YEREVAN, Armenia —We walked in silence, among thousands. My wife and I carried flowers, as did others, to offer in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.
As if on cue, a week of rain and cold had surrendered to sunshine here in Yerevan. A host of vendors anchored the starting area, selling spring flowers. People of all ages streamed in, bought their flowers and joined the procession. The tree lined road was closed to vehicles, and the air was filled with classical Armenian music from overhead speakers.
Our uphill destination was Tsitsernatsabent, or “Swallows Fortress” park. There a metal spear soared 144 feet, a symbol of renewal of the Armenian people after the genocide. The spear was rent by a deep cleft, representing the ensuing worldwide diaspora of Armenians, ten million of whom now live abroad.
As the procession moved upward, I pondered what thoughts filled the minds of those around us. Perhaps of great-grandparents slaughtered in their ancestral villages by Ottoman Turks, as with our young guide, Anna. Or of family members, mostly women and children, marched into the Syrian desert to die.
As we approached the memorial, we passed a wall, one hundred yards long, bearing the names of towns and villages where massacres had taken place: Bitlis, Mush, Kemakh, Van, Mardin, Ezerum . . .
When we reached the hilltop, spreading before us was the majestic snowy peak of Mount Ararat, Armenia’s sacred mountain, now part of Turkey. Across the city, atop another hill, was the giant statue of Mother Armenia, sword in hands, standing watch over Yerevan. The procession narrowed to allow entrance into the circular memorial, an eternal flame enclosed by twelve high basalt slabs. Passing inside, we lay our flowers atop a mass of others, already three feet deep. Around us, others spoke in hushed voices the names of family victims of the genocide, which began April 24, 1915. At least one and one-half million Armenians were slaughtered, half the size of Armenia’s population today.
To participate in an April 24 procession is a moving experience, but there is more to see in Yerevan than the Genocide Memorial. Given its backwater tourist status, the Armenian capital, a city of 1 million, is surprising. Its broad public squares, parks, fountains, heroic statues, universities, trendy restaurants and sidewalk cafes suggest that Yerevan might one day compete with more popular European cities. Sadly, ugly Soviet era apartment blocks mar the cityscape, detracting from the many gracious buildings of pink volcanic tuff that lend Yerevan the title of “the Pink City.”
Yerevan has many connections with Fresno. Near the Opera House stands a statue of Fresno’s favorite son, William Saroyan. Not far away, in the Komitas Pantheon Cemetery, we visited one of Saroyan’s two gravesites. At his request, Saroyan’s ashes were interred both there and in Fresno’s Ararat Cemetery.
In front of the imposing St. Gregory Cathedral is a heroic statue of General Ovanian Andranik astride two rearing horses, his sword raised skyward. Andranik led an Armenian volunteer infantry brigade of the Russian Army against Ottoman armies in World War I. He settled in Fresno after the war. As described by Saroyan, “(i)t looked as if all Armenians of California were at the Southern Pacific depot the day he arrived.” Andranik died in 1927 and was first buried at Fresno’s Masis Ararat Cemetery. His body was later moved to Paris, and in 2000 General Andranik was re-interred in Yerevan.
Among Antranik’s soldiers were two with Fresno connections: Soghomon Tehlirian and Gourgen Yanikian. Tehlirian became an Armenian hero when he tracked down Talaat Pasha, chief architect of the Armenian Genocide, and shot him to death on a Berlin street. In a celebrated trial, a jury found Tehlirian not guilty. He is buried in Fresno’s Masis Ararat Cemetery beneath an obelisk, topped by a gold eagle killing a snake, symbolizing the slaying of Talaat.
Gourgen Yanikian, was a resident of Fresno in the 1950s. In 1973, he lured two Turkish diplomats to Santa Barbara, then shot them to death to avenge the Armenian Genocide. Yanikian styled himself after Soghomon Tehlirian, hoping to spotlight the genocide and be acquitted by a jury. I was his prosecutor, and although Yanikian was convicted, his “call to action” spurred a series of assassinations of Turkish diplomats.
Fresno is also connected to Armenia by its sister city, Echmeadzin, located a few miles from Yerevan. Echmeadzin hosts the Armenian Apostolic Church’s equivalent of the Vatican, which includes the Supreme Patriarch’s residence and world’s oldest Christian cathedral. In its museum we saw relics said to be a piece of wood from the Cross of Christ, a piece of the soldier’s lance that pierced Jesus on the cross, and a fragment of Noah’s Ark.
For Fresnans, a visit to Yerevan, and their sister city Echmeadzin, promises a rewarding experience.