This article was published in “The Armenian Reporter” (Dec 13, 2008), an independent source of news and views, with heavy coverage of Armenian-American community news, U.S. and international politics as they relate to Armenians; Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh; and Armenians in arts, culture, and entertainment.
December 13, 2008
In a time when historic Armenia has all but vanished into the distant landscape of a modern world, Armenians living in the diaspora are left to put together the pieces of a fragmented past. Armen Aroyan is one of those rare historians who not only studies but shares his education by leading tours to historic Armenia.
Aroyan is a time traveler who deconstructs the fine strands of our scarred history to weave new memories for new generations. Sitting at the loom, he helps to rekindle those memories of “back home” that most of today’s young Armenians have come to know and understand through the eyes of their grandparents and the distortion of modernity.
The tour leader, organizer, educator, and scholar of history is the one following the shadowy fragments of our past, taking those who seek him out on a journey of healing and discovery to the places we all once called home. He is the memory maker taking vague images of a once-beautiful place passed down almost by birthright and making them part of this enigmatic tapestry we all struggle to unravel as Armenians.
The first sojourn
Armen Aroyan first began giving tours into the lands of historical Armenia in the early 1990s, after having completed in the 1980s a business trip-turned-pilgrimage that uncovered his own roots.
“My grandmother always talked about what it was like living in Aintab,” he shared fondly. “She would say that life was so good over there and she would say how [Aintab] had the best fruits and food, and was so beautiful. So this place was inbred in me and I always had a curiosity to see it, a kind of draw to Aintab. And so, when I had the chance when I got older, I went to visit it.”
After fulfilling what can be described as an emotional expedition to the villages of his own past, Aroyan dedicated the next decade and a half to taking willing participants on similar journeys of their own.
With first-class treatment served with a side of exciting and unique experiences, Aroyan soon had people seeking him out with vigor. After his first official trip as a tour guide, back in October 1991, 20 people were waiting and ready to go on his return trip. Since then he has organized some 60 trips.
“There was no problem finding people [who wished to] go,” Aroyan explained. “They were very happy to go. They had the desire and it became a fulfillment of a dream they didn’t think was possible. It was a passing of heritage between grandparents to their grandchildren.”
Because Aroyan caters each trip to the specific wishes of those who accompany him, participants of his Armenian Heritage Tours walk away feeling a sense of exclusivity and personal attention that is virtually unmatched by any other tour of its kind.
“It’s all custom-planned,” Aroyan said. “You tell me where your grandmother is from and I’ll incorporate all these villages on top of the major attractions like Ani and Lake Van and Mount Ararat.
So every trip has been different. It completely depends on the participants.” Tour takers can attest to his fierce commitment to providing a meaningful experience for all, as well as to the dedication Aroyan possesses to helping preserve an important legacy for the future.
“He is driven by a mission,” said Perouz Seferian of Ontario, Canada, one of Aroyan’s most recent tour participants. “I think Armen would try to move Mount Ararat if that was the only way he could get you to your village. I have for many years had a profound need to see Kalan, the village where my father and grandfather were born. It’s not on the map, but Armen somehow took me there.”
“Armen is a laid-back individual and has to balance the desires and wishes of different people with different expectations,” added Don Barsumian of Los Angeles. “I thought he did an excellent job keeping most everybody happy.
All the accommodations were first class and enjoyable.” Having amassed an extensive collection of archival material, such as photos and videotapes, as well as friends over the years, Aroyan has created a network of Armenians from all over the world, who come together to enjoy some of the most beautiful and historic Armenian sites.
From Adana, Aghtamar, and Aintab to Marash, Talas, and Zeytun, Armenians are able to unveil these places of the past without fear or hesitation. For many, these trips are vehicles of catharsis, ways for many to reconcile events of the past with a hopeful future.
For Seferian, her experience was simply life-changing. “I stood in the village my father and grandfather had yearned for all their exiled lives,” she said of her trip this past September. “And wished so much that they could have been there with me. As a child, I would hear them weep in the night for lost family members and for the simple familiar comforts of home in their village.”
Aroyan led Seferian along the caravan route that her family had taken, along the road where, as her father had written, he saw his grandmother murdered.
“In Oghnout, where the caravan had stopped for four days, I met a man whose great grandfather had been left behind as a child, in hopes that he would somehow survive,” Seferian said. “I was flooded with emotion as I realized that his ancestors and mine had shared a common terror at the very place we were both standing.
I cast flower seeds in all these places, and around the cathedral at Ani, in memory of all the 1.5 million who [have no graves bearing their names]. I cast root-vegetable seeds, in acknowledgment of their terrible hunger, and I scattered fiber flax seeds, which linen is spun from, remembering that most of the victims first had their clothing removed.”
Seferian says she is going back next spring. “I want to see if the pink and gold flowers of memory have grown, if root vegetables have taken hold, and if the fiber flax seed has sprouted,” she said. “I left candles burning at Ani. I don’t want anyone to think that we have forgotten 1915.”
Aroyan has impacted and changed many lives for the better. Without his service and dedication to the cause of giving his fellow Armenians the missing pieces to their own family puzzles, many would continue to live lives without peace or closure.
That is Armen Aroyan’s legacy. He continues to give a sense of peace to those who embrace it. You can make your own discovery story to Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia joining to the one of Armenian Cilicia Tours.
“It is extremely gratifying to see people happy,” Aroyan said. “I get a lot of satisfaction from that. It gives them a lot of closure and a third dimension. Now they are able to see their village and could picture the images of the past that was passed down to them through parents and grandparents.”