Slaves of God

“Is everyone a slave?” asked the little boy timidly.
“Everyone”, nodded Frater Sicarius.
“Even the king?”
“Yes, even the king.”
“Whose slave is the king?”
“A slave of the country.”
“Are we also slaves?”
“Yes, we are.”
“Whose slaves are we?”
“Slaves of God, my little frater.”

Géza Gárdonyi: Slaves of God (1908)
If you travel from Armenia to Karabagh or Iran, and you arrive to the region of Syunik, which stretches down as a long corridor to the Persian border, you will see the three-thousand-meter-high mountain range of Zangezur rising in front of you as a wall. Here, on the 2,347-meter high Vorotan Pass, the troops of Generals Andranik and Nzhdeh stopped the Bolsheviks in November 1920, and here for eight months they defended the border of the last bastion of Armenian independence, the Republic of Mountainous Armenia. Here had been for a half century the border of Zangezur Uyezd, which was then divided by Stalin between Armenia and Azerbaijan, after its western half was cleansed by the troops of General Andranik of the hundred-thousand-strong Muslim population. Since the Karabagh war, its eastern part is also under Armenian control, and the Zangezur Muslims, who fled from there in 1919, now live in refugee housing estates around Baku.

Beyond the Vorotan Pass springs the river, which the former inhabitants of Zangezur, each in their own language, called Vorotan, Bazarçay, or Bargushad, meaning “wide land” in Persian. On the river, which, flowing through Syunik and Karabagh, discharges into the Iranian border river Araxes, in 1954 they began building the Vorotan Cascade. The cascade, which, since its completion in 1989, has reduced by half the oil import needs of Armenia, consists of three hydroelectric power plants and five reservoirs. The first, immediately over Vorotan Pass, is the Spandaryan reservoir. Although only seven kilometers long and three kilometers wide, its depth is seventy-three meters. The Vorotan river, only a narrow stream up here, once flowed at the bottom of a dizzyingly deep valley.

Today only the highest point of the valley emerges from the lake. A hill upon which, from the top all the way down to the lake shore, old gravestones stand in rows, like old forgotten soldiers. Each looks towards the lake, as if awaiting from there a command that will never more resound. On the gravestones, as if sprouting in the field like the wildflowers surrounding them, varied stone flowers, trees of life, fruit-like stars appear. They lack only one motif: the cross. Nevertheless, those who erected them had to be very religious people. Almost all the inscriptions introduce the name of the deceased with the same formula, from the 1840s in Old Slavonic language, and from the 1920s onwards more and more in Russian: Здѣсь пакоитсѧ тела раба Божіѧ…, “Here lies the body of the slave of God…”

What might this village using the Old Slavonic language have been, here, in the remote Armenian-Tatar countryside? Spandaryan, which gave its name to the reservoir, is fifteen kilometers away, only the dam is there. The other three nearby villages, Sarnakunk, Tsghuk and Gorayk all fall outside the edge of the valley, they would not have their cemetery here. I turn for help to the Атлас офицера, the top-secret Soviet military atlas of 1947, purchased in the Lemberg flea market. Although this only contains a small-scale map of the Caucasus, which at the beginning of the Cold War was not considered a primary area of operations, it still displays in this place a settlement which no long exists: Базарчай.

And the obelisk, standing on the hilltop at the shore of the lake, with the date ԿԱՌՈՒՑՎԵԼԷ 1968, karrutsvele 1968, “erected in 1968” on its top, also proclaims in its inscription looking toward the lake:


Haverzh p’arrk’
Hayrenakan Paterazmum zohvats
Bazarch’ay gyughi rrazmiknerin

“Eternal glory
to the soldiers of Bazarchay village
fallen in the Great Patriotic War.”

The name of Bazarchay village is the same as the Azeri-Turkish name of the Vorotan river, which at first reading seems to mean “bazaar river”. However, in this case the chay compound does not mean “river”, as in other Turkish geographical names, but “tea”. The village was in fact the center of tea trade in the Southern Caucasus, that’s why it was called “Tea Bazaar”. Tea was brought here from Georgia, and it was sold here to the Muslim population, which used it in a strong brew for pain relief, or even as a drug. And this trade was organized by the ethnic group which lived in small clusters all over the region, from Georgia through Armenia to Karabagh: the Russian-speaking Molokans.

