Getting to Know Armenians of Istanbul: Past and Present

Shishli, an Armenian cemetery where Ara Guler's memorial service was held


Istanbul was a destination that I, for years, longed to visit. I was visiting Yerevan, when a friend informed me of a small group that was traveling to Istanbul from Yerevan. I instantly seized the opportunity.

It was a seven day trip, and, in order to cut the cost, our plan was to leave from Yerevan, traveling by bus to the border city of Kars, in Turkey. From there, we would fly to Istanbul, or, as Armenians call it, “Bolis.”

The word Bolis is derived from the ending of the historical name of the city – Constantinople or Constantine-polis. The ancient name was given in honor of Emperor Constantine, who, in 330 A.D., had assigned the city as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. This was around the time that Western Armenia fell under Byzantine rule. History tells us that Armenians held important administrative and key military positions in Byzantine courts, and that there were even Emperors and Empresses of Armenian descent. The best example of this is that of Emperor Heraclius, (575-641 A.D.) whose father was Armenian.

Our trip was designed to connect us to the past history of the Armenians in Istanbul. Our action packed itinerary began on Sunday, October 20, as our tour guide had planned a full day of activities. We first visited the memorial of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was gunned down in 2007. There is often a price to pay for speaking the truth – Hrant Dink was assassinated because he wanted Armenians to be able to live in Turkey peacefully, with the same legal and civil rights as other citizens. A memorial plaque installed on the sidewalk where he was gunned down, in front of the Agos newspaper office, reads, “Hrant Dink was assassinated, here on January 19, 2007 at 3:05 p.m.”

Catherine Yesayan at Hrant Dink’s memorial plaque

Catherine Yesayan at Hrant Dink’s memorial plaque

From there, with teary eyes, we walked to the Ferikoy Armenian neighborhood, where we attended a very interesting and rich liturgy at St. Vardanantz church, which was built in 1861. The mass ended with a sermon by Patriarch Aram Ateshian. The church was to its capacity, with about 500 parishioners in attendance. At the church courtyard, I met Shnork Peshiktashlian, a board member of the Ferikoy Armenian neighborhood. He gave me a quick rundown of the neighborhood, which has been home to Istanbul’s Greek and Armenian families for centuries.

“Today, the number of Armenians of Ferikoy should be around 25,000, and, in the whole Istanbul, the Armenians are estimated to be around 70,000. There are close to 40 churches, 16 schools, six Armenian cemeteries, and one hospital. The highest number of Armenians that existed in Istanbul was around 250,000 during 1880s. Today, there are three main publications: Jamanak, Marmara, and Agos. In addition, there are half a dozen smaller publications,” said Shnork. Right behind the church, there was the Merametdjian School, which was built in 1912. Shnork had attended that school sometime between 1967 and 1975. “At the time, the school had over 1,000 students. However, today, the school has only 186 students,” he said.

Our next stop was the Armenian cemetery of Shishli, which was within walking distance. Incidentally, on that day, at that very cemetery, a memorial service was being held for Istanbul’s native son Ara Guler. Born in 1928, Guler was a Turkish-Armenian photojournalist. He was known as the “Eye of Istanbul.” I first learned about Guler a few years ago at the Golden Apricot film festival in Yerevan. There, I watched a one-hour long documentary, produced by a Turkish filmmaker, about Guler’s life. He died a year ago, at the age of 90. The service we witnessed was the memorial marking one year since his passing. It was conducted by the Ormanian Patriarch, at his gravesite, which was covered with several wreaths of flowers. About 100 people were in attendance, including family members and journalists. Istanbul’s Marriott hotel, which is built next to Shishli cemetery, sits on land that was purchased from Armenians.

Then, we went from one cemetery to the next, as our next visit was to Istanbul’s “Sourp Khach” Armenian cemetery. Built in 1551, “Sourp Khach” may be the oldest cemetery in Istanbul. To get there, we first took a bus, then a ferry boat to the Asian side of Istanbul, then another bus and a short walk. In total, it took us about an hour to reach the cemetery. On the first bus, we met an Armenian woman who, coincidentally, was heading in the same direction. The cemetery was located in the Armenian neighborhood of Baghlarbash, in Uskudar, in the Asian side of Istanbul. We knocked on the door and were greeted by Stepan, the cemetery guard.

Bedros Tourian's gravesite at Sourp Khach cemetery

Bedros Tourian’s gravesite at Sourp Khach cemetery

My pre-conceived image of a cemetery that old was to be spooky; however, it was anything but. Most gravesites were well taken care of, and some were even sparkling clean. We were lucky enough to visit our beloved poet Bedros Tourian, who died at the very young age of 21 in 1872 from Tuberculosis. His tombstone was a page of his best poem, carved in white marble, in which he predicts his coming death. We stood in front of the graveside, wrapped in our emotions, and together we recited the poem. It looked as though we were visiting a pilgrimage site. There was also a court dedicated to the Balyan family, who, beginning from the early 17th century, had constructed various architectural buildings in the Ottoman Empire. The surviving works of the Balyan family include palaces, mosques, and barracks.

We ended our first day in Istanbul by taking a one hour sunset cruise on the shimmering Bosphorus. We had dinner at a restaurant in the fisherman’s market in Uskudar, and then took a metro back to our hotel.

Our second day in Istanbul, we walked from our hotel to Gum-Gapu, one of the oldest Armenian neighborhoods. There, we visited the Seat of Armenian Patriarchs, built in 1911. Although built in 1911, the official seat of Patriarchs of Constantinople was created in 1461. The house consisted of a three-story building, all -white, and adorned with palm trees in the front yard. A resident priest gave us a tour of the museum, which is located in the basement of the building. We saw a number of religious paintings, and many other relics. The most interesting items were an old hand written Bible from 1223 and a ceramic tub, made in France in 1855, which is used during christening ceremonies. Taking photos was not permitted.

Recently, I came across a picture of a hundred-year old Match-box from the Ottoman era, which has Armenian writings on the box. I thought that would have been a great item to be included in the collection of the museum. An additional item that grabbed my attention was a door inlaid with Mother of Pearls, from St. Garabed’s church in Kessarya, dating back to the 1700s. This item was displayed at the reception room of the Patriarch. After spending an hour visiting different parts of the building, we left and walked across the street to St. Mary’s Armenian Church, which originally was built as a Byzantine church in 1641.

At Marmara paper with editor Rober Haddejian

At Marmara paper with editor Rober Haddejian

After leaving the church, we visited the Bezchian Armenian School, which was built in 1830. The school was named after the wealthy Harutyun (Artin) Bezchian (1771-1834), a benefactor of the school and the Sourp Pirgiich hospital. The exterior of the building was nicely renovated and spotless. The many architectural details from yesteryears put me in awe, as they revealed the exquisite lifestyle that Armenians enjoyed in Istanbul. Today, the school has 110 students and is one of the 16 Armenian schools in Istanbul.

From there, we walked to the tramway station, and we arrived to Eminönü ferry boat dock by the Sea of Marmara. We took a boat to Kinaliada Island, which is one of the many islands in the Marmara Sea. During the Byzantine period, princes and other royalties were exiled to those islands, and, later, members of the Ottoman sultans and their families were also exiled there, thus giving the islands their present name of “Princes’ Islands.” These nine islands are popular destinations during the summer months. The islands have no motor traffic, with the only use of transportation being bicycles and some golf carts. “Armenians have had homes in those islands since 1800s,” said our tour guide. “At summer time, the population on the islands is mostly Armenian.”

Kinaliada Island is the first stop for ferries departing from Istanbul. After about an hour, we reached the island, and were again reminded of the affluent lifestyle of Armenians in Istanbul. Kinaliada Island is hilly, and the homes are flanked by the hillsides. We climbed the very steep streets to reach the St. Grigor Lusavorich church, which was built in 1857. After a short visit to the church, we enjoyed a light dinner by the seaside. The island was almost deserted. For us, the main attraction was the sight of the church.

The seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople

The seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople

Here might be a good place to mention a slice of Armenian history that you may unaware of. In November of 1942, the Turkish Parliament passed a Wealth Tax legislation, which imposed arbitrary taxes on Armenians, Greeks, and Jews living in Turkey. The law was not based on their income, but on “imaginary” assets. The new legislation was meant to eradicate the minorities in Turkey and transfer their wealth to the Turkish government and its people. Many Armenian families suffered tremendous hardships from the consequences of that unreasonable law. When officials levied an amount on an individual, there could be no objection or appeal to pay the assessed tax, and it was to be paid in cash within 15 days. At the end of the deadline, the assets of the persons incapable of paying the tax would be auctioned off for non-payment – of course, for ridiculously low prices. Several Armenian men, unable to pay their taxes, were sent to Eastern Turkey to work at labor camps which had deplorable working and living conditions – sleeping in tents in freezing weathers, with minimal food.

