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On the Other Side of Anatolia: Armenians of Western Asia Minor

On the Other Side of Anatolia: Armenians of Western Asia Minor

The historical communities of Armenians in western Asia Minor are often left out of account and downplayed.  More likely this is because they are far from the historical Armenian territories and the Armenian Plateau. 

However there were many Armenian communities on the territories stretching from the Aegean and Marmara Seas to the valleys of Cilicia that formed a wide, one hundred mile long arc around Constantinople (now Istanbul). Being centered around churches and schools, the communities retained their special dialect and mode of life and their disposition by the coast and near the administrative centers contributed to the economic and cultural development of the community: Armenians plied a trade, agriculture, were involved in silk and textile industry, in regional and international trade.

The provinces of Asia Minor (western provinces are highlighted in color)

The mass migration of Armenians into the western part of Asia Minor traces back to the 14th century, when the Cilician Armenian kingdom fell to onslaught of the Mamluks. The second huge migration took place in the 16th and the 17th centuries when the territory of Eastern Armenia became the arena of ruinous armed hostilities between the Ottomans and the Persians. Armenians from Eastern Armenia, as well as from Sivas and Akn region not far from the Euphrates moved here.

The Structure of the Communities of Western Asia Minor in the Ottoman Empire

Even the small Armenian colonies of Western Asia Minor retained the school and the church up until the 19th century and most of them could boast for having separate schools for girls and boys.

The educational institutions were functioning under the auspices of the churches:  along with the Armenian Apostolic church, there were many Catholic and Protestant missionaries from Europe and the USA in the western communities, hence the traditional Armenian Church needed to be in "good shape" to compete with the foreign religious organizations in the education and culture sphere. 

Historical Notes

The first turning point for the Armenians of western Asia Minor was the reign of sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). The defeat of the sultan in the Russian – Turkish war (1877-1878) resulted in a situation where thousands of Muslim refugees flooded into the Ottoman Empire from the Russian Caucasus creating inter-ethnic tensions in the Armenian communities.

Like other Armenians and Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire the Armenians of western Asia Minor embraced the Young Turks revolution of 1908 that restored the Constitution and made the sultanate nominal.  However the enthusiasm did not last long. In 1909 the new government in the name of the Young Turks organized the massacre of Armenians in Cilicia, and in 1914 after the defeat in the Balkan War a bunch of revengeful refugee Turks flooded into Asia Minor.  

Despite their small number the Armenians of western Asia Minor could not escape the massacres of the genocide that took place during World War I (1914-1918). After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the war at the end of 1918 some of the survived Armenians attempted to return to their homes in the regions close to Constantinople: Bardizag, Izmid, Adabazar, Bursa, however they faced the hostile attitude of the new owners of their houses and property.

The Armenians were once and for all forever expelled from their homeland, and this time by the army of Turkish nationalists led by a new, after-war leader Mustafa Kemal.   

Overview of the main Armenian communities of western Asia Minor

There were more than hundred Armenian settlements where 100-150 thousand people lived in the provinces surrounded by four seas (Black, Marmara, Aegean and Mediterranean).  Typically Armenians made up the small percentage of the general population and lived surrounded by the Muslim majority.  Aware of their vulnerability, they showed loyalty towards the local authorities aiming for sustainable, peaceful living conditions.

Izmid (Izmid province)

Known as Nicomedia from ancient times and now Kocaeli is located on a bay, that is hundred km away from Istanbul.  Armenians moved to Izmid not only due to the upheavals in their historical motherland, but, apparently, also to protect their sons from the Ottoman devshirme- blood tax that the Christians paid to sultan by giving their sons to service where they were brought up as Muslims by changing their identity.   

The migration of Armenians into western Asia Minor took place not only out of necessity but also through violence: in the heyday of the empire the Ottoman authorities relocated Armenians to the provinces with high percentage of Greek population. This was done for a variety of causes, including the reputation of Armenians as loyal subjects also the administration policy of creating check-and-balance-system considering the historical contradictions between the Armenian and Greek churches.

