Vakef of Musa Dagh: The Sole Armenian Village Left in Turkey

The Armenian village of Vakef (Vakifli or Vakifkoy) in Musa Dagh is situated in the Samandai district of the southern Turkish province of Hatay (formerly the Sanjak of Alexandretta). The word “vakif” is the Turkish version of the Arabic “waqf,” which means, among other things, religious foundation or endowment. Where did the Armenian village of Vakef–also pronounced as Maqf by the natives–derive its name from? According to oral tradition, the original settlers of Vakef were a few families from the Armenian villages of Yoghun Oluk and Kheder Beg who used to cultivate religious properties adjoining the Alawi village of Kurtderesi. As those households reestablished themselves in Musa Dagh permanently, they named their new habitat Vakef. Since, however, the village lands were in part charitable holdings, it can be surmised with relative certainty that Vakef’s name reflected the nature of its actual site.

According to a Turkish source, until the beginning of the 19th century Vakef belonged to Yoghun Oluk. During the reign of Sultan Mehmed II (1808-1839), however, its ownership was transferred to a Christian Arab by the name of Muhayyile (Mukhayel). This story does not explain why Vakef changed hands, nor does it say how it was reverted to the Armenia’s. In any case, it can be maintained with relative certainty that Vakef emerged as a viable village in the 1880s. As such, it was the smallest of the six main Armenian villages of Musa Dagh, containing four quarters, namely, Aste Qarshen, Ante Qarshen, Hajjelak, and Manjelak, and a satellite neighborhood called Nerke Izzir.

At the time of the annexation of the autonomous Syrian county or Sanjak of Alexandrettra by Turkey in 1939, the overwhelming majority of Armenia’s living there opted to migrate to other parts of Syria as well as to Lebanon. But a small number of Armenia’s preferred to stay. The reason why some Musa Daghians refused to leave is three-fold. First, they belonged to that segment of society which had failed to break the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) hold on the governance of Musa Dagh. Therefore, when in the summer of 1938 the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now called Republic of Hatay, entered a one-year transitional phase in its march toward unification with Turkey thanks to French duplicity, those disgruntled Armenia’s saw a window of opportunity to wrest power from the ARF. They thus began to collaborate with the emergent Turkish regime, first secretly then openly. One of them, Tateos Babigian, even became sub-district governor of Musa Dagh in April 1939 as an appointee of the Turkish government at Antioch. Second, those who stayed behind believed that they could live peacefully and harmoniously in republican Turkey, which, according to them, had come a long way in dissociating itself from the bloody Ottoman Empire and charting a new course. Intense Turkish propaganda aided in shaping this favorable opinion. Third, it was emotionally and psychologically difficult to abandon ancestral lands. The prospects of acquiring additional real estate also loomed on the horizon.

Those who stayed behind in Musa Dagh and nearby Zeytuniye in the plain of Svedia numbered 68 families or 384 persons, who constituted about 6 percent of Musa Dagh’s total population. The breakdown was as follows: Bitias, 4 families or 12 persons; Haji Habibli 1 family or 8 persons; Yoghun Oluk, 4 families or 28 persons; Kheder Beg, 4 families or 27 person; Kabusiye 3 families or 15 persons; Zeytuniye, 11 families or 64 persons; and Vakef, 41 families or 232 persons. In March 1940, the government took a census of Vakef and granted Turkish citizenship to its inhabitants. On this occasion, many last names were Turkified. Thus, Manjian became Manca, Babigian became Babek, Janian became Canoilu, Kartunian became Kartun, Silahlian became Silahli, Shemmassian became Aydin, etc. Only a few surnames retained somehow their Armenian “ian” or “yan” ending such as Kadiyan and Emlikian. Similarly, 23 individuals, having regretted leaving Musa Dagh in 1939, returned within a year, as follows: 13 from Vakef; 7 from Yoghun Oluk; and 1 from Bitias, Haji Habibli, and Kabusiye each. However, with the exception of two mothers, 21 had once again left for Syria and Lebanon by 1945. During the 1946-1947 relocation of Armenia’s from the Diaspora to Soviet Armenia, the inhabitants of Vakef petitioned to go to Syria and Lebanon in hopes of joining Armenia-bound caravans. Although the Turkish government was not opposed to such a move, nothing was heard from the organizers of repatriation. This issue requires further inquiry.

