Turkish-Armenian Cultural Relations

There were cultural exchanges between the Turks and Armenians, who lived together for centuries during the Seljuk and Ottoman administrations. The “hemşehri” people, who lived side-by-side in city life in the same neighborhoods or different neighborhoods, took each other’s beliefs, understanding, language, and folklore and also developed common life practices in villages. The primary one among the factors that pushed the Armenians to be under the influence of the dominant element was the respectful and tolerant attitude of the Turkish administration as opposed to the pressure and massacres that they had experienced under the Byzantine administration and the Greeks. In addition, the possibilities that they obtained in the administrative, commercial, and social fields facilitated this interaction.

The cultural partnership of the two communities can be clearly seen in language, which is a natural means of communication that provides understanding between people. There are over 800 words in Turkish that were taken from Armenian and there are over 4,000 words in Armenian that were taken from Turkish. The memories of Turkish are still extant in the surnames of many Armenians who emigrated to the West as the name of a profession (e.g. Kuyumcuyan, meaning goldsmith) or place of origin (e.g. Maraşlıyan, meaning someone from Maraş). One can also observe that Turkish words are still used quite a lot in proper names. Male names such as Abbas, Ata, Aydın, Dadaş, Gurban, Jahangir, Khudaverdi, and Sarukhan were taken from significant Turkish and Islamic ancestors and they reflect concepts such as heroism and bravery. Many women’s names such as Azizgyul, Gyulizar, Huri, Malaksima, Nazik, Peri, Sevil, Zubeyda, and many others indicate flower names, which are associated with the Turkish grace and concepts such as seriousness, politeness, and valuableness. These names, which have a rich background in terms of history and culture, explain the place of their ancient neighbors in the minds of the Armenians (Tavukçu, 2013: 153). The changes in the provinces, where Turkish was spoken a bit differently, are also seen in the languages of both communities. Mıntzuri indicates that the Turks, Kurds and Armenians in the Erzincan region pronounce all the words that start with “k” as “ğ.” He gives the examples of names of places such as Ğuruçay, Ğarataş, Ağğaya, and Ğarakaya and words such as ğardaş, ğına gecesi, and ğocağarı, which are used in daily life (Mıntzuri, 1996: 33-36).

The impact of Turkish is also relected in Armenian literature. The Armenians, who spoke Turkish, which was the language of the dominant element, in their daily life, also published in this language. Many books on religious law and literary works, including Schütz’s prayer book of 1618 as the primary one among them, were written in Turkish with the Armenian alphabet. The fact that there are at least eight books that were written in Turkish with the Armenian alphabet on Nasreddin Hodja between the years 1837-1929 (Koz, 1994: 104) is a proof that the Hodja, who was one of the most important figures of the Turkish culture and thought, was accepted in the Armenian community to a great extent. Also many Armenian tombstones that were written in Turkish in cities such as Istanbul, Bursa, and Kayseri are still extant today. Akabi Story, which Vartan Pasha, who was one of the foundations of Turkish novel writing, wrote for the Armenians living in Istanbul, was printed in Turkish with Armenian alphabet. The reasons and grounds for the pasha writing his work in Turkish are important. This was because the Armenians spoke Turkish in their daily life, but they had difficulty in reading the Arabi alphabet. Although they leanred the Armenian letters at their own schools, they had difficulty in understanding the texs that were written in archaic Armenian. According to the Turkologist Tietze, the pasha himself did not like writing in Armenian either, he preferred the Armenian alphabet, which had been used for a long time, so that all the Armenians in Anatolia and Istanbul could read and understand it easily, but wrote his work in a way that was compatible with the daily Turlish language (Vartan pasha, 1991: IX-X).

