KESAB – A brief history
KESAB – A brief history –
Kesab, Kessab or Kasab is an Armenian-populated town in northwestern Syria, administratively part of the Latakia Governorate, located 59 kilometers north of Latakia. It is situated near the border with Turkey on the slope of Mount Casius (Mount Aqraa, meaning “the Hairless” or “the Bald,”) 800 meters above sea level. According to the Syria Central Bureau of Statistics, Kesab had a population of 1,754 in the 2004 census.
With its dry climate and encirclement by wooded green mountains and deep valleys, Kesab is a favored vacation resort for many of Aleppo and Latakia’s residents.
Administratively, Kesab belongs to Latakia District; one of the governorate’s four Manatiq, and the centre of Kesab nahiyah sub-district. It has around 2,000 inhabitants. The name of the town is thought to be derived from the Latin expression Casa Bella (i.e. the Beautiful House).
The town is 59 kilometers north of Latakia, just 3 kilometers away from the Turkish border (which is the former Syrian province of Alexandretta), and 9 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea.
Being at an average height of 800 meters (about 2,600 feet) above sea level in the middle of a dense coniferous Mediterranean forest, the town is one of the most popular summer destinations in Syria, among the foreigners and locals.
Kesab is an ancient Armenian town, which dates back to the period of Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. The population today is mainly Armenian with an Alawite Arab minority. The town is surrounded with small villages and farms with a majority of Armenians: Duzaghaj, Esguran, Sev Aghpyur, Chinar, Chakhaljekh, Keorkeuna, Ekizolukh, Baghjaghaz (Upper and Lower), Karadouran, Karadash and the abandoned village of Bashurd .
With a height of 1105 meters above sea level, Mount Selderan located in the area of “Chalma Spring” is the highest peak of the Syrian side of Kesab region, while the peak of Mount Casius located in the Turkish side few meters away from the borderline is the highest point of the whole region with a height of 1709 meters above sea level.
The region of Kesab was part of the ancient civilization that spread from the Syrian coasts up to the Orontes River, six millennia ago. During the Seleucid period the Kesab region was at the centre of the triad comprised Antioch, Seleucia and Laodicea. The Laodicea-Seleucia coastal road passed by the Karadouran bay whereas the Laodicea-Antioch road passed through the Duzaghaj valley. The Mount Casius at those times, was believed to have been the sanctuary of Zeus. During the reign of the ruler of the short-lived Armenian Empire Tigranes The Great, in the 1st century BC, and later the Roman era, the Syrian coast flourished greatly and had a positive affect on the development of the Kesab region.
There are no written sources about the primitive history of the Kesab region, but the first record of the name of Kesab was mentioned in a historical document dating back to the Crusaders period when Duke Belmont I granted the region of “Kasbisi” to the family of Peter the Hermit. Kasbisi, Cassembella or Cassabella are the names from which “Kesab” was derived.
Being located on the borders of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, the region of Kesab was gradually developing by its Armenian migrants. A research conducted on the peculiarities of the Kesab Armenian dialect and the dialects of the Armenians in the region of Alexandretta and Suweidiyeh, shows that the Armenians of Kesab and the surrounding villages are the remainders of migrants who came from the region of Antioch. The migration of the Armenians to the region increased in the 14th and the 15th centuries, during the Mamluk and the Ottoman periods, in an attempt to avoid persecutions, trying to find much more safer mountainous regions such as Kesab and Musa Dagh. The first Armenian refugees settled in the area now called Esguran. After a period they moved uphill and settled in the area now called the town of Kesab, turning it to a centre of the whole region and the destination of new refugees.
During the 1850s Kesab turned into a mission field with the arrival of Evangelical and Catholic missionaries rising anger among the Armenians of the region who were following the Armenian Apostolic Church. In the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Kesab region was around 6000 (all Armenians), with more than 20 schools, as a result of denominational and political divisions.
