“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. ” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay
I first met George Jerjian last month at the London Book Fair. It was early evening, the time of day when notepads were slipped away and the drinks began to flow. Crates of beer and bottles of wine had appeared and ties were loosened with a satisfied sigh. We made our way around Olympia, stopping here and there to grab a glass and have a chat with this or that person whose books, or drinks, had caught our eye. It was over in the Armenian section that we ran into George who we got to know over a glass of fine Armenian brandy – The kind Winston Churchill favoured, or so I’m told.
Jerjian, who was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1955, has a rich family heritage that traces back to the former Ottoman Empire. When his paternal grandfather George Djerdjian left his hometown of Arabkir in Ottoman Turkey for the last time in 1907 he left behind a homeland which would never be the same again.
On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested and executed some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople, marking the beginning of the Armenian genocide, the systematic extermination of Armenian subjects living within Ottoman Turkey at the hands the Ottoman Empire. In 1915 the Armenian Population of the Ottoman controlled region was reported to be approximately two million, by 1918 it is estimated that over one million had perished, with thousands more left homeless and without refuge, by 1923 virtually all of the Armenian population had disappeared.
The events of the genocide left Armenian areas of the empire completely devastated, assets were seized, property was demolished, and the historical monuments of the Armenian people were destroyed. Today, little remains of the Armenian society that once existed within the realms of the Ottoman Empire. Let us be thankful that when George Djerdjian left the Ottoman Turkey in 1907 he took a little piece of history with him.
Between 1900 and 1907 George Djerdjian took 240 photographs of his hometown of Arabkir and his college town of Erzeroum. For many years these photographs were stored in a grey steel box, dutifully following their owner, and his descendants, on their travels around the world. They travelled from Ottoman Turkey, to Egypt, Sudan, England and the United States. Now, a century after they first left Arabkir, they have finally emerged to see the light of day.
Jerjian explains how he came across the photos clearing out his elderly fathers flat; he found a ‘small treasure trove’ of artefacts and photographs. ‘In that box’ he says, ‘were close to about one hundred glass plates, photographs of Arabkir, my grandfather’s home town.’ The photographs were remarkable in that they were pre-genocide, taken of a time which has long been shrouded in mystery. It was fascinating, he said, to go into this world that has long since been extinguished.
Daylight after a Century is the story of a photographer who was able to capture life in eastern Anatolia in the early 1900s. George Djerdjian took everyday pictures, he captured people, schools, churches, nature, and life – social life, political life, economic life, the lives of the people of Arabkir. These unremarkable pictures have become remarkable, in that they show a time before: ‘Before the great war, before the genocide, before the lights were turned out on a civilisation.’
The photographs depict a life, a community and a place, that has long been lost.
In the film accompanying Jerjian’s book Hayk Demoyan, the Director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, speaks of the importance of the photos not just for the family of George Djerdjian, but for all Armenians. The images, he says, serve as ‘pieces of a puzzle’ which glimpse into the life of the Armenian people before the genocide.
The Armenians of Arabkir and Erzeroum had lived in the area for thousands of years; these pictures are not just a snapshot of life at the time, they are the some of the only remaining evidence of the last moments of an ancient civilisation which was about to become extinct.
These glass plates have traversed oceans and continents, countries and generations, and today after a century of darkness they have seen daylight.
It is extraordinary the distance the plates have travelled and the events they have lived through and emerged out the other side of, to tell the story, not just of George Djerdjian, but also the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire. Daylight After a Century serves as a testament to a truly remarkable collection of pictures and a fantastic tribute to their photographer, who could never have known the significance his work would one day hold.