Archive for the ‘greek & asia minor’ Category

Sunday, November 2, 2014 @ 03:11 PM Bluebird

An abridged version of “Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire” was re-issued by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2013. The book, which was edited by Benjamin Braude & Bernard Lewis, was originally issued in two volumes, vol 1 covering “the Central Lands” (that is to say, Turkey-in-Europe and Anatolia, the heart of the Ottoman Empire) and vol 2 the Arabic-speaking lands, and had been out of print for a couple of decades. The recent re-issue selects from the original two volumes essays by various writers and benefits from a tremendous new introduction by Braude, which encapsulates many of the key themes and conclusions of the book.

Like any serious book bringing together a range of authors, not all readers will find every article of equal interest, but this collection is remarkably consistent in quality, and – with only one exception (for which, see below) – the content is even-handed and non-partisan. Although it is an academic volume, it is sufficiently accessible for a general reader and non-specialist, and any family historian with roots, or an interest,in the Ottoman Empire, and the co-existence of peoples within it, will gain greater insight from reading this than from a stack of superficially more appealing but more one-sided accounts, memoirs and histories written from the point of view of, say, the Greeks of the Empire, or the Armenians, or the Sephardic Jews, or the Copts.

Unfortunately, there is a bad apple in the basket, and that is the penultimate essay, by Feroz Ahmad. It comes as little surprise to find out, from the blurb at the back, that he teaches at Yeditepe University in Istanbul (risible motto: “Following Ataturk’s renaissance”).  Ahmad is Turkish not by birth but by citizenship, and obviously went native, just like the American academic Justin McCarthy before him who also swallowed the Turkish state’s line on history and was decorated accordingly with the “order of merit” bauble. With sadly few exceptions, Turkish historiographers peddle a Turkish supremacist or apologist version of the past. In Ahmad’s essay, therefore, the poor and oppressed of the late Ottoman Empire were the Turks, and their exploiters and oppressors were the Armenians and Greeks. Similarly, the Muslim rural poor of Eastern Anatolia are all Turks – certainly not Kurds, who, as is customary in Turkish historiography, are subsumed silently within the category of Turks unless a scapegoat or an Other is required. Likewise, no distinction is drawn between the various shades of Islam within Anatolia, which was anything but monolithic – for Ahmad, if you were not Armenian or Greek in Anatolia, clearly you could only be a Sunni Turk.

Nevertheless, if you ignore Ahmad’s essay, the remainder of “Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire” makes for a balanced and nuanced insight into the Ottoman Empire and is highly recommended to all genealogists who would like to develop a greater understanding of Armenian, Greek or Jewish ancestors in the Near East.

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Saturday, March 8, 2014 @ 04:03 AM Bluebird

Presently I am working on interpreting, understanding and analysing records relating to Armenians in an 1872 defter, or taxation document, from Kayseri in Turkey (Gesaria or Kesaria in Armenian). The records are arranged by mahalle and, within that, by street. The taxpaying householders in each street are then listed. There were 8,119 taxpaying households in total in Kayseri in 1872.

Kayseri had a total of 108 mahalleler or neighbourhoods, comprising between 16 and 352 households each, with the mean being 75 homes. By no means all neighbourhoods were the homogeneous ethnic or religious groups I had expected. 67 neighbourhoods were exclusively Turkish, 24 were Armenian, two were Kurdish and one was Greek. However, Greeks and Armenians lived together in some Christian quarters and, more surprisingly perhaps, there were seven neighbourhoods with a mixed Armenian/Turkish population.

The original archival material is in Osmanlı Turkish, written using a modified Arabic alphabet, and has been transliterated and transcribed into modern Turkish, which of course uses the Latin alphabet. One needs to understand the pronunciation of certain Turkish letters to be able to match them with the approximately corresponding letters used in English to spell Armenian names in transliteration. For example, the Turkish letter c may be the equivalent of j or dj, and ç and ş represent the sounds ch and sh respectively. Turkish vowels are also problematic, not least because these were poorly catered for in Osmanlı Turkish and therefore there may not be a one-to-one correlation. The undotted ı is usually pronounced short like the e in English “bed” (while the dotted i is used for the long vowel sound at the start of İstanbul, or in the English word “bead”).

Armenian and Greek personal names are rendered in Turkish style, using the suffix -oğlu to indicate “son of”, rather than an Armenian or Greek surname ending. The entries are terse and it is not always clear whether a surname has already been assumed by a family or, contrarily, a simple system of patronymics is still in use – for example, in the case of entries in the format “Manük oğlu Serkis”, it is not certain whether the individual in question is Sarkis Manoukian, or simply a Sarkis son of Manouk with no settled surname. Contrarily, when the entry is in the format “Demiroğlu Karabet”, it seems clear that the man’s name is Karabet (or Garabed) Demirian.

One problem is that there is no single standard spelling of Armenian names – not only does the language have its Western and Eastern variants, but there can be several (sometimes many) ways of transliterating the same name into English.

I began by looking for surnames I knew from previous research to be associated with the town and/or sanjak of Kayseri. I was able to find only about one quarter of these. Either the other names were not from Kayseri itself but an outlying town or village, or they had not been taken by 1872 (which seems less likely).

Some of the names in the defter are relatively simple to match to modern Armenian names, for example:

Arzuman oğlu Parsıh = Barsegh Arzumanian or Arzoumanian

Beyleroğlu Mardiros = Mardiros Beylerian

Erkiletlioğlu Karabet = Karabet Erkiletlian

Gürünlüoğlu Kesbar ve Avidis = (brothers) Kasbar and Avedis Gurunlian or Gourounlian

Kalaycıoğlu Mardiros = Mardiros Kalaydjian

Keşişoğlu Kalus = Calouste Keshishian

Minasoğlu Hacı Agop = Agop Minasian

Odabaşıoğlu Agop = Agop Odabashian

Şahinoğlu Karabet = Karabet Shahinian

Seferoğlu Parsıh ve Artin = (brothers) Barsegh and Artin Seferian

Other names are less confident matches:

Acemoğlu Karabet = Karabet Ajemian or Adjemian

Dökmecioğlu Agop = Agop Dekmedjian, Dekmejian, Deukmejian or Deukmedjian

Taşçıoğlu Ohanes = Ohanes Tashchian or Tashjian

The records mainly involve heads of household, as the taxpayers, and these are usually men – however, there are some women, perhaps mostly widows or women who had inherited property or had established a charitable trust (vakif).

