Turkey’s Ethnic Azeris Yearn for Their Armenian Homeland

Author: Emre Topalgökçeli


The black, century-old grand piano in retired lawyer llhan Güven Günal’s Istanbul apartment sits like a living memorial, evoking tales of sorrow, nostalgia and lives changed forever.   

It has traveled nearly 1,700 kilometers – first, over rugged mountains into eastern Turkey from the town of Gyumri, in modern-day Armenia, and, finally, on to Istanbul.

Its story is rooted in events often overlooked today.

In 1922, the Soviet Union gained control of Gyumri from post-Ottoman Turkey’s military forces. To escape conflict with armed Armenians, Günal said, his family, like other of the town’s ethnic Azeris, fled to neighboring Turkey, settling in Kars, less than 100 kilometers from Gyumri.

They took the piano with them. “This is my mother’s dowry,” the 70-something Günal recounted. “While they were escaping . . . they loaded the piano onto a camel and brought it to Kars, just because it was her dowry.” 

“Can you imagine that they could not leave the piano, just because it was the dowry?” he continued, smiling. “Sometimes I said, only half joking, ‘Mom, at least you should have brought an end-blown flute [an instrument common in Turkey -- ed].’"

 Little research exists online about the experiences of these Azeri refugees from Gyumri, but their experiences live on in the tales of their Turkish descendants.

“'We came, hoping to go back one day,’” my grandfather always said,” recollected journalist Zergün Çapan, a contemporary of Günal, as she sat before a collection of family photos in her Istanbul apartment. “They buried the key of the house in the garden. They hid their jewels under the baseboard, saying that, sooner or later, they would return."

Her family, she claimed, later had the chance to move to the US, but chose to stay in Kars, close to their Gyumri home.

"Sometimes we went to the frontier villages and watched the lights of houses on the USSR’s side,” she remembered. “We got excited. My family knew the streets and even the location of each fountain in Gyumri by heart.  [They were] longing for their motherland throughout their life. They lived in hope of going back."

They never did. In Kars, Çapan’s grandparents worked in the fields, harvesting crops. Often hungry, they initially struggled to make ends meet. 

“[T]hey did not know any trade,” said Çapan. “They were not farmers. They bought and sold wheat, but they failed.”

Their former bourgeois life became like a dream.  Photos showed “pianos, a French teacher” in their Gyumri home; a residence Çapan’s grandmother came to remember as “a palace.”

"In order not to upset us, [my parents] acted as if they were happy and had a good life. And they had so many occupations in Kars that they hardly had time to worry about themselves,” Çapan explained. “But at night, after we slept, they always talked secretly. Sometimes, my mother was crying. Those nights, my brothers were sleeping, but I was not. Most of what I tell you now is all that is left in my memory from those nights."

Çapan’s grandfather and father, however, tried to build other memories as well.

"My grandfather always gathered the children in the neighborhood and told them Azerbaijani [fairy] tales. Almost every morning, my father read [aloud] poems by Azerbaijani poets,” the journalist said. 

The family also tuned into a static-filled Soviet radio program called “Baku Talking, The Community Listening.” The program took precedence over the youngsters’ preferred music broadcasts.

But music also came from Azerbaijan.  “Traders sometimes brought records from Azerbaijan. We immediately bought them and listened."

Günal’s mother, Mahiza, made Azeri folk music and folklore part of his upbringing as well.

“She had a good voice and played the piano well. She said 'Play Terekeme, play Sheikh Shamil for me.’ I played, she danced.” 

That musical ability enabled Günal to work his way through university in Istanbul.

“Till morning, I played the piano in a nightclub. Then I slept for two hours and went to school. In the evenings, I played [the piano] at weddings of Azerbaijani refugees” from Gyumri and Soviet-controlled Armenia.  

With a laugh, Günal, an amateur composer, sang some lines from the first Azeri folk song he learned: “'Samavara od salmışam  / istekene gend salmışam /  yarım gedip tek galmışam . . .” (“I lit a fire in the samovar./Put sugar in the glass./My sweetheart has left me alone.”)  

A more bitter kind of solitude haunted his grandmother after her husband disappeared in Gyumri during the early 1920s.  

“[H]e had gone into an Armenian neighborhood to sell goods and did not come back. My grandmother waited for him for years.”

In Kars, the family later learned what happened.

“One day, an Azerbaijani came to our house . . . and said, ‘Stop waiting for your husband. Your husband will not come back.’”

According to the refugee, ethnic Armenians had beaten and stabbed him to death, Günal said, citing elder relatives.  

That knowledge left deep scars. Günal’s mother, he claimed, retained her knowledge of Armenian, but, aside from an inadvertent word, never spoke it.  

The refugees’ loyalty to Atatürk and Turkey grew strong. In Istanbul’s Azerbaijan Culture House, a map that shows Gyumri as Azerbaijani territory features a portrait of the founder of the Turkish republic. 

Çapan recounted, with obvious pleasure, a handed-down tale about a visit by Atatürk to Kars in the early 1930s for the anniversary of Turkey’s 1920 liberation of the town from Armenian control. At a ball, the president, eager to encourage European dress, took notice of her newly prosperous family’s elegant attire.

“Atatürk was surprised to see our women’s clothing at the ball,” she claimed, showing a photo of women in décolleté silk gowns with gloves and tulle headdresses. “Of course, there was no such life in the other cities of eastern Turkey.”

Nonetheless, refugee families always expected to return to the territory they considered their homeland.

"If I had the chance to go to only one place in my life, I would want to go to Gyumri,” Çapan said, without hesitation. Günal shares the desire.

 Despite ongoing animosity between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia over their shared past, the thought of applying for an Armenian visa does not faze Çapan.

"I always believed in universal brotherhood,” Çapan said. “I cannot blame anyone . . .”


This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in the material belong to the author and not Chai-Khana.


At his home in the Istanbul district of Üsküdar, llhan Güven Günal plays traditional Azeri music while talking about his mother, Mahiza, who, he said, sang and played the piano well.
Journalist Zergün Çapan, a descendant of Azeri refugees from Armenia, enjoys talking about her childhood in the Turkish city of Kars despite its hardships.
A collection of old photos shows friends and relatives of Zergün Çapan. In the center photo, Çapan sits on the knee of her grandfather, with her father and mother on either side. The entire family fled from Gyumri to Turkey after the city came under Soviet control in the early 1920s.
Flanked by the Turkish and Azerbaijani flags, composer llhan Güven Günal, poses with the vocalist, Kemale, who accompanies him at his concerts.
A plaque given to Günal honored his “help and contributions” to an annual festival of Azeri culture organized by ethnic Azeris from the Turkish town of Kars.
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