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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Rising From the Ruins

Turkey’s Armenians move on despite a tragic past

It’s not easy to be an Armenian in Turkey,” says Robert Koptas, a native of Istanbul, once the city of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Recently, the 30-something publisher cohosted a book release affair in the city’s posh Pangalti district.

“Among the Ruins” is a memoir written over 70 years ago by Zabel Yesayan, an Armenian-Turkish novelist who documented the massacre of up to 30,000 Armenians in the Turkish city of Adana. The party attracted about 100 Armenian-Turkish literati — who consider the novelist a protofeminist.

Mr. Koptas recalls a time in Turkey — only 20 years ago — when members of the Turkish Nationalist Party openly propagated anti-Armenian slogans, making it difficult to host events such as this one. Still, he is the first to admit he came of age in a tolerant Turkey. In college, he says his Armenian identity did not even faze his Turkish peers.

While still a concern, obvious discrimination preoccupies Turkey’s Armenian community less these days than does the disappearance of its cultural identity. A century ago, Turkey’s Armenian community numbered two million people. Today, only 50,000 remain. The tiny community now grapples with ever-stronger forces of assimilation and emigration, which many believe endanger its ancient culture.

The number of Armenian-Turks who speak Armenian, for instance, is steadily declining. It is believed only 20 percent of the community speaks Armenian on a daily basis. In addition, nearly 50 percent of young people marry non-Armenians.

“We are in danger of losing our culture and language, and it is a huge responsibility to keep it all alive,” says Mr. Koptas.

Mr. Koptas’s worries, however, also serve as a cautious reminder that times have changed — for the better. For much of the past century, Armenian-Turks either have been fighting for their survival or reeling from the trauma caused by atrocities against their families and their community.

Between 1915 and 1918, as part of their strategy during World War I, Ottoman Turkish forces displaced, incarcerated or exterminated the empire’s Armenian citizens. Churches, monasteries and schools were leveled or appropriated. In less than four years, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of their own government, though Turkey disputes the events. Survivors fled the country or took refuge in Istanbul.

The history of Turkey’s Armenians, however, does not begin in tragedy. For three millennia, Armenians have inhabited Anatolia, the geographic and historical term for the Asian peninsula that comprises the majority of modern Turkey. Until the middle of the 11th century, the kingdom of Armenia encompassed much of Anatolia, parts of the Caucasus and northwestern Persia. Its historic capital of Ani — now a ghostly ruin and archaeological wonder in eastern Turkey near the Armenian border — attests to the reach of the medieval kingdom as well as its wealth and cultural achievements.

In 1071, Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine forces stationed along Armenia’s western frontier; just decades earlier, Byzantium had absorbed much of the Armenian kingdom, assimilating its peoples into its diverse empire. Unlike the Byzantines, however, the Seljuk Turks ransacked Armenian cities and towns, including Ani, pillaging churches and homes and massacring the inhabitants. As the Seljuks consolidated their holdings, a number of Armenian nobles, taking with them their families, their retainers and their treasure, fled south, settling in the former Byzantine province of Cilicia. In less than a decade, these exiled Armenian nobles established a collection of independent principalities, eventually forging the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.

In 1453, Byzantium’s capital city of Constantinople fell to another Turkish tribe, the Ottoman Turks. Ironically, this period marked the beginning of a renaissance for Anatolia’s Armenians. Eager to restore the capital’s former status as the known world’s cultural, economic and religious center, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror resettled Armenians — esteemed for their extraordinary skills as craftsmen and merchants — in the city. In 1461, he established the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, elevating the city’s Armenian bishop to patriarch and charging him with leading the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians, legally and spiritually.

For the next four centuries, Ottoman Turkey’s Armenians flourished. Merchants traded luxury goods, artisans sumptuously furnished imperial palaces and bureaucrats advised sultans.

But as the Ottoman Empire weakened in the late 19th century and nationalist movements flared up throughout the empire’s European provinces, their situation became increasingly precarious. When Sultan Abdul Hamid II ascended the throne in 1876, the Armenians’ impending calamitous fate was sealed.

During his reign, the “Bloody Sultan” replaced the empire’s longstanding policy of tolerance toward its Armenian subjects with one of terror. In 1892 and 1893, he responded to several protests waged by Armenians in eastern Turkey with a cruelty that set the stage for the atrocities two decades later, ordering the deaths of some 80,000 to 200,000 Armenians.

Nevertheless, at the end of the 19th century, roughly half of Constantinople’s population identified themselves as Christian. By 1955, when anti-Greek riots prompted a final exodus of the city’s ancient Greek Orthodox community, that number shrank considerably. By the second half of the 20th century, the city’s population exploded tenfold, largely due to a massive influx of Muslim Turkish migrants from eastern Anatolia. Today, of the city’s 13 million residents, Christians represent only a tiny fraction, and most of them are Armenian.