In 1964, that is, a quarter century after 1939, the number of Armenia’s still living in Vakef amounted to 66 families with a total of 291 members, of whom 158 female and 133 male. Nearly 80 percent of the residents were young, under 43 years of age. Twenty-three years later, in 1987, the number of Armenia’s living in the district had dwindled to 40 families or 169 individuals, as follows: in Bitias, 1 family with 5 members; Zeytuniye, 15 families with 59 members; and Vakef, 24 families with 105 members. The rest had migrated to the following destinations: Istanbul, 47 families or 165 persons; Iskenderun, 10 families or 40 persons; Antakya, 4 families or 20 persons; Ankara, 1 family or 13 persons; Soviet Armenia, 5 families or 19 persons; Lebanon, 4 families or 20 persons; and Europe and the United States, 15 families or 60 persons, for a total of 86 families or 337 persons. Recent estimates of Armenia’s found in Vakef during fall, winter, and spring vary between 25 and 38 families or between 135 and 150 individuals, mostly middle-aged and old. During the summer season, thanks to families returning to visit relatives, the numbers rise to 250-300 persons.

The Surp Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God) Armenian Apostolic Church of Vakef was established in 1910. For the past seven decades, it has had two resident priests, both native sons: Fr. Ghevont Kartun and Fr. Serovpe Gulian, who passed away in 2002. The parishioners have since petitioned the Patriarch of Istanbul for a replacement, which request he has been unable to satisfy because of the lack of sufficient clergymen to even occupy some of the vacant pulpits in the many Armenian churches of Istanbul. As a result, a visiting priest celebrates mass in Vakef only occasionally. The church and community are run by a parish council, a council of elders, and the Church-Loving Women’s Guild.

Vakef has remained within the radar of successive patriarchs of Istanbul, who have paid periodic pastoral visits. During a twenty-year period, between 1969 and 1989, for example, the late Patriarch Shnorhk Kalusdian visited Armenian remnants and churches in Anatolia six times. Four of those itineraries included Vakef. On June 17, 1989, he preached at the Surp Asdvadzadzin church and met privately with the parish council to discuss church matters, especially the old roof that was falling apart and causing rain to damage the interior. But despite the problem’s urgency, the government failed to grant permission for repairs for the next seventeen years, that is, until 1996, when the church, then almost in ruins, was finally restored. This granting of permission for renovation was believed to be in line with Turkey’s attempt at integration with the European Union (EU).

The church of Vakef celebrates the Holy Mother of God feast in mid-August of each year. This also coincides with the traditional blessing of grapes. On these dual occasions, a food called harisa is cooked and served to the numerous congregants visiting from various parts of the world. In September, the Holy Cross feast is likewise celebrated. For example, the incumbent patriarch, Mesrob Mutafian, together with two priests and the choir of St. Harutiun Church of Taksim in Istanbul, on Holy Cross Sunday, September 25, 2005 celebrated mass at Vakef. He was accompanied by 25 pilgrims from Istanbul, 40 pilgrims from Los Angeles, and an unspecified number from Anjar, Lebanon, the latter two groups consisting of Musa Dagh descendants.

Vakef Armenia’s had always been zealous about the education of their children. What hurt the learning process during the 1920s and 1930s, however, was the rivalry between the Social Democrat Hnchakian Party and the ARF to control community affairs, which led, among other things, to the split of the existing parochial school into two parallel institutions, thereby draining unnecessarily the resources of this small village. Things would grow worse after 1939, but for different reasons.

Soon after Musa Dagh was evacuated in 1939, the Antioch government asked the Armenian leadership of Vakef to pay the salary of a Turkish teacher as well. Since, however, the shrunk community could not shoulder the extra expense for a new hire, the school was closed. Its furniture and other belongings were gifted to the school at nearby Jireyri village, and children began to attend the public school at Buyuk Zeytinli village some 2 miles away. This situation continued for seven years, until the 1951-52 academic year, when the government provided Vakef with a female teacher from Niide by the name of Halide Hanum. Because in 1943 the old school building had been sold piecemeal by the Directorate General of Foundations (Vakiflar), a two-story house located next to the church, and previously belonging to Panos Ayntablian, was rented from the same Directorate General of Foundations for the annual sum of 60 liras. The Ataturk Ilk Okulu, or Ataturk Primary School, as the school was called, moved to a new facility in 1955. In 1964, teacher Mehmet Sabit Cokbilir taught 25 girls and 12 boys, or a total of 37 students. Another 9 students from Vakef attended middle school, 4 attended high school, 6 attended university, and 4 attended technical school. Due to the decrease of school-age children in subsequent years, the school closed its doors probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s, never to reopen.

