[Mark Grigorian has posted a neat set of three articles on the Armenian influence on Istanbul, based on recent visits to that city. The original is in Russian, and my translation is below. Mark kindly went over my translation and improved it considerably; any mistakes that remain are, of course, mine.]
If you are a speaker of Russian, as many Armenians in Armenia are indeed, and have never been to Istanbul, then you should start with two words: “durak” (which in Russian means “fool”) and “bardak” (“brothel” in Russian).
There is nothing wrong with these words, in Turkish. “Durak” means “a stop.” So the question, “Where is the tram durak?” is normal, legitimate, and insults nobody. Likewise, “bardak” means “a glass.” And “tea in a bardak” is merely in a glass, and has nothing to do with “coffee in bed,” as you might have imagined.
With the rest, it’s a bit easier. How about the word “saray” (“shed” or “barn” in Russian), which means “palace” in Turkish? And, of course, the name of Dolmabahçe Palace sounds peculiar to the Armenian ear, as “dolma” is a dish in Armenian cuisine. But that’s just linguistics in some poor taste. Dolmabahçe, the palace of the last Ottoman Sultans, was built by the Armenian architect Garapet Balyan, and its collection of works of art is graced by the canvases of Hovhanes Aivazovsky – a famous Armenian seascape painter. So, quite naturally, the first part of my travelogue of Istanbul will be called …
And let it not sound strange or unlikely: Armenians have dwelt in Constantinople since long before 1453, the year the Ottoman Turks conquered the city. Today there remain sixty to eighty thousand of them, and they do not consider themselves part of the Armenian diaspora. “The Armenian diaspora,” they say, “is in the US, in France, in Russia. We are indigenous.”
Because what I’m presenting are notes on travel, and not research, I will allow myself the leeway to ignore chronology, and will not attempt an exhaustive study of the subject. I have a modest role: I am a tourist in Constantinople, who came to see it through the eyes of an Armenian from Yerevan. But before I begin this essay, permit me a small digression. For me, having lived the first forty-five years of my life in Yerevan, Istanbul was a city filled with an absolutely negative aura. It was – in every way possible – the city where on the 24th of April, 1915, began the genocide in which perished a million and a half of my compatriots.
The beginning of the genocide is marked by the day when tens of eminent Armenians were arrested. Politicians, priests, artists, musicians, jurists, doctors, teachers, lawyers, businessmen were taken out of the city, and nearly all were put to death. Back in my school years, I had the impression (which lasted for many years) that there were no Armenians left in Istanbul, and that this city would not tolerate even a mention of Armenia or Armenians. But when I moved to London, I began to meet compatriots whose families still lived in Istanbul, and who indeed often journeyed to that city and spent months there. I, myself, began to travel to Istanbul frequently, meeting with fellow journalists who lived and worked in that city. With the assassination of one of them, Hrant Dink, all the ambivalence of Istanbul began to reveal itself to me.
Indeed, despite the genocide and the terrible past, in Istanbul continues to dwell a fairly large community of Armenians. Along with the Greeks and the Jews, the Armenians are an officially recognised minority in Turkey (unlike the Kurds). Armenians study in their own schools, maintain their own churches, own real estate in prestigious districts of the city, and are engaged in business and craft. But they all say that life has become harder in recent years, the harassment has gotten worse. This, they tell me, is in the atmosphere – cloying and unpleasant. Many say they are ready to leave the city.
But surprisingly, many are arriving. Mainly, these are families from Armenia, and mainly, from Gyumri and Vanadzor – two towns seriously damaged during an earthquake in 1988. There are areas in Istanbul where the sounds of Armenian speech are freely heard on the streets. But I am getting ahead of myself…
In the 19th century, Constantinople was one of the centres of Armenian culture. Because the Armenians had been denied their own state, their literature, journalism and culture developed outside of Armenia proper. The closest places to mainland were Constantinople and Tiflis, cities outside their native lands.
