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Place, Belonging and History: Reflections on the Ottoman Armenian Past and Heritage

An interview with Vahé Tachjian
Lieux, appartenances et histoire : réflexions sur le passé et le patrimoine arménien ottoman
Vahé Tachjian, Boris Adjemian et Vazken Davidian
p. 209-227


Vahé Tachjian est historien et a publié de nombreux travaux sur la vie des rescapés du génocide des Arméniens et la formation de nouvelles communautés diasporiques arméniennes au Proche Orient après la Grande Guerre. Depuis 2010, il a été le co-directeur et le rédacteur en chef du projet Houshamadyan, basé à Berlin, qui vise à faire revivre la vie culturelle et matérielle des Arméniens ottomans avant le génocide. Dans cet entretien, il expose son appréciation de la notion de homeland et évalue son importance à la fois dans sa pratique historienne et dans sa propre expérience diasporique.

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Notes de la rédaction

Vahé Tachjian is a historian and the author of numerous books and articles on Armenian survivors of the genocide and the genesis of post-genocide Armenian communities in the Middle East. Based in Berlin, he has since 2010 been the co-director and chief editor of Houshamadyan, a project aiming to revive the material and cultural life of Ottoman Armenians prior to and after the genocide. His latest book, Daily Life in the Abyss: Genocide Diaries, 1915-1918 (New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2017) is an attempt at providing a social history of survival during the Armenian genocide.

Texte intégral

  • 1 See for instance V. Tachjian, 2012.
  • 2 V. Tachjian, 2017 (a).

Études arméniennes contemporaines Vahé Tachjian, your own research, as a historian, has for some time led you to consider Armenian communities within their specific territories, particularly in Cilicia1. You have, for a while, been reflecting upon a body of memory books – the houshamadyans – published about such places by their former Armenian inhabitants. Your most recent book deals with the experience of Armenian Cilician deportees from Ayntab in Western Syria during the genocide2. Through the diaries of two deportees, Father Nerses Tavoukdjian and the young Krikor Bogharian, you underline the importance of the deportees’ relationship to their place of origin, to their local community, as a key element of their survival. Reciprocally, you show that the loss of these social and cultural points of reference had worsened the situation of the deportees dramatically. What does homeland mean to you, at a personal level? How would you define it? And what importance do you grant to this notion in your own work as a historian?

Vahé Tachjian – My first contacts with the concept of Heimat/homeland send me back to my childhood in Lebanon, my birthplace. As Heimat/homeland I understand here the place (village, town, city, region) of origin of someone or of a group of persons and not the more general and national idea of homeland/fatherland/hayrenik. I remember that my father used to host, at the end of each year, a group of men, most of them with thick, full black moustaches. That day my dad was always in a very good mood. He called these people hayrenagits or sometimes in Turkish hemsheri, which means compatriot. They were members of the Ourfa compatriotic union, and they were at our house to sell their association’s yearly calendar. My father liked to make jokes with our guests in the Ourfa Armenian dialect; sometimes the whole conversation was in that language, which I didn’t understand too well. Every year the calendar was illustrated with images of the old city of Ourfa and its famous places. These are images that I have never seen in my school textbooks or in other readily available books on Armenian history, and they transformed Ourfa into a non-place, an inaccessible nowhere; yet I know it was familiar; it was my father’s homeland, and so I tried to consider it my own. One year they published the images of the heroes of Ourfa’s resistance (herosabadoum) in 1915. Our neighbour and courtyard friend, Nerses Rastgelenian, told me that the skinny young man with curly long hair and cartridge belts slung over his shoulders was his grandfather (I may not be remembering right; maybe he was a very close relative). Nerses was not boasting; my father corroborated what he said. I know I was upset, as I also considered myself an ourfatsi, with the difference that we did not have such a hero in our family. I wanted to know more about that young fighter in the picture, but the ourfatsi hero was nowhere to be found in all the books narrating the Armenian revolutionaries, and fedayees’ fights that I had seen in my school library; for me, he was simply an unsung hero from a nowhereland. There was another issue with Ourfa, which I was confronted with when I was an adolescent. My dad’s birthplace was not within the frontiers of Armenia in all the maps that were displayed in my school, in Armenian clubs, or in the Armenian newspapers of the day. I’m not referring here to the map of Soviet Armenia, but to the territories that were claimed from Turkey by Armenian political parties and that they considered to be part of a future unified Armenia. Of course, this was another disappointment, reinforcing the feeling of strangeness, nowhereness, unbelongingness that I had towards Ourfa, my homeland.

