BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
The very first time I heard about the Hemshin communities in Turkey, it was through a feature film I watched several years ago at the Arpa Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Years later, I attended a conference where Professor Richard Hovannisian presented a documentary about his group trip to Turkey. During the discussion, he spoke about how they headed north to the Black Sea, into the mountains, in search of the Hemshins.
Prof. Hovannisian was an Emeritus professor of Armenian and Near Eastern history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and authored more than 20 books before his passing.
Hemshins, in short, are Muslims living in Turkey who speak an Armenian dialect. History tells us that, around the 8th century, a group of Armenians who lived in Turkey were harassed by Arab authorities who, at the time, had occupied Turkey.
During the same period of time, there was an Armenian prince called “Hamam,” who decided to take his people and move them to the evergreen hills by the Black Sea in order to evade the constant harassment they would endure.
Other Armenian communities also decided to follow their lead, traveling to the shores of the Black Sea and establishing new homes high in the mountains.
The name “Hemshin” comes from combination of two words: The name “Hamam” and the word “Shen,” which in Armenian means to build.
Since the 8th century, until some 70 or 80 years ago, Hemshin people lived kind of isolated in the lush green mountains next to the black sea. An interesting aspect of the community is that they preserved the Armenian language, which over the course of many many centuries evolved into a distinct dialect.
The Hemshin population was forced to convert to Islam when the Ottoman Empire came to power in Turkey. They are known to cultivate tea-leaves on the slopes of the mountains by the Black Sea. While we were traveling in the area, we noticed many tea plantations by the foot of the mountains.
Most of the Hemshin people were unaware of their ancestry and the reason that they could speak another language other than Turkish. Within the last century, through research done by the scholars and the visits by academics to the Hemshin communities, they have realized that they are of Armenian descent.
After watching the feature movie and Prof. Hovannisian’s documentary, I decided I wanted to travel to that part of Turkey and meet the Hemshin community.
Before I continue to tell you about our trip, I’d like to give you a short history of Armenians in Turkey.
The Armenians living in today’s Turkey, are the only descendants left of what was once a much larger indigenous community that existed for thousands of years, long before the establishment of the Turkish Sultans.
The history of Armenian kingdoms goes back to 800 B.C. Numerous vestiges, such as ruins of fortresses and monasteries, tell us that Armenian kingdoms stretched in a vast area, from today’s Armenia’s highlands through the East of Turkey, known to Armenians as “Western Armenia.”
Many Armenians, in order to learn about the tragic events that their ancestors experienced, they have traveled to Turkey to learn more about their roots.
I had the opportunity to travel to Turkey while visiting Armenia a few times. However, I never had the chance to travel to the Hemshin area.
In May 2023, while I was in Armenia, the Narekavank tour company had arranged a four-day visit to the Hemshin area in Turkey. I seized the opportunity and joined the group.
On Saturday May 6, 2023 at 6:30 a.m., we met at a designated area to start our trip to Hemshin. We were about 17 people, mostly women and only two men plus the guide and the driver.
Since crossing the border from Armenia to Turkey is not permitted, we had to enter Turkey through the Georgian border.
It was around noon when we crossed the Georgian border and entered Turkey. Our first stop was at the city of Ardahan, which used to be a stronghold for the Bagratuny kings. There, we visited the 10th century Armenian fortress. After spending a little over half an hour visiting that fortress, we headed to the ruins of an 11th century monastery called “Debet” in the province of Dayk.
On the way to the monastery, when we crossed some mountainous villages, I was surprised to see that a fresh layer of snow covered the slopes.
The architecture of the Debet monastery, with its unique very high vaulted ceilings, was extremely impressive. On the side of the ruins, I noticed a heap of excavated clay pipes that brought water to the monastery.
We left the monastery around sunset and headed to the city of Hopa, which lies by the coast of the Black Sea. Our hotel was situated right across from the Black Sea. After a long day of adventuring, we enjoyed a succulent dinner and then relaxed in our rooms. We got up early in the morning to have breakfast and hit the road again.
Here, I should add that the city of Hopa is known to have a large population of Hemshins. In addition, our guide said that the owners of that hotel were a Hemshin family. The breakfast was served at a hall with sweeping views of the Black Sea.
After breakfast, we started the second day of our journey toward the hills, where Hemshins live. Our first stop was to see a waterfall, and then a fortress called “Zil,” built by an Armenian prince.
At around 2 p.m., we arrived at a village where the residents and the shopkeepers were Hemshins. I got separated from the rest of the group and walked into a restaurant where the owners were Hemshin.
As I entered the two story restaurant, the owner, a handsome middle-aged guy, welcomed me in English. I introduced myself as an Armenian. He said, “I’m Hemshin but I can only say a few words of Armenian. However, my father can speak more.” Then he introduced me to his father and we exchanged a few Armenian words. He also proudly showed me an old, framed family picture from when his father was a young boy. He also told me about his upbringing, and a little bit about his family. Nowadays these Hemshin people are more aware of their ancestry.
After having a delicious meal of fish and salad, I checked their souvenir boutique and purchased a few gifts. I was satisfied that I had a chance to meet a member of the Hemshin community and learn about their lives.
Afterwards, we drove to the city of Trabzon, an ancient Greek city and the capital of Trabzon Province in Turkey by the Black Sea.
There, our tour guide had arranged for us to visit a small church from the15th century, which at one time was part of a monastery complex. The key to the church was with the family who lived next door.
It is very rare to see an old church where the frescoes have been preserved. Our tour guide said that we were very fortunate to arrive at the right time to have the key and see the inside of the church.
Early the following morning, before breakfast, we headed to Sumela monastery, which is an extraordinary monastery built at the edge of a sheer cliff 300 meters high in the mountains. The monastery was built by two Greek priests in 350 A.D., during the reign of Theodosius.
After a short visit of the monastery, we returned to our hotel to have breakfast and continue our trip. Then we visited a historic Greek church, which was converted into a mosque. Afterwards, we started to head back to Armenia.
We crossed a very interesting and newly built, 14 kilometer tunnel to arrive to the other side of the mountains. I couldn’t tell if I was pleased or baffled to travel through that tunnel and see the colorful lightings along the route.
The tunnel took us to the ancient Armenian Highlands, which was called “Metz Haik.” Our tour-guide mentioned that there have been gold mines in the area since around the 2nd millennium.
We then we passed through an area where there used to be several Armenian villages. The villages disappeared after reservoirs were made.
We spent a night in the Ardvin Province at Agara Resort, where they farm fish in special ponds. The next morning, after breakfast, we visited a few more sites on the way back to Georgia.
We first visited the Tortum waterfall, which is the tallest and a spectacular site in Turkey. Then we visited a church and later the ruins of a church which was built in the 7th century by the order of a Mamikonian Prince. I should add that the architect of that church and the Zvarnotz Church in Yerevan are the same and both are built in a circle.
I cannot finish this story until I tell you about the many stork nests we spotted while driving back to Armenia. We arrived in Yerevan very late, maybe past midnight.