1270) The Contributions of the Armenian People of Culture to the Turkish Revolution and Nation


(Editor-in-chief of Complete Works of Atatürk)

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Art and culture is a reflection of life. An artist’s thought involves his/her experiences; S/he writes the stories, paints the pictures or composes the music of these experiences. The social practice of an artist and the society s/he lives in is closely linked with the work he creates. His/her work is a witness to history.

We will rely on that testimony while looking into the Armenian People of Culture during the periods of Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic.

The Ottoman System

The Ottoman Empire had made a move as Byzantium was weakening and the Seljuk Empire was under Mongolian attacks. While Byzantine was not able stop the raids on its borders, the Ottomans had provided safety and security for agriculture and trade, opening up new agricultural areas. They created the necessary circumstances for the accumulation of wealth. Economic development in both agriculture and crafts made Ottomans a giant feudal empire.

They provided order in social life as well. The sense of belonging to and being protected by a ruler defined the body politic

The Asian Culture of Co-existence

In the state organizations before capitalism and nationalism come into being, the ruler’s or the feudal’s power and domination was the most important issue and it had to be protected in order to keep different religious, ethnic groups together, inline and in peace. This social order applied to all imperial systems. The Roman Peace called Paxa Romana depended on the very same social order.

The Ottoman Empire had a similar social order that kept the Empire together for 600 years and provided grounds for the world’s one and only Kemalist revolution. From this point of view, similarities between Turkish, Persian, Chinese and Russian revolutions certainly are noticeable.

It is not common to see significant cultural accumulation or leaps in civilization in rather homogeneous societies, such as Eskimos. All great nations have been formed as an amalgamation and absorption of many and various groups with one another.

Armenians in the Ottoman Era

Armenians were living in Anatolia and the Caucasus in small groups, mainly under the control of Karamanogulları and Ramazanogulları

During Osman Bey’s rule, Armenians were permitted to set up their religious center in Kütahya in order to keep safe from Byzantine attacks. When Bursa became the Empire’s capital, the Armenian Bishop moved to Bursa.

Fatih Sultan Mehmet (Mehmet the Conquerer) invited the Armenian Bishop Ovakim to Istanbul in 1461 and declared him Armenian Bishop, providing him and the community with the same privileges as Greeks had at the time in Istanbul.

Following Bishop’s move and the special privileges put into practice, Armenian population increased in Istanbul. Armenians gained better standards and freedom in social and cultural life comparing to Russian Armenians then. Armenians have adopted Turkish customs, and speak Turkish well. The German general Helmuth von Moltke who lived in Anatolia for 4 years, called Armenians “Christian Turks” in 1835.

During the Ottoman Empire period, Armenians were given many posts in the state mechanism from the Sultan’s personal treasurer to the royal photographer, from Harem purchasing officer to tax collector, judge, banker and various roles in the cabinet and government.

Armenians contributed considerably to the development of printing in the Ottoman Empire: Tokatlı Apkar Tıbir started a printing house in Istanbul in 1567, the historian Eremia Çelebi, Merzifonlu Krikor, Sivaslı Parseh, Hagop Brothers, Haçik Kevrokyan Abraham from Thrace, Eğinli Bogos Arabian, Hovannes Muhendisian Rephael Kazancian were among many. Bogos Arabian issued the first Turkish daily newspaper, Takvim-i Vekayi and its translation in Armenian.

Hovannes Muhendisian is known as the Turkish Gutenberg.

Haçik Kevorkyan updated the Ottoman alphabet and was granted the “Medal for Education” in 1923.

The traditional Ottoman wall calendars were the invention of Kevork Zartaryan.

Garabed Biberyan produced the tobacco paper called “Pera”.

Yervant Mısırlıyan developed and implemented publishing books in installments for the first time in the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, Armenian printers established unions for the printing house workers. The most important among these unions was “Printing-House Workers’ Professional Association”. Turkish and Armenian union members were successful in reducing the 10-12 hour daily working hours to 8 hours, and in doubling the union members’ wages.

