Masara

Vahe H. Apelian, 20 May 2013

In an Oct. 20 1906 letter Kessab missionary Miss Effie Chambers alluded to masara to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) on whose behalf she was doing mission work among the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The letter pertained to the schools in Kessab.

Miss Chambers said that there were six schools in Kessab. The locals supported four of the schools. Another school was supported by the Kessabtsis and the ABCFM to prepare students for further education in Aintab.

Vahe H. Apelian, 20 May 2013

In an Oct. 20 1906 letter Kessab missionary Miss Effie Chambers alluded to masara to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) on whose behalf she was doing mission work among the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The letter pertained to the schools in Kessab.

Miss Chambers said that there were six schools in Kessab. The locals supported four of the schools. Another school was supported by the Kessabtsis and the ABCFM to prepare students for further education in Aintab.

Many students became beneficiaries of this joint venture, among them Dr. Avedis Injejikian, as his son Gabriel attests. It would not surprise me that the following two were also beneficiaries of this college level preparatory school: Dr. Albert Apelian, whose 1912 dissertation about Kessab upon graduating from college in Aintab, was edited into a book by Yervant Kassouny and Rev. Bedros Apelian who is the first from Kessab to be sent to the United States, by the arrangement of Miss Effie Chambers, to study ministry in Iowa. 

The other school was for girls. It was entirely supported by the ABCFM. The school's existence is telling as to how open Kessabtsis were in matters of gender and education and that over a century ago they let a foreign mission run a school to educate their daughters. Not every community in the Ottoman Empire, whether Armenian or not, would have been so open as to trust their daughters to be educated by foreigners.

Miss Chambers also noted in her letter that Kessabtsis have been supportive to her. However, she also voiced a complaint that getting the students attend school in the fall was difficult. She wrote: “The first part of the term is greatly interrupted by gathering in the vineyard products and the making of molasses, which is a sort of general good time for everybody, makes it difficult.”

Not being Kessabtsi, Miss Chambers did not know that Kessabtsis call “making of (grape) molasses” masara. Then and to this day it's “sort of general good time for everybody”.

What is a masara?

It seems impossible to find a Kessabtsi who does not know what masara is. And yet many among the new generation born to expatriated Kessabtsi parents may not have heard the word, let alone attended its preparation. Masara remains one of the major social events that bind Kessabtsis together.

Masara is “making (grape) molasses”, but it is not a chore, however tedious the preparation is. It is a time for merrymaking.

The process obviously starts with the harvesting of the grapes. I would not be surprised if parents looked for the help of their agile children who would climb and reach the grapes on vines wrapped on tree branches high above. There were no vineyards then in Kessab the way we envision vineyards these days. It would not surprise me also that the kids in turn made ample use of their parents’ masara disposition to skip school. I would have been tempted to do the same.

The grapes are then piled and sprinkled with a clay-like material, covered and let to stand for few days until the grapes ripened for the juicing to start. Juicing consists of stepping over them bare-footed. Young men wash their feet and get into the troughs and start tramping on the grapes until the grapes are juiced. The juice flowing from the trough is  collected while the remaining pulp would become a source of nutrition for the animals.

The grape juice that contains the clay-like dirt is placed in a deep container and the dirt is allowed to settle down taking with it all the insoluble components in the grape juice and leaving a clear supernatant above. The latter is collected and placed in a large shallow pot and heated on ovens specially constructed for the process. The supernatant is heated until it attains a syrupy consistency. The process, which takes hours,  provides the people with time to sit by the fire, relax, converse while periodically replenishing the wood to keep the fire going and making sure that the juice is heated no longer than needed.

Once it is determined that the molasses, which Kessabtsis call eroup, is formed it is transferred to a holding container. That transfer is the climax of the process and all would be waiting to savior its exquisite tasting foam, prpor. The person who transfers the warm syrup to start its foaming breaks the stillness of the evening or the night by shouting loudly "prpor, prpor", inviting everyone to savior the exquisite foam. To maximize the foaming of the warm syrup it is scooped with ladle made of gourd and poured from a distance through a perforated metal plate attached to a wooden handle back into the container thus creating a yellowish thick foam over the warm syrup.

The best way to taste prpor – foam in Armenian — is by scooping it with laurel (gasli) tree leaves. Some would simply snatch a leaf from a gasli branch and fold it to taste the prpor. Others, especially the kids, would be more inventive and shape different kinds of wooden spoons with the gasli leaves.

