All Things Assyrian
How to Trace Genealogy in the Middle East or Eastern Europe
By Anne Hart

Are you living in the USA, but are of Middle Eastern or Eastern European ancestry? Here are seven steps to searching your Middle Eastern and European genealogy records in the former Ottoman Empire's Records (either in Europe or in the Middle East.) Check out this Google Video on searching genealogy in the Middle East and Eastern Europe geographic areas.

Also browse this author's paperback book, Tracing Your Baltic, Scandinavian, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern Ancestry Online. Here are what media to begin searching in order to trace your culture and genealogy, especially when no surnames were recorded prior to 1932 in some of the nations.

First check the Family History Library catalog (Salt Lake City, UT) for books, microfilms, civil registration, localities and jurisdictions. Then search the Ottoman Census and Population Registers by country named in Turkish the Nüfus Defter. Check the online library catalog at Bogaziçi University (a.k.a. the University of the Bosphorus). Also check out the flyer:

Records are found in the Ottoman Census archives in Turkey pertaining to tax collection during the Ottoman rule. Moslems weren't taxed. Before 1881, each census focused on tabulating male names to find Moslem men to conscript into the military service and non-Moslem men to pay personal tax. Search records according to the religion and ethnic group. Start your search with the list of countries under the Ottomans and pick your ancestor's homeland.

Step 1: Translating Names

Don't skip generations. Each generation is a vital link in countries where thousands have the same name. Check out the Middle EastGenWeb Project.

Some religious names are used by Moslems and Christians. Christian European names are translated into Arabic in Arabic-speaking countries. For example, in Lebanon, Peter becomes Boutros and George becomes Girgis or Abdul Messikh, meaning servant of the Messiah (Christ). Shammout (strong), Deeb (wolf), or Dib (bear). Nissim (miracles) is used by Jewish Levantines, and Adam is used by Jewish, Christian, and Moslem families.

Women had the choice of taking their husband's surnames or keeping their maiden names. Neutral names, used by Moslems, Jews, and Christians such as Ibrahim (Abraham) or Yusef (Joseph) came from the Old Testament. In Lebanon, Christians often used neutral names such as Tewfik (fortunate).

Arabic-speaking and Turkic-speaking countries didn't use surnames until after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Then in Lebanon and Syria many Christians took as their surnames European or Biblical first male names such as the Arabic versions of George, Jacob, Thomas, and Peter which were in Arabic: Girgis, Yacoub, Toumas, and Boutros. Others took popular surnames describing their occupations such as Haddad meaning 'smith.'

After 1928 in Turkey, but not in any of the other Middle Eastern nations, a modified Latin alphabet replaced Arabic script. Four years later (1932) the Turkish Linguistic Society simplified the language to unify the people. Surnames were required in 1934 and, old titles indicating professions and classes were dropped. (See "Turkey" Web site.

In Middle Eastern countries under the former Ottoman Empire, such as Lebanon/Syria, each child was given a first name but most people in the Middle East had no surname until 1932. Also the father's given name was given as a middle name such as Yusef Girgis, meaning Yusef (Joseph), son of George. It came in handy in the days before surnames were required. Now it's used as a middle name.

Many Syrian and Lebanese families, particularly Christians, after 1932 took similar names such as Peter Jacobs or George Thomas. The name 'Thomas' in Lebanon is spelled in translation as either Touma or Toumas. Many Assyrian males in Northern Iraq took the popular name Sargon, an ancient king.

When surnames in Lebanon became a requirement, you have very popular names such as Peter George Khoury in America being Boutros Girgis Khouri in Lebanon or Syria when translated into Arabic. In the Levant, daughters have a first name and their father's given name meaning "daughter of Yusef" or Ayah Yusef. Translated into English at Ellis Island, it could have become Aya Joseph.

When surnames became a requirement, many included professions or place names, especially Halaby (from Aleppo) or Antaky (from Antioch). The largest Lebanese community in America is in Dearborn, Michigan.

In Lebanon, most names were Christian prior to 1870, and the Christian names could also be European, especially Greek names like Petros (Peter) which later becomes Boutros in Arabic. If you're searching Assyrians, check out the Assyrian Nation Communities website.

After 1870, in Lebanon and Syria names in Christian families became Arabic rather than European due to increasing pressure by the Ottoman Empire on Christians to use Arabic instead of Greek names. After the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, Hellenistic names such as Kostaki (Constantine) became popular in Beirut.

The distinctly Christian Lebanese surnames Khoury (priest) or Kourban sprang up again when Lebanon became a French protectorate. Neutral, Greek, and Old Testament names also return. You see many French first names in Christian families between 1914 and 1950.

After the 1950s, Christian and French first names dwindle, and Arabic names appear. If your ancestors were Moslem, instead of a surname prior to 1932, you were known as "son of" (Ibn) as in Ibn Omar, for a male, and for a married woman with children called, "mother of" (om) as in Om Kolthum, (mother of Kolthum).

You'd be called mother of your first born son, (Om___Name of first born son) (Om Ahmed). If you had no sons, you'd be called mother of your first born daughter (Om Rania) (Om___Name of first born daughter). Single women often were called "daughter of" as in Bint Ahmed (daughter of Ahmed).

Arabic women's first names were plentiful, popular, and used at mainly at home. Examples include Samara, Zobaida, Rayana, Rania, Anissa, Dayala, Azma, Aya, or Salwa. Children had first names.

If your ancestors were Armenian living in the Levant you might have the name Ter or Der before a surname designating descent from an Armenian Apostolic priest followed by a name ending in ian or yan meaning "son of" such as Manvelian or a place name such as Halebian (from Aleppo) when translated into English.

