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The identity of the islamized Armenians Hemshin

  Standpoint of Armenia

The identity of the islamized
Armenians Hamshin

Lusine Sahakyan


Lusine Sahakyan

Head of the Department of Armenian-Ottoman Relations at Institute for Armenian Studies of Yerevan State University

Recently the media and some researchers have been focusing on the identity issues of the Hamshens, living on the territory of Turkey. Various comments are made without taking into account the historical reality of islamization and turkification policy and ensuing consequences, and there is no clear-cut distinction between the concepts identity and origin as well.       

Still in the 18th century the generations of the Hamshen Armenians, who were forced to convert to Islam, today live in ChamliHemshin (formerly called Lower Viche Vizhe), Hamshin (formerly called Hamshen), Pazar (formerly called Atina), Fynldyqly (formerly called Viche Vizhe), Ardashen (formerly called Artashen), Chaylei (formerly called Mavari), Ikizdere (formerly called Kuray-ı Sab) districts of Rize Province in Turkey, the part of which comprises the historical Armenian Hamshen district. In the course of time part of the Hamshens moved to Hopa and Borchka districts of Ardvin province. There are villages of the Hamshens in Erzurum, Sakarya and Düzce provinces as well. One can come across the Hamshens in small and big cities of Turkey. And the part that has preserved Christianity, its national image, due to the resistance, spread over the southeast seaside areas of the Black Sea and later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the Hamshen Armenians, having survived the Genocide, settled in the northeast (Russian) seaside areas of the Black Sea, by preserving language, religion and national customs in Armenia.           

Assimilation policy of the Ottoman Empire and later that of the Republican Turkey proceeded in several stages, with violent and various systematized methods, as well as through language assimilation. Not content with a religious conversion and understanding the role of ethnic differentiation of the language, the authorities of the Ottoman and the Republican Turkey found very important the turkification of the peoples who were subjected to them, thus, completing their assimilation process.  The generations of the Hamshen Armenians, Islamized in this reality, gradually lost important components of the Armenian identity in the Ottoman-Turkish environment, such as the language (except for the Hamshens living in Hopa and Borchka districts and a few villages of Sakarya province) and religion, were cut off from the Armenian culture and were completely assimilated into the Turkish society, preserving only their local ethnographic, as they call it, Hamshen identity.            

In general, language is one of the means of ethnic resistance and self-defense, which expresses and maintains national peculiarity and scopes. National identity features and numerous peculiarities typical of the given ethnos are enshrined in the mentality, word-stock and folklore. It is the language that passes a national culture, traditions to generations by playing a role of ethnic differentiation as well. Language and self-consciousness have always been closely related. Language is perhaps one of the most decisive factors of the formation of national self-consciousness and identity.               

Ruling circles of the multinational Ottoman Empire and Republican Turkey knew quite well that assimilation of foreigners was quite a complicated process, especially when there was an "ethnic incompatibility" (for more details about the role of the language as a defender of ethnos see Nalchajyan A., Ethnic Psychology, Yerevan, 2001, p. 427-428), as it is called in modern ethno psychology term, between the dominant nation and others. Language could always keep alive the national self-consciousness of the peoples under its subordination. Hence, the policy of foreigner assimilation and destruction, adopted by the Ottoman Empire as well as by the Turkish Republic, was conditioned by the destruction of these circumstances.                 

As a result of such pressures, Turkish language was reinforced at the expense of the Armenian language among the Hamshens. Though the Hamshen Armenians settled in Turkey initially pretended to accept Islam, unfortunately both time, environment, Turkish consistent policy of assimilation and the atmosphere of fear and various repressions reached their aim. And today, the Armenian identity of some of them is expressed merely through the memory of genetic origin and preservation of some cultural layers.      

A German author Hübner M. writes “one cannot possess identity, it comes up automatically, but when it is acquired, still it cannot be considered safe. There is always a need and necessity to protect the identity from the foreigner.”  (Hübner M. “La beurette” Vom aus der Vorstaedte ins Herz der französischen Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main, 1996, p. 23).      

Assimilation policy of the foreigners in the Republican Turkey is legally stipulated in Article 88 of the first Constitution dated 1924, which was changed into Article 66 in 1982 – “Everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk.”            

On October 2005 the Turkish government considered and approved the “National Security Document” submitted by the Security Council, which once again emphasizes the fundamental principles of the Republic of Turkey “one state one nation, one flag one language provisions”. The document stipulates the principle of considering every citizen of Turkey “Turk by nationality”.         

Though Prime Minster of Turkey R. Erdoğan admits in his announcement, made on November 2005, that there are approximately 30 ethnic groups in the country with “their internal identities”, however, he immediately reminds that they have an “upper identity”, that is, the citizenship of the Republic of Turkey.

Today, in the identity document (Kimlik) of the Christian Armenians living in Turkey, which is used within the borders of the country, the word “Christian” is mentioned in front of the religious affiliation and the word “Turk” in front of the nationality in the passport. The Armenians also have a code numbered 31, which prompts the relevant instances about their national belonging.       

Up till now active actions are taken to tangle the identity of the Islamized Hamshens.    Misleading scientific books (there are Hamshens among the authors) are published to reject both the Armenian origin of the Hamshens and the Armenian traces left in Hamshen on the whole.       