Half a mile from modern Istanbul’s trendy waterfront, the traditionally Armenian neighborhood of Kumkapi feels closer to a rural village in Anatolia. Its rundown streets bustle with working-class residents — mostly Turks from eastern Turkey in search of work.

The sound of Armenian merchants and passersby shouting greetings has long since ceded to those of Turkish children playing in the streets, old women in headscarves and baggy trousers gossiping on doorsteps and the nearby muezzin’s calls to prayer. Amid the quarter’s overwhelmingly Turkish hubbub, however, one small, quiet cul-de-sac still sticks out as distinctly Armenian. Here, several important Armenian institutions and a handful of Armenian families persevere.

On one side stand the old Armenian cathedral and an Armenian school. The cathedral complex consists of three large buildings. Karni Benlian, an Armenian resident of Istanbul, recalls that in the neighborhood’s heyday worshipers would pack all three structures every Sunday. One recent afternoon, only the cathedral church buzzed with activity as workers filled the nave with flowers in preparation for a wedding.

Across the street, tall white gates surround the Armenian patriarchate. The Ottoman-style structure functions as the church’s headquarters and residence of the current patriarch, Mesrob II.

Vagharshag Seropyan serves the patriarchate as a deacon. With a bushy beard, a long black cassock and rimless spectacles, he offers a glimpse of the church’s crippling losses over the past century.

“Our church has been squeezed for a century,” he says. “Hundreds of church buildings and monasteries in Turkey have been destroyed. There are no longer any Armenian seminaries; the one in Izmit was closed in 1915. Another theological college, opened in Uskudar on the Asian side of the Bosporus during the 1950’s, was closed in 1973 by the government. The patriarchs themselves resorted to teaching aspiring priests directly, later sending them to Armenia, Lebanon or Jerusalem for further training and ordination.”

The patriarchate oversees the ministries of some 28 Armenian Apostolic priests, about 20 of whom are married with families. Most serve the roughly 50,000 Armenian-Turks living in or around Istanbul. The patriarch also leads a flock scattered around the country, including up to 4,000 faithful in the Turkish capital of Ankara and 17 other communities with at least 25 families, most of which have neither a church nor a pastor.

The most significant Armenian communities outside Istanbul and Ankara are located in Hatay Province in southern Turkey, with some 200 faithful living in the port city of Iskenderun and about 150 in the Armenian village of Vakifli. Several churches are active in Hatay, but not one has its own priest. For baptisms, weddings and funerals, a priest is sent to officiate.

The village of Vakifli somehow managed to avoid the atrocities that afflicted most Armenian communities a hundred years ago. Yet, by the mid-20th century, the village no longer had adequate pastoral support or an Armenian school, and most families sent their children to Istanbul for their education. Few of these children ever returned, except on holidays.

Today, the bucolic village is largely a tourist destination for Armenians and Turks alike. The local community is largely prosperous, either catering directly to tourists or running lucrative organic farms that struggle to keep up with growing demands for their fresh tomatoes, apricots, plums, citrus fruits and other produce.

In Istanbul, a “Vakifli Club” brings together elderly men originally from the village who moved to the city in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The group meets at a ramshackle house in the Pangalti district, where they drink tea, play cards and reminisce about the old days in the village.

Istanbul’s Armenian community is diverse. Most belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, but some 2,500 people belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Apostolic Church and remains in full communion with the pope. Two bishops and six priests minister to the small flock of Catholics. A tiny Armenian Evangelical Protestant community is also active in the city. In recent years, Turkey’s booming economy has attracted tens of thousands of migrants from the neighboring Republic of Armenia, which has struggled economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsequent independence in 1991. By some estimates, as many as 60,000 Armenian workers reside in and around Istanbul illegally.

Istanbul’s Armenian community is also widely dispersed throughout the massive metropolis, which straddles two continents. Though some Armenian-Turks continue to live in Kumkapi, others prefer Pangalti and more cosmopolitan neighborhoods. Many more live across town, on the Asian banks of the Bosporus.

Despite its small size, diversity and sparse dispersal, the city’s Armenian community manages to maintain a cohesive identity remarkably well. As is the case in Armenian enclaves elsewhere in the world, the church and its institutions, such as schools and hospitals, are largely to thank for bringing together the community and preserving culture and language.

It helps that Istanbul’s Armenians in general make little fuss about religious differences, be they Apostolic, Catholic or Protestant. With Armenian churches few and far between, most attend whichever church is closest or more convenient — regardless of jurisdiction.

Annie Benlian explains that while she and her husband belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the preeminent faith community of the Armenian people, they prefer taking their young twins, Arax and Sandra, to an Armenian Catholic church near their apartment in Pangalti.

