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Top 7 important women in Istanbul’s history (Istanbul The Guide)

Top 7 important women in Istanbul’s history

March 07, 2016

Istanbul’s history is full of women who challenged stereotypes and rose above the confines of their society’s limitations to achieve greatness. The same is as true now as it was in Ottoman and Byzantine times and we’re proud of the Istanbullite women who paved the way in so many different areas. We asked Meral Akkent, Curator of the Women’s Museum Istanbul to provide her Top 7 Important Women from the city’s history. (In no particular order.)

Anna Comnena (1083 – 1153) 

World’s first woman historian and woman memoir writer

Zabel Yesayan (1878 – 1943) 

First Ottoman-Armenian socialist-feminist pacifist female writer 

Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek (1893 – 1964) 

Founder of the first Muslim feminist magazine of the Ottoman Empire 

Halet Çambel (1916 – 2014 ) 

First female archaeologist to have developed the ‘on-site conservation’ model by establishing Turkey’s first outdoor museum 

Tülay German (1935 – ) 

First female representative of Anatolian Pop 

Karen Şarhon (1958 -) 

First female Jewish academic who founded the first Sephardic music group of Turkey 

Evrim Alataş (1976 – 2010) 

First Kurdish female script-writer in Turkey


Zabel Yesayan (1878 – 1943) 

First Ottoman-Armenian socialist-feminist pacifist female writer 

Field of Activity


Zabel Yesayan dealt in her writings and novels with the social inequality between the sexes and analysed the discrepancy between individual freedom and the traditional expectations of society. The views of the first Armenian feminist female novelist Sırpuhi Düsap had a very great influence on Yesayan’s intellectual development.

In her autobiography Silihdari Bardezneri (The Gardens of Silihdar) she mentions that in her youth she and her friends would read Düsap’s novels and would look for solutions to their own problems in the works of this feminist writer.

“When Ms Düsap heard that I was also about to embark on a literary career, Mrs. Düsap warned me that a crown of thorns rather than a crown of laurels awaited women on this road. In this world of ours it is not tolerated when a woman does well and claims a place for herself. In order to achieve this, it would be necessary for a woman to be far above average and she added: A man can be a merely average writer but a woman, never!”
Zabel Yesayan
Melissa Bilal, “Pagavan E (Enough!): Zabel Yesayan’ın Barış Çağrısını Duyabilmek”, (Being Able to Hear Zabel Yesayan’s Call for Peace), Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, (Feminist Approaches in Culture and Politics), March 2009, Issue 7.

Zabel Yesayan, the journalist

Zabel Yesayan’s first Article was published in 1895 in the Magazine Dzağig (Flower). During her education in Paris, she wrote literary Magazines such as Mercure de France, Humanité Nouvelle, Ecrit pour l’Art, La Grande France and in the Armenian Magazines Tzolk (Light), Mer Ugin (Our Way) and Arşav (Race).

Editor Zabel Yesayan

From 1903 to 1904 she edited the women’s sections of the magazine Dzağiç in İstanbul and in in 1911 she did editorial work for the magazine Arakadz, published in New York.1927 – 1930 The magazine Yerevan (which appeared between 1925 and 1930), ParisEcrit Pour l’Art, ParisThe magazine Aztag, Istanbul

Zabel Yasayan, the anti-war activist

“All over the world, and quite independently of each other, there is a growing wish for peace. This idea travels around the world, growing stronger all the time and becomes one irresistable and universal ideal. This is the great hope of people who are weary and dissillusioned by wars between nations and social groups. Both the victors and the defeated need an end to hostilities. (…) Who destroys the seeds of past antagonisms in the tender mind of a child and prepares it for a bright, infinite peace of soul. It is of course the child’s mother. (…) The backbone of the feminist movement in France is formed by the women who get together to achieve peace through education and this movement also determines the direction taken by feminist movements in other countries, with their various branches and supporters.”
Zabel Yesayan
Zabel Yasayan, Gini…Khağağutyan Hamar – Woman… For Peace, 1911.