Kasap Efendi, published the first Comic magazine “Diyojen” in 1870. Namık Kemal, Ebuzziya Tevfik and Ali bey regularly contributed to the magazine. Leading Turkish cartoonist Nişan Berberyan’s cartoons were published in the magazine as well.

The cartoonist Harutyun Hekimyan who criticized the oppressive rule of Abdulhamit II. and Abdulaziz in his cartoons, Hovsep Vartanyan Paşa who issued a magazine called “An Indsicreet Person”, the humorist Hagop Baronyan who criticized social life and the rich, were the masters of humour in their era.

More than 600 newspapers have been issued in the Armenian language since the Ottoman Empire.

Hamparsum Limoncuyan 1786-1839) recorded many lyrics of Turkish composers; Nikagos Aga, Tatyos Aga, Atik Aga (1833-1912) who were granted the title ‘Aga’ for their valuable services for the Palace and Levon Hancıyan (1857-1947) Artaki Candan, Hrant Emre and others who contributed to Turkish music in the Republic period are some among many.

Of course, we can’t go without mentioning the Zilcian family of Samatya. Zilcians still produce the musical bells in their shop behind the Topkapi walls, with their special family formula. The bells which are known as ‘Turkish Bells’ are very popular among world’s leading orchestras and jazz bands.

Harutyun Sinanyan, the son of Kirkor Sinanyan who established the first orchestra in Istanbul, composed many marches and taught piano to many young talents as his colleague Vahram Mühendisian taught violin. Edgar Manas who contributed to the harmony of the Turkish National Antheme gave harmony lessons and served The City Academy of Music between 1923-1933 as the director of the first “Women’ Chorus and Orchestra”.

In 1915, Istanbul welcomed ”Central Army Cinema Department.”. The director was Sigmund Weinberg who was a Polish Jew and his assistant was -lieutenant then- the first Turkish cinema director Fuat Uzkınay. They went through the necressary procedures to shoot the first Turkish feature film. The film was called “Leblebici Horhor Aga” composed by Dikran Chuhaciyan, and the script was written by Takvor Nalyan. It was left uncompleted due to the leading actor’s sudden death. Then another Armenian, Benliyan’s “Himmet Aga’s wedding” started to be shot, but this one was also left uncompleted due to the war in Turkey. The film was completed by Uzkınay in 1918.

Dikran Chuhacian’s operetta, “Leblebici Horhor Aga” was staged in 1875 and its film was completed by Muhsin Ertuğrul in 1934 and was rewarded the second prize at Venice Film Festival at Lido.

Chuhacian was the leader of polyphonic music; he was the first composer to apply harmony and western musical standards to traditional Turkish music. Chuhaciyan was the founder of the Oriental Music Organization. He was also the composer of the first Turkish opera called “Arif’s Trick”. Western sources refer to Chuhaciyan, as the Offenbach of the East.

The Hamidiye March, composed by Chuhacian was, in essence, in opposition to the Sultan. ‘Vatan yahut Silistre (Motherland or Silistre)’, the Aegean Folk Operetta marches were also by the same composer. The ‘leblebici Horhor’ operetta was staged in many countries including Greece, Egypt, England, Germany and Romania.

Armenians did not only contribute to the establishment of the Western theatre in Turkey, but also supported the establishment of traditional Turkish theatre. Governmental bodies exclusively assigned Güllü Agop to develop and nourish Turkish theatre for ten years, by giving him the right of opening new theaters, on condition that he increase the number of plays. He opened new theatres and staged plays all around Istanbul for viewers’ convenience and staged plays exclusively forwomen.

Armenian community did not welcome Armenian women taking stage. Usually, teenagers or non-Armenian Christian females took part in the plays. The first Armenian actress was Fanny (her real name was Agavni Hamoyan)who appeared in Istepan Ekşiyan’s theater in Mühürdar. The first professional actress was Arusyak Papazyan.

Namık Kemal and Ali Bey helped Armenian actors and actress to improve and perfect their comparably broken, accented Turkish.

