For Armenians, the towns of Muş and Sason in southeastern Turkey, not far to the west of Lake Van, hold particular historical significance. But today, 100 years after the massacre of 1915, few ethnic Armenians still remain there
In the medieval era, Muş served as the central town of the influential Armenian principality of Taron, home to Mesrop Mashtots, who invented the Armenian alphabet in the early fifth century.
Sason, known to Armenians as Sasun, is the setting for the 8th-10th-century Armenian national epic, “The Daredevils of Sasun" (also called “The Daredevils of Sassoun"), which tells how Armenian fighters, led by the legendary ruler, David of Sasun (or Sassoun), repulsed repeated Arab invasions.
Although both locations lost their prominence in modern times, they remained important regional centers for Armenian culture until the bloodshed of 1915.
Today, little sign of that past remains. The old part of Muş, where many ethnic Armenians once lived, has been partly destroyed, though the walls of a women’s hamam and an Armenian church still stand. Khachkars, Armenian memorial cross-stones, stand near many Kurdish houses. Stones with carved crosses often have been used for construction materials. A graveyard can be found on a nearby mountain.
Recently, an Armenian club opened in Muş with the name "Daron - Hay,” a local Armenian rendition of “Taron-Armenian.” Members say they chose the Armenian word “Hay” since the Turkish word for Armenia, Ermeni, can be used as an insult.
Members say, though, that those attitudes are starting to change a little. But still, despite a relative liberalization of government policies in recent years, many ethnic Armenians in Turkey remain cautious.
The desire to retain an Armenian cultural identity, though, runs strong. One Muslim ethnic Armenian told a visiting Armenian photographer about his family’s difficulty in finding their relatives in Armenia, where they fled after the massacre of 1915.
But in both Muş and Sason/Sasun, only the older generation of ethnic Armenians speak Armenian. Youngsters say they try to learn the language while attending school in Istanbul, where more opportunities exist to study Armenian.
Istanbul and other larger Turkish cities also have drawn away most of the local ethnic Armenian families who are Christian; a faith seen as an integral part of Armenian culture. Many of those who remain are Muslim, while others are mixed. A few have converted to Christianity.
Marriage is viewed as a key tool in preserving these families’ Armenian heritage within Turkey. To do so, some locals often even opt for distant relatives as spouses.
Still, their focus remains on the future. One Muslim Armenian man discussed the prospects for a bride for his son. The father’s hope is that she will be Armenian.
Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist based in Berlin and Yerevan.