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014 @ 10:02 AM Bluebird

We have created a Google Map showing the locations of the principal Greek communities in Egypt from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, as well as some of the source locations from which the immigrants hailed. Many came from islands and from those Greek areas of population still at that time within the Ottoman Empire.

A screenshot of the Egyptian part of the map is shown below:

Greek communities in Egypt

Greek communities in Egypt

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014 @ 09:01 AM Bluebird

Our latest map shows some of the main Vlach settlements in SE Europe – especially those where Albania, Greece and Macedonia meet – plus the mid-/late 1920s settlements in Dobrudja, Romania. There are many more settlements not shown on this map – potentially hundreds if not a thousand or more across Albania and Greece in particular.

With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the construction of nation states with enforced international borders, Vlachs have largely had to give up their transhumant lifestyle. Most are bilingual or trilingual, speaking their own Vlach or Aroumanian language plus the official state language and often a minority language – for example, the Vlachs in SE Albania may speak Albanian and Greek or Macedonian as well as their Vlach mother tongue.

Vlach "types" from Macedonia, circa 1922

Vlach "types" from Macedonia, circa 1922

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013 @ 08:06 AM Bluebird

The surname Bashaw is not common in Britain. For instance, there are only 23 registrations of birth in the countrywide index for England & Wales from the start of civil registration in 1837 to 2006. The name is bona fide, although’s remark that it is the “Americanized spelling of French Bachard (see Bachar). Probably an altered spelling of German Beschore (see Bashore)” isn’t very helpful. The, hardly a reliable source, states vaguely that “The origins of the Bashaw name lie with England’s ancient Anglo-Saxon culture. It comes from when the family lived in Derbyshire, where they were found since the early Middle Ages before the Norman Conquest in 1066”. However, it also mentions that the names may be a variant of Bagshaw and Bagshott, which is more credible.

However, names are assumed for all sorts of reasons and at all times, and Bashaw is a case in point. Ishmael James Bashaw was buried in 1815 at the burial ground of the Gildencroft Quaker Meeting House in Norwich. However, the register records that he was a non-member, i.e. not a Quaker. Other records here and there show his marriage to Elizabeth Fornish in Stamford in 1776, and the births of (some of) their children, George, Ann, Esther, James, Charlotte and John, between 1777 and 1795. The pattern of births shows the family moving from Wisbech to Spalding to Norwich to Framlingham to Colchester. They appear to have been mobile if not itinerant, and not wealthy – indeed the parish authorities in Framlingham conducted a settlement examination in September 1788 to establish whether Bashaw and his family could claim relief in the parish, or could be lawfully palmed off on to a different parish.

In fact, in an effort to alleviate this want, Bashaw wrote a short book, published in 1797, entitled: The Turkish refugee: being a narrative of the life, sufferings, deliverances, and conversion, of Ishmael Bashaw, a Mahometan merchant, from Constantinople, who was taken prisoner by the Spaniards, and made a wonderful escape to England, where, having become a convert to the Christian faith, he was publicly baptized, with the approbation of the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Bashaw was apparently aged 80 years at death and had been born in the town of Edirne, or Adrianople, in Turkey. When he arrived in Britain, his name was not Bashaw at all – that is an anglicised version. Bashaw comes from Beşe. However, this is not a name either, but a kind of honorary title: beşe is a variant of paşa, which is usually anglicised as pasha. Moreover, we know that although Bashaw was a “Mahometan” or Muslim, in earlier life he was a janissary. Although the blood levy or devşirme was over by the time he was born circa 1735, the fact that he was a janissary raises the possibility that he wasn’t originally a Muslim, and wasn’t a Turk either – many in the janissary corps were still Christians, who were converted and took Islamic names such as Ismail. As Bashaw was originally from Edirne, if he wasn’t an ethnic Turk, one would have to assume that he would have been an ethnic Bulgarian or Greek by birth or less likely a Serb or Albanian.

Edirne or Adrianople

Edirne or Adrianople, C19th

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Monday, August 27, 2012 @ 08:08 AM Bluebird

Official Turkish historiography claims that the Hemshin are Turks who, through an unfortunate proximity, took on elements of Armenian language and culture. The truth, universally accepted elsewhere, is that the Hemshin are ethnic Armenians who either voluntarily or forcibly converted to Islam. For the most part they inhabit mountain valleys inland from Trabzon east to Rize and beyond Çayeli and Pazar to Hopa up by the border with Georgia.

Some of the valleys, such as those of the rivers Karadere and Fırtına, are predominantly Hemshin in character. Their villages are loose clusters of homes, often scattered along a ridge or a winding access road, rather than focused nuclear settlements. Many villages have separate quarters (mahalle) with different names, which have been gathered into a single settlement for administrative purposes. The majority of settlements have been re-named, or have alternative names. In certain parts, villages are associated with traditional highland pastures called yaylas, to which entire communities decamp for the summer grazing season.

The Hemshin have also dispersed within Turkey, and there are communities, generally thriving and successful, in big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul – the Hemshin there are famous as pastry cooks. As a result, the Hemshin villages are becoming depopulated, as part of a rural to urban movement pattern common to most developing states in the modern world. This threatens the very existence of the Hemshin as a distinctive people, especially within their context of the homogenising chauvinistic culture of Turkey. However, it is possible that their culture may be preserved through a mixture of urban Hemshin nostalgia and the development of tourism.

