Two Prominent Istanbul-Armenians: Two Widely Divergent Views of 1915
Hetq talks to Bedros Şirinoğlu and Dikran Altun, two influential members of the Armenian community of Istanbul regarding their perceptions of the events of 1915.
Bedros Şirinoğlu serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Holy Savior (Surp Prgich) Armenian Hospital in Istanbul. His family roots are in Bardizag (now Bahçecik) near Izmit. His business interests are in construction, tourism and woodworking. He is known to have close relations with ruling Turkish government officials.
Erzurum born businessman Dikran Altun has supported building bridges between the Armenian community in Turkey and Armenia since the latter gained independence from the Soviet Union. He’s probably best known as the person who launched a charter air flight between Yerevan and Istanbul that operates twice a week despite the closed border between the two nations.
Hetq - What is your perception regarding the events of 1915?
Şirinoğlu- What I’m about to say may seem strange to most Armenians in Armenia and to most Turks, but I believe that those events were planned by outsiders in an attempt to put an end to the Ottoman Empire.
It was done not only in the case of Armenians, but all nationalities. It was a plan to destroy the empire of the Ottomans.
Hetq – While you describe the current Turkish government in a positive light, I remember that in the past certain Armenians had good relations with the Turkish elite. And look what happened back then. Aren’t you afraid that the same will happen again?
Şirinoğlu – Those actions were started by the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyet (Committee of Union and Progress – CUP). There were also Armenians in that organization. And Armenians murdered fellow Armenians.
There were powerful and rich Armenians living in Anatolia at the time. Of course there were also poor Armenians. But the CUP enlisted rich Armenians into its ranks and thus Armenians killed other Armenians.
In 1908 Patriarch Ormanian petitioned the people and asked ‘What are you doing? You are preparing to turn Anatolia into a sea of blood.’
Altun – True, Armenians killed one another and that other such things happened. But such things cannot be the cause to kill children, women, old people or an entire nation. Bedros only talks about the Genocide, but it continued after 1915.
While I cannot say if the plans of the CUP continue in this current government or not, but did we kill one another or were those 300,000 a threat to Turkey. [Altun refers to the estimated 300,000 Armenians who remained in Turkey after the Genocide. Due to a policy of state discrimination, many either converted to Islam or left the country. Estimates place the current number of Armenians in Turkey between 50,000 and 70,000]
The idea is the same. Armenians must be destroyed. Today, Erdogan is here and we are alright. But on different occasions when I meet with foreign ambassadors I tell them that they [Turks] do not want us here. They don’t trust us.
Hetq - If that’s the case, what’s the fate of the Armenian community in Istanbul?
Şirinoğlu – What happened to Beirut or Syria? Or to Iraq? No one knows what will happen here. Right now Erdogan is powerful. What he will do for Turkey is unclear. If something happens we, as citizens, are in the middle of it and will be affected.
Syrian-Armenians were comfortable and content. But look what has happened. Where have they all gone? Some believe that I am against Armenia, but that’s not true. I too am Armenian. I do not seek revenge. Rather, I want the future to be good. I want our community and Armenians overall to continue to live in good conditions.
This is my view. Let’s put aside 1915 for a moment and forget. Let the border open and give people a chance to come and go. Later on, or at the same time, let the historians from France and elsewhere, including Armenia, sit down and discuss those events.
Altun – What exactly will they discuss? Did it happen or not? We know it happened. If they are to gather and discuss how it happened or why it happened, that is possible. But first, they have to accept that which happened.
Şirinoğlu – This government will not accept such a thing.
Altun – Of course it will not because other things will follow if they do.
Şirinoğlu – Sometime after 2004 an elderly couple approached me. I asked them if they had lived through the Genocide. They said they did. I asked them if only the Ottomans did wrong things. ‘Didn’t we do wrong things as well’, I asked. ‘We did many wrong things’, they answered. I then asked why they didn’t talk about this. The couple replied that they no longer had the heart to talk about such matters. ‘We began by only talking about the Ottomans and that outsiders [the diaspora-AM] continue only to mention the Ottomans’ was their reply.