The Molokans have been mentioned in the Russian sources since the late 15th century. They call themselves “Spiritual Christians”, who proclaim a return to the teachings of the early church, and a personal relationship with God. In a society, where from the monarch down everyone is a servant, they seek freedom by positioning themselves outside of this hierarchy, and considering themselves immediately “slaves of God”. They reject a number of requirements of the Orthodox church, the mediating role of the clergy, the icons and the representation of the cross. Their name comes from Russian молоко, “milk”, and it means “milk-drinker”, as during Lent, when the Orthodox church also forbids the consumption of dairy products, they merely abstain from meat. Due to their disciplined community life and work ethic, they have been also called “the Protestants of the East”. From the persecutions of the Russian state church, they drew to the peripheries of the empire. This was also supported by the state, because in this way they played a major role in the clearing of virgin lands. After 1825, more than a hundred thousand of them migrated to the Caucasus. Their history was written in detail by N. B. Breyfolge in Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus (2005).

Molokan settlers in the Caucasian Mugan Steppe. Photo by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky between 1905 and 1915

The Molokans who settled in Zangezur – in the villages of Bazarchay and the neighboring Borisovka (today Tsghuk) –, in Karabagh, and in Kars, which until 1917 was under Russian control, belonged to the Charismatic “Jumpers” (прыгуны), who at their meetings gatherings glorified the Holy Spirit with self-abandoned singing and dancing. A five-hundred-strong group of them, which emigrated in 1902 from Kars to America, settled on the “Russian Hill” of San Francisco, where even Ilf and Petrov met them, as described in their American travel diary. On the Molokans once living around Kars, an acclaimed feature film was made in 2009 by Murat Saraçoğlu, and a beautiful documentary one year earlier by Yalçın Yelence. This helps to imagine the life once flourishing in the valley of Bazarchay.

The history of the Bazarchay Molokans was summed up by Hamlet Mirzoyan  in the 2012/8 issue of Ноев Ковчег (Noah’s Ark). His most important source was the handwritten notebook История наших предков (The History of our Ancestors), composed around 1910 by the local V. N. Telegin, which was also published in transcription on the site. According to this, the first Molokan settler, Gurei Petrovich Petrov arrived here in 1831 with his wife from Tambov, the traditional center of the Molokans. In 1836 some new families arrived from Dudakchi and Aladin villages in Karabagh, and in 1877 fifty families from Bolludja in Karabagh.

According to the Venetian Mechitarist monk and ethnographer Ghevont Alishan (1820-1901), who in 1893 published his detailed description on „Sisakan”, today’s Syunik province, the local Molokans were industrious and prosperous. Every house was built of stone, each family had at least fifty cows, four or five mules, and a hundred sheep. In addition, they bred trout in small reservoirs along the river. Their oxen were well-fed, their carts huge. According to the census of 1886, 469 people – 241 men and 228 women – lived here in 78 well-built houses, not counting children under the age of ten. Unlike the surrounding villages, they bake their bread not in Caucasian tonirs, but in Russian ovens. Due to the strong mountain winds blowing from the pass, the windows of their houses are small, and all face east.

The American traveler George Kennan toured the Caucasus in the 1870s. Then he compiled (not from his own pictures, but rather from locally purchased photographs, including those by Dmitry Ermakov) the collection Caucasus: An album of photographs, now preserved in the New York Public Library. This includes three photos on the Caucasian Molokans. The first one was perhaps, and the second and third one certainly made by Ermakov.

The inscription of the gravestone in the foreground to the right: “1878 г. 12 апреля. Здесь покоится тело страдальца Давыда Евсеевича. Страдал за Дух Святой 50 лет. Помер волею Божиею. Жил 70 лет” (“12 April 1878. Here lies the body of the sufferer David Evseevich. He suffered fifty years for the Holy Spirit. He died by God’s will. He lived 70 years.”). Telegin tells about him in his handwritten notebook: “David Evseevich, our renowned spiritual ruler… was taller than average, of a manly stature. He had a gray beard, similar to the beard of King David, as he is portrayed in Psalm books. He never raised his voice, he did not excel in verbiage. He wore a simple blue jacket and a simple hat. … At the gatherings, he only read the Bible and the psalms, and he prayed, but he never “jumped” or prophesied. … Everyone respected and loved him, mainly for his goodness.”