One of the societies mentioned by Yesayan was the one which was founded by one of the leaders of the Polish Socialist International Women’s Movement in Paris, the writer Maria Szeliga (Chélige-Loevy), the Alliance Universelle des Femmes pour la Paix par l’Education (International Alliance of Women for Peace Through Education). Yesayan was also a member of this society and was interested in founding an Ottoman peace organisation together with Mrs. Hasan Fehmi, in which all religions and ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire should be represented. In a letter to her husband dated 6 October 1908, she wrote that she had presented her ideas to Prince Sabahattin and that the Prince had greeted her plan to found a peace organisation with great enthusiasm. Zabel Yesayan added that the prince had told her that many of the princesses would give her support.In another letter also written in 1908 from Kadıköy to her husband in Paris, she says that they had decided on a name for the society: Ligue de Solidarité des Dames Ottomanes (The Ottoman Women’s League of Solidarity). She asked him to talk to Mrs. Szeliga and procure a copy of the statutes of the Alliance Universelle des Femmes pour la Paix par l’Education and to send it to her in Istanbul.
Melissa Bilal, “Pagavan E (Enough!): Zabel Yesayan’ın Barış Çağrısını Duyabilmek”, (Being Able to Hear Zabel Yesayan’s Call for Peace), Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, (Feminist Approaches in Culture and Politics), March 2009, Issue 7.

Zabel Yesayan’s views on the Balkan War

“(…) War has been declared. We are very aware that we are in the middle of a war. But we are still continuing our calm and monotonuous lives.(…)The catastrophe is spreading its lethal shadow even into the most peaceful houses in the Capital. (…) But every family thinks only about its own soldiers and seeks ways of keeping them safe from the danger of death. Everybody perceives this misfortune as a personal catastrophe. Nobody looks at the situation as a whole, grasps the scale of the horror. Nobody realises that there is really a war on and that blood is being shed all the time.What do I care about the official or inofficial games of a deceiptful diplomacy? At this very moment the blood of thousands of peasants, thousands of innocent people from both sides is being shed.(…) People from both sides should shout out “Enough! Enough!”, drowning the din of the guns and canons.”
Zabel Yesayan, Pagavan E (Enough!), 1912, pp.162-169.

Zabel Yesayan as anti-authoritarian educationalist

Rupen Zaryan, one of Zabel Yesayan’s students at the University of Erivan, Armenia, tells in his memoires that Yesayan was bothered when the students stood up respectfully as she entered the lecture-room.

“I am fully aware of the fact that this demand of mine will be contrary to the rules, but seeing you standing to attention is disturbing me a lot. It is such military behaviour. I beg you to show me your respect in some other way. For instance by coming to classes punctually.”
Zabel Yesayan
Melissa Bilal, “Pagavan E (Enough!): Zabel Yesayan’ın Barış Çağrısını Duyabilmek”, (Being Able to Hear Zabel Yesayan’s Call for Peace), Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, (Feminist Approaches in Culture and Politics), March 2009, Issue 7

Zabel Yesayan, the witness

Marc Nichanian, the literary scholar, analysed Zabel Yesayan’s book Averagnerun Meç (Amid the Ruins), published in 1911 as follows:

“Was it a literary work or a diary or even a report? The term “Eye-Witness Literature” or the word “eye-witness” (vgayutyun in Armenian) had not yet been invented in thoses days. But the book Averagnerun Meç (Amid the Ruins) fits exactly into this category of eye-witness literature. It is a book written by an eye-witness and, without doubt, it is the only work in the Armenian language in which an eyewitness account is turned into a literary form. (…) By 1909 Zabel Yesayan was already a famous author, and had published many novels. In 1908 she decided to return to Istanbul, hoping she could play a role in the rebuilding of the country. Before this she had been travelling back and forwards between Istanbul and Paris, because her husband and children lived in Paris. At the end of June 1909, two and a half months after the massacre of Adana, Yesayan went to Cilicia with the second delegation, which was composed of members of the cultural and political elite, on the orders of the Armenian Patriarch. Her task was to ensure that the orphans were being cared for.
(Marc Nichanian, Edebiyat ve Felaket, İletişim, 2011, s. 43).

