Armenian Jerusalem

Elia Kahvedjian's adept fingers could tease the strings of his banjo and

mandolin into seductive dances and renditions, just as skillfully and

felicitously as they could coax his treasured Hasselblad and Leica into

turning out irresistible photographic compositions.

      A   legend   in   his   time,   the   mild-mannered Armenian   photographer   of   Jerusalem,   survived   a horrendous   ordeal   of   starvation,   torture   and   genocide,   and   a   run   in   with   nefarious   cannibals, by   dint   of   sheer   guts,   determination   and   luck,   to   leave   an   indelible   imprint   on   the   cultural history of the Holy City.         Until   today,   his   odyssey   from   the   killing   fields   of   Urfa,   the   erstwhile   mystical   outpost   on the   ancient   Silk   Road,   through   the   death   marches   in   the   desert   of   Syria   that   became drenched   in   Armenian   blood,   to   eventual   sanctuary   in   Jerusalem,   had   been   available   told only in Armenian in a book published in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1995.         But   thanks   to   the   efforts   of   his   son   Harout,   urged   on   by   the   indefatigable   journalist   and editor, Jirayr Tutunjian, we now have an English translation in our hands.         Despite   entreaties   from   his   children,   he   had   refused   to   publish   the   torrential   volume   of photographs   he   had   taken   over   the   70   years   he   had   wielded   various   camera:   the   ones   he began   with,   the   wieldy   post-Daguerreotype   contraptions   with   their   cumbersome   glass-plate negatives, until he graduated to sample the delights and perceptions of German ingenuity.         "Not   now,"   he   would   tell   the   persistent   Harout.   "Maybe   later.   If   anything   happens   to   me, you   know   exactly   where   the   negatives   are.   You   know   what   my   plan   is.   Maybe   someday   you and   your   brother   [Kevork]   will   work   together   and   publish   [them]   in   a   book   form.   I   leave these negatives to my children."         The   English   version   of   the   autobiography   of   the   man   dubbed   the   last   survivor   of   the Armenian   genocide,   is   entitled   "From   the   Red   Desert   to   Jerusalem."   A   labor   of   love   and devotion    from    Harout,    the    300-page    book    he    has    edited    and    published    is    a    gripping narrative, lavishly embellished with choice specimens of the master's art.          This    is    a    harrowing    narrative,    with    its    depiction    of    the    depredation    of    predatory barbarians: not easy fare for the squeamish.       It had to be told.         Harout's   mellifluous   translation   from   the   Armenian   into   English   makes   for   easeful   if painful   reading,   his   sensitive   and   informative   colophons   indicative   of   the   veneration   in   which he    holds    his    father,    and    the    great    pains    he    has    taken    to    put    the    tale    into    a    proper perspective, with frequent forays into historical background.         His   portraiture   of   Elia   depicts   him   as   a   gentle,   affectionate   father   who   was   never happier than when he was surrounded by his wife and children.         "He   always   had   time   for   us,   no   matter   what,   even   when   he   came   home   from   work,   after punishingly long hours, tired and hungry, he would always play with us," Harout reminisces.         Strumming   his   banjo   or   mandolin,   he   would   forget   for   a   moment   the   pain   and   suffering of the past.       Elia had lost his childhood when he was 5.         "His   eyes   had   seen   more   misery   than   anyone   could   imagine.   In   his   young   life,   he   had become   witness   to   such   horror,   death   and   destruction,"   but   none   of   his   terrible   experiences affected the great capacity for love that resided in his heart.         He   began   his   photographic   career   at   the   age   of   14,   working   long   hours,   six   days   a   week, for   Jerusalem's   prestigious   Hanania   family.   But   eventually,   he   took   over   the   business   and transformed it into a lodestone for camera and photo buffs.         Elia's   chronicles   inevitably   evoke   comparison   with   Franz   Werfel's   popular   book   about   the Armenian   massacres,   "The   40   Days   of   Musa   Dagh."   