Grigoris Balakian’s “Armenian Golgotha”

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

Image of Grigoris Balakian’s “Armenian Golgotha”

On April 24, 1915, some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Constantinople. Grigoris Balakian, a Christian vartabed, or priest, was among them. "It was as if all the prominent Armenian public figures—assemblymen, representatives, revolutionaries, editors, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, merchants, bankers, and others in the capital city—had made an appointment to meet in these dim prison cells," he later wrote. Balakian was witnessing the start of a campaign of cultural annihilation orchestrated by the Turkish government; within days, many of his fellow prisoners had been deported east by train towards certain death in the valleys of central Turkey. In the weeks and months ahead, still more would follow, sent on horseback, cart, donkey, and foot to die in the remote deserts of northern Syria.

After an extended detainment in Chankiri, 200 miles east of Constantinople– time bought by sheer bribery– Balakian's own caravan began a tortuous march towards Der Zor, the Syrian outpost whose name would become synonymous with death itself. The first volume of Armenian Golgotha chronicles the month-and-a-half journey (made, in Balakian's case, primarily on foot) through hunger, exhaustion, grief, and the inescapable specter of death; littering the trail were the decomposing skeletons and long-haired skulls of women and girls who had been slaughtered on the path before them. "We were living through days of such unheard-of torture, it was impossible for the mind to fully comprehend," Balakian writes. "Those of us still alive envied those who had already paid their inevitable dues of bloody torture and death."

In April 1916 Balakian escaped, fleeing by foot through an eighteen-hour downpour and hiding in an abandoned mill before finding his way to the first of several families who would offer him shelter. In the following two and a half years he disguised himself as a railway worker, vineyard worker, mentally ill hospital patient, and German soldier, finding refuge among friends and kind strangers and even living alone in the forest for a time before making his way back to Constantinople. There, in the autumn of 1918, he was able to start writing about all he had seen, a witness long in the making. "While traveling this road to death," Balakian reflects, "I was intent on learning everything I could about the martyrdom of my race. I was thinking too, that if it was possible to somehow survive, I might shed light on these criminal events." In the meantime, Balakian's own story—the odyssey of a priest who crafted escape upon escape, disguise upon disguise and evasion upon evasion—had become a legend. That very tale had even returned to his own (disguised) ears as a story of a singular hope for redemption. "If only the priest were freed, at least all the miseries and misfortunes would not have been for naught," one Armenian woman confided to him.

When Balakian did find freedom at the end of the war, he felt "a painful and weighty responsibility: writing this history." The term "genocide" would not be coined for thirty years; to understand the events he'd witnessed, Balakian could only retrace the historic tensions in Turkish-Armenian relations and the rise of pan-Islamic and pan-Turkish nationalism that marked the years before WWI. In his account, the seeds of calamity were visible well before the atrocities began. Because municipal government posts were off-limits, European-educated Armenian Christians took jobs in private enterprise, international trade, medicine and the arts—prospering, but incurring the resentment of their Turkish neighbors. The possibility of Armenian independence through Russian aid also complicated the Turkish government's strategic relationship with the Central Powers. In a speech delivered in February 1914, Baron Rudiger von der Goltz Pasha, the newly appointed chairman of the German-Turkish Society, argued that Turkey's Armenian Christian population posed a liability for the Ottoman Empire. "In order to save Turkey from a new calamity," von der Goltz Pasha explained, "it is necessary to once and for all remove the half a million Armenians living in the provinces . . . contiguous to the Russo-Turkish borders, and move them from those border areas southward, to the vicinity of Aleppo and Mesopotamia."

