Within the field of Armenian Studies and among the general political, cultural and social milieu of Armenians throughout the world, there has been a predominant focus on the events of the Genocide and the political developments that occurred thereafter. There has, however, been a stark lack of work and investigation into the lives of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire prior to the Genocide. If Armenians are to lament a lost past, are they not required to have some knowledge of what was actually lost? Established in 2011, the Houshamadyan Project seeks to fill this enormous gap in knowledge and memory. The aim of the Houshamadyan Project and its website is to reconstruct the daily lives of the Ottoman Armenians and their social environment in all its facets. Alongside articles, the Houshamadyan website uses a great variety of multi-media tools, such as musical recordings of historical value, oral histories, photographs, pictures, film footage, maps, podcasts, and so on. Houshamadyan has also published a book/album called Ottoman Armenians: Life, Culture, Society, which includes academic articles and hundreds of illustrations.
The two chief founders of the Houshamadyan Project are Dr Elke Hartmann and Dr Vahé Tachjian, who presented this lecture. Dr Elke Hartmann is a senior researcher at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, specialising in Modern Ottoman and Armenian History. Dr Vahé Tachjian is now the chief editor of the Houshamadyan website. He has published a number of academic articles on the topic of Armenians in the late period of the Ottoman Empire. This lecture was organised by Dr Krikor Moskofian, Director of the Programme of Armenian Studies, and chairing the event was Vazken Davidian, PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London.
Dr Elke Hartmann began the presentation by emphasising the severe gap left by the lack of research on the life of Armenians and their relationships with other peoples in the region. In terms of politics, economy, and cultural production, the significant role played by Armenians in the Ottoman Empire is unquestionable. There is an impressive wealth of Armenian-language sources that is currently untapped, and may prove enlightening with regard to Ottoman life in Eastern and Western Anatolia. Dr Hartmann noted that a revitalisation of interest in the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire would play a role in countering denialist history in the Republic of Turkey, as it would spark debate about the fate of these people who once had such a tremendous impact on Anatolian history.
Dr Vahé Tachjian asserted that an ideological shift took place in the Armenian intellectual space after the Genocide. The history of the Armenians has often been explored through a nationalist lens that aims to right the wrongs of the Genocide through political means. This has cast a shroud over the very essence of pre-Genocide Armenian life and culture, especially with regards to the relationships of Armenians with their neighbours. This ideological shift towards nationalism has influenced all spheres of Armenian life, from politics and literature to music, as well as the Armenian identification of the self and others. In general terms, one may speak of a homogenisation of Armenian life; that is, the formation of an “unadulterated” Armenian identity that has been purged of “foreign” influences.
This nationalist interpretation of Armenian history has focused on a supposed “inevitable” struggle between Armenians and Turks, thus leaving out all the shared aspects of social and cultural life that existed, grossly simplifying the complexity of the social and political relationships between Armenians and other groups. Dr Tachjian recalled his experiences of studying in an Armenian school as a child. In his case, Ottoman Armenian history was presented from a politicised nationalist perspective, beginning as it did with the Berlin conference of 1878, in which the reforms promised to Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were rejected, which led to the emergence of the armed struggle against Ottoman rule. Teaching Ottoman Armenian history from this point, one takes the learner through the Hamidian massacres of the late 19th century, the Genocide, and the eventual establishment of the Republic of Armenia. The emphasis is clearly on the dark years of the Ottoman Armenians and on the heroism of the Armenian revolutionary movement. Armenian youngsters in the Republic and the Diaspora are thus only exposed to a diluted and heavily politicised version of their history in the Ottoman Empire.
Nevertheless, there is a genre of Armenian literature developed in the 1920s by Genocide survivors who retell the memories of their lives in the villages and towns of the Ottoman Empire. These survivor writers were aware of the fact that they were the last bearers of the subjective memories of Armenians from the various regions of Anatolia. Their objective was to immortalise the memory of their villages and towns. This literary period lasted from the 1920s until the 1970s and 80s, during which the last survivors of the Genocide began to pass away. Dr Tachjian showed a list of 300 of these books on the Houshamadyan website, a list which only includes those books which have been published – there are still treasures held in people’s homes that are waiting to find their way into the public domain. Houshamadyan uses these primary sources to recreate and describe the history of the towns and cities of Anatolia.