To be honest, it took me a long time, a very long time, to put all these pieces together and to understand that, within the Armenian national community of Lebanon, there were different perceptions of the Armenian homeland, sometimes complementary and sometimes clashing. First, there was the “official” Armenian homeland, which was associated with a national homogeneous culture with its different branches: language, music, dance, literature, history. I grew up in the environment of the official culture and I was heavily influenced by it. Then there was the culture of the outsiders, the subculture, the culture whose many features were not accepted by those who had the privilege of imagining the identity of a nation and who laid down national rules accordingly. My personal environment too was closely associated with these cultures, but it was a parallel world; in my day, it was already a world in decline and in the process of disappearing. I’m referring here to the Ottoman Armenian legacy, the multifaceted cultural heritage that the Armenian refugees brought with them to Lebanon. This was an immensely rich and diverse culture, constituted by the daily habits and the way of life of the homeland or, more precisely, of the many homelands (Adana, Kharpert, Yozgat, Ourfa, Marash, Diyarbekir, Hadjin, etc.) that Armenian refugees naturally tried to reconstruct in their new host country. Unfortunately, the national reconstruction process inaugurated by the Armenians in Lebanon from the 1920s on was based on the opposition between, on the one hand, the creation of a culturally homogeneous community, and on the other, the refugees’ cultural diversity. This resulted in the pariahisation of some important features of the Heimat culture and the marginalisation of many others. To put it differently, an oppressive, intolerant ideological environment represents a real danger to the preservation of cultural diversity, which is the essence of the Heimat (in this case we need to say Heimats) idea. My research for the last few years looks at the question of the Heimat idea in this particular perspective.

EAC – You are the chief editor of, an online project aiming to recreate a multi-faceted record of Ottoman Armenian town and village life. Launched in Berlin in 2010, this project has succeeded in reaching a wide audience both within and outside Armenian circles, and in various social spheres including the academic. The Houshamadyan project has also started to publish books, gathering the competences and expertise of various specialists (historians, art historians, architects, artists, etc.). For a historian and/or a social scientist to venture professionally into non-academic fields and networks is quite a rare and original feat. It appears that the endeavour is bearing fruit with Houshamadyan stimulating new bridges between scholarly research, the arts and a wide and diverse audience. How do you see the connection between this project and your own academic production? How does benefit from your historical expertise? Reciprocally, how has the Houshamadyan project influenced your practice and the manner in which you question the past and present as a historian? In other words, how does your everyday experience with families and individuals willing to share their stories and treasured objects and then see them published online affect your métier d’historien?

Vahé Tachjian – There is no doubt that, for the last ten years, the themes that I have chosen for my research, my articles and book projects are all, more or less, related to the world of It’s true that the project has immersed me in a hectic work setting and I must admit that I have become less productive when it comes to publication outside the framework of the website, although the project of Houshamadyan is already entirely an academic (among others) production and may be the biggest achievement of my scholarly career. My daily work on this project is opening my eyes to new research perspectives. For example, I have finished a long article on reconstructing a family life, based on letters exchanged between family members, some of whom were in Kharpert while the others were in the United States in pre-Genocide period. Another article, which I co-authored with a colleague, is about the evolution of Armenian church architecture from the Ottoman Empire to the Diaspora. Now, I have started working on an extensive research project dealing with the Ottoman Armenian legacy in Lebanon among the refugee population in post-Genocide period. There are many other subjects which could become research projects of mine in the future: Ottoman Armenian music; Ottoman Armenian photographers; Ottoman Armenian religious sects, etc. I find that all these subjects are stimulating and innovative to research; they are all products of the special environment of the Houshamadyan project.

The Houshamadyan project provides me an ideal opportunity to perceive the large world of Ottoman Armenians better. The geographical area that our study covers is very broad, stretching from Bursa to Van, from Aleppo to Amasya, from Jerusalem to Erzurum, from Rodosto to Adana, and thus covering a large part of the huge Ottoman Empire. My everyday work on historical materials covering this whole area naturally increases my knowledge of the general situation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. This kind of broader insight is very important when it comes to studying the local daily life and histories of specific areas of the Empire, or to dealing with the family microhistories. It makes it possible to situate Armenian localities and Armenian family histories in a broader social, economic, and political framework and to examine them in that perspective.

