Why the Turk “Ovkyanos” or Who Put the Language in the Turk’s Mouth

There is no national encyclopedia in the world that does not mention the inclination of the sons of our nation for the assimilation, study, and research of both living and dead languages — from English and French to Urdu and Swahili, Latin, and even Sanskrit.

But what they have done for the Turkish language, particularly modern Turkish, deserves a separate discussion.

It seems that Kemal Atatürk’s dream of a modern secular state has not been fully realized, despite significant efforts. Two years after the proclamation of the Republic in 1923, all religious orders were banned, madrasahs were closed, and wearing a chador became optional.

The most decisive turn concerning Turkish tradition and Islam, where each line of the Quran is a manifestation of Allah, was the separation of the Turkish language from Arabic script and its forced conversion to Latin script. Anyone who has seen a Turkish newspaper will understand: the task was not easy.

In Aleppo, Atatürk met a strange Armenian, well-versed in numerous Eastern languages and, importantly, transcribing their phonetics using Latin letters. “Turkish? — he clarified. — Here’s how it can be done!”

Kemal immediately entrusted him with developing a modern phonetic system for the Turkish language using Latin letters.

The polyglot entered Turkish history under the name Akop Dilâcâr, or “Akop, who creates language”. He was the outstanding linguist Akop MARTAYAN (1895-1980), a Constantinopolitan, engineer, and a graduate of “Robert College” in 1915.

He served in the army during the war, then lived in Syria, where he became interested in the study of languages. He was so successful in this endeavor that in five years, he mastered 17 languages, excelling especially in Uighur and Kipchak Turkish.

After completing the work of translating the Turkish language into Latin script, he moved to Bulgaria and worked in Sofia. At the insistence of Atatürk, he participated in the World Congress of Turkologists held in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul in 1932. Here, he read his famous paper “On the Antiquity of the Turkish Language and its Closeness to the Indo-European Group.”

The authorities asked him to head the Institute of the Turkish Language, become the editor of the Turkish Encyclopedia, and appointed him a university professor. Martayan authored works such as “Pre-Islamic Scripts of the Turks,” “Analysis of the Turkish Language,” “The 1200-Year History of Turkish Literature,” and several other substantial works, as well as many articles and reviews.

Another Turkologist-Armenian, Stepan KURTİKYAN (1865-1944), was originally from Bursa. For forty years, he taught the Turkish language in Turkish high schools, colleges, and universities and is a recognized author of the grammar of modern Turkish.

James Barton, the secretary for Foreign Missions at the U.S. State Department, wrote about him in the early century: “If it were not for a philologist like Kurtikyan, the Turks would not have had a grammar for their language.”

Translate the text from Russian to English: He single-handedly created a seminal work equal in magnitude to a large collective of scholars: “Ottoman Grammar” (680 pages, 1901). He is the author of “Essays on the History of Ottoman Literature” (570 pages, 1909).

Famous Turkologists included: in language semantics—Professor Ovsep Zhelalyan of Istanbul University; in morphology—Professor Gevorg Semkeshyan; in general linguistics—Professor Grigor Kemurdzhyan; in literary studies—Professor Petros Atruni; in language history—Professors Avetik Mesropyan, Ermine Galustyan from Ankara University, and many others.

All of them, being prominent specialists, contributed to the modern Turkish language. Of course, they were also proficient in their native language and did a lot for the Armenian language. However, this is but a drop in the bucket compared to what they did for Turkish.

But there is, and still lives in this country, an Armenian—a polyglot scholar—who has done much for the history of material culture of his people and for Armenian studies in general. His surname is Tukhladzhi, which translates from Turkish as “wall builder,” and his first name is Barsegh. In Armenian press, he is hailed as “Tukhladzhyan,” although not a single article of his is signed with this name.

Here is what is written about him in the Armenian newspaper “Zartonk” dated October 19, 1983, by Armenian scholar Vagram Papazyan from Cyprus: “In the last half-century of teaching, there have been different kinds of students, and among them, such a remarkable phenomenon, a point of pride for the Armenian people, as Barsegh Tukhladzhi.

I remember how in 1949, still a teenager, he came to the Melkonyan Educational Institution along with his peers from Polis. This was a period when I taught language and literature there. A year or two later, he was forced to leave Cyprus and return to Turkey due to family circumstances.

Another person in his place would have quickly fallen into despair, but he found the strength and opportunity to achieve phenomenal success and became a linguist. Several years later, I received a package from him containing an English-Turkish dictionary.”

