The Roles of the Schools in the Construction of the Armenian National Identity

Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire did not engage in an initiation of opening schools until the end of 18th century. Although the existence of some institutions for religious education in their churches was known, formal education belonging to their communities opened after the 1790s. Before this date, Armenian families sent their children to schools of Muslim and Greek communities in the Ottoman Empire (Öntuğ, 2008: 354-356). After the Reformation in 1856, Armenians also started to open their own schools like other non-Muslims and constructed many schools in a short amount of time (Ergin, 1977: 759-760). The Ottoman Empire implemented the same freedom of education to the Armenian nation as like other nations. The Armenian community, which lived side-by-side with Muslims for many years, developed good relations with Muslims until they opened their own schools and they were engaged in social and cultural life together. This situation continued to exist in the first years after they opened their own schools. However, schools opened by foreigners in the Ottoman Empire started to be influential, in a short amount of time, on non-Muslim elements of the Ottoman Empire. The nation whose community schools were less in comparison to its population among the non-Muslims was Armenians. The Gregorian Armenian community, which highly benefitted from foreign schools and their institutions, separated into Catholic and Protestant communities as a result of consistent propaganda. The Ottoman Empire recognized firstly the Catholic and then the Protestant Armenian Church apart from Gregorian Armenians. The fact that the Armenian nation was divided into three was a great advantage for foreign missionaries. Now, the necessary environment to be able to influence a new generation of Armenians and separate them from the Ottomans was prepared.

There were two main factors forcing the Gregorian Armenian community to make new initiations on the issue of schools. The first of these was educational activities conducted by American Protestant missionaries in the schools that they opened in Anatolia, and the second was the political conflict which occurred in the Gregorian Armenian community of Istanbul. At the end of this struggle, Armenians who got their education in the West started to be dominant in the Armenian community. Those who had gotten their education in the West started to be influential on the issue of education as opposed to the traditional Armenian clergy class (Somel, 2003: 393-394). Armenian nationalism started to increase in Armenian schools after the Berlin Congress of 1878. Cultural associations which were fragmented before were united in 1880 and the General Unity of Armenian Schools was founded. This institution became influential in many issues such as determining the schedule of Armenian schools and appointing the teachers to work in these schools.

Gregorian Armenians opened many schools in the Ottoman Empire. Those who were Protestant or Catholic also gave importance to education and they also started to open schools. A majority of the schools opened were without license. As far as it is understood from the official correspondences, they also did everything possible not to get a license. According to the report on Foreign Schools in Ottoman Lands prepared by the Education Minister of the Ottoman Empire, Ahmed Zühtü Pasha, in 1894 towards the end of 19th century, there are 427 foreign schools and 4,547 community schools in the Ottoman Empire. 498 of these community schools had a license and the other 4,049 did not have a license (Tozlu, 1991: 76-78). The state was insufficient in controlling the community schools which did not have licenses. Community schools, in a short amount of time, became education institutions where non-Muslims taught their own history and cultures, the idea of independence was planted in the youth, and which became tools for the politics of foreign states for their national independence. The Armenian youth studying in these schools were influential in the emergence of Armenian nationalism in later years.

The Ottoman Empire took some precautions to protect Muslim children studying in foreign schools and schools of non-Muslims from their dangerous activities (Öntuğ, 2007: 325-326). Article 129 of General Education Regulations of 1869 especially targeted at controlling schools of foreigners and communities in the Ottoman Empire. This article required that diplomas of school teachers, a list of courses to be taught in the schools and course books were approved by the Education Ministry of the Ottoman Empire (Vahapoğlu, 1997: 122-124). However, when it is looked at the application, it is understood from offers and bills presented to the state that very few of these were actually implemented (Bulut-Birol, 2006: p. 1-11). Nevertheless, when it came to the 20th century, the number of Armenian community schools was almost 1000. The number of Armenian schools in 1874 was 520. In 1900, 81,222 students took education in 813 Armenian schools (Çalık, 2000: 109). The number of Armenian schools increased by 64% in 25 years. Although the Ottoman Empire had difficulty in controlling the schools rapidly increasing in number, they always presented a positive attitude in the opening of new schools.

In the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, licence applications of Armenians to construct new schools in different parts of the Ottoman Empire were accepted (Öntuğ, 2009: 268). The current community schools without a license were given a license by the Education Ministry and the course schedules of the schools were left to patriarchs and the metropolitan bishops they were subject to. After the applications about military services came from the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs and the Bulgarian Exarchy, and later on the ministries of the Greek Melkit, the Catholic and Keldani Patriarch, the military service part of the regulations made on 5 November 1911 constituted of 11 articles. The one related to community schools is 17 articles. Some of these articles are: The license of current schools and new schools to be opened will be given by local education director; Course schedule will be arranged and approved by the patriarchate and metropolitan bishops; the approval of teachers’ faculty and expertise will be done by the patriarchate and the office of the metropolitan bishop and the license paper to be given to the teachers by these offices will be approved by the Education Ministry and education directors. Education inspector can inspect a school upon the notice of clergy leader responsible to the government. The degrees given to the graduates of the community schools will be in both Turkish and their own language and the degrees organized as shown in the figure will be valid. In public fund a share is spared for community schools and this money will be sent to community leaders in case of need. Community leaders can collect money for the schools if needed. (See BOA. DH. ID, nr. 69-2/10 for the complete Regulations). Therefore, Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire in a free environment where they were administered by their own communities and got an education in their own language. The fact that Ottoman Empire responded positively to the demands of Armenians to open schools between the years 1908-1916 when it was dealing with wars is evidence of its tolerance for the people on freedom of education. In the same time period, Russia closed down Armenian schools in Caucasia in 1885, banned Etchmiyazin Catholic Churches and seized their properties and estates. Russia was not satisfied with these and also pressured Armenians saying, “Either become the subjects of Russia or abandon Russian lands” (Kılıç, 2001: 38).

