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The preparation and presentation of the website pages about Marash were made possible through the generous donation of Berj Kalaidjian, in memory of his father Boghos Kalaidjian

An amulet of St Sarkis and his son St Mardiros. 15-16th century (?). (Source: Mesrob Mashdots Madenataran, Yerevan, No 139, in Claude Mutafian (ed.), Arménie. La magie de l’écrit, Paris/Marseille, 2007)

Sandjak of Marash - Festivals

Author: Varty Keshishian, 1 Nov. 2011 (Last modified 1 Nov. 2011) - Translator: Ara Melkonian

The Marash Armenian is a traditionalist, religious and devout and church festivals and rituals or ceremonies are an inseparable part of his daily life. The Marash Armenians’ festivals are rich and colourful. All festivals and celebrations, as a rule, are accompanied by church and popular rituals. These two things, although separated, flow, however, one from another: one completes the other, forming an amazing harmony in Marash’s Armenian festivals and ceremonies.

The Armenian people have had their own unique calendar of festivals from time immemorial. Those who study the Armenian festival calendar have pointed out ancient items, connected with the worship of the sun, fire and water, especially ceremonial rituals dedicated to the pagan gods. After accepting Christianity, the Armenian people’s popular festival calendar, like those of so many other nations in the world, being subject to religious re-interpretation, has been recast in accordance with the Christian world view and church principles, at the same time retaining various elements rooted in the peoples festival calendar.

Naturally, the Marash Armenian festival calendar has been altered by the circumstances of life, with many things being forgotten or removed especially from popular ceremonies. Simple comparison of the festivals that are generally accepted among the Marash Armenians shows a very close similarity to those of the most different Armenian-populated regions. More than this; very similar descriptions, [1] provided by different authors give us the basis to determine that the Armenians of Marash not only have retained and continued traditional festivals and ceremonies but have, in the main, kept their ritual significance and the meanings of their ideals. The Marash Armenians conservatism and his jealously guarding his forefathers’ customs have, of course, played a great role in this.

Like all Armenian-populated regions, all the festivals in Marash are also accompanied by traditional ceremonies, such as the visits to all the local areas by groups singing the Avedis (News) canticle and demanding gifts on New Years Eve, the lighting of fires on the day of Diarnentarach (Jesus’ presentation in the temple), the holding of a raffle on Hampartsum (Ascension Day), colouring eggs on Zadig (Easter Day), sprinkling water on Vartavar (Jesus’ Transfiguration) and so on. Almost all popular events, including mutual visits on feast days, pilgrimages, the tradition of madagh (meal of sacrifice) and visiting cemeteries, have close correlation with the festivals established in the Armenian festival calendar and their ceremonies.

The food eaten on festival or feast days is just as important as the church and traditional ceremonies themselves with Marash, like in many places, having special dishes for every festival - such as erbev shorvon (sweet soup) on New Year’s Eve, various kinds of pilav on Khetum (the evening before Holy Christmas or Easter Eve), pekhantr (pokhint - gruel) and alla hots (anli hats - saltless bread) on St Sarkis, herison (herisa – cooked husked wheat) on Paregentan, kuftos (patties) during and at the middle of Lent, hadag shorvon (grain soup) on Bread-and-salt Saturday, red eggs at Easter and so forth. The special meals prepared during festival and fast days made from ingredients that are part of the ceremonial of the day, have the closest resemblance to the foods prepared on feast days in ethnographically differing Armenian regions.

One of the more noteworthy aspects of the Marash Armenian festival calendar is the oral poetry dedicated to the festivals. Popular festivals are accompanied by songs specific to the festival concerned, with singing competitions, demonstrations of the musician’s art, amusing stories and repartee that, forming part of the festival, best reflect the Marash Armenians’ lively creative spirit. Many four-line verses (quatrains) circulate that colourfully picture the Marash Armenian’s heart-felt desires and spiritual longings. Although these songs (quatrains) are in Turkish, they nevertheless echo the depths of Armenian popular poetry and spirit, all of them being declaimed by the Armenian popular minstrels of Marash. According to contemporary testimony, all the songs are learnt by rote and sung by the people.

Marash, 1874, the Der-Boghosian family. Front row, children seated on the ground: 2nd from left, Levon Der-Boghosian (Iplikdji). Second row, seated women: 3rd from left Lusia Der-Boghosian (Shamlian), little Levon’s mother. 4th from left: Lusia’s mother, who was called Kermer. She was famous in Marash as a community doctor. 3rd row, people standing, 2nd from left: Artin Der-Boghosian, little Levon’s father (Source: Maral Der Boghossian personal collection)

Famous Marash minstrels and musicians are never absent from festivals and events where they create great excitement. Singers, musicians, raconteurs and minstrels, all of them endowed with talent and who declaim songs, circulate from place to place and enrich popular festivals.

The religious and church-loving Marash Armenian naturally gives greater importance to the religious meaning and church ritual of the festival, but just like everywhere else, the religious festival continues according to the people’s traditions and customs.

Contemporary authors point out the great crowds that attend church on Sundays and feast days, as well as the Marash Armenians deep respect and awe towards official church feast days and ceremonies. Kalusdian writes: ‘On feast days like Christmas and Easter the schools are shut and the people, young and old, men and women, rich or poor fill the churches’. [2]

The Marash Armenians are especially strict in their observance of fasting. As authors of the history of Marash testify, the majority of the people keep the fasts laid down in the church festival calendar. The observance of fasting for one, and sometimes two or three days before a festival, especially during the 40 days before Easter (during Lent), when animal products such as meat, oil, eggs and dairy products are not be used is, in itself, testimony to the Marash Armenians ties to church law generally and the meaning of the festival specifically. Fasting is also observed on special days too. It can also be for a specific time or when no food is eaten at all. Women generally observe the total ban on food, when they only drink water; the majority of men and youths who work generally observe this strict fasting by eating only once a day.

In the same conservative way, the devout Marash Armenian woman observes the restrictions on her activities on the Saturday or the appropriate day or days in the week before the festival day itself, especially by not washing clothes or spinning.

It is natural that in Marash too, a greater role is reserved for women in festivals and ceremonies; this is not surprising if we take into account the fact that the woman looks after hearth and home and is generally the most important link in maintaining and passing on traditions.

According to authors of histories of Marash, at the end of the 19th century the majority of the young people are free of old-style strict traditionalism, while at the same time their educated and progressive element sees, in festivals, their important role in the preservation of the peoples national awareness. [3]

All the evidence informs us that there were many more Armenian festivals in the past and that they were richer and more colourful and that ceremonies and pilgrimages linked to them were accompanied by enthusiastic and happy singing, games and pleasure. After the anti-Armenian massacres of 1895, due to the lack of safety and political pressures, festivals have been noticeably reduced in scale, the people’s joyfulness has ended, with festivals now being centred around church ceremonies and family gatherings.

Despite this, the Marash Armenians’ festival calendar is defined by church advice and beautiful traditions that have come down through the centuries. Now let us try to present the Marash Armenians’ church and traditional festivals and ceremonies that are part of the festival calendar as described by various authors, and provide appropriate explanations of them.

Gaghendes (Gaghant – New Year)

Like in almost all Armenian regions, the Marash Armenian celebrates January 1st as the beginning of the new year called in local dialect gaghendes, a dialect corruption of Gaghant (New Year).

In Marash, just like everywhere else, New Year ceremonies are centred around church rituals, but with popular customs added to them that are generally similar to those connected with New Year ceremonials taking place in many Armenian communities. [5]

The gaghendes festivities begin from the previous day – December 31st, around the table at the evening meal. The Marash lady of the house begins preparations for the festive table days in advance. In accordance with church custom, the week previous to New Year is a week of fasting. As the New Year falls in that week, the Marash Armenians stick strictly to the special meals laid down for fasting, and even on New Year’s Day refrain from eating meat, animal and dairy products. It is also forbidden to carry out any work in the evening or at night during this week, ‘otherwise Christ will be angry’.

