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In the Eyes of a Turk: a History of Armenians from Bursa and Armenian-Turkish Relations

In the Eyes of a Turk: a History of Armenians from Bursa and Armenian-Turkish Relations

Armenians have not forgotten Bursa

The first Armenians that came to Bursa were 10 families.  They built the Green Mosque (1413-1424) and helped those who came to pray.  Then the families became friends, some even became relatives.

In April when there was no rain the Muslim women burnt down the Christian church.  It was forgotten over the time but the authorities did not forgive them: the guilty were punished, the church was restored at the expense of the treasury.

Well, and what about now?   How do Armenians feel about Bursa when the capital of their country is Yerevan for hundred years?  The answer is in our article.  

Five days in Armenia

Bursa is one of the most tolerant cities where Armenians, Greeks and Jews lived alongside the Muslims for centuries during the Ottoman Empire.  After conquering and declaring the city as part of the Ottoman Empire a trust system of justice and security was formed in Bursa especially for the non Muslims.   An example of the fact that the system was functioning were the first Armenians who came to this place in 1400 and then remained to live there.

What happened to those Armenians?

After living in peace for 500 years, about 100 years ago they were forced to leave Bursa.  How do they remember Bursa from Yerevan today?

In 2014 within the context of beginning of normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia, the delegation of Georgia in the EU deployed three journalists for five days in Yerevan from Bursa.  In this article you will find the notes of journalist Kadyr Guzel about the visit and old photos of Bursa.  But first a little about the history of Armenians in Bursa  

Ten Armenian families came to Bursa...

Kamil Kepedjioglu, one of the historians studying the history of the city, wrote that during the construction of Green Mosque (1413-1424) sultan Chelebi sent ten Armenian families to the city so that they helped the Muslims during namaz on winter days.  The Armenians settled near the mosque are known as the first Armenian group arrived in Bursa. Then the Armenians in Bursa settled in different regions and one of them Setbaşı became the center of the Armenian life.

They were neighbors with the Muslims, built commercial relationships with them and rented their houses. The relationships contributed to the fact that Armenians started to give their children names popular among the Turks: Murad, Yakub, Hyzyr, Sepher, Iskander, Baly.   

Armenian quarter Setbaşı in Bursa, 1894

Women from Bursa burned down the Christian church as there were no rains in the city

In the 17th century the Armenians of Bursa appealed to Divan (Ottoman government-note) with the request to renovate the church which was so much dilapidated that it was impossible to hold services there.  Such requests were allowed under certain circumstances.  

Down the line having received the permission the Armenians started to renovate the church.  But when the renovation works were almost finished hundreds of Muslim women and men burned down the church and the houses of Armenians located near the church. Armenians who tried to impede their actions were injured.

Armenian church before destruction 

During the renovation works the church was rebuilt, six domes were erected on the roof.  For the Muslims the church looked like a mosque and this led to anxiety among them and became the reason of its destruction.   

According to another version there was no rain in April of the same year and the Muslims decided that Allah was punishing them this way.  As a result the Muslim women decided to do everything in their power so that God forgave them and hence, burned down the church.

Corruption and Bribery Charge

There was one more version of the story. After the incident it turned out that women did not decide to set fire to the church, but they were encouraged to do so.  During the renovation works of the church madrasah and his assistants wanted to get a bribe but they could not.  As a result they encouraged the women to fire-setting.    

Those responsible for this act were punished

At long last it was decided to renovate the church and fire out the assistant of the city mayor as either his negligence or willful actions led to the incident. Madrasah and Imam whose actions also resulted in the fire-setting were not allowed to leave the borders of their district before the beginning of the new month and then were expelled from the city accompanied by several Armenians.

Old Bursa

Armenian, Greek and Jewish Professions

Non Muslims had different professions.  It is impossible to define precisely what Armenians were doing in Bursa during the Ottoman Empire but we have some documents that will help us to piece together some picture.  For example, a document dated 1792 has been preserved to this day where the non Muslims were divided into three groups: Armenians, Greeks and Jews and it indicated how much tax they needed to pay for growing vineyards. A total of 479 people were indicated.  From which 233 were Armenians, 215 were Greeks and 34 were Jews.  Of these 90 Armenians, 107 Greeks and 10 Jews were involved in professions.  The table shows the most common professions among the non Muslims (hairdresser, jeweler, watchmaker, and baker, bath house attendant and so on).

