The Hemshin: a community of Armenians who became Muslims
by Aram Arkun
Published: Thursday November 13, 2008
Hovann H. Simonian, editor, The Hemshin: History, Society and Identity in the Highlands of Northeast Turkey. London and New York: Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2007, 417 pages including index and illustrations.
Nearly all Armenians would insist that the Christian faith is one of the major components of the Armenian identity. Yet today more and more is heard about Muslim Armenians and crypto or secret Armenians. The very existence of Muslim Armenians in particular raises interesting questions about what fundamentally constitutes an Armenian, especially when there are Muslims who speak Armenian and preserve and practice various elements derived from Armenian culture and tradition.
The Hemshin, also called Hemshinli, include both Muslims and Christians, and speakers of dialects of Armenian as well as those who speak only versions of Turkish or other non-Armenian languages influenced by the Armenian language. They have a long and complicated history, during much of which they lived in isolation from mainstream Armenian society and faced great oppression. The Hemshin themselves have conflicting notions concerning their identity. Today numbering as many as 150,000 according to some estimates, they live in Turkey, Russia, and Georgia, as well as in some diaspora communities in the West. Not much has been written about the Hemshin in English, so the volume edited by Hovann Simonian provides a welcome introduction.
This book, focusing on the Hemshin living in Turkey, consists of chapters written by writers from a diverse group of disciplines and nationalities. A second volume, focusing on the Hemshin of the Caucasus and the rest of the former Soviet Union and including a general bibliography, is planned for publication.
Anne Elizabeth Redgate's introductory chapter examines Armenian historical sources on the origins of the Hemshin. The 7th-century Arab invasions of Armenia led to harsh treatment of the Armenian population in the subsequent century. According to the historian Ghevond's History, part of the Armenian leadership, including the Amatuni clan, rebelled, leading to the emigration of Shabuh Amatuni, his son Hamam, and many companions circa 790. They founded a new principality in the Byzantine-controlled Pontos, northwest of Armenia proper. Its capital was named Hamamashen (after Hamam), and this word was later transformed into Hamshen and used for the whole area.
Historical Hamshen lies between the Pontic mountain chain in the south and the Black Sea to the north, today part of the Turkish province of Rize. The Hemshin also live further to the east, in the Artvin province of Turkey, in the region around Hopa. Unlike their Laz neighbors, the Hemshin tend to live among the higher mountains, not immediately around the coast. Thanks to the Pontic mountains overlooking the Black Sea, Hamshen is not only fairly inaccessible, but also one of the most humid areas of Turkey, with a semi-tropical climate that sees an average of 250 days of rain every year. An almost permanent fog covers the area. The Armenians there were always in close proximity to the sea, even when their political borders did not quite reach it.
In the next chapter, Simonian briefly reviews the same Armenian historical sources referred to by Redgate, and dismisses two alternate hypotheses concerning the origins of Hamshen: that refugees following the fall of the Armenian capital of Ani in 1064 were its founders, and that after the initial arrival of the Amatunis, a sparse local Tzan population was Armenized by migrants from Ispir and Pertakrag to the south.
Much of the history of this area is still obscure. Between the late 8th and early 15th centuries, there are only two extant mentions of Hamshen, so that one can only suppose that the principality of Hamshen survived as a vassal of the larger Armenian, Byzantine, Georgian, and Turkic powers around it. Armenian manuscripts from the 15th century reveal that Hamshen had become a principality subservient to the Muslim lord of Ispir to the south, as well as to an overlord, Iskander Bey of the Kara Koyunlu Turkmen confederation. Ispir, exclusively Armenian until the 17th century, was Hamshen's only neighbor sharing a population adhering to the church of Armenia. The other Christians in the area were Orthodox Chalcedonians. Hamshen fell to the Ottomans in the late 1480s, with its last ruler, Baron Davit (David) exiled to Ispir. The most famous member of the Armenian ruling family of Hamshen was the monk Hovhannes Hamshentsi, an eminent scholar and orator who died in 1497.
Hamshen came to be referred to as Hemshin in early Ottoman documents, where it was noted as a separate district or province. It was subject to the devshirme, or child levy, in the 16th century.
An intellectual center in a dark age
In the third chapter, Christine Maranci examines manuscript illumination in Hamshen, which, together with scribal activity, extended from the 13th to the 17th centuries. A wide variety of texts were copied, demonstrating that Hamshen was a significant intellectual center even in the 16th century, often considered a "Dark Age" for medieval manuscript illumination.
In another chapter, Simonian traces the process of Islamicization in Hemshin to the end of the 19th century. Simonian does a good job of utilizing at times contradictory or obscure Armenian and Turkish sources to better understand that process.
Ottoman records show that Hemshin was overwhelmingly Christian until the late 1620s. Starting in the 1630s, the Hemshin Armenian diocese began to decline, while one of the first mosques in the area was built in the 1640s. Conversion to Islam seems to have taken place gradually. However, it is not known whether there were particular episodic periods of crisis in which conversion accelerated. The need for equality with Laz Muslim neighbors, the desire to avoid oppressive taxation of non-Muslims, increasing general Ottoman intolerance of non-Muslims in a period of weakness for the Ottoman Empire, and anarchy created by local valley lords are some of the causes of Islamicization. Islam took root in the coastal areas first, and then advanced slowly to the highlands.