Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

“Provincial Cosmopolitanism” in Late Ottoman Anatolia: An Armenian Shoemaker's Memoir

  • Nora Lessersohn (a1)

This paper examines the nature of late Ottoman provincial intercommunal interactions and affiliations as they appear in the memoir of Hovhannes Cherishian (1886–1967), a shoemaker from late Ottoman Marash (present-day Kahramanmaraş, in southeastern Turkey). The paper is situated within the larger discourse of “untold histories” that historians have begun to address in revising the deeply ingrained post-Ottoman nationalist historiographies that dominate both academic and popular discourses. Conventional historiographies have represented former late Ottoman subject communities (e.g., Greek, Jewish, Armenian) as insulated and homogenous proto-nation-states. In the revisionist historiography, the late Ottoman Armenian voice, especially the provincial one, has been noticeably absent. Here I utilize Cherishian's memoir to examine the life and thoughts of one late Ottoman Armenian provincial subject. I focus especially on his treatment of intercommunal interactions in Anatolia and present-day Syria between 1897 and 1922. His accounts of these often extended intercommunal interactions, affiliations, and networks are characterized by intercommunal and interpersonal openness, sympathy, intimacy, and pleasure, even as he presents them side-by-side with descriptions of deportation and death at the hands of the late Ottoman state. I develop the idea of what I call “provincial cosmopolitanism” to conceptualize and represent the disposition, affinity, and process of identity formation that enabled Cherishian to create and operate these interpersonal relationships and networks that propelled his life, a historical condition to which we are not currently privy in most historiographical accounts of the late Ottoman period.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 Asadur Zabel, Harse [The bride] (Boston: Hairenik Press, 1938), 14.

2 For an introduction, see Somel Selçuk Akşin, Neumann Christoph K., and Singer Amy, “Introduction: Re-sounding Silent Voices,” in Singer Amy, Neumann Christoph K., and Somel Selçuk Akşin, eds., Untold Histories of the Middle East: Recovering Voices from the 19th and 20th Centuries (London: Routledge, 2011), 122; Campos Michelle, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). For a “Jewish voice,” see Rodrigue Aron and Stein Sarah Abrevaya, eds., A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); and Mills Amy, “The Place of Locality for Identity in the Nation: Minority Narratives of Cosmopolitan Istanbul,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (2008): 383401. For a “Greek voice,” see Doumanis Nicholas, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and Its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Özil Ayşe, Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Study of Communal Relations in Anatolia (New York: Routledge, 2013). An “Arab voice” can be found in Jacobson Abigail, “Negotiating Ottomanism in Times of War: Jerusalem during World War I through the Eyes of a Local Muslim Resident,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (2008): 6988; and Tamari Salim, Year of the Locust: A Soldier's Diary and the Erasure of Palestine's Ottoman Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). For an “Albanian voice,” see Gawrych George W., “Tolerant Dimensions of Cultural Pluralism in the Ottoman Empire: The Albanian Community, 1800–1912,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15, 4 (1983): 519–36; and Blumi Isa, Rethinking the Late Ottoman Empire: A Comparative Social and Political History of Albania and Yemen, 1878–1918 (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2003), 41.

3 Gawrych, “Tolerant Dimensions,” 519.

4 Özil, Orthodox Christians, xi.

5 Zandi-Sayek Sibel, Ottoman Izmir: The Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port, 1840–1880 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 7.

6 This persistence is due to many causes that lie outside the scope of this article.

7 Aymes Marc also says the “idea of the province … refers to a relationship.A Provincial History of the Ottoman Empire: Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2014), 5.

8 See the works I cited earlier by Blumi, Campos, Doumanis, Gawrych, Jacobson, Mills, Özil, and Rodrigue.

9 As Vahé Tachjian points out, “The first imperative [of these leaders] was … to build a new Armenian identity that was to be characterized by the break with the Ottoman Empire and its main element, the Turks.” Gender, Nationalism, Exclusion: The Reintegration Process of Female Survivors of the Armenian Genocide,” Nations and Nationalism 15, 1 (2009): 6080, at 63.

