Greeks began settling in the Southern Caucasus from VI century A.D, but the current Greek population arrived in Armenia in the second half of the XVII century, when many the so-called Anatolian Greeks moved to the Caucasus and Russia from central and northern parts of the Ottoman empire because of unsteady economic and political situation.
The first group of Greeks established in the northern Armenia, where they started metallurgical plants. In 1763 about 800 families (approximately 2000 people) moved from Turkey to Armenia starting a copper factory of Lalvar near today's Alaverdi.
At the beginning of XIX century part of Greek miner specialists moved to southern Armenian Syunik to build another mining factory there. The outflow of the Greek population from Armenia began in 1991 and went on intensively up to 1998, prompted by worsened economic and social conditions.
Hankavan was settled after the 1828 Greek-Turkey war, and has been slowly losing population since the independence of Armenia in 1991. The village is on the Bjini Road off the Tzakhghadzor roundabout, about 13 kilometers from the turn off.
The village stretches for one and a half kilometers along the meandering Marmarik River. It is nestled between dry hills and lush forests, just around a bend in the road. The construction of the houses are striking for their superb masonry and touches of white paint, remnants of careful white-washing years ago. On the edge of the village there is a church and graveyard to the left. The church was built by those who escaped the 1827 genocide, and graves date back to that early time. All around are carefully built homes and gardens. Originally 7 families migrated to this village, a number that grew to a thriving village of 250 families. What remains are about 50 families who trace their ancestry to the Greek mainland.
The church and graveyard are laid out along the river, overlooking it from a rise in the land. It is oblong and squat, made from carefully hewn blocks of stone. A neighbor woman came out of her home while we were gazing at the strong, fierce design, and told us the church was now used by both Greeks and Armenians. Most of the gravestones were Greek, showing their Orthodox cross with a slanting cross piece pointing to heaven, without the etched photographs of the interned common on Armenian gravestones. There is Greek writing on the face of the gravestones: Dmitri, Nicholai, Constantinos.
At the center of town, we saw some men propping themselves against a low wall, eyeing us carefully. Once on the beaten thermal springs resort, Hankavan has quickly escaped into a time capsule. These farmers are like their forebears, they continue to till the land while others pass by and look. The center of town is very small. Two long stone buildings, in white stucco. Neither one was open on this Sunday for us to see what they offered inside. We asked for a village elder, one of my friends laying it thick about the "American who has come all this way to visit the Greeks." They pointed to a house about 50 meters up the road, and said, "Ask for Nicholai. He is the oldest member of the village."
We followed the road past a low stone wall with briars woven at the top to protect the small garden within, past hay stacks turning gold amongst a small field of emerald green grass, the sound of the rushing river beside us as we went to Nicholaiís house. It is set back from the road, obscured by trees and shrubbery and a small low squat building covered with cement stucco. Nicholai did not tell us his age, but his wizened and whimsical face invited us to come under the trees and sit a spell. Though Greek, they speak makur Armenian, and we were able to talk. I asked him a simple question first, explaining I was interested in writing an article on the splendors of Armenia, to encourage tourism, if a tourist walked up to his village, would they be welcome for a night or two?
He smiled, and then waved a welcoming arm in the air to those now expected guests. "They can spend a year if they want! Come, come!" He waved his hands in a gesture much like a Greek dancer does when he is about to perform a sirtaki.
He called his wife forward, who was entertaining Yesdi guests who had crossed the mountain from the Vanadzor side to visit. They shyly smiled and came forward. I asked if I could take a picture, knowing it is not always OK, and they literally jumped into a group in front of me. Both coy and wizened, their faces remind me so much of the faces of rural people wherever I have been: they are both lively and reluctant, abashed and proud of their tenure on the land.
I asked Nicholai to tell me something of the history of the village, about the people who lived there before. He settled back against the retaining wall under the tree and scratched his cleanly shaven chin. His wife, short and alert, punctuated his recollections with corrections and details, and we more than once were caught between a battle of remembrance.
Nicholai has 6 children, one in Russia, and five in Greece. One of his daughters was home for a visit. She freely entered the debate on which family had which estate at which time, who was here, who is gone, so the ensuing history of Hankavan is the best we could construct. For those of you not satisfied with our construction, please make your way to Hankavan, sit a spell under the tree with Nicholai and his wife, and figure out your own chain of events.
"The village is 150 years old, and the original Greek residents were refugees from the first genocide in 1827." If you're like me, 150 years old and 1827 don't match. I venture to say that 150 is a catch-all number meaning Ďa long time agoĀE Before then, French prospectors and miners were active in the area, looking for gold.
There were always Armenians living in the area, but the Greek population was large, and continues to be a force in the community. Here Nicholaiís wife and his daughter had a minor tussle over exact numbers. His wife insisted there were still 50 families in the village, while his daughter equally insisted there were no more than 40. Accepting her daughterís dare, she began to count them off one by one on her fingers. She was diverted in her recitation by my asking them if they still spoke Greek. "Of course!" Nicholai said, "we even had a Greek school here, but after a while there werenít enough students."
"There would be enough if they had more children like good Greeks." Nicholaiís wife interjected before restarting her count, losing it, and starting again. His daughter told me that many of the families who had relatives in Greece were emigrating, as she and her siblings had done.