The ornament of the New Year table is erbev shorvan (sweet soup), with de-husked wheat and chickpeas. The lady of the house prepares meals using dried vegetables and olive oil and desserts. Alongside all this, a special place is given to dried and fresh fruit stored in the larder, as well as various sweets – strings of sweets, sweetmeats, apricot sheets, kırma (coarsely ground corn), samsa (pastry sweetened with syrup) and so on.

It is acceptable to regard some of the customs connected with this festival in Marash as all-Armenian ones, such as that of going round the neighbourhood by 10-12 year old children on New Year’s night and congratulating people on the festival. A family will hardly have sat down to their evening meal when the New Year (gaghendes) children’s visits start. Teenagers, having received their gifts from their family elders, go on to the house roof and shout with joy, Gaghendes, babut kesen yes (Happy New Year, may your father’s wallet [be full]). [6]

Jumping from roof to roof, they lower a small bag on a rope down the chimney, greeting the New Year by singing Avedis (news) songs:

Avedis, kağndos
Hani bizi incir koz.

News, its New Year,
Where are our walnuts and figs?

New Year, drawn by Armenian orphans. The picture is drawn by H. Ghazarian, an orphan in his teens, who was in the Djebail (Lebanon) American orphanage. The picture is taken from the monthly student journal Dun produced by the orphans themselves (January 1923, No. 5, Djebail, American orphanage)

Fig and walnut

Sali Sali sarkitdim
Sandigin dibini berkitdim
Verinin bir oğlu olsun,
Vermianin bir kizi olsun


I lowered it wrapped up,
I secured the bottom of the money box,
May the donor have a son,
May the person who doesn’t donate have a daughter. [7]

The lady of the house fills the bag with dried fruit, walnuts, raisins and other sweets and says, ‘Pull it up!’ The bag begins to rise, providing great pleasure both to the household and the gaghendes boys. Thus, after visiting all the chimneys of the area, they return to their homes loaded with gifts.

The boys’ New Year night visits and lowering of bags for presents is a very old custom and is very similar to that practiced in a number of other Armenian regions on the same festival, which has been preserved in Marash in an almost pure form.

At gaghendes (New Year) visits are not made, with one exception: the visit by the parish priest to bless homes. Under the same rules only women visit the priest’s house, and for that reason Niur Darvan (Nor Darvan - New Year) or Ishneviur Darin (congratulations for the year) is considered to be the women’s special festival. [8]

Women generally go to church early. After church the New Year goods – rice, cracked wheat, chickpeas, lentils, beans, various vegetables and wine must are sent to the priest’s house. Just before midday they go to the priest’s house dressed in their holiday clothes. Entering it, each woman, turning to the women already there and to the priest’s wife, say, ‘Ishneviur daran virenit’ (Congratulations on the year to you), and the priest’s wife replies, ‘Ivri kiz, ivri siragnirit’ (To you too and to your loved ones). This is how they exchange congratulations at the New Year, are entertained with the food appropriate to the fast, and then return home.

Bdig Zadag (Little Easter - Holy Christmas)

New Year in the Marash Armenian orphanage (Source: Nubarian Library collection)

New Year in the Marash Armenian orphanage (Source: Nubarian Library collection)

Just as in all the Armenian regions, the Marash Armenians celebrate Christ’s birth on January 6th. Like in certain ethnographical regions of Armenia, the Christmas festival consists of both church and popular ceremonies and special rites that have close affinities with the ceremonies and rituals that are widespread in the provinces of Armenia itself.

Holy Christmas is known in various Armenian circles as Little Easter and in the Marash dialect is Bdig Zadag. [9]

Like gaghendes, Christmas celebrations begin the day before, as the festival is preceded by the dipping evening – the evening of the breaking of the week’s fast, when Armenian families gather around plentiful tables. The preparations for Christmas begin the previous day because, according to the accepted ritual, the week of fasting ends on the day itself, with special solemnity and appropriate rituals.

Sacrificing an animal is accepted on the day before Christmas; rich families especially kill a sheep or goat that has been specially reared and prepare festival dishes from its meat.

The real popular ceremonials are centred on that evening’s special foods and the table loaded with various dishes. Usually, after returning from the evening church service, the week’s fast is broken by eating ges djor (soup made from the meat of the sacrificed animal or simply meat broth).

The evenings festive table is adorned with meat dishes – vine leaves filled with mutton, various kiuftes (patties) – boiled or roasted, mechev kufdo (patties with fillings), gshgur, and hum kufdo (raw patties), with plenty of pilavs of rice or de-husked wheat prepared with oil, with pieces of meat, pistachio and almonds on them. Khoshab (compote) made with dried fruits, raisins and syrup (rub) and other sweets also grace the table.

Picture: H. Ghazarian (Dun, the monthly student journal, October-December 1924, No. 26-28, Djebail, American orphanage)

The festive evening’s table is loaded with delicious food, the family sits around it and visits by the groups singing Avedis (News) begin. Young boys, in groups of 6 or 7, go to all the houses and announce Christ’s birth singing Avedis  songs, receiving gifts in exchange – generally sweets etc – walnuts, almonds, dried fruit and raisins and sometimes a few coins.

The Avedis songs concerning Christmas are generally popular ones, sung in Marash dialect, reflecting Christ’s birth and life in popular depictions, sometimes with simple words, blessings and various forms of praise. They usually end with the refrain, ‘Christ was born and appeared, great news for you and us.’

It is important to note that the custom of groups singing Avedis going round the houses had virtually ceased in the 1900s, being restricted to children at home singing or reciting verses and special Christmas songs. It is possible to suppose that subject to religious and social pressures, this custom has lost its general joyfulness and vivacity.

The continuation of Christmas Day customs in the diaspora. In the picture we can see Armenians born in Ayntab who, like those of Marash, celebrated Christ’s being made known to us with delicious food. They have taken this custom to Cordoba (Argentina). The photograph was taken in the 1940s. Men and boys named Avedis are gathered together and are preparing to sacrifice a lamb, which will be their main meal of the day (Source: Silvina Der Meguerditchian collection)

Krikor Kalusdian, describing the Marash Armenians’ ceremonies which are similar to those of various ethnographic regions of Armenia, writes: ‘Previously the children would go to their relatives and neighbours houses to sing Avedis songs and receive gifts. But the custom has ceased recently.’ [10]

In accordance with established custom, the family’s small children receive presents from the grown-ups for their recitations of Avedis verses. All the small children wear new coats, caps and shoes for the holiday, giving them great pleasure. This is a custom that has continued until our times, with Christmas and Easter being known as children’s festivals. [11]

The Christmas festivities continue with participation in morning Holy Mass, with songs of praise and psalm singing. Krikor Kalusdian writes about the Mass: ”Great numbers of people go to the church early in the morning, which is bright with candle light. The deacon intones Christ was born and has appeared.’ The people say the same to one another during the ‘Greeting’”. [12]

The ceremony of Christ’s baptism in the waters of the River Jordan takes place at the end of the Mass, known to the people as the ‘Blessing of the Waters’. The priest puts a cross into water and adds Holy Chrism to it in front of the assembled congregation, in memory of Christ’s baptism. The Marash Armenians take some of the blessed water home and make their sick relatives drink some of it, and anoint parts of their bodies that are sick, believing that the blessed water has healing powers. They also sprinkle a little in the storage jars in the larders, for there to be plenty.

