Born in Lebanon, Vahé Tachjian earned his Ph.D. in History and Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He is now the chief editor of the Houshamadyan website (based in Berlin), a scientific project, whose aim is to reconstruct Ottoman Armenians’ local history and the memory of their lives.
Q: What is the mission of the Houshamadyan project?
A: Four years ago, we started with a project to research and better understand the history, social environment and daily life of the Ottoman Armenians. Our purpose was to examine the lives of the Ottoman Armenians before the genocide, especially focusing on local histories. For example, how was life with its multifaceted aspects in the regions of Harput/Kharpert, Marash, Yozgat and Van, etc.? How did the Armenians of the cities, towns and villages of this vast empire live together with their neighbors, with other religious and ethnic groups? These are topics around which serious research is rare. We wanted to contribute to this field of research and present the material in English as well as Armenian to make it available to a wider audience.
Q: The field of Armenian studies is predominantly devoted to the genocide, leaving unexplored largely forgotten pre-genocide history, traditions and culture. By reconstructing the Ottoman Armenian past, what do you hope to achieve?
A: The genocide is part of the Armenian collective memory. This is an undeniable heritage and it is not possible to reduce the significance of Armenian Genocide studies. However, at the same time, it is essential to note that once the survivors of the genocide realized that they would never go back to their native lands, immortalizing the lives of their forbearers in the Ottoman Empire and bequeathing this memory to the future generations became one of their main purposes. As a result, memory books, or houshamadyan in Armenian, were written starting in the 1920s, in which the authors described the multifaceted aspects of life and the history of the native towns and villages. These books are the core sources and references of the scholarly articles we have made available. These memory books make it possible to reconstruct the Ottoman Armenian heritage and the important aspects of their daily lives. In one regard, getting to know and examining the Ottoman Armenians serves as a basis for reconstructing a relatively unknown heritage. On the other hand, it also serves as a means to create a whole environment. This latter is extremely important, because it helps us to examine the Ottoman context. What was this environment like? What place did the Armenians have in this environment? What were the differences in lifestyle between Armenians of one region and another? How did Armenians relate to their neighbors? Understanding this environment ultimately serves as a basis for understanding the local histories of the genocide in each city and village.
Q: You mention the importance and resonance of local stories, or as you describe them “micro-histories,” that can be revealed from an object. Can you elaborate?
A: Yes, family objects are of great importance. These are objects that were salvaged by the survivors in one way or another and are currently in the possession of the survivors’ descendants. A coffee cup from Sis, a wedding dress from Harput, a spoon from Stanoz, a garlic mortar and pestle from Ourfa, etc. At first glance, these items may seem to be of little importance and their material value as objects may seem insignificant. But for us, their real value is in the memory they bear. For us, these are objects that carry memory, and as such, they are invaluable. We can find many such objects in the possession of Armenians all over the world; each object carries a family micro-history. Their initial owners are no longer living, but the item itself is still there, visible and tangible. By tracking the history of the object, we can extract a family’s trajectory as well as place it into context within the Ottoman period.
Q: During your travels and research for the project, what have you learned that most stands out in your mind?
A: For me, the most impressive phenomenon was, and still is, the yearning that people have for the material we are presenting. This is especially evident in the diaspora where the new generations are no longer Armenian-speaking and can no longer read sources written in Armenian about the history of their ancestors. Our project is the best way for them to reconnect with history and to feel connected to their family heritage. It is no surprise then that the majority of our readers come from the United States. We serve as a bridge and link between the English-speaking Armenian community and the Armenian-language texts that the survivors produced.
Q: Tell us about how Houshamadyan has been received?
A: After the launch of our project, it was an unexpected surprise to be received well in Turkey. The interest in local histories and material describing the lives of Ottoman Armenians is also very evident in Turkey, especially for the micro-histories of the cities and villages where a large number of Armenians lived. The traces of the Armenians are still present in these locations. While the houses and structures that once belonged to Armenians have been destroyed, the Armenian elements continue to live in the oral histories of Turkish families. Many families have started to openly discuss that there was an Armenian grandmother or grandfather in their family, who was Islamized during the genocide. This all contributes to the growing interest in the lives of the Ottoman Armenians and in the history of the Armenians more generally. Moreover, now our project is also available in Turkish. People in Harput, Van or Adana can access all this information, which, until now, was unknown to many.
Q: Houshamadyan targets a broader audience by making Armenian studies appealing and accessible to new generations, and also encourages participation from the public. What are the benefits of this interactive and multimedia approach?
A: I believe that a major source about Armenians in the Ottoman Empire is the family archive. Since the start of the Houshamadyan project in Berlin in 2010, many people around the world began to contact us and wanted to share their own family collections, consisting mostly of photographs, but also of recorded accounts, songs, films, maps, diplomas, books and other materials. Despite the passage of time, we can still find in family homes tangible traces of a past life in the Ottoman Empire. In this regard, information technology is considerably helping our efforts to gather many of these scattered materials. And thanks to this technology, we have the opportunity to explain to Armenians worldwide the value of the materials that their ancestors brought with them from the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the family home is the place where one may still find outstanding materials (photos, objects, unpublished memoirs) about Ottoman Armenian history.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge the project has faced?
A: Until today, we have a limited budget, but we have a great deal of work to do. There are thousands of pages of first-hand resources about the Ottoman Armenians, which require additional research. Some of these pages are in printed books, but there are many other kinds of sources in the archives of different organizations. In reality, the work needs to take a collaborative approach. It would be better suited as part of a whole university program. It has been four years since we began the project and we are proud of the work we have been able to accomplish in our small team. Until last year, our finances were entirely based on individual donations, which still continue to this day. We are grateful to the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Gulbenkian Foundation for providing financial support for our project. In fact, we are always open to collaborating with other organizations in the future.
Q: What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?
A: Our purpose is to show the multilayered and vibrant life that the Ottoman Armenians led and to ultimately give new value to micro-histories of the Armenians. I think that by focusing on the life and local histories and showing the multifaceted character of life before the genocide through writings and images, it will be possible to show the striking human and cultural loss. Our work is an implicit way of speaking about tragedy, but at the same time about the absurdity of the genocide. I use the term absurd, because we want to show that when a state perpetrates genocide and eliminates a dynamic element, this state also causes itself harm.
Banner photo courtesy of Houshamadyan.org