Back in January I attended a conference in Sheffield and had the good fortune of meeting Peter Balakian who was there presenting a paper upon the subject of his grand-uncle Bishop Grigoris Balakian’s memoir of the Armenian Genocide entitled Armenian Golgotha.
I, rather ashamedly, admit that aside from a few brief references to Bishop Balakian in Peter Balakian’s previous works Black Dog of Fate and Burning Tigris I had previously absolutely no idea as to who Grigoris Balakian was, and had never even heard of Armenian Golgotha – which has only just been translated into English.
Luckily I managed to procure myself a copy fairly quickly, and despite avidly reading the book from cover to cover, veritably consuming it, I have yet to digest the horror to which Balakian bore witness.
Golgotha is part lamenting testament to the fate of Anatolia’s Armenian population and part eye witness memoir of the events of the Armenian Genocide. The book sees the Bishop narrating his arrest, deportation, imprisonment, death march, survival and ultimate escape to safety.
Balakian is able to survive all this because fairly early on in his experiences he states “believing that wishing for something could make it happen, I used to repeat over and over to those around me, “I have decided not to die.’ ” and why not, when he and all those around him agree that death is the only salvation – because Balakian has sworn to survive in order to write up his witnessing of the Genocide.
In his original prologue, which in the new addition is included as an appendix, Balakian laments the absence of a memorial to the Armenian Genocide and writes, “Thus I dedicate my Armenian Golgotha to the perpetual memory of your countless martyrs anointed with saintliness.” This is Balakian’s motivation for survival and he regularly draws upon his spiritual resilience and fortitude and his immense reservoir of faith, which are all severely tested, to see him through the terrible events of the Genocide.
Bishop Balakian finds himself in Berlin at the dawn of the First World War witnessing the early stages of nationalist fervour that greeted the declaration of war in the German capital. With Europe beginning to tear itself apart Balakian returns to Istanbul where shortly thereafter he is included on the list of Armenian intellectuals and leaders rounded up and deported to the prison camp of Chankiri on April 24th 1915.
Here Balakian painstakingly compiles a list of names and a sentence long biography for each of the deportees. On the list are the familiar names like Father Komitas as well as unknown personas such as Kevork Kayekjian, of whom Balakian knew apparently nothing more than their name.
During his deportation Komitas performs an ‘emotional’ rendition of the hymn Der Voghormya (‘Lord Have Mercy’ – alternatively check out the hidden track on System’s Toxicity)of the incident Balakian writes:
“[Komitas] sang out of his own grief and emotional turmoil, asking the eternal God for comfort and solace. God, however, remained silent.”
This is the first of several subtle hints at the frustration endured by the Bishop during God’s perceivable absence in what Balakian was witnessing. It also belies Balakian’s capabilities to write concisely of his own observations and opinions thereby making Golgotha not only exceptionally readable but also it tells of the power of Balakian as a writer of what he describes at one point as the “comedy of death”.
Black comedy and the implied crises of faith meet somewhere on a road near Kayseri when an Ottoman parliamentarian despatches Balakian’s condemned caravan with the words: “May God be with you.” Balakian writes “this laconic response naturally meant that God alone could help us.” Implying the futility of clinging on to vainly sought earthly salvation. Balakian is later asked by an Armenian ‘where is God?’ though he recounts the tirade of the angry survivor he shies away from answering.
Golgotha is linked to subtle hints at Balakian’s crisis of faith as well as nods to the religious mythology the Bishop knew so well. The eve of the Armenian intellectuals deportation on April 24th is equated to Gethsemane just as the Genocide is written up as a long march up the hill of Golgotha resulting in the martyrdom of an entire nation and also explaining the book’s title.
An example of this interpretative use of religious imager comes when Balakian writes: “our cup of misery and bitterness had long since overflowed” an inversion Psalm 23 a funerary mainstay. The theme of the overflowing cup is returned to later on
“Some drops cause the cup to overflow; truly it became impossible to endure such cruelty. Our hunger tormented our stomachs and intestines with contortions. We saw the bread, but we could not buy it even though we could pay for it.”
Here to is a detectable anger of the breaking of the covenant enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer where the doomed Armenians are denied even their daily bread.
During one instance where Balakian is asked to conduct a makeshift communion for the benefit of an Islamized Armenian family, he improvises and replaces the wine with vinegar for the service. In Balakian’s imagination the communion transfigures into the very genocide he is witnessing, writing:
“In the final analysis, the vinegar had come from wine...It was the commemoration not only of the innocent blood spilled drop by drop from Jesus’ rib, but also of the oceans of innocent blood spilled by a million Armenian martyrs.”
There are powerful moments of anger that are directed to a silent Europe whom Balakian terms as consisting of hypocritical Christians and rather insightfully reasons their real interests in the following “An oil field would prove much more valuable than the fate of a small and weak Christian people.”
This isn’t the only instance of foresight. Balakian relates how “the German officers would often speak of us as Christian Jews and as bloodsucking usurers of the Turkish people” and recounts a few pages later how a German Jew taunting an Armenian deportee is responded to by the latter with a prescient comeback “They are cleaning up the Armenians – the field is left to the Jews.”
Despite this Balakian still reserves some anger for Armenians, both those self-styled revolutionaries and those who “believed in the Europeans’ professed struggle for justice and rights, in their false words and deceptions.”
Balakian provides flowery bursts of poetic descriptions of the Anatolian landscape at the height of spring, but when confronted by the hard facts of the massacred dead Balakian is so perfectly precise and viscerally descriptive that on several occasions I, rather cowardly, placed the book to one side to catch my breath.
I offer only a brief snippet of what Balakian describes, and have chosen it because it is one of the least disturbing descriptions he offers. I shall end my blog here with this standalone quote and beg of my reader to take the time to read Armenian Golgotha a true monument to the dead.
“Without pity or human feeling they struck the hapless and confused left and right, hitting them everywhere: eyes burst open, skulls were crushed, faces were covered with blood, and new wounds were opened up.”