Armenian Jerusalem

Elia Kahvedjian's adept fingers could tease the strings of his banjo and

mandolin into seductive dances and renditions, just as skillfully and

felicitously as they could coax his treasured Hasselblad and Leica into

turning out irresistible photographic compositions.

      A legend in his time, the mild-mannered Armenian photographer of Jerusalem, survived a horrendous ordeal of starvation, torture and genocide, and a run in with nefarious cannibals, by dint of sheer guts, determination and luck, to leave an indelible imprint on the cultural history of the Holy City.       Until today, his odyssey from the killing fields of Urfa, the erstwhile mystical outpost on the ancient Silk Road, through the death marches in the desert of Syria that became drenched in Armenian blood, to eventual sanctuary in Jerusalem, had been available told only in Armenian in a book published in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1995.       But thanks to the efforts of his son Harout, urged on by the indefatigable journalist and editor, Jirayr Tutunjian, we now have an English translation in our hands.       Despite entreaties from his children, he had refused to publish the torrential volume of photographs he had taken over the 70 years he had wielded various camera: the ones he began with, the wieldy post-Daguerreotype contraptions with their cumbersome glass-plate negatives, until he graduated to sample the delights and perceptions of German ingenuity.       "Not now," he would tell the persistent Harout. "Maybe later. If anything happens to me, you know exactly where the negatives are. You know what my plan is. Maybe someday you and your brother [Kevork] will work together and publish [them] in a book form. I leave these negatives to my children."       The English version of the autobiography of the man dubbed the last survivor of the Armenian genocide, is entitled "From the Red Desert to Jerusalem." A labor of love and devotion from Harout, the 300-page book he has edited and published is a gripping narrative, lavishly embellished with choice specimens of the master's art.       This is a harrowing narrative, with its depiction of the depredation of predatory barbarians: not easy fare for the squeamish.       It had to be told.       Harout's mellifluous translation from the Armenian into English makes for easeful if painful reading, his sensitive and informative colophons indicative of the veneration in which he holds his father, and the great pains he has taken to put the tale into a proper perspective, with frequent forays into historical background.       His portraiture of Elia depicts him as a gentle, affectionate father who was never happier than when he was surrounded by his wife and children.       "He always had time for us, no matter what, even when he came home from work, after punishingly long hours, tired and hungry, he would always play with us," Harout reminisces.       Strumming his banjo or mandolin, he would forget for a moment the pain and suffering of the past.       Elia had lost his childhood when he was 5.       "His eyes had seen more misery than anyone could imagine. In his young life, he had become witness to such horror, death and destruction," but none of his terrible experiences affected the great capacity for love that resided in his heart.       He began his photographic career at the age of 14, working long hours, six days a week, for Jerusalem's prestigious Hanania family. But eventually, he took over the business and transformed it into a lodestone for camera and photo buffs.       Elia's chronicles inevitably evoke comparison with Franz Werfel's popular book about the Armenian massacres, "The 40 Days of Musa Dagh." In painstaking detail, Elia pays tribute to the heroic resistance of the Armenians of Urfa who, subjected though they were to daily and sometimes hourly abuse at the hands of the Turks, managed to hold off the hordes armed with ramshackle weaponry and depleted ammunition, succeeding in resisting repeated onslaughts and even springing an ambush on advancing Turkish troops and forcing their withdrawal, before being overwhelmed by superior forces and armor.       Elia pulls no punches and uses no euphemisms: the Turks were demoniacally determined to eradicate the Armenian entity from their history.       Defeated and captured, the surviving Armenians, with little Elia in tow, were hustled into the red desert of Syria along the notorious Deir Zor trail that decimated thousands. Many would drop down by the road, never to get up again. And Elia would live to witness one atrocity after another: never in his life would be forget the sight of the mounted Turkish soldier as he swung his sabre and decapitated a little hungry boy who had the temerity to ask for some water.       "It [the head] fell with a dull thud on the ground, rolled several times and came to a stop a few paces from where we were," Elia recalls.       At one stage during his odyssey, Elia was picked up by a Kurd who, despite treating him with unaccustomed kindness and gentleness, in turn sold him to an Assyrian Christian family.       Eventually, Elia would end up in an orphanage, before anchoring himself in the final stop, Jerusalem.       Elia retired in 1993, after his fruitful career documenting the delights and despair of Jerusalem. According to Harout, he "probably took more photographs of Jerusalem and the Holy Land than anybody else. Several of his memorable pictures ended up as tourist postcards.       Lionized and honored in his adopted new home, Elia never forgot his hometown and recalls how fond of life his community had been.       "They enjoyed social gatherings and parties. According to centuries old customs, every Saturday evening families of the same profession or trade gather3ed in the house of one of their colleagues and partied till the morning hours."       Urfa was no provincial backwater. Harout reminds us that it is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. Located in southeastern Turkey, it lies between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, at a distance of only 50 km from the Syrian border. Down the centuries, it has been variously called Orfa, Ourha and Edessa and had once been the capital of the Hurrian- Mitonian kingdoms.       But the years have not been kind to it, its demise culminating in the devastation of 1915 that transmogrified its idyllic way of life into a quagmire of blood.       "From the Red Desert to Jerusalem" joins the growing library of testimony against man's inhumanity to man weighed against the courage and endurance of the weak and disinherited in the face of oppression, and the indomitable will to overcome.       And one man's determination to have the grace not to let affliction and adversity cripple him, but to dig down deep into his soul and uncover and nurture the golden core of genius he has been endowed with, unclouded by the dark forces of evil.       The publication of the book will be marked with a special event to be held in Glendale, California, on December 6.        (Nov 16, 2014)