10 As Meltem Toksöz notes, “Whatever history we have on Ottoman Armenians is … veiled if not locked into violence, completely silencing other scholarship on a whole host of issues.” Ironically, Toksöz's critique is found in an analysis of violence against the Ottoman Armenians; Multiplicity or Polarity: A Discursive Analysis of Post-1908 Violence in an Ottoman Region,” in Singer Amy, Neumann Christoph K., and Somel Selçuk Akşin, eds., Untold Histories of the Middle East: Recovering Voices from the 19th and 20th Centuries (London: Routledge, 2011), 214–33. Janet Klein's instructive essay on Kurdish-Armenian relations is also written as a means of examining “other aspects” and “broader facets” of the “violence that became widespread in Ottoman Anatolia at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries”; Conflict and Collaboration: Rethinking Kurdish-Armenian Relations in the Hamidian Period, 1876–1909,” in Tezcan Baki and Barbir Karl K., eds., Identity and Identity Formation in the Ottoman World: A Volume of Essays in Honor of Norman Itzkowitz (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), 153–66, at 153. For an example of the oral testimony of Armenian genocide survivors on pre-genocide intercommunal relationships, see Miller Donald E. and Miller Lorna Touryan, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 6061.

11 Dadoyan Seta B., The Armenians in the Medieval Islamic World: Paradigms of Interaction, Seventh to Fourteenth Centuries, Volume One: The Arab Period in Arminyah, Seventh to Eleventh Centuries (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011), xxiv and 1.

12 For his concise summary of the problems of Armenian Studies and Ottoman history, which raises some of the questions I am addressing here, see the complete text of Sebouh Aslanian's spoken remarks, “Beyond the Lachrymose Conception of Armenian History,” given at the Department of History, University of California at Los Angeles, 26 April 2013: (accessed 10 May 2013).

13 Kebranian Nanor, “Introduction,” to Oshagan Hagop, Remnants: The Way of the Womb, Book I, Goshgarian G. M., trans. (London: Gomidas Institute, 2013), ix. She is quoting Kafadar Cemal, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 20.

14 Hovhannes Cherishian, “Testimony” [Vgayakir], unpublished manuscript in my possession. Cherishian's title, Vgayakir, conveys the idea of a written witness or certificate. According to his son, Stephen Cherishian, his father spoke his memoirs in Western Armenian onto audiocassette, and then transcribed them with the intention of having the text published. Stephen Cherishian commissioned an English translation by the Reverend Arten Ashjian in 2002. Hovhannes' handwritten transcript and the typescript of Reverend Ashjian's translation came into my possession in 2011. The present study is the first step of a larger project of mine to edit, publish, retranslate, and annotate the entire memoir.

15 See Kévorkian Raymond H., “La Cilicie: Un Territoire à la Géographie Humaine Complexe,” in Kévorkian Raymond, Minassian Mihran, Nordiguian Lévon, Paboudjian Michel, and Tachjian Vahé, eds., Les Arméniens de Cilicie: Habitat, Mémoire et Identité (Beirut: Saint Joseph University Press, 2012), 3351, at 43–44.

16 Varty Keshishian, Sandjak of Marash—Commerce: (accessed 14 May 2013).

17 For more on these events and their effect on the Armenian population of Marash, see Kerr Stanley E., The Lions of Marash: Personal Experiences with American Near East Relief, 1919–1922 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973).

18 One wonders if his decision to write his memoirs was in any way affected by the unprecedented scale and vocality of the 1965 commemorations marking the fiftieth year since the 1915 genocide.

19 Cherishian, “Testimony,” 1.

20 Ibid., 3.

21 Amy Mills describes similar narratives told by Jewish immigrants in Tel Aviv who lived in Istanbul during the 1940s and 1950s. In these, “The theme of belonging and fondness for a cosmopolitan past resonates even as Tel Avivans describe social difference or persecution.” “Place of Locality,” 391.

22 For a succinct discussion of this phenomenon in the context of Iranian-Armenian memoirs of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, see Berberian Houri, “History, Memory and Iranian-Armenian Memoirs of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 17, 3 (2008): 261–92, at 263–64.

23 Cherishian's representation of America expresses his inherent comfort with complex narratives: despite acknowledging it as his “second homeland (hayrenik),” he “felt sorry and worried about the future of our American-born children,” and said that America remained to him a “merciless (amansız) land.” “Testimony,” 215, 222, and 226.

