Houshamadyan Releases ‘Ottoman Armenians: Life, Culture, Society’

The cover of Houshamadyan

From The Armenian Weekly

This is the title of the volume that Houshamadyan presented to the public as its first publication, three years after launching the website with the same title (houshamadyan.org). Already from a first glance standing out as an elegant volume, it holds in its 270 large-size (28×22 cm) pages multidisciplinary research articles and photo galleries documenting a variety of themes.

The publication is realized in partnership with Haigazian University and the Department of Turkology at the University of Bamberg.

Houshamadyan’s director, Vahé Tachjian, is the editor of the volume, while Elke Hartmann served as publication director. Art director Silvina Der-Meguerditchian has accomplished her task with impressive professionalism and aesthetics. Other colleagues conducted the translation, copy-editing, and layout. The volume is fully in English.1

The media covered the publication of the volume and its presentation to the public through brief book reviews, event reports, and interviews.2 But this text is of a quite different nature. Far from pretensions and responsibilities associated with writing a book review, it aims at conveying clear impressions about the oeuvre and the phenomenon, and then emphasizes connections with the present, using a brief overview of the contents of the book as a springboard.

Overview of content
The preface by Tachjian is followed by three photo galleries alternating in a structured and neat manner with five research articles. The articles, with their various approaches, can be designated respectively as ethno-sociology (“Why Was Pastirmaci Khatchatur Efendi Killed? The Life of an Ottoman-Armenian Elite in the Mid-19th-Century Erzurum/Karin” by Yasar Tolga Cora); political history (“Imprisoned Communities: Punishing Politics in the Late Ottoman Empire” by Nanor Kebranian); cultural history (“Mapping the Fatherland: Artzvi Vaspurakan’s Reforms Through the Memory of the Past” by Dzovinar Derderian); and cultural bibliography (“Manoog Dzeron and Alevor: Unique Authors of the Houshamadyan Genre” by Vahé Tachjian). The fifth article is an exhaustive list of memory books prepared by Mihran Minassian, divided geographically by region.

The three photo galleries are separate from the articles—which have their own photographs—and stand alone; yet, they stand as equally amazing productions, themselves a product of a multidisciplinary approach. They are titled “Families,” “Crafts,” and “School Life.”

It is worth noting that the foreword of the book, penned by Haigazian University President Paul Haidostian, and then the listing of around a dozen sponsors whose financial support, alongside the enthusiasm and impetus in collecting materials for the book, have motivated the director of Houshamadyan to announce the publication of a new volume every year. We learn from an interview that preparations for volumes two and three are already under way.

Dual merit
The publication is to be commended first because its quality sets it apart from similar works. Other works, published by intellectuals and scholars or foundations in Europe and America, in particular, have tried to be albums, research monograms, and encyclopedic indexes, sometimes all at once, and sometimes unclear about their aims. These publications are often little more than albums of randomly grouped photographs, confusing in their amateurish editorial and “historiographic” elements.

One of the publications that stood out among these earlier works, with its scholarly and artistic value, was “Les Armeniens 1917-1939: La Quete d’un Refuge” (The Armenians, 1917-1939: In Search of Refuge”),3 which, by the way, was co-authored by the founder and director of Houshamadyan, and already showed some of the characteristic contours of the current Houshamadyan volume.

In addition to the unquestionable superiority of the publication, one has to note a central issue, which is the overall approach of the Houshamadyan team, emphasized in the preface. The publication follows the principles that guided the Houshamadyan website—namely, a multi-disciplinary approach; a diversity reflecting the Ottoman Empire’s essence, both multilingual and multicultural; the use of a variety of multilingual sources reflecting the real character of the Ottoman Empire; an emphasis on the value and importance of Armenian-language sources in research in the field, as evidenced by the very articles contained in the volume; and the impossibility of disconnecting the Ottoman Armenians from the socio-economic framework of the empire. A condensed formulation of these principles are also found on the Houshamadyan website, and is reprinted as an excerpt in this article.

The objective of the publication, just like that of the website, is the examination and appreciation of the daily life of the Ottoman Armenians with a holistic approach (and not only through “tragic and gloomy episodes”), because today we remain oblivious to many facets of that past, and a scholarly examination of the very Armenian sources is necessary to shed light on this multi-faceted Armenian community that is little known. To revive this Armenian past and, furthermore, to grant it tangible immediacy, the website and this volume employ visual material—photographs, drawings, maps—that serve as focal points for the transmission of memory.