Izmid of the 18th century was divided into 23 quarters, three of them were Christian and one was Jewish. As per German traveler Andreas Mordtam there were 2000 Turkish, 1000 Armenian and 100 Greek families living in Izmid in 1850. 70% of the Armenian population was engaged in agriculture, 20% in craft and 10% in trade. 

Izmit: a view of the town

Bardizag (Izmid province)

19 km south of Izmid was the city of Bardizag (currently known as Bahçecik).

Bardizag was founded in the 16th century by seven Armenian families from the village of Bardizag that was in province Sivas. They fled from their native village during the uprising of the Kurdish tribe Djelali.

The second wave of Armenians consisting of nineteen families from Sivas and Akna, arrived in Bardizag at the beginning of the 17th century. 

Muslims also came to the Armenian village of Bardizag hoping to get a job in the property of the prominent landowner Khalil pasha. However, pasha who was also of Armenian origin was not happy with the work of the Muslim migrants and banished them in preference to Armenians. 

Therefore, Bardizag was a town the population of which was almost entirely Armenian up until 1912 including the town administration. At the end of the 19th century out of 10 000 population 9260 Armenians were the adepts of the Armenian Apostolic church, 300 and 80 Catholics. The Apostolic community had four churches, and the evangelic and the Catholic communities each had one church. The residents of the town were engaged in tobacco and silkworm moths cultivation, manufacturing horseshoe, timber and charcoal.

The mild and healthful climate of the town attracted the Armenian intellectuals of Costantinople who were spending the summer months there.

There were eight schools in Bardizag and most of the schools were functioning under the auspices of the Armenian Apostolic Church and were called national gymnasiums.  At the western end of the town was the higher school of Bythinia; “Bardzragooyn Varzharan”, founded by the American missionaries, on the eastern side was the most beautiful building constructed by the Mechitarists (Armenian Catholics) that included a church, a school and nunnery “mayrapetanots”. The majority of Armenians living in the eastern part of the town were Catholics and in the western part were Protestants.

Armenians from Bardizag

Armash (Izmid province)

The village of Armash located 30km away from the city of Izmid was founded by three hundred Armenian refugees from Iran in 1611.  Armash was located next to the picturesque Charkhapan (in Armenian; warding off evil )monastery Surb Astvatsatsin surrounded by beautiful gardens on top of the hill. 

There was also the cognominal seminary (Armash Theological Seminary) in Armash; the spiritual centre of the Armenians of western Asia Minor and the place of annual pilgrimage for the thousand of faithful.  During the genocide the priceless relics and the manuscripts of the famous seminary were plundered and the monastery was changed into a mosque. 

French geographer and orientalist Vital Quinnet described Armash at the turn of the 20th century as a town inhabited entirely by Armenians, more than 1500 people in number. The residents of Armash were mainly involved in agriculture, cattle breeding; silk cultivation and some women were sewing hats. 

Armash (present-day Akmeşe): Group photo of Armenian seminary 

Adabazar (Izmid povince)

It was located 45 km east of Izmid, on the west bank of the Sakarya River Adabazar was founded by the Armenians from Sivas who had escaped the aggressive campaigns of Tamerlane at the end of 14th century. Armenians from Akna, Tokat, Iran and later from Caesarea and Bardidzag also settled here.

Built on the dried up lake the town was originally called Tonikashen in honor of the senior representative of the village.  Adabazar ("island-market") received its name owing to the fact that it was a vivid trade and commercial centre.  The Turks and the Greeks started to move to Adabazar when it became a middle sized town.

At the beginning of the 20th century Adabazar was a town with its own library, publishing house, fashionable hotels, pharmacies, grocery stores, tanneries the owners of which were mostly Armenians.

