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The Hidden Pages of Turkish History: Hamshen Armenians

January 11, 2014

The Hamshenis are an isolated geographic group of Armenians with a strong ethnic identity who, until the early decades of the twentieth century, inhabited the Pontus area on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Scholars hold alternative views on their origin, proposing Eastern Armenia, Western Armenia, and Central Asia, respectively, as their most likely homeland. To ascertain whether genetic data from the nonrecombining portion of the Y chromosome are supportive of any of these suggestions, we screened 82 Armenian males of Hamsheni descent for 12 biallelic and 6 microsatellite Y-chromosomal markers. These data were compared with the corresponding data set from the representative populations of the three candidate regions. Genetic difference between the Hamshenis and other groups is significant and backs up the hypothesis of the Armenian origin of the Hamshenis, indicating central historical Armenia as a homeland of the ancestral population. This inference is further strengthened by the results of admixture analysis, which does not support the Central-Asian hypothesis of the Hamshenis' origin. Genetic diversity values and patterns of genetic distances suggest a high degree of genetic isolation of the Hamshenis consistent with their retention of a distinct and ancient dialect of the Armenian language.   Published in Wayne State University

The Hamshenis are an isolated geographic group of Armenians with a strong ethnic identity who, until the early decades of the twentieth century, inhabited the Pontus area on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Scholars hold alternative views on their origin, proposing Eastern Armenia, Western Armenia, and Central Asia, respectively, as their most likely homeland. To ascertain whether genetic data from the nonrecombining portion of the Y chromosome are supportive of any of these suggestions, we screened 82 Armenian males of Hamsheni descent for 12 biallelic and 6 microsatellite Y-chromosomal markers. These data were compared with the corresponding data set from the representative populations of the three candidate regions. Genetic difference between the Hamshenis and other groups is significant and backs up the hypothesis of the Armenian origin of the Hamshenis, indicating central historical Armenia as a homeland of the ancestral population. This inference is further strengthened by the results of admixture analysis, which does not support the Central-Asian hypothesis of the Hamshenis’ origin. Genetic diversity values and patterns of genetic distances suggest a high degree of genetic isolation of the Hamshenis consistent with their retention of a distinct and ancient dialect of the Armenian language.
Published in Wayne State University

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The origin of Hamshen people goes back to Ardaz province in North Vasburagan region. Vasburagan spanned between Van Lake (Turkey) and Urmya Lake (Iran) and it was considered the heartland of the Armenian Kingdom for many centuries.

The Amadouni family is one of the oldest Armenian Princedoms in the Ardaz region. They were very proud and courageous people specialized in agriculture and architecture. In the 8th century, Prince Hamam and his father Prince Shabuh Amadouni were forced to leave their lands in Ardaz(Vasburagan) under the pressure of the Arab Invasion.

The 2 Princes along with their priests, people and soldiers moved to the Black Sea Region where they settled in the destroyed City of Tambur and its surrounding villages (currently Hemshin and Chamli Hemshin). Prince Hamam rebuilt the city of Tambur and called it Hamamshen (which in Armenian means Hamam’s city) and over the years Hamamshen became Hamshen in Armenian and Hemshin in Turkish.Here it should be noted that Shabuh Amaduni’s great grandfather was Vahan Amaduni whose grave still exists until today in the town of Oshagan in Armenia.

The Princes of Hamshen include:

  1. Prince Hamam (c. 700)
  2. Prince Arakel (c. 1400)
  3. Prince Tavit 1 (c. 1425)
  4. Prince Vart (c. 1440)
  5. Prince Veke (c. 1460)
  6. Prince Tavit II (last prince)

slide-43-728slide-44-728Hamam’s people were known as Hamshentsis (Hemshinli in Turkish). For many centuries, their region witnessed a lot of tragedies and bloodshed but due to the strong will of the people and the geography of the territory, they preserved their Armenian identity, traditions, culture, religion and language for many centuries.

Until the 14th century, Hamshen was a kingdom and was ruled by its princes.

With the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, the problems of Hamshen increased. The Ottomans tried with all their powers to convert the local population into Muslim Turks. They either lured the people to waive the taxes for each convert or they used military power to force the conversion. The Hamshentsis were very proud and religious people so the Ottomans had to revert to forceful conversion.