Mutual visits take place after the church service, with the same Avedis being given: ‘Christ has been born and has appeared,’ with the reply: ‘Great news for you and us.’ It is also accepted that visits by close relatives may be made at Little Easter (Christmas) to families that have had a loss in the family. During this festival the priests also visit homes for house blessings. [13]

Artist: Sarkis Bidzag, 1346 (Source: Belazel Narkiss (ed), Armenian art treasures of Jerusalem, 1979, Jerusalem)

Existing evidence reminds us that in times past, the celebration of Christmas among the Armenians of Marash was accompanied by solemn and ritualistic customs that, however, like many other ceremonials, have been restricted to family gatherings only in the 1900s. This statement is backed up by the songs celebrating Christmas that were sung on Christmas Eve by groups of people of Marash that I’ve transcribed from elderly people who had them fixed in their memories.

Էմմանուէլ քէրիմ Ալլահ,
Տատլը մախսում քերամ Ալլահ,
Տօղտու քութլու Բէթլէհէմտէ,
Պէնի ատամ պուլսուն ֆէրահ:

Միւզէյէն կէօք ղուպպէսինէ,
Եըլտըզլարը սաֆ սաֆ տիւզէր,
Ֆաքիր պիր հալ ախորճուքտա,
Պիզիմ իւչիւն ղունտախլամիշ:

Մէլէյիքլէր սիւրիւ սիւրիւ,
Ասիւմանտան էնիյորլար,
Քըրպաշինտա չօպանլարա,
Խայիր միւճտէ վէրիյորլար: [14]

Emmanuel, noble God,
Sweet, wise God,
Was born in gracious Bethlehem,
May the son of man be at rest.

The decorated vault of heaven
Is lined with rows of stars,
In a poor stable
He is swaddled for us.

Group after group of angels
Descend (without understanding)
To the shepherds in the fields,
Giving them the good news.

Derindes (Diyarnentarach – Presentation of Jesus at the Temple)

The interior of the Holy Redeemer Catholic church in Marash (Source: Kalusdian, op. cit.)

The interior of the Holy Redeemer Catholic church in Marash (Source: Kalusdian, op. cit.)

Diyarnentarach is one of the Lord’s festivals in the Armenian Church calendar, and is dedicated to the bringing of Jesus to the temple 40 days after He was born. The word Diyarnentarach means to ‘bring before the Lord’ but according to some researchers, during pagan times it was one of the festivals dedicated to the god Dir, changed into a festival dedicated to Jesus Christ. [15] This view is based on the popular name of Derendes for this festival. Another group of experts base this festival on a close association with the god of the sun and fire Mihr, correlating the festivals popular belief of the cleansing power of fire, as the basic ceremony of this festival is the lighting of a fire. The old idea is retained in all the Armenian regions that Derendes fire brings with it an improvement in the air, a plentiful harvest, fertile fields and blessings on married couples. [16] The ceremonies associated with this festival are, in essence, based around this ideal. The rituals of this festival including the custom of lighting fires, according to the descriptions written by different authors, and are carried out in Marash in exactly the same way as in many places in the Armenian world and, in Marash dialect, is called Derendes. [17]

The ceremonies that take place on the feast of the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple on February 13th begin with solemn Mass in church, with the attendance of newly married or engaged couples being mandatory. All the newly married women and engaged girls, holding candles, light up the upper gallery. Leaving the church, the young men, with their lighted candles, hurry to get to the Derendes fire lighting ceremony.

It is accepted that the fires should be lit in the courtyard of the engaged girl’s house or in that of the woman who has been married during the year, both of whom must see it to be rid of evil forces.

The engaged and newly married men, for days before the festival, collecting dry grass and branches from thickets, bring them on their backs to the place chosen for the fire. On the festival day itself they pile it up, several metres high, on a roof or high place. These young men, either just married or engaged, circle the fire with their lighted candles and then light it. The flames from the Derendes fire ascend to the young men’s cries of ‘Derendes! Derendes!’’ When the flames are almost spent, they begin to jump over them. According to tradition, those who jump the flames will rid themselves from the influence of evil forces, be protected from bad accidents or events and illnesses. [18] Just like everywhere else, fire is special for the Marash Armenian too, and he believes in its power.

It is clear that the Marash Armenians have retained the belief that, like in certain Armenian provinces, the festival of the Presentation of Jesus at the temple completes all 40 day mourning periods, saying ‘Eoseor niur horsirn ile karasunklu gendeke karasunke baderdin’ (today the new brides and the women in 40 day mourning ends it). All the newly married women and those who have given birth who have not completed 40 days seclusion go to church, even if the new mother has only given birth a few days previously, to have the 40 days of seclusion ‘read’, that being considered to be the end of the time. [19]

It is also the custom to take newborn infants to the church to be blessed on Derindes: ‘buluzdeki ijom ge danan’ (they take the children to the church); the priest, holding the child, goes around the altar, then returns it to the mother. Thus the 40 days are completed.

Derindes also completes the 40 days of mourning for those that have suffered deaths in their families. In the past mourning women didn’t leave the house, but on Derindes their female in-laws, friends and neighbours would take them to the church, after which they could emerge from the house.

Great meals, entertainment and visiting don’t take place during this festival; the only exception being the taking of a small package of sweets to the engaged girl’s house from that of her future husband.

The only specific foods for the festival are gruel made from dry roasted flour and syrup, as well as dry roasted chickpeas, marrow seeds and other things of a similar nature that are distributed by the lady of the house to the members of the family and to all the neighbours.

Taking a Derindes flame around the house, as well as taking burning flames home and relighting lamps and the fire with them is also the custom. The flame is taken home in the belief that it will bring plenty, fruitfulness and blessings.

Surp Sarkso Bok (St Sarkis or Foremost fast)

The festival dedicated to St Sarkis (St Sergius) has great popularity among the Armenians. According to the Armenian Church calendar it is held nine weeks before Easter, on a Saturday, prior to the Paregentan week, and is a moveable feast being held on one of the 35 days between January 18th and February 23rd. As the name reminds us, it is dedicated to St Sarkis, a saint much revered by the Armenian people. Although it is part of the church calendar, its origins are very ancient, right back to pagan times. Researchers suggest that this festival retains some of the most ancient elements of worship that, continuing, have found their form in that of a brave, noble Christian saint. [20]

The feast of St Sarkis is combined with the Arachavor (Foremost) fast and its rituals, customs and traditions.

The Arachavor (Foremost) fast or, as the Marash Armenian likes to call it, Surp Sarksa boke (St Sarkis’ fast) begins on a Monday. [21] The Armenians of Marash give the St Sarkis fast great importance, and fast for 3-5 days of that week. The strictest fast is kept by young girls and old women, who swear an oath and take nothing but water throughout the fast period, or only a single meal during any one day, usually after the evening church service. The special attribute of this fast is that apart from animal products, gruel, food made from ground wheat and flour are also forbidden.

Those who take part in three-day fasting go to church on Wednesday morning and by drinking Khachmer (water that has been blessed), end their fast. On their return home, they eat alla hots (saltless unleavened bread) or pekhant. Marash’s pekhant is exactly the same as the famous pokhint prepared on this festival in many Armenian regions – boiled gruel, made with dried flour and grape syrup. It is usually prepared in large amounts and distributed to all the neighbours, with the request that St Sarkis ‘the saint who arrives in time’ has compassion on them.