I ventured to say then, that if a visitor came along who spoke Greek, then they would be able to communicate.
"No, no we couldn't," Nicholai said with a smile.
Why not? Nicholaiís wife, giving up on the count of families still residing in the greater area of Hankavan, said that they donít speak the same dialect those on the mainland speak. They speak Old Greek, so nobody would understand them.
His daughter now lives in Salonika and said she had a difficult time when she first went to Greece, because the dialect they speak is called "Ponti", while modern Greek is called "Hellenistic". Ponti is still spoken in rural Greece, and is the language of Aristotle and Plato. "We are ridiculed for speaking Ponti," the daughter said, "But we can read the ancient Greek texts. Some words are the same," she added, but it would be difficult for a Greek speaking tourist to communicate with them, since the two dialects are so different. "We speak Armenian, of course, and Russian as well." Nicholai offered.
As I looked around me at the small stone house by the running stream, I marveled at the surprise that had been waiting for me, this little jewel in this country of jewels; a perfectly intact old dialect of a language which had been preserved and kept alive by more than 150 years of isolation. I felt a little like the linguists who discovered the communities in the Appalachian Mountains who still speak the Queenís English from Shakespeareís time. What a treasure trove for those wanting to study the old dialect!
I looked beyond while my friends continued to take notes on different stories handed down from generation to generation; about the time when the Turks and the Russians were attacking and counter attacking in this valley and Nicholaiís grandfather who was a wealthy farmer and who had employed a Turkish farmhand saw an invading Turkish army. His daughter ran with his son into the fields, where she discovered the Turkish farmhand. Terrified, she hid the little boy under a haystack, and started to run away, thinking he and the soldiers would ran after her instead. He called to her, and told her "Stop! I will not hurt you! I have taken food from your family, you have given me work and shelter." He did help her and her little brother to escape the soldiers, and that little boy became Nicholaiís father. I thought the point of this story was the tale of a trustworthy farmhand. But the eyes of Nicholaiís wife narrowed on me and she smiled. She understood what I did not: the marvel of the story was the courage of the daughter who was ready to sacrifice her life to save the little the boy, to save the link to perpetuity of the familyís name.
I looked around me at a valley so old and yet filled with such renewal while I listened to these stories. I saw Greek stucco and blue paint meshed with Armenian stone and arches. I reluctantly wondered if these stone houses had once been more like the white-washed walls and steps with blue domed roofs and doors and windows I had seen on the mainland. Here the houses merged with the land, the strokes of color and design are accents in a world hard at work. Reluctantly I asked him the next question-- reluctantly because in Greece everything is so white, so blue and so perfect, I felt it must be an aberration of tourism. I asked Nicholai, if he remembered the old architecture, and he said he did. It is much different from what it was. "Why has it changed?" I asked.
He laughed and said when he was young, he remembered many of the Greek houses were made of mud and straw, while the Armenians built from stone. It didn't take them long to figure out which style was better. I mentioned having gone to Santorini, and looking at all the white and blue. He nodded, and pointed to a doorway into his shed, which was stuccoed with cement, and a had a fading blue doorway, more raw wood than paint on its surface. "Well," he said, "that is a tourist's picture of a Greek village. If tourists come, I guess we will have to get some white and blue paint."
As we walked away from the house, Nicholai pointed out a rock on a hill in front of us. "That is the rock of the Virgin Mary, you know." He said it as though it was a fact written on the minds of everyone around the world. And as a man of the land, as a rural man, he is right. It is written in the world around him. It is beautiful because of its sudden eruption from the dry brown hill, a study in the beauty of rock. People have seen the vision of the Virgin Mary on that rock, and for as long as Nicholai remembers there have been pilgrimages to it to pray for miracles and help. They continue to come, though the numbers are few and far between in the past few years. Chuckling, Nicholai confided in me, "More came during Communist times than now." And then he took up his hay fork, and walked down the road to his field.
How To Get There: Hankavan is located 65 kilometers from Yerevan. Take the Sevan Highway to Hrazdan. When you reach the roundabout to Tzaghkadzor, take the parallel road on the right (closest to the Cement factory. The road follows the East side of the Nature Preserve by the ski resort. Hankavan is the last village on the road.
To Stay: Nicholai can recommend bed and breakfast in village homes for $10-15 a night. The lodging is traditional and rustic, the food is tasty and filling. The road to Hankavan is filled with Holiday Homes (Pensions) and mini resorts. Walk in guests are welcome at most. Several of note (prices are in dollars, but paid in drams, include all meals) are Bazeh ($15), Zepin ($15), Luisabatz and Hasmik ($14-$15).
Nearby: The thermal springs at Hankavan are located 3 kilometers South from the village, on the same road. There is a Sanitoria on the site, which was not working when I was there. However, tourists cross over the river and soak in the hot mineral water by the riverbed. Half a kilometer North of Hankavan is an old Pioneer camp, at the end of the road. The camp is closed, but the Nature Preserve that surrounds it is open. A mountain pass to Aparan and Vanadzor begins at this point. Excellent hiking with stunning forest views.