In the space of a few decades, by the middle of the century, there were almost fifty Armenian newspapers and journals in Constantinople; there was an active theatre; Armenians thrived at business, and even had their self-governing body – the Armenian National Assembly (although, in fact, with very limited powers). Armenians were often advisers to viziers and ministers, and even some Foreign Ministers, in the Ottoman government.
From this period of enlightenment remain more than ten churches (interestingly, nobody was able to give me an exact figure, though there is mention of sixteen churches belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and several others, Catholic and Protestant); a few schools where a good part of the instruction is in Armenian (in truth, there is considerable oversight of this by the Turkish authorities, who take exception if things are not “just so”). And there are hospitals, shops, restaurants, residences…
It is said that not long ago, a travel guide to the “Greek Istanbul” was published. I am convinced that there is interest in a guide to the Armenian Istanbul, and it will sell well. But evidently the Turks are still not quite ready for this.
I would, somewhat unexpectedly, name Haghia Sofia as the first monument of Armenian Istanbul. Although the original basilica was constructed by Greek architects (Isidor of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles) in the sixth century (532-537), its cupola has collapsed several times; after its destruction during an earthquake in the year 989, the authorities invited the famed Armenian architect Trdat, creator of the cathedral of Ani, to restore it. Well, by “the authorities” I mean the Byzantine emperor Basil II, nicknamed the Bulgar-Slayer (Boulgaroktonos), who actually was of Armenian descent.
And by 994, Trdat had finished the reconstruction of the cupola which has to this day – for more than a thousand years – covered this magnificent cathedral. The Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam wrote about the cupola:
“Haghia Sophia – “stop here”
Said God unto nations and kings!
Indeed your dome, as the witnesses say
Is hanging from the heavens by a chain.”
But let’s move forward – to the next point in Armenian Istanbul.
Do not seek the Armenian Istanbul in the world-famous Lonely Planet guide. In fact, do not seek any Armenian references in this book – I spent nearly an hour on this, to no avail. I found pointers to gay clubs, and baths and saunas for gays, but did I find any mention of Armenian Istanbul? Not one. If you meet the author of the guide, Virginia Maxwell, please convey my regards to her.
So we are not going to depend on maps and guidebooks. We’ll just head to the tramway fool (“stop”, remember?) nearest to Haghia Sophia, and proceed further by rail, towards the Grand Bazaar.
But don’t worry, we shall not enter the bazaar. Opposite the bazaar, we shall turn left into one of the little lanes that steeply descend towards the Sea of Marmara. If we are lucky, this will be Tiyatro Caddesi, but if not, we shall anyway exit at the next junction, deftly avoiding the enormous number of shoes that are sold in this quarter.
The junction is a meeting point of five or six streets. At the centre of this square sits a bootblack, and around him are tens of restaurants, mainly offering fish dishes. These restaurants are very popular and therefore the food is not very tasty. Why bother to make an effort if the place is filled up day and night?
We are now in the area known as Kumkapı. In the evenings, it is impossible to breathe here. Hundreds of tourists invade the restaurants to eat fish. Ushers stalk the lanes in front of the eateries, persuading passers-by in six or seven languages to patronise one or the other restaurant. “I see that you are a bit hungry,” says one hopeful to us, “Well, here you can find all that you want.”
“Mister, mister, where are you from?” yells another. “Table for two? I’ll seat you at the VIP table. Cool and delicious!”
Belly dancers wind their sinuous way among the restaurants. Rather than an exotic oriental dance, what they are doing is simply an extortion of tips from the men – you may stick your money into their bras, but if it’s more than ten dollars, you will be granted the opportunity to stuff it into their silken panties.
But I digress. We are not interested in this. In fact, we arrive at this oasis of restaurants not in the evening, but during the day, when the waiters are just preparing the tables and utensils for the usual evening feast. So we head towards another street called Çifte Gelinler, and walking a bit along it, turn left onto a street with a strange name: Şarapnel.
And here is a three-storied white mansion, built in the European cottage architectural style of the 19th century. In front of it are palm trees, and it would appear completely serene were it not for the booth of policemen armed with automatic weapons.
