A Village Remembered: The Armenians of Habousi - The Compatriotic Union of Habousi

Chapter 1:

The Region and Its People

Habousi was a village of Kharpert, a province in Western Armenia renamed Mamuret-el-Aziz by Ottoman rulers. Armenia, in ancient times, was an extensive land (300,000 square kilometers or 115,000 square miles), neighbored on the west by the Byzantine Empire and on the east by the Persian Empire. After the fall of the last Armenian Cilician kingdom in 1375, six Armenian provinces—Van, Paghesh (Bitlis), Garin (Erzerum), Sepastia (Sivas), Dikranagerd (Diyarbekir), and Kharpert—and a certain portion of Cilicia fell under Ottoman Turkey, while the Persians ruled Eastern Armenia.

Kharpert was surrounded by the Taurus Mountain Ranges, comprised of three plains known as Oulou Ova (Big field), Deoz Ova (Plain field) and Keoz Ova (Sheep field). In the heart of these plains, atop a hill some 5,000 feet height the city of Kharpert (Harput in Turkish) was built. The city was surrounded by about 365 villages, one of them being Habousi. At the foot of the hill, about three miles distant, was Mezre, the government seat of the province.

The Aradzany River (known as the Eastern Euphrates or Murat River)(1), flowing from the east, passed along the eastern boundary of Oulou Ova, turned north and cut the Taurus Ranges, thus dividing Kharpert from Der sim. Then again it changed its course and flowed southward into the Euphrates River near Malatia. Other rivers and tributaries passed through the plain also. Some came from the hills of Khacho Melik or from the Lake of Soor soory; all were bound for the Euphrates River. Thus the plains of Kharpert formed a peninsula, abundant with water and ideal for growing crops. The lower hillsides were covered with vineyards, nut groves, fruit orchards, and mulberry trees. The fields were prolific with cotton, wheat, sesame, and all types of cereal grains and melons.

Kharpert was famous for the quality and quantity of its wine grapes. However, due to Turkish government policies, the shipping of wine grapes out of the province was kept to a minimum. The extensive acreage of mulberry trees did offer a medium for the raising of silk worms and gave impetus to a limited manufacture of silk goods for local and neighboring consumption. The manufacture of stamped cotton goods became almost an art. Various plants, leaves, nut shells, and roots were the source of fast natural dyes. Tanneries were common in many villages. Sheep and cattle raising were also important industries.

The villages which surrounded Kharpert were, for the most part, populated entirely by Armenians. In general, the Turks and Kurds inhabited villages in the mountainous regions north of Kharpert, which extended as far as the Euphrates River. Mezre was populated by both Armenians and Turks. It was on the outskirts of Mezre that silk factories were established in the mid to late nineteenth century.

The climate of Kharpert was dry and healthy. Only during a certain season of the year did humidity prevailed on the plains. The seasons were distinctly marked, each bringing with it special labors and enjoyment to the countryfolks. Kharpert was beautiful in the spring time, with its verdant fields and hillsides; beautiful in the heat of summer, with its fields of ripening grains and fruits; beautiful in the autumn, when the hills and countryside turned crimson and gold under nature’s brush and young and old gathered with laughter and song to harvest the luscious grapes, fruits, grains, and nuts which filled the countrymen’s larders for the coming winter days; beautiful in the winter when its cities and hamlets were covered with a mantle of snow and ice. Winter was the season for some work, but more so for rest and enjoyment.

The community life of Kharpert was closely interwoven with the change of seasons. Kharpert may well be called a patriarchal community. Families were closely knit. Grandparents, parents, and children all lived under one paternal roof. Marriages were consummated on the basis of family background and the suitability of the various families. It was jokingly said that when Kharpertsies met they invariably turned out to be relatives or at least khenamis (in-laws). Thus the community behaved like one large family. Each person was willing and ready to help his neighbor in the field or in the home. Dear in the memory of the Kharpetrtsie housewives were the bread-making days. On those days the whole neighborhood would get together to bake a six months’ supply of bread for each family. Then came the season for crushing grapes. Crushed grapes were used to make wine, syrup, rojig, and pasdegh. Late in the fall was the time for melting butter fats and making khavoorma (pieces of meat cooked with bones and salted for preservation). Countless household duties were performed cheerfully, each for the other. Plowing, reaping, and shearing all turned into community projects complete with the attendant joymaking.

