Recently, in the media and also in the center of attention of some researchers, the identity problems of the Hamshen people living in Western Armenia have been in the center of attention.
Various interpretations are made without taking into account the historical reality of the Islamization-Turkization policy and its consequences, and the notions of identity and origin are not clearly distinguished.
The descendants of the Hamshen Armenians who were forcibly Islamized in the 18th century live today in Chamlhemshin (former name: Lower Viche Vije), Hamshin (former name: Hamshen), Pazar (former name: Atina), Fenldikle (former name: Viche Vije) , Ardashen in the province of Rize (former name: Artashen), Chaile (former name: Mavari), Ikizdere (former name: Kurai-i Seba) provinces, part of which includes the historic Armenian province of Hamshen. Over time, some of them have moved to the provinces of Khopa and Borchka of Ardvin province. There are also Hamshentsi villages in the provinces of Karin, Sakaria, Duzje. They can be found in large and small towns of Western Armenia. And due to the resistance, the part that preserved Christianity in the national face spread to the southeast of the Black Sea, and later, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most of the Hamshen Armenians who survived the genocide settled in the coastal regions of the northeastern (Russian) Black Sea, Armenia, preserving their language and religion, national customs.
The assimilation policy of the Ottoman Empire, later the Republic of Turkey, was carried out in several stages, with various violent systematic methods, as well as by linguistic assimilation. Not content with conversion and understanding the ethno-differentiating role of language, the Ottoman and current authorities attached great importance to making the peoples under their jurisdiction Turkish-speaking, thus completing the process of their assimilation. In this reality, the generations of Hamshen Armenians who were Islamized in the Ottoman-Turkish environment gradually lost important components of the Armenian identity: language (with the exception of the Hamshens of the provinces of Khopa and Borchka and several villages in the province of Sakarya), religion, were cut off from the Armenian culture and completely dissolved into Turkish society, preserving only their local ethnographic identity, as it is called, the Hamshen identity.
In general, one of the main means of ethnic resistance and self-defense is the language, which expresses and preserves the national uniqueness and borders. The characteristics of national identity, the many features of the given ethnicity are fixed in the linguistic thought, vocabulary and folklore. It is the language that transmits the national culture and traditions to the generations, also playing an ethno-differentiating role. Language and national identity have always been closely linked. Language is perhaps one of the most decisive factors in the formation of national self-awareness and identity.
The ruling circles of the multinational Ottoman Empire and the present Turkish government understood very well that the assimilation of foreigners was a rather complex process, especially since there was, in the terms of modern ethnopsychology, an “ethnic incompatibility” between the occupying nation and others.
Language could always keep alive the national consciousness of the peoples under its subordination. Therefore, the elimination of these circumstances led to the policy of assimilation and destruction adopted by the Ottoman Empire and its successors towards foreigners.
As a result of such pressures, at the expense of Armenian, the Turkish language became established in the Hamshen community. Although the remaining Hamshen Armenians in Western Armenia initially embraced Islam face to face, unfortunately, time as well as the environment, the consistent Turkish assimilation policy, the atmosphere of fear and various persecutions played their part. And today, the Armenian identity of a part of them is expressed only by the memory of the genetic origin and the preservation of certain cultural strata.
The German author M. Hunber writes that “identity cannot be possessed, it arises automatically, but once it is achieved, it cannot be considered secure. There is always the need and the urge to protect the identity of the foreigner.”
The Turkish government’s policy of assimilation of foreign nationals is legally established by Article 88 of the first constitution of 1924, which became Article 66 in 1982: “Every Turkish citizen is considered a Turk.”
In October 2005, the government of the Turkish state discussed and approved the “National Security Discussion Paper” presented by the Security Council, which re-emphasizes that the fundamental principles of the Turkish state are “one state, one nation, one flag and one language”. The principle of considering every citizen of the Turkish state as “Turkish by nationality” is preserved in the document.
In November 2005, Prime Minister R. Erdogan in his statement, although he admits that there are about 30 ethnic groups in the country with “their own internal identities”, he does not hesitate to point out that they have a “higher identity”, i.e. the citizenship of the Turkish state.
Today, in the identity document (Kimlik) of Christian Armenians living in occupied Western Armenia, which is for local use, the religious affiliation is indicated as Christian, and the nationality in the passport is of Turkish affiliation.
And to this day, efforts are made to confuse the identity of the Islamized Hamshens. Unscientific books are published (among them Hamshen authors) in order to deny the Armenian origin of the Hamshens and in general the remaining traces of Armenianness in Hamshen.
As an interesting fact, we should mention that the Hamshen people of the Khopa and Borchka regions of Ardvin province have managed to preserve their local dialect of Armenian, the Hamshen dialect, in this great Turkish ocean and still use it in their daily conversation. Today, the number of Hamshen speakers in the provinces of Khopa and Borshka is about 25-30,000. However, the younger generation is already forgetting or not using their local dialect and giving more importance to the Turkish language.
At the same time, it should be noted that they do not know Armenian letters, except for a few intellectuals, who study Mesopotamian letters for scientific and cognitive purposes. Due to the preservation of the local Hamshen dialect of Armenian, a part of the Hamshen people in these regions admit their Armenian origin. Despite Turkish propaganda, they understand very well that their spoken language is not Turkish. Incidentally, in the Khopa and Borshka regions, Marxist and therefore atheistic ideas are widespread, which, in our opinion, plays a certain role of psychological self-defense in the Islamic-Turkish environment in order to preserve their own ethnographic profile.
However, among them, there are also those who avoid talking about their origin, or consider themselves as Turks, or at best, Hamshetsi (Homshetsi). Some of the Hamshen inhabitants of Khopa emphasize that they are aware of their Armenian origin, they know that they were once part of the Armenian people, they were bearers of Armenian culture, but over time the link has been broken and they consider themselves neither Armenians nor Turks, but Hamshens.
We believe that such a perception of identity can be a model for preserving one’s type in the Turkish reality and adapting to this environment, but it is necessary not only to be aware of an Armenian reality but also to strengthen it.
Ashkhen Virabyan, Journalist-analyst of Western Armenia TV