Hemshinli of Rize | Charles Roffey
In the latter half of the eighth century, and for a hundred years before that (and a hundred years after), Armenia was an emirate—a satellite state of the Islamic caliphates: first the Rashidun, then the Umayyad, and finally the Abbasid. Armenia was conquered and brought under Arab rule in 645 C.E.—this meant, among other things, that its Christian inhabitants (the vast majority of the Armenian population at that time) paid jizya, a special tax levied on kafirs, or non-Muslims.
Jizya—or, perhaps, Arab domination itself—did not sit well with the Amatunis, a noble Armenian family from Vaspurakan, who abandoned their homeland for the Black Sea region when it became clear that the Arabs did not plan on decamping any time soon. There, they established the Principality of Hamamshen, an autonomous nation that remained independent until the arrival of the Ottomans in the fourteenth century.
Over time, after prolonged separation from the Armenians of Armenia proper, the Armenians of Hamamshen became the Hemshin, a distinct ethnic group that later adopted Islam and forgot entirely its Armenian origins. The Hemshin peoples—the Hemshinli of Hemşin, the Hopa Hemshinli of Artvin, and the Christian Homshentsik of the Russian Caucasus—are considered by modern Armenians a lost Armenian people. Among the Hemshin themselves, no such consensus exists—the Hopa Hemshinli and the Homshentsik have been surprised to discover that Armenian outsiders understand their Homshetsma, in fact a dialect of western Armenian. In her documentary The Hamshen Community at the Crossroads of Past and Present, Lucine Sahakyan examines the unwillingness of the Hemshin to acknowledge their Armenian heritage.
The Hemshinli of Hemşin, Rize, are perhaps the most acculturated of the Hemshin peoples. They are Sunni Muslims, and unlike the Hopa Hemshinli and the Homshentsik, they do not speak Homshetsma but Turkish, exclusively. In these photographs, Hemshinli women pick and harvest tea. It is their staple crop (it replaced maize as the most profitable agricultural product in the 1990s), and, according to Erhan Ersoy, author of Social and economic structures of the Hemshin people in Çamlıhemşin, an essay included in The Hemshin: History, society, and identity in the Highlands of Northeast Turkey, edited by Hovann H. Simonian, ”to a large extent, it is the women who are responsible for [tea cultivation] and animal husbandry.”
Cultivation of tea in Çamlıhemşin began at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Of the twenty-four villages in the region, nineteen are engaged in the cultivation of tea… The main unit of production in the cultivation of tea is the family; small-scale cultivation is typical for the Rize region…
Although the great majority of the labour required for tea cultivation is carried out by women (80 percent…), a major part of the income generated is retained by men (around 60 per cent). The heads of households tend to say that the income from tea is so small as to be insignificant, adding that it is typically used to buy small things for the house or is split up among the women of the house, who usually use it to buy gold.
Ersoy explains that “the patriarchal family system is dominant in the region, and so the eldest male is the head of the household. The eldest woman in the household also enjoys high status. The term koçira among the Hemshinli is used to a describe a woman who performs a managerial function within the home rather than carrying out household duties. Elderly women,” he continues, “do not lose this status when their sons become adults, though as a general rule it is considered important that women obey the male head of the household. For women this is an inescapable rule, and for this reason it is women who do most of the heavy work like carrying loads.”
One Hemshinli woman said, “Only mothers bear all the burdens. Mothers who make their husbands bear a burden are considered dishonourable among the people. This tradition is still in force in the Hemshin region. The woman bears the burden of the whole family.”
The identity of the Hemshin peoples remains complicated, but that is not their primary concern. Compared to neighboring Laz villages, Hemshin villages are built at higher altitudes and are less suitable to tea cultivation; in 90% of households, at least one family member was forced to seek work outside of the village, most likely in the big city, in order to support their traditionally large families; women remain subject to the will of men while working harder than men do—these, and not the issue of Armenian heritage, remain the most pressing problems of the Hemshin peoples.