The first disaster in Kesab happened in April 1909. This calamity costed the Armenians 161 deaths and a massive material loss. After the event, Catholicos Sahag I Khabaian visited Kesab.
The Armenian Genocide in 1915 proved even more destructive. The command of the genocide initiation arrived in Kesab on the 26th of July to start deportations within 5 days. First, the people expressed a desire to rebel and fortify on the mountain Dounag located in Karadouran. Priest Bedros Papoujian-Aprahamian, the priest of Karadouran, particularly supported the idea of the opposition, but on the real ground, the whole idea failed to become a reality. The genocide of the Armenians in Kesab region started from Karadouran. The Armenians were deported in two directions: one towards the dessert of Deir ez-Zor and the other towards the south to the desert of Jordan. Almost five thousand Armenians were killed during this deportation process. Some died in Jisr al-Shughur, some in Hama or Homs while others on the way to Damascus or Jordan. The majority of the refugees were killed in the desert of Deir ez-Zor. After the ceasefire, the Armenians who survived the genocide returned to Kesab in a process that lasted till 1920. But the eastern and northern areas of the region still remained unsecured, because they were constantly vulnerable to attacks from neighboring Turkish villages. A voluntary group of 40 men successfully foiled many attempts by bandits to invade the region at that time. In 1922, peace was established after the entrance of the French troops into Kesab.
On the 5th of July 1938, the Turkish army entered the Sanjak of Alexandretta and Antioch, in an agreement with the French colonial authorities, and the region was renamed as the province of Hatay Province. Many Armenians left Kesab for Lebanonor took refuge in the mountains. Many important personalities visited Kesab during that time. On 23 June 1939, the Hatay government was officially dissolved and the whole region became part of Turkey. By the efforts of the Armenian community of Paris, Cardinal Krikor Bedros Aghajanian and the Papal representative to Syria and Lebanon Remi Leprert, many parts of Kesab inhabited by Armenians were separated from Turkey and placed within the Syrian boundaries. The result of the annexation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta proved disastrous for the Armenians of Kesab: Mount Casius was attached to the Turkish side including their farms, properties, laurel tree forests and the grazing lands located in the mountain’s bosoms and valleys that once used to belong to the native Armenians. Besides, with this annexation, the Armenians of the town were also deprived from their traditional and historical Barlum Monastery, where the inhabitants used to celebrate the feast of Surp Asdvadzadzin (feast of Virgin Mary) during the month of August of each year.
In March 2014, during the Syrian Civil War the population of Kesab and the surrounding villages was evacuated.
- Duzaghaj: the first village on the way to Kesab located around 4 km to the south of the town. Settlers came to Duzaghaj during the middle of the 19th century when it was completely surrounded by evergreen forests, on the road that was linking Lattakia with Antioch. Within few years the area was turned into big farms and more settlers came from neighbouring villages. The village was targeted by Turkish invaders on 23 April 1909. In 1915, the villagers were deported in two groups together with the dwellers of Keorkeuna. A small part of the deported people returned between 1919 and 1920. In 1939, after the new definition of the Syrian borders, the eastern part of Duzaghaj fell in the Turkish side. In 1947, the majority of the villagers migrated to Soviet Armenia. The original village of Duzaghaj is abandoned today. The new generation has moved to live along the main road building their houses closer to the motor way. Nowadays, around 10 Armenian families live in Duzaghaj.