Most of the Hemshin are Sunni Muslim and nowadays speak Turkish; however, those in the Hopa district still speak Homshetsma, an Armenian dialect. The same Homshetsma language is spoken by Hemshin in Georgia and Russia where part of the Hemshin (or, rather, their Armenian forebears) migrated to escape conversion to Islam and remain Christian – some of these communities were deported to Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia during the Soviet era.

The Hemshin are also known variously as the Hamshen (the Armenian name for the Hemshin heartland around what is today the village of Çamlıhemşin); the Hemşin, or Hemşinli (in Turkish orthography); Hemshinli; Homshentsi and Homshetsi (as the Hemshin refer to themselves).

Bluebird Research’s GoogleMap shows current settlements in Turkey and beyond which are known to be Hemshin today. Villages outside Turkey are under-represented on the map. Communities in the big Turkish cities are not shown.



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Wednesday, January 11, 2012 @ 03:01 AM Bluebird

To start the year, here is a selection of eight books recommended for family historians in the English-speaking world with roots in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus: 


The Crossing Place, by Philip Marsden, 1993. This is subtitled “A Journey among the Armenians”. Marsden travels across the Armenian communities of the Middle-East and Eastern Europe to the Republic of Armenia but it would be wrong to think of this book simply as a travelogue, as it is more a reflection upon the survival of Armenia and the meaning of Armenian-ness in the Old World. Of course it touches upon the 1915 Genocide but equally it highlights the determined persistence and endurance of Armenian life.


Bosnia: A Cultural History, by Ivan Lovrenović, 2001. Most English-language books about Bosnia tend to be written from an outside perspective and to pontificate about the 1992-95 War. This book is one of the refreshing exceptions to that trend and is recommended reading for anyone with roots, whether Croat, Jewish, Muslim or Serb, in this part of the continent.


Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, by Juliet du Boulay, 1974. I like reading anthropological and ethnographical works for the insight they give into the everyday lives and mindsets of a people. This book covers every aspect of the lives of the villagers of “Ambeli” (a pseudonym), a remote hamlet on the island of Euboea (Evia). There is still continuity despite changing times, and this work will give the family historian a profound sense of the lives of their ancestors in rural Greece and, of course, of how their distant cousins back in the old land continued to live well into the latter half of the 20th century.


Walking Since Daybreak, Modris Eksteins, 1999. This is a family story written by a Canadian Latvian academic but, at the same time, a history of Latvia in the first half of the 20th century and a rare view into the lives of the officially recognised Displaced Persons, those individuals and families who for one reason or another found their way into UN relief camps in Occupied defeated Austria, Germany and Italy in the period 1945-52.


The Lithuanians in Scotland, by John Millar, 1998. Unlike all the other books I have chosen for this list, this one is more about the lives of an Eastern European people in their host land than their native land. This book is an easy read and very good on the lives of Scottish Lithuanians and the difficulties they experienced in Scotland (such as anti-Catholic prejudice and being mistaken for Poles). As the title suggests, though, it will not give you much on the home country Lithuania (which was of course part of Imperial Russia at the time of emigration).


I might have chosen one of several works by the tremendous contemporary writer Andrzej Stasiuk. I have selected Dukla (1997). It’s imaginative non-fiction, reflections on the nature of being in the remote rural and mountainous Beskidy regions of Poland’s Podkarpackie province (once part of the Austro-Hungarian Galicia kronland). There are satellite dishes and there are motor cars, but there is also a strong sense that, beneath the superficial changes of modernisation and despite the impositions of the Communist era, peasant life in this part of the country at the end of the 20th century continued pretty much as was from previous centuries.


I couldn’t choose between two Great Russian Novels in the tradition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. These are Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1959) and Vasily Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter (1994). The former is the greater work of art, but both cover a vast sweep of Russian history in the 20th century and capture the Russian experience in all its daunting multiplicity.


A Serbian Village, by Joel M Halpern, 1956. This is subtitled “Social and Cultural Change in a Yugoslav Community”. While this might sound like a dry academic book, the author, an anthropologist, writes in fascinating detail about the particularity of daily life, culture and customs in the village of Orašac. Although by the 1950s life in the Šumadija region had already started to embrace modernity, there is still enough of traditional rural Serbia intact to make this book a great insight into the lives of peasant ancestors from continental Serbia.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011 @ 03:09 PM Bluebird

This week the family history website Find My Past has published the central index to the register of merchant seamen on British vessels. The original record series was created by the then Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman (part of the Board of Trade). It is now held on microfiche at The National Archives in Kew, England and can be seen under shelf references BT348, BT349 and BT350.

The resource takes the shape of record cards which form a central index to seamen registered to serve on British-registered vessels within the period from approximately 1918 to 1941.

What makes the Central Index Register cards interesting from an Eastern European genealogical research perspective is that many of those employed in the British merchant navy were engaged at overseas ports. For example, there are large numbers of records relating to Estonian, Greek and Latvian sailors. Additionally, there are smaller but still significant quantities of seamen from Cyprus, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia, and even some from landlocked Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Some of these men may have settled and even become naturalised in Britain but presumably a majority remained citizens or subjects of their country of birth.

The front and back of each index card have been scanned and an online index published so that the records of individual merchant marines can be searched for and located. Two, three or more cards of different dates exist for some individuals.

The cards evolved a little over time, from CR1 to CR2 to CR10 types, and the details recorded changed too. However, the basic format remains the same, as does the core detail of name, year and place of birth, rating, Discharge A Number, ship name and/or official registered number, and date. Some cards give physical descriptions, while others sport a black and white passport-style photograph and signature.

The data is handwritten onto the printed index cards. The handwriting is not always legible and may be faint or contain abbreviations. The place of birth information on the cards will reflect the date at which they were created and the spellings current at that time, sometimes anglicised or misspelt. For example, the Estonian islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa often appear as Dagö and Ösel respectively (typically minus their diacritics), being their old Swedish names, and similarly the Saaremaa capital Kuressaare is often given as Arensburg.