According to tradition, the women and girls who take part in fasting, on their return from church, cook rbev shovro (syrup soup) and distribute it to all the neighbourhood houses; if the house owner is poor, then it is satisfactory to distribute it to only seven houses. [22] It is also the custom, on St Sarkis’ festival, to swear an oath to complete something special and then to make a sacrifice of an animal. For this they fill the alla hots that has been baked with the cooked meat of the sacrificed animal and distribute it to seven houses. Generally speaking the people who maintain their fast for five days go to church on the Saturday morning take Communion and, after the service, if they are wealthy, sacrifice and cook an animal and end their fast by drinking a few spoonfuls of the ges djor (broth). If not, then rbev shovro is prepared and distributed to seven or more houses. [23]

As we can see, the food dedicated to St Sarkis is rbev shovro – gruel made with syrup, whose consumption and especially its distribution is a necessity, as a sacrifice to the saint.

Fasting on this festival extends not only to food, but also to certain activities in the home, such as washing clothes, carding wool, spinning, weaving cloth etc.

It is also a tradition to congratulate those christened with the saint’s name at this time. There are no feasts, games or festivities, only the sending of presents or sweets to the husbands (whose name is Sarkis) of newly married couples where the wife is fasting.

St Sarkis is one of the saints most revered by the Armenians, and has great popularity among those of Marash; echoes of this can be found in popular speech and maxims. This particular maxim is used when something is late and is delayed. If a girl is engaged and the wedding is delayed, they say:

Eoseor, eoseor, voghe gesor.
Gene mnats Surp Sarksian...

Today, today, tomorrow at noon,
Once more it is left to St Sarkis...[24]

Pargindonk/Paregentan (Herius or Tlkhaghir)

Paregentan is one of the Armenian people’s most loved and most patriotic festivals, called, among the Armenians of Marash, Herius or Tlkhaghir .[25] The name Herius has probably originated with herise, bearing in mind that on the festival of the real Paregentan in Marash herise is the greatest, best dish that is served up, to such an extent that the festival is called by it. The women of Marash always cook herise on Paregentan, as well as tetvale shovro (bitter soup) and hadag (hadig) and, after returning from church, the whole family partakes of it.

The name Tlkhagher has much older roots and refers to games played on this festival in olden times.

The name Paregentan is given to the final days, all of them Sundays, of the weeks before Lent, when meat is allowed to be eaten after fast days, and the Real Paregantan is the final Sunday after Lent when it can be eaten. It is a time of unrestrained eating and drinking, joy and games, followed by the sober, strict, long days of Lent.

The Sunday of Real Paregantan falls on the Sunday seven weeks before Easter and is a moveable feast over a period of 35 days like Easter itself – from 1st February to 7th March. According to tradition not only that Sunday but also the two weeks before it are regarded as part of the festival.

Krikor Kalusdian, accurately describing the popular traditions associated with this festival, writes that in the mid 1800s open-air tlkhagher parties would take place in Marash on Paregentan day. Kalusdian suggests that tlkhaghertloh comes from the verb tlahil that is the root word of the verb dzaghrel (to jeer or mock). [26] This author who researches the nature and customs of the Marash Armenians provides a notable description of their life in the Paregentan period, and how the main accompaniment appears during this festival. What is called Tlkhaghir is none other than a spade or sweep that women adorn like a bride, dressing it in costumes that make people laugh and covering its head with veils. The women don’t even spare their own jewellery and adornments, adding them to the clothes they have used, and then taking it round all the houses in the quarter, playing special games and singing (avchel) comic songs. After this outing, it is brought into the courtyard of the house and set up in the centre until late at night, dances being performed around it, jokes being made with everyone enjoying themselves. These theatrical, humorous games played on Real Paregentan generally take place in all the Armenian provinces and, as we can see, are preserved among the Armenians of Marash.

The two-week holiday that is the Real Paregentan is accompanied by various popular customs. It is notable that each day has its own name and restrictions, all of which directly relate to the lives of the people and their way of living, and as such are the expressions of their simple beliefs.

The Wednesday of the Real Paregentan holiday is called Geli deon (Kayli don - Wolf’s festival). The women don’t work on that day, saying that it is the wolf’s festival, believing that their houses and travellers will be free from the danger of wolves if they don’t.

Friday is called Mgadeon (Mgadon – Mouse festival). The women don’t do any sewing or spinning on this day, so that the mice refrain from chewing their clothes and furnishings all year.

Women in Marash don’t do any washing on Bargendin Shapat (Paregentan Saturday), leaving it until the ‘salt and bread’ second week, saying, ‘Gedike djaren ge mdnen’, in other words the women will be busy cooking Paregentan meals.

Generally speaking the variety and quantity of meals reaches its peak during Paregentan, with an attempt being made to finish all the dishes made of meat and those made with oil, as the holiday is succeeded by the long period – 39 days – of Lent.

The Aghotski (bread and salt) Monday is called Harpdzadeon (Hapradzi don - Drunk’s festival). On this day the women don’t spin, so that they won’t meet drunks all year who will djahrernin godrin yev djaghernin dzerin (smash their spinning wheel and bend their bobbins). Likewise on this day they don’t cook kufto (patties) saying that ‘Mechen iusgiur g’ille’ (nothing good will come of it), but only tetvele shovro (bitter soup). It is today that it is a special task to do the washing left over from Saturday, after which all the house furnishings are cleaned and washed, so that not one spot or even the smell of oil remain to defile the fast.

From Friday the preparations for the Lenten fast are begun, with the women preparing soup with syrup as a prelude to it.

‘Bread and salt’ Saturday is called hadag (hadig – grain). The Marash Armenians have the following proverb for this day: ‘Eoseor hadag e, vaghe Zadag e’ (aysor hadig e, vaghe Zadig e - today is grain day, tomorrow is Easter). [27]

One of the important customs after returning from church on Sunday is the consumption of hadag (grain) – boiled wheat, which is eaten with walnuts or almonds on it. The special dish of the day is, however, hadag shovro (grain soup), made with wheat, beans and chickpeas.

The people also go, on this day, on a pilgrimage to the western part of the town, to the Siurp Tiurius (St Toros) pilgrimage site, where there is nothing but a tree, the branches of which have a cotton thread or piece of cloth tied to them by each pilgrim. It is a tradition that St Toros visited the site and remained there for a few days. [28]

Medz Bok (The Great Fast – Lent)

The gluttonous, joyful holiday of Paregentan are succeeded by the seven long weeks of Lent (or Great Fast). It is called ‘great’, because it is the longest fast of all. It is a fast not only regarding food, but also in terms of orientation, with people pushing aside anything that might lead them into temptation; for a long period there are no entertainments or weddings, with life entering a strict time of sacrifice and abstinence.

During Lent all animal products are replaced by vegetables and dishes made with olive oil and sesame paste (tahini). The Marash Armenians are very scrupulous over fasting and, with Lent being the longest and most important, it is maintained with even greater strictness. The dishes served during lent begin from the first day with bread baked with olive or sesame oil. The main Lenten dishes are grain soups (hadag shovro), cooked in different ways, usually with wheat, chickpeas, lentils, beans, dried or fresh vegetables with olive oil or sesame paste. The most preferred dishes during lent are the various kinds of kuftos (patties), and appetisers made with vegetables etc.

The halfway point of the Lenten fast is marked by the Michink (Middle day), celebrated with special ceremonies, mainly consisting of sending gifts to engaged girls by their future husbands’ families.

Karsun Manug (Surp Karasun Manug - The Forty Holy Innocents)

This is the feast day of the 40 soldiers martyred in Sivas/Sepasdia in the fourth century, and is also that of the churches dedicated to them.