In July 1921, when the Bolsheviks broke through the Vorotan Pass, the Bazarchay Molokans received them with bread and salt, and many young people joined them to fight together against the Armenian troops of General Nzhdeh, retreating towards Persia. In the following years, the Molokans received in reward what the Armenians got in punishment. Their leaders were arrested, their prayer houses demolished, their stones scattered. In the years of the Stalinist terror, part of the community was deported to Siberia. Many locals denied their faith or fled to Russia. Their places were taken by others: beginning in the 1960s, the gravestones of the cemetery gradually become Armenian. The last Molokan woman of Bazarchay died in 1978, two years before the flooding of the village. At her funeral, her nephew living in the Ukrainian town of Vinnitsa, Colonel Mikhail Seraphimovich Begas, gave an eulogy not only over her, but over the entire Molokan community: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will send a famine on the land. Not a famine of bread, and not a thirst of water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

Pirosmani: Singing Molokans, Tiflis, c. 1910

George Gurdjieff (1866-1949), Armenian-Greek-Russian folk music collector, composer and philosopher: Molokan Songs. Performed on piano by Thomas de Hartmann

baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz baz
“It was a wartime story. For three days they laid a siege on a forest somewhere in Russia, they even had dead. However, the real target was the small village behind the forest, because of the highway that passed next to it. They expected great resistance, so after they seized the forest, they bombed the hill, on which the village was built, all night with their three intact guns. Then they set off at dawn. My grandfather was pretty sure he wouldn’t survive that day. The silence was almost unbearable, and that nothing was happening. They just went and were afraid, and then they occupied everything without a single shot. They stood there in the deserted streets, aware of the victory. They might have been pleased, but there was something suspicious about it. First, they did not realize what it was. Then, they did not want to believe their eyes. Because there was no sign of the night bombing, no house was damaged, no window broken, even though they all saw the flames in the dark. But the village was intact. In addition, it looked quite different from Russian villages in general. The soldiers searched the quite different houses opening from the quite different streets, and the did not even find a stray dog, a forgotten cat. Then my grandfather visited the small cemetery nearby. He found strange tombstones with strange shapes, and with almost unreadable inscriptions. Yes, with Coptic inscriptions, and that was really amazing.”
Miklós Latzkovits, “Hogyan tanultam meg koptul?” (How I learned Coptic), Pompeji 2 (1991) 3, 54.


The sun shines on the mirror of Lake Sevan, the peaks of the Karabagh border mountains in the distance are still white. The hill of Sevan Monastery is filled with the scent of wild flowers. In the parking lot I shake hands with the familiar old guard in the parking area. Как дела, how are you? I ask. По тихоньку как в Чехословакии в 1968-ом году, so-so, as in Czechoslovakia in sixty-eight, he says. I look at him questioningly. “Do you know what was there?” he asks. “Of course, the Soviet invasion.” “Well, it was us. We were stationed in Poland at that time, our unit was the first to be sent to Czechoslovakia. The Czechs fired desperately.” “Did many of you die?” “Very many. The pidaras Czechs made it so by letting the beginning of the column pass, and then they massacred the end. But anyway, we are still alive.”

As we come back from the monastery, he asks me: “Where did you come from?” “We are Hungarians.” His eyes shine up, he offers his hand. “Well, then we were comrades in arms!” He counterpoints the dubious honor: “And by the way, two-zero!” Thank God, now for a while the first thing that comes to mind to Armenians will not be the axe murderer whom we extradited to Azerbaijan.