CR10 card for John Part of Estonia - © The National Archives, London

CR10 card for John Pärt of Estonia - © The National Archives, London

This online collection is not a complete record of those sailing on British merchant vessels between the Wars. The majority of cards dating from 1913 to 1921 are known to have been destroyed in 1969. Moreover, a fourth record series at The National Archives (shelf reference BT364) is not being published, on account of data protection and personal privacy concerns. The series BT364 also covers the period 1921 to 1941 and was extracted from the materials that now comprise BT348 to BT350 inclusive. It remains possible that this series, which has also been scanned and indexed, may be released too in due course.

A final note: while some of the individuals contained within these records will have seen service additionally in the Royal Navy at some date, it must be emphasised that the majority would have served only on British merchant vessels and were not in the armed forces.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011 @ 07:04 PM Bluebird

The Armenians and the Greeks were not the only nationalities to be largely removed from Asia Minor as Turkey redefined itself as a single-nation state in the post-Ottoman era. The Yezidis (or Yazidis) – Kurds with their own distinctive non-Islamic religion – have also largely disappeared, either assimilating into the Kurdish population, crossing the border into the Republic of Armenia or emigrating to continental Europe (e.g. Germany).

Bluebird Research has created a Google Map showing the location of the former Yezidi villages of the Kars oblast, or province, of the Russian Empire circa 1910 before it was re-taken by the Turks after the end of WW1. During the Russian era, the distinctiveness of the Yezidi people was recognised and these villages constituted their own administrative district or okrug.

Click here to view the Google Map showing the Yezidi Villages of Kars Province.

A screenshot of the map is shown below:

Yezidi villages in Kars province 1878-1918

Yezidi villages in Kars province 1878-1918

Bluebird Research has no experience of Yezidi genealogical research but is always interested in expanding its knowledge and would be delighted to hear from anyone who is researching their Yezidi ancestry.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011 @ 12:03 PM Bluebird

During the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, Macedonia – the vilayets of Kosovo, Monastir and Salonika – was a region experiencing great tension and flux. There was only a finite quantity of cultivable land, creating unemployment and under-employment and a movement of the landless to the towns. At the same time there was growing social unrest. Competing nationalist movements sought the allegiance of the population. Violence flared up, especially after Ilinden in 1903, and villages were razed and their inhabitants killed or made homeless. 

Against this background, emigration became an increasingly attractive option. This was particularly so as the rural population of Macedonia already had a well-established tradition of seasonal migration: migrant workers, usually younger men, worked elsewhere within the Ottoman Empire, usually over the summer, and then returned to their home villages each year. Therefore, emigration to America was seen as a logical extension of a customary practice. 

The numbers of emigrants taking the American option rose in the 1900s as push-factors in Macedonia increased. From modest beginnings – for example, 1,529 in 1903 – the number of emigrants to USA rose rapidly, peaking at 20,769 in 1907 and then, after a temporary drop caused by official attempts to stem the flow, increasing again to 18,405 in 1910. USA received a total of 108,323 immigrants from Turkey-in-Europe over the period from 1903 to 1912. Most of these headed to work in mines and factories in places such as St Louis. 

However, the term “immigrants” is slightly misleading. Many of the Macedonians heading to the US regarded themselves as temporary migrants, working and saving for maybe three years in America and then returning home to Macedonia. Moreover, many of the immigrants counted in the official figures given above were repeat migrants. In other words, they travelled to USA, returned to Macedonia, and then returned for a second spell in USA. Of course, a significant number of Macedonians did not return to Europe at all, or returned to Europe but them emigrated permanently to settle in US, or had intended to return home but never did due to the outbreak of WW1. 

This explains why it is not unusual for an American family historian with Macedonian roots to find their ancestor on incoming passenger lists arriving at East Coast ports on two or more occasions. 

Examining the passenger lists, the family historian will also notice that, as likely as not, the immigrant ancestor did not sail from a port such as Piraeus or Salonika (Thessalonika) close to home. International shipping firms such as the British Cunard Line opened branches in Florina, Koritsa (Korçë), Monastir (Bitola), Resen and other towns, which in turn operated through a network of local agents (often money-lenders providing tickets on credit), selling a passage from ports such as Southampton in England, Le Havre in France, Antwerp in Belgium, and Hamburg and Bremerhaven in Germany. The migrants usually reached these departure ports by rail, crossing the continent, often in groups of relatives and friends from the same or neighbouring villages. Just as a majority of the traditional seasonal migrants were young men, so the typical Macedonian immigrant in USA was a single man in his twenties or thirties, with a rural background; very few travelled with wives and fewer still with children. Perhaps three quarters or more of the immigrants from Ottoman Macedonia were Slavic (that is to say, Macedonian or Bulgarian: national affiliations were not necessarily fully formed at that date), the remainder being ethnic Albanians, Greeks, Jews, Vlachs and others.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011 @ 08:02 AM Bluebird

At number 4 New Street in the City of London, not far from Liverpool Street railway station, there is a discreetly elegant door, over which, on the architrave, are the words EZEPOS G BENLIAN in relief.

Ezepos G Benlian

Ezepos G Benlian

The brothers Aharon and Ezepos Benlian were Armenian merchants, trading together as A & E Benlian Brothers until their partnership was dissolved in 1904.  They specialised in the import of high quality oriental carpets from the Tabriz region of Iran. Tabriz had a sizeable Armenian community and it is likely that there was a branch of the Benlian family residing there, as Aharon and Ezepos appear to have been born, circa 1861 and 1869 respectively, in the town of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the Ottoman Empire (today Kayseri, Turkey). The family also had a Constantinople connection, as Ezepos’s son Edward was born there in about 1899/1900. Quite possibly Ezepos had married his wife Haykanush Evrenian in the Ottoman capital a year or so earlier.

