The Armenian world was shattered by the 1915 genocide. Not only were thousands of lives lost but families were displaced and the narrative threads that connected them to their own past and homelands were forever severed. By contrast, the Dildilian family chose to speak, and record their experiences. Now, Armen T. Marsoobian, descendent of the Dildilian family, has written Fragments of a Lost Homeland – a unique array of family sources that tells the story of his ancestors and, in doing so, brings to life the tumultuous events of the early twentieth century.
Out now, read an extract from Fragments of a Lost Homeland below
The Dildilians of Sivas
How the Family Got its Name
The Dildilian family story begins in the mid-eighteenth century. I say “story” because what we know about my family in those early years was shared orally by one generation with the next. I do not know when these stories were first written down, but in a speech my grandfather Tsolag tells us that his grandfather, Mourad, often read aloud family stories from what he calls “a book of dreams.” This book has long been lost, but decades later these stories appeared in the memoirs of both Aram and Maritsa.
The Dildilian family name has long been associated with photography but much before the invention of photography in 1839, the Dildilians were practicing a variety of skilled crafts in the Anatolian city of Sivas, known to many Armenians by its earlier name, Sebastia. One of these crafts, blacksmithing, accounts for the creation of the family surname, Dildilian, a name unique among Armenian surnames. Unlike most Armenian surnames shared by many unrelated families, the Dildilian name is found only among Armenians who are members of our extended family. Aram begins his memoir with a description of one of his earliest known ancestors: “My great-grandfather, Garabed, was a blacksmith. He was born and lived and died in Sivas, Asia Minor, which is situated on a high plateau by the Alice River (Kuzul), which was once the capital city of an Armenian king, Senekereme. That is why that western section [of the Armenian Highlands] is called Poker Haigks, ‘Minor Armenia’.”
As I discovered only recently, the Dildilians were not always called “Dildilian,” but at one time went by the surname Keledjian. My great-great-great-grandfather, Mouradentz Garabed Keledjian, born in Sivas in 1768, was the talented blacksmith identified above whose act of skill caused the surname change. My grandfather Tsolag, the eldest of his siblings, provides the first known record of this event in a speech given to family and friends in January of 1928:
My grandfather Mourad had a “Book of Dreams” in which it was recorded that 150 years ago a military Pasha came to Sebastia and sent for a farrier, commanding that his 400 horses be shod with new horseshoes within four days. “If you cannot fill the order, your head will be off.” The poor craftsman, driven by the fear of losing his head, with an unbelievable speed finishes the task, puts the pincers and the hammer at the Pasha’s feet and salutes him. The Pasha lifts his head and asks, “What do you want?” The master craftsman replies, “Sir, your command has been completed.” The surprised Pasha says, “Aferim, usta duel duel mi oldun.” (Bravo, master, you are the master duel duel.) Duel Duel is a small fast-moving horse from Mytilene [a Greek island in the Aegean off the west coast of Turkey, in Turkish called Midillisi]. Thus, as a result of grandfather’s saving his head, today, I, his grandson – I do not know by how many generations – keep his respectable surname, Dildilian. I, too, have saved my head by a hair’s breadth from Pashas.1
Aram’s memoir includes a slightly different version but still involves the family being named after a fast horse.
Maritsa many years later recounts the story of this defining event but gives a different version of the specific origin of the name “Dildilian.” There is no fast Mytilene pony referenced in this story:
This is how the Keledjians became the Dildilians.
A long time ago, when the beys had armed escorts of men on horseback or on foot and could thus rob, abduct and ransom … a bey brings, I don’t know how many horses to be re-shoed … instructing him to have the job completed before daybreak or he would be beheaded. Begging, or imploring the implacable bey would be futile. The bey knows it is an impossible task.
The blacksmith sets to work. When the bey comes the next morning, the blacksmith is distraught, and having just finished the job, he presents his tools at the bey’s feet. But weariness and awe are such that he is unable to speak. Surprised at his silence, the bey asks him: “Dilinle mi nallatın?” (Did you shoe them with your tongue?) But the master still cannot utter a word, so the bey cries: “Dil, dil!” (Your tongue, your tongue!) In other words, “Speak up!”
These words remained and the blacksmith was called dildil, which became Dildilian.
Whether named in honor of a fast pony or a tongue-tied blacksmith, the Dildilian name stuck.
Fragments of a Lost Homeland: Remembering Armenia is out now
Armen T. Marsoobian is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University and is Editor of the journal Metaphilosophy. He has lectured and published extensively on topics in American philosophy, aesthetics, moral philosophy and genocide studies. He has edited five books, including The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy and Genocide’s Aftermath: Responsibility and Repair. He is a descendant of the Dildilian family and has organized exhibitions based upon his family’s Ottoman-era photography collection.
- The Turkish word for pony is “midilli.” Ege Midillisi is the fast-moving horse referred to here. In English this ancient breed is called the Mytilene or Aegean Pony. They were selectively bred by the Ottoman Turks using the smallest type of Anadolu Pony to develop an animal small enough to stand under trees for the purpose of collecting hazelnuts and olives. They have a “rahvan gait (very fast running-walk)” and “can carry a large load and travel long distances.” “Mytilene,” in Bonnie L. Hendricks and Anthony A. Dent, eds., International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007, pp. 303–4.