I emphasize this point, because collecting and documenting memory materials from family collections is one of the main aspects of our team’s work. The permanent relations that Houshamadyan has succeeded in establishing with its readers have turned out to be a most important factor for the influx of very important historical materials into our archives. Building this bridge was a big challenge for our team, and perhaps our most important achievement. Families have an interest in sending us items from their own collections, because they know that we will make them publicly available and, sometimes, will devote comprehensive studies to them. Most of the time we receive digital copies of manuscripts that individuals or families across the world have inherited from their ancestors from the Ottoman Empire: unpublished memoirs, memory/memorial books on their native villages or towns, diaries, exchanges of letters, notebooks, etc. These are unique items that open up new vistas for research on the Ottoman Empire. This abundance of primary sources offers us a unique narrative that details the collective and individual lives of a specific Armenian family in the Ottoman Empire, sometimes over a period of several decades. I believe that a careful analysis of these manuscripts will shed light on the general history of Ottoman Armenians and their lives, even when the materials at our disposal concern the life of an ordinary family whose members did not etch their names in capital letters in Armenian or Ottoman history. At first glance, the contents of these manuscripts seem only to adumbrate a series of trivial, ordinary events of everyday family life or the history of a village/town and its customs, with, seemingly, no direct relation to the general history of Ottoman Armenians. In fact, the everyday character of these apparently trivial texts is what revives the ghosts and impressions of the past, which can become the key to gaining deeper insight into this pertinent historical era and its vicissitudes.

EAC – has been noted as a successful example of an open and audience-facing project which is accessible and draws in a diverse viewership. For example, all texts appear in three languages – Western Armenian, Turkish and English – allowing almost universal access to material beyond a perhaps presumed mainly Armenian audience; the cutting-edge and attractive design by the artist Silvina Der Meguerditchian enhances user experience making it simultaneously enjoyable, enriching and educational; the Open Digital Archive (ODA) invites direct and continued public engagement as does an active presence on social media. How do accessibility and public responses help define, shape and influence the content of

Vahé Tachjian At the start of the Houshamadyan project, following the path of classical scholars, we thought that the most important source of Ottoman Armenian history and social life was going to be the libraries and the archives. Therefore, my work consisted at that time in writing articles, editing articles of other team members and cooperating with Houshamadyan’s Art Director, Silvina Der Meguerditchian, who was joined later by Garine Gokceyan, the publication of the articles on the website. This aspect of my work still exists; it has not changed. But just one or two years after the foundation of our website, a new aspect was added to my work and to the one of other team members: the daily contact, as described above, with people who want to share with us important documents and objects about their families from the Ottoman Empire. The communication with these people takes place mainly by email and phone. But, once we had seen the importance and richness of family archives, we started conducting workshops in various cities of the world, inviting local Armenians to bring us family materials (old photographs, unpublished memoirs, documents, books, any kind of objects, etc.) that had been owned by Armenian families in Ottoman times. Our team members digitise or photograph the materials on the spot, and return them to their owners immediately. These workshops are also occasions to carry out lengthy interviews with the families in order to retrace the microhistory of their ancestors from Ottoman times until their establishment in their new host countries. I have personally participated in more than 15 such workshops and I can say that each one has been a remarkable experience with stimulating moments in which our team members are directly in touch with Ottoman Armenian treasures and their owners. During our Athens workshop (December 2019), an American journalist, Nate Berg, joined us to cover the event. He was also delighted and moved by the objects brought by family members and by many stories depicting the itinerary of the families and their treasures. His article on the workshop ended up on the front page of the LA Times! These workshops also constitute the space where we offer a voice to the ordinary Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. The stories that we hear during the workshops are not always like those we find in official or state archives and in books written by relatively important community and state actors of the Ottoman Empire. Although that generation of ordinary Armenians has disappeared, their descendants, as we are discovering at these public events, have inherited, besides their memorabilia, bits of their memory too. Our objective is to reconstruct that memory or, to use Marianne Hirsch’s term, post-memory. Each of these microhistories is the description of an extraordinary experience, each one of them has its uniqueness and value: sometimes they complement each other, at other times they are contradictory. Taken together, they make up the diversity of the individual and family experiences of Ottoman Armenians and they offer a scholar like me important clues for a better understanding of the Ottoman Armenian environment: they help dispel the fog of ideologies and theories that sometimes denies the scholar access to on-the-ground realities.

EAC – Before being reinvented online in the form of a website, the houshamadyans were a literary genre comparable to the yizker-biher, “books of the souvenir” of the Eastern European Yiddish tradition. Both are closely related to the notion of the homeland, as they were often written – and read – by people who had emigrated, whether by force or not, and lived far from this ancestral land. Many houshamadyans, in the Armenian case, were published and promoted in the various diasporas by compatriotic associations (hayrenagtsagan mioutiunner) throughout the twentieth century. Would you say that offers a virtual continuation of a genre which has seemingly disappeared after the 1980s? The authors of these books were themselves former inhabitants from the described and memorialized homelands, to which they had had a direct link, which is obviously not the case of the many contributors to today. What kind of a difference does such a distance from the original homeland make?