This is the feast day of the Armenian Apostolic cathedral of the Forty Innocents with the greatest and most prosperous congregation, located in the southern part of Marash. On this day a huge vessel is filled with water and, after being topped up with a quantity of olive oil, 40 wicks are added then lit, in memory of the martyrs. Women don’t, as a rule, do washing or embroidery on the Friday and Saturday before the festival. [29]

Lsavrich (Surp Krikor Lusavorich – St Gregory the Illuminator)

The memory of the restorer and organiser of the Armenian Apostolic Church, St Gregory the Illuminator, is celebrated three times during the year: ‘The entry into the pit’ (the beginning of his imprisonment); ‘Emergence from the pit’ (his being freed from the pit); and ‘Finding his relics’. The Entry festival is celebrated during ‘Bread and salt’ week. The women of Marash say that mindz deon e (medz don e - it is a great feast) and no washing is done on that day.

Djordjartor (Dzarzartar or Dzaghgazart – the entry of Christ into Jerusalem)

Marash, 1907. A religious ceremony in front of St Kevork’s church

Marash, 1907. A religious ceremony in front of St Kevork’s church (Source: Kalusdian, op. cit.)

The feast of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is called Dzaghgazart (decorated with flowers – Palm Sunday) and takes place one week before Easter Day. But the festival’s events have older roots, leading experts to conclude that Dzaghgazart itself is one of the festivals observed by Armenians in pagan times, grafted on to that of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. [30]

This festival is celebrated in Marash with church services, with certain customs being retained until the end of the 19th century – pilgrimage, going to gardens and public celebrations – which however have gradually stopped through the lack of safety and pressure. According to tradition, presents are sent from the family of an engaged young man to his fiancée’s family on this day. [31]

Derenbots (Trnpats – The opening of the doors)

The mystical ceremony of Derenbots (opening the doors) takes place during the evening service on Palm Sunday, with a huge crowd of worshippers present, of which the majority are women and girls. After general prayers, the officiating priest (or bishop) and the deacons and the congregation of pilgrims leave the church and the door is closed. The priest raps on the door three times with his staff while the deacons and congregation sing Pats mez Der ezturen voghormutuian (Lord, open the doors of charity). The door is then opened from the inside and the procession of the priest, deacons and congregation solemnly re-enter the church, singing canticles and to the accompaniment of ringing instruments.

All the girls go to church on this evening, believing that the ‘door to their good fortune’ will open. Mothers tell their daughters, ‘Aghchines, eoseor i jam gno ki bokht patsvi’ (Aghchigs aysor i jam kna vorbeszi paght patsvi - My girl, go to the church today so your fortune begins). [32] Children who have yet to speak are also taken to the church on this day, and the priest, using the ‘open the doors’ key, ‘opens’ their mouths.

Gusonk (The festival of the virgins)

The seven day period from Palm Sunday until Easter Day is called Avak Shapat (Holy Week) and the word ‘Great’ (or Holy) is added to the name of each day.

Great (or Holy) Monday is celebrated by the church as the day of the Parable of the Ten Virgins. According to the Bible, two days after Christ entered Jerusalem, He told this parable. On this evening the appropriate parts of the Gospel are read in church in which the parable is told, and for which the day is named. [33]

The Marash Armenians call this day Gusonk (the virgins) in the same way. On this festival all the newly marries women and girls go to church and, holding lighted candles, light up the whole of the upper storey of the church. More recently it has become the custom to dress ten young girls in cassocks and have them line up before the altar with lighted candles in their hands. [34]

Khurug (Avak Chorekshapti – Great or Holy Wednesday - Ash Wednesday)

Ottoman Armenian copper artifact (Source: Bedros Dikiciyan collection)

Ottoman Armenian copper artifacts (Source: Bedros Dikiciyan collection)

The important events of Holy Week begin from Ash Wednesday onwards. According to tradition Ash Wednesday neutralises the bad and wicked. This is the day that washing is done, plates and dishes are polished and every corner of the house is cleaned, so there in no dirt anywhere.

On this day the Marash Armenians harvest green vegetables – khurug or nvag - from the fields and make them into soup, hence the festival’s name. Every member of the family has to eat some of it. There is the belief among the Marash Armenians that, during Lent, all the oils in the human body melt away over the Lenten period, leaving only a small amount, about the size of an almond, that is melted by eating khurug. [35]

Avak Hinkshapti (Great or Holy Thursday – Maundy Thursday

The Wednesday is followed by just, plentiful, clean Maundy Thursday. On this day bread – both unleavened and ordinary - is baked. A great many Easter eggs are painted and cooked, as it is the belief that eggs cooked on this day do not go bad for a very long time. These are for all the family members, to satisfy guests and for distribution. The eggs are coloured using madder roots which are red. This plant grows in the vineyards; it is washed, put into the bottom of a cauldron and the eggs are put on top, water is added and they are cooked. The eggs become red during cooking.

The Maundy Thursday festival is observed by the Marash Armenians, especially by the women, who remain present at all the church services – the Lenten Mass, Udenlva (Vodnlva – Washing of the Feet), Lotsk (Khavarman kisher – the darkening night). [36]

The women of Marash prepare a special dish for this day – aghamagh – in other words salty. The aghamagh is the green top of the egg plant (aubergine), which is dried and kept for this day. It is boiled, onions and pepper is added, and is eaten on this day. [37]

Avak Urpat (Great or Holy Friday – Good Friday)

Marash, ca 1880s: Der-Ghazarian's family (Source: Mihran Minassian collection)

Marash, ca 1880s: Der-Ghazarian's family (Source: Mihran Minassian collection)

The next day, Good Friday, according to the church calendar, is the day that Christ was crucified, died and was interred, therefore a day of mourning. It is respected as an important festival by the Marash Armenians, who do not carry out heavy work on this day. It is usual to have a coffin of mourning in the churches of Marash, and everyone attends the Friday evening service in an atmosphere of mourning and sorrow. After the service of burial, the people kiss the cross and Gospel placed on the coffin and put money into the collection plate. [38]

The food eaten on Good Friday is also special – it is mandatory to eat food prepared with vinegar, in remembrance of Christ being given some to drink before He died.

According to custom, katsakhla shovro (vinegar soup) is eaten - lentil soup mixed with vinegar. [39]

Khetum (Easter Saturday eve)

Easter Saturday evening is usually known as khetum. Usually women maintain a fast throughout the day, but this doesn’t mean that ordinary work in the house stops. They prepare their holiday clothes, do washing, go to the baths, prepare the evening’s special meal and that of the following day and, in the evening, attend the Easter Eve service and take Communion. [40] After they return home, the family gathers round the Easter Eve table.

Mendz Zadag (Medz Zadig - Great Easter, Easter Day)

All the ethnographic groups of Armenians celebrate Easter – the day of Christ’s resurrection - with great pomp and ceremony. This is not a fixed feast, but a moveable one, determined as the first Sunday after the spring equinox, in other words after March 21st, during the following 35 day period.

Among the Marash Armenians, like in many other places, Easter customs – colouring eggs, visiting friends and sending them gifts are maintained without fail. [41] It is a festival much loved by old and young alike. All the Lenten expectations coalesce in this festival that brings blessings. Early in the morning, all the Armenians, to the sound of the church bells, wearing their holiday clothes, attend church.

The grown-ups greet one another at the end of Matins, saying, ‘Christ is risen from the dead’ receiving the answer, ‘Blessed is Christ’s resurrection’. Children and young people compete in egg-breaking games.

Animals are always sacrificed and cooked (madagh) at Easter and distributed after the church service ends. After partaking of it and distributing it, visits and congratulatory greetings are begun. The Easter holiday lasts for 2-3 days, congratulatory visits being mandatory with, instead of the usual greeting, ‘Christ is risen from the dead’ being is said.

Easter is also house blessing day: priests go from house to house, blessing them – with bread, salt, water, incense, milk products and the best things from the larder placed on the table. The priest then leaves, amply rewarded.