Kurdistan minute by minute

kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd kurd

Kurdistan. Many existing and many only desired areas are called this, but the only one who has it as its official name is Kurdistan Province in the western mountain region of Iran, along the Iraqi border. This province, however, is only a quarter of the area inhabited by the Iranian Kurds, and less than a third of the roughly five million Iranian Kurds live here. The rest live mainly in the other provinces along the Iraqi and Turkish border, in West Azerbaijan above Kurdistan, as well as in Kermanshah and Ilam to the south. Furthermore, during the centuries of Ottoman-Persian warfare, the great powers resettled many independent Kurdish tribes from the border region inside the two countries to Central Anatolia and Northern Khorasan. From the latter, some groups later returned and settled around Shiraz, Isfahan and Hamadan, as the name of the provincial capital Shahr-e Kord, “Kurdish Town” near Isfahan shows. The map below marks in pale yellow the main Kurdish ethnic areas in Iran.

The Iranian Kurds diverge not only regionally, but also in religious persuasion. The map above shows only what they officially declare themselves: the majority Sunni, and the minority Shiite Muslims. At home, however, a good number of them practice the Alevi, Yarsan, Yazidi, Christian or Zoroastrian religion. On the basis of their historical experiences, they wisely keep this fact hidden, or they mix their faith with Islamic elements, and refer to it as a particular form of Islam.

Linguistically, like the English and the Americans, the various Kurdish groups are also separated by a common language. According to the 17th-c. Ottoman chronicler Evliya Çelebi, the Kurdish language was invented by Noah’s son, Melik Kürdim, for the province populated by his descendants, but “since Kurdistan is one endless mountainous region, therefore the Kurdish language has no less than twelve versions, which are so different both as to their pronunciation and vocabulary, that they need an interpreter to understand each other.” The majority of the Iranian Kurds, as well as the Iraqi villages along the border speak the Sorani or Central Kurdish dialect, in which they mutually do not understand each other with the twenty million Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish speakers in Turkey, Northern Iran and Iraq, and with the three million Kurds who speak Pehlewani or Southern Kurdish dialect in Kermanshah and Ilam. The Iranian Kurds speaking the Sorani dialect are proud to have written their literary works since the Middle Ages in the Gorani dialect, which is considered the “most Kurdish” version of the language. However, linguists consider this an independent Iranian language rather than a Kurdish dialect. According to Kurdish consensus, the most beautiful Kurdish dialect is spoken in Hawraman, the most beautiful mountain region of Iran. But Hawramani is also considered by linguists to be an independent Iranian language. And finally, the Kurds living in Iran, who speak in Hawramani, Sorani or Pehlewani, traditionally write in Gorani, and since antiquity live a settled, urban form of life, despise the mainly Kurmanji-speaking nomadic Kurds grazing in the neighboring mountains, and instead share a historical identity with the Lors, who speak a completely different Iranian language.

So what makes one a Kurd? If neither a common area, nor religion, nor common language or social structure binds them together, then what do they have in common? What is typical of all Kurds, by which they recognize each other even in far away countries, and which arises feelings of kinship in their hearts? In my humble opinion, the shalwar, the Kurdish trousers. Kurd is he who wears Kurdish trousers. This forges them into a community both to each other and the outside world, this makes two bearers of Kurdish trousers embrace each other in the bazaar of Istanbul or Tabriz, and this makes the Persian passport controller laugh at the Tehran airport. Nevertheless, this is also no exclusive ethnic marker, since a small non-Kurdish ethnic minority also wears shalwar, namely me, for more than twenty years. And this can also cause problems in Kurdistan, as we shall see below.

kurd3 kurd3 kurd3 kurd3 kurd3 kurd3 kurd3 kurd3 kurd3

The great 19th-c. Hungarian traveler Ármin Vámbéry prepared for a decade to penetrate into Kurdistan, and he got through it at the risk of his life. Just a few years ago my Persian friends tried to convince me not to try to travel alone from the civilized Tehran to this far away and wild province. Nevertheless, since last year’s US-Iranian agreement, as it has become easier to obtain visas, a foreigner can also rent a car, and low-cost airlines have started operation. If at dawn I take the Germania flight from Berlin, and in the morning I sit down in a car at the Tehran airport, then in the evening I have dinner among the Kurdish mountains. Kurdistan is now at arm’s stretch. So to speak. Only the acquisition of the indispensable Persian language takes the same amount of time as in Vámbéry’s age.