Esguran: or Nerki Kegh in Armenian (the lower village) located 2 km to south-east of Kesab. The village consists of two parts, the first located at the bottom of the slopes of Mount Casius and the second is further down next to the fountain near the Turkish border. The nearby settlement of Khayit is also considered a part of Esguran. In 1909, the villagers along with the people in Khayit abandoned the village and escaped to Kesab. Esguaran became the first village to be destroyed and burnt by the Turks during that calamity. In 1915, like all the people in the other villages, the dwellers of Esguran and Khayit were deliberately deported towards the Syrian Desert. Only 50 people returned in 1920, which indicates that three-quarters of the villagers were killed. In 1939, after the Syrian new boarders were drawn, Kesab lost its traditional site of pilgrimage; The Barlum Monastery, which was allocated to the Turks. Therefore, the Armenians of Kessab built a small chapel in Esguran to host the celebrations of the Assumption of Virgin Mary. The Sivdigi chapel of the Orthodox Greeks, which once stood on a small hill just on the Syrian–Turkish borderline, was recently destroyed by the Turks. According to the census in 1955, Esguran and Khayit had only 68 inhabitants. Nowadays, the village has few Armenian inhabitants and is almost left empty after the dwellers moved to settle in Kesab.
Sev Aghpyur: was originally the cultivating land possessed by locals. Located less than 2 km east of Kesab. The hired labourers in the area gradually became owners of the lands they worked in and formed the majority of the population in Sev Aghpyur. At the beginning of the 20th century, the village was significantly shaped. The villagers cultivated mainly tobacco. In 1909 the Turks coming from the Ordu in the east, destroyed a big part of the village by putting it on fire. In 1915 the three quarters of the villagers were killed during the deportations. The Census carried out in 1911 indicates that the village consisted of 445 individuals, whereas in 1920 consisted of 94 individuals only. After the new Syrian borders were drawn in 1939 some of the lands fell on the Turkish side thus denying the villagers a great deal of their lands. In 1947 when the repatriation process started many of the villagers migrated to Soviet Armenia. After the repatriation many of the lands forsaken by the Armenian populace were taken over by the Alawite population thus becoming a major residing group in Sev Aghpyur. Nowadyas, the main occupation of the remaining Armenians is the production of apples. In 1990, the Aleppo based Syriac Orthodox community established a monastery in the village.
Chinar: was originally formed over the south eastern foot of the “Korom Mountain”, 3 km to the south of Kesab. There were two main quarters in Chinar before the Genocide; the quarter of the fountain, and the quarter of Katabians (after Katabian family). A deep valley of a length of 500 meters separated the two areas. After the return of the genocide survivors, a new quarter was formed on the right side of the valley named Anti Chinar. In 1909, the Turks destroyed the village. In 1911, Chinar had 176 dwellers, while in 1915; 210 dwellers. Almost two third of the population in Chinar were killed during the genocide. In 1920, around 77 genocide survivors returned to the village. In 1947, the majority of the villagers migrated to Armenia. In 1965, Chinar had 40 Armenian families. Today, Chinar has a mixed population of Armenians and Arabs and considered a summer resort.
Chakhaljekh: located less than 4 km to the south of Kesab and few hundred meters north-west of Chinar. The village is famous for its natural springs and gigantic trees. Westwards of Chakaljekh existed another quarter called Mateslek after the Matosian family who occupied the yard. The village was put to fire and plundered by the Turks in 1909. In 1915, the people in Chakaljekh were deported along with the dwellers of Keorkeuna in two groups. In 1947, 29 individuals from Chakhaljekh migrated to Armenia. Within the last few decades, Chakaljekh has been transformed into a summer resort. A beautiful district of individual villas has been constructed at the backside of the original village.
- Keorkeuna: located around 5 km to the south of Kesab, few hundred meters west of Chakhaljekh and around 2 km to the east of Ekizolukh. The scattered historical remains in the village indicate that Keorkeuna had been inhabited since old times. The Armenian chapel of Surp Stepanos stood on the south-eastern hill of the village until the beginning of the 19th century. On 23 April 1909, Keorkeuna was invaded by Turks who put the village to fire and destruction. In 1915, more than one third of the villagers were killed during the Genocide. In 1947, 63 individuals migrated to Armenia, particularly of the Chelebian family and 114 individuals remained in the village. Today, the number of the residents increases in Keorkeuna during summer time where native Armenians of Keorkeuna who live in different cities of Syria or Lebanon, return to their houses and properties. Many Armenian families from Aleppo obtain private villas in the village. Currently, the only active church in Keorkeuna belongs to the Evangelical Armenians. Keorkeuna is a quite beautiful and calm summer resort.