The next day (Easter Monday) is merelots (Repose of the Souls’ day). It has special importance in Marash. Everyone goes to the cemetery –men, women and children – taking Easter dishes and red painted eggs with them, laying tables for their meal near the tombstones. [42]

It is obvious that in Marash the Repose of the Souls’ days of both Easter and the Holy Cross are not days of mourning but of celebration. On those days the cemetery becomes a place of celebration. [43] The priests bless the cemetery, the women burn incense and candles, the young people play games on the open ground near it and break eggs; children, their pockets loaded with eggs and sweets, jump about and play joyfully. As the authors of memorial books about Marash tell us, the Repose of the Souls’ day – Easter Monday – becomes a real day of celebration, of feasting and pleasure, as if they are trying to include their dear departed relatives.

Picture: H. Ghazarian (Dun, the monthly student journal, 2nd year, March 1924, No. 19, Djebail, American orphanage)

Avedikasvadzin (Assumption of the Virgin Mary)

This is celebrated as the day when the Archangel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The archangel told her that she would give birth to the Son of God, and therefore the day is the festival of Christ’s being made flesh in his mother’s womb. [44] The devout Armenians of Marash, according to custom, attend church, taking part in the Mass and the lighting of the lamps dedicated to this feast.

It is said that on this feast day there are many daisies open in the fields around Marash. The women and girls welcome the day by collecting these flowers. Bringing them home, they dry them and use them as tea in winter, it having beneficial and curative powers. [45]

Inonk (Hisunk – The fifty)

This name is given to the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, all of them holy days in honour of the Ressurection, with the final 10 days dedicated to Ascension Day. The very last day, the 50th, is dedicated to Pentecost. [46] These 50 days are generally days when meat may be eaten, with only the two Fridays and one Wednesday after Ascension Day being fast days, according to church canons.

The traditionalist Marash Armenians strictly observe the fasts during this period – more than this, the women, throughout the whole time, never spin on Thursdays. It is also the custom never to spin on Wednesday evenings, considering it to be ‘the evening before Sunday’. [47]

The wedding in Canaa, 1453. Artist: Vartan. (Source: Mesrob Mashdots Madenataran, Yerevan, in Jean Michel Thierry, Armenische Kunst, Freiburg, 1988)

Mentivor (Hampartsum - Ascension)

This is the song sung in Marash in praise of Ascension:

Ախ, մէնթիվար, մէնթիվար,
Մէնթիվարըն վագթը վար,
Մէնթիվարա կէլէնըն
Ճէննէթտէ պէշ թախթը վար: [48]

Hey, Ascension, Ascension,
There is a time for Ascension,
For him who came on Ascension,
There are five thrones in heaven.

Մէնթիվարըն վար օլսուն,
Իչի տոլու կիւլ օլսուն,
Մէնթիվարա կէլէնըն,
Ախըպաթը վար օլսուն: [49]

May Ascension remain rich,
Have many roses in it,
For him who came on Ascension,
May the days be rich.

Ascension is celebrated exactly 40 days after Easter. This is the name of the feast day in the church calendar that commemorates Christ’s ascent into heaven 40 days after He was crucified and remained on earth. Dependent on Easter, it is a moveable feast within a 35 day period, from April 30th the June 3rd, always on a Thursday. This mystical feast is observed in all Armenian-populated areas and regions, and is a much-loved and awaited festival by old and young alike. The Armenians of Marash call this day Vidjag (Raffle), in line with the chief ceremony – drawing lots. Like everywhere else, the rituals of this festival are fixed and strictly observed in Marash. Preparations for the main ceremony –the raffle - begin on Wednesday evening. Groups of small children begin to collect mentivor. Carrying a pitcher, each group goes to seven houses, getting from each seven handfuls of of water, seven leaves from seven different trees, seven different flowers and, collecting seven small stones, put them all in the pitcher. A cover is put over it so the contents may not be seen; it is never put on the floor but only, in time of need, on to an elevated place like a chair, or is hung from a nail. [50]

The Marash Armenians believe in the mysteries and miracles of Ascension night, greet one another, and the women and girls carry out various rituals to bring them luck.

Milk soup is cooked early on Ascension Thursday morning, it being the traditional dish of the festival. It is also the custom to distribute some of the soup to at least seven houses.

All the women of the quarter gather together at midday and an item, such as a key, nail, thimble and so on is put into a pitcher in the name of each member of the family. A little girl is seated next to the pitcher, covered in a veil, so that no one can see either the girl or the pitcher. [51] The assembled women sing raffle songs in unison and the little girl, after each quatrain, produces an item from the pitcher. The owner’s luck (or fate) is determined by the content of the quatrain just sung.

An older, talkative woman says to the girl, ‘Bring out another, my girl, another,’ and the girl does so, and the raffle song is sung. An older woman, who has the reputation of being a good singer, starts, and the others join in. [52]

Ayna atdim çayira
Şafki düştü bayira
Eller ne derse dersin
Işim dönndü hayira. [52]

I threw the mirror into the field
A sunbeam fell on the mountain
Let others say what they want to say
What I do will be successful.

Here are quatrains relating to emigration and the spiritual state of those who await his return:

Reyhan bektim gül bitdi
Dalinda bülbül ötdü
Ötme, bülbülim, ötme,
Yarim gurbeti gitdi

Mercimek kile kile
Ölçerim sile sile
Yar kapiya gelirse
Enerim güle güle

I planted basil – roses grew,
A nightingale sang on a branch,
Don’t sing, nightingale, don’t sing,
My love has become an emigrant.

I take lentils one by one
I pick them one by one
When my love returns home
I’ll descend, happy and gay.

The older woman says once more, ‘Bring out another, my girl, another, bara dara e’ (pari dari e - it’s a good year). The little girl brings out another item, over which is sung:

Եիթտիմ սանտըգ աչըլտը,
Ինճու, մէրճան սաչըլտը,
Անասընա միւժտէլիք,
Գըզընըն պախթը աչըլտը։ [54]

I pushed the chest and it opened,
Merdjan fell out,
A piece of good news for mother,
The girl now has good luck. [55]

So the quatrains continue. Each luck-prediction song-quatrain is accompanied by interpretations and banter. When the item drawn in the raffle belongs to a grown, engaged girl and it promises her good fortune, all the women offer her mother congratulations, adding ‘Asvodz erend bokhd do’ (Asdvadz pari paght da – May God give her good luck) as well as giving her other good wishes.

After the raffle is over, the water in the pitcher is sprinkled on the fields and vineyards, their harvest and bounty.

Ալչաճըգ քիրազ տալը,
Տիպինտէ եէշիլ խալը,
Եա' Յիսուս, եա՜ Քրիստոս,
Սէն կէօսթէր տօղրու եօլու:

Աթըմըն եէրին՝ քիւրիւտիւմ,
Եէրինէ կիւլլէր պիւրիւտիւմ,
Էլլէր նէ տէրսէ՝ տէսին,
Փատիշահ օլտում եիւրիւտիւմ:

Սու կէլիր ագա, ագա,
Պօյնունտա ալթուն հալգա,
Մէվլամ միւրատըմ վէրսէ,
Սատագա վէրէմ խալգա:

Փէշկիր, փէշկիր իւսթիւնէ,
Եինէ փէշկիր իւսթիւնէ,
Օթուրմուշ եազը եազար,
Քրիստոսուն աշգընա:

Ալչաճըգ թութ պաշըեամ,
Ալթուն եիւզիւք գաշըեամ,
Պանա պահա՞մը եէթէր,
Պէն ճէվահիր թաշըեամ:

Պուլամաճըմ պուլարըմ,
Գաշըճըղըմ եալարըմ,
Եար գափույա կէլիրսէ
Հըգըր, հըգըր կիւլէրիմ:

Եէտի տէվէ կիւտէրիմ,
Էլէ գարշը կիտէրիմ,
Էլլէր նէ տէրսէ՝ տէսին,
Պէն Գուտսայա կիտէրիմ:

Հէյպէ իտիմ հէյ օլտում,
Նագըպ իտիմ պէյ օլտում,
Շիւքիւր օլսուն Թանկրըմա,
Հէփիսինտէն եէնկ օլտում:

Օ րաֆտաքի չինիլէր,
Էլ տէյմատէն ինիլէր,
Եար գափույա կէլիրսէ,
Գուլաճըղըմ չինիլէր:

Չագ թաշը չագմագ թաշը,
Եարիմ եիկիթլէր պաշը,
Եարիմ եօլա չըգարսա,
Խըտըրէլլէզ եօլտաշը:

Եէտիյին եէմիշ օլսուն,
Կիյտիյին գումաշ օլսուն,
Կիրիպ չըգտըղըն էվին,
Սուվաղը կիւմիւշ օլսուն:

Տամ իւսթիւնտէ տամըմըզ,
Իւսթիւնտէ հարմանըմըզ,
Շիւքիւր օլսուն Թանկրըյա,
Էյի չըգտը նամըմըզ:

Գազան գազան գաւուրմա,
Թաշտը տէյու սավուրմա,
Պաշընա տէօվլէթ գօնմուշ,
Գաչտը տէյու չաղըրմա:

Էլինտէ սիւտ կիւլէյի,
Սիւտտէն պէյազ պիլէյի,
Եարէտէնիմ գապուլ էթ,
Էօքսիւզ օղլան տիլէյի:

Ինճու սէրտիմ կիւնէշի,
Պագան կէօզլէր գամաշա,
Եա' Յիսուս, եա' Քրիստոս,
Սէն եէթիր պիզի պաշա:

Ինճէճիք իյնէսինէ,
Մաիլամ ճիլվէսինէ,
Պէն միւրատըմա էրտիմ,
Տարըսը ճիւմլէսինէ:

Սապահ գալգտըմ իշիմէ,
Շէքէր գաթտըմ աշըմա,
Շէքէր աշընը եէրքէն,
Տէօվլէթ գօնտու պաշըմա:[56]


The low cherry branch,
The green carpet below,
Oh Jesus, oh Christ,
You show the right way.

(illegible)
I covered the place with roses,
Let others do what they want,
I became king and walked.

Water comes, flowing,
A gold necklace round her neck,
If God grants my wish,
I will give people charity.

Towels upon towels,
Once more on towels,
Seated writing a letter
For the sake of Christ.

I am a small fig tree,
I am the gem in a gold ring,
Joy is enough for me,
I am the precious gemstone.

I am a thick gruel, I cover it,
I lap it up with my spoon,
When my love comes to our door
I laugh ha, ha, ha.

I graze seven camels,
I walk against foreign people,
Let foreign people do what they want,
I’ll go to Jerusalem.

I was a bag I became (illegible),
A was a coat I became a bey,
Thank you God,
I changed (illegible) from them. [57]

Hoku Bok (Hokekalusd – Pentecost)

Christ, at the Last Supper, promised his disciples that he would send the Holy Ghost to them. This happened 50 days after Easter, on Pentecost Sunday (it is linked to Easter and in a moveable feast during the 35 days between May 10th and June 13th). [57] It is said that the Marash Armenians celebrated Pentecost with great solemnity and, as usual, fasted for the whole week (it was called Holy Ghost fast) in the past. In more recent times it is only the old women who continue the custom, and it is virtually forgotten. [58]

Vartivar (Vartavar – Christ’s Transfiguration)

This festival, among the Armenians, is one with some of the oldest roots, retaining its ancient name (meaning ‘burning with roses’) and grafted onto Armenian Christianity, becoming the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ.

The Armenian Church celebrates this festival 98 days after Easter; it is a moveable feast taking place between June 28th and August 1st. [59]

It is a festival of pilgrimages everywhere and no other has such popularity and attraction: it is one of the best-loved and joyful in the Armenian world. Just like all festivals, Vartavar also has its unique ceremonies that, although varying from place to place, are general, such as for example, the custom of sprinkling water on one another, releasing doves, decking oneself with flowers, making a pilgrimage, sacrifices, holding events etc.

Certain traditional popular forms and customs relating to this festival has been preserved in Marash too, such as going to water sources and sprinkling water on each other, pilgrimages and sacrifices etc.

The author who has described the various festivals in Marash, Hagopos Varjabedian, introducing that of traditional Vartavar, writes that in the past the Marash Armenians believed that on the eve of the festival the waters increased, and whoever saw it happen and asked for something, would be rewarded. So groups of Marash Armenians would hold vigils from the previous evening and wait throughout the night at water sources, pilgrimage sites, famous fountains and mountain summits, so that they would see that time when the waters increased and their wishes could be made. The main place of pilgrimage on the Vartavar festival however, was the holy place on the top of a mountain not far from Marash called Taksarakoli (The Apostle Thaddeus) or Karasunagn (Kerk Geoz). [60]

The night-time pilgrimages gradually stopped, and later it became the custom to ascend Taksarakoli mountain early on the festival morning.

Preparations for the pilgrimage begin on the Saturday; the lady of the house bakes bread and prepares various dishes. The pilgrims set out before dawn on Sunday (the day of the festival). Many women and girls make the journey without shoes or head-covering, especially those who have sworn ‘to go to the foot of the Holy Light’ on Vartavar. Some even carry a large rock all the way to the summit. [61]

A number of the pilgrims reach St Catherine’s fountain, which flows from the base of the Taksarakoli or Karasunagn mountain, before sunrise. They stop next to the cold water and have their breakfast and take their ease. The women like to be sprinkled with water from the fountain, believing in its healing qualities. The pilgrims greet the sunrise singing ‘Zartir park im’ (Awake, my glory), ‘Aravod luso’ (The morning light) and other canticles, singing in unison.

The pilgrims hurry to reach the summit, the Apostle Thaddeus’ place of pilgrimage, before dawn. According to tradition, the saint preached in Marash during the day and ascended the mountain at night to rest. [62]

The pilgrims, after about an hour, reach the summit, where there is an age-old tree, with a pile of stones nearby – a natural holy place. Each pilgrim puts the stone he or she has carried on the pile. It, with all the stones being added, gradually takes on the form of a small chapel altar, like the places of sacrifice in the Old Testament. The pilgrims pray fervently, some sacrifice roosters or leave coins on the stones. All the sacrifices and coins belong to the St Garabed (Holy Forerunner) church in Marash, and in the evening the bell-ringer comes to the holy place, collects them all and takes it to the church.

The high point of the celebration, the real Vartavar ceremony, according to popular custom, is the sprinkling of water, retained until the present as a permanent custom. Old or young, man or woman, all shake water on each other. Water is today’s element, and even shy, modest newly-married women and girls join in the water throwing games. Then the popular celebrations really begin, with singing, dancing and feasting taking place.

Hripsima-Gusank (The Hripsime virgins)

The festival in memory of the Hripsime virgins, canonized by the Armenian Church is, among the Marash Armenians, mainly a women’s festival. They do not spin after returning from church, as a sign of respect for the memory of the martyred virgins. [63]

Asdvaszin (Asdvadzadzin – Holy Mother of God, blessing of the grapes)

According to the church custom that has become established as the norm, grapes are blessed on the feast day of the Holy Mother of God. By custom, dedicating the harvest and the first fruits to God by blessing them, and solemnly doing so in church according to ritual, is a unique ceremony that has taken place from the most ancient times. In Marash, just as the custom is in all Armenian regions, grapes are not eaten until this festival. It being one of the five dominical ones in the church calendar, it is called, by the Marash Armenians Dughuvor (daghavar – tabernacle) and is regarded as important. It is also the feast day of Marash’s Holy Mother of God church. The Blessing of the Grapes (khaghogh urshnil) takes place on this day in all the churches in Marash. [64]

Preparations for the festival begin on the previous day. According to accepted custom, on the Saturday evening before the festival, people take a gift of some of the grapes they have harvested to the church and lay them in rows in the courtyard, asking that the harvest be plentiful and the year will be prosperous; so the church courtyard soon fills up with piles of grapes.

