Raffi Bedrosyan

Forgotten Armenians at the Forefront of Ottoman Culture


By Raffi Bedrosyan

Last week, while criticizing Israel and US on the Jerusalem issue, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated with great conviction, without batting an eye: “There has never been any genocide, holocaust, massacre, ethnic cleansing or torture in our history.” This wholesale denial of historic facts regarding the treatment of minorities by the state is nothing new, but with each denial, history just keeps on repeating itself with sickening regularity, massacres of Armenians followed by massacres of Greeks, Assyrians, Alevis and Kurds.

This article will focus not on the denial of genocide, but more on the denial of the very existence of the Armenians and their contributions to Turkey in so many ways.

In a previous article (“Armenian Island on the Bosphorus”), I had touched upon how a single family of Armenian architects, the Balyans, had shaped the skyline of Istanbul, particularly along the Bosphorus, with their creations of palaces, mansions, military barracks and mosques. Although revered and respected as Royal Architects during the Ottoman reign, their Armenian identity was denied by the Republic of. Turkey, and they were mentioned as the Italian Balianis by official tourist guides until the early 2000’s.

Dikran Tchouhadjian

Even more famous than the Balyan family, an architect living in the 16th century, Mimar (Architect) Sinan (1489-1588) has left his mark all over the Ottoman Empire single-handedly creating 92 mosques, 55 schools, 36 palaces, 48 hamams (bath house),3 hospitals, 20 inns, 10 bridges, 6 water channels and hundreds of other government buildings, almost all of them still standing after five centuries. His
masterpieces are the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, which is in the UNESCO World Heritage list of buildings. The average Turk knows him as the Great Turkish Architect

A statue of Sinan, the architect, who was Armenian

Sinan, and his name is given to Fine Arts and Architecture universities. But he is an Armenian from the Agirnas village of Kayseri province, seized away from his parents as a boy, Islamized, circumcised and raised as soldier and subsequently as architect by the state. When he died at the ripe age of 99, he was buried near Suleymaniye Mosque. During the 1930’s, the Turkish state was dominated by racist intellectuals who claimed that the Turkish race was superior to all other races and that there was a definable set of Turkish race characteristics in shape of skull and other features. To prove their point and to demonstrate that historically intelligent Turks match their defined racial characteristics, these so-called anthropology experts decided to exhume the remains of Architect Sinan, a most prominent Turk from the past. Unfortunately, Sinan’s skull did not match these experts’ theoretical Turkish skull dimensions, and as a result, the skull was kept hidden. To this day, the whereabouts of the skull is still unknown, and Sinan’s body lies in the grave without the head.

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Again, in the 1930s, when president Mustafa Kemal decided to introduce the Latin alphabet and modernize the Turkish language, he turned to Prof. Agop Martayan, a prominent linguist, to head the Turkish Language Council. As a reward for his services to the Turkish language, Kemal gave him a new surname, Dilacar, meaning “language opener.” In return, Martayan proposed the surname “Ataturk” to Kemal, which was eventually adopted by the Parliament. When Martayan passed away in 1979, Turkish media announced his name as A. Dilacar, without ever mentioning his Armenian identity. In fact, some newspapers further distorted his name, by referring to Adil Acar.

After Mustafa Kemal got the surname Ataturk, he needed to create a new signature, and he called upon another Armenian, prominent calligraphy master Vahram Jerjian. Jerjian’s Ataturk signature was adopted in 1934 and it appears on everything from Turkish banknotes to parliamentary records, but today nobody remembers him.

In 1932, the Turkish government commissioned a prominent Armenian musicologist and conductor, Edgar Manas, to create the harmony and orchestration for the Turkish national anthem based on a melody by a Turkish musician. Today, nobody remembers Edgar Manas in Turkey, even though his creation of the national anthem is sung every week in schools, stadiums and the parliament.

