Khachkars – Gravely Unique and an ‘Endangered Specie’

Some years after I had returned from teaching and traveling in Southeast Asia, I thumbed through photos I had taken. In one, I stood next to a large gravestone. At first, i couldn’t remember why I would ever ask someone to snap such a picture of me.

A closer examination of the black and white jogged the memory of my initial surprise at finding such a grave marker in – of all places – Macau, the Portuguese-run settlement off the southern coast of China. The stone itself was in no way special. It looked so much like any I had seen in North America. But the name and dates on it were special, Robert Morrison, 1782 – 1834. Why in the world would Robert Morrison be buried in Macau? Wasn’t Mr. Morrison the Scottish Christian who had made the first English-Chinese dictionary and given the Chinese people their first, published, Chinese translation of the Bible? Then why was his body in neither China nor Scotland?

When I turned over this pebble on the beach of history, I discovered that the Chinese Emperor hadn’t allowed Robert Morrison to work on his dictionary and Bible translation inside China. And due to alternating pressures from the suspicions of the Cantonese mandarins (Chinese magistrates) about foreigners and their intentions and objections from the Roman Catholic priests in Macau over the fact that Mr. Morrison was a Protestant, Mr. Morrison and his wife had been forced to split his decades of effort between Canton and Macau. After he died in Canton in 1834, he was buried in Macau because the graves of his first wife and their first infant lay there.

While the circumstances surrounding Robert Morrison’s burial were unique, I hadn’t viewed his memorial gravely unique.

The khachkars of the ancient Armenians, however, proved to be remarkably and gravely unique. Intricately carved of pink or yellowish stone, these headstones showed in delicate and complex relief a central, single cross ( or a set of three) surrounded by saints, angels, birds, and symbols for infinity or eternity.

While some khachkars were carved as early as the ninth century, many more were erected as burial memorials from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. For over half a millennium, khachkars could be found everywhere in the area of Asia Minor that had once been Armenia and not just in its cemeteries.

It was as if, in response to the destruction of their churches and their capital Ani, the Armenian people must commemorate the deaths of their loved ones with the ultimate symbol of Christianity, Christ’s cross.

Even after Armenians were deported by Persia’s Shah in the early 17th century from Julfa, the capital city that had taken the place of Ani, Julfa’s cemetery of 10,000 khachkars remained. The same was true of other areas in Turkey from which Armenians were removed in 1915. No Armenians remained, but their khachkars did.

The removal of Armenians from their lands was apparently not enough. Within the last four or five decades even those evidences of Armenian existence have been attacked – by sledge-hammer, pick axes, and, more recently, bulldozers. The khachkars have been broken up and the fragments reused for the buildings of Kurds and Turks.

A case in point is the cemetery of what had once been Julfa’s. Those khachkars were turned to rubble by Azeri soldiers under orders from the government of Turkey in 2005. Four hundred years after the Julfa Armenians were deported and their city was leveled, the Turkish government removed the last sign that Armenians had ever lived in that area of modern-day Turkey – their gravely unique Armenian symbol of a Christian’s death, the khachkar, the stone cross.

Although the extent of Turkish efforts to eradicate surprises me, such action should not. After all, God’s Word calls Jesus Christ and His death on a cross, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” (I Peter 2: 8) For two thousand years, Christ’s cross has been an offence to many people, not just to Turks.

The beauty of it is that efforts to eradicate the symbol in no way destroys Christ’s ability to redeem those who believe in Him.