In spite of the ever present shadow of fear that hung over the Armenians, the inhabitants of Kharpert were happy and jovial. Birthdays, name days, feast days, engagements, and weddings were all occasions for gaiety. When the chilling blasts blew on the long winter days, the family would gather around the koorsi (the heating device). Grandpar ents told fantastic fairy tales to the little ones; maidens silently and diligently worked on intricate needlework and laces; mothers brought in trays laden with delicacies; and the menfolk spoke in low tones of their hope for the day when they would be free from oppression.

This was Kharpert before the tragic days of 1915, before the Turks brought total desolation and havoc and turned a happy and contented community to a barren wilderness.

The city of Kharpert offered great educational leadership to the wide vicinity of neighboring villages. Love of education was inherent in the young. In proportion to its size, Kharpert had many educational institutions, including kindergartens, primary schools, intermediate and high schools and three fine colleges, one French, one German, and one American, all established by their various nations for the purpose of bringing education to a worthy Christian people. The missionaries who labored zealously to bring the light of education were dear to those who studied under their untiring efforts. Non-missionary schools fell primarily under the jurisdiction and the sponsorship of the churches. Even the humblest farmer made the necessary sacrifices to insure his children receive an education. Every year, hundreds of young graduates journeyed out into the neighboring villages to teach and carry the torch of learning to others.

Turks, filled with religious fanaticism and racial hatred, looked with disfavor upon these Christian institutions. They did not take advantage of the educational opportunities of these foreign-run facilities and were content with their few mediocre schools and religious medresses (schools), where the teaching of the Koran and its loud recital seemed to be of highest importance. Taxes were levied on the Armenian population for the upkeep of these schools. The standard of education of the Armenians was far superior to that of the Turks, which perhaps explains why so many important positions were filled by Armenians (with the exception of military and police offices).

There was a Central High School located in Mezre. The French and German schools were also in Mezre, as well as many grade schools. The High School was co-educational. In the city of Kharpert were the St. Hagop Central School and Euphrates College, founded in 1878 and supported by an American endowment. Euphrates College was an imposing structure, comprised of two wings, with six large and small buildings, located on a hill surrounded with nut and fruit trees. The college had a well-rounded curriculum and also offered nursing and medical courses. One of its presidents, Dr. Atkinson, built the American Hospital in Mezre.

The enrollment of the schools of Mamuret-el-Aziz was about 35,000. Four-fifths of this number were Armenian, the balance was Turkish. These numbers include the enrollment in Turkish medresses and the military academy. There is no doubt that the high level of education provided by these institutions raised the standard of living among the Armenians and in a measure affected the Turks positively also.

The educational advancement of the Armenian youth of Kharpert gave way to the gradual emigration from their homeland. For one reason, the opening of new vistas spurred them to establish higher goals; and the other—perhaps even stronger—motivation, was the growing sense of insecurity the people of Kharpert felt under Turkish rule. Emigration out of Kharpert and the neighboring villages started in the late nineteenth century. As the persecution and oppression increased, so did the numbers of those trying to find refuge and opportunity in other lands. Many came to the United States.

According to a census taken in1870’s by Armenian clergymen, there were nearly 118,900 inhabitants in Kharpert and the surrounding plains and hillsides. A little over fifty percent of the inhabitants were Armenians, twenty-seven percent Kurds, twenty-one percent were Turks, and one percent were Syrians. In the late 1890’s, however, these numbers were not quite as favorable to the Armenians due to massacres and emigration, but Armenian birthrates were generally higher, so the population mix of the region remained stable until the genocide of 1915.

