Ari Şekeryan speaking in Southfield

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. —  Most people who learn about the Armenian Genocide are familiar with the some of the reasons that it took place and the general way in which it unfolded. The narrative that most are aware of involve various devious policies of the Ottoman government, destruction of villages and deportations to the Syrian desert, and then a miraculous end to the war and the rescue of survivors and their resettlement in various countries of the world as well as the fledgling Soviet Armenia.

But what happened between the end of the First World War in 1918 and the beginning of the Armenian 20th century reality as we know it, in the early 1920s? Aside from the history of the First Republic, this transitional period is much less well known. Dr. Ari Şekeryan shed some light on this time period at a lecture held at the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, on Saturday, May 14.

The lecture, entitled “The Aftermath of the Armenian Genocide: Survival and Resilience During Armistice (1918-1923)” was co-sponsored by the respective Detroit chapters of the Tekeyan Cultural Association, Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul (CSAI), and AGBU Young Professionals.

The Transition of Armenian Constantinople

Prior to 1915, Constantinople (Istanbul) was the political, economic, and cultural center of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. The renaissance of Western Armenian society and culture took place in this city, which was the metropolis of the entire Middle East, starting in the mid-19th century.

After the Genocide, that all changed. Today, the Istanbul community, though still proud of its roots and holding on to what’s left, is vastly weakened. The continued maintenance of the Armenian identity and culture through the churches and schools is something to be proud of, but no one can imagine that it is anything like it was before.

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Yet, it is a well-known fact that aside from the 300-odd Armenian intellectuals rounded up on April 24, 1915, the vast majority of the Armenian community of Istanbul was left relatively unharmed during the Genocide. Furthermore, when the Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Allies in October 1918, the city underwent a five-year occupation by the British and French military, during which time Armenian Genocide survivors congregated in Istanbul as a safe haven, and political and cultural activity resurrected to a degree, until it was again suppressed with the handover of the city to the Kemalist forces in October 1923.

Ari Şekeryan with Hosep Torossian, left, and Edmond Azadian, right

During that five-year period, not only did the Istanbul Armenian community transition into what it is now, but numerous events took place which set the stage for the Armenian diaspora and to an extent, Armenia, going forward. These events have been little studied and are even less known to the general public, especially in comparison to the period’s importance in Armenian history. Şekeryan’s work aims to change that.

Şekeryan received his PhD from Oxford in 2018 and his book, Armenians and the Fall of the Ottoman Empire, After Genocide (1918-1923) will be published in December 2022 by Cambridge University Press. He currently lives in Michigan, where he was a Manoogian Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, during the 2020-2021 academic year. He is currently a visiting scholar there.

Şekeryan began his talk by giving a brief history of an Armenian survivor, who turned out to be his great-grandfather. His story highlighted many of the issues that survivors faced, including massacre, loss of loved ones, separation, forced conversion, rape, resettlement and having to start a new life.

Next, Şekeryan discussed the history and background of the political events that took place at the end of the First World War in Turkey, including the flight of Talaat Pasha from the country at the time when Bulgaria capitulated to the Allies. Subsequently, the Ottoman Empire under Izzet Pasha also surrendered in the Armistice of Mudros.

As Allied troops filled the city, Armenians and Greeks were filled with enthusiasm and hope. Armenian refugees returned from Syria and other locations to Istanbul where they were housed in orphanages. Greek and Armenian flags (the tricolor of the First Republic) hung from the windows of homes throughout the city.

Şekeryan explains that all Armenian political organizations, including the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF-Tashnag) (and the First Republic of Armenia which they controlled), the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL-Ramgavar) and the Hunchag Party, unified around the concept of “United Armenia.” Their projected Armenia would stretch from the Caucasus through Eastern Turkey all the way to Cilicia and include a Mediterranean seacoast as well coastline on the Black Sea. The Allied powers told the Armenian groups that this was impossible, because there were not enough Armenians left after the Genocide to populate the territory. Yet, Armenian political organizations tried to plan for such a future outcome. Their theory was to repopulate the region with the many orphans that were being saved from the Syrian desert, or from Muslim families.

Armenian Orphans of Istanbul

Şekeryan’s research focused on relief efforts for orphans, especially in Istanbul. However, rather than viewing the efforts from a humanitarian perspective, he focused on the political ramifications of the caretaking of these orphans. He argues that Armenian political organizations viewed these orphans as the seed of a population for the future “United Armenian state” that they wished to create.

To uncover the materials for his thesis, Şekeryan had access to archival issues of the Armenian press in Istanbul and other parts of the Ottoman Empire (Izmir, Adana), immediately after WWI from 1918-1923. Much of this has not been researched before.

The political coalition of the various Armenian parties was led by Boghos Nubar Pasha, head of the AGBU, who was considered the leader of the Western Armenians. Kapriel Noradoungian, a former Ottoman civil servant, Arshag Chobanian, the literary figure, who were both considered partisans of Nubar, along with ARF representative Avedis Aharonian of the Republic of Armenia rounded out the leadership.

Nubar and Aharonian applied to the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference for their dreamed-of Armenian state, and claimed that it could be populated if the orphans and refugees were collected in one place. This made the fate of the orphans a political and not just a humanitarian issue.

Ari Şekeryan with Hagop Alexania

The orphans were not just passive participants in this process however. In many cases, the Armenian orphans of Istanbul showed more patriotism than their caretakers. Sekeryan noted multiple occasions where orphans banded together to demand that the orphanage give rations from the food which they were allotted, to the Armenian Army in Yerevan. When the orphanage leaders told them they needed to eat to be healthy, the orphans tried to save cheese and sell it in the marketplace! Finally, the orphans were satisfied in their selfless revolution when the orphanage leaders donated a sufficient amount of money to the Armenian army.

The well-to-do Armenians of Istanbul were united for a time in fundraising efforts to save these orphans, but the euphoria would not last for long.

The End of the Armistice Period

The current non-political stance of the Istanbul Armenian community can be traced back to the rise of the Turkish nationalist movement. When Mustafa Kemal and his forces approached the city after taking Smyrna in 1922, about half of the Armenians fled. Those who stayed had small businesses or were not politically involved. Much of intelligentsia, and almost everyone who was a member of the Hnchag, Tashnag, or Ramgavar parties fled the city. Even Patriarch Zaven Der-Yeghiayan, due to his involvement in the orphanage movement and his leadership of the Armenian community, was viewed as “nationalist” by the Kemalists and was forced to resign by the Armenian Civic Council (a body of laymen who ran the Armenian Church and community) and a more nondescript clergyman was put in his place. The Kemalists were welcomed by official proclamations by the Civic Council declaring their loyalty to the new Turkish State.

Although Şekeryan did not dwell on the subject, it is clear that the events of the end of the Allied Occupation turned Armenian Istanbul into what it is today, a community that focuses on the church and the Armenian culture, language in particular, through its venerable school system.

The lecture was well received and was followed by a question-and-answer session and refreshments. Representatives from the school as well as the Tekeyan Cultural Association, AGBU, and CSAI thanked the lecturer, who was presented a plaque of a William Saroyan quote.