Armen T. Marsoobian is a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University in the US and teaches several courses including American philosophy, aesthetics, moral philosophy and genocide issues.
He is also a descendant of an Armenian family who lived in Anatolia for generations but were forced to leave their home and properties or be killed.
İstanbul's Tophane neighborhood is currently home to an archival exhibition featuring the family history of Marsoobian's relatives between 1872 and 1923. Titled “Bearing Witness to the Lost History of an Armenian Family: Through the Lens of the Dildilian Brothers,” the show consists of the records and photographs of the members of the Dildilian family who documented their lives in Sivas, Merzifon and Samsun and the surrounding areas of Anatolia in a period that was full of suffering for Armenians.
Marsoobian's uncles, Humayag and Ara Dildilian, tried to write down the family's story but they died before finishing it, and all the documents, letters and memoirs passed down Armen; it took him 20 years before assembling them into this exhibition.
From shoemaking to photography
Tsolag Dildilian's father, Krikor, was well known for the shoes he made that were “as light as a butterfly” in Sivas, and many prominent figures including Governor Memduh Mehmet Pasha, who later became the minister of the interior, bought his shoes. Tsolag, however, did not want to continue with his father's profession since he was passionate about photography. Photographer Mikael Natourian from İstanbul joined Tsolag in Sivas to open a photography studio, and the two men took turns to visit villages and towns to take photographs.
Moving to Anatolia College in Merzifon
When the studio's fame reached the American Anatolia College in Merzifon, they were asked to photograph students and staff. After a while, Tsolag was asked to be the school's official photographer and moved to Merzifon with his family. This was a time the Armenian communities were suffering from constant massacres in the region, but the family was protected due to their association with the school. Tsolag also took shots of people, places, events and rural landscapes in Merzifon, some of which were turned into postcards. Tsolag's brother, Aram, who had an amputated leg, assisted him.
World War I and 1915
In 1914, there was no graduation ceremony at the school because after the war broke out, eight Armenian and Greek members of the faculty were drafted and the number of the students was halved. A year later, many Anatolian Armenians were killed and their villages plundered. Armenian soldiers in the army were disarmed and then forced to help with road construction and transportation before being massacred, or just left to starve or freeze. Also in İstanbul, the intellectual and political Armenian elite were arrested and then shot. After a while, the deportation of Armenians from Anatolia began. Males were separated and killed, and the women and children were led towards the Syrian desert. Throughout their journey, women were raped and abducted to become maids, or died due to starvation or disease, their bodies dumped on roadsides and in rivers.
The Dildilian brothers were saved because state officials used them to take photographs of prominent figures and events in Sivas and Merzifon. One day, a military officer warned Tsolag about the danger for his family and that same day they went to the municipality and converted to Islam in front of the mufti.
Founding the Orphanage
After World War 1, Aram went to Samsun and was horrified by the sights he saw: homeless orphans all around the city. He began to take pictures of them and wrote numerous letters to people he knew to build an orphanage for them. There were about 2,500 orphans in Merzifon at the time. The brothers photographed them and helped to organize a school for them.
In 1921 the school was shut down amid the massacres of Greeks and Armenians in Merzifon. Aram got the assurance of the Near East Relief officials to transport all the orphans to Greece. The Dildilians also decided to leave their homeland on the same ship.
The exhibition features information taken from Tsolag and Aram Dildilian's and their niece Maritsa Der Medaksian's journals, photographs of family members that the brothers took in Sivas, Merzifon, Samsun, Konya and Amasya over the years, along with memoirs of the Anatolia College faculty and photo archives of the school.
“Bearing Witness to the Lost History of an Armenian Family” will run until June 8 at the Depo in İstanbul's Tophane neighborhood. For more information, visit www.depoistanbul.net.