Wednesday 23 August 2017 Last Update: 01:50 PM

The Education of the Armenian Community in the Ottoman State

Published: 08-12-2017

Dr. Yasemin Tümer Erdem

The Ottoman State, which ruled communities of different religions, cultures and ethnic structures for centuries, had a broad understanding of peace and toleration vis-à-vis these communities (Kılıç, 2006, 7).

After the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed (the Conqueror), the minorities acquired the right to open schools and cultural institutions in parallel to their gaining the right to act freely as a community in terms of their living, religion, language, traditions, and customs. These schools were not established by the state, as in the case of the Muslim schools, but they were established by rich philanthropists and communities, and they were included within the structure of the religious institutions such as mosques and churches. As a matter of fact, there were minority schools administered by priests next to each church (Taşdemirci, 2001, 13, 18). In the periods in which the Ottoman State was powerful, these minority schools, which were not seen as harmful, provided language and religious education comfortably as closed communities (Kılıç, 1999, 151).

Until the end of the 18th century, one must indicate the existence of institutions that provided mostly religious education and whose existence depended on individuals. In fact, it is known that the Armenians who settled in Kumkapı and its vicinity had a child education center named “Mangant Varjadun.” Again it is known that children were given lessons by Priest Mateos at the Kumkapı Armenian Church, which was the first cultural resource of the Istanbul Armenian community. In addition to Istanbul, one should note a school that was opened at the “Amlorti” Monastery near Bitlis and that provided classes on religion, philosophy, and logic. It is mentioned in Armenian sources that the graduates of these schools, which were influential in the education of the Armenian community in that period, went to all corners of the country and opened new schools. It is even mentioned that this school was so developed that it started to teach science and art classes in 1710 and it was mentioned as a “Dar al-Funun” [university]. Similar schools were seen in Istanbul at the beginning of the 18th century. In fact, the following are examples of the schools that were opened in relation to the existence of individuals: Priest Abraham transforming his house in Uskudar into a school in 1706, Priest Mihitar of Sivas providing lessons to Armenian children in Beyoğlu in 1710, Patriarch Ohannes Golod opening a priest school in Uskudar in 1715, the establishment of a girls’ school in Kumkapı under the protection of Patriarch Nalyan, and the founding of a school by Simon of Yerivan in the Armenian church in Balat in 1752. In short, until the end of the century, one could not come across Armenian institutions that were really schools apart from these schools. However, after this date, the intellectual awakening that took place among the people increased the number of private educational institutions that opened in each neighborhood of Istanbul. In 1790 Şnork Mıgırdıç, of Eğin, and Amira Miricanyan established the first official Armenian school in Kumkapı by taking permission from the state. Again the same people estabilshed the Surp Lusavorich school in Langa and the Surp Hreshtagabed school in Balat. Then, schools were opened in many neighborhoods where the Armenian community was concentrated such as Ortaköy, Kuruçeşme, Samatya, and Üsküdar. Especially in the period of Patriarch Ohannes Çamaşırcıyan (1803-1812), the Armenians opened free community schools in all neighborhoods of Istanbul (Ergin, 1977, 750-752; Kılıç, 1999, 153 ).

After Patriarch Karabet sent a directive to the Armenian community in Anatolia on 10 July 1824 ordering them to open a school in each province, schools started to be opened even in the most remote corners of Anatolia. According to the statistic dated 1824, which was prepared by the Armenian Patriarchate, there were 120 Armenian schools in various places in Anatolia. A school had been opened in each city and town, four schools had been opened in Adapazarı, where the Armenian population was considerably high, three schools each had been opened in Izmir and Merzifon, and two schools each had been opened in Manisa, Bafra, Kayseri, Eğin, and Erzurum. Patriarch Karabet’s work for the education of the community did not remain only this, he gathered the notables of the community in 1831 and made them sign promissory notes to ensure that they would contribute to the expenses of the schools, whose number was increasing each day. As the Catholic and Protestant Armenian schools started to have graduates, the need to open a higher education school for them emerged. Then the Camaran School, which was the first higher education school with boarding, opened in Uskudar in 1838 (Ergin, 1977, 753-754).