This mansion is the residence of the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Constantinople. The police post was established shortly after the Patriarch was shot at. The Patriarch himself, Mesrob Mutafyan, is seriously ill, and has stepped away from his duties for about six months. This affects the Armenian community, because he is not just one of the highest church authorities, but is also the exarch, that is, the spiritual as well as secular leader of all Armenians in Turkey. The Patriarch of Constantinople performs secular duties as well, in particular representing the interests of the community to the authorities in Turkey.
Across the Patriarchal residence is the Church of the Holy Virgin. This is the mother church of the Armenian community in Turkey. Ethiopian and Syrian residents of Istanbul also worship at this church; as they also belong to relatively small Eastern Orthodox Churches. The group differs from other Christian denominations in that it is Monophysite, that is, believing that Christ has only one nature – divine. The Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants maintain that Christ has a dual nature – human and divine. They are called Dyophysite. And that’s a very old story – this division goes back to 451.
I was at the Church of the Holy Virgin last year, during Easter. There were crowds, masses of police, because the previous week, ultranationalists had tried to assassinate the Patriarch at the entrance to the Church (they missed). The Easter service was led by Mesrob Mutafyan, solemnly proclaiming the good news: Christ has risen!
The attendees were in two groups, clearly distinguishable from each other. One group was comprised of the long-time residents of the city. Many couldn’t speak Armenian, and I noticed they were ashamed of this. We spoke to one of them, a man of about sixty years of age, with the help of his eight-year old granddaughter. She was visibly proud to translate from Turkish to Western Armenian. I was doing my best to communicate in Western Armenian (which is quite strongly distinct from Eastern Armenian, which is spoken in Armenia). I had to speak as clearly as I was able so that the little girl could understand me.
Those who know both these Armenian tongues will understand that this was not an easy exercise.
The second group of parishioners was comprised of “Armenian” Armenians, that is, spoken in the modern tongue, migrant workers, or gastarbeiters. The majority spoke Armenian with a brightly expressive Gyumri accent. Naturally, because they came here from Gyumri.
Estimates vary, but in Istanbul there are between five and twenty thousand migrant workers from Armenia. Many have dwelt here over a decade, and have managed to purchase apartments, bring over their families, get settled. Not all are legal, but the authorities turn a blind eye. It is said that it’s much more difficult in Istanbul for the Uzbeks – the authorities are trying hard to prevent them from staying on illegally.
In Istanbul, I was told, there was much demand for nurses and domestic workers from Gyumri. Their cleanliness, kindness to toddlers and their hard work are much prized. And in the local Armenian families they are valued for speaking the Armenian language with the kids, who, thus, begin to speak the mother tongue.
At the same time, the same nurses improve their Turkish, and moving into Turkish employ, find themselves valued for their work ethic.
Many of the folk from Gyumri live not far from the Patriarchate in the Kumkapı quarter. Walk on the streets and you will certainly overhear the Armenian speech with its characteristic Eastern interjections “vabshe” (meaning “in general”), and “ee” (uttered abruptly and passionately, expressing surprise and other related emotions) and so on.
I visited the residence of one of these inhabitants of Kumkapi. It was a small one or two-bedroom flat in one of the four- or five-storey buildings where, in keeping with the spirit of Armenia, lived three generations of Gyumriites.
A rug hung on the wall, Jesus Christ embroidered; on the buffet a carefully arranged dinner service; a TV in the corner of the room and a portable tape recorder. Both were on: there was some broadcast from Yerevan (satellite!), and from the tape deck shrieked a shrill female voice, singing an Armenian pop song. In a nutshell, everything was just like back home.
Kumkapı is not a wealthy area. This means that you will see here yet another aspect of Istanbul – where the ordinary people live. Turks, Armenians, Ethiopians… They live, you see, together.
This is the story of the owner of the house. It is easy, after all, to chat over a cup of coffee…
“It is difficult [to live here], but not overly so. Difficult, because we are not citizens. If we had citizenship, everyone would benefit.”
“We have little connection with the Armenian community of Istanbul. If anyone took the initiative, that would be good. But there’s no effort at all. The local Armenians keep to themselves, and the Armenians from Armenia – we keep to ourselves as well.”
