A Polemic Dated 1860 on the Armenian Identity and the Regime

The Armenians under the Ottoman rule were given the rights to open their own schools, to choose their own books and programs and to issue diplomas starting from the time of Fatih [Mehmet II]. Their religious and social lives were not interfered with for 350 years until the Sultan Mahmud II period. Therefore, the Armenians of Turkey took shape as a freer and more cultured community compared to the Armenians in Russia. Armenians had many privileges as the silk trade among Turkey, Iran and Italy became under their monopoly in the 17th century. In addition, they earned large amounts of wealth through tax farming and banking. They were also effective in the economic and financial areas in the public sector. They started to manage the royal mint and to control the public finances in the first years of the 19th century (Inalcik, 2001: 235). At the beginning of the second half of the 1800s, Armenians, who took the winds of big change and transformation experienced by the empire behind them, became stronger both socially and economically. As a result of all of this, it can be said that rich Armenian families acted as pioneers of Western style changes in many fields such as literature, theatre, publishing, economy and civil society organization.

Being together, which continued for many years between the Turks and Armenians, brought them closer to each other in both the social and cultural fields. It is also possible to see togetherness in the publishing and journalism fields as well. Armenian masters, who put forward their weight on the printing business in the Ottoman period with names such as Boğos Arabyan and Canik Aramyan starting from the beginning of the 19th century, reached a superiority in this field in time. This intense interest was reflected in publishing and journalism.

Between the years of 1840 and 1900, there were more than one hundred periodicals that were published by Armenians only in Istanbul and more than half of these were printed in Turkish using Armenian letters partially or in whole. One of the important factors on the large number of Turkish newspapers with Armenian letters and their being followed by Turkish readers was undoubtedly the existence of a non-controlled publishing.

As a matter of fact, a written polemic that Majmua-i Havadith entered into together with Ruznama-i Jareeda-i Havadith gives some clues about this and displays some thoughts about the period.

The thing that caused the argument was the article titled “A Dialogue Between a Journalist and Some of Their Customers,” which was in the 29th issue of Ruznama-i Jareeda-i Havadith dated 9 December 1860. The talk between a journalist and a reader mentioned in this article is very important in terms of putting forward the understanding of journalism of Munif Efendi (Pasha), who was the manager of the newspaper, and in terms of drawing a panorama of the press life of the period.

The journalist and reader talked about issues such as why the newspaper is full of articles mostly on science and knowledge, why European innovations are always emphasized, why the events and developments abroad are not given sufficient space even though the promotion of innovations is aimed at, and then the dialogue was moved towards a political field.

In this part, which constituted the last part of the talk, the following matters were questioned: whether the government applied any pressure on the newspapers, how it happened that those newspapers that were published in French, English and even Greek and Armenian in Istanbul were able to write the matters that the Turkish newspapers did not mention. The journalist explained this matter in a very striking and interesting manner. According to this, for a long time, only two newspapers were published in Turkish: one of them was Taqweem-i Waqayi and the other one was Jareeda-i Havadith. Many news items were published in the Jareedah because Taqkweem-i Waqayi interrupted its publication many times, and this gave the Jareedah an increasingly official quality in time. Therefore, the Jareedah was very careful and did not publish every news item it came across. In addition, unlike the other newspapers, the Jareedah did not have a political stance and it considered it against good etiquette to publish speculative news items regarding the state or the nation. In any case, such news items were not beneficial to anyone at that time either. It can be said that the newspapers published by the other nations that comprised the empire did not have this awareness of responsibility. They could publish all kinds of news without searching for the truth.

The thing that caused the article to lead to a discussion was this last part and the objection came from Majmua-i Havadith. Majmua-i Havadith was published by Hovsep Vartan Pasha. Vartan Pasha had been a member of Ahkām-ı Adliyye and Anjuman-i Danish and gave the first example of the genre in our history with his Turkish novel with Armenian letters named the Akabi Story. Vartan Pasha was also very passionately involved in polemics. Therefore, he felt it necessary to respond to Münif Efendi. According to Münif Efendi, the fact that Muslims, who are the dominant nation in the empire, are deprived of the rights granted to the nations that are ruled like this is not compatible with the justice of the state, so much so that whereas the non-Muslims subjects have asked for equailty from earlier times up to now, today Muslims are in a position to demand equality with the non-Muslims.

Münif Efendi quoted the objection of the newspaper Majmua-i Havadith in his newspaper. Vartan Pasha indicated that the objection in question created a right to respond for them and pointed out that the “Customer” in Münif Efendi’s article called the Muslims “the dominant nation” and called the others “the ruled nations.” According to Vartan Pasha, the reality is like this as well. Therefore, there should not be any drawbacks to their putting forward some ideas one way or another through the newspapers since the position of the non-Muslims within the state are that of the ruled and they do not have a right of voice. According to Majmua-i Havadith, the newspapers of the subjects address their own nations and the Ottoman newspapers address the whole society. Therefore, what matters is what they write, the others do not matter. The ruled nations announcing their opinions freely is a result of their being ruled.

Münif Efendi wrote his defense after the objection of Majmua-i Havadith and explained what he had said before. Münif Efendi focused on the words of Vartan Pasha when he said: “The ruled nations announcing their opinions freely is a result of their being ruled.” According to Münif Efendi, this claim is quite strange. The fact that the claim in question was put forward by someone who has a lot of prestige and who is deemed reliable (Vartan Pasha), was even more strange. Münif Efendi thought that the ruled having no power on the dominant side and a private having no power on the officer is not understandable and such an approach has not been seen in any country. Freedom of thought and expression is a requirement for all people whether they are rulers or ruled, officers or privates. Although banning this would be a situation that exceeds the power of the thinker, one should take into consideration the interests of the society when expressing thoughts because human beings have duties towards Allah first and then towards the government and society. Moreover, equality among all the ethnic groups and classes is a basic principle in the Ottoman Empire. Discrimination, as practiced by the British in India and other countries and by the French in Algeria, was not existent. In fact, they have no intention of looking down on the non-Turkish ethnic groups in the state, insulting them or discriminating against them. The reader only underlined a reality of the country.

As a matter of fact Majmua-i Havadith approves of this. However, it calls this freedom a result of being ruled, which was the source of the discussion. The explanations that were made and the proofs that were shown are an indication of how meaningless and baseless this problem is.

In conclusion, we can say that the polemic between Majmua-i Havadith and Ruznamah-i Jareeda-i Havadith shows clearly that the Armenians within the empire started to think about some problems of identity even before the political interest games of Russia and Britain were on the agenda in an obvious manner. It is because of this ready situation that provocating foreign policies found a response within a short period of time and pushed the two societies that had lived in friendly relations for a long time into a bloody struggle.


İnalcık, H. (2001), “İstanbul (Türk Devri),” TDV İslam Ansiklopedisi, Cilt: 23, İstanbul: TDV.

Ortaylı, İ. (2007), “Tanzimat Devri Basını Üzerine Notlar,” Batılılaşma Yolunda, İstanbul.

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