God places special men and women in struggles of life and death, not based on human desire or plan, but God’s foreknowledge of the sacrifices that will be required of them. Such a man was Rev. Hovhannes Eskijian, and his dear wife, Gulenia Eskijian. Rev. Eskijian was an orphan himself, born in the city of Urfa (Ourfa, Cilicia, Turkey), the ancient name of which was Edessa.
Rev. Eskijian’s father Sarkis Eskijian was the village cobbler. During the 1895 massacre, he was killed with a sledgehammer and then beheaded by the Turks in front of his family. Most of the men, the women and the children of the village were killed as well, some being burned in the village church. Other members of his family escaped the atrocities.
Hovhannes Eskijian was 12 years old at the time. Mrs Daghlian of Pennsylvania tells of her experience when she lived in hiding with her family and the surviving Eskijian family members in the cavern of their courtyard after this massacre. (Reference the handwritten letter Armenian/ English of Mrs Daghlian in our library). The horrible experience left an indelible impression upon their young minds, as to the life among the barbaric Turks. 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, the hometown of future Mrs Eskijian. From college, he went to 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 1910.
After their marriage, the couple moved from Aintab to Kessab, Syria. It was an arduous journey with hired mules and horses to carry their few households and goods to their first parish over the mountain paths. Here in the Kessab area, Rev. Eskijian pastored churches in the tiny villages, Ekiz-Oluk (Twin Hollows, see photo), Keurkune and Kaladouran. Kessab was a section of the old Ottoman Empire, then under French mandate, and now under the Syrian government. Kessab is rich with its own history, being only a few miles south of Antioch, the cradle of early Christianity outside Jerusalem area. The villages of Kessab are located in the high mountains overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, up, above Latakia. It is also the setting of the true story of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. The leaders of the Musa Dagh resistance came down from their hiding places and consulted with Rev. Eskijian for direction during their resistance. The village Keurkune (see photo) lies one mile to the south of Ekiz Oluk. Rev. Eskijian also pastored at times in the village of Kaladouran overlooking the Mediterranean. (See photo). 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. Mr Luther Eskijian is the founder of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum.
In 1913 Rev. Eskijian was called to the Armenian Evangelical Emmanuel Church in Aleppo, Syria. It was a challenging field in a city of thousands. It was not easy for the Reverend to leave his small congregations in the Kessab parish, but God knew the tremendous work that would lie ahead of him because of the war and resulting turmoil that would beset the Armenian people. 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. (See photo.)
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, Shredded, (see detailed information on the next panel), and other locations to die of starvation, disease, thirst, fatigue, and outright murder. The vast khans (inns) and factories of Aleppo were filled with refugees, emptied and filled again by newcomers, persecuted, half-naked and starving. 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 centres, 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 (see the photo taken in 1969), 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.
On one occasion he came home, sad and quiet. He could not eat or speak; he did not even care for the approach of his two little children. After staying motionless for about fifteen minutes, he suddenly burst into tears, crying and sobbing aloud. Then he left his home and not very long after, he came with two little children under each arm. After two more trips, he brought a total of six children home. It happened that during the afternoon he had visited one of the houses of industry in the city where the workers had not picked up the dead for a few days. There he saw a number of dead mothers with small children lying beside them. He discovered that the mothers were all dead, but some of the children still had life in them. Evidently, these mothers fed their children with all they had and had died of starvation, but their children, through near death were still alive. When Rev. Eskijian saw these small children clinging to their dead mothers, his nerves were shattered and he could not sustain the grief. It was these children he brought him for his wife to clean and feed.
He found work for the women in Arab houses and found work for men with the Berlin-Baghdad railway, providing passports for them. He sent quinine and financial assistance to Armenian refugees in Hama, Homs, Damascus, Hauran, even Der Zor, Mesene Ras ul Ain, his agents were Armenian disguised as Arabs who talked Arabic (see photo). He corresponded with Mr Jackson, the chargé d’affaires of the American Embassy to alleviate the suffering to the Armenians and tell the world. He had a great plan and studied many possibilities to help his people, but his unexpected death left many plans unfulfilled. 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. He felt that the persecuted, tortured and hopeless — although they were not permitted an honourable death, they had an honourable resurrection. As he said, in one of his messages as the dark clouds of war and genocide fell on Aleppo,
“Dear friends, be courageous, let us die, but let us no one deny our Lord. This honourable opportunity does not come to us often. I myself am ready for the gallows.”
Even in his death bed 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”. (Taken from the introduction of Twice Born Men which describes his orphanage.) After exhausting himself in a labour of love, he died in a hospital bed of typhus at the age of 34 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.” His final words to his wife were, “I am thankful. Praise His name forever. It does not matter whether I live or die. There is no death for me. Love to all.” Hundreds attended his funeral, a nation of exiles mourned, and his memory lives on.
Mr. Luther Eskijian, Memoirs of Mrs Gulenia Eskijian. Eyewitness Accounts of the Survivors