The large black-and-white photo of him in our living room never frightened me. His long dark beard; the pointy black hat; his thick fingers gripping an ornate staff; heavy crosses on chains draped over his black vestments; and his tired, kind eyes. I would sometimes notice the photo as though for the first time and just gaze at it, at him, locking eyes for a moment. This stranger who had died before I was born, who was sacrificed at a young age in one of the most pivotal, tumultuous periods in the history of Armenia, the Cold War, and the Middle East. This melancholy, radiant, overweight man looking at me year after year. Then one day as I was watching him watch me, I realized: without the beard, the vestments, and weight, he looked just like his youngest brother, my father, a working-class mechanic in Boston.
My uncle was Catholicos Zareh I of the House of Cilicia. And if that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry: it took me a long time to understand the man and his legacy. I’m still working on it, in fact. I knew him from stories: he was born during the Armenian Genocide of 1915, that he was truly spiritual even from a young age, that he died young as well: a victim of heart attack, brought on, many say, by the stress of a great division among his people. I knew that the nearly half a million shocked people who poured into the streets of Beirut in February 1963 for his funeral were not all his supporters—Armenians were at war with themselves in those days. But recently I’ve been visiting Beirut, and I’m finding that the Armenians there know him still, and they’ve been teaching me what the man truly meant.
The author’s uncle, Catholicos Zareh I. Controversy over his election as Catholicos in 1956 was due to his outspoken stance against the USSR’s version of communism. Photo courtesy of Arto Vaun.
The August humidity is intense as I head to Antelias, the Holy See of the Cilician Armenian Church, which dates back to the 4th century AD. After the genocide, the catholicosate (one of two seats of the Armenian church) was forced to move from its historic home in Sis, in present day Turkey. First it moved to Aleppo in 1921 and then settled in Beirut in 1924. The church has always played an integral role as a refuge and center of identity after pogroms throughout the ages, and it was no different after the genocide, when it provided the only semblance of unity, hope, and perseverance in the face of mass devastation, migration, poverty, and loss.
I’ve decided to just show up in Antelias without letting anyone there know about my connection to Zareh. An older man with white hair and a moustache lets me into the church compound, greeting me warmly, then disappearing back into his office. No one else seems to be around. I walk into the quiet, wide courtyard that’s pale and glowing in the searing sunlight. I can hear the musical chaos of Beirut traffic on the other side of the high walls as I approach where my uncle is buried, next to the main cathedral. The first thing I see is one violet carnation placed casually on his tomb. All I can bring myself to do is lightly place my hand on the warm marble and touch his name.
Stalin had deceived many thousands of Armenians into “repatriating” to Soviet Armenia
The controversy around Zareh’s election as Catholicos in 1956 was due to his outspoken stance against the USSR’s version of communism, and its mistreatment of Soviet citizens, specifically Soviet Armenians. Only ten years earlier, Stalin had deceived many thousands of Armenians into “repatriating” to Soviet Armenia. The bulk of those who fell for the ideological bait were from Syria and Lebanon. They gave up relatively stable lives for an idea that was, in the end, nothing close to the reality. When they reached Soviet Armenia, their assets were seized and they were forced to live in mostly abject conditions. Many were sent straight to Siberia. Yet opinion about the place was surprisingly divided among Armenians—some saw it as the first Armenian homeland in decades, while others wanted to rescue their brethren from Stalin. It was very much a visceral issue, polarizing Armenians all over the world, but especially in the Middle East, where the large portion of genocide survivors had ended up after WWI, and where the Cold War was now being played out in different ways. Although all Armenians knew of the awful conditions in the Soviet Union, they were bitterly split on whether to support Soviet Armenians and work in more diplomatic ways to assist them, or to more directly organize and struggle to undermine Soviet Armenia and communism in order to “liberate” Armenia. Both sides grew increasingly entrenched and extreme in their approaches.