The G in Ezepos G Benlian is for Garabed, being the name of his father. This pattern of patronymic use was often taken over into the diaspora, at least by the first and sometimes the second generation of immigrant Armenians. Thus Ezepos’s son was named Edward Ezepos Benlian. If you are a family historian researching your Armenian roots and come to the point where you have identified the immigrant ancestors but do not the name(s) of their father(s), it can be safely assumed that the middle name of a child will be the forename of the father (although quite likely heavily anglicised in the process). A frequently encountered exception is of course Der or Ter, which may look like a middle name but is a common Armenian surname prefix denoting descent from an ancestor who was a priest.  In this regard, many ecclesiastical titles are placed between forename and family name in Armenian usage, so that, for example, the Vartabed in the name Dikran Vartabed Hovhanesian is not a middle name but a clerical rank.

Ezepos renounced his previous Ottoman citizenship and became a naturalised British subject in 1910. He died in 1925 and his son in 1973. The Benlian family seems to have prospered in London, having addresses at different times both in the City and in suburbs such as Harlesden, Harrow and Wimbledon. New Street, formerly a hub of carpet and rug traders, in common with much of the immediate vicinity of Devonshire Square in EC2, has been gentrified; no. 4 is now the address of a legal practice.

And what of Caesarea? The Armenian community must now be very small, although the church of Surp Krikor still stands and apparently is the sole remaining functional Armenian church in eastern Anatolia. I have a copy of a Turkish language book published on the history of nearby Talas in the 19th century* (the same author has published a companion volume on Kayseri). Both towns were ethnically mixed in the 19th century, with a thriving population of Armenians and Greeks as well as Turks.

The Talas book includes a listing of the property owners of the town, arranged by mahalle (quarter) and street, with the valuation of their houses for taxation purposes. The information is based on taxation registers circa 1875 held in the local archives. These original tax records would have been written in Osmanlı Arabic script and names have been transliterated into the version of the Latin alphabet used in modern Turkish. Nearly all Christians, both Greeks and Armenians, had, or were given in official records, surnames ending in the patronymic suffix -oğlu (such as Onasıoğlu and Gülbenkoğlu – in fact, there was a mahalle of Talas named Gülbenk, in which many Gülbenkoğlu had homes including the family of Kalus Gülbenkoğlu a.k.a. Calouste Gulbenkian, the oil baron, art collector and philanthropist). Often only the full combination of forename and family name distinguishes them, and then not always successfully, from their Turkish neighbours – forenames such as Karabet (Garabed) and Kirkor (Krikor) are usually identifiable as Armenian, but other names could be those of Greeks or Turks. In the Talas book there are no Benlian entries. It would be interesting to obtain a copy of the Kayseri volume and see whether the family of Ezepos G Benlian is in evidence.

* 19. Yüzyilda Talas, by Hüseyin Cömert, pub Mazaka Yayıncılık, 2010

doorway to Benlian, persian carpet merchants

doorway to A& E Benlian Bros, persian-carpet merchants

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Thursday, February 17, 2011 @ 04:02 PM Bluebird

For the English-speaking family historian with roots in an Eastern European country, reading English-language travelogues from the past is one way to develop a better understanding of the old country. True, travelogues view a country from a single perspective only, that of the privileged outsider who, on his or her travels, is unlikely to see or experience the country as a native does. Nevertheless, I believe there is much to be gained from historical travel writing and particular from reading a number of books so as to seek a more rounded composite picture of how a place seemed. 

Unfortunately, with some exceptions, more recent travel writers rarely seem to be successful in capturing a country.  They may be too self-regarding, or unconsciously supercilious, or concerned to avoid seriousness, so that they fall into the category of the ephemeral and lightweight. 

There is only a modest literature in English on the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, so I approached Christopher Deliso’s “Hidden Macedonia: The Mystic Lakes of Ohrid and Prespa” (Haus, 2007) with some excitement. Deliso is an American living in Skopje, married to a Macedonian; his travelogue covers his clockwise trip around the lakes of Prespa and Ohrid, through Greece, Albania and of course Macedonia itself. 

It is probably accurate to say that I was disappointed by the book but, also, that I understood it and found it interesting despite itself. There are facets of the book which are not pleasing: the casual jibes at poor Albanians and their recent history, seemingly in the hope of raising an easy laugh; the over-intrusive self of the author; the way the book loses momentum midway and starts to peter out in an uncertainty as to its purpose and its audience. The author is described as having read Byzantine Studies at Oxford; it is right that a writer wears his or her learning lightly, but little learning makes it through to this book, which is a shame. 

But still, the book catches something of the truth of the place. I can say this with confidence, even without having visited Macedonia. I have travelled in neighbouring Serbia and Bulgaria and I have seen equivalents of some of the things Deliso describes. More than anything else I think I can sense and respect Deliso’s feeling for Macedonia. There is something compelling about the Balkans, something very attractive; and something not at all what you would think if you relied solely on the media’s perennial accounts of the region (a subject superbly dismantled by Maria Todorova in “Imagining the Balkans”), in fact, quite the opposite. It is the humanity of the people and their way of life. To which one should add the roughness and variety of the natural settings of the Balkans, and the beauty of the Orthodox monasteries and churches, and mosques, in that setting. Finally, of course, countries such as Macedonia have yet to be smothered by the blandness of corporate capitalism and the homogenising spirit of the European Union. For the next 10 or 25 years, they will preserve that particularity which makes them fascinating to someone like Deliso or, for example, Alan Grant, whose Balkanology website better illustrates the compelling draw of the region than anything I could write. I am conscious that, if you are from Western Europe, part of this power is the otherness of the Balkans and that this exoticising of the Balkans is something Todorova also addresses in her work; but it also seems to me that the otherness is real and that recognising and valuing it is a valid experience for a person born and raised somewhere in Australia, Britain or North America. 

So read Deliso’s book if you can, accept its limitations, and, if you have roots in this particular corner of the Balkans, try to get out there to see it for yourself.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011 @ 04:02 PM Bluebird

A family historian in the English-speaking world searching speculatively for the marriage of an ancestor on an unknown date does not usually consider seasonality; that is, they have no preconceptions as to whether a wedding would or would not have taken place at any particular time of year. Furthermore, one rarely comes across any especially noticeable peaks or troughs in the frequency of marriages across the calendar year.  Couples get married all year round, perhaps in the post-WW2 world showing a preference for summer weddings. 