Partnership of historical accuracy, active memory
The photo galleries make this commitment to a true recreation particularly palpable. The introductory page to the first photo gallery, “Families,” after citing how photography became closely associated with Ottoman Armenians in the 19th century and reached the farthest corners of the empire by the early 20th century, emphasizes how photographs from that period reached Houshamadyan—often from private family collections from all over of the world, mainly in digital form, thus turning these photographs into sacred fragments from a destroyed world. The author notes, “Each [photograph] is the glowing reflection and legacy of a particular family’s lost life. At the same time, each photo is a microcosm, a unique sample of the collective fate that befell the Ottoman Armenians. Life and Catastrophe…”4

Such a study of a centuries-old national and communal life not only enriches the sources of our historical, sociological, and cultural understanding, but awakens our senses and memory. This approached is outlined in the second segment presented in this article.

The author cites literary works that testify to this effort to recreate, and are closely associated with the sacramental value of remembrances. It is in this context that Krikor Beledian’s “Semer” [Thresholds] and Norair Atalian’s “Kapuyt Yerznka/Erzincan” [Blue Yerznka/Erzincan] are quoted. And the introduction to the first photo gallery concludes with the following statement: “To remember and to reconstruct our past lives based on these memories, and to never forget the Great Catastrophe.”

This living presentation of fragments from a past is, concomitantly, scientifically valid; that is, unlike other publications of the same nature, it reveals the inception, identity, and trajectory of the featured artifacts, documents, and photographs. Yet this scholarly approach to documentation is at the same time sensory-emotional. It’s never commemorative, ceremonious, and superficial, as that would not constitute remembrance, but a mere masking of amnesia, and the mummification of the reality of Yergir [Homeland], a word that we ceaselessly utter, although it has stopped being a living presence for us. The Houshamadyan volume is welcome especially for being an active and a reviving memory.

The volume, as well as the website, stand as a testament to a holistic vision that is scholarly and artistic, and particularly pedagogical in the broadest sense of the word. It is the kind of vision that we need as a collective—as do our education systems and schools. In the words of the editor, “We must make Armenian studies accessible to the new generations. … We must turn the Armenian history class, the Armenian museum, and any effort pertaining to Armenian history appealing… We should not repeat the mistakes that made all this synonymous with expired and boring. … [We should also be] creative. The historian should know how to work with the artist…and to give the historic material appeal and generate greater interest.”4


In view of this work that is imbued with the dual advantages of scholarly and artistic caliber and the expression of a comprehensive vision, it is worth pausing and thinking today, a century after the genocide, about this challenge to our ceremonial, pro-forma memory, and our abstract love for the homeland—and this, in a time when buried across Western Armenia, the decimated, transfigured remnants of the Armenian nation are showing the first signs of revival and taking ownership of their ancestral homeland.

Houshamadyan participates in this challenge with its website and the current volume, standing as a factor for revival. Despite being born from the memory-deprived Western Armenian Diaspora, it weighs in against the deprivation of memory. And for that, Houshamadyan is twice, thrice valuable for us.

1. It seems to me that it is important to have sections in Armenian—and another European language besides English—in a volume such as this (even if a very condensed version was presented in these languages) to counterbalance the hegemony of the English language. On the website, the presence of a section entirely in Armenian has essentially resolved this issue. For the publication, the editors would determine the format in which other languages appear. What is expressed here is a general concern on the importance of such diversification.
2. See, for example, the reports in Aztag (Beirut, May 15) on the event launching the book, and the interviews in Ararad (Beirut) and Agos (Istanbul) on March 27 and March 7, respectively, the latter in the newspaper’s Turkish-language section.
3. Les Armeniens 1917-1939: La Quête d’un Refuge, Raymond H Kévorkian; Lévon Nordiguian; Vahé Tachjian, eds. (Beirut: Saint Joseph University, 2006)
4. The editor of the volume has used the term “Catastrophe” in English in reference to the genocidal crime, the Medz Yeghern. In European languages—in English in this particular case—one may be obliged to employ the term. On the Houshamadyan website as well, Medz Yeghern and “genocide” are used as equivalents of that “Catastrophe.”