That "removal" was euphemism quickly became apparent. Balakian writes that by early 1916 the Interior Minister had openly declared, "it is necessary to eradicate the Armenians." With the Ottoman Empire's key Armenian intellectuals already exiled or silenced, the community lacked the leadership to protect the remaining population. The government-implemented "deportations" were in fact nothing short of death marches designed to starve their victims. Deportees who survived into the depths of the desert would find themselves attacked by mobs of local villagers as well as newly released prisoners, pardoned to carry out the government's dirtiest work. Remembering one such mass killing, a Turkish captain described its methods to Balakian thus: "It's wartime, and bullets are expensive. So people grabbed whatever they could from their villages—axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels—and they did the killing accordingly." Before death, many suffered sexual assault, dismemberment, and decapitation. After death, their bodies were stripped, plundered of whatever family wealth had been sewn into the hems and linings of their clothing, and left to decompose in the desert.

In early 1914, there were an estimated total of 2.15 million Armenians in Turkey; by 1918, that number had fallen by more than a million. Balakian would live to see the end of the war, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of an independent Armenian republic. But there would be no real reparation for the Turkish government's war crimes. In fact, to this day the Turkish government refuses to officially acknowledge the genocide; more than ninety years later, remembering and accounting for this atrocity remains the work of independent scholars, historians, and the Armenian diaspora as a whole. As such, a first-hand account reported with Balakian's precision and farsightedness is an artifact of immeasurable value.

What particularly distinguishes Armenian Golgotha is the breadth of perspective from which it draws. Balakian was fluent in Armenian, Turkish and German and comfortable with the political elite and working class alike. His diplomatic dexterity and talent for shape-shifting allowed him to live for more than two years under assumed names and identities and to incorporate multiple points of view into his account of the war's events. Armenian Golgotha reverberates with diverse voices, from the cryptic warnings of a sympathetic Turkish minister at the war's outset, to secret government telegrams shared in a moment of indiscretion, the hauntingly matter-of-fact confessions of a Turkish captain who estimated he'd had a hand in 42,000 deaths, and the plainspoken commentaries of German, Swiss and Austrian travelers-turned-bystanders. For four years, Balakian was surrounded by those who were either certain that he would soon be dead or had no idea that he was a refugee. With no reason to fear him, they spoke freely to him; in Armenian Golgotha, he faithfully transcribes their accounts. As the author's grandnephew and translator Peter Balakian said in a recent interview, the sum effect is something of a "polyphonic acoustic."

But the beating heart of this work is the clear-eyed and heartbroken voice of Balakian himself. "Oh my tribulation was unbearable," he wrote, "for I was the only surviving shepherd of a banished flock. But I too was a deportee and wanderer." Even in translation, the language of Balakian's anguished narrative displays an unsettling poetry. On the night when Constantinople's intellectuals boarded a "special train" to embark on their long deportation, Balakian wrote, "we moved to our graves, nameless and unknown, to be buried forever." When conditions worsened, he wrote, "None of us was able to sleep or eat, our appetite extinguished by the continuous nightmare of death; we were smoldering without a flame, consumed without burning." Balakian's gift for imagery holds even during the most harrowing of scenes. Of a brutal mass killing, he writes that young men were "massacred with axes, like trees being pruned."

Perhaps such renderings bear the touch of his translator and grandnephew, a poet in his own right. A priest by vocation, Balakian was mindful to subordinate his literary inclinations to what he saw as the primary task of bearing witness. Although his poetic language at times forays into the un-witnessed, he is wary of such attempts at imaginative reenactment. Recounting a massacre he learned of in which a Turkish mob of 10,000 killed more than 6,000 Armenians, Balakian stops short at the scene of the bloodbath: "It is impossible to imagine, let alone write about, such a crime or drama in full detail," he wrote. "To have an imagination that powerful requires the special inner capacities of criminals." Balakian's literary talents were many, and his expansive imaginative powers and capacity for reinvention played no small role in his survival. However, it is finally not these creative powers but the strength and range of his observations and experience that make Armenian Golgotha an uncommon, unflinching portrait of the Armenian genocide—and the powerful testament Balakian hoped it would be.

Mythili Rao holds an MA in English and American Literature from New York University. Her writing and reviews have appeared in the New York Observer, Publishers Weekly, the Nation, Boston Review, and other publications.