A lot of clashes happened in the Hamsheni villages between the 15th and 19th centuries. Many Hamsheni families left to Karadere where they stayed for another century then had to either migrate again or convert.
In the 18th century, a large group of the Hamshentsis left Hamshen and settled in valleys of Hopa, Borcka and Artvin. These villages still exist until today where the villagers have kept their language.

During the Armenian genocide in 1915, the Hamshentsis paid the price too. Many of them were arrested and deported while others were killed in their cities and villages.

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Scholarly research says that the Islamization process of the Hamshens began in the 1700s. Many scattered to settlements along the Black Sea Coast – Trabzon, Ordu, etc – to avoid religious conversion. There are no records preserved from that period as to why and how they converted to Islam. All such information was recorded some 100-150 years later.

As it is mentioned above, the Hamshen people today can be divided into three main groups: The Christian Armenian Hamshens, who live in Abkhazia and Russia’s Krasnodar District. They speak the Hamshen Armenian dialect; the Sunni Muslim Armenian-speaking Hamshens, (Hopa-Hamshens) who live in the Hopa and Borçka regions of the Turkish province of Artvin and call themselves, Hamshetsi or Homshetsi; and Sunni Muslim Turkish-speaking Hamshens (Bash-Hamshens) who mostly live in the Turkish province of Rize and call themselves, Hamshil. “Hopa-Hamshens have lost the religion and many traditions, they have taken everything from the Turkish environment, but have preserved their own language, and it is due to that language that they know about their Armenian roots, many consider themselves Armenian.

A film dedicated to the current state of the descendants of the Armenians of Hamshen (Hamshentsis); a people who were forcibly Islamicized (‘Turkified’) by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Today, they live primarily in the provinces of Rizeh and Artvin, as well as in Istanbul and other large cities in Turkey.  The film presents unique episodes from the history and culture of the once powerful Armenian Principality of Hamshen, and the practice of Islamization, a form of ethnic cleansing. Based on material shot on location, the present-day culture of the Hamshentsis is chronicled: their songs and dances, customs, linguistic situation, as well as their everyday life and occupations, conceptions of their own identity, and the demographic picture.

A film dedicated to the current state of the descendants of the Armenians of Hamshen (Hamshentsis); a people who were forcibly Islamicized (‘Turkified’) by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. The film presents unique episodes from the history and culture of the once powerful Armenian Principality of Hamshen, and the practice of Islamization, a form of ethnic cleansing. Based on material shot on location, the present-day culture of the Hamshentsis is chronicled: their songs and dances, customs, linguistic situation, as well as their everyday life and occupations, conceptions of their own identity, and the demographic picture.

This shows that any community, having lost everything else, but having preserved the language, will not merge and can always return to its roots,” says Ishkhanyan. Ishkhanyan’s guides were his Turkish colleagues, Cemil Aksu, President of the Bir Yaşam (One Life) Cultural and Environmental Organization, and Harun Aksu. 63 year-old Cemal Vayiç, (the father-in-law of Hopa researcher Cemil Aksu) considers himself Hamshen, says he knew the language since childhood and wants to preserve it. “We knew that language as young kids and want to preserve it. We aren’t renouncing our identity. I will live as a Hamshen till the end. We know that the Hamshens are descended from Armenians.

If Armenians visit and relate with us more often, we will be able to improve our language skills.” says Cemal Vayiç. At his house all present told that before going to school they did not know Turkish and spoke only Hamshesnak. They learnt Turkish at school. Aksu says the assimilation policy of Hopa-Hamshens started in the 1980s and the Hamshen dialect gradually gave in to the Turkish language. At the revolutionary Hayteh Bar owned by Harun Aksu, Ishkhanyan meets Mumi Yılmaz. As soon as they step foot into the bar he holds out his hand in welcome and says – I’m also Armenian. “We know about your cause, we are of the same blood,” he says.When asked how he knew he was Armenian without knowing anything about the history, Yilmaz responds: “I don’t need to know the history to say that I’m Armenian. My grandfather is my history. 0bfBgVxpEwkHe told me that it’s the truth. Whatever I know comes from him. My grandfather came down from the mountains to sell whatever he had, a bit of milk, oil, whatever. They caught him, called him Armenian, and bashed his head in. They stole his belongings, his horse, everything.Before, in the mountains, they made our life miserable. We were hungry. When we came down they beat us constantly. They singled us out as Armenians. But now we’ve come down and they can’t persecute us anymore“.

