They were sent to their deaths from here.

Sounds of Plurality and Solidarity in Istanbul at the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide 

(Photo: "Where were you, God?" Armenian graffiti in Kurtuluş, Istanbul) 

On April 24, 2015, public gatherings around the world commemorated the 100th  anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. An otherwise-unlikely roster of celebrities and world leaders (Amal Clooney, Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian, and Vladimir Putin) drew considerable media attention to the centenary. Turkey’s government affirmed its official stance by recalling its ambassador to the Vatican and promising to ignore the European Parliament’s resolution that called on the country to recognize as genocide the massacres and deportations of Armenians at the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

I experienced the centenary in Istanbul, the city from which over 200 Armenian intellectuals were deported in advance of mass killings of Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks further east. I traveled to Turkey with Project 2015, mostly diasporan Armenians from the U.S. and Western Europe. Project 2015 board members stressed that our presence was at the invitation of the local civil society organizations planning commemorative events around the city. Citizens of Turkey—many of whom were not of Armenian heritage—took the lead in demonstrating that the issue of genocide recognition resonated with their country's discourses regarding government transparency, cultural pluralism, and freedom of speech.

Below are six excerpts from audio recordings I made during a week’s worth of commemoration events in Istanbul. I have a lot of transcription, translation, research, and analysis ahead of me, but what seems to unite these diverse sounds of remembrance and protest is a sense of immediacy. Amid us visitors were people speaking to their own government, on the very soil where it happened, figuring out how to live together.


Wednesday, 22 April. 11:30PM. Istanbul Congress Center.

We’ve just reached hour four of musical performances and poetry readings. The concert is “In Memoriam, 24 April: In Memory of the Armenian Intellectuals Sent to their Deaths in 1915,” organized by Anadolu Kültür and Kalan Müzik. The large hall remains full as Ara Dinkjian, Kardeş Türküler, Jordi Savall, and other artists return to the stage for an encore. The audience erupts into applause after the first few notes of “Ağladıkça” (Turkish for “As We Cry”). Written by American Armenian oud player Ara Dinkjian, the song was made famous in Turkey by Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya. An attempt to get the audience to sing along fizzles, but I can see tears in the eyes of many audience members, and the musicians receive a standing ovation. Catalonian viol player Jordi Savall has written in the program, “Without Emotion there is no Memory, without Memory there is no Justice, without Justice there is no Civilization and without Civilization human beings have no Future.”

Full list of performers for “Ağladıkça”: Kardeş Türküler (band specializing in Anatolian folk songs), Ara Dinkjian (oud), Haïg Yazdjian (oud), Jordi Savall (viol), Ertan Tekin (duduk), Ari Hergel (guitar), Erman İmayhan (cello), David Mayoral (percussion), Gaguik Mouradian (kemancha), and Haig Sarikouyoumdjian (duduk).1


Friday, 24 April. 10AM. A Pharmacy on Cumhuriyet Avenue.

0:00. This is a small event organized by members of the Istanbul Armenian community.2 We’re participating at the invitation of DurDe (Say Stop to Racism and Nationalism), a grassroots human rights organization based in Turkey. We’ve gathered in front of the former home of Gomidas Vardapet (a priest and ethnomusicologist) and Avedis Nakashian (a doctor). Both men were deported on April 24, 1915. We’re a small group, but we spill out into the busy Cumhuriyet Avenue, causing a noisy commotion as cars weave around us. No, there’s no loudspeaker, we’re told. This is a commemoration, not a rally. 

0:38. I’ve moved closer to the entrance of the pharmacy, where two men explain the significance of the day and the building. I join a group holding foam board posters, each bearing the name, birthdate, and picture of a deported Ottoman Armenian intellectual. The speakers repeat each statement in Turkish and Armenian as they summarize Gomidas Vardapet’s work as priest and ethnomusicologist: his collecting of village folk songs in Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian; his significance to Armenians and to the intellectual and artistic life of Istanbul; the details of his deportation; and his eventual mental breakdown. Participants lay red carnations by two newly-made plaques to be installed on the building: (in Turkish and Armenian) “Gomidas lived in this house and from here in 1915 was sent into exile.” “Dr. Avedis Nakashian lived in this house and from here in 1915 was sent into exile.” 


Friday, 24 April. 12:45PM. A ferry between Eminönü and Haydarpaşa.

A chartered ferry takes us from the Old City to the Asian side, where we’ll participate in an event at the Haydarpaşa train station. We’re joined by members of the Human Rights Association and Nor Zartonk, a youth political organization based in the Armenian community of Turkey. Fatma Müge Göçek, Project 2015 board member and professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, gives out logistical information in Turkish and English. We’re treated to Canadian Armenian opera singer Isabel Bayrakdarian’s recordings of Armenian liturgical music, but the boat’s sound system cannot accommodate the dynamic contrasts of these symphonic arrangements. Distortion silences all but the most stubborn conversationalists. Men turn around to glare at the speakers. Parents cover their children’s ears. Many passengers take out their cell phones and iPads to document the journey. We watch the Old City’s minaret-studded skyline grow smaller as the music blares at top volume.


