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Armenians and Other Armenians in Turkey

  Standpoint of Diaspora

Armenians and Other Armenians in Turkey

Hrag Papazian


Hrag Papazian

DPhil candidate in Anthropology, University of Oxford

According to Hrag Papazian,Turkey—and particularly Istanbul—has become a unique place to study contemporary Armenian identity thanks to the increasing diversity of the “landscape of Armenianness,” which bloomed in the last decades. He thus tries to portray what he calls the three “types of Armenians currently living in Turkey:” first, the members of the traditional Christian Armenian minority in Turkey, famously called Hamaynk (community); then, the Muslim Armenian citizens of Turkey (with their own internal distinctions); and thirdly the migrant workers of the Republic  of Armenia. In a second part, Papazian analyzes the main ideological, symbolic and emotional tenets underpinning the Armenian identity of each group. Finally, he examines the relationship between those three groups who, although they live next to one another, sometimes find themselves at odds.

The Christian Armenian community

The number of Christian Armenian citizens of Turkey today is estimated to be between 60,000 and 70,000. More than 90% of them reside in Istanbul, where they have numerous acting churches, primary and secondary schools, and a few newspapers and periodicals. One of the most important elements in the Armenian Identity of the members of this group seems to be their allegiance to Christianity, mainly through the channel of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In fact, one might even argue that Armenianness is an ethnoreligious identity for the members of this group, rather than a purely ethnic one. For many people I met and conversed with, being Armenian automatically implies being Christian. Many use the two terms interchangeably. To the question “Is he a Muslim?”, I’ve heard people answering: “no, he’s Armenian.” Others when being asked about their religion, have answered “I’m Armenian”. Some, but few, didn’t even hesitate to classify Armenianness as a religion, while many others who found that it should be counted as a national or ethnic category, have nevertheless stated that “in our case it’s difficult and even incorrect to separate the two notions from each other”.

We will not have space to comprehensively study the historical, cultural and social reasons behind the relationship between Armenianness and Christianity, which does exist to different degrees in Armenian communities all around the world. But we might well mention that in the case of Turkey’s Armenians, additional factors during the Republican period have taken the convergence of nation and religion to a further step, reaching to the point where the two notions have almost amalgamated։ As in the Treaty of Lausanne the Republic of Turkey recognized only religious and not ethnic or national minorities inside its borders, Armenians were also officially perceived as a religious community, limited to membership in the ranks of the Armenian Churches. Thus, not only official Identity documents of Armenians marked “Ermeni” (Armenian) in the section of religion until a certain date, but in more practical terms the church also became the guarantor for practicing Armenianness. It became the organization under the umbrella of which cultural and social activities could get organized. In a general atmosphere of fear and cautiousness, the church was for a long time “the place where Armenians could safely meet and speak with each other”, as one informant explained. All this has come to a point where the church is perceived as the home and natural environment of Armenianness. As a result, today, when Turkish is the language spoken in daily lives, children are sometimes told, as I witnessed myself, to speak Armenian in the Church: “Hos yegeghetsi e aghchigs, yegeghetsiin mech hayeren bidi khosis” (We’re in the Church my girl, you should speak Armenian here). On the other hand, the Armenian schools in Istanbul are clearly imbued with Christianity, not least for the fact of officially having it as part of their curricula. In those schools, As Armen, a 25 year old local friend explained, the idea of “Armenian-Christian” is passed on to the children: “The teaching of Saint Vartan’s war is enough [for that]. We’re taught that ‘we are a nation who got sacrificed for Christianity’…” Let me limit myself to presenting only one more ethnographic example.

The photo above shows a note written by an Istanbulite Christian Armenian mother to her children. While the note is in Turkish, the religious words ‘church’, ‘Palm Sunday’ and ‘Jesus’ are used in their Armenian counterparts. This, I believe, strongly symbolizes how deeply Armenianness and Christianity are interrelated on the cognitive level for many Christian Armenians in Turkey.

The Migrants

The migrants from Armenia have been continuously arriving after the independence the republic of Armenia in 1991, driven by economic reasons. Many of them remain undocumented. Their Armenian identity seems to be first and foremost anchored in their homeland Republic of Armenia and their material, emotional and ideological ties with it. Observing the non-official school which hosts children of migrants or even its Facebook page is sufficient for perceiving that reality. Children there are educated according to the official educational program of Armenia as their parents want them to be able to pursue their studies when they return. The Armenian national flag decorates the walls of the school, and Armenia’s Independence day are celebrated with theatrical performances (see picture below).

