“Hamshen” is the Armenian name for a settlement located in what had been Lesser Armenia (now Hemşin district in Rize Province, Turkey). Lesser Armenia historically was a part of the ancient Armenian Kingdom ruled by the Orontid (Yervanduni) royal dynasty. Over the following centuries, Lesser Armenia was repeatedly conquered until eventually becoming a part of the Byzantine Empire.
At the roots of Hamshen stands the princely dynasty of Hamam of the Amatuni family, which originated in Ardaz, Northern Vaspurakan, a province that spanned between Lake Van and Lake Urmya (now in Turkey and Iran respectively). The proud and courageous Amatuni dynasty is one of the oldest Armenian prince families of the Ardaz region.
In the 8th century, the threat of the Arab invasion forced Prince Hamam along with his father Prince Shabuh Amatuni leave their domain in Artaz. Accompanied by their priests, people, and soldiers, they moved to the Black Sea Region of Lesser Armenia. There, they settled in the ruined city of Tambur and the nearby villages. Prince Hamam rebuilt the city and called it Hamamshen. Subsequently, “Hamamshen” became “Hamshen” in Armenian and finally “Hemşin” in Turkish. The people of Prince Hamam were known as Hamshentsi (later Hemşinli in Turkish). Similar to many Armenian settlements, the name “Hamshen” contains the suffix “-shen”, which is derived from the Armenian word “shenel”, meaning “to build”.
Up until the 14th century, Hamshen had been a Christian principality ruled by Armenian princely families. Almost all villages in the city’s surroundings had their Church and priests. Over the following centuries, the region would see bloodshed, forced conversion, and migration under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. However, Hamshen remained an important intellectual center until the 17th century, being a hub of manuscript illumination and science.
Many of the people of Hamshen have been forcefully converted to Islam. Ottoman accounts show that until the late 1620s, the Hamshentsi people were predominantly Christian. Since the 1630s, the Hamshen Armenian diocese began to decline, and the first mosques were built in the area in the 1640s. The Hamshentsi’s conversion to Islam has seemingly taken place gradually. However, not all Hamshentsi are Muslim. Approximately the half of the present-day Hamshentsi people are Christians following the Armenian Apostolic Church.
During the Armenian Genocide, the majority of the Christian Hamshentsi people have been persecuted and exiled. Today, the descendants of those who managed to escape mostly reside in Georgia, Abkhazia, and Southern Russia. During the Genocide, Muslim Hamshentsi suffered as well: some of them were mistaken for Armenians due to their language.
As a consequence of the persecutions, two separate Hamshentsi communities have existed over the last century – Muslim and Christian. The Muslim Hamshentsi living in Turkey are to some degree unaware of their Armenian identity, even though they retain their old traditions and speak a dialect of Armenian. On the other hand, those who have lived in the Soviet Union were able to maintain their Armenian identity. After the dissolution of the USSR and due to the openness in Turkey, both communities have successfully come into contact. And now, thanks to the mutual interest of both sides, cultural exchanges take place between the communities.
Sources: Hovann H. Simonian (2007), The Hemshin: History, Society and Identity in the Highlands of Northeast Turkey
Redgate, Anne Elizabeth. “Morale, Cohesion and Power in the First Centuries of Amatuni Hamshen”, in The Hemshin, pp. 3-13