In Turkish cinema, movie stars Adile Nasit, Toto Karaca, Vahi Oz, Sami Hazinses, Kenan Pars are known all over Turkey, making millions laugh or cry in their films. But very few Turks know or acknowledge that these stars are all Armenian. They all had unique reasons for hiding their Armenian identities, revealed after they passed away. Adile Nasit was Adile Keskiner (1930-1987), Toto Karaca was Irma Felegyan (1912-1992), Vahi Oz was Vahe Ozinyan (1911-1969), Sami Hazinses was Samuel Agop Ulucyan (1925-2002), Kenan Pars was Krikor Jezvejian (1920-2008).

The first opera in Turkey was staged in 1874 in Istanbul by an Armenian, composed, conducted and produced by Dikran Tchukhadjian (1837-1898).Turkish sources deny this and cite Turkish singers for much later dates.

The first play was staged in 1868 in Istanbul by an Armenian actor Gullu Agop Vartovyan (1840-1902). Turkish sources deny this and cite Turkish actors for much later dates.

The first sportsmen representing Ottoman Turkey were two Armenians and a Greek in 1912 in Stockholm. The Armenians were Vahram Papazyan and Mgrditch Migiryan, both in track and field. Turkish sources deny this and cite Turkish sportsmen in later dates.

These examples of Armenian contributions, innovations or accomplishments, denied or forgotten in Turkey, can be repeated in every imaginable field of arts, science, business, finance, banking, engineering or publishing in Ottoman or Republican Turkey. One of the best sources to comprehend the role of Armenians in Turkey is an incredibly detailed series of four books called Western Armenians Throughout History (Tarih Boyunca Bati Ermenileri), in Turkish, authored by Prof. Pars Tuglaci. Professor Tuglaci, whose real name is Parsegh Tuglaciyan (1933-2016) is the author of the first Turkish Encyclopedia called The Ocean Encyclopedia Dictionary, and many other books but his lifetime achievement is this four-volume history of Armenians, based on hundreds of thousands of meticulously researched documents. Each volume totals about 900 pages, covering the periods of 289 to 1850 (vol.1), 1850 to 1890 (vol.2), 1890 to 1923 (vol. 3) and 1923 to 1966 (vol. 4). The last volume was published in 2009 in Istanbul. As Alzheimer’s Disease started to melt away his brilliant mind, unfortunately he could not publish the fifth volume which would cover the period 1966 to 2010. The most dramatic and indisputable evidence of the genocide is in Volume 3 (1890 to 1923), which displays thousands of documents showing Armenian achievements in all imaginable fields as mentioned above, including within the Ottoman government. It seems that until the mid 1910s, the Armenians were prominent in all levels of Ottoman foreign ministry and embassies, indispensable in state enterprises and the central bank, influential in all business, art, science, academic institutions, in Istanbul as well as all the Ottoman provinces. The dramatic disappearance of all these Armenian names in 1915 is evidence enough of the genocide, without the need to mention the word ‘genocide’. When I asked Prof. Tuglaciyan how he was allowed to publish such a critical book in Turkey, he had simply stated: ‘I am just presenting state documents showing promotions or rewards of Armenians in state bureaucracy, achievements of Armenians in arts, sciences and business, promotional ads of Armenian enterprises or cultural events. They all existed before 1915, but no more after 1915, who can dispute that?’

In concluding this article, I urge all Armenian scholars in Armenia and Diaspora to consider translating Prof. Tuglaciyan’s hidden treasure to English and Armenian for future generations to better understand what we had, what we lost and most importantly, why.

(Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and a concert pianist, living in Toronto. Proceeds from his concerts and CDs have been donated to the construction of school, highways, and water and gas distribution projects in Armenia and Karabagh — projects in which he has also participated as a voluntary engineer. Bedrosyan was involved in organizing the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church reconstruction project. He is the founder of Project Rebirth, which helps hidden Islamized Armenians reclaim their original Armenian roots, language, and culture.)



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