy day, he takes the old hand fan or winnow, and separates the grain from the straw, keeping the latter to feed the animals in winter; for the long grass of American plateaus, and the barns of hay from them, are seldom seen in Armenia.
The wheat crops are extraordinary; not only great in yield, but the grains often double the size of ordinary American wheat, as compared with specimens from the large and representative fields of Minnesota and Nebraska.
But when this wheat is threshed out, the farmer cannot shovel it up and grind, or sell, or put it into bins; no indeed! He cannot take up a quart of it without permission from the government; for the government claims one-eighth of it as a tax,—it was always a “tithe” or tenth from the oldest historic times down to the present Sultan, but he raised the percentage to an eighth,—and it must stay on that exposed threshing floor, in rain or winds, or any sort of weather, till the tax-gatherer comes and measures it, which may be a week, or two weeks, or a month, and will be forever unless he is bribed to come. Nor is even this double tax all; the tax-gatherer is a tax farmer,—that is, he pays a lump sum to the government for the taxes of a district, and all he can get above that is so much profit to him; so if the grain on a threshing floor actually measures ten bushels, say, he will write it fifteen. After the farmer has paid first the tax on the land to the government direct, then the double, or rather treble, tax to the gatherer on the crops, more than half the income he can get from the land has gone to the government. I do not know an Armenian farmer who is not in debt; they work hard, but the products of their labor go to the government and the Kurds, and any one who complains is considered a revolutionist, and imprisoned or killed. The simple unvarnished truth is that an Armenian Christian has no rights of life or property whatever; and all he keeps of either (not very much) is what the regularly appointed officials or the self-appointed Kurdish fleecers choose to leave him.
This, however, is anticipating. I have only begun on the catalogue of taxes which strip most Armenians, and are intended to strip them, of everything but the means of sustaining life and perpetuating their race. When a boy is born, a poll-tax is laid on him,—two dollars on the average,—which must be paid every year as long as he lives, whether he remains in Armenia or leaves it. Of course, during boyhood the parents have to pay this tax on every male child; if a woman is widowed, she has to go on paying these capitation taxes just the same. They are assumed to be taxes in lieu of military service; the Sultan takes no soldiers from the Armenians,—does not dare,—and this poll-tax is used to raise and pay that very Turkish army which in return butchers the Armenians, just as the old tribute of Christian children was used to butcher their parents. (That the Armenians are unwarlike and would not make good soldiers is ridiculously untrue; many of the best soldiers and best officers, even commanders-in-chief, in the Russian service are Armenians.) When the boy has attained manhood he pays his own tax,—he must have a paper of citizenship, which must be renewed every year, and for which he must pay; but he is not allowed to leave the country without providing absolute security, either in property or bondsmen, for paying that tax through life, wherever he may be. Of course this is utterly impossible in most cases,—men of property do not often migrate, and men without property do not easily get people to be responsible for lifelong obligation to let them emigrate; which is one chief reason why so few Armenians, except banished ones, or runaways, are seen in foreign countries. Furthermore, as I have said, he must pay for a passport every time he stirs from home. Land, houses, cattle, crops, are all separately taxed. Suppose an Armenian owns a vineyard. First, the land is taxed; there is a separate tax for irrigation, a third for the grapes, a fourth if you make wine from them. In all, a vineyard pays five taxes, and the government gets more than the owner.
Why don’t they emigrate? ask my American friends. I have given one explanation. Pharaoh would not permit the Hebrews to go away, nor will the Sultan permit the Armenians. Another reason is that even if one has property, it is very hard to sell it. Turks have no money and Armenians no confidence. And to run away to a foreign country, whose language you do not know, wholly without money, is so desperate a remedy that most of them shrink from it.
