By Alkan Chaglar
Armenians have lived in Cyprus for centuries, but the present community on the island is mainly the result of immigration during and after the Armenian deportations of 1915-23 in Turkey. Currently, some 6000 Armenians live in Cyprus, mainly in Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol. Many of the Armenians who fled to Cyprus were Turkahayer, or Turkish Armenians, despite the fact that some Gibrahayer (Cypriot Armenians) had lived in Cyprus for centuries.
Fleeing from war, they huddled together in open boats, unfurled their sails and left Silifke to Cyprus. Armenians arrived bedraggled, dispirited and sick from war, but with heavy hearts and with an entrepreneurial spirit they made the island their new home. Cyprus for them was a sanctuary from the misery of war and domestic strife in Anatolia.
However, hardened by many fatigues and inured to rough living, they were unable to forget their homes and the Turkish neighbours and friends they left behind, so they clung onto their traditions and memories of Anatolia life in their new home. Poor and destitute, many sought cheap rented lodgings in the Turkish quarter of Nicosia.
Originally, Armenian refugees from Anatolia spoke Turkish, with a small number able to converse in Armenian, which they often mixed with Turkish. It was also common to meet Armenians who could not speak their own language. Some Armenians in an effort to retain some kind of an Armenian identity even attempted to write Turkish using the Armenian script rather than go to the trouble of learning the old language.
This had already happened to the Armenian community of the Crimea who lost their language adopted Kipchak Turkic which they wrote using the Armenian script. Today the children of Cypriot Armenians are multi-lingual.
The most paradoxical relations that the Armenians had in Cyprus were with the Turkish Cypriots, while at school and church they were routinely indoctrinated about past struggles with Turks, Cypriot Armenians and Cypriot Turks lived side by side in the same neighbourhood of Nicosia. The significance of this is that they left one Turk to settle with another.
Although the Armeno-Turkish conflict in Anatolia left many bitter memories, Cypriot Armenians enjoyed closer ties with the Turkish Cypriots than with other Cypriots. Whatever transpired in Anatolia had no bearing on their relations with Turkish Cypriots. Both were Turkish speaking; Armenians had arrived in Cyprus from Southern and Eastern Anatolia and their culture and traditions were Turkish. From their names one can clearly see the centuries long experience of living with Turks, Bichakjian (Bicakcioglu), Ouzunian (Uzunoglu), and even Shishmanian (Sismanoglu) -ian denotes ‘son of’ in Armenian. Often these names have a geographical origin, so a family from Antep would be Antepian, or it would suggest noble ancestry or a profession or physical trait, such as Karagozian (blackeyed) or Boyatzian (painter). They may also have Muslim and Turkic names, Azizian, Turfanian and even Osmanian.
In Cyprus, they not only established their businesses among the Turkish Cypriots but built friendships with them and exchanged visits to each other’s homes. Even though the Greeks formed the majority of Cyprus’ population, the Armenians had more contact with Turkish Cypriots, as few of them spoke Greek. They already knew Turkish as a mother tongue and most of them continued to converse in Turkish on the island, in order to communicate among themselves and with their Turkish Cypriot neighbours. Often it was necessary to tell certain stories, anecdotes or jokes within the family in Turkish, as they sounded better in that language.
Like Turkish Cypriots, Armenians have a similar passion for Bastirma (a traditional dried spicy sausage) and Soujouk, which the newly arrived Armenians would sell. Unaware of prejudice they made good business from transporting their Anatolian delights to Cypriot kitchens. While the elders worked, their children would happily play games in the streets, and by evening they would sleep in each other’s arms. Even the odd Armenian –Turkish Cypriot love story was not uncommon.
While in other parts of the region domestic strife and bickering soured coexistence, in Cyprus there was still mutual tolerance, so that Armenians and later Jews from World War Two saw it as a sanctuary of peace.
Many Turkish Cypriots like my grandparents have fond memories of coexistence with Armenians, but also with Greeks and Maronites. At their annual village Panayia, in Ayios Theodoros, similar to the Feria, a village festival in Southern France, many of the confectioners who made the tastiest sweet and sticky treats, and many of the regular tradesmen and shopkeepers in the old city with whom the Turkish Cypriots dealt with on a day to day basis were Armenians.
By the 1950s the Armenians founds themselves caught in the middle of inter-communal conflict in Cyprus. Sue Pattie, recounts a story in her book “ Faith in history”, when during the peak of Greco-Turkish conflict, an Armenian risked their lives to help their Turkish neighbours by sheltering them in their home after a rumour of an imminent attack by militiamen. “One Turkish family that lived just on the river’s edge came to us and asked if we would protect them for the night. We were Armenians and we wouldn’t be attacked (by the Greeks). They were very good neighbours. The mother had stayed with me when my father was dying. The boys used to play together, how could we say no?”
Many Armenians reacted to the troubles by emigrating abroad. Many went to Australia and Britain.
Engaged in the invidious task of discussing Armeno-Turkish relations, an issue seldom brought to people’s attention, it seems the two peoples have enjoyed a special relationship on the island. This could be used to Cyprus’ advantage if we are to seek a lasting peace. Even if one considers the historical; dimensions of the Armenian Question, it would be incongruent with the truth to suggest that Armeno-Turkish relations in Cyprus were poor, amid the political problems this would be an easy assumption to make. But memories like this remind us that they were often amicable and at times even brotherly.
a Turkish-Cypriot website based in London, 16 March 2006