Kevork ("Aziz") Sherbetjian home in Bitias, 1930s (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

Musa Dagh - Housing and Architecture

Author: Vahram L. Shemmassian, 29/08/19 (Last modified 29/08/19)

Musa Dagh was/is situated to the south-west of the biblical city of Antioch (presently Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey) overlooking the Meiterranean Sea. It comprised six main Armenian villages: Bitias, Haji Habibli, Yoghunoluk, Kheder Beg, Vakef, and Kabusiye.

The overwhelming majority of Musa Daghians owned homes. A survey dated 11 July 1939 provides us with considerable detail respecting houses, orchards, and fields. Most probably the survey was ordered by the French and carried out by Musa Daghians to have a record of the quantity, size, and value of fixed property—as well as movable belongings and liquid assets—that the Armenians owned at the time of their exodus from the Sanjak before 23 July 1939. In the absence of attendant explanations or clarifications, the methodology and accuracy of the figures contained therein remain unverifiable. Accordingly, they are presented here with caution.

Yard of Kevork ("Aziz") Sherbetjian home in Bitias, 1930s. This residence was also the summer government house of Musa Dagh sub-district governor Serop Sherbetjian (unrelated to Kevork Sherbetjian), who relocated from his seat and native village of Kheder Beg to Bitias during the summer months. As such, the residence had telephone and mail service (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

According to the above survey, Bitias had 367 houses with 907 rooms, for an average of 2.47 rooms per house. Their average value was 1,343 Syrian liras, totaling 492,880 liras. Another tabulation, also made in 1939, revealed the following picture. Of the 284 families (946 persons) in Bitias, 207 (73 percent) owned a single house each; 41 (14 percent) owned two houses each; 11 (4 percent) owned three houses each; 2 (less than 1 percent) owned four houses each. The balance of 23 families (8 percent) did not possess a residence. (See the pdf file entitled “Bitias: Fixed Property Ownership, 1939”). They were either from the poorest class occupying empty or abandoned houses (usually belonging to émigrés in the United States) without rent, returnees (one family) from America living in the home of their parents/in-laws, and or outsiders there on business. In the absence of additional information, the discrepancy of eighty-three houses between the two 1939 counts cannot be explained.

1) Nshan Boyajian family of Kheder Beg, 1930s.
2) Fr. Vahan Kendirjian and family of Bitias, 1930s.
3) Movses and Rosa Sherbetjian Amoghlian family of Bitias, 1930s.
(Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

The 11 July 1939 survey also included housing in the other five villages. There existed in Haji Habibli 278 houses with 666 rooms and an aggregate value of 373,565 Syrian liras, averaging 2.4 rooms and 1,344 liras per house. Yoghunoluk had 243 houses with 907 rooms and an aggregate value of 336,900 liras, averaging 2.64 rooms and 982 liras per house. Kheder Beg included 304 houses with 895 rooms and an aggregate value of 256,500 liras, averaging 2.83 rooms and 844 liras per house. Vakef encompassed 75 houses with 190 rooms and an aggregate value of 18,250 liras, averaging 2.53 rooms and 343 liras per house. Kabusiye comprised 316 houses with 690 rooms and an aggregate value of 155,979 liras, averaging 2.13 rooms and 494 liras per house. The combined total of housing in the six villages was as follows: 1,683 houses, 4,255 rooms with an average of 2.53 rooms per house, and 1,634,074 liras total value with an average of 971 liras per house. The specific givens thus reveal that Bitias had the largest number of houses with the highest total value, which can be explained by the fact that it was a popular summer resort with a high demand for lodging. Vakef, on the other hand, constituted the smallest village with the lowest total value in housing.

Home Ownership in Musa Dagh, 11 July 1939

Madatia Taminosian house in Bitias, built in 1920 (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

House addresses

No street names and signs existed in the Musa Dagh villages. By the same token, the houses, community centers like churches and schools, and businesses did not display addresses. To be sure, though, each building had a number recorded at least in certain official registries. Those numbers were utilized in formal dealings, as the following three categories demonstrate. First, in 1924, that is, the year when Musa Dagh was detached from Svedia sub-district and designated a distinct sub-district, its inhabitants received new identification papers that also included the holders’ house number. One such document read: card number, 96; registry volume, 32; name and surname, Leon (Levon) Shemmassian; father’s name, Jabra (Kapriel); mother’s name, Marta; place and date of birth, Yoghunoluk, 1923; denomination, Armenian Protestant; married or bachelor and number of spouses, bachelor; county, Iskenderun; district, Antioch; residence number, 203. [1] Second, church records concerning civic matters indicated residence number. For instance, during his one-year tenure (July 1938-July 1939) as the Apostolic priest of Yoghunoluk, Fr. Movses Shrikian officiated at ten weddings, sixteen baptisms, and nine funerals. A summary sample from each category is given. For weddings: wedding number, 1; groom’s name and house number, Misak Berberian, 233; bride’s name and residence number, Vartuhi Abdalian, 136; wedding date, 29 July 1938. For baptisms: baptism number, 10; name and residence number, Kevork Bursalian, 169; baptism date, 5 February 1939. For deaths: death number 9; name and residence number, Dzaghig Yaralian, 2; death date, 28 June 1939. [2]