Vahé Tachjian – I will try to approach these questions from two different angles. On the one hand, many facets of the website could be considered a continuation of the particular path adopted by the houshamadyan genre, which consisted of books written by the first generation of Armenians, mostly in the diaspora. Most importantly, the website was also born from this simple and powerful idea: to bring back to life the cities, towns and villages in which Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire, through articles, photos, drawings, films, songs, maps, etc. In this vein, the houshamadyan genre of books constitutes our main source of information and documentation for reconstructing the life of the past. Of course, times have changed and, today, the new technologies allow us to use various multi-media tools to reconstruct a past life, to present a history, to revive the local environment and the local ambience. In our time, internet can transform the memory of a place into something vivid and accessible to the public. But the principle adopted by the first generation of Armenian authors aiming to reconstruct the past remains ours as well.

  • 3 V. Tachjian, 2017 (b).

On the other hand, there are also important differences that should be emphasized. First, it is a sensitive and delicate task to reconstruct the memory of a past collective life based on sources written by a generation of authors whose language is marked by a combination of sentimentality, subjectivity and frustration, given all their grievances caused by the genocide: the loss of loved ones; the destruction of life in their native towns and villages; the impossibility of returning to their homeland; the denial by the Turkish government of the crime perpetrated against them; the hardship and pain of starting a new life in exile, and many other things besides. We are less influenced by these factors and we try to maintain an academic distance from the main subject of our research. That being so, I wonder what the attitude of the first generation of Armenian authors would have been if they had seen our website and observed how their own information is used there. Probably they would have not agreed with many of our analyses, especially those in which we question some of their ways of presenting important issues related to Ottoman Armenians and their interpretations. My intention here is not in any way to trivialize or discredit the bulk of the houshamadyan books produced by the first generation of authors. These extraordinary publications remain generally loyal to their principle of portraying village and town life in all its authenticity. Nevertheless, the same books are products of a specific period of Armenian history, that of the post-genocide years, a time when Armenian historiography was restructured and the dominant nationalist ideology of the diaspora sought to make the memory and pain of the genocide, combined with hatred for Turks, the principal cement of the nascent process of national reconstruction. In these circumstances, some analysis must be treated with caution and with critical distance. There are a multitude of examples. One of them is the interpretation given to the use of the Turkish language, as mother language, by Armenians in many regions of the Empire. Several authors of that time explained the phenomenon by simply affirming that there was Turkish persecution against those who spoke Armenian and that the state threatened to cut their tongues off. This is clearly a post-genocide interpretation that needs to be deconstructed3. Having said that, the same houshamadyans could be used as a wonderful reply to all modern attempts to rewrite the history of the Ottoman Armenians, especially the revision of the atrocities of which they were the victims. For example, regarding the Armenian massacres of 1895-1896, it is possible to counter the revisionist narratives concerning these Abdülhamid II era atrocities with dozens of published and unpublished Armenian testimonies – per region, and sometimes per city or town – where the Ottoman state’s involvement, as well as that of the Turkish notables is made explicit and described in great detail.

To sum up, the Houshamadyan website is a direct continuation of the legacy of houshamadyan genre of books. However, we are reconstructing the past our own way, using the available primary sources as well as our expertise in different disciplines.

EAC Alternatively, do you believe that the genre of the houshamadyan is really dead? Or, if it is related to and generated by the experience of times of collective crisis (but is it?), should we consider it as a versatile genre capable of reappearing in its traditional form at any time? In other words, are there dynamics that make the writing and publishing of houshamadyans dedicated to the memorialization of recently lost homelands (such as Shushi or Hadrut after the recent war in Karabagh/Artsakh), or about endangered and weakened iconic diaspora settlements (such as Aleppo or Kessab) possible?

Vahé Tachjian – Our website on Ottoman Armenians is already a large-scale project. Personally, I have never given serious thought to the possibility of starting other, similar projects based on Armenian topics. That was the situation until the Artsakh war of 2020. Now that the war has ended with major Armenian territorial losses, several colleagues have not wasted any time, for good reason, and have taken the initiative to create a special houshamadyan on Artsakh. The project is still in its planning stage. It is a brilliant idea; such a project is urgent and of crucial importance, and some of our team members are supporting it. I think the pattern of the old houshamadyans or that of our website can be applied only to a certain degree to such a project on Artsakh, given the fact that we are dealing here with an issue many of whose actors are still alive. Thus, the project could be more oriented to the use of technology and multimedia tools, and mobilize a large number of videos of people singing, dancing, cooking, talking in dialect, celebrating, telling stories, etc. The houshamadyans see the light in the 1920s, at a time when there were no such important technological components that serve to recreate a past life or document a vibrant but endangered culture by working directly with the bearers of that memory and the culture. Now, when it comes to contemporary endangered cultures, the digital revolution opens up new and creative avenues for documenting and conserving a whole heritage.

