Special to the Armenian Weekly
Last week, while criticizing Israel and the United States on President Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated with great conviction, “There has never been any genocide, holocaust, massacre, ethnic cleansing, or torture in our [Turkish] history.”
He said this without even batting an eye…
This wholesale denial of historic facts regarding the treatment of minorities by the state is nothing new, but with each act of denial, history keeps repeating itself with sickening regularity—the massacres of Armenians were followed by the massacres of Greeks, Assyrians, Alevis, and Kurds.
This article will focus not on the denial of genocide, but on the denial of the very existence of the Armenians and the many contributions they have made in the country.
In a previous article (“The Untold Stories of Turkey: An Armenian Island on the Bosphorus“), I had touched upon how a single family of Armenian architects, the Balyans, had shaped the skyline of Istanbul, particularly along the Bosphorus, with their creations of palaces, mansions, military barracks, and mosques. Although revered and respected as Royal Architects during Ottoman reign, their Armenian identity was denied by the Republic of Turkey and they were referred to as the Italian Balianis by official tour guides until the early 2000s.
Even more famous than the Balyan family, an architect living in the 16th century, Mimar (architect) Sinan (1489-1588) has left his mark all over the Ottoman Empire. He built 92 mosques, 55 schools, 36 palaces, 48 hamams (bathhouses), three hospitals, 20 inns, 10 bridges, six water channels, and hundreds of other government buildings—almost all of them still standing after five centuries. His masterpieces are the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, which are both registered UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The average Turk knows Mimar Sinan as the “Great Turkish Architect Sinan,” and his name is given to fine arts and architecture universities. But little is known about the fact that he was an Armenian from the Agirnas village of Kayseri province, seized from his parents as a boy, Islamized, circumcised, and raised as soldier and subsequently as an architect by the state. When he died at the ripe age of 99, he was buried near Suleymaniye Mosque.
During the 1930s, the Turkish state was dominated by racist intellectuals who claimed that the Turkish race was superior to all other races and that there was a definable set of Turkish race characteristics in shape of skull and other features. To prove their point and to demonstrate that historically intelligent Turks match their defined racial characteristics, these so-called anthropology experts decided to exhume the remains of Architect Sinan, a most prominent Turk from the past. Unfortunately, Sinan’s skull did not match these experts’ theoretical Turkish skull dimensions, and as a result the skull was kept hidden. To this day, the whereabouts of the skull is still unknown, and Sinan’s body lies in his grave without a head.
Again in the 1930s, when President Mustafa Kemal decided to introduce the Latin alphabet and modernize the Turkish language, he turned to professor Hagop (Agop) Martayan, a prominent linguist, to head the Turkish Language Council. As a reward for his services to the Turkish language, Kemal gave him a new surname, Dilaçar, meaning “language opener” [i.e., one who bestows language]. In return, Martayan proposed the surname “Ataturk” to Kemal, which was eventually adopted by Parliament.
When Martayan passed away in 1979, Turkish media announced his name as A. Dilaçar, without ever mentioning his Armenian identity. In fact, some newspapers further distorted his name, calling him Adil Acar. After Mustafa Kemal became Ataturk, he needed to create a new signature, and he called upon another Armenian, master calligrapher Vahram Çerçiyan (Jerjian). Çerçiyan’s Ataturk signature was adopted in 1934, and it appears on everything from Turkish banknotes to parliamentary records. Today, nearly nobody in Turkey remembers Çerçiyan.
In 1932, the Turkish government commissioned a prominent Armenian musicologist and conductor, Edgar Manas, to create the harmony and orchestration for the Turkish National Anthem based on a melody by a Turkish musician. Today, nobody remembers Edgar Manas in Turkey, even though his composition of the national anthem is sung every week in schools, stadiums, and Parliament.
In Turkish cinema, movie stars Adile Naşit, Toto Karaca, Vahi Öz, Sami Hazinses, and Kenan Pars are known all over Turkey, after making millions laugh or cry in their films over the years. But very few Turks know or acknowledge that these stars are all Armenian. They all had unique reasons for hiding their Armenian identities, and many of their true roots were revealed only after they passed away. Adile Nasit was Adile Keskiner (1930-1987), Toto Karaca was Irma Felegyan (1912-1992), Vahi Öz was Vahe Ozinyan (1911-1969), Sami Hazinses was Samuel Agop Ulucyan (1925-2002), and Kenan Pars was Kirkor Cezveciyan (1920-2008).
The first opera in Turkey was staged in 1874 in Istanbul by an Armenian; it was composed, conducted, and produced by Dikran Çuhacıyan (Tchoukhajian) (1837-1898). Turkish sources deny this and cite Turkish singers for much later dates. The first theater production in Istanbul was staged six years earlier, in 1868, again by an Armenian, by the name of Agop (Hagop) Vartovyan (1840-1902), also known as Güllü Agop and Yakub. Though it is safe to call Vartovyan the founder of modern Turkish theater, most Turkish sources deny this fact.
The first athletes representing Ottoman Turkey on the international stage were two Armenians and a Greek at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. The Armenians were Vahram Papazyan and Mgrditch Migiryan, both competing in track and field. Most Turkish sources deny this and cite Turkish athletes at later dates.
Examples of Armenian contributions, innovations, or accomplishments, denied or forgotten in Turkey, can be seen in nearly every imaginable field of arts, science, business, finance, banking, engineering, and publishing in Ottoman or Republican Turkey. One of the best sources to comprehend the role of Armenians in Turkey is an incredibly detailed series of four books called Western Armenians Throughout History (Tarih boyunca Batı Ermenileri), in Turkish, authored by Professor Parsegh Tuglaciyan (1933-2016), better known as Pars Tuğlacı.
Tuglaciyan is the author of the first Turkish Encyclopedia, called The Ocean Encyclopedia Dictionary, and several other books. However, perhaps his lifetime achievement is this four volume history of Armenians, based on hundreds of thousands of meticulously researched documents. Each volume totals about 900 pages, covering the periods of 289-1850 (Vol. 1), 1850-1890 (Vol. 2), 1890-1923 (Vol. 3), and 1923-1966 (Vol. 4). His last volume was published in 2009 in Istanbul.
Unfortunately, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he was not able to publish the fifth volume, which would have covered the period of 1966-2010.
The most dramatic and indisputable evidence of the Armenian Genocide is in Tuglaciyan’s third volume (1890-1923), which reveals thousands of documents showing Armenian achievements in nearly every field imaginable, including within the Ottoman government. Until the mid-1910s, Armenians were prominent in all levels of the Ottoman foreign ministry and embassies, indispensable in state enterprises and the central bank, and highly influential in the fields of business, art, science, academic institutions in Istanbul as well as all the Ottoman provinces. The dramatic disappearance of all these Armenian names in 1915 is evidence enough of the Armenian Genocide.
When I once asked Professor Tuglaciyan how he was allowed to publish such a critical book in Turkey, he simply stated: “I am just presenting state documents showing promotions or rewards of Armenians in state bureaucracy, achievements of Armenians in arts, sciences, and business, promotional ads of Armenian enterprises or cultural events. They all existed before 1915, but no more after 1915. Who can dispute that?”
In conclusion, I urge all Armenian scholars in Armenia and the Diaspora to consider translating Professor Tuglaciyan’s hidden treasure to English and Armenian for future generations to better understand what we had, what we lost, and—perhaps most important—why we lost it.