At the end of Mass on Sunday morning the grapes are blessed by church ritual. The devout congregation present enjoys some of the grapes, ending the prohibition on eating them generally. It is also the custom to take a few of the blessed grapes home, to spread the blessing to the whole harvest and the nourishing things made from it. The devout Armenians of Marash have the custom of distributing grapes from house to house and especially to the poor on this day.

It is said that on this festival day the Armenians of Marash have the custom of going on a pilgrimage to the monasteries of the Holy Redeemer and the Holy Mother of God in Zeytun. As Krikor Kalusdian writes: ‘In those days the autonomous state of Zeytun, and ability of the pilgrims to draw breath in a free Armenian region, coupled with religious devotion, were those pilgrimages main charms. But the political suspicions and situation in recent times has diminished the number of pilgrims.’ [65]

Khech (Khach – Cross)

Khachverats or Veratsman Khach (Exaltation of the Holy Cross) is one of the oldest cross festivals that celebrates its first exaltation and veneration. [66] Inaugurating the festival on the day before and being dedicated to the glory of the cross, the Marash Armenians have adopted a special relationship with this feast, placing it among those most important. In accordance with custom, the church’s great cross is decorated with flowers of many colours and scented plants, especially with the leaves of Marash’s famous rehan (basil). Then, carrying this decorated cross, the priests and people process round the church. This ceremony is known by Marash Armenians as rehan urshnil (blessing the basil). [67]

After the church service has ended, women take some of the basil leaves home and put them among the stores in the larder, so that there will be plenty.

A cross belonging to Datev monastery (Sunik). (Source: Historical Museum of Armenia, Yerevan, in Claude Mutafian (ed.), Arménie. La magie de l’écrit, Paris/Marseille, 2007)

Khechan tive (The cross’ number - the cross of Varak)

One of the miraculous apparitions of the cross happened at Varak in 653 AD. Its festival is located in the church calendar on the Sunday between September 25th and October 1st. [68] The Marash Armenians, linking this festival with the date it appeared, call it Khechan tiv (cross’ number), [69] which was probably one the festival’s old names, and is synonymous with that of the cross of Varak.

Isnag (Hisunag – the fifty)

Isnag is the fifty day period that in olden times, although a fast period like Lent, later became restricted, apart from Wednesdays and Fridays, to three weeks, the first carrying the name of hisnagats bahk (fifty day fast), the second St James fast, and the third Christmas fast. [70]

Surp Egiup (St Hagop – St James)

Just like the fast of St Sarkis, one, or 3-5 days of fasting are practiced in memory of St James. According to the accepted ritual, those holding the fast go to church early in the morning and drink khachmer (blessed) water, ending it. [71] By custom engaged girls who have fasted send hrushag (helva) to their fiancee’s home with gifts of slippers, pairs of socks etc. This is often known as ‘St James’ helva’.

Avak Deondek (Avak doner - Great Feasts)

The four special holy festivals are known as great feasts. These occur before the fast of Christ’s Appearance and are considered to be the witnesses to Christ’s birth. These four festivals are:

1.The prophet David and Joseph, Christ’s brother

2.St Stephen the Proto-Martyr

3.The disciples Peter and Paul

4.The disciples Hagopos Klkhatir and John the Gospel-writer. [72]

These four great festivals that occur during the week of December 23-29 have an appropriate place in the Marash Armenian calendar. The Armenians of Marash fervently attend church, the women venerate the saints’ memory and do not spin in the evenings, saying that they are ‘evenings before Sunday’. [73]

  • [1] The descriptions of the notable festivals and especially traditions of the Marash Armenians have been recorded by the unique teacher Hagopos Varjabedian, his writings today having the status of primary sources. The series of articles he wrote on the subject appeared in the journal Piurag in the issues appearing in 1897 and 1898, and have been included, almost verbatim, in Krikor Kalusdian’s book on the history of Marash.
    [2] Krikor Kalusdian, Marash or Kermanig and Heroic Zeytun, 2nd Edition, New York, 1988, page 333. (In Armenian)
    [3] Ibid, page 345.
    [4] Ibid, page 333.
    [5] See Hranush Kharadian-Arakelian, Armenian Popular Festivals, published by Hayastan, Yerevan, 2000, page 18-27. (In Armenian)
    [6] Ibid.
    [7] I transcribed these fragments of the Avedis songs from Mrs Rosine Keshishian of Marash in Aleppo in 1999.
    [8] Ibid.
    [9] Ibid.
    [10] Krikor Kalusdian, op.cit., page 333.
    [11] Ibid., page 334.
    [12] Ibid.
    [13] Ibid.
    [14] Transcribed by me. It was sung by Mrs Rosine Keshishian of Marash in Aleppo in 1999.
    [15] Archbishop Maghakia Ormanian, Dictionary of Ceremonies, Antilias, Lebanon 1979, page 66. (In Armenian)
    [16] Kharadian-Arakelian, op. cit., page 45.
    [17] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 334.
    [18] Ibid., page 335.
    [19] This tradition is explained by the principle that a woman who has just given birth is considered to be unclean for 40 days afterwards and therefore could be attacked by evil forces.
    [20] See St Sarkis (Scientific Assembly subjects), published by ‘Mughni’, Yerevan, 2002.
    [21] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 334.
    [22] Ibid.
    [23] Ibid.
    [24] I transcribed this from Markarid Talatinian of Marash in Aleppo, in the 1990s.
    [25] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 336.
    [26] Ibid.
    [27] Ibid.
    [28] Ibid, page 337.
    [29] Ibid.
    [30] Ormanian, op. cit., page 38.
    [31] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 337.
    [32] Ibid.
    [33] Ormanian, op. cit., page 65.
    [34] Kalusdian, op. cit., 337.
    [35] Ibid.
    [36] Ibid.
    [37] Ibid., page 337-338.
    [38] Ibid., page 338.
    [39] Ibid.
    [40] Ibid.
    [41] Ibid.
    [42] Ibid.
    [43] Ibid.
    [44] Ormanian, op. cit., page 18.
    [45] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 339.
    [46] Ormanian, op. cit., page 50.
    [47] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 339.
    [48] Ibid.
    [49] I transcribed this from Mrs Rosine Keshishian of Marash in Aleppo in 1999.
    [50] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 339.
    [51] Ibid.
    [52] Ibid.
    [53] Ibid., page 340.
    [54] Ibid.
    [55] Ibid.
    [56] Ibid., page 340-41.
    [57] The translation of this song into Armenian from Turkish written using the Armenian alphabet, was made by Koko Geokdjian.
    [58] Ormanian, op. cit., page 43.
    [59] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 341.
    [60] Ormanian, op. cit., page 62.
    [61] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 343.
    [62] Ibid.
    [63] Ibid.
    [64] Ibid., page 344.
    [65] Ibid.
    [66] Ibid.
    [67] Ormanian, op. cit., page 36.
    [68] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 344.
    [69] Ormanian, op. cit., page 29.
    [70] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 344.
    [71] Ormanian, op. cit., page 51.
    [72] Kalusdian, op. cit., page 344.
    [73] Ormanian, op. cit., page 17.
    [74] Ibid.