Armenia, in my belief, is the healthiest country in the world; I do not say one of the healthiest, but the very healthiest. The climate is excellent all the year round, and, though the winters are severe, and much of the country is covered with snow, yet on account of the elevation—being several thousand feet above sea level, and in latitude 36° to 42°, or say from North Carolina to Massachusetts—the air is dry, pure, and agreeable, a preventative of disease, and conducive to longevity. The dread disease, consumption, does not exist there, while dyspeptics, if any are to be found, must have been imported. The perfect type of physical vigor is to be seen there. Generally the Armenians are tall, powerful, and ruddy cheeked, full of endurance and energy. Shrewd and enterprising they are, as reputed; but pure and honest too. They are longer lived than any other people. I have known Armenians of 115 and even 125 years of age; one old lady of my acquaintance at 115 was full of life and fun; I have seen her dance at wedding festivities like a girl of 15. An old gentleman of 125 was my neighbor; he worked on his farm as if he were not over 25. He could run and jump and was as gay as a boy, and greatly enjoyed children’s society. If the people of Armenia could have the same government, the same encouragements, the same freedom from horrible fears, as the people of the United States, they would live many, many years longer than they do, till it might be necessary to kill the old folks in order to get rid of them. The most of the American missionaries in Armenia would be sure to echo these words. A returned missionary gave a striking testimony to this effect. He was addressing the students of the Chicago Theological Seminary, and spoke as follows:—”Before I became a missionary I had very poor health; most of my family died of hereditary consumption, and I was attacked by it. My physicians strongly protested against my becoming a missionary, saying that if I went to a foreign land I would grow worse, and probably die there. I paid no attention to this; I presumed they were right, but I was determined to go anyway, and if I must die, to die in my chosen work. When I offered myself to the American Board, I was allotted to Armenia, and thither I went; my disease disappeared and now I am as healthy as any missionary in the world. You see how stout and vigorous I look, and I do not expect to die soon. But I feel sure that if I had stayed in America to save my life, I should have lost it before this time.” He is still living in Armenia, and I hope will live to be over a hundred, as many of the natives do.
The reader will smile at all this as the patriotic boastfulness of an Armenian, and say perhaps that he can make as fabulous declarations for his own land, wherever he may be; but such claims cannot be substantiated by records and personal observations as these for Armenia can. Take the Bible; some of the Patriarchs lived to be 700, 800, one even to 969, if indeed he ever died a natural death; some were taken up to heaven without knowing death; and all these long lives, as will be shown, were lived in Armenia. God’s judgment was good. He did not create man in America, Europe, or India, or anywhere but in Armenia. He came down there from Heaven, planted the Garden of Eden there, and from the dust of that land created the first man. When the race had become sinful and only Noah’s family were preserved, the ark was not brought to rest on the Rockies, the Alps, or the Himalayas, but on Ararat in Armenia.
Where was the Garden of Eden? In my belief, around Lake Van, the highest lake, the largest lake, and the most picturesque lake in the Bible lands; its surrounding country, mountains, plains, flower gardens, and orchards, make it a most charming spot, and quite worthy to have been the seat of Paradise on earth. As the wickedest cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, were on the lowest, ugliest, and nastiest lake, the Dead Sea, it is natural that Paradise should be on the highest and loveliest one. A certain very learned Gospel minister, who desired to change my views respecting the Garden of Eden, declared that when the North Pole was discovered the Garden of Eden would be. Some think it was in India, and there are about as many opinions as there are countries on the earth. The Bible, however, seems to be pretty clear about it and settles the question to the Armenian mind; we feel, therefore, that we cannot be far from the Scriptural descriptions.
TRAVEL AND TRANSPORTATION
Both are as hard in Armenia as they can be, short of impossibility. In the Russian section the roads are as good as in any part of Russia, and there are railroads; but in Persian and Turkish Armenia there are none of the latter, and the roads are very poor bridle-paths. A few years ago the government levied an extra tax to build “Shosse Yolou” or macadamized roads for carriages; but most of the money was spent as usual, in a good time for the Turkish officials; the roads built were wretched, and riding over them in the springless carriages of the country is weariness and torture. Most of the traveling is done on horseback or muleback, while the transportation of goods is almost entirely by camels and donkeys.
An hour’s journey in America in distance is a two days’ journey in Armenia, and it must be accomplished on horseback, muleback, or foot; or perhaps in a wagon without springs. Almost all the horse and mule keepers are Turks, Kurds or Circassians, all Mohammedans and of the lowest types,—which does not increase either the comfort or the security of a journey. The tenders and drivers of animals are never of a very high order of men in any country; in Armenia they are specially vulgar, dirty, and sometimes dangerous brutes. If you wish to travel with your family, you must arrange with the horse-keeper several days or even weeks beforehand; if he is ready when the time comes, he calls at your house and tells you. If animals are used and the family large, baskets will be needed to put the children in; they are put on the animals like panniers, one on each side with the mother between. This is attended with more or less danger from accidents of various kinds, liable to occur on the unkept paths, which, rough in some places and horribly muddy in others, are used for roads. As in the case of the writer, who, when an infant, nearly lost his life before he could be pulled out of the mud into which he had fallen from his mother’s arms, she being thrown from the stumbling horse she was riding.