Translate the text from Russian to English: At the age of 21, a university graduate published his first dictionary in 1955, followed a year later by a collection titled “English Proverbs” (which subsequently had seven editions). Barsegh Tukhladzhi is also the author of several other major philological works, such as “Dictionary of Medical Terms with Explanations in Turkish,” “Economic and Legal Sciences,” “Synonyms and Antonyms in Turkish,” and “Turkish-French Dictionary.”

But what he began creating in 1973 exceeded all expectations of those who had already grown accustomed to the colossal scale of his work. B. Tukhladzhi laid the foundation for “Ovkianos.”

This is a three-volume, color-illustrated, 3100-page encyclopedia that has earned national and state recognition. “Ovkianos” is a dictionary with explanations and translations of each word into English and French, essentially a trilingual work in a single edition.

A book of such a magnitude would typically take a large editorial team decades to complete in Europe and America. However, B. Tukhladzhi had at his disposal only seven specialists and as many secretaries, typists, and illustrators.

The bulk of the workload rested on his mighty shoulders, and indeed they had to be mighty for him to endure the heavy burdens of 16-hour workdays for many years. Notably, the book also contains information about Armenia and Armenians.

The entry “Yermeni” includes the Armenian alphabet, an example of Armenian architecture—an Armenian church—and among all 15 republics of the USSR, the flag of the Armenian SSR is also featured. The entry provides information on the origins of Armenians, their language, and Armenia in the 1970s.

The Armenian newspaper “Jamanak,” published in Istanbul, wrote in those days: “According to experts, this academic study holds an honorable place among the most voluminous encyclopedic dictionaries.”

The Turkish newspaper “Son Havatis” noted that “Ovkianos” is a study deserving to take its place among dictionary giants. Thanks to it, Turkey stands alongside the most powerful nations.

Translate the text from Russian to English: “Milliet” published the following lines on its pages: “Working 16 hours a day, Tukhladzhi released his masterpiece.”

Based on the linguistics of the Turkish language, this work shows that the individual efforts of lone scholars often exceed the results of entire teams, even state institutions.

The most comprehensive dictionary published by the “Turkish Language Society” contains 27,500 words. In his “Ovkianos,” Tukhladzhi used 160,000 Turkish words, which, with explanations in Latin and other languages, reach… one million!

After numerous glowing reviews in the press, not only philology specialists but also politicians and public figures in Turkey started to take interest in B. Tukhladzhi. The first among them was the former President of Turkey, Jowlet Sunay. He visited B. Tukhladzhi and expressed his admiration and immense gratitude.

He was invited to a reception by the Minister of Higher Education, Professor Mustafa Yustivontag. He was received by the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Tekin Arburun, who literally stated: “I cannot find words to express my gratitude to my fellow citizen for his titanic work.”

B. Tukhladzhi was received by Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, to whom the Armenian scholar gifted a set of “Ovkianos.” In return, the Prime Minister gifted the linguist a manuscript of one of his unpublished works and also promised to allocate the necessary financial aid for the publication of “Ovkianos.”

On April 25, 1974, the scholar was specially received at the palace by the President of Turkey, Fahri Korutürk. During the meeting, the head of state noted: “What a joyful feeling it is for me that among our most important communities, we have a compatriot of Armenian descent who is rendering such valuable services to Turkish culture.”

Translate the text from Russian to English: Tukhladzhi responded, “Honorable President, allow me to recall and state on this occasion that I have just reasons to be proud of my Armenian heritage. Let us not forget the contributions of my ancestors in various fields in the country. Naturally, I am happy to be their descendant.”

“Your feelings are understandable. The sons of a highly civilized people have the right to take pride in their essence—this is quite natural. Your latest work is a magnificent piece, even a masterpiece. The work you created will be gratefully remembered by our future generations. I will pass on the volumes you gifted to my children and then to my grandchildren as precious relics,” the President concluded.

One thing the Turkish leaders were wrong about when assessing B. Tukhladzhi’s work: “Ovkianos” was not the pinnacle of his achievements, as he soon embarked on creating the “Biographical Encyclopedia,” which consists of 24 volumes and is released in 64-page booklets biweekly.

The editions of this encyclopedia, featuring texts on history, art, and science, and richly illustrated with color photographs, were regularly published until mid-1985 and were eagerly bought up in the country.

However, this was not the main masterpiece of the Armenian scholar, nor was his next work, “Aivazovsky in Turkey.”