As per V. Quinet, at the end of the 19th century 900 Armenians, 880 Greeks and around 5 thosand Muslims lived in Adabazar.  In 1913 the amount of Armenians in the town reached to 2100 people. They lived in four quarters that had the names of the churches located there: Surb Hreshtakapet (St. Archangel), Surb Karapet (St. John the Baptist), Surb Lusavorish (St. Apostle) and Surb Stepanos (St. Stephen). All   churches had paired elementary schools for girls and boys, as well as kindergartens. 

Armenian family from Adabazar

Bolu (Kastamonu province)

Bolu is a town and a region just east of Izmid.  The town was located at the intersection of two mineral springs that as per the superstition and belief of the locals had special healing properties.  The economy was developing due to cultivation of cotton, wine, tobacco, beans, grain crops, lentil and so on.

At the end of the 19th century the population of the town was 325 thousand, and only 111 of them were Armenians and 3500 were Greeks.  The statistics of the Armenian priests in Izmid contains information about 167 apostolic families in Bolu in 1902.

Armenians first started to settle in Bolu at the beginning of the 16th century, mainly from Eastern Armenia (Nakhichevan-Erevan) during the Ottoman-Persian wars. Noteworthy is that the Armenians of Bolu retained their eastern Armenian (Ararat) dialect till the last. They had two churches: St. Blessed Virgin in the Old quarter (Eski Mahalle) and St. Karapet in the Armenian quarter (Ermeni Mahalle).

Armenian family from Kastamonu province

Bursa (Khudavendigar province)

It is one of the most important cities of western Asia Minor, the history of which dates back to the ancient world. In 1326 the Ottomans took over Bursa and turned it into their capital. Even after moving the capital into Adrianapolis (Edirne) and later to Constantinople (Istanbul), Bursa remained an important city, the base for undertaking military campaigns in the east.

The Armenians first settled in Bursa after the fall of the Cilician Armenian kingdom in 1375 and continued to move into the city before and after the Ottomans took over Constantinople (in 1453). The first Armenian bishop who founded the Armenian patriarchy in Constantinople was from Bursa.

The disposition by the Marmara Sea made Bursa into the place of international trade with both Western Europe and the Middle East. The most valuable commodity from Bursa was silk. In 1888 there was a silk farming institute in the city and one of the co-founders of it was Armenian. On the cusp of the 20th century Armenians and Greeks made up over 70% of the silk producers.  

According to the official ottoman data as of 1892 out of 76 thousand residents of Bursa, 7541 were Armenians, 5158 were Geeks and 2548 were Jews. It is worthy of note that throughout the province of Khudavendigar the only Armenian newspaper was published in Bursa that was in Armenian-Turkish, i.e. it was in Turkish language written in Armenian letters.

Armenian quarter of Bursa

Banderma (Khudavendigar province)

Banderma is a port on the Marmara Sea.  It is known from the ancient times as Panoramos.  According to travelers of 16th and 17th centuries the population mainly consisted of Greeks and Armenians.  By the end of the 19th century the picture changed and ¾ of the total population were Muslims.

By 1914 Banderma became a major centre of commerce and shipping industry, grain crops, sesame and livestock was exported from there.  There were many agencies of foreign companies, bankers, watchmakers, producers of opium and tailors who were selling their products and services.  

Elise Hagopian Taft revives the bright pictures of the Armenian lifestyle in Banderma during the pre-genocide period. 

“Each group was living in the relevant quarter: the Greeks next to the sea, the Turks higher, on the slopes of the hill, the Armenians between them. Armenians were the worshippers of St. Blessed Virgin church, also Evangelic and Catholic churches. The Armenians schools were joint up until the graduation: The Armenians were relatively well-situated: many silkworms, almost every family had their own small vineyard, orchard and olive trees”. Taft recalls that the harvest season was the most joyful.

Banderma: a view of the town

Eskishehir (Khudavendigar province)

Eskishehir ( “Old city” in Turkish) was famous from the anicent times as Dorylaeum. The Seljuks took over the city at the end of the 12th century. By the 20th century 67 thousand people lived in Eskishehir: 6 thousand Armenians, who had migrated from Kutahya and Sivri-Isar and also pandukhts looking for seasonal work.