406854_2868317979437_1004431565_2950438_1137861015_nA shop owner glows upon learning that the reporter was Armenian and asks whether people in Armenia know about them. Then he adds “Eh…we sold our religion. We sold our Christianity and became Muslims.” Even those Hamshens who avoid calling themselves Armenian and regard themselves as Turks can’t escape the scorn heaped upon them by the other peoples of the region, calling them ermeni (“Armenian” in Turkish) in contempt. As opposed to Hopa-Hamshens, who accept their Armenian identity, Turkish-speaking Bash-Hamshens deny their Armenian descent, but celebrate Vardavar (an Armenian Christian holiday with elements dating back to pre-Christian era) and bury the deceased in coffins, unlike Muslims who only use a shroud. “If you ask a Hamshentsi what he is, he will answer “Hamshen’. If you then ask what a Hamshen is, he’s at a loss.

418858_2925932899774_1004431565_2971866_2138030064_nIn this country, not calling yourself a Turk is an act of courage,” says Bash-Hamshen Selçuk Güney, who owns the guesthouse in Samsun. Ishkhanyan writes that on the one hand the Turkish authorities made up their version of history to cut the Hamshens from their Armenian roots, while on the other hand the local government and residents of other Muslim nationalities called Hopa-Hamshens Armenian and oppressed them, which made them preserve their language and their Armenian descent as a form of resistance. They had two ways out: resist and remain the “the cursed ones”, adopting the ideology of oppressed masses, i.e. communism, or become more catholic than the “the Roman Pope, i.e. Turkish nationalists”. “Leftists (Marxists) are very courageous, when they learnt I was Armenian, they would come up, talk to me without fear. Others, who are now facing their Armenian identity issue, were very friendly, but asked not to record their names as soon as I was about to take notes.

hemin_kzThey asked not to cite them, they were scared. I saw that in Turkey people are afraid because of their Armenian descent, maybe in Istanbul it is not so, but in Hamshen it was,” says Iskhanyan. He also speaks about the Hamshesnak (the Hamshen dialect is referred to as such in most scientific researches) and says if one listens to it carefully Armenian words can be detected and after some getting-used-to it becomes clear that it is Armenian. And it is probably not accidental that Yılmaz Topaloğlu, former mayor of Hopa, told him: “I feel uncomfortable conversing through a translator. We can speak that language fairly well, but sadly we’ve been subjected to assimilation and various pressures. That’s why we have difficulty understanding each other.” 407303_2926001501489_1004431565_2971881_1929137832_n“The language he refers to is Armenian. Yılmaz wouldn’t say such a thing to anyone else in the world except for an Armenian who speaks it – ‘I feel uncomfortable conversing through a translator’,” writes Ishkhanyan. In the end, Ishkhanyan answers the question: “Who are they?” “They’ve demolished the Hamshen Kachikar Church so that no traces are left. You won’t find it.

The unknown location of the church symbolizes the destruction of the Black Sea Armenians. Successive Turkish regimes have dug down deep to eradicate all Armenian roots so that none ever grows again. But one stubborn branch, long overlooked, has sprouted again, trembling with fear. The Armenian words that flutter from the lips of this 30,000 Muslim community is the last vestige of a past when Armenians once lived on the Turkish shores of the Black Sea stretching out into Anatolia and residing as indigenous cultures prior to the Ottoman Empire. .”

“Paternal lineage analysis supports an Armenian rather than a Central Asian Genetic origin of the Hamshenis.” Human Biology 84:4 (August 2012): pages 405-422. As expected, this study found that the Hamsheni people who lived in the Pontus region along the southern Black Sea coast and speak an ancient dialect of Armenian are descended from ethnic Armenians. Many Hamshenis profess Islam, whereas most Armenians proper are Christians. The geneticists tested three hypotheses for Hamsheni origins: origin in eastern Armenia, origin in western Armenia, or origin in Central Asia. 82 Hamsheni males had their Y-DNA evaluated and compared with people who live in those regions. According to the abstract, “central historical Armenia” was the original homeland of the Hamsheni people.

Hamshen history is mixed with blood and tragedy but it’s the history of  courageous and proud people who continue to remain loyal to their roots and ancestors.

YouTube link with several clips on Hamshen (including songs):
http://www.youtube.com/user/Vashdonoglu

A selection of 6 Hamshen songs in the “Dzayn Hamshenakan” website
http://www.dzaynhamshenakan.org/songs.html

Accoring to the research by Vahan Ishkhanyan and my research

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