When Naira Mkrtchyan stepped into the office of Marmara in 1997, she did not imagine that the Armenian-language newspaper published in Istanbul, since 1940, would become her second home. Since then, the Yerevan-born cybernetic engineer-turned-journalist has been one of the voices of the Armenian community in Istanbul. One of the largest officially-recognised minorities, Armenians in Istanbul have a history that stretches back to medieval times, yet exact figures of their current presence are lacking. In 2011 estimates set the community at around 60-70,000 polsahays, as “Istanbul” Armenians are called. Naira, now 46, is one of the estimated 10,000 (and/or more) “migrants,” that are Armenians who have settled in Istanbul in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union that hit hard the newly-established Republic of Armenia, driving thousands away in search of work.
Naira, an Armenian in Istanbul
The origins of Hamshen Armenians are wrapped in charm and myth. History tells that in the 8th century a varied group moved from Armenia under the leadership of an Armenian prince called Hamam Amatuni. They settled in the Turkish Black Sea region of Hopa and Rize, close to the border with modern Georgia. Thus the area was called Hamamshen, or 'built by Hamam' in Armenian. It later became Hamshen. Until the 15th century there was an Armenian kingdom in Hamshen. From the 15th century Islam started to spread among the Christian community and under the Ottoman empire the process of islamization intensified. Today Hamshen Armenians are Muslim and Turkish-speakers, with some of them still communicating in Hamshetsnak, considered a dialect of the Armenian language. Take Aydogan Topal(35) and Shafak Karaibrahimoğlu(32). Originally from Hopa, currently the Istanbul residents are determined to keep their identity, including linguistic, alive. Topal is a musician who composes both in the Turkish and Hamshen dialects as, “songs are one of the ways to preserve his identity.” Born in Hopa, a few kilometres away from Georgia, Shafak and his family moved around Turkey until he settled in Istanbul where he works in a cafe. “The Hamshen boasts a beautiful culture,” he says.
Hamshen, The Hidden Gem of Turkish Armenians
A kaleidoscope of ethnicities and languages, Aksaray’s bus station encapsulates Istanbul’s diversity - hundreds of people from all over pour onto its platforms on a daily basis. For many it is a new beginning, hopefully with a stable job.
Next Stop Istanbul
Thirty-nine-year-old Duru Ors is a translator and clarinetist from Izmir, Turkey who hopes music will help her learn more about Armenia, a neighbor with which her homeland shares a bitter past. Through a fellowship from the Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation, Ors is spending seven months in Yerevan, teaching Turkish and musicin the city’s Mkhitar Sebastaci Educational Complex and collaborating with Armenian musicians.