Oct. 20, 1906, the day Miss Chambers dated her letter, turns out to be a Saturday in the fall in Kessab–a time when masara would have already commenced or would be commencing soon, depending on the ripening of the grapes. The world has changed much since, especially for the Armenians who would experience the Genocide nine years later. Two-thirds of the Kessabtsis would vanish in the Genocide. Amidst all these changes, masara has remained the way it was then. To this day Kessabtsis hold masara not so much as to prepare a rich source of energy for the  long winter ahead (as it was done once), nor for commercial reasons, as it was done once with the surplus. Masaras nowadays are done to keep the tradition and the social bonds alive among the Kessabtsis in and outside Kessab.

 

5 comments
  1. Masara Traveled

    Masara traveled about 12,000 kilometers from its hometown–Keorkune, Kessab–to Thousand Oaks, California when a Kessabtsi migrated, and took part of Kessab with him. This is how Keorkune and Kessab have kept their identity as Armenian enclaves in historical Cilicia…some even claim from the days of the Armenian Tigranes II the Great.

    The people squeezing the grapes in the second picture (Steve J. Apelian, the late Garo H. Apelian and Hagop G. Kerbabian) are very dear to me; they are all my childhood friends. The picture was taken in Keorkune at Steve's front yard by me (I was not  part of the squeezing team because I was thin and did not have sufficient weight to grind the grapes properly).

    Thank you Vahe for this historic re-enactment and revival of a tradition that joined the whole village together.

    1. Pictures

      Garo,

      I did not know you had taken that photograph. What may have been a routine snapshot in black- -and-white in the mid '70s is a treasurable memory now.

      The other picture was taken by Missak Apelian when his brother, Dr. George Apelian held masara at his hilltop house in Thousand Oaks. The grapes were provided by Kessabtsis from Fesno–Manas Saghdejian, Vahan Soghomonian, Hratch Hovsepian, they along with many other Kessabtsis from Fresno were there for the occasion.

  2. Thank You

    Thank you, Vahe, for this article. Great.
    Keep on going by digging the pages of our rich history and traditions. Our new generation will be proud of their ancestors and will write new rich pages to our history.

    With best wishes and prayers.

    Rev. Serop Megerditchian
    Aleppo
     

  3. Մասարա

    Սիրելի Վահէ,
    Ուրախութեամբ կարդացի գրութիւնդ: Կը ձայնակցիմ Պատուելի Սերոբին:
    Ինչպէս մի քանի օր առաջ գրեցի քեզի, պիտի խնդրէի որ աւելցնէիր «Գրնիէպ»ը յօդուածիդ մէջ : Կարեւոր առարկայ մըն է , անունը յիշատակի արժանի:
    Այսօր Սիտնիի Սարտարապատ հայկական ռատիոժամէն հարցազրոյց պիտի ունենանք Վիգէն Քորթեանն ու ես Մասարայի մասին , որովհետեւ Կիրակի, 27 Ապրիլին Համազգային Գօլստըն Ճեմարանի նախաձեռնութեամբ եւ գործնական մասնակցութեամբը Սիտնիաբնակ քեսապցիներու Մասարա պիտի պատրաստենք , որմէ գոյացած հասոյթը պիտի յատկացուի Քեսապի վերականգնումի աշխատանքին: Այս հարցազրոյցին պիտի օգտագործեմ յօդուածդ:
    Զատկական Բարեմաղթութիւններով՝
    Նշան Պասմաճեան

    1. About Masara to Nshan

      Sireli Nshan, thank you for your comments.

      Please allow me reply in English for our English-reading generation (for the same reason I pen my articles about Kessab and Kessabtsis in Keghart.com. in English).

      Grneib in kessabtsi dialect means gourd. The thought of interjecting such words in the text occurred to me. In fairness I thought I should then use the many other authentic words that go along with the preparation of masara such as havoura for the clay-like earthen material sprinkled on the grapes when ripping, takna where the grapes were juiced by stepping on it, boughentz the deep pot where the juice was first collect, lagan where the grape juice was cooked and foamed, erroub the final product, the grape molasses, tanaka, the tin containers where grape molasses was collected.

      I am sure I am missing or do not remember the authentic kessabtsi words for all the implements that go along with the preparation of masara,. That is why I shied away from interjecting the authentic words in the text, other than masara. Unfortunately that’s what happens when one lives far from our lands where the native culture evolved through countless generations.

      I would like to make another point. Nshan, what you will be doing is historic. Never has masara been prepared in April before! It’s another fact of our dispersed lives. I wish you a successful event. I am not sure if gasli trees are found in Australia. You know it as  well as I do, Nshan, that propoor is best tasted with gasli leaves, especially from the trees that grow tall among the rocky crevices at the foot of Gassios Ler.

      When we get back to Kessab, we will make another historic masara when Kessabtsis from America to Australia will come together celebrating our return.

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