In   painstaking   detail,   Elia   pays   tribute   to the   heroic   resistance   of   the Armenians   of   Urfa   who,   subjected   though   they   were   to   daily   and sometimes   hourly   abuse   at   the   hands   of   the   Turks,   managed   to   hold   off   the   hordes   armed with    ramshackle    weaponry    and    depleted    ammunition,    succeeding    in    resisting    repeated onslaughts   and   even   springing   an   ambush   on   advancing   Turkish   troops   and   forcing   their withdrawal, before being overwhelmed by superior forces and armor.         Elia   pulls   no   punches   and   uses   no   euphemisms:   the   Turks   were   demoniacally   determined to eradicate the Armenian entity from their history.         Defeated   and   captured,   the   surviving   Armenians,   with   little   Elia   in   tow,   were   hustled into   the   red   desert   of   Syria   along   the   notorious   Deir   Zor   trail   that   decimated   thousands. Many   would   drop   down   by   the   road,   never   to   get   up   again. And   Elia   would   live   to   witness   one atrocity   after   another:   never   in   his   life   would   be   forget   the   sight   of   the   mounted   Turkish soldier   as   he   swung   his   sabre   and   decapitated   a   little   hungry   boy   who   had   the   temerity   to ask for some water.         "It   [the   head]   fell   with   a   dull   thud   on   the   ground,   rolled   several   times   and   came   to   a stop a few paces from where we were," Elia recalls.         At   one   stage   during   his   odyssey,   Elia   was   picked   up   by   a   Kurd   who,   despite   treating   him with unaccustomed kindness and gentleness, in turn sold him to an Assyrian Christian family.         Eventually,   Elia   would   end   up   in   an   orphanage,   before   anchoring   himself   in   the   final stop, Jerusalem.         Elia   retired   in   1993,   after   his   fruitful   career   documenting   the   delights   and   despair   of Jerusalem.   According   to   Harout,   he   "probably   took   more   photographs   of   Jerusalem   and   the Holy    Land    than    anybody    else.    Several    of    his    memorable    pictures    ended    up    as    tourist postcards.         Lionized   and   honored   in   his   adopted   new   home,   Elia   never   forgot   his   hometown   and recalls how fond of life his community had been.         "They   enjoyed   social   gatherings   and   parties.   According   to   centuries   old   customs,   every Saturday   evening   families   of   the   same   profession   or   trade   gather3ed   in   the   house   of   one   of their colleagues and partied till the morning hours."         Urfa   was   no   provincial   backwater.   Harout   reminds   us   that   it   is   one   of   the   oldest   cities   in the   Middle   East.   Located   in   southeastern Turkey,   it   lies   between   the   Euphrates   and   the Tigris rivers,   at   a   distance   of   only   50   km   from   the   Syrian   border.   Down   the   centuries,   it   has   been variously   called   Orfa,   Ourha   and   Edessa   and   had   once   been   the   capital   of   the   Hurrian- Mitonian kingdoms.         But   the   years   have   not   been   kind   to   it,   its   demise   culminating   in   the   devastation   of   1915 that transmogrified its idyllic way of life into a quagmire of blood.         "From   the   Red   Desert   to   Jerusalem"   joins   the   growing   library   of   testimony   against   man's inhumanity   to   man   weighed   against   the   courage   and   endurance   of   the   weak   and   disinherited in the face of oppression, and the indomitable will to overcome.       And   one   man's   determination   to   have   the   grace   not   to   let   affliction   and   adversity   cripple him,   but   to   dig   down   deep   into   his   soul   and   uncover   and   nurture   the   golden   core   of   genius he has been endowed with, unclouded by the dark forces of evil.         The   publication   of   the   book   will   be   marked   with   a   special   event   to   be   held   in   Glendale, California, on December 6.        (Nov 16, 2014)
This project has been supported by the Gulbenkian philanthropic Foundation, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and members of the worldwide Armenian community. Reproductions of the genealogical documents [domar’s] are courtesy Photo Garo, Jerusalem. Copyright © 2007 Arthur Hagopian