Ekizolukh: built at the beginning of the 19th century around 4 km west of Kesab. The main occupation of the villagers was grazing and agriculture. During the calamity in 1909, the villagers abandoned their village and took refuge in the Latin monastery (nowadays Armenian Catholic) in Baghjaghaz. In August 1915, the dwellers of Ekizolukh were deliberately deported and the village lost more than two thirds of its residents. Between 1919 and 1922 when there was no official authority ruling the region, Joe Toutigian organized a group of volunteered soldiers to provide security not only to Ekizolukh, but also to the “Valley of Honey” (Meghratsor) and the surrounding villages, with the assistance of the volunteers from the centre Kesab. In 1947, the people in Ekizolukh did not welcome the idea of repatriation, with only 20 individuals migrated to Armenia. The only active church in the village is the Armenian Evangelical Emmanuel Church, as the whole residents of Ekizolukh turned to Evangelism in 1855. Since the middle of the 20th century, Armenians from Aleppo started to invest in Ekizolukh. Consequently it became the first village to have a paved road linking it with Kesab, to have water network and electricity.
Baghjaghaz: Upper Baghjaghaz is located on the way to Ras Basit on the northern slope of the mount Selderan, about 12 km west of Kesab. The village was found sometime in the middle of the 19th century. In 1915, the villagers were deported along with the residents of Ekizolukh. The census carried out in 1920 shows that 14 families were living in Upper Baghjaghaz at that time. In 1947, 81 individuals migrated to Armenia. In 1955, a survey in the village indicated the presence of 41 individuals. Currently, 9 families dwell in the village. Lower Baghjaghaz is located 14 km west of Kesab only 2 km away from Upper Baghjaghaz. Its original dwellers settled in the village at the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of the century the families had grown and were separated into several quarters named after each family. The Armenian dwellers of the village spoke in Turkish and very few of them understood the dialect of Kesab. They were registered without the suffix ‘ian’ attached to their surnames. The Latin Armenians of the Franciscan order established a monastery in the village and they took the Armenian dwellers under their supervision. They bought a huge landscape in Kabachinar to serve this purpose. In 1909, the Armenian refugees from the south-eastern villages of Kesab found refuge in the monastery and then moved to Ras Basit aided by the monks of the monastery. The villagers were able to return to their houses after few days of plunder. In August 1915, the villagers were deported towards Jisr ash-Shugur, Aleppo and Hama. Three quarters of the villagers were killed during the Genocide. The Latin monks continued to serve in until 1946 when they left Kesab and Baghjaghaz, and handed their churches over to the Armenian Catholic community. In 1947, the majority of the villagers of Lower Baghjaghaz migrated to Soviet Armenia. In 1960, the expatriation phenomenon left the village completely abandoned.
Karadouran: located in a valley 4 km west of Kesab after the village of Karadash, starting from a height of 900 meters above sea level all the way down towards the Mediterranean Sea. The village is an assembly of several small and large quarters spread all over the deep valley. Each quarter is named after the family that occupied the quarter, for instance: the Soulian (Soullek), the Zahterian (Zahterlek), the Yaralian (Yarallek), the Saghdejian (Saghdejlek) and the largest one the Manjikian (Manjigounts, Manjeklek). Karadouran was considered to be the most crowded village of Kesab. The census carried out after 1909 indicates the presence of 1286 individuals in the village. After the 1915 Genocide, only 45% of the deported natives returned to Karadouran by the end of 1920. After the definition of the new Syrian-Turkish border in 1939, most villagers of Karadouran lost their properties, which fell in the newly formed Turkish side. Around 800 villagers left Karadouran for Armenia during the repatriation process. The village frequently suffers from landslide, which forced many villagers to move to Kesab or to the nearby village of Karadash. Currently, three churches are functioning in the village.
