When I climbed the wooden stairs—barefoot, as required—to the second floor of the Sefik Gul Kultur Evi, the cultural house in Kharpert (Harput), I was on high alert: One of the historic objects laid out on shelves and tables was bound to betray its current owners. I had found nothing on the first floor. A baby crib, hanging at chin-height from the wooden ceiling, invited me into a sunlit room. Intricately woven rugs decorated the floors, and walls. Knee-high sofas claimed their spot against the wall opposite the door. A round silver tray was at the center of the room; on it four silver plates, evenly spaced. I carefully lifted each plate, turning them around and over in my hands for close inspection, like I had done in the room next door. I finally found it: the Armenian inscription. “Kurdlu Stepan 1287,” it read. The letters were Armenian, the numbers Arabic. The plate was engraved in 1870, 140 years before I laid eyes on it. My co-travelers huddled around, staring at the plate. Camera shutters clicked. It was raining when we returned to our van. Realizing I had left my sweater behind, I ran back to the house. I kicked off my shoes and returned to the room. I picked up my sweater and froze before the plate. “I can’t leave you here. Can I?” I thought. The plate remained a plate, silent but rebellious… “You hold your ground,” I muttered, turned around and rushed to the van.
A plate here, an inscription on a house, a half-ruined church, and a crumbling fortress speak of bygone times when Armenians thrived in the Kharpert region. According to figures collected by Ottoman Minister of Interior Talaat Pasha—one of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide—in 1914, 70,060 Armenians lived in the province of Mamuret-ul Aziz (Elazig), where Kharpert is located; by 1917 no Armenians were left in the villayet.* They were either killed or deported. Very few—among the survivors— were able to hold on to their possessions.
“What would people choose to carry with them, if they could? Who are the people who could salvage and transport more than the shirts on their backs as they were driven from their homes? In some cases, the items tell stories of Turkish neighbors’ loyalty and bravery, keeping things safe, hoping for the owners’ return. In others, a few pieces remained when survivors returned to a ransacked home. A small number of families were spared the deportations or migrated earlier,” wrote London’s Armenian Institute director, Susan Pattie, who co-edited Treasured Objects: Armenian Life in the Ottoman Empire 100 Years Ago (Armenian Institute: 2012) together with Vazken Khatchig Davidian and Gagik Stepan-Sarkissian.
The 72-page book tells the stories of various Armenian possessions once displayed at London’s Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies. The featured items include objects and tools (coffee grinders, colander, lunch box, water pipe, sewing machine, backgammon board), photographs, clothing and textiles, trousseau and wedding clothes, jewelry and silver, personal items used at the hamams or baths (tass, bath clogs), religious items, documents (diploma, land deed, birth certificate, a letter from Victor Hugo to his Armenian translator), books, and ceramics. The photographs of the items are accompanied by descriptions on their usage at the time, and sometimes with the accounts of their owners.
“Each object has a story to tell and through them, we learn more about Armenians as individuals and as a people,” wrote Pattie. “The narratives behind these objects are an essential part of [their] oral histories,” she added.
Kurdlu Stepan’s plate stayed behind in Kharpert. I doubt we’ll ever discover what happened to its owners, or how it reached its current residence.
But take, for instance, Takouhi Mayrig’s nightdress. Its journey began in Smyrna and—with its owner and her descendants—continued on to Athens, then Volos, Alexandria, Latakia, Trieste, Cairo, Haifa, Jerusalem and, finally, London. A photograph of the nightdress accompanies Denis Finning’s memories of his grandmother.
A 150-year old rug from Eskishehir was once owned by Sonia Marcar’s paternal grandfather, Onnig Hougasian, who had a successful business growing and exporting silkworm seed. In 1915, Hougasian was rounded up with other intellectuals and community leaders. “In the middle of one night, Sonia’s father Sarkis woke up to find his father beside his bed saying a prayer with his hand on Sarkis’s head. Behind him Sarkis could see two officials with red epaulets. Onnig was never seen again. Somehow, without their father and with a new baby, the family made the journey from Bursa to Istanbul and safety,” reads the description beside the photograph of a beautiful rug, and the portrait of a man, Onnig, gazing down.
A tin-coated copper plate dating back to 1761/2 once served a purpose at church in the village of Kamarek. Now it hangs in Stepan Sarkissian’s study room. His friend bought the plate, along with a hamam tass (a bowl, also featured in the book), in a “dark bazaar” in Turkey. “I consider them among my most valuable items,” he wrote. “They link me to places (the village) and people (the woman who owned the tass) and I try to imagine the times when these items were for use rather than display.”
“There is also a darker side to this imagery—what happened when the church was emptied of its congregation and the woman separated from the tass? Who entered the abandoned places and took possession of these items only for a descendant to pawn or sell these as unwanted items?” he added.
A pair of scissors is among my most valuable possessions. My mother purchased them—along with a water pot, two hamam tasses (both engraved with names and dates: 1896, 1910), and a couple of coins—from the late Asbed Donabedian, an antiquarian, writer, and teacher in Beirut. The 11-inch iron scissors originated somewhere in Cilicia. Aside from a simple design, there are no markings on the scissors. I have inspected them closely, numerous times. One can see the markings the ironsmith left behind while hammering them into shape. As far as I know, the scissors journeyed from Cilicia to Beirut, then on to Montreal, and finally, to Massachusetts.
Old pots, plates, photographs, documents, clothing, jewelry, and tools—they float around with us, sometimes with the descendants of the original owners, but more often with new owners, or even alone. They change hands, and the stories around them acquire new chapters. We value them because they tie us to places and to a life much different than now. They are the remnants of what was once a home in a distant place and time.
*Sarafian, Ara. Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide. London: Gomidas Institute, 2011.