Turkey’s Armenian population was estimated to be between 1.5 to 2 million in the early 20th century. Due to the deportation law in 1915 during the Ottoman Empire, over 1 million Armenians were forced to migrate from Anatolia to the Middle East. Together with the deportations and genocide politics, hundreds of thousands Armenians have had lost their lives. Turkey’s Armenian population today is estimated to be between 46.000 and 76.000.

The Gayan project is tracing the Armenian memory from 1915 until today in Turkey and Armenia as well as at the genocide’s significant stations in the Middle East: Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Iran and Jordan.

This project’s photographs have been taken between 2014 and 2016 in Tehran, Isfahan, Zakho, Dohuk, Beirut, Jubail, Antelias, Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Bethany, Yerevan, Ashtarak and Antakya as well as in the Armenian neighborhoods and villages of Istanbul.

The word Gayan refers to the name given to the camps consisting of tents and tin-roofed sheds, that provided housing for the survivors of the Armenian genocide after 1915. In this sense, Gayan in the Armenian memory refers to the loses of 1915 as well as the efforts given to survive.


My grandmother would never go anywhere near the Akhurian River there, she wouldn’t even eat fish. Because in 1915 they drowned four of her children
to death before her eyes, and told her, ‘You probably won’t come back here’. My grandmother did not like the morning hours at all, because the river’s sound could be heard. She used to say that she could hear the grunts of her children in the river’s sound. Now the river is the border between us. So tell me my son, how am I to pass that river now? You can’t bury your pain like you bury your dead...”
The two-month journey I made to Armenia in
the year 2000 had ended with this story I listened to. During that journey, which I had embarked on after having a dream about our house in Ardahan, the place where I was born and raised and a building left behind by the Armenians, I wandered around an unsurmountable line, around a deep memory. I froze on that line between remembering and forgetting. A few years later I realized that it was true that it was impossible to bury pains; it was unfair to expect Armenians to cross the river. In order to commemorate those who had left, with their children and grandchildren, it was I who had to cross to the other side.
In the present-day neighbourhoods and in the new homelands of Armenians, who in the aftermath of 1915, transferred their memories to the first trajectory of exile, to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Armenia, I saw and felt that every site place had its memory, and that every memory needed a place to live.
If that were not the case, would Zaven, who was born and raised in Lebanon, after the passing of his father, pick up a pencil and a notebook, and set out on the road to see his homeland Kayseri, a place he knew only through the stories he
had been told? Would he have, upon his arrival, depicted what now remains from his father’s home and garden, and Mount Erciyes in his notebook, and show the drawings he made to his relatives the moment he returned to Lebanon?
How can you depict a memory that faced an attack that aimed to destroy it completely, down to its roots? And why? Zaven was from Lebanon, but his homeland was in Turkey. He spoke Turkish, too, with a Kayseri accent. He needed to see
that the tree in his grandfather’s garden was still standing, and to carry that picture somewhere
in his memory. This was the call of his roots. It was the pain of roots that had been forcibly severed, roots that they had persistently tried to reinvigorate, even in that mangled state, in every new country they arrived in.
But was it that easy to go after the past? In this story that had settled in their soul as a slender sorrow, every Armenian stood in a different place; those who set out on the road, or wanted to, each was after something else. While one looked for the door that matched the key she inherited, the other searched for traces of the lost owners of the manuscript she hanged on the wall, while the next just needed a handful of earth to sleep in peace at night. And for some, not a single trace remained from them on the lands of Turkey; looking for the past there would serve no other purpose than multiplying the pain of those lost, in fact, stepping foot there was a ‘sin’. Mr. Jirayr, whom I met in Beirut, said, “They carry a lamp around in the daytime, each one of them looking for their past”. Why had this old man told me his own story, as his eyes filled up with tears? Because, according to him ‘we’ were “both the ones who pulled their hair out singing laments when his mother was forced onto the path of atrocity, and the ones who took their lives”...
I am in Isfahan, in Jenia’s room, who has lived
with her sister for 20 years at a retirement home for Armenians. Her sister is very ill.
-You are leaving tomorrow, aren’t you?
- Yes. Why are you asking?
- Would you take a photograph of us?