As soon as the Armenia’s left Musa Dagh in July 1939, the Directorate of State Properties took charge of their abandoned properties. At the same time, the Vakef Armenia’s began to claim those holdings as their own, asking Tateos Babigian for verification papers, which he declined to issue. The hassle to grab land aroused jealousies and caused enmities, while the government sent armed guards to prevent anyone from gathering the crops, which were auctioned off. Within two years the other Armenian villages were occupied, at least partially, by Turks and Turkmen from surrounding Muslim villages. In March-April 1940, the Antakya government auctioned off the crops once again. The orange crop fetched 3,880 Turkish liras, the bay oil crop used to manufacture soap fetched 3,128 liras, and the medlar crop fetched 1,858 liras, for a total of 8,866 liras. When the French consul at Antakya inquired about the fate of the sums thus raised, the government responded that they would be deposited in the Central Bank as a trust fund for the Armenia’s. It is not clear as to what this meant or what actually happened to that money.

What is certain, however, is the fact that in 1943 the General Directorate of Foundations lay hands on some 1,508 donums or about 377 acres of land out of a total 2,818 donums or 705 acres belonging to Vakef village. What was more, of the balance 330 acres only 60 acres actually remained in the hands of the villagers, the remaining 270 acres being divided among the Treasury Department, State Property Agency, and the neighboring villages of Kurtderesi and Maiaracik. Naturally, these appropriations caused great economic hardship. For instance, an official registry for 1964 listed 15 agriculturists out of 47 as landless, and the remaining 27 as lacking sufficient cultivable land. As a result, a number of Armenia’s from Vakef migrated to Antakya beginning with 1944, as was the case with several households from the Horoz clan, or to Iskenderun, Kirik Khan, and Istanbul during the 1950s in the case of households from the Canoilu, Babek, and Silahli clans. They now worked as mechanics in factories, directors of movie theatre box offices, dealers of old ware, shoe repairers, and so on. Still others toiled as seasonal workers in Adana, Tarsus, and Mersin. Some were able to purchase land in their adopted towns, others returned to Vakef after saving money. Cold weather exacerbated the situation in January 1950, when many fruit trees were destroyed.

Vakef has been a citrus growing rural community since earliest times. But as mentioned, the lack of jobs due to limited private land has compelled the younger generation to move out. Presently, enterprising individuals and the local government are trying to reverse the trend by engaging in organic farming and receiving official certification from the EU with the approval of the World Bank. In fact, the submitted project for certification won first prize, and the Turkish National Olympic Committee recognized this achievement with a special award of its own. In 2004, the Vakef Village Cooperative exported 1 million Euros worth of organic oranges, raising the prospects for economic recovery and encouraging some expatriates to return to Vakef. Just eight-and-a-half months ago, on December 27, 2007, the Turkish Daily News reported that “a 5,000-square meter organic greenhouse area will open;in the next few days.”

The tourism industry is also given serious consideration. In 2000, the Association for Protection and Development of Vakifli was formed by its former inhabitants now residing in Istanbul. They assemble in their club at the Pangalti neighborhood to drink tea, play backgammon, chat, and eat their favorite traditional foods. But like Armenian compatriotic unions of old, they similarly are keen on improving the socio-economic status of their native village. Accordingly, they and the district government of Samandai have begun to implement a plan of eco-tourism with the renovation of abandoned traditional houses in the village.

To date, the four-room house belonging to the Shemmassians (Aydin) has been restored as a hotel, and the old school building has been converted to bed-and-breakfast. Similar projects are in the pipelines.

To conclude, while such measures portend well for the foreseeable future, the long term prospects are not as clear. These last of the Mohicans will continue to be showcased and draw interest as the residents of the sole Western Armenian village left in Turkey until history determines their fate.


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One Comment;

  1. Manushag Hovanesian said:

    Everything I read above was meaningless because those Armenians lived as Turks. Those lands were taken by the Turks. As you all know, Turkish domination of our 4000 year lands led Armenians in those days to believe that their homes were on Turkish land. It’s one big mess that the world court has to clarify. Musa Dagh today should be a monument for the Armenian people because of it’s hardship and history. Instead the Turks own it as Turkey and have for the past 98 years, gotten rid of anything Armenian that was there. We have 12 provinces in old Armenia that I need to take to world court and grant us back our ancient homeland. My grandparents were from Sassoun and Erzeroum. It was called Armenia. Remind all of you, the Turks invaded Armenia 400 years ago and controlled it up until the 1915 genocide. We lost 90% of our homeland to the Turks and need to get it back. Don’t forget! Ankara and the neighboring ocean cities were all ours. Gregor Lusavoritch lived there. The kings had a fortress there on the ocean. Have we forgotten our history? Don’t worry, I’m going to get it all back. It will be known as Armenia again. Thankyou, Manushag Hovanesian from Montebello.