The first serious initiative with regards to the modernization of the community schools in Istanbul was the establishement of the Ararat Associaton in 1849 by the Armenian intellectuals who had been educated in Paris. The purpose of the association was to spread the opening of schools and education among the Armenians. As the existence and purpose of the association was found out by the Armenians in a short time, many cultural associations were established in order to increase the number of schools in the Armenian neighborhoods. In time, they started to be opened in Anatolia as well. The goal of these associatons, which were opened under different names, was to teach the Turkish and Kurdish speaking Armenians the Armenian language as well as developing and modernizing Armenian education (Somel, 2007, 77-78).

As the Ottoman State lost its power slowly in the 19th century, the minorities expanded their rights and privileges against the political unity of the state in each opportunity with the assistance of the foreign states. In fact, the rights and powers that were arranged with the 1854 edict, which was issued by Sultan Abdulmajid for the implementation of the principles that had been introduced by the Tanzimat (Reforms) Edict of 1839, ensured that the minority children could be educated at the civilian and military schools of the state, together with the Muslim children. However, the Armenian children preferred schools such as Galatasaray Secondary School, which provided education in a foreign language, and civilian professional schools such as the Medical School, Pharmacy School, School of Fine Arts, School of Law, and School of Political Science (Taşdemirci, 2001, 19).

The Armenians attended the Protestant and Catholic schools, which were competing to attract them to their schools, in addition to their own schools. The rights that were granted in the cultral and legal fields started to be used by various states as the state began to get weaker. Especially the British Empire and the U.S. tried to create a Protestant community with their missionary activities (Açıkses, 2007, 43). The Ottoman State did not react much against these missionary activities, which provoked the Armenians against the state and tried to form a national identity in them, and allowed them to open schools provided that they did not get involved in politics. The American Board of Commisioner for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was estabilished in America in 1810 to run missionary activities in the Ottoman territories. Starting in 1820, the American missionaries began missionary activities in the Ottoman territories. Since it could not be possible to convert the Muslim elements in the Ottoman State into Christianity, they concentrated their work on the Armenians that belonged to the Gregorian denomination. The first missionary, William Goodell, came to Istanbul in 1831 to engage in acitivities among the Armenians in Turkey (Mutlu, 2005, 309; Şahin, 2005, 186-190). Goodel brought a Bible written in the Armenian alphabet when he came and opened a high school for boys in Pera in 1834 for Armenian children. While the activities of the American missionaries in Istanbul were continuing, covert and overt activities started in Izmir and a school was opened for girls in 1836. After a week, some members of the Armenian community took over the administration of this school (Kılıç, 1999, 153; Mutlu, 2005, 295-296). The recognition of the Protestant community as an independent religious community by the Ottoman government in 1850 prepared a legal basis for the educational activities of the Protestant missionaries (Somel, 2007, 75). As the missionaries expanded their work field, a school was opened in Harput in 1852. This school became a more important center later on. In 1859 the Harput American Missionary College, which was also named Fırat College, was opened in 1859. Another center that the American missionaries chose to open schools in was Kayseri. From 1854, when they first arrived in Kayseri, until the 2nd Constitutional period, they established a network of Christian-Protestant churches and primary schools (Kılıç, 1999, 157-158). Since the path to make the Armenians into a nation went through language, education was provided basically at the schools of the American Board in Turkish, daily Armenian, and English. Therefore, the Anatolian Armenians were not limited to the molds of the traditional education thanks to the use of daily Armenian (Ashharabar) instead of classical Armenian (Grabar). They also became more open to the cultural influences of the modern world thanks to their learning English. Between 1850-1890 many girls and boys schools were opened by American missionaries starting from kindergardens and orphanages up to the level of high schools and professional schools in centers such as Istanbul, Bursa, Adapazarı, Afyon, İzmir, Konya, Kayseri, Yozgat, Sivas, Tokat, Merzifon, Adana, Tarsus, Antep, Harput, Çüngüş, Malatya, Palu, Bitlis, Mardin, and Van (Şahin, 2005, 190; Somel, 2007, 75). The schools at which the Armenian children were educated were not only American. Armenian children studied also at Austrian, German, French, and British schools and they were educated in line with the missions of the states (Mutlu, 2005, 10-109, 146, 260).

