A Project to Reconstruct Ottoman Armenian Life

Internet, 2010

Houshamadyan is an online archival project run by the Houshamadyan Association, founded in Berlin in 2010 under the leadership of historian Vahé Tachjian. The website titled Houshamadyan: Reconstructing Ottoman Armenian Town and Village Life was initiated with the mission to document Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire and preserve its memory. It has been run by a team of historians, editors, artists, and academics since 2011, and all of its content is published in Armenian, English, and Turkish simultaneously. Project director and chief editor Vahé Tachjian coordinates the content production for the site and oversees the Houshamadyan team, which is spread across Germany, the United States, Armenia, Spain, Israel, Canada, Lebanon, and Turkey. The first and only printed material the project has produced is the book Ottoman Armenians: Life, Culture, Society.

The Houshamadyan digital archive focuses on the history of Armenian towns and villages in the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian presence in Anatolia, which has been targeted by state policy since 1915 to be systematically destroyed and forgotten amid a culture of denial. Despite being a highly significant part of Ottoman Armenian history, the Armenian Genocide is not directly included in the project’s content. The project team explains that there is already a large corpus of literature on the massacres and deportations of Ottoman Armenians during World War I and thus turns its focus to the period before 1915, as there is a great lack of cultural history from before the genocide. The articles on the Houshamadyan site focus particularly on the social memory of Ottoman Armenian history, including local micro-histories, dialects, music, folk dances, children's games, recipes, schools and educational life, and commercial life. Houshamadyan holds the collection and preservation of culturally valuable materials concerning Ottoman Armenians in the utmost regard and stresses that the memories of the towns and villages it records do not belong only to Armenians but that they also perpetuate a memory that belongs to the wider society of Turkey. Corresponding with the team's determination, the vast majority of visits to the Houshamadyan website are from Turkey.

The word houshamadyan is composed of two words: housh (memory) and madyan (book or register). Houshmadyan is an original genre within the Armenian publishing tradition with its origins in the 1930s and 1940s, having taken shape upon calls from the Armenian press. Books in this genre are permanent monuments to their authors' loss of their houses, towns, and villages. Some cities for which houshamadyans have been written include Diyarbakır, Sivas, Giresun, and Kayseri. Thus, it is no coincidence that the association chose this word full of meaning for itself and its digital archive. The Houshamadyan Association has a mission to rebuild a rich yet neglected and forgotten heritage. Even among those in Turkey who accept that the Armenian Genocide took place, there is a lack of awareness and knowledge that Armenians had a presence across the vastness of Anatolia stretching back to antiquity, along with the prevailing perception that the Ottoman Armenian community only lived in Istanbul and the western regions of the empire. One of the most significant reasons behind this is the language barrier, thus the Houshamadyan team works to reevaluate Armenian-language sources concerning Ottoman Armenians and make them accessible to non-Armenian speakers. The Houshamadyan website is a vehicle to revive the memories of Ottoman Armenians and of life in their towns and villages based on sources written in Armenian. The project will undoubtedly contribute to efforts for more multifaceted evaluations of Ottoman history.

Houshamadyan's ultimate mission is to become a collaborative space for the current inhabitants of these settlements located within the borders of today's Turkey, people with roots in these regions, Ottoman history experts, social scientists, and those who believe in the importance of rebuilding this heritage. In order to further build its archive, Houshamadyan expects the contributions of visitors who want to allocate their belongings. Readers who want to deliver various materials that could contribute to the content on the website can contact the project team at houshamadyan@gmail.com.

The scope of Houshamadyan’s content is limited to the 19th and early 20th centuries. One reason for this is that Armenian periodicals and books directly related to the project's purpose are from this period. Another reason is that the books written after the genocide in the houshamadyan genre often include personal testimonies by their authors about their hometowns. Like these books, the Houshamadyan Association also strives to reconstruct the wealth of forgotten and neglected Armenian heritage.

The word houshamadyan is a compound of housh (memory) and madyan (book or register), thus memory book. The project team explains that the use of the word madyan for the book, instead of the more commonly used word kirk, which would yield houshakirk, was a conscious decision, as the word madyan holds special connotations of distant and completely lost times. The authors of the books in this genre themselves referred to them as houshamadyan despite madyan being an archaic and defunct word by the 20th century. The majority of these books, published after 1915, were written by authors who were born in the Ottoman Empire and who had become members of the diaspora, all with the awareness that it was no longer possible to go back home. The Why Houshamadyan? page of the association's website explains the importance of the books in this genre: “[T]he publication of a book becomes a monument placing ceremony, in this case to the memory of a dead town or time gone by. But this monument-book has to keep the life of times past or the memory of a lost town with its history, customs, architecture, heroes, glory, cuisine, songs, dialect, and so on, forever. There are, today, several hundred books of this genre."