From June 1909 Zabel Yesayan spent three months travelling throughout the area around Adana, Mersin and Kilis. At the end of September she returned to Istanbul and worked for a year and a half on her her book Amid the Ruins.
“If I can possibly describe the catastrophe of these people, who lost their minds after experiencing all the blood and fire, I will have fulfilled my duties towards my mother-country.”
Yesayan said that her goal in writing this book was to convey the extreme suffering which she had witnessed both to the people of her own community and also to all Muslim Turks who were unaware of the events that were taking place.(…) She is concerned that mutual suspicion and distrust could develop between Turks and Armenians.(…) What she wants is the creation of a place where they can live peacefully together. (…) When, in 1912, Yesayan saw refugees from the Balkans in İstanbul she noted:

“They have been ousted from their own lands and turned into refugees….What have we got in common? What makes us similar? When I see the expression of intense fear in their faces my own pain, which had begun to recede, flames up again.”
Zabel Yesayan
Melissa Bilal, “Pagavan E (Enough!): Zabel Yesayan’ın Barış Çağrısını Duyabilmek”, (Being Able to Hear Zabel Yesayan’s Call for Peace), Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, (Feminist Approaches in Culture and Politics), March 2009, Issue 7.

Publications by Zabel Yesayan
  • Isbasman Srahin Meç (The Waiting Room), 1903, her first novel, serialized in Dzağig Magazine.
  • Hılunen yev Imposdnen (The Obedients and the Rebels), 1906.
  • Geğdz Hancarner (Phoney Geniuses), 1909, The serialised publication of this novel, in which she criticises the Armenian Intellectuals, was suspended due to protests. Later it was published in book format.
  • Averagnerun Meç (Amid the Ruins), 1911.
  • Pavagan E (Enough!), probably written in 1912. It was first published in serial form in 1922 in Arek /Sun Magazine in Vienna and Berlin. In 1925 it was included in the second edition of the anthology “Yerp Aylevıs Çen Sirer Koğı Veb”, Istanbul.
  • Joğovurti Mı Hokevarkı (Last Breath of a People), 1917.
  • Verçin Pajagı (The Last Cup), 1917.
  • Muradi Camportutyunı Svazen Tebi Batum (Murad’s Journey from Sivas to Batum), Boston, 1920.
  • Hokis Aksoryal (My Soul in Exile), Vienna, 1922.
  • Nahançoğ Ujen (Retreating Forces), Berlin, 1923, published in serial form in the magazine Arek.
  • Brometeosın Azadakrıvadz (Prometheus Unchained), Marseilles, 1928.
  • Grage Şabig (Shirt of Fire), Yeravan 1934.
  • Silihdari Bardeznerı (The Gardens of Silihdar), Yeravan, 1935 (autobiography).
  • Barba Khachig (Uncle Khatchik), Yeravan, 1966.
  • Silahdar’ın Bahçeleri (The Gardens of Silihdar), a selection of Zabel Yesayan’s writings translated into Turkish, Belge Yayınları, Istanbul, 2006.


(No information available)


  • Member of the Union of Women who support Education
  • Member of the Union of Nationalist Armenian Women
  • President of Üsgüdari hay Dignants Ingerutyun (Üsküdar Women’s Society)
  • Member of the Alliance universelle des femmes pour la Paix par l’Education, France (International Womens’ Alliance for Peace Through Education), France
  • Member of Soviet Writers Union, Armenia


  • Üsküdar Surp Haç Primary School, Istanbul
  • Student of Literature and Philosophy at the Sorbonne University, Paris, 1895
  • Zabel Yesayan is the first Ottoman Armenian woman to have a university education.

Contributions to Society

Zabel Yesayan supported Dignants Miutyun (Women’s Union), Azkanıver Hayuhyats Ingerutyun (Union of Nationalist Armenian Women), Ashhadanki Dun (House of Studies) and spoke at their conferences.