- With your mother?
- Yes, I mean, with her photograph.

- Of course. You don’t have a photograph of your father?

- No. Take our photograph with our mother.

- Alright.
She takes her mother’s photograph out of the cupboard. I take a photograph of the sisters with that photograph, with their mother. A ‘family photograph’ that unites this world and the next, and which, if perhaps only for a blink of the eye, when I press the shutter, brings peace to their souls...

I am in Beirut
- So where did you take this photograph?
- In Isfahan.
- Do you know the story of the cloth on the woman in the background?
- No.
- When our grandmothers came here, to Lebanon, they had nothing. They used to stitch their clothes from pieces of cloth they found at the camps. This was how they stitched these colourful blankets. They are their legacy to us, a memoir of those days.
I now understand that with a photograph I took as a memoir, I in fact recorded a memory – a memory far away from its own abode, a memory that completed its own spiral in another country...
The past we thought we could not touch was not a past time; in some form, it appeared before me in my ‘present’. The ‘Birds’ Nest’ Orphanage in Jubayl, the first place in Lebanon where orphaned children who survived 1915 were placed, is one of such sites of memory that I came across. Today,
it is still an institution where orphans and the
children of poor families find shelter and receive education. The school principal meets me. It is lunch time. After eating with the children, we start wandering around to find a place where I can take a group photo of them. We enter the hall right behind the dining room. It says, in capital letters, ‘Birds’ Nest’ on the wall, a sizable stage. We exit from the door where the hall adjoins the chapel. Opposite us, just like a bird’s nest, a broad stone staircase, its corners bend into a curve at the point they meet the wall...
- Can I take the photograph of the children here?
- Weren’t you going to take them in front of the ‘Birds’ Nest’ script?
- That’s what I thought but this is a better place.
- Why?
- I don’t know, it reminded me of my childhood.
- But this isn’t your story, it’s our story [smiles]...
Fine. I will then show you something. Will you come to my room when you are finished?
- Of course. What will you show me?

- You’ll see when you come.
After I take the photograph of the children, I go up to the principal’s office. He hands me the photograph on his table. The photograph has been taken on the stairs where I just took the photograph of the children. Maria Jacobsen, who for decades was a mother to the orphans here, in the 1950s, with the children...
Some children, ‘remnants of the sword’, had passed away a short time after they arrived at this ‘home’, because of diseases they had contracted on the roads of exile. This is the inscription on the rock placed at the head of their graves: “Remember! Life is short, death is real, infinity is immortal.”

In Beirut, at a commemoration event organized on the centennial of the Genocide, I am again with children, backstage. A child, who looks around
12 years old, with a fez on his head and a sword in his hand; and beside him, a younger child, wearing a ‘bloody’ t-shirt, prepared by splattering it with red paint. They are getting ready for the show they will stage in a few minutes.
-Where are you from?
I hesitate, I don’t want to answer. He asks again:
-American, French?

- Turkey.
All the children suddenly turn to me.
- Ooh, are you Turkish?
- No, I’m not...!
My response calms the atmosphere.

It’s now calm around me, but I am not.
There are stories inside me, stories I don’t know where to put. I once again check the path
I set out on, and the stops I paused at, one
by one.
This is the story of those who, when they where sent away from Anatolia in 1915, did not know where to set up their homes. The story of a tree that came into leaf above those who were settled in a camp called ‘Quarantine’ in Lebanon, and then left. And the photograph I took is the photograph of a great family spread out across the Middle East; of those who remain, those who have survived, but are bound to remain forever lacking.
My story only begins after I have taken that photograph, after I have looked at it.
Along with the survivors, my own little story, which remains lacking. I am completed, to some small extent, in the lives cut short of those
who died, and never had graves. Constantly dispersed...

Erhan Arık