A more modern way of travel is in springless carriages; which on the rough roads means racking your body horribly, bones, nerves, and all, into outright and often severe suffering, a pain and fatigue which the traveler feels for a long time. At evening all travelers must go to a caravanserai or khan; often they are all huddled into a single room, men, women, and children, and the room is invariably filthy, and full of every kind of vermin. Such getting about is constant torment.
There is no safety in traveling; Kurdish, Circassian, or Georgian brigands may meet you on the roads anywhere, and plunder, torture, or perhaps kill you. A few years ago, when traveling in Armenia with a company of about forty persons of both sexes, we came to a forested pass between two mountains. Suddenly three men leaped out in front of us; they were Georgian brigands (Mohammedans), armed from top to toe. They stopped the caravan, picked out the rich persons and the Christians, and robbed them of all their valuables. They did not search the writer, probably supposing that as a minister he was too poor to be worth troubling. The women were dreadfully frightened, for the robbers declared that if they did not give up their earrings their ears would be cut off, and if they did not give up their bracelets their hands would be cut off. It can easily be imagined that they made haste to relinquish all their valuables. Such robberies take place every day in Armenia, for there is no protection or redress whatever; it is a matter of indifference at best, and probably of satisfaction, to the Sultan and his governors.
The brigands are not the only robbers. Bear in mind that before any one in Armenia can travel at all, the government officials plunder him. He must get a passport first; I do not mean when he goes to foreign countries, for an Armenian is forbidden to go there at all,—all who are in other lands reached there by bribing the police and running away,—but when he goes to another place or town in Armenia itself, even if it is not over fifteen or twenty miles off. This passport will cost him from two to five dollars in bribes to the officials to let him have it. When he reaches his destination, the officials of the latter place must examine his passport, and they force him to pay for the examination, else they will not let him enter the town. So the Armenians are robbed at every step whether they travel or stay at home.
Transportation of goods is even harder. Nearly all goods are carried on camels or donkeys which never go more than ten miles a day, and of course much less in bad spots; it takes months and even a year to get goods if they have to come very far, or may never be received. If an Armenian merchant orders goods from Constantinople, say 500 miles away, it takes five or six months at best from the time of sending the order to the time of receiving the goods, even if he ever gets them, no matter what condition they are in.
The difficulties of transportation prevent the export, to any extent, of Armenian products to foreign countries, and even between neighboring cities exchange of supplies is well-nigh impossible. As all through the East, there is often famine in one part of Armenia, while there is plenty in other parts; one city may be hungry while another is feasting; one willing to pay any price but unable to buy, another eager to sell but with no one to sell to; because there is no way to transport the grain or produce. Yet good highways are not built because the officials embezzle the funds, railroads are not built because it would hinder the Sultan from crushing the people.
It may be asked, Are there no railroads in Turkey? and will not the Sultan permit them, and are there not Armenians in the places along their route? Yes, there are a few short lines; one from Constantinople to Adrianople, one from Constantinople to Angora, one from Smyrna to Aiden, one from Mersina to Adana, one from Joppa to Jerusalem. I think there is also one lately built from Beirout to Damascus. The length of the whole system is not over 1,000 miles, one of them is in Europe, part of them are tourist lines, along routes that streams of Europeans would traverse anyway. Some of them were built before the time of the present Sultan; some of them are near the seashore, where there are some Armenian emigrants; but none of these roads are in Armenia.
Plenty of money has always been available from European and even Armenian sources to build railroads; syndicates and private capitalists have tried again and again to get permission to build them; but the Sultan will not grant it, for it runs counter to his fixed policy of isolating the Armenians, to make their oppression or destruction easier. Railroads would mean not only prosperity and strength for the people, but easy gathering and sending out of news to the world, easy bringing of help from the world, lighting up the dark places, and exposing the horrors of the hell now existing. When they are built, commerce will follow; Europeans will flock in, and a new era dawn. Who are the commercial class? The Armenian Christians or Europeans; not a Turk or a Kurd among them. Commerce means, then, the increase of the Christian population; wealth, greatness, security for the Armenians; finally freedom from the Ottoman power. Therefore that power forbids any improvement of the backward conditions.