Friday, 24 April. 1PM. Haydarpaşa Terminal.

There are enough of us to cover the steps of the Haydarpaşa train station, an imposing Neo-Renaissance structure on the Bosphorus Strait. We sit. Many hold signs bearing the photographs of deported Armenian intellectuals. Smaller pieces of paper read, “This building is a crime scene!” and “Genocide, Apologize!” in Turkish, Armenian, or English. A microphone is held to a small speaker, and a recorded voice recites the names of those Armenian intellectuals forced to board trains into Anatolia on April 24, 1915. “They were sent to their deaths from here,” the voice repeats before each group of names. We’re surrounded by a construction site, a seaport, and a ferry dock; the noise from each makes it nearly impossible to concentrate. Finally, a woman shouts, “A moment of silence, please!” (3:45). All but the seagulls seem to heed her request.


Friday, 24 April. 6PM. İstiklal Avenue, in Front of the French Consulate.

0:00. Police block the entrance to İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s famous pedestrian avenue in the Beyoğlu district. A group has congregated in front of the French Consulate, and recorded duduk music marks a significant contrast from busy Taksim Square. Media reporters shove their way through the crowd, trying to get footage of those seated in solemn commemoration. Seeing a wide open space behind the group, my friends and I make our way to the other side.

0:38. Between the commemoration and the southern police barricade, parents chase after their children, and friends greet each other warmly. Ears perk up at the sound of a crowd moving toward us. Hearing indecipherable shouting, there’s some confusion as to whether the protesters are with or against us. I inch closer to the southern barricade, eventually recognizing the long drawn-out syllables of a chant Istanbul streets have heard before: “Katil devlet hesap verecek!” (The murderous state will pay the price!) The crowd waves large signs showing the faces of deported Ottoman Armenians and recent Armenian victims of hate crimes in Turkey. The signs are similar to the ones from the day's earlier events, but this time they bear the words “We are here!” in Armenian and Turkish. I can spot the Nor Zartonk logo. Kurdish slogans are also visible. Men and women at the front of the crowd carry a long banner declaring in Turkish that “genocide continues.” Directly behind that banner, three Assyrian youth display homemade signs reading, “Assyrian Genocide 1915,” “I died 1915,” and the Syriac hashtag, “#seyfo100.” I’m struck by the juxtaposition of sights and sounds—vocal political protest on one side, and solemn commemoration on the other. As the barricades open and the marchers fill the open space, I rush back to my friends so I don’t get lost in the crowd.3

3:00. Live singing before the speeches begin. (I would be grateful to any readers able to provide additional context for this song.)

3:50. Speech, in Turkish. (In lieu of a direct translation, I am including the condensed English version read aloud for non-Turkish speakers.) 

One hundred years today the Armenian Genocide, one of the bloodiest of human tragedies started. 235 prominent Armenians were rounded up. Among them were dentists, members of parliament, journalists, writers, and intellectuals. The 24th of April was a systematic attempt at genocide, which in two years, one of the longest established people of Anatolia was exterminated. 24th April marks the beginnings of unspeakable violence visited upon a nation. The violence went hand in hand with massacres, the massacres with forced exile, forced exile with rape, rape with robbery, and robbery with plunder. Within two years there were no more Armenians. We all know that genocide does not only mean mass killing and mass deportation. With consummate denial, obliteration of the genocide, and the systematic invention of life in order to make us forget, the Turkish state has always attempted to cover up this big tragedy with big lies. Listen to these examples: the Turkish president’s reaction to the Vatican’s recent statement on the genocide, the reaction of the three main political parties to the European Parliament’s declaration urging of Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide, and the most recent one, President Erdoğan’s statements criticizing the Vatican’s and the European Parliament’s declarations. It goes on. Every genocide creates its own tradition. We, who are fighting for the recognition of the genocide, want to create a tradition of confronting the genocide. Fighting for this is our obligation to the hundreds of thousands of our citizens we lost in 1915. Fighting for this is our guarantee of equal and fraternal politics today. Fighting for this is our debt to Hrant Dink, Sevag Balıkçı, and Maritsa Küçük.4 And to our sisters and brothers scattered around the world and forced to live away from their soil. It is our debt to our own consciousness. We have declared that this pain is ours. We have declared that these are some wounds that time does not heal. We have apologized, and we continue to apologize. We confront the genocide, and we continue to confront it. Now it’s the government’s turn. We accept from it not talking of mutual pain, but an apology. We apologize. One century is an opportunity to confront the genocide. Confront it.5

10:18. The commemoration is over. We disperse down İstiklal to a remastered recording of Gomidas at the piano, accompanying his student Armenak Shah Muradian, who sings the folk music collector’s arrangement of “Garun a” (“It is Spring”).