Teachers follow news from Armenia, speak about Armenian politics during breaks, or simply about the weather in there. During the four-day April 2016 war between Azerbaijan and de-facto independent Armenian state of Nagorno-Karabakh, teachers expressed their worries about the situation. Another acquaintance explained, that the latter war made her realize that she could not stay in Turkey anymore as she felt she had to be in Armenia together with her family, friends and compatriots. Most of the migrants I met stated that they are eager to return to their homeland, only if the financial situations allowed them to do so.

A second important element which the Migrant Armenians perceive as essential to being an Armenian is a set of traditional values and moral norms which make the “Kargin Hay”, i.e. the “good” or “true” Armenian. In the imagination of many of my migrant interviewees, Armenian traditions demand that, among other things, Armenians give importance to the family, respect the elders, Armenian men be courageous and non-compromising, exert control on Armenian women and women respect their husbands and treat them “as husbands should be”. For instance Henrikh, a young migrant man, argued that although he’s far from homeland, he nevertheless hasn’t given up of his Armenianness, and as a supporting argument for that, added: “for example, if something happens in the street here or someone insults me, I fight, I let him know his limits…”

Muslim Armenian citizens of Turkey

Whereas some researchers, journalists or political figures speak of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Muslim Armenians, I personally prefer to abstain from giving such numbers, believing that there is a significant difference between “descendants of Islamized Armenians” and “Muslim Armenians”. When I speak of Muslim Armenians, I don’t mean all descendants of Islamized Armenians, but rather, only those who identify themselves as Armenians, only those who are subjectively and socially Armenian. The Muslim Armenians I encountered come from diverse historical and sociocultural backgrounds: there are those coming from a Sunni environment, those who grew up and lived in Alevi settings such as in Dersim and thus often have nothing to do with Islam except from being mentioned as Muslims in their identity documents, some grown up in Kurdish, others in Turkish cultures, some whose ancestors converted during the 1915 genocide, others whose ancestors did so much earlier as in the case of the Hemshin people. Because of time restraints, I cannot deal with the particularities of each of these sub-groups today. What they have in common is the fact that, unlike the two other types presented above, they feel and act as Armenians despite having lived relatively far from the influence of a state or religious institution that claims ownership of Armenian identity, organizes, defines and gives form to it. In the absence of institutional addresses of belonging, such as the Armenian Church or the Armenian state around which and for which other Armenians’ identities are practically manifested on a rather daily basis, being Armenian for these Muslim Armenians is rather a retrospective process. It consists of, first, accepting as a fact that one is Armenian merely because his ancestors were so, and then working to recuperate what was lost of the identity in a continuous policy of annihilation and assimilation. Whereas Christian Armenians and the Migrants have institutional entities providing them with both practical and symbolic-ideological means for acting and thinking as Armenians, these non-Christian Armenian citizens of Turkey have only a lost past, that of their families, on which to base and build their Armenianness. For instance, when Mehmet’s girlfriend was trying to console herself and convince him that he was a Kurd because he was a Muslim and grew up in a Kurdish environment, Mehmet replied: “No, I’m Armenian. My grandfather’s name is Mgrditch, his father’s name is Kevork. We may have changed our religion, but as long as these names do not change I am an Armenian. My race is Armenian.” Another informant explained her motivation towards recuperating what was lost in the following words: “They stole an identity from my family, the Der Garabedian name disappeared! I will take that name once I’m done with my job, because I want it to last…” Thus, for at least some of these individuals, identification as Armenian is a form of resistance to a century-long politics of assimilation and discrimination.

Evaluating each other’s Armenianness

What do these different types of Armenians think of each other? What happens when one comes to clash with the existence of other Armenians who do not fit his or her prejudices and beliefs about Armenianness? Let me note from advance, that not all members of each group share the opinions described in the upcoming paragraphs. Only the most common stances will be presented here.

