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Sarafian Speaks on Kharpert Massacres

Matthew Maroot
Staff Writer

“As Armenians, whether we like it or not, if we donít pursue this [the true history of the Armenians] the American Government certainly wonít and the Turkish Government will write something counter-factual about it and we will be erased from history.  History does not write itself.”

In this, the third lecture in the Armenian Studies Program’s Fall Lecture Series, Ara Sarafian succinctly defined a key issue facing Armenians and Armenian scholars alike.  Sarafian, a native of Cyprus currently lives in London and is touring the United States speaking about the publication of the book Days of Tragedy in Armenia:  Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917 by Henry H. Riggs.

Ara Sarafian received his M.A. in History from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate.  His areas of specialty in Armenian interest include, the History of Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Sarafian has conducted extensive archival research in various archives throughout the world including the Armenian Historical Archives in Yerevan, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Archives in Boston, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as well as the Prime Ministry Archives in Istanbul.

Ara Sarafian is a co-founder of the new Gomidas Institute, a non-profit academic organization dedicated to modern and contemporary Armenian Studies which provides a forum for active scholars to pursue research and publication.  As part of his work with the Gomidas Institute, Sarafian serves as co-editor of the Armenian Forum, a journal of contemporary affairs.

Sarafian edited the recently published work, Days of Tragedy in Armenia:  Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917.  This work was originally written by the Reverend Henry H. Riggs, an American missionary in Armenia.  According to Sarafian, this is probably the most detailed local history of the Armenian Genocide written in the English language.  Reverend Riggs prepared this work as a manuscript detailing his eyewitness account of the events of 1915-1917 and submitted it to a United States Government Commission investigating various aspects of World War I, including the destruction of Armenian Communities in the Ottoman Empire.  But it wasn’t until April of 1997 that this work was published as a book.

Ara Sarafian holds a personal interest in the communal life of Armenians living before the Genocide in the region of Kharpert.  He has traveled extensively throughout the area of Kharpert and describes it as a beautiful part of the world which is very rich in agriculture.  The focus of this lecture was on Kharpert as a central theatre of the Armenian Genocide.  Because of Kharpertís central location it presents a very good case study of the destruction of the Armenian communities during the Genocide.  As well, Armenian caravans also passed through here en route to the deserts of Syria.  A reference to Kharpert may describe neighboring villages, the Kharpert Plain or the town itself.  At the time of the Genocide, 35-40% of the population was Armenian with the remainder being Kurdish or Turkish.  According to Sarafian, today this region is composed of approximately 80% Kurds and 20% Turks.  In 1915, 40,000 Armenians once inhabited this area.

There were many Americans living in Kharpert up until the start of World War I.  An American colony of Protestants who sought to evangelize the Armenians was established after the 1850’s.  The Reverend Henry H. Riggs was a third generation American involved with the Armenians.  Riggs’ own father was born in Turkey.  Riggs who spoke Armenian as well as Kurdish was part of an American population of approximately one to two dozen families living in the region at the time of the Genocide.  From the 1890’s, the United States Government State Department had a Consulate in Kharpert which was abandoned in 1917 with the onset of World War I.

While the issue of the Armenian Genocide served as the main focus of this lecture, Ara Sarafian made a point of profound significance.  “The reason we are here,” states Sarafian, “is because we were forced from our land.”  And while this was the experience of our grandparentís generation, it led to the creation of a Diaspora in which we live today.  Sarafian also stressed the importance of recognizing the Armenian Genocide on a documentary level.  Because the Genocide is still denied, it is up to us as Armenians to use primary sources, such as that of Henry H. Riggs, to cite it’s very occurrence.