Yoghunoluk, 1928 (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

In the third place, the lists of first degree eligible male voters—those men twenty years of age or above on 1 July of election year—compiled in 1937 under the auspices of the League of Nations in preparation for the 1938 Sanjak legislative elections included the house number of each voter. The houses were numbered from 1-122 in Bitias (a very low figure when compared with the number of houses indicated above); 1-226 in Haji Habibli; 1-244 in Yoghunoluk; 1-231 in Kheder Beg; 1-96 in Vakef; 1-168 in Kabusiye. Within these ranges some house numbers were missing, as follows: 18 houses (15 percent) in Bitias; 48 houses (21 percent) in Haji Habibli; 43 houses (18 percent) in Yoghunoluk; 34 houses (15 percent) in Kheder Beg; 18 houses (19 percent) in Vakef; 22 houses (13 percent) in Kabusiye. [3] These omissions may be explained as follows: no eligible male voter(s) lived in any one of those dwellings, they were vacant or abandoned, and or they were non-residential buildings. Similarly, more than one voter lived in 72 houses (59 percent) in Bitias; 56 houses (25 percent) in Haji Habibli; 95 houses (39 percent) in Yoghunoluk; 67 houses (29 percent) in Kheder Beg; 29 houses (30 percent) in Vakef; 24 houses (14 percent) in Kabusiye. The cohabiters were overwhelmingly fathers and sons or brothers. [4] Whether those offspring and/or siblings were married and living in as extended households under the same roof cannot be ascertained with the information available, although that scenario may well have been the case in many instances. It should also be noted that a few cohabiters carried different last names, but probably they were relatives.

Contemporary view of Kheder Beg village. Yoghunoluk village is in the background. The photograph was provided by a friend of Houshamadyan, Norair Chahinian, who kindly put them at our disposal.

Internal Setup and Architecture of the Houses

With rare exceptions, the houses in Musa Dagh faced south, “allowing the sun to inundate the rooms in the winter months.” [5] Usually one or two stories high, they were built of thick stones with red tile roofs. The floors were plastered with dirt, which women renewed once or twice a year for cleanliness and to get rid of fleas. Because hissers (straw mats) or kilims covered the floors, they too were taken out, deloused, and cleaned. [6] As vacationing flourished in Bitias, concrete replaced dirt as floor covering. [7] Women also whitewashed the interior walls with khavura (limestone) that possessed disinfectant qualities. [8] Each room normally enjoyed one or more tabaqo or panjara (window). Certain two-story dwellings had a stationary interior muqabbo (ladder) accessing the second floor through a ceiling opening with a safety hatch. But virtually all two-story houses had exterior gabendak (stairs) leading to the balcony, from which to enter the rooms. Regardless of the floor level, however, interior doors likewise interconnected the rooms. Lastly, the upper floors were made of wood rather than dirt or concrete. [9]

Sarkis Filian in the Kabirlik square of Bitias village, 1962 (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

On the right wall of the main room a partial opening called gudalviuts retained two water gudals (jugs) and a parchig or lusvig (small jug) in between for drinking purposes. The gudals’ mouths were covered with a wooden lid or an usniuts (shoulder pad) for carrying water from the springs. Another partial wall opening, called badihun, akin to a medicine cabinet, contained miscellaneous articles such as mirror, comb, brush, scissors, sewing box, bottles of iodine and rubbing alcohol, cotton, etc. Mattresses, bed sheets, pillows, comforters, and blankets were stored in a spacious, in-wall closet or yiukliuk, and unfolded and folded daily as people slept on the floor and got up next morning. Indeed, a number of Musa Daghians utilized actual caryolas (wooden beds) that rested on three-legged stools known as ishsheog (derived from the local Armenian word ish, meaning, donkey). On a carved-out back room wall there existed a large storage bin for wheat and corn, separated by a wooden partition and two distinct doors and accessed through two small openings at the bottom called bliz. Food in jars, dried fruits and vegetables, and other cereals in white, cotton chantina (sacks) were kept nearby. [10]

Contemporary images of old houses in Yoghunoluk. The photographs were provided by a friend of Houshamadyan, Norair Chahinian, who kindly put them at our disposal.