10:52. İstiklal Caddesi, back to normal, about 20 minutes after the commemoration finishes.


Saturday, 25 April. 7:15PM. Kadiköy Yeşil Ev.

A café employee says we’ll find the concert venue once we pass CHP. Sure enough, as I head up the hill with two friends, we’re surrounded by flags bearing the logo of the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), Turkey’s oldest political party and now the country’s main opposition party. Above us, small red, white, and light blue flags hang like paper lanterns, strung back and forth across the street forming a canopy. A few more steps, and the colors change: purple, green, white, yellow, red. “This seems right,” I speculate, looking up at the flags of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) (People’s Democratic Party), a new left-wing party known for its progressive stance on Kurdish, Armenian, and other minority issues—as well as environmentalism, labor, gender equality, and LGBT rights. With the general election in June, the HDP is gaining momentum in the hopes of surpassing the 10% parliamentary threshold. Tonight, they’re hosting a concert by celebrated artists from the Republic of Armenia, Hasmik Harutyunyan and the Shoghaken Ensemble.6

Up the stairs of an inconspicuous apartment building, we join about thirty-five other people in a small, L-shaped room. A man complains that HDP didn’t approve the more comfortable seats. What’s a sixty-five-year-old to do with brittle plastic chairs and small wooden desks?

0:00. Hasmik Harutyunyan sings “Ganche Groung” (“Call Out, Crane”). She’s dressed like the other three members of the ensemble in gold and black costumes inspired by traditional Armenian dress. Two triangles on her skirt form the unmistakable shape of Mount Ararat, an Armenian national symbol visible from Yerevan but located within the borders of Turkey.

0:43. A volunteer begins to translate Hasmik Harutyunyan’s words into Turkish, but everyone recognizes the next song, “Bingyol,” named after a city in eastern Turkey where many Armenians used to live. A number of us in the audience had heard the song just days earlier at Wednesday’s “In Memoriam” concert at the Istanbul Congress Center. Instead of Kardeş Türküler’s opening saz solo, Levon Tevanyan dazzles us with an improvised solo on the end-blown flute, blul. When the melody begins, audience members sing along.

3:50. Karine Hovhannisyan’s kanun playing further energizes us. Hasmik Harutyunyan and Aleksan Harutyunyan (voice and percussion) move through the audience, making sure we don’t stop singing and clapping.

4:40. Amid thank yous and goodbyes, a discussion emerges about shared culture. Aleksan Harutyunyan interrupts with “Sari Gyalin” (known in Turkish as “Sarı Gelin”). Telling the story of two star-crossed lovers, the song is a well-known symbol of musical connections between Armenians and Turks.7 Conversation ceases, and the audience takes over, singing the Turkish and Armenian lyrics simultaneously. 


I am grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to travel to Turkey for the commemorations as part of an independent study with Sebouh Aslanian, Project 2015 board member and the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair of Modern Armenian History at UCLA. Much gratitude goes to Project 2015 for providing study grants funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and an anonymous British foundation. 


  • 1. Additional performers at the “In Memoriam” concert: Hasmik Harutyunyan, Karine Hovhannisyan, Erkan Oğur, Onnik Dinkjian, Şahan Arzruni, Henning Schmiedt, and Eileen Khatchadourian
  • 2. Estimates put the number of Armenian citizens of Turkey at 60,000, though that figure does not reflect the recent migration of undocumented workers from the Republic of Armenia.
  • 3. Some Project 2015 participants, seated closer to the center of the commemoration and facing away from the march, feared the oncoming sounds were those of Turkish nationalists violently breaking through the police barricade. American Armenian photographer Scout Tufankjian highlighted the strong emotions of this moment on Facebook, and her post was shared widely around the world:
  • 4. Three Armenians killed in Turkey in recent years. Hrant Dink was a well-known editor, assassinated in broad daylight near the office of his newspaper, Agos; Sevag Balıkçı was a young man killed by a fellow soldier during his compulsory military service; and Maritsa Küçük was an elderly woman stabbed to death in her apartment. Questions remain about the role of systemic anti-Armenian racism in these individuals’ deaths and their ensuing investigations.
  • 5. Heghnar Watenpaugh, Project 2015 board member and professor of art history at UC Davis, also delivered a speech in Turkish at the commemoration. The full text of her speech can be read in English, Turkish, and Armenian on Jadaliyya:
  • 6. This was not an official Project 2015 event, and I have to thank Anoush Suni, graduate student in anthropology at UCLA, for letting me know about the concert.
  • 7. Eliot Bates provides an excellent discussion of this song in his book Music in Turkey: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (2010).
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