  • 4 W. Safran, 1991.

EAC – In an often-quoted article published in the first issue of the well-known journal Diaspora, William Safran linked the notion of homeland in a univocal way to the remote land of the ancestors4. Hence mourning for the lost homeland is conceived as a fundamental characteristic of diasporas. This understanding of the term is widely shared in Diaspora studies. However, it may be argued that it lacks the elasticity to allow for a polysemous comprehension of the term, and that remarkably the notion of homeland lacks precision. The word can be translated variously according to the language; for instance in Armenian the words hayrenik (“fatherland”), mayrenik (“motherland”), yergir (“land”), etc., all denote homeland. In addition to this imprecision, the notion of homeland might also have several definitions which themselves depend upon the cultural or historical context, and may be subject to personal inclinations and subjective interpretations. How does deal with the plurality and polysemy of the notion of homeland? How does it accommodate the existence of micro- and macro-level understandings of this notion? For example, one can observe that much of the material on Ottoman Armenians displayed on is provided by those whose homelands were situated outside historic/traditional homelands in Ottoman Armenia and parts of Cilicia, i.e. various parts of western and central Asia Minor and the European provinces including Constantinople. How does that fit with dominant narratives of historic Armenia as homeland for all Ottoman Armenians?

Vahé Tachjian – Your question hits a raw nerve of the general issue of the Ottoman Armenian heritage, or of the concept of Heimat culture. In my own perception – and it is shared by my main colleagues in Houshamadyan, especially by Elke Hartmann, co-founder of the website and chairperson of our association –, the Ottoman Armenian heritage (others call it the Western Armenian heritage) is intrinsically constituted by the local cultures and histories of the Armenians living in all parts of the Ottoman Empire. For centuries, Armenians developed a communal life outside their traditional homeland; they treasured their life in these cities, towns and villages located in the Ottoman Empire (in many cases, they had settled in these areas long before the foundation of the Ottoman Empire) and they viewed themselves as belonging to that place. The day when they were definitively exiled from these cherished localities, no individual or collective efforts were spared by these exiled people to preserve the memory of their native places, which they called hayreni kaghak, hayreni doun, i.e., equivalents of homeland. Therefore, in our view, it would be more accurate to talk about a multitude of Armenian homelands – in and out of historical Armenia – each with its own Armenian heritage worthy of separate and collective study. This heterogeneous mass of homelands, combined with their local cultures and history, constitutes the integral core of the Ottoman Armenian heritage. Any attempt to draw imaginative boundaries within this profusion of homelands, to categorize them according to their ideological political or cultural importance, will damage the indivisibility and reduce the amazing richness of the Ottoman Armenian legacy.

  • 5 E. Hartmann, 2014.

This view is opposed to the nationalist approach, which has a tendency – when it comes to the study of Ottoman Armenian history and culture – to focus generally on the Armenian Highlands and, in addition, the historic region of Cilicia, as the unique Armenian homeland located in the former Ottoman Empire and in present-day Turkey and now occupied. I think that the advocates of such a view regard the history of Ottoman Armenians as a secular struggle waged by the (oppressed) Armenians against the (oppressor) Turks for the creation of an independent and sovereign Armenian homeland. They observe the past through the lens of nationalist ideology, which is misleading and does not mirror the realities on the ground. If we are going to reduce Ottoman Armenian history to the Armenian revolutionaries’ fight against the Ottoman authorities, we will see that until the cataclysm of the First World War, even the most passionate nationalist revolutionaries were pragmatic enough to conclude that Ottoman Armenian issues could be solved only in the Ottoman environment, through reforms, the reinforcement and democratisation of the Ottoman state and the creation of a confederate system of governance.5 Thus, adopting a teleological perspective on the Armenian history of the Ottoman Empire, the nationalist point of view transforms the Armenian highlands/Eastern Turkey/Western Armenia into a telos, whose fight for unification with the nation-state of the Republic of Armenia has not yet been concluded.

  • 6 K. Tölölyan, 2000.

