As mentioned in my previous post, I recently came across a large amount of material in the archives at Greater Manchester County Record Office relating to an Armenian Mancunian – a Mr Boghos Astardjian. The collection included the following framed photograph:
It’s a fascinating image, full of unexplained identities, items, information and clues. As soon as I saw it I found myself asking questions, such as where is Eastern Roumelia? What is a Con. Traveller? Why is one of the men seated on the floor with his legs crossed? What are all the items that surround the figures?
I decided to start with the location: Haskovo, Eastern Roumelia.
Eastern Roumelia was an autonomous geographical area created within the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. The treaty was initiated by the so-called Great Powers of the nineteenth century (which included Great Britain) and attempted to restore independence to a number of countries under Ottoman rule. Bulgaria was one of these countries, and in 1885 Eastern Roumelia became Bulgarian territory.
Above: Map showing Eastern Roumelia (source)
The city of Haskovo, once part of Eastern Roumelia, is now located in southern Bulgaria.
Below: Map showing present-day Haskovo (source)
Minorities living within the Ottoman Empire were facing increasing persecution in the late 1800s, particularly Armenians, some of whom lived in what became known as Eastern Roumelia. It was shortly after the Bulgarian absorption of Eastern Roumelia that the Hamidian massacres occurred in nearby Turkey. This was followed by the Armenian Genocide, which occurred in 1915 and was the subject of a recent blog post here and on the GM1914 blog.
The date and location of the Astardjian photograph are therefore both significant. Eastern Roumelia was a short-lived gesture designed to liberate a small part of the Ottoman Empire, in which a number of Armenians lived. The late 1800s/early 1900s was a dangerous time for Armenians living and trading in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It is unsurprising therefore that for those who had the means to migrate, Britain offered a safer place to live, work and conduct business. Many Armenians settled in Manchester, including the Astardjians, who ran a textile business in the city.
The Astardjian business records reveal strong links with both Turkey and Bulgaria, and interestingly Boghos Astardjian mentioned a Churchill speech about Bulgarian politicians in his diary years later in 1944, towards the end of WWII. It is likely that this part of the world held some significance for Boghos (also known as ‘Bob’ to his friends) – perhaps he knew or was related to some of the Armenians who lived there. Indeed, some of the records list his father Stepan as based in Sofia, which is the capital of Bulgaria.
Above: Mention of Bulgaria speech on the bottom right (source)
Returning to the photograph, the actual scene appears to depict some kind of workshop – the walls are covered with prints and textiles. There are a few photographs or possibly drawings on the walls and tables, and a large chest on the far left.
The positions and names of the men are revealing. Mr K. Astardjian (a relative of Boghos Astardjian – based on the date and apparent ages of the men, an uncle perhaps?) is the main named subject, and, one might guess, the standing figure in the centre. I am assuming that the fellow traveller is the gentleman on the right, and that ‘Con,’ refers perhaps to Constantinople, where many of Manchester’s Armenian community came from.
As for the seated figure, one of the staff at Archives+ suggested his position and dress implied that he might be a tailor, and some preliminary research confirmed this. His cross legged position is the traditional working position of a tailor. It is also referred to Turkish style, or as the sitting style of non-Han ethnics (particularly Turks, Mongols and other Central Asians). I’m not sure where this reference comes from (one of the many problems with using Wikipedia as a research tool), but it is intriguing in relation to Armenian history/geography.
The scene was likely staged – especially since having one’s photograph taken in the 1800s involved staying still for a long period whist the camera captured the scene. It seems likely that the trip to Eastern Roumelia was business-related. Perhaps to source or sell textiles. Or maybe the Astardjians were already based there to begin with. Either way it is a beautiful image, with lots of intricate details and subtle historical/geographical references.
I am grateful to the Astardjian family for donating such a rich and diverse array of materials to the Greater Manchester County Record Office, and look forward to sharing more in the coming weeks.