“We are asked – was there really a genocide? We, to the best of our ability, explain: “Yes. There was.” But the local Turks say to us: “It was war, and many Turks died.” Thousands of Turks perished at the time. Well, it’s not for us to make out what happened or how. But we speak to them, and we want to say, yes, it did happen.”
“They often ask me: “You, an Armenian, have been here for seven years. Has anyone insulted you?” Well, even here there are fanatics. But there are fanatics everywhere. There are parties espousing fanaticism. Among all peoples there are bigots.”
But It is time for us to abandon Kumkapı. Let us leave the quarter of thin moustaches and grimy houses, and head towards the touristic centre of European Istanbul, İstiklal Caddesi, or the Avenue of Independence. To do this, we need to get to the New Mosque and cross the Golden Horn over the Galata Bridge, where at all times and any kind of weather, one always finds fishermen. These are a strange breed. If they catch three or four fish as long as an adult’s middle finger, they consider it a satisfactory achievement. Actually, I respect these guys. They are real sportsmen, for whom the whole process is as important as catching the fish. But the result… Such a result would barely be enough for a bite with a can of beer.
Crossing the bridge, we will take the metro to the stop (or “fool”, in case you haven’t forgotten) Tünel, ascend to the surface, and emerge upon the famous Avenue of Independence.
Until the middle of the last century, the entire street and quarter was called Pera. It was mainly inhabited by Greeks. There were also some Armenian quarters, life in which was described with warmth and sweet sadness in the novels of Krikor Zohrab – writer, lawyer, member of Parliament, killed in 1915.
Pera was considered one of the luxurious quarters of Istanbul. As an Istanbul resident said to me, a woman could not step outside one’s home without gloves and an umbrella. What a sophistication! Lace gloves upto one’s elbows, and a matching umbrella in lace.
But in early September 1955, an explosion ripped through the courtyard of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki. In revenge, a mob stormed through Pera.
At the end of two days of rioting and arson, Pera lay literally in ruins. Many houses, shops and churches were destroyed. Relatively few people died – sixteen or so Greeks, and one Armenian. But the Greek community, like the rest of Pera, suffered irreparable damage. Before the pogroms, almost a hundred thousand Greeks lived in Istanbul. Now, fifty years later, there are barely two or three thousand.
I’m amazed, however, at the sheer number of Greek tourists in the city. You can hear the language being spoken everywhere, in Hagia Sophia, in the Grand Bazaar, on the streets. The restaurateurs, and the shopkeepers in the bazaars, and the vendors of knick-knacks and touristy bric-a-brac, everyone, in fact, would call out perkily in Greek, inviting the customers in.
I am heartened by the numbers of Greek visitors. God willing, there will one day be similar numbers of Armenian tourists here as well, and the ushers will call out to them like Gikor in the novel by Hovhannes Tumanyan: “Esti hametsek, esti hametsek” (“Come here, come here”). Or something similar – after all the Tiflisian dialect of Gikor is quite different from the western Armenian spoken in Istanbul. But we have to wait quite a while before any of this happens.
So let us return to İstiklal, renamed thus after the pogroms.
Today, this is an eminently European avenue, wide, beautiful, with brightly displayed fashion stores and souvenir shops. It is mainly pedestrian.
Occasionally, right in the middle of the street, a police car will pass by, or red tram with its musical bells, ticketless travellers hanging off its back in happy bunches.
On İstiklal are the French and British embassies, and the Russian trade office. This is, after all, a diplomatic district.
Walking along the avenue for about a kilometre, we look carefully at the buildings on the left side, where we will soon encounter a sign “Çiçek Pasajı.”
This means “Flower Passage” and is one of the most important places of interest of the avenue.
These days, there are restaurants in the passage. Oh, and a counter of sweetmeats at the entrance. In 1920, this was a real shopping passage, with haberdasheries and glass-blowers and tobacconists. And at the time, the building was still called Cite de Pera. During the early twenties, Russians aristocrats, fleeing from the Bolsheviks, began to sell flowers there.
