A Black Sea Mystery (1): Hamshen and Its People
Towards the eastern reaches of the Black Sea region, near the borders with Georgia and Armenia, lies a mountainous and mysterious area, inhabited by a people who call themselves Hamshentsiner in Armenian and Hemşinliler in Turkish —, who have only in recent decades begun to attract the interest of the Turkish public.
According to various historical records and sources the Hamshen people are ethnic Armenians who were Christians and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church but over the centuries were either forcibly or voluntarily converted to Sunni Islam after the conquest of the region by the Ottomans in the mid-15th century and during the Armenian genocide in 1915, evolving into a “distinct ethnic group.”
Where exactly is Hemshin or Hamshen? Who are these Hemshin people? Are they Armenian? How do they define their identity? What is the definition of "Hemshinli identity"? What are the distinctive features of Hemshin culture? Are there any similarities with Armenian culture?
Interest in the Hamshen people, 'Hamshentsiner' in Armenian, in the Turkish society that knows them as 'Hemşinliler', may be recent, but in Armenia and the Diaspora, academic interest in this ethnic group has a longer history, and several academic studies and articles have been published, albeit in small numbers. Historians write that after the Islamization of the Armenian population of Hamshen by the 18th century, some of the Hamshenites left the original Hamshen - which today makes up Camlihemshin, Hemshin and Cayeli regions of Rize - and settled in the regions of Hopa and Borchka of Artvin, while others remained in their home villages.
Those who retained their Christianity dispersed to the southeast Black Sea region and eventually migrated to the northeastern shores of the Black Sea in Russia and Eastern Armenia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Hikmet Akcicek, one of the founders and directors of the Association for the Research and Preservation of Hemshin Culture (HADIG) and the GOR Journal on Hemshin culture, language and history, believes that the vast majority of the Hemshin people are Muslim Armenians, taking into account the possibility that other ethnic elements may have intermingled with the Hemshin people, albeit to a limited extent in the process.
"It is written in historical sources that the Hemshin people migrated from the vicinity of Osaka Castle, located within the borders of present-day Armenia, around 620 or 780 AD and arrived on the eastern shores of the Black Sea under the leadership of their chief Hamam Amaduni, where they were settled in the present-day Hemshin region by the Byzantine emperor of the time.
It is recorded that the incoming community was a people affiliated to the Armenian Apostolic Church, that the region where they settled was called Hamshen in reference to the name of their chief, that after the region came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the process of Islamization began, because of which part of the people migrated to the region between Trabzon and Samsun, and those who remained in their homeland became Islamized. Based on this information, it is claimed that the people identified today as Hemshinli is an Islamized community of Armenians," notes Akcicek and adds:
"However, some Turkish nationalist historians in Turkey, as well as their believers among the Hemshinli, deny this thesis and claim that this is actually a Turkish tribe that before eventually arriving to their final destination along the southeastern Black Sea region from Osaka in Armenia, they came here from Khorasan-Hamadan in Greater Turkestan."
Another source I spoke to, Mahir Ozkan, author of the Jineps newspaper and Gor magazine, believes that the Hemshinli can be considered part of the Armenian people as far as their history is concerned. According to Ozkan, place names, family names and, above all, surnames ending in -ants and -yans reinforce this approach.
"Ottoman tax records reveal that the Muslim population of the region increased and the Christian population decreased over the years. Again, Ottoman records show that the region was a sending rather than a receiving region due to its geographical aspects. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that the Muslim population of the region was largely formed by the Islamization of Hemshinite Christians affiliated with the Armenian Church," Ozkan also stresses that Hemshinites are defined as "Muslim Armenians" in some state sources.
"There is a letter dated June 1, 1913 written by the Fourth Branch of the General Staff to the Ministry of the Interior. In the letter, the Hemshinlis are defined as "Muslim converts from Armenia known as Hemshin" and it is stated that the local government should enlighten the ignorant people against the missionaries who would work in the region. (BOA, File: 116, Folder: 65, Background Code: DH.İD.- 1331. C. 28.)
"Ahmet Faik Gunday, who was the governor of Lazistan in 1920, wrote in his memoirs - "I had ascertained that in eight to ten villages in the Mapavri (Cayeli) region, in the Oca village of Pazar and in the villages in the Hemshin districts of Vice (Findikeli-Findikli) and Hopa, they were speaking in Armenian, and I strictly forbade it. In any case, it was a mere occurrence, deprived of reading and writing. I also absolutely forbade speaking Armenian after the determination of Armenia's borders by Wilson. The Armenian-speaking people are very good Muslims and pious people and there is no doubt that they are sincerely loyal to the state." (Suleyman Beyoglu, Ahmet Faik Gunday ve Hatiralari, Bengi Publishing, 2011, p. 369). According to Ozkan, it is clear from this source that the Hemshinli have historically represented some part of their Armenian identity. But how do Hemshinites define themselves and their identity today? This is where things get a bit complicated. Ozkan emphasizes that there are three main communities that call themselves Hemshinli today.
The first is a Christian community living in Abkhazia and several cities in Russia, who speak the Hemshin dialect of Armenian and belong to the Armenian Church. Almost all members of this community identify themselves as Armenians or Hamshen Armenians (Hamshenahay).
The second group is the Hamshen-speaking community that lives predominantly in the Hopa and Kemalpasha regions of the border town of Artvin, and practices Sunni Islam. Within this community, there are also some who identify with different identities such as Turkish, Hemshinli Turkish, Hemshinli, Hemshinli Armenian.
The third group, who do not speak Hemshin but use approximately 2000 Hemshin words in their Turkish, is a community with Sunni Islamic faith living mainly in regions around Rize, especially Hemshin, Camlihemshin, as well as some parts of Erzurum and Trabzon. Within this group, it is possible to find people who identify themselves with different identities such as plain Turkish, Turkish Hemshinli, plain Hemshinli and Armenian Hemshinli. Obviously, whoever defines himself as he does is conditioned to some extent by his political leanings.
"Those with left-wing socialist political leanings, who are noticably more common among them compared the other segments in the society, and a portion of those who identify themselves as religious are more likely to accept that there is a relationship between the Armenian identity and the Hemshinli identity. Those who adopt nationalistic political tendencies, either leftist or right-wing, on the contrary, tend to reject this relationship. Of course, it would not be wrong to say that there is also a religious segment that rejects the Armenian identity because of its religious affiliation and because being Armenian and being Christian are considered identical," Ozkan says.
Hikmet Akcicek, who has been involved in cultural, artistic and social activities related to Hemshin culture and language for many years, collecting anonymous Hemshin melodies, turning them into albums and performing them, argues that one cannot speak of a monolithic "Hemshinli image" regarding identity.
According to Akcicek, although the vast majority of Hemshinli are aware that they are an Islamized Armenian community, as a result of religious, historical and cultural processes, and partly for political reasons, they do not identify themselves as Armenians, but define themselves with a new identity as Hemshinli.
"In addition, a significant number of them reject their Armenian roots and consider themselves ethnically Turkish. A much smaller number of Hemshinli identify themselves as Armenian or Armenian Hemshin. On the other hand, the notion of being Hemshinli, as an expression of ethnic identity, represents a different culture with its distinctive characteristics although, of course, it has been nurtured by both the Armenian and Turkish, even though bearing relations and links to both at different levels," Akcicek shares.
*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the +GercekNews Portal.