Why Houshamadyan?

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 utilisation. The real reason, first and foremost, is the multi-ethnic nature of the Ottoman Empire, where the constituent groups used more than one language: Ottoman-Turkish (Osmanlıca), Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian, Ladino and so on. This means, of course, that the materials comprising Ottoman history are also multi-lingual and their study demands multi-disciplinary work. When, during research carried out on various themes, 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 and unable to fulfil the scientific demands made of it.

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. The result is that in scientific works the Armenian is seen only through information and qualifications extracted from Ottoman state archives - 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. They describe pictures of provincial life that are often completely new in Ottoman studies. 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. So we want to present the life of Ottoman Armenians, based on Armenian-language sources, through the medium of the Houshamadyan website. We are convinced that our initiative will assist the general efforts aiming to study Ottoman history in a multi-disciplinary way.

We have already had the opportunity to stress the richness of Ottoman Armenian written sources. This, however, doesn’t mean that there are many-volume serious studies in existence of these themes, written by researchers who have mastered the Armenian language. In reality, there is a general tendency in Armenian historiography to be selective in the approach to the study of Ottoman Armenian history. This we think is caused by the influence of the Armenian genocide, and the Armenian element has made a special effort in the period subsequent to it 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. In other words there hasn’t been a special effort in the Armenian studies field – exceptions are without doubt to be respected – utilising existing rich sources, to reconstruct the memory of Ottoman Armenian life. 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 specialisation, each ignoring the other.

In this sense Houshamadyan is also aiming to be the means by which their Ottoman memory may be returned to the Armenians. Indeed, the catastrophe, re-written historiography and re-constructed memory have been the reasons why, for a long time, the memory link between the ordinary, everyday Armenian and his Ottoman ancestors’ world has been severed. Rebuilding that world, the Armenian-inhabited village, town or city with its own customs, daily life and history: such a task, we think, could give the Armenian of today a rich legacy which is undoubtedly his.

There exists, within this general picture, a special genre of Armenian publications that is characterised by its individuality and is immediately linked to the general subject of our website. These are memorial books, which are also known under the name of compatriotic union publications. ‘Houshamadyan’ is a complex word, made up of ‘housh’ (memory) and ‘madyan’ (book) – which can mean either ‘register’ or ‘parchment manuscript’ – putting the words together. We think that the use of the word ‘madyan’ here has a special importance. Thus in normal circumstances it would have been better to use the word ‘kirk’ (book), thus making the usual word ‘houshakirk’. But in the post-catastrophe era authors have considered it generally more suitable to title their books ‘houshamadyan’ which was less well known and possibly even created in those times. We suppose that the word ‘madyan’ in this instance contains meanings of distant or completely lost times. These books then are post-catastrophe productions. The overwhelming majority of their authors, born in the Ottoman Empire, become part of the elements of the Armenian diaspora, and realise only too well that for them it is impossible to return to their native homeland. In other words the authors’ loss of their ancestral houses, villages, towns or cities is, for them, permanent. Therefore these authors attempt to restore their own native land’s ‘Armenian’ past. The book therefore becomes a means to reconstruct a past, a completely lost time. It would appear that these same authors are convinced that they are the final survivors of the Armenian-Ottoman era, and are therefore sure that the generations following them will be incapable of reconstructing this past in all its authenticity. So a need is felt for this legacy of the past, to immortalise this village, town or city of another time with prose and witness accounts. This is why in the titles or prefaces of these books we also find, alongside ‘Houshamadyan’, the words ‘Houshagotogh’ (memorial monument) or ‘Houshartsan’ (monument). These metaphors express a great deal. So the publication of a book becomes a monument placing ceremony, in this case to the memory of a dead town or time gone by. But this monument-book has to keep the life of times past or the memory of a lost town with its history, customs, architecture, heroes, glory, cuisine, songs, dialect and so on, forever. There are, today, several hundred books of this genre.

Memorial books are, in this sense, original basic sources to be used in the solution to the question of rebuilding the memory of the life lived by Ottoman Armenians is concerned. When we examine the general construction of these books and titles of the various chapters, it often becomes noticeable that they are, in their turn, influenced by the Armenian nationalist concepts of the immediate post-catastrophe period. Similarly, it is notable that these authors have the wish to idealise their lost town or village, describing them as earthly paradises – unique and unequalled. In other places the loss of a past life or a whole authentic world is driven by the authors using a mournful and tearful style of prose, which makes reading them excessively difficult. There are many such deficiencies in Armenian memorial books. Despite this, they remain the best examples of the microhistory of a town or village in the general Ottoman environment.

Alongside literature of this genre, Armenian newspapers and periodicals especially of the 19th century exist, published in Istanbul, Tbilisi, Venice, Vienna and other cities, that often give much space to the themes that will be dealt with in our website. There are also Armenian monographs, published in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as travelogues and memoirs that are directly linked to our subjects.

It is not by accident that our Association and this website are called by the name Houshamadyan. In reality the work of our Association is to attempt to do the same thing, in other words the reconstruction of a rich but ignored and forgotten legacy.

In the case of our website, we will centre on the Ottoman era past of these once Armenian-populated villages, towns and cities from the beginning to 1915. In other words the study of the genocide, although an indissoluble part of the history of the Ottoman Armenians, will not be a direct part of the themes encompassed by the website. Indeed, the massacres and deportations carried out against the Ottoman Armenians in the First World War represent a large subject and there are scientific publications already in existence. We therefore find it best to concentrate all our attention on the pre-catastrophe era. Later, when our resources allow, we plan to add a new theme to the pages of our website, which will be the descriptive witness statements about their home villages, towns or cities by survivors of the genocide.

On the other hand, the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, for two special reasons, will be the main period of Houshamadyan’s research. In the first place, the Armenian press, books and journals exist that, as we’ve seen, reflect the themes we shall be studying. Secondly, the memorial books that appeared in the immediate post-catastrophe period are the authors’ personal testimonies about their homelands. It is natural therefore that the period from the 19th to the early years of the 20th century represent the majority of the subjects in these books.