But there is another major problem with the nationalist approach, which is in my opinion self-destructive in terms of the conservation of Ottoman Armenian homeland culture. From the 1920s onwards, we can observe an intensification of the nationalist concept designed to distinguish, within Armenian culture, what is authentically Armenian and what is a direct Turkish-Ottoman heritage, and, consequently, something to be excluded. This dichotomy marked the post-genocide and post-Ottoman period of the process to reconstruct Armenian identity in the diaspora. The homogenized Armenian culture of Soviet Armenia and its spread in various ways into the diaspora starting in the 1920s had likewise a direct influence on this process. The main idea was to restore authentic Armenian culture among the refugees of the diaspora. The conceptual origin of the ideology goes back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Ottoman Armenian intellectuals, inspired by similar European currents, were in search of cultural integrity and national authenticity. The same cultural ideology took a new form after the fall of the Empire, when it was adopted by the communal leaders of the new Armenian communities, notably in the Middle East, and adapted to the local environment, resulting, as Khachig Tölölyan puts it, in a “conscious cultural territorialization”.6 “Armenianize” or “purify” were frequently recurring verbs in the Armenian rhetoric of this period, whenever the subject of discussion was the education of the new generation, the language, and other cultural aspects of daily life. For the protagonists of this change, it was a clash between, on the one hand, what was viewed as Armenian, national, homogeneous, modern, and liberated, and, on the other, what was Ottoman, Turkish, Oriental, multi-faceted, backward, repugnant. In an environment marked by intolerance, several vectors of the intangible Armenian heritage were now targeted, since they were viewed as belonging to the Turkish-Ottoman heritage: Turkish language; dialects; some musical instruments; sharki and alla Turca songs; church architecture considered as non-Armenian, etc. It is clear that the demand of the Armenian communal elite of those days was to sever all links with the Ottoman past, to “de-Turkify” everything within the Armenian community, and to create a new – or, as was often said – “pure” Armenian, who would be devoid of all Turkish influences.

Such attempts to purify and homogenize a culture end up by excluding of many of its features. In other words, as happened in the Armenian case, from a largely rich and diversified culture, the exact image of the multitude of Heimats, the outcome was the creation of something new, reduced, depleted, uniform. For these reasons, I think that the cultural current of the 1920s, which was in essence designed to revive the Armenian community after the horror of the Genocide, has dealt a strong and, in some cases, a fatal blow to the Heimat-based local cultures of the diaspora.

The Houshamadyan project, mainly through the website, tries to reconstruct the Heimat cultures in different localities of the Ottoman Empire, by using texts, pictures, and recordings that depict all the diversity of local daily life, which disappeared due to the Genocide and, in many cases, did not find a favorable environment for its preservation in the diaspora.

The same issue of the acceptance or non-acceptance of some aspects of Heimat culture comes up frequently during presentations by our team members of the Houshamadyan project in different cities around the world. Sometimes the old pictures of veiled Armenian women or men wearing a fez, provoke some of those in the audience. At other times, the issue is the architecture of a church, which hardly differs from the neighbouring mosque. There are many such examples. But most of the time it’s the music that incites people to express their disagreement, because they find the melody of some local songs strange, oriental and Turkish, although the lyrics might be in Armenian. Very likely it is a question of education. When you grew up in an environment where you hear and see constantly that the authentic Armenian churches are the centrally-planned domed churches or that the authentic Armenian songs are those that have been “sterilized” by being purged of their oriental melodies, then the multi-faceted and multi-layered heritage of your ancestors can be regarded as alien, unfamiliar and intolerable.

  • 7 V. Nalbandian, 2019. See also the book review.

EAC – How about the notion of diaspora-as-homeland? In his recently published memoirs, Vartkes Nalbandian talks about Ethiopia as his homeland7. Doing so, he places himself in the continuity of collective understandings that existed within the small Ethio-Armenian community throughout the twentieth century, with a strong identification with the country of residence, as if Ethiopia had become a homeland by proxy, or a homeland of substitution for uprooted immigrants and three generations of their descendants. No doubt that the same kind of phenomenon might be observed elsewhere across the Armenian diasporas, as well as in any form of migration and diasporic situation. Does consider these diverse realities of the notion of homeland, and how? Would such notions fit your understanding of homeland?

  • 8 K. Tölölyan, 2000.

Vahé Tachjian – I’m not sure whether I’m the qualified person to answer this question. I’m not a diaspora studies expert, and my view on the issue is perhaps more from the perspective of a preservation of a cultural heritage. In the Houshamadyan Project, our approach to this question is based on the concept that, in the framework of the Ottoman Armenian world, there are multiple homelands that together form the Western Armenian/Ottoman Armenian heritage. In my opinion, this inclusive concept could be adapted to the diasporan world, based on a similar principle of tolerance towards the cultural differences of each component of the group. Most of the Armenian diaspora communities have a history of one hundred or more years. Their long existence makes them unique places, characterized by their own unique cultural, social, economic and historical aspects. They constitute a multiplicity of diasporan Armenian homelands, and, as Khachig Tölölyan has observed, they make up, together with the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh, the Armenian transnation8.

