Events and developments taking place in the 19th century have been determinative in the Ottoman Empire’s Westernization-Modernization process. In this process, a new system and order were constructed in regard to not only science and technology, but also institutions, laws and even traditions. In this change and transformation, Armenians, one of the nations constituting the Empire, had been quite influential and led the way for innovations regarded as leading in especially the social and cultural fields.
The most important of the fields where Armenians led the way is theatre. Theatre is the first one from Western literary genres which entered our lives. It is also possible to say that theatre showed a very fast development. Istanbul’s cosmopolitan structure can be suggested as the most important reason for this fast development. Non-Muslim elements who established close contact with Western culture made theatre to be interesting and formed an audience swiftly. The fact that a palace theatre was founded opposite to Dolmabahçe Palace during the reign of Abdulmecid is interesting in terms of demonstrating the importance given to theatre by the state.
Armenians played the greatest role in expanding foreign companies’ domain which was restricted to Beyoğlu and in the domestication and popularization of theatre. The plays of European troupes, which attracted great interest, enabled excitement in some Armenian artists to perform plays in Istanbul. The fact that Güllü Agop turned the theatre building in Gedikpaşa into one of the most important centers of the Tanzimat Period with spectacles of Ottoman theatre is one of the biggest indicators of this (And, 1972: 153).
This beginning continued as a process. Hence, first Turkish plays started to be performed with the works of Sırapyan Hekimyan later. It can be said that there is a commercial concern in Hekimyan’s and his friends’ Turkish play performances. The number of the Armenian audience was now not enough for professionalized performing artists who had increased in number. As a matter of course, the actual large majority was constituted by Turks. Attracting them to theatre naturally meant winning new customers.
Performing the plays in Turkish undoubtedly was an appropriate step for attracting the crowded Turkish population to theatre. It was not sufficient, though. Especially in Istanbul, there were a lot of obstacles between theatre and the audience under the conditions of the time. One of these was that theatres performed plays only in Beyoğlu and people from Üsküdar, Beşiktaş or Bosphorus villages where the Turkish population was dense could not go to the theatre. Another obstacle in coming to theatre for audience was that Beyoğlu was an entertainment place and this made the location defective in terms of safety. However, those who brought people together with theatre by overcoming these obstacles were Armenians as well. For instance, Hoca Naum started to perform his plays in daytime to make it easy for people who were coming to Beyoğlu from other neighbourhoods. Güllü Agop created a troupe called “Asia Company” in 1867 and started performing plays in the old circus in Gedikpaşa. Besides, Agop laid the foundations of the first serious Turkish theatre with his troupe called “Tiyatro-yı Osmani” (Ottoman Theatre) from 1868 onwards (Akyüz, 1979: 35). As a matter of fact, Güllü Agop gained his actual identity and strength after moving his theatre to Gedikpaşa and getting the monopoly of performing in Turkish for the following ten years after 1870.
Güllü Agop had great and significant contributions to the development of Turkish theatre in this period. One of these is to establish the Turkish Committee which was constituted of Turkish writers and did studies on language and dramaturgy. And the second is to take Turkish actors to the stage for the first time.
Many more examples can be given to explain the development of theatre in this period. However, this bright era came to an end when the Ottoman Theatre was demolished by Abdulhamid II with the excuse that Ahmed Midhat Efendi’s tragedy called Cherkes Thymuses planted freedom sentiments in the public. Now, Turkish audience would be deprived of serious theatre works until 1908.
Another contribution of Armenians to Ottoman cultural life is about newspaper. There are many newspapers pressed in Turkish with Armenian letters especially after the second half of the 19th century. It also happened that Turkish readers who wanted to know what was written in these newspapers ended up learning Armenian letters.
These innovations, largely led by Armenians, can of course be multiplied. For example. in the 19th century when a series of architects and constructors from the Balyan family built many buildings in Istanbul, Armenians who adopted the traditions and style of classical Turkish music and even changed the church music accordingly, raised great composers and musicians like Hamparsum, who composed many pieces with notes of his own invention.
The work being the translation of Catéchismed’ Économie Politique by J. B. Say and published in 1852 with the title İlm-i Tedbîr-i Menzil, is the first work about European economic theories published in the Ottoman Empire, and the translation was done by Armenian Sahak Abro Efendi who was a member of the Privy Council. Sahak Abro Efendi wrote a work titled Booklet on Life Histories of Famous Ministers in Europe upon the demand of Mustafa Reşid Pasha three years after this work, which popularized Adam Smith’s doctrine (Mardin, 1996: 265). Nine of the 33 permanent members in the list of founders of the Ottoman Science Organization, which was the first civil education institution, were Armenians.
Consequently, it is possible to say that Armenians benefitted the most from the blessings of the Tanzimat. It is obvious that their closeness to those who prepared the Tanzimat had a significant role in this. As for this closeness, it was because Armenians always constituted a wealthy community and most of them knew at least one foreign language let alone literacy. In the Tanzimat period, when the state was being restructured, many Armenians took advantage of the many opportunities that opened. All these counted should be seen as natural. Turks and Armenians maintained co-existence without any problems for many years in Empire lands. Armenians lived in tune with Turkish culture and life-style for centuries, adjusted to the environment they lived in and were influenced by Turkish language and literature. Therefore, even after a huge forced Armenian problem was created by provocations after the Treaty of San Stefano and the Berlin Treaty at the end of the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War, a large majority of Armenians had an attitude against these provocations let alone changing their positions. While Dikran Çuhacıyan composed marches reinforcing patriotic sentiments, Güllü Agop held on his theatre with a more strict discipline than before and continued his services in the Palace even after his theatre was shut down. Sakızlı Ohannes Pasha, while giving lectures on politics and economics in Mekteb-I Mülkiye on one side, came to the highest positions of the state on the other side and served as the Treasury Minister of Abdulhamid II for a total of 11 years.
Akyüz, Kenan (1979), Modern Türk Edebiyatının Ana Çizgileri (1860-1923) I. Ankara.
And, Metin (1972), Tanzimat ve İstibdât Döneminde Türk Tiyatrosu (1839-1908), Ankara.
Mardin, Şerif (1996), Yeni Osmanlı Düşüncesinin Doğuşu, Istanbul.