Dr Hartmann recalled the very beginnings of the Houshamadyan Project as it sought financial backing. The founders were fortunate enough to receive this support from the Hrechdakian and Kalaidjian families, who were enthused about the aims of the project. This support allowed the Houshamadyan team to devote their time to the background research, organisational set-up, and eventual launch of the website. Later, the Gulbenkian Foundation also started to fund two projects related to Houshamadyan activities: the translation of the articles into Turkish; the cooperation with schools. Houshamadyan employs one full-time historian, Vahé Tachjian, as well as a web-designer/artist, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, who produces the layout and designs of the website. Shogher Margossian is also a part-time employee in Houshamadyan: She is the coordinator of the cooperation with schools, as well as the responsible of the Open Digital Archive, which is a special section in the website. One important aspect of the website is that all of the content is produced in Armenian. The great majority of pieces are written in Western Armenian, although some can also be found in Eastern Armenian. This is done with the aim of preserving Western Armenian culture and countering the Genocide, which attempted to extinguish this language and the culture it holds with it. All the content is also translated into English and Turkish, giving Armenians without knowledge of their heritage language access to the information presented by Houshamadyan. In addition; the Turkish translations reveal to people in Turkey the history of the lands that they live on Dr Hartmann mentioned that Turkish-speaking readers are in fact the most interested in Houshamadyan’s work, and have been the most active in reacting to the content of the website. The Houshamadyan website is a valuable source for academics seeking primary sources when researching Ottoman and Armenian history.
Content on the website is sorted by geographical location and by theme. The geographical locations are shown on a map of the Ottoman Empire and its administrative divisions. One achievement in this regard is the re-introduction of forgotten Armenian place names to maps of Anatolia. The maps go into elaborate detail, showing the layout of cities and depicting the streets and types of buildings within, and providing even greater detail are the sketches of houses in Armenian villages. On the other hand, there is a wide spectrum of themes and sub-themes to explore, ranging from cuisine to music and economics. Dr Tachjian showed the audience an example of an article written about the cuisine of Kharpert.
Dr Tachjian summarised the whole Houshamadyan Project as a blend of technology, historical research, and art, and the final part of the lecture was dedicated to the last of these. Dr Hartmann wished to stress the fact that the aim of Houshamadyan is not simply to present historical information to the public, but to bring this past to life through art. Silvina Der-Meguerditchian’s work expresses the historical details of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire through visual art by exploring themes of identity, loss and rejuvenation. The presentation of the various clothes, tools, embroidery and handicrafts in all their colours is also an artistic reconstruction of the diversity that existed among Armenians in the different regions and towns. A common theme throughout the art on the site – indeed, the raison d’etre of the project – is the acceptance that all of these collected memories are fragments of a past that can never be truly recreated. The concept of the silhouette is visible in much of the artwork found on the site; it represents the notion of hazy slivers of memory that are being brought back to life, but never quite in their original form.
The end of the presentation was dedicated to the families who have furnished the Houshamadyan Project with their pictures, stories, books, letters, and whatever other artefacts and memories they have of their ancestors. These treasures have been an inseparable and essential part of the Houshamadyan Project. Part of the website is devoted to these family collections, which are received from all across the Armenian Diaspora and the Republic of Armenia.
During the question and answer session, one man in the audience recounted his travels in Diyarbakir, and recalled how he came across a shop where out of hundreds of jars, one of them was labelled “Ermeni kili” (Armenian clay), and was used for medicinal purposes. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that people in the region still associated the products with the Armenians who fled over a century ago. Dr Hartmann insisted that this episode and the discovery of such a product is the very essence of the Houshamadyan Project, which is to discover not just a lost Armenian past, but a past that is shared between all the peoples of the region, and has been divided by nationalism. The process of denialism, in fact, is one that denies the history of all the people of those lands, not just the Armenians; the denial of the Armenian presence and their influence on the cultural, social and economic life of the region has in fact contributed to the Turkey’s current crisis of identity.
Another member of the audience was interested in finding out more about the educational element of Houshamadyan Project, with the Project being presented to students at Armenian schools around the world. Dr Tachjian noted that the success of the presentation of the Houshamadyan Project is very much linked to the motivations of the teacher. Successful presentations have been made in schools in places such as Marseille and Istanbul, but the same cannot be said of their experiences in Lebanon. Dr Tachjian does not ascribe the failure to gain the interest of Lebanese students simply to the inability and disinterest of the teacher presenting the Project, but to the general mentality of the Lebanese-Armenian community, the main point of contention being that the Project’s presentation of Ottoman Armenian history contains elements that contradict the narrative prevalent in Lebanese-Armenian schools. Nevertheless, the Houshamadyan Project will continue to be presented in other Armenian communities: this year it will be taken to Greece, and there is a hope that the project will be introduced to communities in the United States next year.