Imagine this! A Russian baroness or Grand Duchess, with her brilliant French manners, sophisticated in the best European tradition, standing there, selling bouquets to passers-by.
For some time thereafter, the passage was used by flower vendors, and thus obtained its name.
Having admired the passage, we turn to a narrow little street next to it. Twenty-odd metres up and turning right, between the vendors of fresh fish, cheap jewellery and Chinese-made toys, we notice a rather unobtrusive door. It opens to the Armenian Church of the Holy Trinity, built at the beginning of the 19th century by the architect Garapet Balyan, the same man who built that palace with a strange name Dolmabahçe, and also the Mother of God Church in Kumkapı, where we have already been.
Leaving the churchyard, we do not return to İstiklal; instead, we proceed farther. We fall into a little lane, seething with restaurants. We should be careful here, for we do not want to miss a particular eatery named “Bonchuk.” Obviously, as I am writing about the Armenian Istanbul, the owner of this restaurant will be Armenian, too. His name is Telemak, an ancient name, but not very Armenian, indeed.
I was told that the journalist and founding editor of the weekly “Agos“, Hrant Dink, loved to sit around at this restaurant. Dink was killed at the entrance to his office by a young ultranationalist from Eastern Turkey. Dink’s family and lawyers accuse the Turkish police and army of having known beforehand of the plan to murder him. The authorities, however, did not allow to launch an investigation against eight allegedly culpable police officers, including the police chief of the city, and the head of police intelligence department.
I must confess, however, that I was not very happy with the quality of food in “Bonchuk”. Maybe that’s because at the moment Telemak was not “on site”? I do not know. I, perhaps, will venture to go to “Bonchuk” one more time.
Having recalled Hrant Dink, it is time to proceed to the final destination of our adventure – the office of the newspaper “Agos”. To do so, we go along İstiklal towards Taksim Square and beyond, past the Hospice of St. Akop, an Armenian Catholic establishment, and walk past the mansion by which flutters the Armenian tricolour (this is the office of the Armenian delegation to the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation), onto Cumhurriyet Caddesi, the Avenue of the Republic.
We must amble along this avenue for about twenty minutes. We could, of course, take a bus or descend into the metro. Cumhurriyet merges smoothly into Halaskargazi, where we can find the editorial office of “Agos”.
I love visiting there, meeting with journalists, drink the coffee that has been kindly prepared for the visitor, and talk to the editor Etyen Mahcupyan about the situation in Armenia. This is a very hospitable place. Of course, I understand that I’m distracting Etyen from his editorial work with my chatter, but cannot deny myself the pleasure of reacquainting myself with Sarkis Seropyan, that master of the Armenian language, and once again look at the large photograph of Hrant Dink on the wall of the office, and breathe in the smell of freshly printed newspapers.
“Agos” is the first and so far the only newspaper released in two languages – Turkish and Armenian.
Right in front of the office is a music shop. I would recommend a visit there to ask for Armenian music. I don’t know if I can find as many CDs of our music in an average store in Yerevan. If you like the duduk, please yourself: any number of CDs of Djivan Gasparyan, Levon Minasyan, Gevorg Dabaghyan, Suren Asaduryan; you can find here folk songs performed by the ensemble Knar, records of Anna Mailyan, and concerts by Ara Dinkjian, and Arto Tuncboyaciyan, and even – imagine it – folk songs reworked by the famous Soviet-Armenian choirmaster Tatul Altunyan.
And a CD of Komitas performing Armenian folk songs.
If you think that such a wide selection of Armenian music exists in this store just because it is so close to the editorial office of “Agos”, then feel free to inspect the shelves at any other music store in Istanbul. The variety and number of Armenian discs are no less anywhere else.
But let us return to the reality of Istanbul. The editorial office of “Agos” is not far from Kurtulush. This is a district so Armenian that one can find shop signs written in Armenian. Well, they are in the Latin script, but, as the old folk adage goes, there cannot be two strokes of good fortune in one place.
