Rising From the Ruins

Turkey’s Armenian community reclaims its identity

by Sean Sprague

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It’s not easy to be an Armenian in Turkey,” says Robert Koptas, a native of Istanbul, once the city of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Recently, the 30-something publisher cohosted a book release affair in the city’s posh Pangalti district.

“Among the Ruins” is a memoir written over 70 years ago by Zabel Yesayan, an Armenian-Turkish novelist who documented the massacre of up to 30,000 Armenians in the Turkish city of Adana. The party attracted about 100 Armenian-Turkish literati — who consider the novelist a protofeminist.

Mr. Koptas recalls a time in Turkey — only 20 years ago — when members of the Turkish Nationalist Party openly propagated anti-Armenian slogans, making it difficult to host events such as this one. Still, he is the first to admit he came of age in a tolerant Turkey. In college, he says his Armenian identity did not even faze his Turkish peers.

While still a concern, obvious discrimination preoccupies Turkey’s Armenian community less these days than does the disappearance of its cultural identity. A century ago, Turkey’s Armenian community numbered two million people. Today, only 50,000 remain. The tiny community now grapples with ever-stronger forces of assimilation and emigration, which many believe endanger its ancient culture.

The number of Armenian-Turks who speak Armenian, for instance, is steadily declining. It is believed only 20 percent of the community speaks Armenian on a daily basis. In addition, nearly 50 percent of young people marry non-Armenians.

“We are in danger of losing our culture and language, and it is a huge responsibility to keep it all alive,” says Mr. Koptas.

Mr. Koptas’s worries, however, also serve as a cautious reminder that times have changed — for the better. For much of the past century, Armenian-Turks either have been fighting for their survival or reeling from the trauma caused by atrocities against their families and their community.

Between 1915 and 1918, as part of their strategy during World War I, Ottoman Turkish forces displaced, incarcerated or exterminated the empire’s Armenian citizens. Churches, monasteries and schools were leveled or appropriated. In less than four years, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of their own government, though Turkey disputes the events. Survivors fled the country or took refuge in Istanbul.

The history of Turkey’s Armenians, however, does not begin in tragedy. For three millennia, Armenians have inhabited Anatolia, the geographic and historical term for the Asian peninsula that comprises the majority of modern Turkey. Until the middle of the 11th century, the kingdom of Armenia encompassed much of Anatolia, parts of the Caucasus and northwestern Persia. Its historic capital of Ani — now a ghostly ruin and archaeological wonder in eastern Turkey near the Armenian border — attests to the reach of the medieval kingdom as well as its wealth and cultural achievements.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Turkey Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church Armenian Catholic Church