I’d like to share a story that I read a few years ago, in a book titled “Istanbul,” a memoir by Alice Ketabchian who was born in Istanbul. “One day accidentally, in a secret box, I found a short hand-written letter from my maternal grandfather to my grandmother,” writes Ketabchian. The letter read, “I want you to know that I’m well. I am now a cook in Askale. I work indoors. Hang in there, just a bit longer. I miss you very much and send you all my love.” Ketabchian’s grandfather was a textile merchant who was unable to pay the Wealth Tax. He was sent to the labor camp in Erzurum, in a region called Askale. Ketabchian’s grandfather was one of the lucky ones to survive the harsh winter and return home, however, there are several heart wrenching stories about these conditions that end much worse. Fortunately, the Turkish Parliament was forced to put an end to its Wealth Tax within a year, because of foreign media intervention. The law was officially repealed in September of 1943.

Now, back to where I left off. We returned from Kinaliada Island by a ferry boat at around 5:30 p.m. On the boat, we met an Armenian woman who had recently arrived from Armenia, and who commuted to an island farther than Kinaliada, every day, to do housework for a wealthy Armenian family. We also met an older Armenian couple that was returning from their summer home. Our conversations were polite and surface-leveled; we didn’t delve deeper into the issues faced by Armenians.

On our third day in Istanbul, it was time to visit the iconic Hagia Sophia, which epitomizes Istanbul and its history. Shortly after breakfast, we left our hotel and walked across the street to the tramway station. Hagia Sophia was only a few stops away. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t hold my excitement to finally be able to visit the exemplary mosque that I had dreamed about seeing. Built in 532 A.D. as a church, Hagia Sophia became a mosque in 1453, and a museum in 1935. I was awestruck to see the enormous dome and the spacious interior surrounded by towering loft-style balconies. I couldn’t get over the thought that, 1,500 years ago, there was a need for such an immense venue for worship. Our guide mentioned that, following an earthquake in the 10th century, the Hagia Sophia’s dome was reconstructed by Armenian architect Tiridates (940-1020). In his time, Trinidates was known to have extensive talents in mathematics and architectural design.

The Bezchian school

The Bezchian school

After our iconic visit to Hagia Sophia, we walked to the Blue or Sultan Ahmet Mosque, which is the largest and most well-known mosque in Istanbul. Built in the early 1600s, the structure still stands and fully functions as a mosque. Following our visit to the mosque, we grabbed coffee before heading to the “Grand Bazaar.”

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It has 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. The year 1461 is inscribed on the arch of the main entrance to the bazaar, indicating the year that it opened. It’s yet another amazing feature of Istanbul’s rich history. We walked through the narrow covered streets to the jewelry market, where our guide had arranged for an Armenian shop keeper, who sells silver items, to meet with us. Our guide said that there are about 2,000 Armenian jewelers in the Bazaar. We spent a few hours in the main bazaar, where we bought souvenirs, Turkish sweets, spices, and dried fruit. I was very impressed by the cleanliness, the spaciousness, as well as the colorful paintings on the arched ceilings.

We started our fourth day in Istanbul by visiting Dolma-baghche Palace, which is one of the most glamorous palaces in Europe. The palace was built in 1856 by the order of Sultan Abdulmacid I. The aim of building the palace was to put the Empire at the same level of the European monarchies. Previously, the Sultan and his family had lived at the Topkapi Palace. However, the old palace was not as luxurious and comfortable as the palaces of the European monarchs. The construction cost was equivalent of $1.5 billion in today’s value. The expenses placed an enormous dent on the state budget at the time, and the country became impoverished and bankrupt. For that reason, by the third quarter of 19th century, Turkey earned the title of the “Sick Man of Europe.” The task of building the palace was carried out by the iconic Armenian Balyan family’s architects, Garabet Balyan, his son Nigoğayos Balyan, and Evanis Kalfa.

After visiting the Dolma-baghche Palace, we went to Istiklal Street “Independence Street” – which is one of the most famous pedestrian streets in the world. It is surrounded by towering, three or four story, buildings built in the late 19th century in European architectural styles of Neo-Classical, Neo Gothic, and Art Nouveau. Today, the street is the most popular place for shopping, food, and entertainment. Over the weekends, the street attracts nearly 3 million pedestrians on a single day. As Armenians have been an important fabric of Istanbul life, there are a few Armenian legacies at Istiklal Street.