Altun – Naturally, we did wrong things as well. I believe that the ARF (Dashnaktsutyun) did the most. But what does this resemble? Bedros, I do something wrong to you. I kill you and your family. And not only your family but to all those bearing the last name of Altun. I destroy them all and then say that you started it all. That you did wrong as well. This cannot be.
There is a hierarchy in this country. At the very top is the Turk. Then comes the Cherkez, the Laz, the Jew, and then the Armenian. At the very bottom right now is the Kurd. If any of them wants to move up the ladder or be equal, the order will be upset.
Şirinoğlu – I accept all of this. But the ottomans were very powerful at the time and then they started to slowly weaken. Greece was separated and later Syria and the rest. Our people launched their own movements.
The outsiders, the English and French, regarded Armenians as an active and governing group. They came and told the Armenians that everything is in your hands, the money and industry. We will give you weapons and you strike from within. Most of us rejected these overtures but some accepted the offer. And those same people who were giving weapons to the Armenians went to the Sultan and told him that the Armenians are arming themselves. But the sultan doesn’t believe this so they take him and show him what Armenian homes have weapons. So the sultan becomes fearful and orders that the weapons be collected from the Armenians. That’s why Armenians hid their weapons in the walls.
Given this, the Russians enter the picture. They tell the Kurds that they will liberate them and will give all the Armenian property to them. So the Kurds killed us.
Many Ottomans protected us from the Kurds. Some people told them where the Armenians were hiding, in what Ottoman house. They trusted us so much and regarded us as faithful citizens that they couldn’t believe that we betrayed them. That’s why the situation went to the extreme [i.e. the Genocide-AM]
Afterwards, at the end of the war, the English and French fleets arrived and captured Istanbul. Why? Because they wanted to dissect the Ottoman Empire.
Altun – Those people entered the war and lost. Naturally, when you lose the war the enemy comes and captures your capital. Didn’t the same happen to Berlin?
You’re talking as if the Ottoman or the Turk hadn’t done a thing and was standing by peacefully and all of a sudden the English and French came and captured this place. This isn’t acceptable.
I have revealed the cause of the Genocide, at least for me.
Until the French Revolution there was no such thing as nationalism. There was only the feudal system. This concept made its way east from Europe. The first to be affected were the Greeks and the Bulghars, who wanted to separate from the Ottoman Empire and have their own nation state and maintain their national character.
Later on, that movement reached here. And who were the ones in contact with France and Europe? It was the Armenians.
That’s to say that the Ottomans didn’t know how to read or write. Let’s not say the Ottomans but rather the Muslims. From my grandfather I know that until 1936 in Kayseri (Kesaria) if one wanted to insult someone they’d call him a Turk; that’s to say an illiterate.
Thus, there were many nationalities at the time within the Ottomans who began to think about issues such as national identity. At the time, a Greek would say he was Greek, an Armenian would say he was Armenian. But if you asked any Muslim, he wouldn’t say he was a Kurd or an Arab, or a Turk. They’d all say they were Muslims.
When the CUP saw the Balkans slip away, then the Arabs, they realized that the unity based on Islam was no longer of any use. A new mortar was needed and it was being a Turk. But where would they find these new Turks? Greeks saw themselves as Greek and Armenians as Armenians. Thus, Turks would be created from Muslims without any notions or feelings of nationalism.
And the Greeks lost much more than us – Trabzon, Antalya, Izmir, and Konya. They lived on their lands as much as we did on ours. They were all packed on to ships and tossed into the sea to drown. If we left 2,100 churches behind, they left 10,000. The CUP didn’t want anyone but Muslims left on these lands.
Now, seeing that Turkishness hasn’t worked because people are standing up and saying we aren’t Turks but Kurds, the military and the state got together and discussed the matter. They understood that in order to prevent the dismemberment of the nation the mortar holding it all together must again be Islam.
Top photo: Dikran Altun, Bedros Şirinoğlu
(This is an abridged version of the Armenian)