The play, “Motherland or Silistre” was received with enthusiasm by Turks. But, due to the political opposition it exhibited, the government sent Namık Kemal, Nuri Bey, Ebüzziya Tevfik, Ahmet Mithat to exile. Güllü Agop was arrested due to the same reason.

Apart from Güllü Agop’s monopoly of staging plays, operettas, operas and traditional `Tuluat` plays (a type of ‘happening’ theatre) also developed. In the plays, love of the motherland, Ottomanism, rebellion against exploitation were used.

Mandiros Mınakyan was another important figure in the development of the Turkish theatre. He staged many Turkish plays during the Pariamentary era.

Democratization was in process. In 1909, Ittihat ve Terakki ( The Union and Development Party) staged a play; Turkish women demanded to view the play and acquired permission. However, the fundamentalists prevented them by force. It was a period when a discussion began, concerning the rights of women for not only watching plays but also appearing on stage.Eliza Binemecian, Kınar Sıvacıan who had received Turkish speaking tutoring from Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil and İsmail Müştak, spoke excellent Turkish. When Eliza Binemecian left for Europe, Afife Jale –the first Muslim actress- took to stage. The first stage experience for Muslim Turkish women was not until the declaration of Independence in 1920`s.

Why have we explained all these? Our goal was to shed light on the social and cultural environment before the measures taken for the deportation of Armenians. What we have just noted about the circumstances of the dramatic arts in the late Ottoman period is also our point: Viewing the artistic products of the Ottoman society, just before the deportation, we do not come upon the slightest trace of the idea of exterminating the Armenian race. On the contrary, films and dramatic expositions were being made of the works of Armenian artists.Armenian teachers were in teaching posts in the most outstanding schools of the country.

There was never racial discrimination in the Ottoman society, and Armenians were the elites of artistic and cultural life of the era. This is the most important proof of tolerance by both of the cultures and faiths. Of course separatist Armenian terror and religious reaction were active on both sides to destroy this atmosphere.

Talat Paşa gave the speech below in the Ittihat ve Terakki (Union and Progress Party)congress in 1917:

“Armenians have been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Armenians claimed full benefits of being citizen of this country, until some fell for vicious suggestions. Russia, who has the habit of provoking Christians for their own interests; targeted ungrateful Armenians to stir up the Ottoman subjects in the 19th century. Some fell for Russian provocations. The wave of reaction first breaking out on 31st of March, 1909, spread all around the country including Albenia, the Arab lands and most of the Anatolian provinces.

Though the Armenian conspirators were aware that the assaults from outside and inside the country intended to stifle the newly established parliamentary regime, they went after imaginary goals of independence and sent committees to foreign countries for this purpose. Then the World War broke out. Arms were distributed among the Armenian citizens and they were also recruited to the army, just like any other Ottoman citizen. However, when Russia assaulted our borders, these Armenian conspirators, having kept silent until then, started to revolt.

The Government explined the gravity of the situation to the Armenian Bishop and to Armenian members of Parliament and waited for the result. However, the Van and Zeytun revolts broke out and the army commander of the region started searches. Arms, bombs and explosives were discovered especially in monasteries and churches. Thus, the army the rear and flanks of which was insecure, had to be consolidated. Accordingly, the armed hostile elements had to be removed from the area. It is the State’s right to defend itself against the insurgents who have risen against its authority, arm in hand. It is the same in England and France and so is it here, in Turkey.

Another speech by Talat Paşa points out other issues. “The Burden of these terrible events is on the shoulders of the instigators. Therefore not all Armenians or Greeks are to be blamed for these unfortunate events, but only the provocateurs. On our part, it was an obligation to respond to the devilish attempts to keep the country’s welfare and integrity.”

In fact, the measures for deportation began exactly one day before the troops of the British and French imperialists landed on Gallipoli. As is known, the First World War was started for the purpose of sharing the Ottoman land among the imperialist powers.If Gallipoli and other fronts had not been defended it would not have been possible to achieve victory in the Liberation War.