In contrast, in most rural societies across Eastern Europe before WW2 and certainly before WW1 when traditional ways of life were still very much intact, there was marked seasonality of marriage. This is reflected in the pages of any volume of a parish marriage register. 

One of the two chief factors was the agricultural year. Throughout the growing season and especially during the harvest, farmers, smallholders and peasants were joined in the fields and in the processing of harvested crops by just about every available hand – villagers of both sexes and all ages would be involved and frequently laboured both long days and by moonlight.  During this period, there was generally no time for marriage. 

The second factor was the religious calendar. In particular, fasting created marriage seasonality. Especially in Eastern Orthodox communities, marriage was an occasion of extended feasting and therefore incompatible with the fasts, during which meat, dairy produce, rich oils and so on were eschewed. There are various individual feast days during the Orthodox calendar, upon which it would be unthinkable for a wedding to be celebrated. But more to the point there were two fasts of great length. 

The first fast was the great or holy fast of the seven weeks of Lent. For instance, in the Serbian Orthodox calendar, traditionally the Church celebrated no marriages between Bele Poklade (a moveable feast, “white Shrovetide”, the last Sunday before Lent) and Đurđevdan (St George’s Day, 6th May). 

The second fast took place over the 40 days leading up to Christmas. Again, for the Serbian Orthodox calendar, this is the Božićni Post period from 28th November up to Božić, the Orthodox Christmas itself, on 7th January. 

Marriages therefore tended to cluster between these two extended feasts. Factoring in the principal months of agricultural activity, this produced a spate of weddings from mid-January to early March, and again from October to late November. 

Of course, for other Orthodox societies, the harvest might move a few weeks according to latitude, altitude, climate and other factors. Similarly, fasting at Lent might well take place over fewer weeks. However, the pattern itself remains largely true and produces the same seasonal peaks in marriage.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010 @ 09:11 AM Bluebird

The League of Nations negotiated the ratification and oversaw the implementation of the fait accompli of the great population exchange between Greece and Turkey, encapsulated in the 1923 Lausanne Convention. 

By 1928, there were 1,221, 849 refugees resident in Greece. It should be stressed that this is an under-estimate of the total number of displaced Greeks who arrived in the country in the early 1920s, as of course by 1928 many refugees had died, while perhaps up to 50,000 had migrated onwards to destinations such as Egypt, France and USA.

The official figures for the origins of the refugees, as given in Dimitri Pentzopoulos’s Balkan Exchange of Minorities, are as follows:

Asia Minor          626,954
Thrace                  256,635
Pontus                   182,169
Bulgaria               49,027
Kars & Tiflis         47,091
Constantinople   38,458
Russia                    11,435
Serbia                    6,057
Albania                 2,498
Dodecanese         738
Romania              722
Cyprus                  57
Egypt                    5


It will be seen that Greece received refugees from beyond Turkey. The figure from Bulgaria excludes 81,892 Greeks who arrived in the country following the earlier Treaty of Neuilly of 1919.

The places of residence of the refugees in 1928 were as follows: 

Macedonia           638,253
Central Greece    306,193
Thrace                   107,607
Aegean Islands  56,613
Thessaly                34,659
Crete                       33,900
Peloponnese       28,362
Epirus                    8,179
Cyclades               4,782
Ionian Islands   3,301   


A great effort was made to settle refugees on land, both that available as a result of the exchange of Muslims and of the 1923 land reforms (which expropriated major landowners, both Muslim and Greek), and that newly brought into cultivation. This infused new agricultural techniques, for instance in tobacco and vine growing.

However, a majority of the refugees necessarily had to settle in towns and many were unable to pursue their former occupations and trades due to an excess of supply over demand for their services. Some industries were effectively transplanted to Greece. For instance, the silk industry of Nicomedia (Izmit in Turkish) was recreated at Nea Kios in Argolis prefecture, and Oriental carpet-making at refugee settlements in Nea Ionia and Nea Kokkinia. Similarly, the celebrated pottery industry in Kutahya in Asia Minor was re-established in Greece.

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Friday, October 22, 2010 @ 12:10 PM Bluebird

The Ottomans conceptualised the population of their empire as three basic communities: the Muslims, the non-Muslim inhabitants and the foreigners (or Franks). In turn, the non-Muslims were divided by religion into the millets.

This view of the population informed the arrangements made to measure and monitor the people. Only Muslims could serve in the army. Their Christian and Jewish neighbours instead had to pay a kind of poll tax called the cizye or jizye, later replaced by the bedelât-ı askeriye, literally a tax in lieu of military service. The early 19th century Ottoman censuses were designed primarily to capture the necessary information to enable the state to conscript Muslim men into the army and to levy taxes upon the non-Muslims. Over the course of the century, the Ottomans endeavoured periodically to improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness of their data, so as to boost army and reserve sizes and to maximise tax revenues.

Only males were counted in the census before reforms in 1878, as only males were liable to military service and taxation.

The Ottoman censuses were not defined regular (for instance, decennial) events taking place over a single night or weekend, unlike most of those in places like Britain and America. Rather, they tended to extend over two years and frequently longer. In due course, the census and civil registration functions merged into a single continuous ongoing recording of the population – the basis of this can be said to have been largely achieved by the mid- or late 1880s. This system was also joined up with the military, so that the army had a continuous feed of information for conscripting men into active service, the reserve and the local militia.

From the late 1850s, the census was also used to produce the equivalent of ID cards. The earliest of these was the vergi nüfus tezkeresi or population tax certificate issued to males, which recorded the holder’s obligations to the state, such as their tax liability.

From about 1878, this was replaced by nüfus tezkeresi or population certificate. This served for ID and had to be used in all interactions with the state and for travel purposes. The information on this population certificate was an extract from the sicil-ı nüfus, or nüfus defter, being the actual population registers created and maintained by the state. Muslims and non-Muslims were enumerated in separate registers. The registers included women for the first time. The register included name, age, place of birth, marital condition, religion, occupation, address and military status. Nickname and, in case of adult males, style of beard or moustache were also recorded for purposes of identification. Along side the population registers, a system of notifying and registering births, marriages, divorces, deaths and change of address was also implemented.

