Houshamadyan Project Reconstructs and Preserves Ottoman Armenian His

Houshamadyan Project Reconstructs and Preserves Ottoman Armenian History
ARTS | DECEMBER 14, 2012 3:21 PM

Photo of the Gakavian family in Van preparing thread from cotton
(Source: Christine Gardon collec- tion of Houshamadyan)
By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN – The website for the Houshamadyan project
(), at first glance, seems to provide a colorful
depiction of small-town Armenian life in the Ottoman era – a forgotten
subject in history. Upon further exploration, however, visitors
realize that Houshamadyan is more than a typical website – it is an
interactive archive. Viewers do not merely read the history, they
experience it firsthand through written documents, images, artifacts,
digitized textiles, depictions of traditional games as well as sound
and video recordings.

`The strength and beauty of the Houshamadyan website is that it
aggregates and organizes a vast body of information in a way that
makes it accessible to a wide audience. Through the presentation of
the material in this way, the website allows visitors to explore and
find material that they did not necessarily come to the website to
look for. This is a form of historical and cultural exposure that is
often lacking in today’s world of Google searches and Amazon.com,’
said Nora Lessersohn, the project coordinator for the Houshamadyan
Association and website.

These resources are aimed at enhancing `the visitor experience and
helping make the reconstruction of these lost communities all the more

Lessersohn’s involvement in the project came in tandem with an
exploration of her own familial and cultural identity. Lessersohn
first encountered the Houshamadyan website while researching her own
family history and was immediately inspired to get involved. After
emailing the project director, Lessersohn submitted her own
great-grandfather’s recordings of lullabies to the project while she
was living in New York.

`I also wrote a short narrative piece on my reading of my
great-grandfather’s memoirs of his life in Marash,’ said Lessersohn,
which can be listened to via the Houshamadyan website.

Lessersohn, a graduate of Harvard College (AB’09 in The Study of
Religion), has also worked at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office
and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once Lessersohn relocated to the
Boston area, she became the project coordinator for Houshamadyan and
has worked to collaborate with the local community and abroad to
expand the project’s reach.

`Through my work with the project, I have become increasingly
interested in the issue of representing and communicating historical
and cultural identity and complexity. I have also, of course, taken a
great interest in the study of Armenian communities in the Ottoman
Empire, and their interaction with other Ottoman communities and
peoples. I hope to explore these themes as well as others in my future
studies,’ said Lessersohn.

According to the website, the name for the non-profit association,
Houshamadyan, references `a special genre of Armenian publications
that is characterized by its individuality and is immediately linked
to the general subject of our website. These are memorial books, which
are also known under the name of compatriotic union publications.
`Houshamadyan’ is a complex word, made up of `housh’ (memory) and
`madyan’ (book) – which can mean either `register’ or `parchment
manuscript’ – putting the words together.’

Unlike many archives and special collections with rare materials that
close their collections to the public or require special permission or
payment, the Houshamadyan Association aims to share historical
resources with the global community. Association members collect
resources and materials from around the world, most often digitized
versions of materials, as well as hardcopies of materials, which are
stored in their small Berlin headquarters.

Lessersohn noted, `We should emphasize that all the materials we
receive from the public are accessible to the public: i.e., if someone
is preparing a publication or an exhibition, and would like to use an
image or material from our website, we will provide the material
without charge – this is the essence of a collaborative website.’

The concept of using online and digital archives remains an emerging
form of preservation in academia, which still chiefly relies on
standard academic resources such as printed books, conferences or
museum exhibitions for preservation and research. `…The world is
changing rapidly, and we believe we are using a medium through which
we can provide academically serious material in an accessible and
attractive way to an increasingly large audience. We are proud to say
that, as far as we can tell, our work is in this way innovative and
pioneering,’ said Lessersohn.

As with any attempt at reconstructing history, the Houshamadyan
Association must be mindful of the narrative they put forth and the
version of history they represent. Project collaborators say their
goal is not to advance a particular historical narrative, but rather
to `communicate and recover the life, custom, traditions, cuisine, and
environs of the Ottoman Armenian communities.’ Lessersohn explained,
`We aim to fill in the gaps in Ottoman studies that have not often
utilized Armenian primary sources, as well as the gaps in both Turkish
and Armenian nationalist historiographies that often downplay the
Ottoman lived reality of the Armenian people. In this way, we aim also
to be the means by which Ottoman memory may be returned to the

Given both the destruction and suppression of Armenian-Ottoman
resources, as well as the dominant historical narrative put forth,
Houshamadyan faces the difficult task of `reconstructing a lost world:
material possessions, architectural structures, family documents, ways
of life, and historical narratives, have all been lost.’ Material
possessions, architecture, ways of life, and countless sources have
been lost and it is no easy endeavor to piece them together, nor are
there countless archival sources or teams of historians. `As col-
laborative website, we are able to draw on the materials and memories
of people from all over the world, and rebuild and reconstruct what we
can, with the materials we are given,’ said Lessersohn.

Houshamadyan’s small team consists of project director and chief
editor, Vahé Tachjian; art director, Silvina Der-Meguerditichian; a
few translators and authors; President of the Houshamadyan Association
Elke Hartmann and Lessersohn. Houshamadyan has partnered with the
Otto-Friedrich University, Bamberg (chair of Turkology, Bamberg,
Germany), Haigazian University (Beirut), the Armenian Genocide
Museum-Institute (Yerevan) and the Armenian Library and Museum of
America (ALMA) in Watertown, where Lessersohn recently delivered a
lecture on the project in November.

Houshamadyan’s success as a historical endeavor rests entirely on
collaborative efforts. The team not only hopes to share these
resources with the global community, but it also welcomes the public
to get involved in the project by actively preserving history. Readers
are encouraged to visit the site, to join their newsletter, ask for
additional information or provide project members with materials of
any sort that they would like to contribute to the project. `We are
always looking for new information and connections,’ said Lessersohn.

Houshamadyan is currently fundraising for the publication of their
first book, Ottoman Armenians, Vol. 1: Life, Culture, Society. The
book will be an extension of the website, with new articles, extended
versions of current projects and more than 200 images, rather than
just a replica of the site. While Houshamadyan is chiefly a web-based
archive, the Houshamadyan team says they also value the tactile and
representative importance of physical archives and preservation of
hard copies of materials. `We believe it is important to have such a
publication, to keep in libraries and family homes, to give to others
as a gift or an educational tool, and to reach audiences who do not
necessarily have access to the internet […] it will only add to the
strength and reach of our work if we produce materials in all forms
(website, books, exhibitions, workshops, etc). It is always good to
express oneself in as many ways as possible, to reach as many people
as possible.’ Coordinators hope to eventually translate this first
publication and future publications, into Armenian and Turkish.
Visitors can already access the website in both English and Armenian,
and translation into Turkish is forthcoming. Also in the works is a
full exhibition and accompanying workshop in Berlin in 2013.

To get involved with Houshamadyan or make a contribution to the
publication of their forthcoming book, visit
or email directly at
[email protected].