In the 8th century, under threat from Arab invasions, the Armenian Prince Shabuh and his son Hamam Amadouni leave their lands in Northern Vaspuragan and head up the Khatchkar Mountains on the Black Sea. Upon reaching the destroyed city of Tambour, Prince Hamam has it rebuilt and named Hamamshen, later to be shortened to Hamshen in Armenian and Hemshin in Turkish. The princes and their men settle in the valley overlooked by Hamamshen, known as the Firtina Valley. Over the next few centuries, the people would spread around the Black Sea, such as Trabzon, Samson, Sakarya, etc. The Hamshen Princedom survived and thrived between the 8th and 14th centuries, the people now known as the Hemshinli who spoke a dialect of Armenian called Hemshintsi (Homshetsna).
The Princes of Hamshen include:
- Prince Hamam (c. 700)
- Prince Arakel (c. 1400)
- Prince Tavit 1 (c. 1425)
- Prince Vart (c. 1440)
- Prince Veke (c. 1460)
- Prince Tavit II (last prince)
The city of Hamshen was destroyed in 1489 by the invading Ottoman armies, sending Prince Tavit into exile. The people were forced to convert to Islam under Ottoman rule. It is said that the Firtina river ran red with the blood of those who had refused to give up their Christianity. The Churches were converted into mosques, surnames were changed to their Turkish counterparts, . Many were deemed heroes as they fought off the Ottoman influence and desperately clung to their own beliefs, refusing the dictations of a foreign army. Der Garabed Hamshentsi from the Toroslu village was one such hero.
The 1800’s saw another threat that forced the people to flee, settling into areas where they were free to speak their own language and remain Christian. Samson, Ordu, Krasnodar and Abkhazya became safe havens and the people were now known as the Northern Hamshenlis. Those who fled to the Artvin province of Turkey were forced to convert to Islam, even though they were able to retain their language. These are known as the Hopa-Hemshinlis (Eastern Hamshenlis). Those who stayed on their lands in the Rize province in Turkey lost both language and religion, though they speak hemshinji, a Turkish dialect with many Armenian words. They are known as the Western Hamshenlis, the Bash Hemshinli.
1895 saw the Trabzon Hamshenlis massacred. In 1915, the last Christian Hamshenlis from Ordu, Samson, and Trabzon were massacred. Those who managed to survive joined their Northern brothers in Krasnodar and Abkhazya. Bands of survivors also joined in the fedayee movement and took to the mountains. The converted hamshenlis were not spared either and many fled to Batumi in Georgia. In 1944, they were exiled from Batumi and sent to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Currently, the Northern, Western and Eastern groups still exist. Upt to 750,000 are estimated to be living on the black sea coast. In the 1980’s a group moved into Armenia and are currently full citizens of the state.
Famous artists include:
- Kazim Koyuncu
- Gokhan Birben
- Altan Civelek
- Harun Topaloglu
A lovely blog about Hamshen Armenians can be found here: http://sanahine.wordpress.com/hamshen-armenians/
As Armenians, we should not let the memory and the very reality of the Hamshen Armenians be forgotten, but instead offer a hand and embrace them as the family they are. They are as Armenian as we. Their story should not simply gather dust in long forgotten pages of history.
This is in tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Armenians that are hidden or lost through the turbulent history of the descendants of the Hamshen Princedom.