With the Regulation on the Armenian Nation, which was issused in 1863, an attempt was made to solve the problems of the Armenian community in the area of education and the education system was removed from the inspection of the amiras. Whereas the last word belonged to the clerical class with regards to culture, education, and schools up until that time, this regulation separated the religious and worldly affairs of the community and the adiministration of the schools was left to the Education Commission. The duties of this commission were financing and supervising the educational institutions of the Armenian nation, improving the living conditions and raising the professional levels of the school teachers, having textbooks prepared, and supporting the local activities of the Armenian associations (Tekeli, İlkin, 1993, 106-107; Somel, 2007, 78).

The government wanted to take some measures because these schools, which were opened by the missionaries, had nationalist and revolutionary effects on the Armenian children and because the missionaries made propaganda among the people. Article 129 of Regulation on General Education, which regulated the Turkish educational system as a whole and wihch was issued in 1869, was devoted to this subject and the objective was the control of the foreign schools. According to this, the approval of the diplomas of the foreign people who were to work as teachers in minortity schools by the Ministry of Education would be required. Also it was required to submit a report to the Ministry of Directorate of Education stating that there was no information against the policies of the Ottoman State in the curriculum and textbook used in the non-Muslim schools. School activities were allowed with a license that was issued after the inspections were carried out by the Education Administration (Mutlu, 2005, 26; Şahin, 2005, 191; Somel, 2007, 80 ).

The number of Armenian schools increased every day and their quality became better as well. In fact, there were 48 Armenian schools in Istanbul in 1871, of which 18 were schools for boys, 13 were schools for girls, and 17 were co-educational. In 1880 the number of community schools decreased due to financial reasons and private schools were opened instead of them (Ergin, 1977, 758; Taşdemirci, 2001, 19-22).

Especially after Article 61 of the Berlin Agreement, which was signed after the 1877-78 Ottoman-Russian War, rendered the Armenian an international material, the Armenians started to be perceived as an element that would sooner or later rebel and demand independence by obtaining the support of the Great Powers. As a matter of fact, the Armenian activities had a big impact on this perception. Directors and teachers of Armenian schools were able to be very audacious in their political activities. Again a Russian Armenian, Krikor Artsruni, indicated that freedom for Armenia would only be possible with the overthrow of the Otoman Empire and Eastern Anatolia coming under Russian rule. Therefore, the Sultan Abdulhamid II regime pursued a policy of not supporting the Armenian schools until 1881. However, it was discovered that this policy of rejection would make inspection of the Armenian schools more difficult and therefore, a different approach was adopted after 1881 and directorates of education were opened in those areas where there was a concentrated population of the community. Especially after 1889, the Armenian schools were closely monitored, and textbooks on the history of the Armenian community and the history of the Armeinan Church were banned. With Vilâyat-ı Şâhane Maarif Müdürlerinin Vezaifini Mübeyyin Talimat (Instructions Showing the Duties of the Directors of Education in the Şahane Provinces), which was published in 1896, the matters to be taken into consideraiton in the inspection of the community schools were listed and the pressure on these schools was increased. The purpose of this instruction was to prevent a type of education that would threaten the Ottoman national identity. Thus, attention was directed towards the history and geography textbooks and the maps in those books not containing information that would disturb the national unity. In addition, definitely preferring those who had graduated from schools within the Empire in the appointment of the teachers was emphasized. Again, starting from the same date, the Ottoman Administration aimed at the registration of the Armenian children at state schools and an Armenian class was added to the curriculums of the junior high schools and high schools in Adana, Mamuretulaziz, Erzurum, Van, and Diyarbakır (Somel, 2007, 78-92).

New breakthroughs were realized in education after the declaration of the 2nd Constitutional period and more attention was paid to community schools. The Armenian schools that had been closed during the Abdulhamid II period were reopened. Before the First World War, the number of Armenian schools that were opened both by the state and the patriarchate, community, and individuals reached 2500. However, after the war, only the schools in Istanbul remained (Taşdemirci, 2001, 22).

In conclusion, the right of “being free in their own language, religion, culture, and education,” which was granted to the minorities as a state policy at the beginning, was used as a weapon starting from the first half of the 19th century, when the state began to decline. The minorities, which obtained the support of the Western states, made efforts to develop their language and form their own national identity, especially through educational activities. Thanks to the missionary schools, the minorities were cultivated in a way to gain independence and they were encouraged in this way.


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