One Photographer’s Personal Endeavor to Track Down Survivors of the Armenian Genocide, 100 Years Later

As children, they escaped ruthless state-sponsored violence. Now, these Armenian women and men visit the aching memory of what they left behind

Once in Armenia, Gevorgyan’s brother was adopted from an orphanage nearly a hundred years ago, and she hasn’t seen him since. Diana Markosian
Ruins of churches, like this one in Ani, are reminders of the oppression that Armenians have faced for centuries. Diana Markosian
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were marched into the Syrian desert. Above, a box contains the bones of an Armenian who died there. Diana Markosian
Haneshyan wept upon seeing the image. He reached out to touch it and sang, “My country, my home. You’ve brought the smell of my village to me.” Diana Markosian
Yepraksia Gevorgyan holds an image of the church in Ani she remembers seeing as she escaped Turkey with her family across the Armenian border. Diana Markosian
Sahakyan sits in front of a panel of her hometown of Sason amid the dry farmland that surrounds her home in Armenia. Diana Markosian
Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, took this picture of massacred Armenians. He was outspoken about the genocide. Diana Markosian
Haneshyan asked Markosian to place his picture in his old church, which she found in rubble. She located it from a map drawn by a relative of Haneshyan and with the help of a local Turkish guide. Diana Markosian
Family trees, like the one above of Sahakyan’s family, are a common project in Armenia and often contain all that is known about survivors. Diana Markosian
The city of Ani, in Turkey’s Kars Province, was once the capital of an Armenian kingdom. Known as the “City of 1,001 Churches,” it is now in ruins. Diana Markosian
Gevorgyan’s grandson drew a portrait of her brother based on her description, for an advertisement in a local newspaper. “I don’t know if he is still alive, but maybe I can find his children and then I can be at peace,” she says. Diana Markosian
The National Archives in Yerevan houses volumes, like those above, of documents related to the genocide, such as defunct property records. Diana Markosian
Gevorgyan recalls crossing the Araks River to enter Armenia. It was “red, full of blood” from the corpses that Ottoman soldiers tossed into the water. Diana Markosian
Movses Haneshyan, now 105, stands in front of a panel of an image of his home in Kebusie, Turkey. He was 5 when he fled the village. Diana Markosian
When Markosian and her Turkish guide came upon the ruins of Haneshyan’s childhood church, the guide began to cry. “I’m so sorry,” he said. Diana Markosian
The countryside in Sason, in southeastern Turkey, is rich with farmland. Diana Markosian
An archival portrait of Mariam and her husband when they first married Diana Markosian
In Haneshyan’s village in Turkey, Markosian says she found everything he’d described, including “the tree with the oranges he remembered eating.” Diana Markosian
Now 101, Mariam Sahakyan was born in Sason. She asked Markosian to bring her back soil. She wanted to be buried with it. Diana Markosian
Yepraksia Gevorgyan fled Turkey with her family. Her father was killed along the way, and her mother died soon after they crossed into Armenia. Diana Markosian
A portrait of a family in Kutahya, Turkey, before they fled the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Diana Markosian
Many heirlooms, like the centuries-old jeweled cross at left, were carried into Armenia during the deportations and remain with the families who brought them. Diana Markosian

Few places are more important to Armenian national identity than Mount Ararat, the snowcapped peak that looms over Yerevan, the capital city. A centerpiece of Armenian folklore and religious history where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed, the mountain evokes pride and a sense of place. It is featured on the Armenian coat of arms and currency. But it also looms as a reminder of the tragedy that has dominated Armenian life: Mount Ararat is visible from Armenia, but it belongs to Turkey.

A hundred years ago, as the Ottomans anxiously tried to hold together their collapsing empire, they launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the territory’s Armenian population, whom they feared as a threat to Turkish rule. Between 1915 and 1923, Ottoman forces killed 1.5 million Armenians and expelled half a million more in what is widely considered the first major genocide of the 20th century. Men, women and children were marched to mass graves in the Syrian desert or massacred in their homes. Ottoman soldiers destroyed Armenian churches and villages and confiscated property. Survivors fled into Armenia, then a republic that would soon be swallowed by the Soviet Union. Others scattered around the world.

The Armenian-American photographer Diana Markosian, who had a great-grandfather from eastern Turkey who survived the genocide because Turkish neighbors hid him until it was safe to flee, has undertaken to document the national memory of the event in portraits of living survivors. Raised in Moscow, Yerevan and Santa Barbara, California, Markosian says that she long felt the weight of the genocide as a burden, a “monstrous history you inherited because of your ethnicity.” It’s a history that hasn’t been fully acknowledged. To this day, Turkey disputes the extent of the killings and denies that they were planned by Ottoman officials, and the U.S. government declines to recognize the atrocities as a “genocide,” a word no sitting American president has used to describe the fate of the Armenians.

Consulting voter registries to track down Armenian citizens born in Turkey before 1915, Markosian found some survivors still alive in Armenia, now an independent nation of three million people. She photographed them in their homes and, later, after traveling to the places they had fled, she reunited the survivors with images of their lost hometowns and documented the reunions.

The images are surreal meetings at the crossroads of place and memory. Farmland has overtaken villages; ancient mountaintop churches stand in ruins. Some of the survivors wept when they saw her photos of their former homes, which beckoned like Ararat in the distance, enduring but out of reach. “I wanted to help the survivors reclaim a part of their own history,” Markosian says. “But how do you show something that’s not there?”

Related Reads

Preview thumbnail for video 'A History of the Armenian Genocide

A History of the Armenian Genocide

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.