On the other hand, the first Prime-ministerof Armenia, Hovanes Katchaznouni points out : ”… unreasonable and exaggerated demands left its place to a painful disappointment. Turks knew what they were doing and there is no reason for them to feel regret on their part.” “We thought that if we created a hubbub, we could attract the attention of the powerful countries and force them to support us, but now we know the cost of this support”

According to Armenian historian Lalaian the issue of “Rescuing Turkish Armenians” was only a screen behind which stood the imperialist plans of Tsarism.

It was unavoidable that a new national state would rise from the relics of the Ottoman Empire. The new state brought a new social order and a new culture of democracy. The contribution of Armenians to the new culture of the Republic is important.

The people who founded the Turkish Republic is called the Turkish Nation.”

Turkish Armenians joined the defence of the motherland against imperialism. Armenian citizens helped smuggling arms to Anatolia during the war.

Economist Kalci Efendi who worked for a French Maritime Transport Company said: “I believe in your cause and know the greatness of your fight. I love this land. My family were happy living here. The company has nine ships, five of which are mine: until all are gone I will serve you” He helped the Mahsus-u Milliye Organization.(the secret organization for the liberation of the country)

Other Armenians that worked for the company also took important roles in the Mahsus-u Milliye Organization. The leader of the organization, Kemal Kocer states in his memoirs that he once offered money to Tavit Efendi. He refused the money and said `I owe everything to Turks, I was educated in Turkish schools, I acquired all my qualifications in the Turkish society, now it is my duty to help. He loosened the controls in the Bosphorus to enable arms smuggling to Anatolia.

Davutyan, a customs officer, was informed regarding an arms smuggling case; he went to the port to arrest the smugglers. Suddenly he remembered old Mrs Ayse who had accepted him in the place of his beloved grandson, and who helped him after his father’s death by paying for his education with her limited income. These smugglers were old Mrs Ayse`s grandchildren. He just couldn’t do it. `I and my ancestors are the sons and daughters of these lands like you. They were born and buried here and so will I. Although it is my duty to arrest you, from now on I will work for the welfare of this nation, with you.

The famous photographer, Ara Guler`s father was a Gallipoli veteran. He was a soldier serving as a pharmacist and was wounded on his leg. He was always proud of this and asked people: I have fought for this country and was wounded what did you do?

Berc Keresteciyan was a bank manager during the days of the Armistice. Knowing Mustafa Kemal from Thesaloniki, he passed him a secret message to inform him about the plans for his assassination and saved his life. On Mustafa Kemal’s request he personally provided all the money needed for some technical mechanisms of the cannons used in the war. He was also the Vice President of the Turkish Red Cross. He, therefore, sent boxes of medication and other medical supplies to Anatolia in addition to weapons and other needs..After the victory, he worked for Ziraat Bankası as consultant and became the first Christian member of the Parliament of the Republic. Ataturk gave him the surname, `Turker` in 1934. Turks are not a race but a nation so everybody who loves and is dedicated to this country is called Turkish.

The heritage of the Ottoman linguist Bedros Keresteciyan who completed the first etymological dictionary of Turkish is cherished by his family.

`The master of masters` Istepan Gurdikyan, linguist, Turcologist, educator and academic (1865-1948) and Kevork Şimkeşyan were guests of honor at the first Turkish Language Conference.

Agop Martaian met Mustafa Kemal in Damascus. He had been an officer at the Caucasian Front. Until he died he contributed to Turkish linguistics and worked as editor-in-chief and the head consultant of the Turkish Encyclopaedia and the director of the Turkish Language Association. Ataturk gave him the surname `Dilacar` (the key to language)

Those who stand at the threshold of the EU, waiting in vain, to be admitted, belong to the same race, no matter whether they are of Turkish, Kurdish or Armenian descent.

For Turks, the determining factor is to protect the integrity of our homeland.We fought for it between 1914-1923, and we will do it again, if needs be. Turks will never yield to imperialism. It is the correct stand to be taken today.

The so-called` Armenian Genocide` has been put forward to divide Turkey and expand the second Israel founded in Northern Iraq towards Turkey. Now our most important task is to keep Turks, Kurds and Armenians who formed a nation with the Liberation War and the new Republic, together.

Source: © Erciyes University 2006


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