The start of the Allied occupation of Constantinople in November 1918 marked the beginning of a mass influx of Anatolian refugees into the capital. Among the orphans and widows desperate for a way to meet their most basic needs was a handful of notable Ottoman Armenian writers and intellectuals who returned to the city with a much loftier goal in mind: the revival of Armenian literary and intellectual life. (Odian, left, and Oshagan, right.)
But from a cultural standpoint, the Constantinople these men returned to after the Armistice was almost unrecognizable from the one they had left. In 1915, the Armenian community of the city had been in the midst of a cultural renaissance. As measures were put in place to liberalize Ottoman society and more freedoms were granted to religious minorities in the late nineteenth century, the Armenian community had gradually emerged from centuries of cultural stagnation. Due to more widespread access to education and significant language reforms, literature and the arts flourished during the late Ottoman period. This cultural renaissance, however, came to an abrupt end on the night of April 24, 1915, when the majority of Ottoman Armenian artists, writers, and intellectuals was arrested, deported, and ultimately killed. This incident, known as Red Sunday, was the first phase of the Armenian genocide, which would affect the general Anatolian Armenian population in the months to come.
The targeting of the elite left the Armenian community that survived the genocide without the cultural leadership it had known before 1915. After the Armistice, this void was compounded by the Armenian community’s more immediate, existential concerns, primarily the housing and education of the orphans who had flooded the capital, the reassertion of religious authority, the on-going military conflict in Cilicia, and the petitioning for an independent Armenian state in Eastern Anatolia.
Witnessing the desertion of art and literature in the early years of the Armistice period, many returning intellectuals yearned for the thriving intellectual center they had helped to build before the war. In a letter dated January 1919, satirist Yervant Odian grieved for literature in particular, writing: “Here [in Constantinople] in the literary realm, there is a bleakness that reigns over everything, or perhaps it is something worse: death. I feel like I am the groundskeeper of a cemetery.”
Odian, left, and Oshagan, right.
Writer Hagop Oshagan echoed this idea in a letter written in April 1920: “There is an eternal grayness here [in Constantinople]. Letters and literature are more neglected than ever before. People are carried away by politics, and with the scarcity of writers, people are slowly abandoning literature.” Further along in the letter, he was even more blunt in his assessment: “With regard to literature in Constantinople, you will see only death.”
This phenomenon was certainly not limited to the Armenian community during this time; the war had destroyed the intellectual life of all the communities that made up the city. The Armistice period was a time for Turkish, Greek, Jewish and Armenian intellectuals to regroup and work towards cultural recovery and growth. The Armenian community, however, was distinct in that it had lost the majority of the intellectual leadership that would have been called upon to facilitate this reconstruction.
By December 1921, however, the surviving intellectuals had regained their footing and established an organization called Հայ Արուեստի Տուն [House of Armenian Art] with the goal of resuscitating Armenian art and continuing the artistic tradition they had inherited from Ottoman times. The article above, published in the 1923 volume of the Constantinople-based Ամենուն Տարեցոյցը [Everyone’s Almanac], describes the organization’s founding, its members and its activities.
The particular brand of culture that was of interest to the House of Armenian Art was not the popular culture most familiar to rural and urban Armenians alike, but a form of high culture produced and propagated by a select, highly literate segment of Armenian society. The organization demonstrates its cultural inclinations through its homage to the literary traditions of the occupying powers. In its first three months, the House of Armenian Art organized a celebration for the 300th anniversary of Molière’s birthday, staged a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and hosted a reception for Charles Diehl, a French historian of Byzantine art. Of course, these writers were concerned with more than European historians, poets and playwrights. Their activities also included those perhaps more relevant to the wider Armenian community with public lectures on Armenian traditions and customs, ancient Armenian religion and Armenian literature. Nevertheless, the question of how to blend Europhilic cultural proclivities with a vision of culture that would attract a larger Armenian audience remained a challenge.
While the House of Armenian Art was short-lived, and by certain accounts, buzzing with internal divisions, it did make significant strides in developing the cultural life of the capital. It was in the spirit of the House of Armenian Art that a group of writers came together to start a new monthly literary journal called Բարձրավանք [Partsravank], which ran from January to June of 1922.
In the first issue, whose cover is printed above, the founding members of the journal—Shahan Berberian, Kegham Kavafian, Hagop Oshagan, Vahan Tekeyan, and Gosdan Zarian—outlined the philosophy of the journal with nine points. Below is a translation of their mission statement, beside the original Western Armenian.
• To ennoble Armenian life with thought and art; to strengthen and give foundation to Armenian thought and art by infusing it with life.
• To create a public space, where, though the world has scattered them, the spiritual forces of the Armenian people can find each
other and unite for the fatherland.
• When will there finally be a true kind of Armenian thought that is not a mere copy or appropriation of foreign thinking, but a kind of thought born out of the turbulent depths of the Armenian reality?
• The task of the coming generation is to rediscover the Armenian style in the Armenian depths.
• People are prepared to accept art just as they are prepared to accept religion.
• To be original is to be profoundly spiritual.
• Not everyone undertaking this work is a writer, and others gladly renounce the title when they think of those who have usurped that noble and inaccessible role of writer.
• To be workers of the mind who find pleasure, and at the same time, satisfaction of conscience, in their work; both are considered two distinct, related, and ceremonial ways of saying the same thing.
• Withered souls and twisted minds are parasites that kill life; to diagnose them is sacred work.
With its five issues, Partsravank strove to achieve many of the same goals that the House of Armenian Art had set for itself. Like the organization, the journal was concerned with high culture and published pieces from a wide variety of genres (poetry, drama, criticism, short stories, serialized novellas, etc.) and on a wide variety of topics (music, linguistics, theatre, pedagogy, etc.). Like the House of Armenian Art, Partsravank also struggled to define what exactly was Armenian about Armenian art. While its editors seemed to agree that cultural products must emerge from the “Armenian reality” rather than from “foreign thinking,” the fact that this portion of the mission statement was not a statement at all but a question points to the continued struggle to work out questions of cultural authenticity.
The men who sat on the editorial board of Partsravank not only brought awareness to the various facets of Armenian art and literature through their journal, but also used their roles as teachers in Constantinople’s Getronagan and Berberian Schools–two of the largest and most well-respected Armenian schools in the city–to instill a drive to develop Armenian arts and literature in a new generation. Their students, most of whom fled the advancing Kemalist forces in late 1922 and early 1923, would ultimately take this task with them to their new homes in the diaspora and fuel the last generation of significant Western Armenian literary production.
In this regard, without the burst of intellectual activity in Constantinople during the Armistice period, the Armenian diaspora, most notably in France and the United States in the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, would have been largely devoid of the literary and artistic expertise needed to perpetuate, cultivate, and enrich Armenian cultural life far from home.
Many thanks to Marc Mamigonian at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research’s (NAASR) Mardigian Library for digitizing the entire collection of Partsravank for me and to Vartan Matiossian for putting us in contact.
Sources: « Հայ Արուեստի Տուն » [House of Armenian Art], Ամենուն տարեցոյցը [Everyone’s Almanac] (1923): 266.
« Առաջադրութիւններ » [Objectives], Բարձրավանք [Partsravank] 1 (1922): 1.