The word “âşık” (lover), which was derived from the word “’ashq” (love) in Arabic and which was used to mean a folk poet (who plays a stringed instrument), is used as “âşug” in Armeinan language.   The Armenian aşuğs, which play in fairs, weddings, military parades, and cafes for entertainment purposes, prepared more than 400 works from the 12th century until the middle of 19th century. Most of these works among which there are Köroğlu, Aşık Garip, Kerem and Aslı, Şah İsmail and Gülizar, Melikşah and Güllü Hanım epics, were said in Armenian and Turkish, and some of them were only said in Turkish. In addition to Mesihî of Diyarbakir, who lived in the 16th century and who was good at writing in talik style calligraphy; Mirzacan, who was a 19th century poet and who wrote praises of the Turks and tasawwuf, and Sarkis Zeki of Sungurlu, who studied at a madrasah and who was most probably a darwish of Bektashi-Hurufi order, one can also list many Armenian folk poets from among the saz poets of Istanbul such as Darwish Hampar, Meydanî, Lenkiya, Sabriya, Enverî, Ahterî, Resmî, Aşık Şirinî, Namiya and others. Armenian Aşuğ Emir, who died in 1892, is famous for his poems that talk about the brotherhood of the Turks and Armenians and that they would rise if they supported each other (Göyünç, 2005: 120-122).

German Captain Moltke, who was in Turkey in 1830s, wrote that although the Greeks preserved their own characteristics more, the Armenians took more things from the customs and language of the Turks. He called the Armenians “Christian Turks” because of the similarities between the two communities. For example, the Armenian women were walking on the streets wearing covered clothing that left only the top of their noses and eyes visible. The basis of the meals they cooked in the Turkish style was mutton and rice pilov, and one of two meals was always a dessert (Moltke, s. 35-40). It is possible to list some of the common themes between the folk cultures of the Turkish and Armenian cultures as follows: sticking stones on the graves of martyrs or exalted people, kissing the walls and thresholds of sacred places, tying fabrics as votive offerings, decorating sacrificial animals, designing of top windows in village hose architecture, using churns to extract fat from milk, using margin pictures in book decoration art, wearing blue beads against the evil eye, playing flokloric games around nawroz fires, making tandoori bread, customs and rituals such as the use of crochet needle, spindle, scissors, weaver’s shuttle and comb in carpet and kilim weaving, women covering their mouths with a veil and images such as wheel of fortune, tree of life, and battering ram (Kalafat, 2004: 77-79).

Many details in the two communities that were similar to each other in terms of daily life such as the tools and methods used in agricultural activities, bread types such as thin bread, phyllo dough and large thin float bread, cheese and oil production techniques, other food cultures and the way they dressed were common. Little girls and boys wore long shirts and both women and men wore shalwars. Both men and women covered their heads to protect themselves from the heat. The following were the common elements of the Turkish and Armenian village life: a preference for spring water for drinking water and for cooking, showing special respect for bread, boiling milk before consuming it, using animal manure as fuel, nomadic life based on grazing the animals in the mountains and withdrawing to the valleys in the winters, designing of special rooms in barns for men to gather and the separation of the village square into two areas reserved for men and women (Matossian-Villa, 2006: 85-88).

It is clear that the borrowings of the Turkish and Armenian language from each other are comprehensive enough to cover the economic, social, and cultural aspects of the daily life. For example, the words hatıl, mertek, örtme, loğ, hapenk, cağ, which were used in house building techniques; the words herg, hozan, ağıl, kom, which are used in relation to agriculture and animal husbandry. On the other hand, the following are also common between the two communities: the phrase “smoldering of the chimney” meaning the continuity of a house together with the people in it, the belief in incubus happening to women after giving birth, the “bajilik” that was used for close friends, and the tradition of hab, which was a primitive and simple form of organizing a cooperative, which aimed at economic solidarity (Arıkan, 2003: 93-94).

