The Ottoman Armenian Merchant from Arapkir

(The following is a guest post by Levon Avdoyan, Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The opening page of Poghos Garabedian’s memoirs and genealogy. African and Middle Eastern Division.

The opening page of Poghos Garabedian’s memoirs and genealogy. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Poghos Garabedian started his personal memoirs with a flourish. Within the next 41 pages, this merchant in the Ottoman Empire – originally from Arapkir in the region of Malatya, Turkey – would detail his extensive mercantile travels to Constantinople, the Crimea, Arapkir and Eastern Europe. He would also, in good patriarchal fashion, advise his children on the way to be good merchants, Christians and Armenians. Garabedian also details his days as the purveyor of the pantry in the Khedive’s court in Cairo. Last, he describes the donations he has made to Armenian institutions in Constantinople, Arapkir and many of the other places he has journeyed.

The Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division recently acquired this manuscript, which was created in Cairo around 1877 and was written in what the Armenians call hayatar Turkeren (Turkish in Armenian letters) – now known as Armeno-Turkish. Curiously, Garabedian appends a family genealogy on pages 41-45, written in Armenian with Arabic numerals. Why this dichotomy? Could it have been that Garabedian intended the memoirs for a broad audience of both Armenians and others, while he realized the genealogy would be of interest only to Armenians?

Armeno-Turkish is a phenomenon in the Ottoman Empire that started in the early 18th century and lasted well into the mid-20th century. These works – hand-written manuscripts, published books, newspapers, journals, serials and pamphlets – were literally written in the Turkish language but with the use of the Armenian rather than the prevalent Arabic script. The simplistic explanation has always been that Armenians who knew Turkish used Armeno-Turkish but not when it was written in the Arabic script. Recently, scholarship has debunked this explanation and has revealed its use as a separate and creative phenomenon. Works written and published in Armeno-Turkish were known and used not only to Armenians but also to Ottoman intellectuals and functionaries.

Engraving of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte from Hovsep Vartanian’s two-volume history. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Engraving of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte from Hovsep Vartanian’s two-volume history. African and Middle Eastern Division.

The Library’s growing collection of Armeno-Turkish works includes a two-volume history of Napoleon Bonaparte by Hovsep Vartanian, which gives us a potential answer. During the course of a lecture he delivered in Yerevan, Armenia, in 2014, Murat Cankara of the Social Sciences University of Ankara theorized that Vartanian was also the author of the anonymous Armeno-Turkish “Akabi Hikayesi,” the first novel published in the Ottoman Empire. (Alas, the Library only has a 1991 edition of this seminal work). What was especially intriguing, however, was Cankara’s translation of a passage from the history of Napoleon in which Vartanian discussed his reasons for using Armeno-Turkish.

“Before we conclude, a reservation comes to mind: there will also be people who ask ‘in any event, wouldn’t our mother tongue, the Armenian language be preferable for writing such a history?’ Our humble answer to them [is this]: Turkish or Armenian, whatever the language is, in order to be able to benefit from reading such a history one should have studied thoroughly either of these languages. As a matter of fact, the number of those who are familiar with classical Armenian is quite limited and vernacular Armenian’s rules have not been established as yet, so writing a book in this language necessitates using words from Classical Armenian in every line. And in order to understand a book written in the vernacular, one needs to take on the burden of learning classical Armenian. It seems also that some Ottoman Armenians from that same period advocated the use of the Armenian script over the Arabic for much the same reasons.”

The Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II and his son Sultan Abdülaziz. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II and his son Sultan Abdülaziz. Prints and Photographs Division.

Whatever the reasons for its use, works in Armeno-Turkish span several disciplines, although the preponderance of them are either translated or original religious works and of those, most are of the New Testament. The Library of Congress’s expanding collection includes inter alia, novels, histories, philosophical and geographic works, almanacs, veterinary studies, dictionaries and newspapers. Researchers may find a comprehensive list in our online catalog by entering the key word “armeno-turkish.”

This discreet collection of materials, which is housed in the Near East Section complements other collections in the Library of Congress that testify to the important role of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. One such collection in the custody of the Prints and Photographs Division has also been fully digitized and made available to the public. The album presented to the United States by Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918) consists of photographs of the Ottoman Empire taken by his court photographers, who were three Armenian brothers known collectively as Abdullah frère.

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