EAC – Finally, what link can you draw between the attachment to a homeland and the memory of the genocide? In other words, how would you characterize the changes introduced by the genocide, as an historical event as well as a memorialized event, in the ways Ottoman Armenians and their descendants have referred, and refer, to their homelands? From such perspectives, one might suspect that the understanding of what is/was the homeland is constantly evolving, given the various evolutions of the memories of the genocide. Seemingly, how do you see your own input, as the Editor of the project, in the remapping of the idea of homeland?

Vahé Tachjian – The genocide was the historical catastrophe that extirpated the Armenians from their homelands. The destruction of the Armenian Heimat culture was intrinsically linked to the genocidal act itself. The rest of the story, i.e., what happened afterward, how the Heimat culture did or did not find a supportive setting in the diaspora for its preservation in the refugee communities, are historical details. Yes, we know that the process of national reconstruction that emerged in the diaspora in the 1920s and continued in the following decades was, in many regards, hostile to important features of Heimat culture. But it is important to take into account that this process, with its sometimes radical and intransigent views, was a natural reaction to the most extreme of all man-made created catastrophes: genocide. That being said, I personally find it very interesting to study the situation of Ottoman Armenian Heimat culture or the Heimat concept in the diaspora; what remained of them in the refugee communities and how they were influenced by the memory of genocide.

  • 9 A. Confino, 1993 and 2002.

To begin with, it is important to highlight that the compatriotic unions (German Landsmannschaft, Armenian hayrenagtsagan mioutiun) which gathered refugees together on the basis of town or village affiliation were very active, dynamic, widespread and relatively powerful associations among, mainly, the first generation of exiles in the diasporic world. Each union participated in a wide range of social, humanitarian, charitable and political activities. Although the preservation of the memory of the Heimat and its culture was an important aspect of their activities, it would be inaccurate to conclude that they were working in an ideologically hostile diasporic context. The situation is much more nuanced, since in reality, these associations were also dynamic actors in the nationalist process of reconstructing Armenian identity. In other words, they adapted themselves to the new environment. Alon Confino has demonstrated in his works how the conceptions of localness and nationhood are altered during the process of constructing a collective image of a nation, and, in this way the Heimat could be transformed into an interchangeable representation of the local, regional and national community.9 The Armenian compatriotic unions’ activities and the idea of Heimat that they were generating should be examined from this perspective.

  • 10 T. M. Madaghjian and H. Kankruni, 1959.

An appropriate way to discuss these issues is to examine the houshamadyan books, mostly published on the initiative of compatriotic unions. Each of these publications portrays the homeland’s life, culture and history in a specific locality of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the very essence of these books is to preserve the Heimat culture. You can find here whole chapters on dialect, local festivities, oral history, heroes, customs, cuisine, architecture, etc.; in other words, they are explicit representations of the plurality of the Heimat identities. However, a thorough study of these publications will show us that their authors or editors were in some respects also influenced by the memory of the genocide and, consequently, their writings bear the stamp of the times, and follow the dictates of the spirit of the period. A good example is the introductory chapter of many houshamadyan books. The authors see, in the economic and cultural development of Soviet Armenia, the resurrection of their own homeland. This point of view is not shared by all authors of houshamadyan books, since the 1920s were also decisive for the politicization of the diaspora and attitudes to the Soviet Armenian regime became the main source of inter-community oppositions and conflicts. The idea of the symbolic resurrection of the homeland is manifest on the cover picture of the book about Tomarza (a town near Kayseri/Gesaria), where, at the bottom of the cover, we see in the foreground the Holy Mother of God monastery of Tomarza and, in the background one storey houses and a mosque. On the upper part of the cover, we see the Echmiadzin cathedral, as well as Soviet-style tall buildings depicting the modernism of the era, and on the background, there is a symbolic picture of Mount Ararat10.

Another example is the description of the Other—the Turk and the Kurd—in these books. There almost never is a separate chapter or section where this subject is discussed. The Other is overlooked and has no separate place in local memory. And if it is recalled, it is usually assigned a negative character, one of the causes of the tragedy that Armenians experienced. It’s another question that when we delve deeper into these books, it isn’t hard to see that the Other is implicitly present and is an integral part of the Armenian social fabric.

The post-genocide and post-Ottoman years correspond to a period marked by major restructuration of Ottoman Armenian historiography. In the perspective of many Armenian authors, Ottoman Armenian history was transformed into a tale of martyrs and heroes. This tendency is visible in the houshamadyan books too. We find in them extensive descriptions of the mass violence committed against local Armenians in different periods of Ottoman history, and, for the most part, during the genocide. The activities of the Armenian revolutionary movements and their struggle against the Ottoman government are also broadly covered in most houshamadyans.