Non Muslim Population

In the 17th century it was mentioned that at the beginning of the century approximately 300 Armenian families lived in Bursa.  In the 18th century there were 10-12 thousand Muslims, 500 Armenians, 400 Jews and about 300 Greeks.  Nieburg indicated that in 1767 the amount of Muslim in Bursa was 19 thousand people, 1200 Armenians, 700 Greeks and 400 Jews.

Armenian girls from Bursa

Brenner who came to Bursa in 1793 counted 6500 Armenians, 3000 Greeks, 1200 Jews and about 100 thousand Muslims.  However the numbers are a little exaggerated.  In 1838 Robert Walsh who wrote about Bursa indicated that the amount of Muslim population was 78 thousand people, and 11 thousand non Muslims.  As per the census dated 1831, 10532 Muslims and 5586 non Muslims lived in Bursa.  Of which 2800 were Armenians.

In 1881-1892 the population census was carried out in the Ottoman Empire, which showed that the total amount of Muslims was 89633 people and non Muslims were 31907 people. Total 121590 people.

We do not know whether Turkey or Armenia will be able to mend ties but the journalists could do it

9 journalists from Turkey and 10 journalists from Armenia attended the program aimed at the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.  It was a two week-program with visits to tourist places in Turkey, 5 days were devoted to lectures on Armenian Genocide in Yerevan. 

On the first day of the visit of Turkish journalists in Yerevan they went to the Genocide museum.  Before entering they said to each other “Friend-journalists let’s go in, make notes and go out”.  When we entered the museum we learnt that the Genocide museum is under restoration for the centenary of the genocide. That is we could see only 10 per cent of what is there.   In the museum we asked: «Do Turks come here?» «Very many of them!» – we received a short and clear answer.

Working together to find the names involved with the tragedy

Documentary evidence of the Armenian Genocide (photos, letters, newspapers, postcards) is placed in a chronological order on the show-windows of the museum.  What they have experienced is indeed a huge tragedy.  Just as it is to inscribe in the space of the museum the indescribable pain that makes thousands of people to cry, it is also hard to deny that Armenians were deliberately killed during the relocation.

Armenian Genocide Museum's showcase

On one of the show-windows were photos of how Armenians lived in Anatolia.  One of the photos was taken in Bursa.  It was the only visual evidence of the fact that Armenians of Bursa settled there and lived in the neighborhood of Setbaşı.  When we asked the employee of the museum if we could take a look at other photos showing lives of Armenians in Bursa, they promised us to help but did not really give hope.

The head of the museum Hayk Demoyan was very unfriendly with the Turkish journalists.  He answered the questions without even looking at them. And the answers were like this; I quote: «Looking at these walls you can get to know the history. The situation is complicatedTherefore here is the inevitable reality:  you either keep silent or agree with the fact that your people committed genocide».

We were both surprised and began to defend ourselves unwittingly. «Is it fair to dictate us your thoughts? – we asked and received  a strange answer again. «There is law 301 in our country. Everyone is free to do what he/she wants to do, express his thoughts and enjoy the freedom», - he said.


We think that the head of the museum behaved inappropriately towards the Turkish journalists.  I think he did it because there were Armenian journalists with us who would later write about this meeting in the Armenian press media. But despite this we would like to part with Hayk Demoyan on a good note and not remember the bad moments.

We enjoyed Yerevan for the remaining days

For five days within the framework of the program we visited museums, scientific and cultural organizations.  During our visit to the museum I began to think that such an attitude would hardly correlate with the normalization of relations stated in the program.  But all the other meetings and visits were comfortable and friendly.  

Notes from the streets of Yerevan: we are very similar

Walking in the streets of Yerevan we noticed external resemblance between the Turks and the Armenians.  Without entering into a dialogue it is hard to understand who is Armenian and who is Turk.

Our eating habits are very similar.  For example one of the last restaurants we visited was called “Antep”.  In this restaurant you could taste the same sweets as in Turkey, except for kunefe.   

In Yerevan, just like in Turkey the drivers are too nervous and honk each other in traffic jams. However there, unlike Turkey the priority is given to pedestrians.

The average salary of the teacher is 100 Euros! Since the country does not have its own textile production, clothes are more expensive here than in Turkey.

The Jews who have fallen victim to the genocide committed by Germany do not forget that during the Second World WarTurkey in fact fought with the Germans.  Therefore it is never forgotten that the Jewish question stands next to the Armenian question.  For example, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany left a wreath on the Memorial dedicated to the Armenian genocide during his visit in Yerevan.

The Armenian economy is waiting for the opening of the borders, as the economic situation in the country is its internal pain. Armenia should prioritize the opening of the borders and not the recognition of genocide.



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