Between 1878 and 1885, the new system was gradually rolled out across much of the Empire. Provinces in Turkey-in-Europe which were not immediately covered included the vilayets of Kosovo, Monastir and Shkodër, plus Bosnia, Bulgaria, Crete, Cyprus, Hercegovina and the autonomous Eastern Rumelia. However, the Aegean, Constantinople, Danube, Edirne, Janina and Salonica provinces were covered, plus Ionia and all of western and central Asia Minor.

Finally, new regulations came into force between 1900 and 1902 that mandated the requirement to carry and present one’s population certificate. In due course, this was documenting so much information about the bearer that it became an ID booklet rather than card, known as the nüfus hüviyet cüzdanı or simply nüfus cüzdanı and still used in Turkey today.

Of course, an increasing numbers of Ottoman-born subjects of empire acquired, for protection or advantage, European passports. For instance, the Greek state was happy to assign Greek citizenship to all Greeks living beyond its borders who applied.

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Friday, October 15, 2010 @ 12:10 PM Bluebird

The 1861 Greek census systematically enumerated the population of the Kingdom of Greece, at that time restricted of course to what is now the south of the mainland (the Peloponnese and Livadia), plus Euboea and the Cyclades. The census therefore covered, for example, Corinth, Patras and Tripolis but not such important Greek towns as Florina, Ioannina, Kastoria, Larissa, Salonika and Trikala which still lay outside Greece in the Ottoman Empire.

In the cities of Athens and Piraeus, census forms were distributed to and complete by householders. However, everywhere else in the Kingdom local authority officials went knocking door to door and gathered information from the householders.

Information typical of a 19th century European census return was collected: name, sex, age, marital status, relationship to head of household, occupation, religion, nationality and address.

Statistical information was published in full the following year and provides an historical record of the population of Greece at this moment in its history. However, the actual individual name level census returns have not survived complete.

For example, census information survives for approximately 61% of the inhabitants of the new town of Ermoupoli (Hermoupolis). Ermoupoli sprung up on the island of Syros in the 1820s as a place of refuge during the Greek struggle for independence and was settled initially by bankers, industrialists, merchants, ship-owners and the like, who fled from Chios, Psara, Smyrna and other major Greek settlements vulnerable to the Turks. The town thrived and became a centre of commerce and shipbuilding, attracting both other businesses and economic migrants from all parts of Greece and the Aegean. By the time of the 1861 census, the population amounted to 18,044 and was regarded as perhaps the wealthiest town in independent Greece. This was soon to change, as the 1870s proved to be a decade of financial crisis and economic decline for Syros.

The 1861 census for Ermoupoli is arranged alphabetically by forename of the head of household. Census returns for the first five letters of the Greek alphabet (A, V, G, D and E) are missing. This means that there are no returns for families whose head was named, for example, Anastasios or Dimitris. However, the returns for the remaining letters survive. These are followed by institutional returns (for the gaol, the hospital, the police station etc) and then by a separate (and alphabetically complete) return for the 751 inhabitants of the Hydriot quarter of town (which was by no means inhabited solely by families from Hydra). All told, 11,082 men, women and children are enumerated; the returns for the remaining 6,962 inhabitants (known from the statistical abstracts) have been lost.

Ermoupolis 1850

Hermoupolis, island of Syros, 1850

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Thursday, October 7, 2010 @ 11:10 AM Bluebird

The Aromanians are one of the most fascinating of the various transnational minority groups in the Balkans. In the context of the region known as Macedonia and now subdivided between the nation states of Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece, this people tends to be called the Vlachs or Koutsovlachs but they are known by, and call themselves by, a number of different names, many geographically determined.

One reason for this is the nature of their traditional way of life, which was transhumance. Transhumant shepherds would migrate seasonally between summer and winter grazing lands, often significant distances apart, following the same droving routes between highland and lowland each year. They paid little regard to political boundaries, unless forced, and therefore the geographical space they occupied was greater than their numerical population might suggest (even though it is thought that there could well have been 500,000 Aromanians across the Balkans on the eve of the First World War).

Individual branches of Aromanians tended to be known by the names of the mountain ranges where they grazed their flocks in summer. For example, on the territory of modern Greece, those Aromanians frequenting the pastures of the Gramos mountain range in summer were known as the Gramostani and those on the Pindus Mountains as the Pindusteani.

By no means all Aromanians in this region practised transhumance. Many in fact were merchants and, indeed, part of the local elite in towns and larger villages, for example in what is now Florina prefecture in northern Greece abutting the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The whole geographical region of Macedonia was ethnically mixed and polyglot and therefore the Aromanians, whether shepherds or merchants, were likely to speak one or more of the local Slavic vernaculars and/or Greek and Turkish as well as Aromanian. Certainly, the urban Aromanians were Greek-speaking and of the Orthodox religion and increasingly identified themselves with the Greek nation state, although those who did not – and there were not a few of these – emigrated to Romania (particularly to Dobruja) and beyond to Australia and North America.

Despite the processes of assimilation, there are still 20,000 or more Aromanians in Greece, with typical Vlach villages including Nymfaio (known as Nevesca in Aromanian) in Florina prefecture and Perivoli and Pisoderi in Grevena prefecture.

Researching Aromanian family history is likely to be challenging, at least beyond 1913 (when Epirus and Macedonia were incorporated into Greece). Many families were mobile across what are now international frontiers and many adjusted their surnames to suit the prevailing winds of politics (for instance, commonly changing the suffix at the end of their name from -ović  to -ov to -ovski).

Samarina, church of St Mary

Samarina, church of St Mary, after which this Vlach village is named

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010 @ 11:10 AM Bluebird

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the Armenian population in Greece is thought to have been a mere 350 or 400 but starting to grow steadily. The settled population comprised merchants, of course, but also skilled craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, and their families. Other Armenians had come from Asia Minor – especially from the region of Mush – in the 1880s to work on major construction projects such as the Corinth Canal and the Ottoman Empire’s Thessaloniki to Constantinople railway. However, many of these were seasonal labourers who stayed for a while in, for example, Loutraki or Alexandroupolis (Dedeagatch) and then returned home. Later, many Armenians fleeing massacres in the Ottoman Empire, such as those in 1894 to 1896, used Greece as a temporary staging post on a journey to an ultimate destination elsewhere, such as USA. 

The big influx of Armenians came with the collapse of the Greek Megali Idea and the subsequent population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Perhaps 80,000 Armenian refugees arrived in Greece at this time, many from Smyrna and Ionia but also from Cilicia and from Eastern Thrace. Again, many passed through Greece and headed to France or, for that matter, Soviet Armenia, with the result that the Armenian population in Greece started falling from the mid-1920s. This process continued into the 1930s and resumed after the War, during the so-called Nerkaght. This was the repatriation, or gathering in, of diaspora Armenians to Soviet Armenia during the period from June 1946 to December 1948: the official figure was 102,277 “repatriates” worldwide (many of whom would never have set foot before in the Soviet Republic), of whom perhaps 18,000 or more came from Greece. 

Of course, other Armenians made a permanent home in Greece, which was generally a welcoming and sympathetic host. The Armenian refugees in the 1920s settled in much the same urban areas as their Greek Orthodox counterparts from Asia Minor. Some city neighbourhoods acquired a distinctively Armenian flavour, such as Sykies in Thessaloniki and both Dourgoti and Kokkinia in Athens. However, these quarters are gradually losing their Armenian character as the population falls, people assimilate and the successful move out to other areas of town. 

To read more about the Armenian community in Greece, see the article by Prof Ioannis Hassiotis in Richard Clogg’s excellent Minorities in Greece (Hurst, 2002).

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010 @ 06:09 PM Bluebird

Alexandria, along with Constantinople and Smyrna, was one of the great hubs of Greek business and culture outside Greece in the period leading up to the First World War. A Greek Consulate was set up in Alexandria as early as 1833, very soon after Greek independence, and the population flourished with the cotton boom of the 1860s. Many among the earliest waves of immigrants came from those cosmopolitan Greek families which had business as well as kinship connections throughout the Mediterranean and beyond to, for example, Britain and Switzerland.  And the Greeks came to Alexandria not just from Greece but of course from the Greek regions of Turkey-in-Europe and Asia Minor. Indeed, a disproportionate number arrived in Alexandria from the Greek islands such as Chios, Crete, Cyprus and Lemnos which were Ottoman possessions throughout the 19th century.

The Greeks settled especially in the downtown Ramleh and Shatby (the so-called Quartier Grec) neighbourhoods in Alexandria, where their businesses – whether small grocer’s or international finance – prospered and attracted further immigration. Even when immigration eased off (for instance, when Greeks started emigrating en masse to USA, or after the 1907 financial crash), the number continued to swell by natural increase – there were between 1,000 and 2,000 Greeks born annually in Alexandria during the 1910s and 1920s. At the time of the 1917 census, 25,393 Greek citizens were counted in Alexandria – and it should be noted that this figure excludes those who were British, Ottoman or of course Egyptian subjects. By the next census in 1927, which was about the time the Greek population in Egypt peaked, this figure had reached 37,106 (approximately 6% of Alexandria’s total population).

And of course the Greeks created vital records – Greek Orthodox baptism, marriage and burial registers – which, where surviving, are of tremendous value to Alexandria Greeks and their descendants now residing in the worldwide diaspora. Even if a family was settled in Alexandria for three, four or more generations, it is very likely that these records will prove to be a stepping stone to somewhere else: if you are lucky, the registers will point to the original immigrant’s place of origin beyond Egypt.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010 @ 01:09 PM Bluebird

When the British occupied Cyprus in 1878, Nicosia was the only large town and the great majority of the island’s population resided in the 900 or so villages. Some Cypriot villages were solely Christian and some solely Muslim, but many were of mixed religion to a greater or lesser extent. Intermarriage took place between Turkish men and Christian women but generally Christian men were not permitted to take Muslim wives. 

Some families, known as linobambaki or linobamvaki, or “flax and cottons”, had a kind of dual identity. Some of the early colonial British saw this simply and pejoratively as an expedient adaptation, a kind of shifting identity avowedly Christian and Muslim alternately, as it suited the linobambaki, for instance Christian to avoid military service and Muslim to avoid the military exemption tax. Indeed, they had a reputation among the British for either avoiding taxes or being perpetually in arrears. The linobambaki took names such as the local equivalents of Jacob and Joseph which could pass as Christian or Muslim, Greek or Turkish. 

However, today the received opinion is that the linobambaki were crypto-Christians, who tried to conform outwardly to Islam while inwardly still observing the Christian faith. There are some persuasive arguments that the linobambaki tended to be Roman Catholic Franks or Latins, with distant Western European roots, or Maronites, rather than Greek Orthodox, although straightforward conversion to Islam did of course occur. 

Everywhere in rural Cyprus, regardless of religion, marriage was contracted at a young age: it was quite common for a boy to marry at aged 15 years and his bride to be a girl of 12 years or younger. Divorce seems to have been a straightforward affair and neither infrequently sought nor socially unacceptable. 

What appears somewhat unusual is the modest family size. Early British colonial administrators were surprised to find that married couples often had only one or two children (and suspected female infanticide). Having three or four children was considered a burden in the context of the rural poverty in which most families lived. The Ottoman state had collected a poll tax, called a verghi, on every male aged 15 years and older, as well as the tithe, a tax on livestock and, in the case of Christians, the exemption tax in lieu of army service. These charges upon essentially subsistence smallholders and peasants kept them poor and acted as a disincentive to large family size. This makes Cyprus quite a marked contrast to the rest of Turkey-in-Europe, where big peasant families were the norm despite the attentions of  Ottoman tax collectors.

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