24 Ginzburg Carlo, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), xvii.

25 Ibid., xix.

26 Rodrigue and Stein, Jewish Voice, xxxviii.

27 See, for example, Barkey Karen, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 110; Rodrigue Aron (interview with Nancy Reynolds), “Difference and Tolerance in the Ottoman Empire,” Stanford Electronic Humanities Review 5 (1996): 19, at 2.

28 “Testimony,” 40.

29 Ibid., 54.

30 Ibid., 52.

31 Ibid., 56.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., 58.

35 Ibid., 163.

36 On the Ottoman barbershop as a site of socializing, see Sajdi Dana, The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013).

37 The idiom of family and brotherhood is found in oral testimonies of other Armenian genocide survivors; see Miller and Miller, Survivors, 186. It is also a feature of the oral testimony that Nicholas Doumanis describes from Romioi speaking about their relations with Ottoman Muslims during the late Ottoman era, in Before the Nation. Amy Mills, likewise, includes multiple testimonies of “siblinghood” among former neighbors in Istanbul in “Place of Locality.” In her study of intercommunal relations in late Ottoman Palestine, Michelle Campos argues, “Rather than looking at these economic relationships … as transactions limited in time … I instead view these economic ties as important evidence of strong ongoing social networks” (Ottoman Brothers, 182), and suggests that the social relations underlying the idiom of love and/or brotherhood predate the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and its language of universalism. For more on the non-Muslim response to the Young Turk Revolution, see, for example, Campos, Ottoman Brothers; and Bedross Der Matossian, “Ethnic Politics in Post-Revolutionary Ottoman Empire: Armenians, Arabs, and Jews during the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1909),” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2008.

38 “Testimony,” 167.

39 Ibid., 146.

40 Ibid., 28–29.

41 Ibid., 33.

42 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 11.

43 Valensi Lucette, “Inter-Communal Relations and Changes in Religious Affiliation in the Middle East (Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries),” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39 (1997): 251–69, at 256.

44 See, for example, Miller Susan Gilson and Bertagnin Mauro, eds., The Architecture and Memory of the Minority Quarter in the Muslim Mediterranean City (Cambridge: Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2010). Najwa Al-Qattan also notes with respect to Ottoman Damascus, “It is evident that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of Damascus did not lead lives of social isolation.… Legal accommodation and residential coexistence were everyday realities”; Litigants and Neighbors: The Communal Topography of Ottoman Damascus,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (2002): 511–33, at 523.

45 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 11.

46 “Testimony,” 23.

47 See Tachjian, “Gender, Nationalism, Exclusion,” 63–64, for more on the post-genocide, Turkish-speaking Armenian community and the nationalist crusade for Armenians to have their “own national language” and abandon all links with the “Turkish world.” See also Sagaster Börte, “The Role of Turcophone Armenians as Literary Innovators and Mediators of Culture in the Early Days of Modern Turkish Literature,” in Balta Evangelia and Ölmez Mehmet, eds., Between Religion and Language: Turkish-Speaking Christians, Jews and Greek-Speaking Muslims and Catholics in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul: Eren, 2011), 101–10.

48 “Testimony,” 206.

49 Ibid., 34–36.

50 As Aron Rodrigue puts it: “Language was not invested with identity in the same way that the modern nation-state invests it.… The ability to speak a certain language did not in any shape or form alter their identity”; “Difference and Tolerance,” 6–7. Also, Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis: “In view of the role that language has played in determining national identity in the West, its relative lack of importance in the Ottoman context is significant…. Spoken language was a means of communicating among peoples, not a means of distinguishing among them. In the nineteenth century language started to acquire the second role, but in the Ottoman Empire it never assumed the same importance it was to gain in Europe. Religion was more important than language in determining identity.” Introduction,” in Braude B. and Lewis B., eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: Volume I—The Central Lands (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1982), 2628.

51 “Testimony,” 40.

52 As Börte Sagaster observes: “…Ottoman society was divided by, among other things, religion, language, and script”; “The Role of Turcophone Armenians,” 101–2.

53 “Testimony,” 30.

54 That is to say, from the time of the Muslim conquest.

55 “Testimony,” 4.

56 Clogg Ronald, Anatolica: Studies in the Greek East in the 18th and 19th Centuries (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996), 256–59. In other descriptions of the Armenian prophecy in his memoir, Cherishian also evokes “the yellow race.”

