Written by Gregory Page Hovelian.
My father was the Armenian pop singer, Krikor Hovelian. Before his sudden departure from the world’s scene, he told me, “Son, you must make the trip to your homeland of Armenia. In the great city of Yerevan, the music of Charles Aznavour and Aram Khachaturian is played each night over loudspeakers as colorful fountains dance together with the people. Be around your people on the buses and at the outdoor markets and visit your aunt Marie and cousin Nora while you are there.”
My Aunt Marie, who was married to the great Armenian artist, Hagop Hagopian, is an accomplished painter in her own right who recently exhibited her works at the National Museum of Armenia.
I was told that upon entering Armenia the customs agents say “Welcome Home” when stamping your passport. I was slightly disappointed when I didn’t receive that blessing.
Leaving the airport, I had the romantic impulse to fall to my knees and kiss the ground, but upon seeing the cold concrete I changed my mind and blew a silent kiss into the air instead. My cousins from Australia had met me in Paris so we could fly to Yerevan together. We were met by an army of cab drivers eager to drive us into the city. I was approached by a beggar who asked for money. As I fumbled for some change, the taxi driver said, “No, don’t give him any money”.
The late night rainy drive into the center of Yerevan was long as I stared out the window and tried to grasp the fact that I had followed my father’s advice. I could feel his joy inside of me as if my heart was going to burst. Lying on my bed in my eleventh floor hotel room I couldn’t sleep, eagerly awaiting the sunrise so I could begin this journey.
At the crack of dawn, I walked out onto the balcony. There in the distance was what I assumed to be Mount Ararat. I must admit it wasn’t as enormous as I imagined, so when I turned to walk to the other side of the balcony, I let out an audible gasp upon seeing the real Mount Ararat in front me with its noble summit in the clouds.
After breakfast, we were picked up by a tour guide and his driver in a small white van. My head was spinning in circles trying not to miss a single sight on our way to Echmiatsin. According to most scholars, this was the first cathedral built in ancient Armenia, between 301 and 303 AD by Armenia's patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator.
As I strolled into the sunlight towards this magnificent ancient monument, a group of High Priests and clergymen were slowly walking towards me looking very important in their black robes and long grey beards. They were talking with a tall man who was bald wearing jeans and an off-white sport coat. As we got closer to each other, I couldn’t believe my eyes, immediately recognizing the tall man as actor John Malkovich. As we passed each other, I calmly said “Hi John" as if I knew him. He politely nodded in acknowledgment and walked past me. I was standing at one of the world’s holiest sites and just said hello to one of my favorite actors…WOW!!! I immediately texted my friend Jason Mraz back in America telling him where I was and who I just bumped into! His quick reply was, “Of course this happens to you, you lead a magical existence.”
I had no clue that what was going to happen next would be the most magical moment of my life.
The bumpy drive and smell of exhaust made me carsick, so I was glad to reach our next destination, a 4th century monastery called Geghard which is built into the rocks of a mountain. On the slow walk up to the Church, our tour guide pointed to a large cave high up on the cliff where Saint Gregory the Illuminator gave music lessons. I thought of all the times when I was a kid growing up in North London and how I complained to me mum about the long drive to my weekly music lessons in Brixton. At least I didn’t have to scale a cliff to learn how to play guitar!
I wandered around the site alone for a while and saw some people walking up the stone stairs into a large cave. I followed them into a pitch-black cavern. I stood with my back against the stone as two women and two men stood in the center with tiny lights glowing over their music books and began to sing a cappella Armenian hymns. The pure haunting harmony was the most beautiful music I have heard in this life, impossible to describe in clumsy words. I was activated. I felt brand-new and ancient at the same time. When they were finished singing the quartet exited the cave and everyone followed. I stayed behind and had a quiet conversation with my father. I thanked him for encouraging me to be here. We embraced and he told me to walk out of this cave and begin to live like I have never lived before.
As I walked outside I saw my cousin buying the singers’ CD they were selling at the entrance of the cave. George said "You were in there? That’s amazing. I could not see you and prayed that you were here listening.”
On the drive down the mountain, I was quiet, reflective and not ready to leave that heavenly place. The tour guide told us he was taking us to a famous donut shop in the heart of Yerevan. As my cousin George and I stood in line to place our order, I felt the eyes of a young boy staring at me and smiling, so I smiled back. Then he walked straight over to me and extended his tiny hand to shake mine, and as our hands met he said in perfect English, “I know you are Armenian.” It was all I could do to hold back the tears that instantly welled up behind my eyes, and I knew that this was the “Welcome Home” blessing I had just received.
My Grandfather Harutyun Hovelian (1899-1962), was born in the village of Ovachik near the town of Bardizag in present day Turkey, 5 km from the coast of the Marmara Sea, in a heavenly place on the edge of a forrest. Harutyun owned a beautiful white horse; they swam together in the sea when he was 14 years old. He was a man who spoke little and was outwardly quiet and calm like the sea, and who adored the sea.
In the spring of 1915 the migration and the massacres began. He managed to somehow reach Der-for (Deir ez-Zor) and find his relatives in the desert. The second time he did not find them. The whole family, his parents Hovel and Marium with their families were killed. At the age of eighteen and already orphaned, he arrived in Egypt. He managed to survive with help of Armenian families, who were established there earlier. Egypt was then an English colony. Many Europeans lived in the big cites of Cairo & Alexandria. There was a wealthy class that spent winters in Egypt, and returned to Europe in the summertime. Egypt was one of the most interesting countries in the world, and the ties with the Armenian Highlands came form times immemorial; there had been huge flows of the Armenians to Egypt by already familiar routes more than once.
Harutuyn started working as a photographer and had a family, getting married at the age of thirty. During those years, Armenian refugee families were very modest, and Harutyun's wife Zaruhi, worked hard to help her husband and bring up threes children; Marie, Sargis & Grigor (Gregory Page-Hovelain's father). Zarhuhi Stepanian (1908-1987) was born in the town of Everek and with there parents, Iskuhi and Hagop Stepanian (1865-1930), she moved to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1910 after having lived for a short period of time in Constantinople. Most of their family were also victims of the genocide; and later, throughout her life, she would find her fathers and mothers relatives in the four corners of the world.