The Open Digital Archive on the site contains the materials obtained at the workshops the organization has held in different cities around the world and the family stories prepared during interviews regarding these materials. The archive material collected through these workshops is divided into separate sections of North and South America, Armenia, Europe, the Middle East, and Turkey. Houshamadyan generally establishes partnerships with a local Armenian association or a media company in the cities where it holds workshops, for example, with the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul. People who attend Houshamadyan’s workshops bring many objects that hold memories, such as cutlery, knives, lace, veils, wedding dresses, nightgowns, socks, books, ladles, and copper pots. Film recordings shot in the US in the 1930s, ‘40s, and '50s also sometimes show up.

The project itself has its origins in the diaspora community, Houshamadyan's materials published in Armenian, English, and Turkish have, in particular, significantly increased its influence in Turkey and the interest of Turkish visitors to the site. According to Arlet İncidüzen, one of Houshamadyan's Turkish translators who manages the site's correspondence in Turkish, the most visits to the site come from Turkey, and "[h]ate speech is nearly totally absent in incoming correspondence; it is almost always very positive. People show genuine interest and curiosity. A great many people doing academic research also reach out with requests to use both the articles and visual materials." Houshamadyan specifies that its digital archive is an open source whose written and visual materials are available to all, including those not undertaking academic or commercial research, provided that the logos on the images are not removed and that the source is correctly cited. The website accepts articles from all academics who do research in various countries and on topics that are included in Houshamadyan's research framework.

Those whose families are partly Armenian or who have poor knowledge of their Armenian identity can also get in touch with Houshamadyan in the cities in which it holds workshops. Although people who attend the workshops often bring photographs with Armenian writing on the back among the other items they bring, many say that there is no one left in their families who can read Armenian. Here, Houshamadyan aids in satisfying their curiosity about these objects that hold such memories. The Houshamadyan team says that this is precisely the effect they are looking to create, not only to record the Armenian presence before 1915 but also to keep curiosity and awareness of the past alive in today's younger generations. The project team relates coincidences and chance encounters, such as one in which after an article about a family whose story was recorded in an interview in the US was published, it turned out they were second cousins with a family in Marseille, France, and the two families got in touch. Another example is that of an attendee to a workshop who brought in an old family photograph with no writing on the back. The attendee also didn't know who the people in the photograph were. After Houshamadyan published the photograph, however, a visitor to the site from another part of the world saw the photograph and was able to get in touch with their relatives, neither of whom had known the other's existence. Once a photograph is published in the archive, it brings about the possibility for visitors to the site to recognize the people in it and correct or add missing information such as names and familial relationships. The symbiotic relationship Houshamadyan has with visitors to its site allows for collective efforts to further enrich the archive.

Arlet İncidüzen related her experiences with Turkish-language correspondence sent to Houshamadyan from Turkey at a panel held at the Hrant Dink Foundation on November 12, 2018. She explained how there was an explosion of interest in Houshamadyan coming from Turkey after the government made genealogy records available on its e-devlet (e-government) website. This service began to be available on the e-devlet site under the umbrella of the General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs on February 8, 2018. Those who write Houshamadyan from Turkey are generally people who have discovered in various ways that a member or members of their extended families were Armenian. İnçidüzen also said that although it is rare, the association receives emails from people who claim to be in possession of Armenian goods and/or property, which they try to sell.

As with visitors to the Houshamadyan site, the members of the project team itself also live in countries in different corners of the world, which they say is one of the biggest challenges they face as they have to coordinate and hold meetings across many time zones. Project director and chief editor Vahé Tachjian lives in Berlin, Germany, while the core staff includes people who live in the US, Canada, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Israel, and Armenia. The team says that they are able to overcome this difficulty through online communication and meetings. Apart from the difficulties multiple time zones create, another of the biggest challenges is the workforce. For the academics, translators, artists, and historians who make up the team, developing content for Houshamadyan is secondary. Since there is no single person specifically employed to curate the website, it continues to be a digital platform to which academics can contribute as much time as they can set aside from their own tasks.

According to Arlet İncidüzen, one of the difficulties created by the team being spread around the world is that they cannot organize workshops to collect materials as often as they would like: "The specific situations in destination countries also cause various obstacles. For example, there was going to be [a workshop] in Istanbul recently. A statement was made there that there was the possibility of bombings; the US Consulate put out a statement too, and the Hrant Dink Foundation hesitated amid that climate. Vahé was going to come, but the workshop was canceled three days before it was set to happen. We don't know when that workshop will be held. I can also have problems with obtaining visas when workshops are held outside Turkey. I couldn’t attend one in Berlin because Germany refused my visa application."