Karadash: located 2 km west of Kesab at a height of 990 meters above sea level, at the beginning of Karadouran valley. Karadash was not inhabited until 1942, when the residents of Karadouran moved to Karadash escaping the huge landslip. During the last two decades, more families from Kesab and Karadouran moved to live and reclaim the lands in Karadash. Lately, Armenians from Aleppo have built many villas and compounds in the village transferring it into a nice summer resort.
- Bashurd: located on the Syrian-Turkish border around 7 km west of Kesab, approximately 5 km westwards Karadash. It was originally the main grazing area of the shepherds in the Kesab region. The village was founded during the mid-19th century. During the calamity in 1909, the villagers and the refugees were forced to abandon the village, which was completely gutted by the Turks. During the Genocide of 1915, the residents of Bashurd and Karadouran were driven towards the city of Hama. After the genocide, the population of the village counted only 45 inhabitants instead of the 85 individuals as indicated in the 1911 census. However, the definition of the new Syrian-Turkish border in 1939, allocated the properties of the Armenians to the Turks, a fact that made it impossible to preserve the flocks grazing in the area. In 1947, the entire population of the village -about 65 individuals- moved to Soviet Armenia within the frames of repatrietation process. Nowadays, the half-ruined homes of the abandoned village could be seen in the area.
Kesab has three operating Armenian churches:
The Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) Armenian Apostolic Church of Kesab (dates back to the Middle Ages, renovated in 1880).
- The Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical Church of Kesab (1909, renovated in 1997).
- Saint Michael the Archangel Armenian Catholic Church of Kesab (1925).
- Surp Stepanos (Saint Stephen) Armeian Apostolic Church built in 909 in Karadouran village near the Syrian-Turkish borderline. Surp Stepanos is the oldest standing Armenian church in Syria. It was renovated in 1987 by the Armenian-French organization “Yergir yev Mshaguyt” (Country and Culture).
- Church of the Holy Mother of God of the Apostolic Armenians in Karadouran village. On 18 October 2009, His Holiness Aram I Catholicos (of the Holy See of Cilicia), consecrated the new Virgin Mary’s Church in Karadouran. The newly built church came to replace the old church that was built in 1890 and ruined in 1942, then built again in 1950 and was about to crumble in the beginning of the 21st century.
- Emmanuel Armenian Evangelical Church in Ekizolukh (opened in 1911, construction completed in 1956).
- The Armenian Evangelical Church in Keorkeuna.
- The Armenian Evangelical Church in Karadouran (1908, renovated in 1986)
- The Church and the Convent of Our Lady of Assumption of the Catholic Armenians in Baghjaghaz (1890, renovated in 2003).
Nowadays there are around 3000 Armenian inhabitants in Kesab and the surrounding villages, mainly involved in agriculture. They have their own dialect of the Armenian language, which is still in use even among the new generation.
The number of Kesab visitors usually grows during summers especially in the month of August, when a lot of Armenians choose this mountainous town, to celebrate the Assumption of Virgin Mary. Many groups of Armenian scout movements visit Kesab to attend their summer camping programmes.
During the last 20 years the town witnessed a construction booming with the inauguration of several high-class hotels, luxurious residential buildings and the renovation of the existing churches. Many modern and attractive hotels were built during the recent years.
Kesab is famous for its high-quality laurel soaps and tasty apples.
Currently, there are three operating schools in Kesab:
The Armenian National high school of Usumnasirats (high school since 2002).
The Armenian Evangelical school.
The Good Hope Armenian Catholic school.
Since late 2008, the National school of Usumnasirats is undergoing a major expansion process, planned by the Apostolic Armenian Prelacy, diocese of Aleppo.