Ten years ago a private person could hardly get a visa to Iran. You paid at the embassy the hundred-dollar visa fee, and you waited for a month to get the rejection. “How is it then possible to get to Iran at all?”, I asked the embassy employee. “With a travel agency.” “Even with an Iranian one?” “Of course”, he said. All right. I looked for the addresses of a few travel agencies in Tehran, and I wrote them in Persian to ask how much it would cost if they enrolled me in one of their tours, but on which I would not participate, and therefore not be required to pay for it. The baksheesh was sixty euros in addition to the hundred-dollar visa fee, but for this price the Iranian foreign ministry even forwarded the visa directly to the Budapest embassy. I only had to go in to have it stuck into my passport. “How did you do it?”, the wonder-struck employee asked me. “I also have friends”, I said.

Nowadays there is no need for this any more. You can save sixty euros and two months of waiting, if you let them make your visa for you upon arrival at the Tehran airport. You need a fifteen-euro insurance fee, seventy-five euros for the visa, and to have led impeccable life from the regime’s point of view. After waiting thirty or forty minutes, I am already dictating to the sleepy border guard my father’s name, and where to look for Hungary in the Persian alphabet.

The direct route to the heart of Kurdistan leads through Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana, the capital of the Medes, considered the ancestors of the Kurds. We, however, approach the province from the north, because we would like to use the road to add two world heritage sites, the mausoleum of Soltaniyeh and Solomon’s throne, that is, the fortress of Takht-e Soleyman, to our itinerary.

On the way out of Tehran, already at seven in the morning, the queue of cars is convulsing like in Godard’s Weekend. Even the burning cars on the roadside from the film are there: in the fast lane, accidents, and on the hard shoulder, smashed cars and trailers follow each other every few hundred meters, a shocking sight. The ingenuity of drivers has added two, and sometimes three extra lanes to the originally three-lane road, we can chat from the car window with those creeping alongside us. We do the sixty kilometers to Karaj in two hours. Here we rid ourselves of the agglomeration of Tehran, and hop onto the road leading through Qazvin to the west.

Soltaniyeh – the Sultan’s City – was intended by Öljeitü, the Mongol Great Khan of Persia, to build the world’s most beautiful city, after his ancestors destroyed so many cities of the world. In its center, there stood a huge church, which the Khan, who had been baptized as a child, then converted to Buddhism, then to Sunni and finally to Shia Islam, erected in honor of himself: this is Öljeitü’s mausoleum. At its time of building, between 1306 and 1312, the dome, covered by faience tiles, was the second largest dome of the world after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Only a century later was it pushed to the third place by the cupolone erected by Brunelleschi in another most beautiful city of the world.

In contrast to Florence, from the Sultan’s City not a single brick was left. This shows that to a city more is needed than the mere will of a Great Khan. The huge green dome floats eerily above the plain, with the Kurdish mountains in the background. Surrounding it, half-finished industrial buildings rust, herds graze in front of it. That’s all that has survived from the culture of the Mongol conquerors, who tried to build a city on the ruins of an urban culture obliterated by them.

The mausoleum is under restoration, its interior is filled with a light-structure scaffolding. The scaffold forest gives it a very exciting post-modern look, at least as much as the rustic wooden structure of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. As much as the mausoleum will gain with the restoration, contemporary Persian art will lose, once they break down the scaffolding. This, however, is not a near threat, since there is no sign of any work. Only the dates of the surveyors’ markings stuck on the cracks show that they did not start yesterday. Beautiful Islamic ornamentation peers through the openings of the scaffolding. On the gallery we meet an applied art student from Tehran. Haadi collects old Islamic motifs in the mausoleum for his diploma work,  a silver table set. In the oratory, a randomly composed lapidary. A richly carved Armenian tombstone dated 1324, and an alabaster tomb with a Persian inscription, confiscated from smugglers. Who knows where the cemeteries from where they come were, what history was behind these communities, when they disappeared from under the Kurdish mountains together with the most beautiful city of the world?

kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2 kurd2

To be continued