Surrender of Kars
October 30, 1920
His Holiness Karekin I Hovsepian
Father Zaven Arzoumanian, PhD
One Hundred Years
Last October 30, 2020 marked the centennial of the surrender of Kars in 1920. There was a single high ranking clergyman, Bishop Karekin Hovsepian, later the distinguished Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Karekin I, a great patriot, who went to help the persecuted and suffering Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. He was the hero of the 1918 Sartarabad Battle, now heading to Kars where a strategic battle was taking place. As a witness he wrote in his Memoirs as to what happened and how tragically Kars was surrendered.
On September 22, 1920 the Turkish army invaded Sarighamish, Gaghzevan, and Surmalou, and the Armenian inhabitants flew to Kars and found refuge in the fortress for safety. The Turks soon entered Kars in October heading to the fortress, while the population flew to the valley called Dzor in the direction to Alexandrapol (Gyumri). Bishop Karekin began his heroic mission from Alexandrapol, after receiving the blessings of Catholicos Kevork V of All Armenians (1911-1930).
The brave Bishop Karekin Hovsepian soon headed an impressive procession of priests and dignitaries of the four local churches himself vested in full episcopal attire, staff and cross in his hands, marched from St. Asdvadzadzin church of the city of Gyumri heading to the City Hall, wearing on his chest the Medal of Honor received from the Sartarabad Battle. The Antasdan (Blessing of the Land) service was held first in front of the City Hall, and soon the procession entered Kars and was welcomed by the Bishop’s compatriot General Taniel Piroumian, both sons of Karabagh.
Piroumian was also involved in the Sartarabad Battle, earning the Medal of Senior General, and now assigned as the guard of the garrison of the castle in Kars. Other Generals were defending Armenia, namely, Nazarbekian in Yerevan, Silikian in Alexandrapol, and Dro (Drastamad Ganayan) in Sourmalu with their respective troops.
The Bishop in Kars
Arriving in Kars, a fortress city on the borders of present-day Armenia and Turkey, the Bishop performed the Holy Mass in the city’s famous Holy Apostles church on the first Sunday, in the presence of the Armenian military and civic officers, followed by a special service for the military forces. General Piroumian gave orders to his compatriot to ride the horse and visit the orphanages and the hospitals of the city to comfort those in need.
On the other hand, the Bishop witnessed masses of Armenians leaving Kars for Dzor, and above all most unfortunately, the desperate moves General Piroumian was about to take, asking the Bishop, and I quote from his later published Memoirs, saying, “Your Grace, one thing you should try, to personally announce from the top of the fortress that we are ready to surrender”. The order, as much as shameful and demeaning, had to be followed. The Bishop, with two military officers, Col. Vahan Der Arakelian and a military pilot, went up the fortress to fly the white flag at the risk of their lives. All three were arrested and taken to the Turk colonel. Bishop Karekin transferred General Piroumian’s orders: “We are defeated and came to announce that we are surrendering”, asking at the same time to show mercy to the infants and the orphans who were trapped in Dzor and save their lives. His wishes were met, and both Piroumian and the Bishop were allowed to take the endangered Armenians to Kars.
The most demeaning and embarrassing surrender of the city took place on October 30, 1920. Bishop Karekin had carried the orders most reluctantly, saying, “It is hard to find in the history of nations such an embarrassing defeat. It would have been better to give our lives in front of the castle by thousands in defense of our homeland, than to escape ignobly to save our skins.” Bishop Hovsepian wrote in his Memoirs that both General Piroumian and Governor Stepan Ghorghanian were severely blamed for not coordinating their efforts which resulted in the surrender of Kars without resistance.
Following the humiliating defeat, the Turks began investigating the homes of the Armenians and force them to harsh labor under heavy conditions. Many could not take the hardship, and died. Bishop Karekin resisted and visited the orphanages and the hospitals; he was able even to conduct worship services in the Armenian churches of Kars to comfort his desperate flock.
An Armenian Ancient Manuscript
It is hard to believe how in those critical and trying days for Bishop Karekin to follow up and review a 13th century Armenian parchment manuscript, a large volume of a Lectionary, kept with the Erznkatsian family of Kars. The parchment manuscript was written and kept in the Monastery of Akoulis (Nakhichevan). The large volume representeda Church Lectionary for daily Scriptural readings devoted to the feast days according to the Armenian Church Calendar. The ancient manuscript was the possession of physician Erznkatsian, inherited from his wife’s grandfather as a legacy to his granddaughter. The manuscript book could have been captured by the Turks on the way from Kars to Dzor, had it not been hidden by Erznkatsian. According to Bishop Hovsepian, who had seen the book at a glance, contained “numerous illustrations and the Armenian letters represented animal and bird motives and style next to full page illustrations.”
The Bishop’s Captivity and
Final Return to Holy Etchmiadzin
Bishop Hovsepian had hard time as a captive in Kars, despite his many appeals to return to Armenia. His appeals fell on deaf ears, and even he was subject to investigation that led him to prison with many others. Soon he was exiled to Sarighamish, finding his way to return to Kars as a fugitive. The Bishop describes the torturous way through forests “hungry and naked” until arrived in the village called Yedikiliseh where again he was arrested, beaten, tormented, and fallen seriously ill. Above all, he was forced to harsh labor as a porter “loading trunks into the wagons heading to Karin-Erzeroum”.
At age 53, finally Bishop Karekin’s odyssey ended when he escaped on January 19,1921 by the permission of the deputy governor of Sarighamish, telling him he was a photographer and that his cameras were left in Kars, asking if he could return and bring them. Arriving in Kars, the Bishop found refuge in the American Armenian orphanage where he stayed until the orphanages moved from Kars to Soviet Armenia, among them the true hero Bishop Karekin Hovsepian, disguised, arrived in Alexandrapol. Finally, in July 1921 the Bishop arrived safely in Holy Etchmiadzin.