'Bearing Witness to a Lost History'

armen marsoobianAn exhibition of photographs and text from Philosophy Professor Armen Marsoobian’s extraordinary family collection has recently been on display in a gallery in Istanbul, Turkey. The exhibit –  “Bearing Witness to the Lost History of an Armenian Family through the Lens of the Dildilian Brothers” – told the story of his family against the backdrop of events that included a war that ravaged the world and a collapsing empire. The exhibit, which opened April 25 and closed June 8, was timed to coordinate with April 24, observed annually as the symbolic start of the Armenian Genocide, and has received a great deal of international press coverage.

Marsoobian’s grandfather and great-uncle, Tsolag and Aram Dildilian, were photographers employed both by Anatolia College in Marsovan, a town in Ottoman Turkey, and the local government. From 1890 to 1922, Tsolag was a significant photographer in the region where the family resided. A large collection of photographs and glass negatives came down to Marsoobian from his “family of many photographers,” and he now possesses over 600 photographs from the Dildilian brothers’ collection, many of which date from the period 1910 to 1922, which encompasses the years of the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian Genocide, says Marsoobian, refers to the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I. It was implemented, he says, through wholesale massacres and deportations, with the deportations consisting of forced marches under conditions designed to lead to the death of the deportees. The total number of resulting Armenian deaths is generally believed to have been between one and one and a half million.

Anatolia College is now located in Greece, and in 2009 Marsoobian was invited to the college to give a number of talks based on the photography collection. In doing research about the collection and his family history, Marsoobian received new information from members of the family. He learned that quite a bit had been written by his great-uncle and his great-aunt’s daughter pertaining to the photographs, including include two lengthy memoirs, as well as family letters and diary entries.

Marsoobian explains that Armenians were a minority in Ottoman Turkey but were instrumental in having Anatolia College come to Turkey. At first, the students primarily came from the Armenian and Greek communities. Marsoobian says that although there were Turks who tried to help Armenians, the Turks generally avoid use of the word “genocide” and instead refer to the “catastrophe of 1915” or “events of 1915.” For the first time a few years ago, there were public commemorations of the genocide in Turkey.

Marsoobian previously wrote a prize-winning essay dealing with the efforts of his grandfather and great-uncle in rescuing 30 young men and women in the period 1915 to 1918 in their hometown of Marsovan. He has also given lectures on the photography collection. Next he hopes to take the exhibit to Marsovan and possibly to France and the United States. 

Read an article about the exhibit in “Today’s Zaman,” a Turkish newspaper.