Marash, American Evangelical Seminary, 1908, Cilician Armenia

Reverend Hovhannes Eskijian was born around 1882 in Urfa, Turkey (also known by its ancient name Edessa). His father, Sarkis Eskijian was the village cobbler and died during the 1895 Hamidian Massacres. Hovhannes Eskijian was 12 years old at the time. After this event, Rev. Eskijian was taken to the American orphanage. He was mentored there by Miss Corrine Shattuck. Miss Shattuck encouraged him in the Christian faith, and he gave his life to Christ. As it would turn out to be, his own desperation was only preparation for the ministry ahead. Upon completing his local education he attended the Aintab Boys College. He then continued his education at the Marash Theological Seminary, graduating in June 1908 and starting to preach at the age of 26 in the local villages. Nearby Miss. Gulenia Danielian attended the Marash Girl’s College. They met and were married in 1907.

Life in Kessab, Syria

Hovhannes and Gulenia Eskijian on their wedding day, August 6, 1910, in Aintab, Turkey (historic Ottoman Empire)

After their marriage, the couple moved from Aintab to Kessab, Syria. Here in the Kessab area, Reverend Eskijian pastored churches in tiny villages like, Ekiz-Oluk (Twin Hollows, see photo), Keurkune and Kaladouran. Rev. Eskijian used to walk to each village to give his sermons. Sometimes, while walking in the dark, he took a walking cane with a hidden dagger in the handle for protection and wore a long black cape. Rev. and Mrs Eskijian had two children during that time, John and Luther.

Ekiz-Oluk
Luther and John with their father on the future grounds of the Evangelical church in Ekiz-Oluk, in Kessab, circa 1912

In 1913 Rev. Eskijian was called to the Armenian Evangelical Emmanuel Church in Aleppo, Syria. The Armenians in Ekiz-Oluk had fond memories of their pastor. Although Rev. Eskijian began building a church in Ekiz-Oluk before he left for Aleppo, he never finished the building. The villagers worshipped in their homes for many years, until Luther and John Eskijian financed the completion of the church.

Reverend Eskijian and the Armenian Genocide

As the Turkish massacres and deportations of 1915 heightened, vast avenues of service opened up for Rev. Eskijian. Aleppo was the crossroads on the highway of deportation and death. Thousands of Armenians were brought to Aleppo to be deported to the slaughterhouses of Der Zor, Ras ul Ain among other locations to die of starvation, disease, thirst, fatigue, and outright murder. The vast khans (inns) and factories of Aleppo were filled with refugees. Rev. and Mrs Eskijian were busy every day with these people. Not only did they welcome many of these Armenians into their own home, but also served them outside their home in many hiding places. They gave food, administered medicine, provided money and protection to their utmost capacity, finding hiding places for those being hunted by the Turks. Rev. Eskijian would find hundreds of these desperate Armenians and save them from the death marches.

In 1915 Armenians poured into Aleppo setting up makeshift tents, perhaps their last homes, amid filth, lice, corpses, and starving sick people waiting to be sent to the desert. At two notorious deportation centers, Karlik and the Railway Station in Aleppo, Rev. Eskijian helped many destitute Armenians. He had a special passport to enter these death stations and give help to the Armenians, which permit he utilized to the fullest. Giving up sleep, he listened for the sounds of the trains and headed to the stations. He went through the wagons and picked up the children, young girls and young men and brought them into town, regardless of religious affiliation. Rev. Eskijian also went to Karlik at night, picking up Armenian orphans, bringing them to his home under his coat. Mrs. Eskijian washed clothes and fed them. He had agents who helped many Armenians escape from Karlik. The refugees came all day from morning to evening. Mrs. Eskijian ministered to their physical needs. Rev. Eskijian tried to find shelter, clothes and food and maintained contact with those in hiding. He opened an orphanage for the children, roaming through the streets of the city, and taking these young ones to be saved. When one young man complained that Rev. Eskijian had not saved his parents, he replied that the young must be saved so that the nation would not perish.

He nevertheless was instrumental in saving thousands from death with other dedicated workers. His motto was, “We must do all we can do to save one more Armenian by all possible means.” Rev. Eskijian became more energetic the more dangerous the situation became. Some called him the “white angel” and the people he ministered to loved him as their own fathers and mothers and grieved just as deeply when he died. Even on his deathbed, in the hospital with 105 temperature his last request was “Do not starve my orphans do not budget their daily food rations, feed them well”. – Reverend Eskijian, from the introduction of Twice Born Men.)

After exhausting himself in a labour of love, he died in the hospital of typhus at the age of 34, in 1916 which he caught from the lice on the children he embraced. He died the day before he was to be publicly hanged. When the gendarmes came to take him away from his hospital bed, Mrs. Eskijian said, “You can not have him, he is free.”