First, as we were strolling down on Istiklal Street, I noticed an old shopping arcade in Turkish called “Pasaj.” “Built in 1893” is inscribed on the top of the entry gate, and the name of the “Pasaj” was Aznavur, which, I thought, indicated that the arcade originally belonged to an Armenian. In the 19th century, various Armenian families became the Sultan’s goldsmiths, taking over the currency reserves of gold and silver. Sixteen of the eighteen most important bankers in the Ottoman Empire were Armenian. Armenian businessman Agop Köçeyan was one of those men trusted who the Sultan trusted. Initially, he was the Sultan’s goldsmith, and later a banker at the Imperial Ottoman bank. He was one of the Armenians who, at a time when the country was bankrupt, poured money into the treasury to resuscitate it. In 1870, he built his residence by Istiklal Street. The house had a barn, which was later turned into a circus. Prior to his death, Köçeyan donated his residence to a church. In 1932, the building was transformed into an art center. In 1948, it was renovated as the biggest cinema on Istiklal Street, with a capacity of 1,400 people. The cinema, called “Atlas,” is still in operation. Additionally, Köçeyan’s house had a passageway to Istiklal Street. That passage has become a shopping arcade, which bears the same name, “Atlas pasaji.” It preserves the traces of Ottoman architecture.

Sourp Pirgitch, an Armenian hospital built in 1834

Sourp Pirgitch, an Armenian hospital built in 1834

Another Armenian legacy on Istikal Street is an Armenian Church called “Three Altar Church.” The church has a story: A wealthy Armenian with some kind of affliction prayed for deliverance, offering to build a church with not “one,” but “three” altars if God helped him. His prayers were answered, and he eventually built the church with three Alters. It’s tucked away on a narrow street off of Istiklal at the fish market, and behind the office of the Marmara newspaper. We visited the Three Altar Church, as well as the office of the Marmara Armenian newspaper, which was one of the most interesting aspects of our trip.

Marmara is an Armenian language daily newspaper published since 1940 in Istanbul. Rober Haddeciyan, editor of the newspaper, is a delightful 93-year-old man who has become an icon in the Armenian community of Istanbul. He’s proven to be one of the most prudent leaders of the Armenian community, safeguarding the presence of Armenians and preserving cultural identity. Our tour guide had arranged for us to meet with him. We had a lovely one-hour discussion about several issues. He explained how Istanbul has two interesting sides: One side is the Istanbul as one of most beautiful cities in the world, with a population of 15 million people; the second side is the cradle of Armenian civilization, and where the Armenian spirit has been alive since the creation of Constantinople. “We Armenians need to take ownership of the wealth of the culture that has been bestowed to us, from centuries back. We need to preserve it and pass it down to our next generation,” said Haddeciyan. The Marmara office is sectioned off in three floors. We first met with Haddejian at the ground floor, after which he invited us up to his office at the top floor. By the time our group huddled together and took the stairs to the third floor, Haddejian was already was standing there. I thought he took the elevator, but there was no elevator – both his mind and body, at the age of 93, are still agile. After leaving his office, we went to visit Ara Guler’s café in Istiklal Street, a few hundred feet away from Marmara’s office.

Guler’s café is slightly tucked away from Istiklal Street, into another lane. Both the café and the lane carry Ara Guler’s name. It’s a nice, cozy place that is uniquely decorated with photographs and memorabilia from yesteryears. I fell in love with the café and its atmosphere. After my group left, I stayed in Istanbul for a few more days. I benefitted from my loneliness, because I went to that café every day and spent my time writing. It was my good fortune to have such an enjoyable time.

The fifth day in Istanbul marked the group’s final day there. Although they were set to leave the following day, I had plans to stay a few more days before returning to Los Angeles. On the fifth day, our tour guide had arranged a visit to Sourp Pirgitch, an Armenian hospital built in 1834. It was designed by Garabed and Ohaness Balian –two of the most respected imperial architects of the time. The hospital was established by Armenians of Istanbul, by the edict of Sultan Mahmoud, and the proposal of Kazaz Artin Amira Bezdjian (1771-1834). Bezdjian worked his way up to become the head of the Ottoman Mint. He earned the respect of Sultan Mahmoud II, who bestowed upon him the highest distinction in the Empire: “Tasvir-i Humayoun.” He was the only non-Muslim to receive ever such a distinction. Today, the hospital stands as a fully equipped, first rate institution, serving the public, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The hospital has a museum, inaugurated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2004. It displays various artifacts and paintings belonging to wealthy Armenians. Located next to the hospital is a home for Armenian senior citizens. We had the chance to visit there, as well.

On the last day of my stay in Istanbul, which fell on a Monday, I had planned to visit an old Armenian school in the Asian part of Istanbul, in the Uskudar neighborhood. Before heading out, I called the school to make sure that it was open. They replied that, on that Monday, they were open only for half a day, because the following day was a National Holiday. The woman that I spoke to was the assistant to the principal, and was not very eager to have me at the school. However, I insisted, and she finally gave in by saying, “Only, if you can be here within an hour.”