The vilayet of Mamuret-el-Aziz was divided into three provinces, Kharpert, Dersim, and Malatia. According to an unofficial census taken by Turkey, the population of the three combined was between 450,000 and 525,000. The majority were Armenian. Mezre had a population of about 16,000, half Armenians and half Turks. Business was mostly in the hands of the Armenians. Real estate was equally divided. The silk factories were Armenian owned.

Many Armenians in Kharpert were landowners. At the beginning of the last quarter of the last century, three-fourths of the land belonged to Turkish aghas, but by 1908 more and more Armenians had become property owners. No doubt the money earned by family members who had emigrated to the United States helped bring about this change.

In spite of many government restrictions and discrimination, the Armenians took advantage of opportunities. As real estate passed into the hands of the Armenians, their superiority grew also in business, industry, arts, and crafts. Of course the lack of shipping and transportation limited trade, and the supply of goods and services fell short of the demand. The standard of living among the Armenians was higher than that of the Turks in the region. No doubt a large measure of the credit for this goes to their educational institutions and training.

The mountain Kurds had little effect on the economic life of Kharpert. They lived isolated in their natural domain and enjoyed a lower standard of living than even the Turks. They had little to do with the rest of the population of Kharpert. They came down to the town and villages occasionally to trade. They were content with their nomadic life as sheep herders and dairymen. Many of them worked as the caretakers of large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle that belonged to wealthy Turkish Aghas and Armenians living on the plains. Periodically they received lambs, wool, cheese, and butter in payment for their labors.

In the early 1890’s matters took a turn for the worse in Kharpert. Villages were plundered, cattle were stolen, Armenian homes were pillaged, and their lives threatened. The Khojabashis (tax collectors) made periodic visits to every village and hamlet to collect taxes, and woe to those who could not comply with the government’s demands. The villagers were subjected to all types of physical torture. The specters of massacre and persecution hung over the heads of the Armenians.

Life in Kharpert was changing fast. Gone were the relatively peaceful days of their fathers. Now they lived as strangers in their natural homeland, torn by fear and suspicion. The pillaging and atrocities of 1895 drove them nigh to frenzy; and anyone who could get away was anxious to escape, even if it meant leaving their homes, goods, cattle, and other possessions behind and facing a strange world almost penniless.

After the massacres of 1895, when nearly 300,000 Armenians were slaughtered during the reign of Sultan Hamid(2), Armenian emigration took a pronounced upturn. However, when in 1908 the Turks declared a Constitutional Government, the Armenians became more hopeful of a peaceful existence and the association of the Turks and Armenians became temporarily more friendly. A light of hope shone on the horizon; maybe the Armenians would not have to forsake their homeland.

But hardly a year passed before the Young Turks(3) in 1909 killed 30,000 Armenians in Adana. This barbaric slaughter again plunged the Armenians into hopelessness. The lack of faith in the Turk became more deeply rooted. Emigration again increased until the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, when Turkey entered the war as an ally of Germany and Austria. Then all methods of escape were cut off.

The Turks were waiting for an opportune time to wipe out the Armenian nation, and their golden opportunity came in 1914, with the eruption of World War I. The Armenians who survived the 1915 death marches through the burning deserts of Der Zor, and the unimaginable tortures planned by the Turkish government, sought refuge in Aleppo (Syria), Beirut (Lebanon), Greece, Egypt, France, and any part of the world where a safe haven was offered.

About 300,000 refugees reached the boundaries of present-day Armenia. Many of the Armenians housed in refugee camps in other lands returned to this new Armenian homeland. Many villages were built and named after those from which their new inhabitants had been driven. Today, a visitor will find in Armenia a New Kharpert, New Malatia, New Arabkir, the Habousi Quarter in Nubarashen, and others.