The Ottoman Empire and the Armenians

The Armenian presence within the geographical area of the Ottoman Empire is a very ancient one. In reality the area that eventually became the Ottoman Empire contained the lands of sequential Armenian royal dynasties, from antiquity to the Middle Ages. These regions are mostly included in present-day Turkey’s eastern provinces – and today’s Republic of Armenia – where a dense population of Armenians lived. For this reason the Ottoman government, for a long time, in its turn gave these areas the unofficial name of Ermenistan, used until at least the 18th century. These regions contain the following Ottoman provinces (according to 19th century data): Erzurum, Van, Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Mamouret-el-Aziz (or Harput) and Sivas. This whole geographical area is also known as the Armenian Highlands.

This doesn’t mean that the Armenians only stayed in the provinces quoted above. Wars and the imperial policy of settlement were the reasons that Armenians would leave their homeland and settle en masse in bordering regions. We meet them for example during the Byzantine era when, in the 6th century, on an imperial initiative, great numbers of Armenians were settled in Thrace and Macedonia. The Armenians were to form military communities in these strategically important areas, providing local Byzantine forces with necessary military strength. This kind of mass movement continued in the following centuries, culminating in the 11th century, in the light of the fall of the Armenian kingdoms of Vasbouragan, Ani or Kars. This time there was a mass emigration towards the western regions, which were inside Byzantine borders. Thus, again as a result of an imperial initiative, great numbers of Armenians settled in the Sivas, Arabgir, Cilicia and Kayseri regions. Those in Cilicia were able to found a kingdom which existed until 1375.

One thing is clear: the Armenian Highlands, even before the advent of the Ottomans, was subject to mass emigration, occupation by empires and the settlement there of other peoples. All this leads us to think that even from those times the Armenians have been forced to share their home environment with other groups, meaning that those regions – in an emphatic way – had no Armenian homogeneity.

These mass movements of the Armenian population also continued during the Ottoman Empire era. Thus, when in 1453 Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople from the Byzantines, he settled many Armenians from the eastern regions of the empire and the Crimea in the city. Armenian migratory movements gained greater impetus in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the long drawn-out wars between the Ottoman and Savafid Persian empires. One of the main theatres of war was the Armenian Highlands, many of whose inhabitants were forced to leave their homes and settle in the western provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It was during those same wars that the Persian Shah Abbas I forced many of the Armenians of the Araxes valley to leave their homes and he settled them in his capital city, Isfahan.

In the following centuries, when trade began to increase in various Ottoman towns and cities and multifaceted economic links began to be forged with Europe, Armenian economic migration began once more, this time to those centres of prosperity. Thus it was that many Armenians settled in Smyrna, Istanbul, Adana, Aleppo, as far as cities like Baghdad, Damascus or Beirut that were even further away. These movements within the Ottoman Empire grew greatly especially in the 19th century when the Russo-Turkish wars, and later the beginning of anti-Armenian violence were the reasons for famine and destruction in many areas of the Armenian Highlands. This time great numbers of Armenian men emigrated to the prosperous towns and cities in western Anatolia and Cilicia. Along with all this, Armenians continued to live in Jerusalem, gathered about the Patriarchate, living in their own quarter during Ottoman times.

This quick glance at the Ottoman Armenians has the aim of showing that the Armenian presence cannot be restricted just to the eastern provinces of the empire or the province of Adana. It’s true that during the entire Ottoman government period these regions continued to be the provinces with the densest Armenian population. Be that as it may, we aim to give the same importance, in the studies appearing in Houshamadyan webpages, to the history of Ottoman Armenians to be found outside the Armenian Highlands. In the final analysis we are convinced that Armenian Van, Palou or Erzurum of the Ottoman era cannot be separated from Yozgat or Bardizag far to the west. All of them are places that are part of a multicoloured general legacy and, without doubt, have mutual relations, as well as historical and cultural links. Certainly each of them has its internal multi-natured refinements, idiosyncrasies. But this doesn’t mean that in our work we can ignore any of these many Armenian-inhabited places. Indeed, it is Houshamadyan’s aim to attempt, to the greatest extent, to understand and introduce the multifarious and heterogeneous Ottoman Armenian world in all the areas of the Ottoman Empire.