Love affairs between the young people of the two communities were not few either. Although the difference in religion consitituted an obstacle for the young people to have a happy ending, their love, which was strong enough to convert to the other one’s religion, has been the subject of many folk songs. The lines Ya sen İslam ol ahçik/Ya ben olam Ermeni (Either you become a Muslim, or let me become an Armenian), which were sung by a Turkish youth from Antep for his Armenian lover, are an expression how strongly the loving hearts beat so as to eliminate the obstacle of religion. There were also customs taken from the Turks in Armenian weddings. For example, the women of the groom’s house used to send a big plate full of henna decorated with hazelnuts-nuts and fruits a few days before the wedding. Henna would be applied to the hands and feet of the bride and when it was ready to be removed, the bride would be taken to a hammam by her own relatives or the close relatives of the groom. She would be washed in the courtyard or near the tandoor oven if there was no hammam. After the bath stage, they would help her wear her wedding dress while singing. Also the following customs were common between the two people: covering of the face of the bride (veil), throwing seeds and fruits on the groom when he entered the house (scattering), relatives of the bride blocking the convoy of the groom and asking for a tip, having a celebration at the house of the bride (henna night), and displaying the bloody sheets or the slip of the bride as a proof of her virginity (Matossian-Villa, 2006: 112-113, 123-124).

Armenians have served in the spreading of some elements of the Turkish culture in the world. Armenian entrepreneurs had a big contribution in the transfer of Turkish coffee and coffee houses created in relation to that into Europe. For example, Armenians who wore Turkish clothes and turbans started to sell coffee in vending carts on the steets of Paris at the end of the 17th century. The Turkish style cafe near St. Germain, which is known as the first cafe of Paris, was opened by an Armenian named Pascal, who was an Ottoman citizen, in 1672. Later on Pascal went to England and his waiter opened the famous Café Procope, which is still extant. An Armenian named Maliban ran a coffee house on the busy streets of Paris (Braudel, 1993: 221). Around the same time, two Armenians named Isaac de Luca and Johannes Diodato started to sell Turkish coffee under an arch that was formed by two columns in Vienna. Armenian Hatalah opened a coffee shop in Prague in 1705 (Heise, 1996: 134-135). It is certain that while Armenian entrepreneurs introduced coffee to Europe, they taught the fine points of it to them.

Hundreds of musical works, which were written by Turkish poets and composed by Armenian artists, have reached the present day as classics. Composer Nikoğos Ağa took lessons from Ismail Dede Effendi and ihs student Dellalzade Ismail Effendi. What made Nikoğos Ağa to do this was the fact that the Armenian church music used the Turkish mode and methods. Nikoğos Ağa attended the Mawlawihanes (zawiyas of the Mawlawi order), called the adhan upon the request of the Sultan Abdulaziz, taught Turkish music to many people and his works were listened with appreciation by many Turks. All of this shows that the difference in religion and nation did not constitute a barrier for the sharing of artistic values. Composer Bimen Shen fascinated the imams, those people who memorized the Qoran and darwishes with the devotional songs he sang at the church when he was only seven. The three marching songs composed by Bimen Shen, who came to Istanbul after being convinced by Hajj Arif Bey, about the Çanakkale victory and the First World War are an expression of his fondness of the Turkish country and culture. The fact that Aleksan Ağa, Kemanî Tatyos and his student Oud players Arşak Çömlekçiyan, Levon Hancıyan, Sarı Onnik, Artaki Candan and many other Armenian composers are still listened to by the Turks with sincerity and respect is a proof that they have been adopted as their own. On the other hand, the shows of Güllü Agop and Magakyan, Mınakyan, who were pioneers of the Ottoman theatre, which was one of the important breakthroughs of the Tanzimat era, and many others were watched with interest. Armenian theatre companies displayed Turkish shows in which Turkish and Armenian artists shared the roles. There is no person who does not admire the way the Armenian actors and actresses use Turkish in Turkish cinema and the Turkish characters they played. Again numerous architectural works created by dawshirma[1] Armenians such as Sinan, Davud Ağa and Kasım Ağa and those Armenians who remained Christians such as the Balyan family moved the Turkish art and thought to the higest peaks.


[1] Boys collected from Christian families in the European territories of the Ottoman Empire, conscripted and raised in Istanbul to become Janissary soldiers.  


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