As an interesting fact it should be noted that the Hamshens of Hopa and Borchka districts managed to preserve their Armenian local language – Hamshen dialect in the vast Turkish ocean and still use it in their everyday speech. As our studies show, today the number of the Hamshens in Hopa and Borchka districts is about 25-30,000. However, the young generation is already forgetting or does not use its dialect and mostly focuses on the Turkish. At the same time it should be noted that they don’t know Armenian letters, except for a few intellectuals, who learn Mesrobian letters for the scientific-cognitive purposes. Due to the preservation of the Hamshen dialect, some Hamshens of these districts admit their Armenian origin. Irrespective of the Turkish propaganda, they understand quite well that Turkish is not their spoken language. Generally speaking, Marxist and consequently atheistic ideas are spread all over Hopa and Borchka districts, which, as we think, play a certain psychological self-defensive role in the Islamic-Turkish environment to maintain its own kind and ethnographic description. However, there are Hamshens who either refrain from speaking about their origin or consider themselves Turks or Hamshens (the Homshets) at the best. Some Hamshens living in Hopa underscore that they know about their Armenian origin, know that once they were the part of the Armenians, were the carriers of the Armenian culture, but in the course of time they lost ties and they consider themselves neither Armenian nor Turk, but rather Hamshen. We believe that such perception of the identity is also a model of maintaining their kind in the Turkish reality and adapting to that environment.    

Unable to uproot the Armenian language from the Hamshens living in Ardvin province once and for all, the Turkish authorities muddle up and falsify the history of Hamshen, the origin of the Hamshens through official historiography and declare that their Armenian speech is a Turkic dialect.   

The turkification took much deeper roots among the Hamshens of Rize Province.   The Hamshes of Rize Province have forgotten their mother tongue – Armenian language, and speak Turkish. Though some admit their Armenian origin, they immediately add that they have been already turkified. They are of the opinion that they come from the Turkic tribes. In one of his articles Chamlehemshin journalist and a specialist in the national history Jean Ugur Biryol writes: “Today most Hamshens deny the fact of being Armenian. In fact, local Armenian is expressed through the usage of place names used in this district and names of the objects maintained in the everyday life.” (Biryol C. U., Hemşinliler üzerine, Hemşinliler Ermeni mi?, Radikal, 2005, Haziran 12). Here you can come across those who do not consider themselves Turks but simply they know a Hamshen (Hemşinli), the ancestors of which were Armenians. In a number of districts of Rize the radical Islam keeps on bolstering its position, which has substantially affected the identity of the Hamshens and one can meet fanatic Mohammedans. One can come across those with Marxist ideas and active leftists among them as well. However, Turkish nationalist ideas are rooted in Senoz valley of Çayeli district. A triple-crescent flag of the Turkish nationalists can be seen hanging from the windows of the Hamshens’ houses.  Even in their environment the word Armenian (Ermeni) has a negative and offensive meaning. Senoz valley gave birth to the prominent political and military figures, lawyers, doctors and teachers. Ex-prime minister of Turkey Mesut Yilmaz from the Vasap dynasty (it is a corrupted version of the Armenian name Vasak) comes from Khakhonj village (present-day Çataldere) of this district. According to the non-official data the number of the Hamshens living in Rize together with the ones settled in other towns makes about 60 thousand.   

Through a famous falsifier M. Sakaoğlu the Turkish historiography declares that the Hamshens haven’t known any other language except Turkish. The Turkish language they speak is a dialect of ancient Oguz or Saka tribes (Sakaoğlu M. Ali, Dünden Bugüne Hemşin. Karadeniz’den Bir Tarih, Yeniyurt Yayınları, Ankara, 1990, s. 53-54). Admitting that the language of the Hamshens living in Hopa is the Armenian dialect, another Turkish falsifier M. Kırzıoğlu ( Kırzıoğlu M. F., I. Selim Cağında Hopa ile Arhavi Köyleri, TFA icinde, yıl 17, cilt 10, no. 201 (Nisan 1966), İstanbul, s. 4104.) suggests concocted theories about the origin of the carriers of the very language. M. Kırzıoğlu’s concoctions, unfortunately, became an integral part of the Hamshens’ identity. Many of them are so far from the Armenian roots, that they consider themselves to be descended either from Oguz, Balkar and Akada tribes, or from Central Asia and Khorasan.  

And even if the Hamshens living in Rize know about their Armenian origin (and they do know, because they use numerous everyday Armenian words, place and plant names in their spoken Turkish language), they prefer keeping silence or simply rejecting. So, this is the current state of the Armenian generations, who were forced to convert to Islam in the 18th century and in future.    

The policy of islamization must be assessed as one of the forms of the genocide manifestations, to which this part of the Armenians was subjected – they were forced to be far from their roots and national origin, and culture. Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, as specified in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe” (Washington, D.C.:  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), also included the things which can be considered as non-physical, but particularly psychological effects of genocide, which he personally described as follows: “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation,… First of all, a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves should be distinguished.” The objectives of such a plan would be the destruction of the political and social institutions, culture, language, national feelings, religion, personal security and disintegration of the economic existence of national groups and so on. “Genocide consists of two stages, the first one is the destruction of the national model of a group under pressure, and the second one is the compulsion of the oppressor’s national model. This compulsion, in its turn, can be implemented on the suppressed population, which is allowed to stay in the territory after the extermination of the population by the oppressor’s kinsmen and its colonization.” (

Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide dated 1948 says that Genocide is a crime irrespective of the fact whether it is implemented during a peace or war-time period, and that the signatory parties are obliged to prevent it and punish those who implement genocide. Article 2 of the Convention says that Genocide is a crime of intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial and religious group, in whole or in part.  

Thus, as the result of this systematic assimilation policy, the Hamshens, who were forced to convert to Islam, lost their real Armenian national identity, retaining only the local ethnographic description through recollections about their Armenian origin.



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