Interestingly, it happens that some local rhetorical discourses that first appeared in houshamadyan books, were adopted in the construction of the collective image of the nation, henceforth becoming a component of the collective narrative and demonstrating how homeland symbols and narratives interchangeably represent the locality and the nation, as defined by Confino. A relevant example is the use of Turkish as mother language in several Armenian inhabited areas of the Ottoman Empire. As we have seen, some authors created the image of the tongues of those who dared to speak Armenian being cut off. This image of threat first appeared in houshamadyans, such as those about Ayntab, Adana, Rodosto, Kayseri, etc., and was later transformed into an element of the national narrative.

In other cases, we can observe a dual attitude toward the memory of the homeland, which is, very likely, another aspect of the post-genocidal ideological domestic climate. The authors and editors of houshamadyan books gave an important and honorable place to their churches in their homelands, which were praised not only as places of memory, but for the beauty of their architecture. In the diasporic environment, the old churches of the Ottoman Empire also started to appear on posters and calendars published by the same compatriotic unions. We know also that in many diasporic communities, Armenian refugee groups from specific towns of the Ottoman Empire built their own churches, giving them the names of the lost and cherished churches of the homeland. But the refugee generation only exceptionally reproduced their architecture or some of their architectural characteristics in the diaspora. The new cultural and ideological environment left no room for such efforts. Instead, the diaspora embraced the medieval religious architecture of historical Armenia as ultimate and institutionalized reference for authentic Armenian church architecture.

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Confino Alon, “Federalism and the Heimat Idea in Imperial Germany”, in Maiken Umbach (ed.), German Federalism: Past, Present, Future, New York: Palgrave, 2002, pp. 70-90.

Confino Alon, “The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Heimat, National Memory and the German Empire, 1871-1918”, History and Memory, vol. 5, no. 1, Spring-Summer 1993, pp. 42-86.

Hartmann Elke, “‘The Turks and Kurds Are Our Fate’: ARF Self-defense Concepts and Strategies as Reflected in Ruben Ter Minasian’s ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’”, Armenian Review, vol. 54, no. 3-4, Spring-Summer 2014, pp. 1-44.

Madaghjian Toros M. and Kankruni Hrant, Յուշամատեան Թոմարզայի [Memory Book of Tomarza], Beirut: G. Doniguian Press, 1959.

Nalbandian Vartkes, “I Want to Die with a Flag”. Ethiopia: My Delusions and Disillusionment, no place [Canada], 2019.

Safran William, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return”, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1991, pp. 83-99.

Tachjian Vahé, Daily Life in the Abyss: Genocide Diaries, 1915-1918, New York and Oxford, Berghanh Books, 2017 (a).

Tachjian Vahé, “L’usage du turc et le renouveau identitaire chez les Arméniens du Liban et de Syrie dans les années 1920-1930”, in Christine Babikian Assaf, Carla Eddé, Lévon Nordiguian, Vahé Tachjian (eds.), Les Arméniens du Liban: Cent ans de présence, Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut, 2017 (b), pp. 58-83.

Tachjian Vahé, “Reconstituer le terroir perdu. Les livres mémoriaux sur les villes et villages arméniens de Cilicie”, in Raymond Kévorkian, Mihran Minassian, Lévon Nordiguian, Michel Paboudjian and Vahé Tachjian, Les Arméniens de Cilicie: habitat, mémoire et identité, Beirut, Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2012, pp. 6-25.

Tölölyan Khachig, “Elites and Institutions in the Armenian Transnation”, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 2000, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 107-136.

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Note de fin

1 See for instance V. Tachjian, 2012.

2 V. Tachjian, 2017 (a).

3 V. Tachjian, 2017 (b).

4 W. Safran, 1991.

5 E. Hartmann, 2014.

6 K. Tölölyan, 2000.

7 V. Nalbandian, 2019. See also the book review.

8 K. Tölölyan, 2000.

9 A. Confino, 1993 and 2002.

10 T. M. Madaghjian and H. Kankruni, 1959.

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Vahé Tachjian, Boris Adjemian et Vazken Davidian, « Place, Belonging and History: Reflections on the Ottoman Armenian Past and Heritage »Études arméniennes contemporaines, 13 | 2021, 209-227.

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Vahé Tachjian, Boris Adjemian et Vazken Davidian, « Place, Belonging and History: Reflections on the Ottoman Armenian Past and Heritage »Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 13 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2021, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Vahé Tachjian

Houshamadyan, Berlin

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Boris Adjemian

Bibliothèque Nubar, IMAf, Institut Convergences Migrations

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Vazken Davidian

University of Oxford

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