  • 1917-1918worked with refugees and orphans in Baku.
  • 1920-1921Worked in orphanages in Kilikya.
  • 1927- 1933was active in Paris Branch of HOG (Committee to Support of Armenia)

Family and Friends

  • Mother:(No information available)
  • Father:Mıgırdıç Hovhannesyan (cloth printer)
  • Husband:Dikran Yesayan (Painter)
  • Daughter:Sofi Yesayan
  • Son:Hrand Yesayan
  • Friends:Kayianne Madagyan (pedagogue, feminist) Sırpuhi Dussap (authoress and feminist), Arpiar Arpiaryan (literary scholar), Levon Paşalyan (literary scholar), Dikran Gamsaragan (literary scholar), Arşag Çobanyan (publisher), Fehime Sultan (daughter of Sultan Murat V. who ruled from 30th May to 31st August 1876), Maria Cheliga (French feminist with Polish roots), Hasan Fehmi Bey (journalist)

Commemorative Projects

Documentary film about Zabel Yesayan
Street named after her

Zabel Yesayan Street in Yerevan (Armenia)


Charents Museum of Literature and Arts in Yerevan there are personal belongings as well as documents in her hand-writing, photographs and court documents relating to her trial because of her political stand in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic at the time of Stalin’s repression.

Further Reading


Quoted Sources
  • Melissa Bilal, Pagavan E (Yeter!): Zabel Yesayan’ın Barış Çağrısını Duyabilmek, Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, Mart 2009, Sayı 7.
  • Hasmik Khalapyan, “Kendine Ait Bir Feminizm: Zabel Yesayan’ın Hayatı ve Faaliyetleri”, Lerna Ekmekçioğlu; Melissa Bilal (ed.), Bir Adalet Feryadı – Osmanlı’dan Türkiye’ye Beş Ermeni Feminist Yazar 1862-1933 içinde, İstanbul, 2006, ss. 167-200.
Source for visual images



The Istanbul Women’s Museum is grateful to Melissa Bilal and to Aras Publishing, İstanbul, for their support in producing the Zabel Yesayan memorial page.

Translation into English: Lyndall von Dewitz, Oberasbach, Germany and Çetin Alanya, İstanbul
Editing: Lyndall von Dewitz, Oberasbach, Germany

©2012 Meral Akkent








Published on Aug 26, 2014

News began circulating in Armenian media that an unpublished 11-page document written by prominent Armenian writer Zabel Yesayan was discovered in the Paris Nubarian Library by Turkish scholar Umit Kurt and journalist Aliev Er. It was later revealed that the letter, written by Yesayan to the Armenian Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, was indeed known and had been published in 1922. Umit Kurt spoke to CivilNet from Istanbul and explained.


Uploaded on Jan 21, 2012

bugün 19 ocak… bugün için hazırladığımız dosya haberlerde, nora tataryan’la osmanlı dönmeinde ermeni kadın hareketini, kayuş çalıkman gavrilof’la ise zabel yesayan’ı konuştuk… yesayan’ın adana’daki ermeni katliamı tanıklığından bir bölüm ise röportajların ardından sizlerle olacak…


Published on May 24, 2014

1878թ․ Ստամբուլի Սկյուտար շրջանի «Սիլիհտարի այգի» թաղամասում ծնված Զապել Եսայանն արևմտահայ գրականության մեծագույն դեմքերից է: ՍիվիլՆեթի լրագրող Մարիա Թիթիզյանը պոլսահայ գրող Սևան Տէյիրմենճեանի հետ շրջել է Սկյուտարի փողոցներով ու զբոսայգիներով, որտեղ Զապելն անցկացրել է իր մանկությունն ու պատանեկությունը:


Զապել Եսայան. Լարա Ահարոնյան:Բուն TV

Published on Feb 4, 2015

Published on Jun 4, 2014

Այս տարի անգլերեն և թուրքերեն է թարգմանվել 1909թ. Ադանայի կոտորածների գրող և վավերագիր Զապել Եսայանի «Ավերակների մեջ» աշխատանքը: Թուրքերեն թարգմանության հեղինակը Գայուշ Չալըքման Կավրիլոֆն է։ Գրաքննադատ Մարկ Նշանյանը ուսումնասիրել է Եսայանի գործունեությունը՝ գրողից մինչև Ցեղասպանության վավերագիր: Նա խոսում է Եսայանի՝ հայերին և թուրքերին հղած ուղերձների մասին, որոնք մնում են արդիական։


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