The Christian Armenian citizens of Turkey have special difficulty dealing with the idea of Muslim Armenians. Some, first of all, have still not even heard about the latter’s existence: “What does Muslim Armenian mean? How does that work?” Muslim Armenian is seen as an ambiguous category. This is easily understandable when we have in mind the identification of Armenianness with membership and allegiance to the Christian Armenian Church, which I have presented in the beginning of this presentation. If being Armenian is conditioned by being part of the Armenian Church and its activities, then how can one be Armenian when (s)he has no connection with that world? A man in his 50s put it very bluntly: “One is Armenian but takes part in the prayers at the Mosque… is this even imaginable? You tell me!” Others have revolted: “They will say they’re Armenian whenever need be but stay Muslim at the same time? What kind of hypocrisy is this? Let them make a choice”. This and similar lines of thought get to a point where some Christian Armenians even reject to acknowledge the Muslim Armenians as Armenians: “Let them return to their grandfathers’ religion and get baptized, only then I could accept them as Armenians”. Muslim Armenians, in return, do not make judgments regarding the Armenianness of the Christian ones. They argue that being Armenian is a matter of race or nation, of inheritance, and of subjective claim, rather than of religion, and complain about being marginalized by their Christian counterparts.

Christian Armenians are in their turn scrutinized and criticized on the part of the Migrants who question their Armenianness this time. I have heard from many migrants the complaint that local Armenians are emptied from Armenian values and have got “Turkified”. Two main arguments come to work here. First, that Turkey’s Armenians are not at all or not enough interested in and caring towards the Republic of Armenia and rather see Turkey as a homeland. Karen, a migrant man in his 40s stated: “For some of the locals we’ve left our homeland and came to theirs. Wait a minute, since when is it that my homeland is not yours? Since when is it that here is your homeland? Then what’s the difference between them and the Turks? How can I count them as Armenians?” This approach, again, is easily understandable when having in mind the important place that the Armenian Republic occupies in the Armenianness of the Migrants. A second important prerequisite for being a good and right Armenian for the migrant is, as we saw, being faithful to a set of traditional values that they perceive as distinctly Armenian. This, again, opens way for the Migrants to question the Armenianness of the local Christian Armenians with which they are in contact: “the locals have become so much like the Turks… they have given up the Armenian traditional values… look at them, they don’t even look after their aging parents, but prefer to send them to nursing homes…” The local Christian Armenians have in return their own prejudices and complaints against the Migrants. As the vast majority of the Migrants are members of the working class, and especially as many of them and mainly the women work as servants in the houses of the local Christian Armenian families, the latter look down on them. The migrants complain that the locals think of them as uneducated, ignorant, “peasant” and rude people. Moreover, there is a serious issue of mistrust towards the migrants in the local community. This is conditioned by the sad fact that some migrant workers have robbed the local Armenians for whom they worked. That some young Migrant women work as prostitutes in the streets of Istanbul also annoys the local Armenians who complain that the migrants have changed the image of Armenians in the city: “before their arrival people would think of Armenians as craftsmen, artists, noble people, but now they think of us as also prostitutes, thieves, etc.”. Finally, whereas some Migrants perceive the local Armenians as “Turkified”, I’ve heard from some locals that the Migrants are “Russified” or “Sovietized” and thus partially emptied of “Armenianness” and “Armenian values”.

Finally, as almost no relations exist between the Muslim Armenians and the Migrants, the two sides usually do not have much to say about each other. Though the Migrants, Christians themselves, do also perceive the mere phenomenon of Muslim Armenians as ambiguous and sometimes also inacceptable, but not in a way as extreme as in the case of the local Christian Armenians.


The data collected in this research in process reveal that Armenian identity has a diverse range of local interpretations, varying according to the social and historical particularities of its carriers. Furthermore, this diversity can potentially result in internal conflict and mutual expulsion. One might only imagine about other possible local interpretations and definitions in the different corners of this world and mention the need of further research in this direction in order to have a comprehensive understanding of contemporary Armenian identity.

It might be ironic to end with the note that these three different groups of Armenians are perhaps the closest to each other whenever looked at from a fourth and foreign perspective: that of Turkish nationalism. Armenianness, for the latter, has a totally different definition of course: that of the national enemy, no matter Christian or not, citizen of Turkey or not. The most obvious commonality between these three types of Armenians is thus the fact of being Armenian in Turkey. Members of all three groups have, in fact, told me about incidents when they’ve been insulted or threatened for their Armenian identity. It is not by coincidence, after all, that probably the only occasions where representatives of all three groups physically unite in time and space, are moments when the “Armenian”, which has otherwise different definitions for each, is under attack: Hrant Dink’s assassination’s annual commemorations, Armenian Genocide commemorations, and the late struggle at Camp Armen.


This paper was presented at the conference on Critical Approaches to Armenian Identity in the 21st Century: Vulnerability, Resilience and transformation, organised by Hrant Dink Foundation and Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Association, in Istanbul, 7-8 October 2016.



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