The Christian (Armenian and Greek) quarters of Eskishehir were located at the foot of the hill. There was also a well-equipped indoor market and thermal bath-houses.

Armenians were the worshippers of St. Trinity church and were attending Surb Mesropyan and Surb Sandukhtyan schools. At the end of the 20th century 221 students were attending the school. Armenians were also attending the St. Augustine French school making half of the forty students.

A Turkish journalist from Costantinople Ahmed Sheriff who was traveling in Eskishehir in 1909 mentioned the apple-pie order in the Armenian schools and was also taken aback from the fact that the Armenian students were conducting educational parliament sessions.   

Armenians, just like their Greek brothers in faith made their living through commerce and trade. Goat wool (tiftik) and opium were particularly important products of export, as well as grain crops, apricot stones and sawn lumber. 

Students of the Armenian school, 1914

Sivrihisar (Khudavendigar province)

Sivirhisar (“sharp-pointed castle” in Turkish) was known during the Byzantine period as Yunistianapolis.

The Armenian presence in the town dates back to 1471. Among the 24 Muslim quarters in Sivrihisar there was only one Armenian quarter the residents of which attended the St Blessed Virgin church. 

At first the Armenians settled in a nearby village called Ayin, which the Turks named the Christian village (Khristian Коу).

The sources of the 17th century show that the Armenian merchants from Sivrihisar established commercial ties with the merchants of Venice back in 1602. In 1616 the Polish-Armenian traveler Simeon Lehatsi visited the town who left an informative report on a number of Ottoman Armenian communities. 

In the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century the population of Sivirhisar was 4 thousand people in 850 households. The inhabitants were doing gardening, crafts, producing woolen fabric, glass and cloth manufacture, commerce.

There were schools in Sivirhisar with separate education for boys and girls: Sahak-Mesrobiants section for boys and the Hripsimiants section for girls and also Targmanchats boarding school.  Ahmed Sherif was so delighted with the level of intelligence of Armenian children, that he wrote the following: “If you ask any of them a question, they will provide you a full information on it”.

Armenian family from Sivrihisar, 1900

Sivrihisar, circa 1909. Armenian soldiers and officers in the Ottoman Army. The photo was taken after the reestablishment of the Ottoman Constitution. Many such military men from Sivrihisar perished in the 1915 massacres 

Kutahia (Khudavendigar province)

Known as Koteon in the ancient times, the town is located 362 km from Constantinople, inside Asia Minor. Kutahia is famous for its dainty tiles and ceramics, and for the Armenians the town was of great importance being the birthplace of the unique music scholar Komitas.

It is commonly believed that Armenians have been living in Kutahia since the Byzantine era. A large amount of Armenians settled here during the rule of the Seljuks. The Armenian population significantly increased in the 15th century, when the Armenians who had fled from Agulis (a town next to Old Julfa by the river Araks) found shelter here. At the end of 1890-s the population of Kutahia was 120 333 people, 4050 of which were Greeks, 2553 Armenians of Apostolic church and 754 Catholic Armenians. 

The ceramic jugs, bowls and plates from Kutahia could be found in any market around the world.  They were distinguished by green, blue, yellow and white patterns. A large amount of Armenian and Greek foremen worked in this industry.

Kutahia Bowl from Armenian Craftsman Toros, "12 Apostles" 18th cent.

The decorative tiles produced in Kutahia were used not only to build Armenian and Greek churches but also for building the Ottoman mosques and palaces.  

According to French historian John Carswell pottery was triggered by the craftsmen who fled from the east, presumably from Persia.  

Mosques in Constantinople, Kutahia, Angora, Konia and Caesarea were highly decorated with the tiles from Kutahia. In 17th century there was a rise in the construction of Armenian churches, and, consequently, the Dutch tile industry. The sources indicate that the pottery industry in Kutahia continued to develop and reached its zenith in the 18th century. Unfortunately all the churched were trashed during the 20th century and deprived of their Armenian identity. 