57 Doumanis, Before the Nation, 24.

58 Ibid., 33–34.

59 “Testimony,” 193.

60 Kalusdian Krikor, Marash gam Kermanig yev Heros Zeytun [Marash or Kermanig and heroic Zeytun], 2d ed. (New York: Union of Marash Armenians, 1988), 7476. These “memory-tomes,” or memorial books, of which the Marash volume is one, are local histories compiled by Armenian communities in diaspora, mostly after the genocide. Cherishian was a contributor to the Marash hushamadyan, first compiled in New York City in 1934, and he occasionally cross-references it in his memoir. I am grateful to Christian Millian for his help in translating these pages.

61 Ginzburg, Cheese and the Worms, 1992.

62 Other memoirs and oral histories express retrospective anger toward the European powers. See, for example, Hartunian Abraham H., Neither to Laugh nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, Hartunian Vartan, trans. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 189–91; and Miller and Miller, Survivors, 175–76.

63 As Gerard J. Libaridian writes regarding the self-image of the Armenians during the last century of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians did not have a uniform view of themselves. The content and characteristics of being Armenian varied according to class, geographic location, and level of education.Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004), 73.

64 “Testimony,” 24–25.

65 Ibid., 40.

66 Tamari, Year of the Locust, 69.

67 See Zürcher Erik J., “The Ottoman Conscription System in Theory and Practice, 1844–1918,” in Zürcher E. J., ed., Arming the State: Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia, 1775–1925 (London: I. B. Tauris & Co., 1999), 7994, at 86 and 89. See also Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 152: “Due to the political and economic ramifications of universal conscription, the first non-Muslim recruits did not head out to the field until 1910.” This corresponds with the dates Cherishian gives.

68 Ibid., 151.

69 Yotnakhparian Levon, Crows of the Desert: The Memoirs of Levon Yotnakhparian, Parian Leon and Jinbashian Iskban, eds. (Tujunga: Parian Photographic Design, 2012), 1920.

70 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 154.

71 Zürcher, “Ottoman Conscription System,” 89, 93.

72 Ibid., 90. Cherishian also discusses the phenomenon of Turkish evasion of military service.

73 The hymn is in Turkish.

74 “Testimony,” 28–31. This slogan is in Turkish: Kahr olsun istibdād!

75 See ibid., 192.

76 Ibid., 198. For more on the Cilician Self-Government act, see Genjian Antranig, Sotsial-Demockrat Hnchagian Gusagtsutiune yev Giligian Inknavarutian Akte (Giligian Husher Badmutian Hamar), 1919–1921 [The Social Democratic Hnchakian Party and the Cilician Self-Government Act (Cilician Memoirs for History)] (Beirut: Ararat Publishing, 1958).

77 Zandi-Sayek, Ottoman Izmir, 3.

78 Jacob Margaret C., Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 1.

79 “Testimony,” 145.

80 Ibid., 143.

81 Krikor Kalusdian, Marash or Kermanig, 724–25. For the translation, see: (accessed 7 June 2013).

82 For an overview of this literature, see Will Hanley, “Grieving Cosmopolitanism in Middle East Studies,” History Compass 6, 5 (2008): 1346–67; and Lafi Nora, “Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism and Its Contemporary Revivals: A Critical Approach,” New Geographies 5 (2013): 325–35.

83 Hanley, “Grieving Cosmopolitanism,” 1358.

84 Ibid., 1346.

85 Salzmann Ariel, “Islampolis, Cosmopolis: Ottoman Urbanity between Myth, Memory, and Postmodernity,” in MacLean Derryl N. and Ahmed Sikeena Karmali, eds., Cosmopolitanisms in Muslim Contexts: Perspectives from the Past (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 6891.

86 Hanley, “Grieving Cosmopolitanism,” 1360.

87 Bayat Asef, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 187.

88 Mayaram Shail, ed., The Other Global City (New York: Routledge, 2009), xiii.

89 Testimony, 146, 155.

90 Örs İlay, “Coffeehouses, Cosmopolitanism, and Pluralizing Modernities in Istanbul,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies 12, 1 (2002): 119–45, at 124.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 8
Total number of PDF views: 97 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 254 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.