The Feast at Ballum
Vahe H. Apelian
The words 'Ballum' and the 'Feast of Assumption' have been synonymous to generations of Kessabtsis because Assumption was celebrated among ruins which Kessabtsis called Ballum. The ruins are atop Gassios Ler (Mount Casius) in northwest Syria. The festivity was part of Kessabtsi life from the time they first set foot on the slope of the mountain centuries ago and continued till the late '30s when the mountain was ceded to Turkey by colonial France.
The few surviving photos of the festivities at Ballum show huge chiseled stones and the crumbled walls of what must have been an important building erected atop the barren mountain whose name in Syria is Jabal Akra (Bare Mountain). The "bare" mountain wasn't so when Roman emperors hunted on its slopes. I have not read of any definitive archeological study of the ruins that might explain why Kessabtsis call it Ballum.
Hagop Toroyan, a graduate of Haygazian University of Beirut, is knowledgeable in religious festivities of the Armenian Church. He noted the following on his Facebook page: “The greatest feast exalting the Holy Mother of God is the Feast of the Assumption. It is also one of the five major feast days or daghavars of the Armenian (Apostolic) Church. The Bible tells us that St. Mary continued to live in Jerusalem for some fifteen years after the Resurrection. The Eastern Church tradition says that her funeral was elaborate. The apostles, with the exception of St. Bartholomew, buried her with great reverence in the Garden of Gethsemane. For three days and three nights angelic singing was heard over her tomb. Then the apostles saw a vision of Christ descend from heaven over St. Mary's tomb. When Bartholomew arrived, he wanted to see Mary for one last time. The apostles took him to the tomb, and to their amazement, found it empty. They were convinced her body had been taken to heaven by the Lord. This belief was sanctioned by the Church between the 9th and 12th centuries. The Armenian Church observes the feast for nine days. The sharagans dedicated to Asdvadzadzin are among the most poetic and beautiful of our hymnal. On Assumption Day, following the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the blessing of grapes takes place."
This year Assumption was celebrated on Sunday, August 13.
The blessing of grapes is probably a pagan tradition and is now the centerpiece of the feast. Most fruit trees visibly and beautifully flower to attract the deposition of pollen, but the flowering of grape vines is hardly visible. Nature might have conceived it that way because grapevines self-pollinate and hence the grapes were thought to come on their own without fertilization, which is a procreational act, and thus grapes best symbolized the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. In my youth in Kessab, our paternal granmother would forbid picking grapes from the vines until their blessing. A tradition some continue to this day.
After the annexation of Gassios Ler by Turkey, Kessabtsis celebrated the Feast of Assumption in Eskuran, one of the villages of Kessab also known as Nerki Kyugh, i.e. lower or inner village. It is thought that the first inhabitants of Kessab settled in that part of Kessab and hence its name. Kessabtsis of all persuasions and denominations celebrate the feast together in open air, under a large oak tree, next to the village’s spring. Following the ceremonial sacrificial slaying of lamb, their meat, along with cracked wheat is cooked for the preparation of the day's meal--the traditional Armenian herissa, that starts well before the festivity as its cooking takes long hours. While herissa is cooked in cauldrons, people from all the villages of Kessab converge there, in Nerki Kugh. Religious services are performed while herissa continues to be cooked. The festivities start with the blessing of the grapes.
The main attraction of the festivity is the traditional circle dance of Kessab with davul and zurna. In my younger days it was Hammoud who enlivened the day. Hammoud was an Alevi. The Alevis had made inroads into the Armenian labor force because there was a shortage of laborers after many Kessabtsis repatriated to Armenian in 1947. Hammoud was the patriarch of one such Alevi families who were offered to move into the vacant houses left behind by the repatriated villagers. The children of these Alevi families attended local schools and spoke fluent Armenian. They were village urchins along the rest of us. Many a times I have accompanied Mhanna grazing the animals. He retired few years ago after a long service in the government in charge of registration.
I can still picture Hammoud playing his kavala, his twin-barrel duduke, with his cheeks fully extended, head tilted to one side, at times leaning forward and at other times standing erect accompanied by the davul player, the drummer. Every now and then they would stop and shout something that sounded “subash”. Bash means leader. At each shouting someone would have handed them money and would take the lead of the dancers waving a white handkerchief knotted at one end, as he led the dancers doing the traditional Kessab circle dance, which would go on with dancers leaving, others joining and with some others taking the lead. At times the dancers would chant a tune. I do not remember the words but it started with “Hammoudi, Hammoudi…..”. The theme of the chant was pleading the musicians to go on playing and thus keeping their spirits up. Playing for hours must surely have been a taxing task. Of course there were the kids at the tail of the circle trying to keep pace with adults while mimicking their steps. As I look back I realize that there was no commercialization of any sort. It was just savoring herissa, doing the circle dance and enjoying meeting each other in a festive mood.
The Feast of Assumption continues to be celebrated in Kessab. On March 21, 2014, the Kessabtsis were forced to flee for their lives from the attacking extremists who penetrated the villages from Turkey. After an eighty-eight days exile, on June 15-16, they began returning only to find their homes, business, and churches plundered, wrecked and sacked. Despite the harsh realities they tenaciously observed the feast in August, far from the ruins of Ballum and in the shadow of their beloved Gassios Ler.