It is worth noting here that academics and intellectuals in the West do not always demonstrate sensitivity to this terminology and, prompted by the Judeo-Christian thinking, employ the term Aghed.

The use of the term Aghed in reference to the Medz Yeghern or Armenian Genocide of 1915 is not simply an understatement, but a serious mistake that demotes the act from a historical-political Crime to a metaphysical-theological concept, or simply a natural disaster, like a flood or an earthquake. At best, the Crime becomes the victim of a dubious game of dual-meaning.

(Here, I remember how in Turkey in the years following the 1895-96 massacres, the euphemisms Tebk and Medz Tebk were used in reference to the massacres, under conditions of censorship and self-censorship. Are we still there? What censorship are we subjected to now?)

Let us not forget that Aram Andonian, a witness to the Medz Yeghern and a pioneering historian documenting it, titled the French version of his book Le Grand Crime, which was a literal translation of Medz Yeghern, unlike “Catastrophe” or some Aghed.

Conclusion: The genocide must be termed as Yeghern, Crime, and not as Aghed or Catastrophe, even if capitalized, in order to convey the political and legal dimensions of the act.

5. Interview in Ararad (Beirut) on March 27, 2014.

First Excerpt: Historiographical overview, the aims of the website
In the first place historical difficulties led us to think that we should create a website of such wide content and size. Thus researchers in Ottoman studies very often find serious difficulties in source utilization. … [T]he materials comprising Ottoman history are also multi-lingual and their study demands multi-disciplinary work. When…this or that people’s language and therefore potentially rich sources are ignored, then it is obvious that the given study will be somewhat lacking…

In this sense Armenian sources have, for a long time, been the missing link in Ottoman studies. There exist many books and articles of a scientific nature that occasionally relate directly to the Ottoman Armenians, but they are mostly based on materials written in Ottoman-Turkish. These kinds of works are found so frequently that, over time, it has become usual or even ‘acceptable’ to ignore Armenian sources in Ottoman studies. … This is something that is lacking and unacceptable.

Indeed, the Armenian element’s view concerning its own questions is missing, as is that of its daily life. Thus, concerning these subjects, the materials written in the Armenian language are varied and very rich. They lead us into a new Ottoman world, where even traces of its many faces are impossible to find in non-Armenian sources. … Thus it is our aim to give a new value to Armenian-language materials concerning Ottoman Armenians and to make them available to the public that does not speak Armenian. We consider all this to be a natural necessity for Ottoman studies.

Second Excerpt: One-Sided Polarization And A Break In Armenian Historiography
One-sided polarization and a break in Armenian historiography…the Armenian element has made a special effort in the period subsequent to [the genocide] to make the division between the one-time Ottoman-Armenian and Ottoman-Turkish environment sacred. Ottoman Armenian historiography has not been exempt from this either, and has been ascribed to the influence of new facts upon it and whose axis from then on was the catastrophe. We think that this influence persists until the present day.

Indeed, in the historiography concerning the Ottoman Armenians, subjects connected with the genocide are preponderant presences. Every time an attempt is made to move away from this and study the pre-catastrophe Ottoman Armenian era, there is still a general tendency to choose disaster dates, for example the 1895-96 massacres of Armenians or the 1909 Adana massacres.

There is also a diametrically opposed tendency which is bounded by Ottoman Armenian heroic events, the Armenian rebellions against the Ottoman government, revaluing them and making them subjects for studies.

In any case, what is missing is Ottoman Armenian social life, local microhistories, the daily round and the socio-economic environment that are immediately connected with the general Ottoman social context and, we think, in the end are important keys to the understanding of all the other events…

It is clear the result is that Armenian and Ottoman studies, instead of becoming academic disciplines that mutually complement and enrich each other, they have, for a long time, become areas of specialization, each ignoring the other.


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One Comment;

  1. Noric Dilanchian said:

    Thank you for a thoughtful, researched review, covering a considerable range of dimensions relevant to book publishing in both a contemporary and Armenian context. I particularly appreciated: (1) the request to search for book language layout designs which reduce the hegemony of English (Armenian, French and Russian too are important); (2) the recognition that a book is an intellectual intervention, thus requiring a clear reason for being, purpose and edge; (3) the recognition by Houshamadyan and Haroutiun, the review’s author, that the time for multidisciplinary and multimedia thinking arrived long ago; and (4) finding joy and wonder in the heritage before 1915 and the Hamidian massacres.