“The service is shorter than at the Apostolic church,” says the Jerusalem-born mother, “and thus more convenient for a busy family.”

“Most of our congregation was not born Catholic, but Jesus loves everybody and our gates are open to all,” explains Father Hagopas Copur, pastor of the parish frequented by the Benlians. “People go back and forth as they please. Our liturgies are similar, though the Apostolic Church is more traditional.”

Istanbul’s Armenians continue to support Armenian schools, where students learn to read, write and speak Armenian. Currently, the churches operate 16 schools, among which is the Mekhitarist Fathers School. Established in 1825, the facility has earned a reputation in Istanbul for its high standards, small class sizes and employing some of the city’s best teachers — Armenian and Turkish. Students, however, must be of Armenian heritage to enroll. Though a private institution, the student body comes from diverse economic backgrounds. According to the school’s principal, Karekin Barsamyan, the administration is exploring ways to provide an education to the children of illegal Armenian immigrants who have not been enrolled in school.

For the first few grades, the entire curriculum is taught in Armenian. In the fourth and fifth grades, some classes are taught in Armenian, others in Turkish. From sixth grade onward, the curriculum is taught entirely in Turkish and is designed to prepare students for the national high school exit exams.

Mr. Barsamyan explains that many of the children speak Turkish with their families at home and do not know any Armenian when they begin school. By the fourth grade, he says, they all speak it fluently.

Adjacent to the Mekhitarist School is an Armenian Catholic church that serves a small congregation. One recent Sunday morning, the Divine Liturgy drew about 35 people. While most were elderly, a few young families were in attendance. As the liturgy proceeded, the priest’s voice periodically gave way to those of a ten-member choir, conducted by Mr. Barsamyan himself. At each reprise, their chants filled the church’s splendid, albeit half-empty, nave.

Armenian churches also operate two hospitals serving all of Istanbul’s residents. An Apostolic-run hospital cares for up to 250 patients at a time; the Catholic-run facility offers only 29 beds, though a nursing home also operates on the premises.

Both are historic hospitals — they are among the first modern health care institutions in Turkey. “In 1830, there was a plague in the city, so in response the Armenian community built a hospital that they completed in 1837,” explains Dr. Jirayr Apazaryan, a physician at the Surp Agop Armenian Catholic Hospital.

“It was not until 1880 that the University of Istanbul had its own medical school, so we Armenians were well ahead by opening our own modern facility first. At that time, many Armenians and Jews went abroad to study medicine and other fields.”

On a recent Friday around noon, a small printing press heats up in the basement of an Armenian Apostolic church near Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square. Workers stand at the press, methodically grabbing hold of the hot pages as they leave the press. Folding them neatly by hand, they place them in piles. Before long, the latest edition of The Marmara Daily is ready for delivery.

One of only two Armenian-language newspapers published in Istanbul, The Marmara Daily offers news stories, features and literary contributions tailored to the interests of Turkey’s Armenian community. Published every day except Sunday, the printed daily has a circulation of 1,500. It also has an online version and a Turkish-language edition printed on Friday.

The Marmara Daily stands as a testament to the vitality of Turkey’s Armenian community and its commitment to preserving its language and cultural perspective. For nearly half a century, it has cultivated and informed a loyal readership.

The man behind the daily is the erudite Robert Haddedjian. Its owner and editor in chief, he is also one of Turkey’s most celebrated Armenian authors and poets, with more than 60 published books to his credit.

From his modest office cluttered with books and folders, Mr. Haddedjian describes the newspaper’s mission. “We publish stories of general news interest to the Armenian community of Istanbul and the diaspora. We feature Istanbul-Armenian poets and writers for whom The Marmara Daily is very important as an instrument in keeping the Western Armenian language alive and vibrant.”

Though the daily covers news and politics, Mr. Haddedjian personally identifies more with its literary aspect. “I am an essayist. Never political. I consider myself a man of literature rather than a politician.”

He then explains that Western Armenian, which developed in Turkish Anatolia, is a dialect distinct from the one used in Armenia proper. Though both employ the same written script, some of the grammar and vocabulary differ. With some practice, speakers of either dialect can understand those of the other.

For Mr. Haddedjian, the loss of Western Armenian is today the greatest threat to Armenian-Turkish identity.

“Less and less is spoken every day. Though they get taught the language in school, as soon as they get onto the streets the kids start speaking Turkish.”

The editor and poet, however, remains enthusiastic about his work and optimistic that his newspaper — a showcase of the Armenian-Turkish worldview and a forum for Western Armenian writers — will help nurture a new generation of Armenian-Turkish intellectuals.

“I have owned this newspaper for 40 years, running it now with the help of my two sons who take care of the technical side of things. I was born in Istanbul and love this city!”

This is photojournalist Sean Sprague’s 50th contribution to ONE magazine.

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