By Levon A. Saryan
Old postcards exude a certain charm. Faded pictures of bygone eras, people, and places, sometimes mailed with short snippets of correspondence, they tantalize the viewer with even more hidden within.
The heyday of the picture postcard was roughly 1880 to 1915, a time when western travelers and missionaries were active in Armenia. It also coincides with a period marked by Armenian persecutions, just as our people were awakening from the stupor of medieval darkness into which we had been plunged centuries earlier.
In 1912, there were close to 3 million Armenians across the length and breadth of Ottoman Turkey and the Caucasus. From Yerevan to Constantinople, vibrant communities had thrived for centuries. Armenians had also ventured far beyond the confines of their native homeland, settling in Europe, Africa, and southeastern Asia. And old postcards are known from virtually every one of these settlements, giving us a glimpse of Armenian life as it existed over a century ago.
Of course, postcards have an intrinsic appeal to collectors. Sometimes the visuals can be quite compelling and of great human interest. Since these views were mostly printed from photographic images, they carry a high degree of authenticity. Furthermore, postally used cards carry dated postmarks and correspondence that enable us to connect a specific card to a specific person, time, and place.
We attended an illustrated program on old Armenian picture postcards presented on May 15 at the Chicago AGBU center by Turkish specialist Osman Köker. The occasion was the introduction of the English translation of Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago with the Postcards from the Collection of Orlando Carlo Calumeno, edited by Köker in 2005 and published in Istanbul.
This huge, attractively printed book is chock full of postcard views from the Ottoman realm, nearly 800 of them arranged geographically, with ample explanatory information for each card and locality. The views (several enlarged) are mostly two-tone (sepia and tan), thus preserving the appeal of the originals.
The Calumeno Collection presents an incontrovertible reality, namely that a century and more ago Armenians lived, worked, and created on the soil of Ottoman Turkey. The views illustrate Armenians at work, Armenian churches, factories, shops, homes, schools, public buildings, and mosques created by Armenian architects, Armenian quarters of various towns, and panoramic town views printed by Armenian editors, before their communities were cruelly disrupted by the 1915 genocide and its aftermath.
The Armenian districts, homes, churches, shops, and factories mostly no longer exist. The industrious Armenians, who once populated and brought prosperity to the scattered towns and provinces of Asia Minor and the Armenian plateau have, for reasons we know only too sadly, long since disappeared as well.
It is also worth pointing out that several of the cards offer visual proof of the Armenian persecutions. Cards from the town of Adana, where massacres of Armenians took place in 1909, show the burned and destroyed buildings of Adana’s Armenian quarter that were left in the wake of the pogroms. It is interesting that these cards were printed and mailed at the time within Ottoman territory.
This book reminds us that until the early 20th century, minorities, prominent among them the Armenians, lived and worked in Ottoman Turkey. They contributed immensely to the social fabric, to domestic arts, trade, industry, commerce, and to economic life generally. The extermination and expulsion of the Armenians and other minorities, carried out between 1915 and 1923, was a huge loss for the Turkish state, which was deprived of their industriousness and commercial genius. It was also a huge loss for the Armenians themselves, whose property was confiscated and whose innate right to live and create on their own native lands was abrogated.
A few words should be added about Orlando Calumeno and Osman Köker. Calumeno is descended from an old Levantine family and was part Armenian in ancestry. Köker, however, is not. As a Turkish youngster growing up in Marash, he was unaware that Armenians once had a large and thriving community in that town. He explained that in Turkey, history, especially the history of towns and villages, is taught from a very Turko-centric point of view. A chance meeting with an American woman of Armenian Marashtsi descent who was searching for her family home brought him to the realization that the history of minorities in Turkey needed greater attention.
We met Köker and had a pleasant conversation with him about his experiences in bringing this book to light. As a publisher and journalist, he had originally planned a small factual book on the history of the Armenians in Turkey, with a few photographic illustrations. When he saw the scope and size of the Calumeno Collection, however, he realized that an album was needed, and decided to establish his own publishing firm, Birzamanlar (which means “once upon a time”), the mission of which is to bring to light the cultural treasures that once existed in Turkey, and how they were lost.
By presenting the Armenians as normal productive citizens rather than enemies, Köker has succeeded in overcoming some of the racist prejudice about Armenians that persists today within Turkish society. The book, and associated exhibitions that have been held in Turkey and Armenia, have opened people’s eyes to the wealth of information that these cards contain.
Here are two of the postcards—Armenian women baking bread near Diyarbekir, and the Armenian Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church at Aintab—to remind us of what we have lost.
Dr. Saryan has been writing for the Armenian Weekly for 40 years. He lives in Greenfield, Wisc.