Population Data about Armenians in Ottoman Istanbul Now Online

LOS ANGELES, Calif.—Over hundreds of years, scholars of the Armenian and Ottoman worlds have produced a wealth of knowledge that, until recently, was rarely linked. More recently, researchers like University of California Los Angeles PhD student Daniel Ohanian have been working to change that.

Ohanian is the principal investigator of a research project called “Recovering Armenians in Late Ottoman Istanbul and Making Ottoman-Era Population Data Available for All.” The project was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and was hosted by Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey. It reached its conclusion last year.

The population lists and interactive maps it produced were recently donated to the Houshamadyan project, which has just published them on its website. Founded in Berlin in 2010, Houshamadyan’s basic mission is to reconstruct and preserve the memory of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire through research.

The “Recovering Armenians” project team consisted of six researchers based in Turkey in addition to Ohanian himself, who studied there from 2013 to 2016.

“Our first goal was to copy, translate, and analyze census information about the Armenian population of the province of Istanbul from 1830 to 1907,” explained Ohanian. “Our second goal was to make this data available online, for free, in Armenian, English, and Turkish, so that it could be used for academic and genealogical research by people anywhere in the world.” Ohanian’s motivation in pursuing the project was to see what could be done—not only by his team, but also by future researchers—when Armenian studies and Ottoman studies experts brought their respective knowledge to bear upon a single topic.

The results have been impressive. The files donated to Houshamadyan contain detailed information about 46,000 people born between 1779 and 1914. Details are given about their families, occupations, years and places of birth and places of residence. Sixteen-thousand people have been mapped according to precise addresses, while the rest have been placed within particular villages and neighborhoods. The maps are also available online.


Figure 1. Two entries from the nineteenth century. The one on the right is about Ohannes, born in Istanbul in the Hijri year 1265 (1848 or 1849), a peddler. On the left is his brother Maksud, born in Istanbul in 1270 (1853 or 1854), a jeweler. Population register 513 (NFS.d.00513), page 12, Ottoman Archives of the Office of the Prime Minister, Istanbul, Turkey.

The census records used for the research are housed at the Ottoman Archives of the Office of the Prime Minister of Turkey (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivleri) and at the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center in New York. The first set of records, which are written in Ottoman Turkish, were created between the 1830s and 1880s (Figure 1). The second set, written in Armenian and Armeno-Turkish (Ottoman Turkish written in Armenian letters), were created around 1907 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A page from c. 1907 showing three households on Hisardibi Street in the neighborhood of Tülbentçi Hüsamettin. Population register, volume 2, page 659, microfilm collection items 1213461–1213463, Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, New York, USA.

Ohanian finds the story behind the creation of these materials particularly intriguing. “Not much seems to be known about the nineteenth-century records we have been working with. They became available to historians only in 2011, and basically no research about them has been published yet. The twentieth-century material is interesting because it was created by the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior with the participation of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Constantinople,” he says.

Given the multiple languages used in the records and the group’s interest in mapping the data, the project team included individuals who could read Ottoman Turkish, Armenian and Armeno-Turkish and who could use geographic information systems (GIS) software to create digital maps.

The use of GIS is quite new to Ottoman studies and entirely new to Armenian studies, Ohanian explains. It was made possible by the existence of detailed maps created in the early twentieth century by the Charles E. Goad Company, the German Syndicate for Urban Development in Turkey, and Jacques Pervititch and his colleagues.

According to Ohanian, it was important to both transcribe and map the census data in order to understand the information fully. “Unlike Armenologists, historians of the Ottoman Empire have made extensive use of population data. Since spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel became popular, these historians have been able to manipulate census information in order to answer new questions, discover new trends, and undertake more ambitious investigations,” he says.

“Our project’s use of GIS mapping has been similar,” he continues. “GIS has let us gauge the extent to which certain geographic categories used by officials (for example, neighborhoods) were distinct and cohesive. It has let us see where certain types of people lived together (such as those born in the same places or working similar jobs) and what their housing conditions were like.” (Figure 3)

Figure 3. A map showing the 2,800 buildings in which the project team was able to locate 16,000 individuals. “Recovering Armenians in Late Ottoman Istanbul and Making Ottoman-Era Population Data Available for All”

“For instance, what you’ll see is that the neighborhood of Gedikpaşa was a center of footwear manufacturing around 1907. Almost half of the 180 people who were recorded in the census as being involved in this line of work were all from the same city: Tekirdağ (Rodosto) in Eastern Thrace. This is something to be followed up on, to figure out why there was such a correlation.”

When asked why it was important for the project’s data to be made available to the public, Ohanian noted that the decision came out of his interest in how history gets written. “In the background to all historical research is the story of how that research was made possible, why historians consulted certain sources and not others, and so on. A lot of that has to do with who created a given body of evidence and in what language. In our case, we used records first created by Ottoman officials but now available in two different languages and stored in two different countries. And one set of these records was made with the participation of a branch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. So, by translating this material and putting it online, we were trying to overcome significant linguistic and geographic barriers to research.”

While the project team’s work was substantial, Ohanian stresses that there is much more to be done by others. Whether they are individuals wanting to research family histories or scholars writing biographies, demographic studies, urban histories, or anything else, a collection of new sources is now available to them in three different languages.