“Agos” is not the only Armenian newspaper in Istanbul. I met the editor of another, a daily, called “Zhamanak”, on Taksim Square. His name is Ara Kochumian. He is a corpulent young man with a bristly fuzz on his cheeks. Ara speaks an excellent western Armenian in a verbose and flowery fashion. And if he can’t find the mot juste, he borrows an equivalent from the French.
“We are all citizens of the Turkish republic, but of Armenian ethnicity. Many adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church. And we, like jongleurs, keep having to juggle these three balls: one always in the air, and two in our hands.”
“An Armenian in Istanbul tries to live in such a way that he can run his business quietly, so as not to attract any overt discrimination. On a personal level, therefore, much unpleasantness can be avoided. But at the institutional level, for example, where the Armenian Apostolic Church is concerned, or the problems of the Armenian educational organisations – schools – are concerned, we see many examples of discrimination.”
“And this is because in Turkey there are several ways to oppress minorities. The Turkish republic was born out of a multicultural empire and often describes itself as the legal successor of that empire. That is what I want to say: the state today is secular, but [it is understood] there is a notion of non-Islamic citizens of the country. This was established at the Treaty of Lausanne. The existence of this notion raises a number of issues, including how to organise the education and religious practices of a new generation of Armenians. To this, we can add the two-headed supervision of Armenian educational establishments, created with the tacit agreement of the community. As you know, the directors of the schools are Armenian. But alongside them there are deputy directors whose powers and functions are in some ways higher than expected at that level.”
In all, in Istanbul, there are fifteen Armenian schools, and as I understand it, in the most of them, but not all, this deputy director – a Commissar of a kind – is an ethnic Turk.
“But there is one more problem,” continues Ara. “In the Armenian high schools, we are giving up the teaching of certain subjects in our language: history and geography and so on, are taught by Turks in the Turkish tongue.”
“After all, these community institutions were established at a time when the Armenians in Istanbul numbered 200 thousand out of a total population of about one million people. Now we are barely 70-80 thousand, and these institutions are working to save our community. But to ensure that they continue to function, we need huge, superhuman efforts. And sometimes it upsets us that in the other Armenian Diaspora communities, these efforts are not fully appreciated.”
Here I probably shall stop, although there is much more to tell about the Armenian Istanbul. For example, I could have talked about the architectural dynasty Balian. Istanbul takes pride in many of the remarkable buildings built by them. Or of the Armenian churches in other parts of the city, including those on the Asian shore… Separately, I could have talked of one of the best photographers of the 20th century – Ara Gyuler (I wrote about him here)…
And, of course, there’s a lot I don’t know. I hope that my concise notes were interesting, and helped you to think about the Armenians of Istanbul, about their past and present. And the future, of course. This is important for all.
As an epilogue, here’s a conversation I had with the manager of the hotel I stayed in. Or, rather, it is his monologue.
Imagine: a shadowy hotel lounge, steaming cups of tea before us (“bardak”), and a young man of about thirty lounging on a sofa, smoking Marlboros.
“Your son is called Tigran,” he began. “That is the name of the famous Kurdish singer, Tigran-Aram. He is an Armenian just like you, but he sings Kurdish songs beautifully. I, myself, am a Kurd.”
“I know,” I managed to put in a word, “I realised this as soon as we met.”
“…I myself am a Kurd,” he continued. “We support the Armenians. Do not worry, Istanbul is in our hands. There is nothing to fear here.”
“I’m not afraid,” I responded.
“At the moment, we are about twenty percent of the country. Maybe even more. The President (I suppose he had the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan in mind) said: have more children. If you have more children, in a generation, or maximum two, we’ll number as many as the Turks. Fifty-fifty. And the country will be ours.”
“But our people are asleep. It is time for the people to awaken.”
At this “optimistic” juncture in the conversation, I was able to make my excuses and leave.
But Kurds in Turkey are not even considered a minority. In Turkish universities, there is not one chair in Kurdish studies or in the Kurdish language Kurmanji.
Meanwhile, there is no faculty of Armenian studies or the Armenian language either.
But when they do appear…