While air conditioners or ventilators like ceiling fans did not exist (due to the absence of electricity), “during the winter months the main source of heat was a charcoal fire in a pit in one of the corners of the living room surrounded by comfortable mats and cushions. When necessary, charcoal fire in a mangal (brazier) was used in other rooms. All rooms where charcoal was used had a small opening on the northern wall near the ceiling for ventilation against carbon monoxide poisoning.” [11] At bedtime, the pit was covered with a copper tray. On very cold days a low, round or square wooden table was placed on the pit, covered with a lihif (comforter) or quilt and a kerosene lamp in the middle, thereby forming a tander (hearth). Social life during winter revolved around this heating arrangement as family members and guests sat on mindars (cushions) and conversed, ate snacks, solved puzzles, played cards and backgammon, and read or narrated stories. [12]

Shrikian and Duzmanian families of Yoghunoluk, 1933 (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

The matpakh (kitchen) existed as an enclosed cooking space only in well-to-do residences. In the rest of the homes, a corner of a room served that purpose. In both cases, there was no running water. Similarly, there were not distinct dining rooms; people ate at a sufra (low wooden table) seated on cushions in the main, multipurpose chamber. Bathing, laundry, cooking pastes, boiling wheat, etc., took place in an outbuilding. The flow of streams running through the village was diverted to these outbuildings to be utilized for the above activities. Where water flowed from a distance or into a central reservoir like that of Yoghunoluk, it was carried in jugs and tin cans. Further away in the yard a modest shack functioned as a privy. But in the resort of Bitias, and among some well-to-do families elsewhere in Musa Dagh, actual in-house toilets began to replace those antiquated outdoor facilities. Virginia Matosian Apelian, whose émigré parents had returned from the United States to Musa Dagh in 1934, wrote about her family’s modern toilets in Yoghunoluk:

I was told by dad that our beautiful house had a Spanish tile roof and balconies all around. Not only that, but also American-style toilets, which became a special show place. When word got around, people wanted to see the toilets in our home. Mom told me that it was very annoying after awhile [sic] when people would stop to see the toilets. They were a novelty for the village people. [13]

Yard of Kevork ("Aziz") Sherbetjian's residence, his family, and guests, 1930s, Bitias.
Seated L to R: Suren Papakhian, a Darontsi teacher at the Bitias national school and later Fr. Suren Papakhian of St. Sarkis Church of Detroit, Michigan; Kevork ("Aziz") Sherbetjian; his wife, Varter nee Maghzanian; son-in-law Yesayi Stambulian; youngest daughter Zekiye.
Stanting L to R: Mari Sherbetjian, another daughter; a certain Maghzanian, a relative; Jemile Sherbetjian Stambulian, a daughter and Yesayi's wife; Hagop Simoni (Dasnabedian), future ARF leader Hrach Dasnabedian's uncle (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

Village Neighborhoods

The houses were scattered among several neighborhoods in each village. A few neighborhoods were actually small clusters situated outside the village peripheries. To be sure, neighborhood names did not have official capacity; rather, the villagers ascribed them informally. A number of neighborhoods bore the name of clans. While such neighborhoods accommodated members of those clans, other members of the same clan also lived in different neighborhoods. By the same token, families with different surnames, whether or not related to the clans, likewise inhabited clan neighborhoods. Other neighborhood names were descriptive, for example, Yurutsunts Mhallan (the Priest’s Neighborhood) in Haji Habibli, Kharub Ikkek (Ruined Vineyards) in Yoghunoluk, Plluz Izziyr (Crumbled Edge) in Kabusiye, and Yehudi Mhallan (the Jewish Neighborhood) in Kheder Beg. The origin of the latter designation is not known. Lastly, social status did not necessarily characterize the neighborhoods except (partially) for two in Yoghunoluk: the wealthy Kazanjian families lived (among others) in the Gedeg neighborhood, and the (mostly) have-nots resided in the Vire Teugh neighborhood. [14]

A bone comb made by Vahram Shemmassian's grandfather, Kapriel/Jabra Shemmassian, as a gift to Kapriel/Jabra's mother-in-law, Varter Maghzanian Sherbetjian (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

1) Bathing bowl
2) Milk pail
3) Yogurt pot
All three made of copper and belonging to the Kevork "Aziz" Sherbetjian family of Bitias (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles)

The village neighborhoods were as follows:

  • in Bitias: Kayraghaye, Balabanlutse Mhallan (the Balabanians’ Neighborhood), Minasen Serte (Minas’ Back), the segment between Minasen Serte and Sherbetjints Kushan, Sherbetjins Kushan (the Sherbetjians’ Corner), Kbranints Chukore (the Kbranians’ Ravine), Yaralek, Vire Gule (the Upper Threshing Floor), the segment between Frangen Aghpayre (the Frank’s [retired British diplomat John Barker] Water Spring) and Kabirlik, Kabirlik (Cemetery), Laglagen Serte (the Stork’s Back), Andekints Mhallan (the Andekians’ Neighborhood), Shibil Ayn;
  • in Haji Habibli: Shersheroye, Terjeneg, Galloye (the Small Threshing Floor), Siupkiuklake (the Siupkiukians), Yaghpayre (the Spring) or Dudaklutse Mhallan (the Dudaklians’ Neighborhood), Yurutsunts Mhallan (the Priest’s Neighborhood), Khazzegnen;
  • in Yoghunoluk: Gedeg, Vire Teugh (the Upper Neighborhood), Nerke Teugh (the Lower Neighborhood) in the village center, Kharub Ikkek (Ruined Vineyards), Atamlak (the Atamians/Chemenians), Amaj;
  • in Kheder Beg: Kezhderlak (the Kezhderians), Baghellak (the Bakkalians), Hajjelak (the Hajians), Havernuts, Chukore (the Ravine), Yehudi Mhallan (the Jewish Neighborhood), Vire Azzir (the Upper Edge);
  • in Vakef: Hajjelak (the Hajians), Ante Karshen (the Other Side), Aste Karshen (This Side), Manjelak (the Manjians), Central Quarter, Nerke Azzir (the Lower Edge);
  • in Kabusiye: Vire Aghpayre (the Upper Spring), Nerke Aghpayre (the Lower Spring), Gallire (the Threshing Floors), Selirke, Kukayr, Plluz Izziyr (the Crumbled Edge), Vire Teugh (the Upper Neighborhood), Chevlik.

Yoghunoluk, 1928. Mount Cassius/Kesab in the background (Source: Vahram Shemmassian collection, Los Angeles).

  • [1] Vahram Shemmassian, private papers, Granada Hills, California, Sandjak Autonome d’Alexandrette, Carte d’Identité no. 96, Carnet no. 32, Leon (Levon) Shemmassian.
  • [2] Fr. Shrikian, private papers, “Y. Oluk (J. Musa), Dedr Mgrdutiants, Amusnutiants yev Maheru” (Yoghunoluk [Musa Dagh], Record book of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths), pp. 1-5.
  • [3] League of Nations Archives, United Nations Library, Geneva, Switzerland, (hereafter LN), Fonds Extérieurs: Sanjak d’Alexandrette, Commission de la S.D.N., Archives du Tribunal Spécial, Carton C 1058, dossiers 3/37 and 3/38, Djébel Moussa 2, Listes des Electeurs du 1èr Degré du village Bitias, du Hadji-Habibli, du Yoghoun-Olouk, Kheder-Bey, du Vakef, du Kéboussié pour l’Année 1937.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Alberta Magzanian, letter to the author, 23 October 2008.
  • [6] Fr. Movses Shrikian, “Hushakrutiun Movses A. khn. Shrikiani (Avazanin Anun, Yesayi)” [Memoirs of Archpriest Movses Shrikian (Baptismal Name, Yesayi)], unpublished memoirs, p. 18; Khacher Madurian, “Mer Hatse” [Our Bread], in Mardiros Kushakjian and Boghos Madurian, eds., Hushamadian Musa Leran (Memorial Book of Musa Dagh) (Beirut: Atlas Press, 1970), pp. 148, 155-56; Sara Kendirjian Kerkezian, letter to the author, postmarked 19 November 1991; Shushanig Chaparian Papakhian, unpublished memoirs, pp. 60, 63.
  • [7] Kendirjian Kerkezian, letter.
  • [8] Ibid; Madurian, “Mer Hatse,” pp. 155-56.
  • [9] Interview with Rosine Shemmassian Kundakjian, 24 June 1989, Fresno, California.
  • [10] Ibid; Kendirjian Kerkezian, letter; Fr. Shrikian, “Hushakrutiun,” p. 22.
  • [11] Magzanian, letter.
  • [12] Interview with Shemmassian Kundakjian; Kendirjian Kerkezian, letter.
  • [13] Virginia Matosian Apelian, Musa Dagh Girl: Daughter of Armenian Genocide Survivors (Maitland, Florida: Xulon Press, 2011), p. 141.
  • [14] Tovmas Habeshian, Musa-Daghi Babenagan Artzakankner [Ancestral Echoes of Musa Dagh] (Beirut: Erepuni Press, 1986), pp. 204-06; Hovhannes Hajian, “Im Hushere” [My Memoirs], unpublished manuscript, notebook 3, pp. 51-57, 68-74.