When the end of the 19th century came, Armenians were not loyal to the state anymore, unlike before, and started a struggle to establish a separate state, the “Great Armenia.” Indisputably, the foreign schools had a great impact on this. The protector of the Orthodox from non-Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire was Russia; the protectors of the Catholics were France and Austria; and the protectors of the Protestants were Britain and America. These countries gave the opportunity to children of all nations no matter which religions they were from to get education in the foreign schools that they opened. Latin schools opened by Catholic Jesuits and Protestant schools of the USA were the most popular foreign schools among the Armenians. The USA conducted the missionary activities in Anatolia through ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions). ABCFM established a wide range of school networks, especially in Eastern Anatolia, within the conditions of the age (Kocabaşoğlu, 1991: 16-17). This point was different from the education of Muslim and Christian schools in the region. Especially ABCFM schools had very significant impacts on Armenians in terms of cultural, intellectual, and political spheres. These schools gave education meant for Armenian female students. In this way, the rate of literacy among Armenians girls in Eastern Anatolia rapidly increased. Also American missionaries contributed to the development of the Gregorian Armenian education (Somel, 2003: 396-397). Armenians started to demonstrate a negative approach against the Ottoman administration as a result of the education they got in these new modern educational institutions. A new generation of Armenian youth who had grown up in ABCFM schools moved away from the Ottoman social and cultural life (Fendoğlu, 2003: 456-459). Thus, a great separation took place between the two societies which had lived together with mutual values for centuries.

American schools and their institutions, which were constructed especially in cities and towns where Armenians lived in Anatolia after the 1850s, raised Armenian youth up with revolutionist ideas and caused Armenian youth to be anti-Turk in the future. For example, it is possible to read from the intelligence reports on Armenian events prepared by the Gendarme Minister Hüseyin Nazım Pasha in 1890 that American missionary school in Bitlis deceived Armenian youth who came to study there from the Bitlis region and how this school made these youth rebels against the Ottoman Empire (Ermeni Olayları Tarihi, 1994: 174).

The activities of the Hunchakian organization were administered by Merzifon American College for years. 11 of 32 teachers in the college were Armenians in 1913. 200 of 425 students in the college were Greek, 160 of them were Armenian, 40 of them were Russian, and only 25 of these students were Turk (Şişman, 2006: 66). Merzifon American College provided all kinds of support to Greek and Armenians guerrilla groups. The teachers of the school constantly provoked the students against the Ottoman Empire. Students who graduated from this school and other foreign schools similar to this became teachers in the schools of their community and had a significant role in the construction of the national identity of Greek and Armenian youth. Some of Armenian revolutionists and defenders were educated in this college. Armenian organizations founded outside of the country, such as Hunchak and Dashnaksutyun, also chose Merzifon College for their divisive-destructive activities. These organizations first tried to suppress Armenians loyal to the state in the region and those not betraying the state were killed. The Ottoman Empire protected the orphans of these murdered Armenians and tried to show that they protect those who serve the country with loyalty. It was also understood that Merzifon College was also behind the attempt of uprising that was attempted to be broken out in the Merzifon region at the beginning of the year 1893 (Polat, 1990: 139). As a result of the investigation by the Sivas governorship to sort out the events, it was determined that the declarations and posters in the 1893 events were published in the printing house of Merzifon American College and that the school raised the Armenian children as anti-government. This situation resulted in the issue of decisions that the Internal Affairs Minister Halil Rıfat Pasha proposed to the government for some precautions to control and inspect foreign schools. Especially after the foreign missionaries started to educate Muslims and non-Muslims who were under Ottoman rule against the state through the schools they opened in Anatolia, Sultan Abdulhamid II asked Şakir Pasha, who was the Anatolia Reformation General Inspector of the time, to investigate the situation on the site and report the results to him in the shortest amount of time. Sakir Pasha prepared a report and sent this to the Sultan in 1898. In this report, to summarize, it was written that foreign schools and community schools should be completely closed down due to their dangerous activities or they should be kept under tight control by the state and also Turkish Art Schools should be opened in Eastern Anatolia (Akyüz, 2001: 222). It is seen that similar reports about the need to control and inspect foreign and community schools were also prepared in later years. In a document prepared in 1899, it was asked that precautions be taken such as that the state open primary and high schools in 13 provinces due to the increase in the interest for foreign schools, and that Muslim and non-Muslim students are made obligatory to attend these schools and are given a free education. Issues like the need for a deep examination of the course schedules of foreign and minority schools, making sure that the necessary courses are taught in Turkish, and supplying inspectors who are fluent in the foreign language during the inspections of the schools were also mentioned in the document (Öntuğ, 2009: 272). Unfortunately, all these offers and others similar to these could not go beyond being suggestions presented to the state and foreign and minority schools continued to educate non-Muslim youth no matter what their nation or religion was, especially Armenians, against the Ottoman Empire.


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