Kutahia: a view of the town

Afion-Karahisar (Khudavendigar province)

The town received its name due to a large number of poppy fields and the large black fortress located there.

Armenians are first mentioned in Afion-Karahisar in the Ottoman fiscal register of 16th century. The ottoman court reports retain the last names of Armenian families who settled in the town, owing to which we can see the diversity of regions they had come from: Bursaliyan, Izmirli, Tokatliyan, Misroghlu.

The Armenian community lived compactly in the centre of the town and had worshippers of the Armenian Apostolic church as well as Catholics and Evangelics.

In 1914 45 thousand people lived in Afion-Karahisar, 7 thousand of which were Turkish speaking Armenians represented mainly by the craftsmen and merchants, as well as fitters, lawyers, chemists and doctors.

There two Armenian Apostolic churches in the town: St. Blessed Virgin and St. Toros, one Armenian evangelic church, six schools and a kindergarten.  During the genocide the St. Blessed Virgin church was vandalized, part of the structure still exists. 

Afion-Karahisar: a view of the town

Konia (Konia province)

It was known as Pisidia in the ancient times. Traditionally, it is considered the first part of the land that appeared after the Flood.

In the place of the current location of the town there was once a lake covering the most part of the plain.  When the lake dried up, there was a fertile plain there irrigated by the river flowing from the Taurus Mountains. 

The Seljuks who took over the town in the 11th century, made it their capital, built striking palaces and mosques, and the tombs of famous Islamic figures, such as Sufi mystic Jelaleddin (Jalal ad-Din) Rumi, turned Konia into a popular place of pilgrimage.

It is unknown when Armenians first settled in Konia.  The Latin chronographers, who accompanied the knights of the First Crusade, mention about a small community of Armenians living in the outskirts of Ikonia (Konia) at the end of 11th century. The Ottoman tax registers contain information only about 22 Christians living in the town in the 16th century. The colophon of the Armenian saint manuscript from Konia of 1630 informs about two Armenian churches: St. Blessed Virgin and St. Toros. This brings us to the conclusion that by that time the community was  increasing in number and rapidly developing. 

The evidences of the travelers provide useful information about the Armenian community of Konia.  Simeon Lehatsi wrote that the Armenians living inside the town (“nrsetsik”) did not know tha Armenians living in the outskirts. Most part of the Armenians were concentrated in the Allahaddin quarter. The reports of the British and other foreign biblical communities, who visited Konia in 1823, indicate that Armenians wrote Turkish with Armenian letters and they had a school where they were taught to it. According to him out of 14 thousand homes there were 100 Armenian and 60 Greek families.

Konia: a view of the town

At the end of 1890s 9700 Armenians lived in Konia, before the beginning of the First World War, 12791. One of the inhabitants of Konia, a survivor of the genocide wrote that Armenians had warm relations with the local Muslims, they spent the time together and their children played with each other.

The facts and materials presented in this overview allows for the conclusion that Armenians started to massively move to western Asia Minor in the middle Ages. The key reasons for migration were the wars and riots that prevailed in the Armenian highland, the historical homeland of Armenians. In its entirety Armenians were able to preserve their culture and were granted with the right to practice their religion, despite the fact that they were considered second-class citizens in the Muslim Empire. At the end of the 19th century, and beginning of the 20th century the persecution of Armenians varied from region to region, from city to city, but at the same time the Young Turks' regime provided all the communities with the alike and unreserved end and their inhabitants with alike and unreserved roads of deportation and death. In recent decades the region is developing and prospering but the history of Armenian communities is gradually being destroyed by demolishing in the process the fundamental layer of the history of Anatolia and Turkey.  

Source: “Armenian Communities of Asia Minor” Edited by Richard G. Hovhannisian

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