There’s a principle in chemistry called “Isotopic Abundance” which is basically the relative proportions of a stable isotope in each element. These isotopes come from the ground, the land, the water and even the air in a particular location and are different everywhere. So studying the proportions of isotopes in elements of organic matter – like cotton plants or fruit trees or bears – you can understand where they came from.
The fingerprints of the land on the elements that make up organic matter. Including people.
There is something mysterious about the connection between people and land. Why is it we all fight over it so much? Wars rage in Europe even right now over land. People have been fighting over pieces of land forever. And I daresay they will continue; because there is something that resonates within people about the land they come from and their need to protect and defend it. Sometimes people leave, intermarry, creating a new ethnicity in a new land – the ethnogenesis that Gumilev writes about; and the cycle starts again. Because new ethnicities also arise connected to the land upon which they were born.
Enter the Armenians, one of the few groups that still hold their land; although it is a sliver now of what it once was in the glory days maybe 2000 or 2500 years ago. When it stretched from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.
It is this connection that Philip Mardsen explores in “The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians”. How Armenians, through patient and careful devotion to their culture, their language, their faith, and their land (even those who have never been there) have maintained their civilization during the hardest times, like the wicked 20th century. The century of their attempted extermination. Mardsen starts in Jerusalem, in the Armenian Quarter, and makes his way around Eastern Europe visiting Armenian diaspora communities and trying to get a sense of how they hold their civilization even separated from their land for hundreds of years.
But it is a shadow; a rough imprint etched on their consciousness; a hollow echoing, a resonance that comes even from the isotopes in elements from which they are made and gets stronger and stronger and stronger the closer they come to Mt. Ararat. The only parallel I can think of is Israel and their Holy City of Jerusalem.
The curious thing about this book, coming from somebody who lived in Armenia for two years (me), is that the book itself starts out fairly academic. Cataloging facts about the diaspora; even the accounts of the genocide lack empathy and passion. But when Mardsen finally finds entrance into Armenia (it was right during the fall of the Soviet Empire when travel in the Caucasus was fraught and complicated) the prose starts to resonate. As Mardsen discovers Lake Sevan and the Khachkars and the monasteries he finally seems to “get it”. It is not about wealth or power or opulence. What he discovers is an aboriginal people on their ancient land which forms a sort of unbreakable connection that generates its own harmony. (It is the same thing I discovered).
And it is an extraordinary thing.