There have been attempts by Turks (both art critics and media writers) to assert that the great marine painter was “the adopted son in the family of an Armenian merchant Gaivaz, a half-Turk from Southern Scutari.”

This version is supported by falsifiers in Russia and several CIS countries. B. Tukhladzhi, as a true scholar, settled the matter with his work. In the very first chapter of the book “Life and Work of Aivazovsky,” he provided a photo of the church record as proof of Aivazovsky’s baptism as a Christian-Armenian named “Oganes.”

Continuing the theme of great Armenian works in Turkish art, he embarked on the work “Westernization of the Architecture of the Ottoman Empire and the Balyan Family” (362 pages with color illustrations), which became the true masterpiece of his work.

Translate the text from Russian to English: This is what the English traveler-ethnographer Philip Marsden, who visited Istanbul in 1994, writes in his book “Crossroads” (translation, Moscow, “Phoenix,” 1995, pp. 108-109):

“I came across a new book on the Balyan dynasty, outstanding Istanbul architects of the nineteenth century. No one has paid greater tribute to the decadent style of the 19th century in architecture than the two generations of the Armenian Balyan family.

The illustrations in the book reveal the scale of their work: the spacious white Selimiye Barracks, the Nusretiye Mosque, the Beylerbeyi Palace, and the pinnacle of their architectural achievements—a massive Dolmabahçe Palace.

The book begins with a brief overview dedicated to the role of Armenians in Ottoman architecture. After Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror captured Istanbul in 1453, he brought a whole army of Armenian craftsmen, engravers, miniaturists, and masons to the city.

The wandering French artist Van Moor wrote in the eighteenth century that the architects in Istanbul were ‘mostly Armenians’ and that they ‘only need an axe and a saw to build a house.’

But what was most shocking was the author’s claim that the greatest Turkish architect, Sinan, was also Armenian… I called the author of the book and we agreed to meet later that same day, closer to the evening…

Bars Tukhladzhi, the author of the book about the Balyans, was ethnically Armenian, but he had changed his surname to fit Turkish customs. His fiery nature was distinguished by Armenian self-confidence… The conversation turned to Sinan.

Sinan built an astonishingly large number—over 350 structures owe their existence to him. Perhaps no architect has built with such energy and flamboyance. Moreover, he was a brilliant engineer; before becoming an architect, during his time as a soldier, he impressed military commanders with an ingenious solution for a pontoon bridge over Lake Van.”

Translate the text from Russian to English: His work coincided with a brief period of flourishing in the Ottoman Empire and has survived in the form of numerous mosques, hospitals, baths, palaces, and bridges, stretching from Bosnia to Macedonia.

He was incredibly influential because he managed to create a style of mosques unique to the Ottomans, based on the Hagia Sophia model. In my view, they always resemble something crustacean-like: plump crabs lost in thought amidst the tentacles of minarets.

Turks claim that Sinan was of Turkic origin, just like the Balyans. However, as is well known, Sinan served as a common soldier in the Imperial Guard, meaning he was a Janissary, and the Janissaries were always of Christian faith.

Speculations about his Armenian origins have been made several times, but as far as I know, no one has been able to prove it. Bars Tukhladzhi explained the basis for his theory:

“I rummaged through the closed archives of the Ottoman Empire, in the ‘Khazine-i-Evrak.’ There I found a decree dated the 7th of Ramadan 951, which corresponds to the year 1573 in the Christian calendar. The decree appeared in connection with a personal request Sinan made to the Sultan.

It seems that the decree concerned the fate of the residents of the town of Ağırnas, near Kayseri, who were to be exiled to Cyprus for failing to pay taxes. Sinan requested a deferral and was granted one. Ağırnas is the town where Sinan was born.

“Was it an Armenian town?”

“Not exactly. But three people from Sinan’s family were named. All these names are Armenian.”

Such evidence was convincing. But why did the Turkish authorities allow an Armenian to dig into their archives? Bars Tukhladzhi proudly lifted his chin:

“I have special privileges. When I went to Ankara to meet with the President to receive a medal awarded to me for one of my dictionaries, he asked, ‘Mr. Tukhladzhi, you’ve done an excellent job. We are in your debt. What are you working on now?’ I replied that I am currently preparing an encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. ‘How can we help you?’ he asked, to which I responded:

‘Grant me access to the Ottoman archives.’

That’s why it made sense for an Armenian philologist to create the ‘Ovkyanos’ for the Turks!”

(‘Ovkyanos’ means ‘Ocean’—editorial note from Vne Strok)

by Sergey Arutyunyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *