By Hagop Vartivarian
Hrant K. Sulahian was an Armenian from Aintab who played an important role in the Armenian liberation movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and despite the tribulations of the Armenian Genocide, continued to act as an Armenian community leader in Syria.
Hrant’s father, Kevork, was a pious man who through his own efforts became well-versed in the Bible, and gave spiritual advice when people assembled. As a result, he was called “sage.” He was a part of the Museum Education Association, which in 1867 during the Vartanants holiday was renamed Vartanian. He helped in the construction of the wonderful church of Aintab.
Hrant was born on January 12, 1871, in Aintab and baptized as Krikor. He was a classmate of Armenag N. Nazar in the Mesrobian Alumni School. After this school closed, he went to the Armenian Nersesian School, where he had as teacher of the Armenian language and history Vahan M. Kiurkjian. Kiurkjian inspired him with nationalist feeling and a desire for liberty.
After graduation, Hrant entered the field of commerce like his father, but finding Aintab too confining, moved in 1890 to Constantinople. At this time, the Armenian liberation movement began to coalesce in various cities of Anatolia with large Armenian populations. Cilicia, Sasun, Daron, and Vasburagan turned into centers of Armenian nationalist activity. Outside the Ottoman Empire, liberal newspapers were published and diplomatic actions were taken, which lead to state oppressions of Armenians in the provinces and the capital.
As much as an educated and energetic youth like Hrant attempted to confine himself to commerce, the Ottoman authorities could not fail to notice him, especially as they attempted to weaken the economic prosperity of the Armenians. Hrant was arrested by the police in Constantinople as a dangerous Armenian, and thrown into prison for three weeks after being interrogated. After this, he could not remain freely in Constantinople and continue his business, so he returned to Aintab in 1893-94.
The Hnchagian Party had organized branches very early in Cilicia pursuing goals of Armenian national liberation. The party’s headquarters, dreaming of socialism, did not object and accepted this situation among its adherents in Cilicia. A large number of graduates of the Vartanian Association joined the Hnchagian Party, as did Hrant. He soon attained an important position in this party.
They planned a major movement throughout Cilicia, from Zeytun and Hajin to Chork Marzban. Well known activists Mkho Shahen and Badveli Hagop Yeretsian collaborated in this plan. Aghasi was in Aintab and prepared to leave for Zeytun with money and volunteers in order to further the cause of liberation together with Abah, Hrachyea and Mleh.
In 1895, Hrant participated in the meeting of representatives from Aleppo, Marash, Kilis and Aintab concerning the Zeytun movement. He was able to collect a substantial sum of money form rich Armenians in Aintab and with six armed volunteers accompanied Aghasi. His comrades assembled in his house read with great enthusiasm Aghasi’s letter written a day after the occupation of the Zeytun barracks and the surrender of the Turkish troops. This letter began, “We won, we won!”
The Zeytun movement was not just a revolutionary demonstration. The Sublime Porte was worried about the possible seizure of Marash by the Armenians, so it ordered that Ottoman forces take positions in mountainous Cilicia to stop the advance of the Zeytun Armenians toward the sea. In November 1895, Hrant led the defense of the chief quarter of the Armenians during attempted massacres.
After a relative calm, he was able in 1897 to marry into a prominent local family. He took Levontin, daughter of Garabed Nazaretian, as his bride and soon had three boys and a girl. One of his sons, Piuzant, died young in Aleppo. The other two, Kevork and Garabed (Charlie), and his daughter Mari (Topjian) already had settled in America.
Hrant had some reservations about the restoration of the Ottoman constitution in 1908 and the accompanying enthusiasm. Less than a year later, the Cilician massacres confirmed his forebodings. He actively participated in the defense of his native town.
In 1910, he was elected as Aintab’s representative to the Hnchagian Assembly taking place in Constantinople. On his return, he had turned even more wary concerning the “Constitutional Turks.”
The Armenian deportations during World War I were a great trial and tribulation for Hrant. He was arrested in 1915 and after a whole week of severe interrogation, released free. On July 17 he was deported together with the rest of the Aintab Armenians. He remained several months in Aleppo, always under suspicion and surveillance. In October of the same year, he was deported to Damascus, where he stayed under safer circumstances thanks to the intervention of a Turkish judge who was an acquaintance of his father.
Greater misfortunes awaited him. In March 1916, he again was arrested and sent to the Aintab Divan-i Harbiye [Court Martial], but he managed to escape. He was arrested once more on June 17, and this time sent to the Aleppo Divan-i Harbiye. They were to try him as a plotter against the state. With the nightmare of the gallows always looming, he remained in prison until November 20.
He applied to the Divan-i Aliye [Supreme Council] in Constantinople, and succeeded in making his voice heard. Fortunately the death sentence was annulled, probably thanks to the intervention of military commander Jemal Pasha. While still in prison, Hrant wrote a heartrending letter as his last testament, in which he asked his children to take care of each other and their mother.
He once more dedicated himself to Armenian national activism. After Damascus was occupied by the English military, the latter appointed him as a director taking care of the Armenian deportees. By now he had become a member of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL), and was an “honorary member” of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. He was elected as a state deputy to the Syrian parliament from Aleppo.
Finally he decided it an opportune time to move to the United States to be with his children. He arrived in Boston on December 27, 1939 and settled in Watertown. He joined the local ADL. Health issues with his heart forced him to withdraw from Armenian community life, and he died on June 15, 1949 in Watertown.