During the spring lecture series Tuesday night, Dr. Yektan Türkyılmaz presented his first lecture for the Armenian Studies Program in which he detailed the development and downfall of Van Vaspurakan Armenians leading to the Armenian Genocide.
Türkyılmaz said he wanted to challenge the conventional understanding of history in regard to Van Vaspurakan Armenians. Instead of focusing solely on violence, he highlighted Van as a city full of art, architecture, heroism and resistance.
“I tried to offer an authentic interpretation to the history and memory of Van Vaspurakan in which Armenians are always active agents,” Türkyılmaz said.
Türkyılmaz’s lecture, “Van Vaspurakan Armenians: From Renaissance to Resistance and Genocide,” was his first lecture as part of the Henry S. Khanzadian Kazan visiting professor endowment. The endowment allows an internationally-recognized scholar in Armenian studies to teach a modern Armenian history course at Fresno State and present three lectures at the university.
“[Van] Vaspurakan was and has been a social, cultural, intellectual and economic network that connected three empires – Ottoman, Russian and Persian,” Türkyılmaz said.
The interconnectedness allowed the modernization of Van Vaspurakan in the 19th century, Türkyılmaz said, which included the arrival of missionaries and the construction of schools for boys and girls.
“The region prospered significantly thanks to leather and furnishing industries and their trade,” he said. “The same period also witnessed the in-pouring of social activists, such as missionaries and foreign consulates.”
Türkyılmaz said that the city of Van Vaspurakan was not a passive recipient of these new ideas, but rather inspired all major Armenian culture political centers and locations elsewhere.
This intellectual transformation would lead to early pioneering of Armenian nationalist organizations, including the Armenakan party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, among others, Türkyılmaz said.
Growing tensions along the fault line of Russian southern caucasus and northern Iran to Istanbul to Van Vaspurakan were contributing factors to the genocide, according to Türkyılmaz.
“Van [Vaspurakan] is the first place in the empire that intercommunal coexistence entirely and violently collapsed,” he said. “Van [Vaspurakan] was the epicenter of the Armenian Genocide, the place where it incubated.”
Türkyılmaz describes the Armenians of Van Vaspurakan as “victims who rejected victimhood” and remained connected through tribal networks, revolutionary activism, smuggling and business despite borders and governmental terrorism.
“The Armenian defense of Van [Vaspurakan] in April 1915 serves as a rare [example] that a community under existential trek amalgamated and intra-communal diversity blurred,” Türkyılmaz said.
Fresno State sophomore Claire Kasaian and freshman Suzanna Ekmerkchyan attended the lecture for a class assignment, and are also executives of the Armenian Student Organization. They said the lecture showed them another side of their Armenian heritage.
“Being born here as an Armenian, we really don’t hear about political parties and such unless you’re from there. You never hear that side of Armenia,” Ekmerkchyan said.
Kasaian said that since her family came from another area, she didn’t know much about Van Vaspurakan before Türkyılmaz’s presentation.
“We’re always learning something when we come to these lectures,” Kasaian said.