The walk from my hotel to the metro station took about 15 minutes. I took the metro to Uskudar, and, when I got there, I called a taxi. All went well, until the taxi driver realized that on that very day there was a farmers’ market on the very street of the school, restricting traffic access. I paid the taxi driver and walked the uphill street to the school. Fortunately, I made it within an hour. At the school, I was welcomed by Principal Armen Sarukhanyan. He handed me a printout on the history of the school, which was founded in 1678 as a high school for the religious education of boys. The school was affiliated with Surp Khach Church and the name was Tbrevank – a combination of two words: Tbir+Vank meaning: Scholar+Monastery. The school functioned for 100 years, until the 1770s, when it received improvements, and reopened to function as a seminary until 1932. At that time, Karekin Khachaduryan was elected as the Patriarch of Istanbul. Eager to make wholesome improvements, he bought the land next to the school and built an annex, which today functions as the main school building. In 1953, the new school opened its doors as a boarding school for boys. In 1967, due to a lack of students, the theology department was shut down. As a side note: Hrant Dink, our hero who defied the Turkish taboo of silence on the subject of the Armenian Genocide, was a student at the boarding school of Tbrevank. Today, the school is co-ed, a four-year high school with 95 students. There are a total of 25 boys at the boarding school. The tuition is not compulsory, as the school has benefactors who underwrite the cost of the operation.

On my way back, I had time to linger at the farmers market. Though I didn’t need to buy anything, I enjoyed gazing at the stalls, and thinking back about my time spent in Istanbul. My visit to the Tbrevank School was fresh in my mind, and I began to think about how the community underwrites the cost of the school. In my rumination, I was admiring the Armenian community of Istanbul for their drive to protect the remaining traces of their legacy that stretches back many centuries. I was lost in my thoughts. The slow pace of strolling down the hilly street gave me time to contemplate and process my emotions. In my heart, I felt a grudge about the farmers that had brought their ware and had displayed the fruit and vegetables in pretty arrangements. I looked at them as if they were my enemies. I thought, if they were Armenian farmers, how elated I would have been to see their nicely arranged produce. I was distraught of my perception. I thought to myself: Maybe what happened to us, Armenians, in Ottoman Empire was too far in the past, and I maybe had to distance myself from the hardships that Armenians had experienced in those days in Turkey. Maybe I shouldn’t keep enmity in my heart. I lacked the moxie to resolve my feelings.

During that ten day trip, I had seen and learned a lot about the Armenian heritage in Istanbul, however, I had somehow avoided to ask Armenians that I had met along the way about the way in which they were treated by their Turkish neighbors, coworkers, and friends, or if they had felt any kind of oppression or discrimination. All in all, the trip was incredibly memorable, and it gave me a taste of Istanbul. I would definitely like to go back to re-visit the sites and get a better understanding of the lives of Armenians living in Istanbul.

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  1. D2 said:



  2. ardachece barseghian said:

    A wonderful approach to our history from the Ottoman era to the present day. Traces, historical evidence of our high level of cultural contribution that will have to resume its march. Not easy to manage for successive patriarchs and worse today by state oppression in violation of the terms of the Lausanne 1923 agreements

  3. Khatchig Hamamdjian said:

    Kudos for a beautifully written article. It gave me goosebumps… Thankyou.

  4. Michael S. Benlian said:

    Simply beautiful. Thank you. Great article indeed. A story that real Armenians can relate to.
    When you mentioned Uskudar, you brought tears to my eyes. My dad was born in Eskandarun, Durtyol. He was fluent in Turkish as you ay have guessed, of course besides the Armenian language. When He was alive, bless his soul, he used to always sing the song that goes like this:
    “Uskudar Dan gi tcha rican alde…. ” I can’t remember the rest, but when I remember him singing, it still brings tears to my eyes.

    We , all of us Armenians, have a moral and patriotic obligations to our grandparents. We must always remember our past, so that we can build a stronger future, and never to forget the suffering of our people. History must be revisited, and our future generations shall honor the memories of our Armenian ancestors who sacrificed for us. I hope we are on the same page.
    And if was not for them, we wouldn’t have been here today.

    Thank you, and may God Bless you.

    (Director of the Armenian Heritage Program – 91,5 FM Lowell, MA.

  5. zari a sapszian said:

    Very interesting article, but Hrant Dink was staying in Hrant Guzelian’ boarding place, where he brought kids from Anatolia. And even Hrant Dink’s wife was from the same boarding establishment that i don’t remember the name. I don’t think Hrant Dink ever stayed at the tbrevank boarding school.