Traversing Space and Transforming Belongings to Nation and Empire among Itinerants of Van, 1820s-1870s

By Dzovinar Derderian
Submitted to Session P4831 (Circulation and Migration: Armenian Migrants in the Ottoman Empire and Beyond, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The increased and faster movement of people, textual materials and knowledge in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire contributed to novel ways of experiencing, imagining and understanding ethno-confessional and imperial belonging. To demonstrate this process, the proposed paper focuses on the movement and migration of laborers, ecclesiastics and merchants in and out of the eastern Ottoman borderland region of Van. As such it treats Van as a trans-local space whose local politics and imaginaries of belonging were shaped by the movement of people and texts from the Russian Empire to Van and from there to Istanbul. It furthermore aims to demonstrate how the circulation of goods, knowledge, petitions and print through the migration of laborers, ecclesiastics and merchants made Van an integral part of the empire. Such a proposition overcomes the understanding of imperial integration through the lens of the Ottoman state and the empire’s ethno-confessional communal administrations, in other words the millet system.

Through the unpublished memoirs and correspondences of the Bishop Yeremia Tevkants (1829-1885), a local of Van, this paper traces the sites of interactions and the experiences of travelers traversing paths that connected Van to the Russian Empire and Istanbul. I corroborate the experiences of Tevkants through Ottoman-Armenian petitions sent from locals of Van to the Constantinople Patriarchate and to the Armenian Catholicosate of Edjmiatzin—the highest office of the Armenian Church then in then in the Russian Empire. Furthermore, the circulation of newspapers, periodicals and books in and out of Van tells us much about the experiences of migrants but also how they used such materials to remain engaged in the local politics of Van and in shaping imaginations of Van. While circulation of people, knowledge and information enhanced imperial integration, for locals of Van travel also fostered a greater sense of local belonging: a local patriotism of Van. Both the experiences of traveling and the ensuing discourses about the emotional and physical condition of the migrants known in Armenian as pandkhtutiun produced multiple conceptions and articulations of belonging between the 1820s and 1870s.