If you're Armenian searching Turkish census records, the pre-1920 border of Armenian habitation usually was south of Lake Van, near Mush (in Armenia), and Bairt and Dersim (in Turkey). Each religion had a different status under the former Ottoman Empire--Moslems first class and conscripted into the military; all other religions, not conscripted, but taxed.

Step 2: Narrow the Categories

Categorize the religion--not only Catholic, but Melkite Catholic or Maronite Catholic. Antiochian Syrian Orthodox or Roman Catholic? Byzantine Catholic (Byzantic) or Greek Orthodox? Lebanese immigrant to Cairo, Egypt and Coptic Orthodox? Moslem? Jewish? Druze? Armenian Apostolic? Sephardim? Ashkenazim? Protestant? Greek Orthodox? Greek Catholic? Bulgarian or Romanian Orthodox? Serbian? Croatian?

Color-code cards or files noting the date, religion, ethnic group, and town. When did the immigrant arrive in the US from a Middle Eastern country? Was it before or after the end of the former Ottoman Empire? For example, Antioch, now in Turkey used to be in Syria before World War II. And before 1918, Syria and Lebanon was one province under the Ottoman Empire. So use old and new maps to see what country to emphasize at which dates.

Step 3: National Archives in the Country of Origin

Maps of old neighborhoods show locations of houses. Start with the national archives in the country of origin. For Syria that would be the Syrian National Archives in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, or Hama where court records are archived for the years 1517 to 1919. If the relatives lived before the end of the Ottoman Empire or before World War I, also search the census records of the former Ottoman Empire in Turkey rather than the archives in the country of origin that may not have existed before the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Records stand alone rather than in groups of catalogs. Check separate Jewish genealogy sources and synagogue documents for the Jewish records of Mizrahi and Sephardim, such as marriage ketubim, bar mitzvah records, births, deaths, rabbinical documents such as a 'Get' for a divorce or a pedigree called a Yiccus.

If you're checking Sephardic (Jewish) records of the former Ottoman Empire, there's an excellent article on Jewish genealogy published in Los Muestros magazine, a publication of Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish genealogy titled Resources for Sephardic Genealogy. Also see the magazine, Los Muestros for archived Sephardic genealogy articles.

Another excellent publication of Jewish genealogy, Avotaynu maintains a Web site. If you're looking for Jewish records in the Middle East, also check the Sephardic associations, for example, Sephardim.com. Look for memorabilia, diaries, house keys, and maps of neighborhoods.

For Sephardic genealogy in the former Ottoman Empire, contact the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture website to learn how to interpret calendars and how to read birth certificates. You'll learn how to decipher the handwritten entries using Arabic script. Regardless of the religion of the individual, this site shows you how to read the certificates written with certain types of scripts.

The site also shows the dialects spoken in the various areas of the Ottoman Empire. Also there is information on how to read the Arabic script but Turkish language writing on gravestones, especially in Turkish cemeteries. The site shows you how to read the alphabet encountered in genealogical research in the former Ottoman Empire. Emphasis is on interpreting Sephardic birth certificates.

Step 4: How to Translate and Locate without Surnames

What's in the census? Ottoman census records for the period 1831-1872 were compilations of male names and addresses for fiscal and military purposes. Instead of population counts, the Ottoman records contain the name of the head of household, male family members, ages, occupation, and property.

You won't find surnames in old records. Most Middle Eastern countries didn't require surnames until after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. If you're searching Middle Eastern genealogy before 1924, begin by familiarizing yourself with the record keeping and social history of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish language written in Arabic script is the key to searching genealogy records in European and Middle Eastern areas formerly ruled by the Ottomans. You'll need an Arabic-English dictionary or instruction guide that at least gives you the basic Arabic script alphabet.

You'll also need the same type of phrase book with alphabet translation for modern Turkish written using Latin letters. You can put the both together to figure out phrases.

Find in your town a graduate student or teacher from abroad who reads Arabic script and modern Turkish. Hire the student or teacher to copy the records you want when overseas. Barter services. Or contact the Middle East history and area studies, archaeology, or languages departments of numerous colleges. Who teaches courses in both Turkish and Arabic? Contact private language schools such as Language School International, Inc.

Step 5: What Religious Group Will You Search?

Social history is the key to genealogy. Records that existed under the Ottoman Empire listed names of the head of household and parents, residence, dates and places of birth and baptism, marriage, death and burial. Records also have entries for ages for marriage and death.

Baptisms included names of the godparents. Deaths sometimes included the cause of death. For Christians, entries sometimes identified residence for those not of the parish. Check the state archives in the country of your ancestors and also in Turkey. Then check the court, notary, and property records.

Contact the parish churches to look at parish registers and synagogues to look at the Jewish registers. If you're checking Bulgaria, Macedonia, or Greece, numerous pre-1872 registers are located in Greece. "The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was subordinate to the Patriarchate in Greece before 1872," notes researcher, Khalile Mehr. Find out whether a country had its state church subordinate to another country's church with records archived in a different language. An excellent reference book is titled,

Step 6: Check Business, School Alumni, Medical, Military, Marriage, and Property Records

Research wills and marriage records in order to track down property records. Search medical and dental records, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, asylums, midwives' records, marriage certificates, business licenses, work permits, migration papers, passports, military pensions, notaries, sales records of homes or businesses, or any other court, military, or official transaction that might have occurred.

If you're Armenian, check out the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) at: http://www.asbarez.com/TARC/Tarc.html. Or for the Balkans, look at the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe's Web site at: http://www.cdsee.org/teaching_packs_belgrade_bio.html.

Step 7: Search the 'Annual' Census and the Population Registers

Check recorded births and deaths in the first Ottoman census of 1831. Each census focused on tabulating male names to find Moslem men to conscript into the military service known as "The Army." Before 1881, the annual census registered only the male population. Search the names of committee members. Committees were set up each year to register the males in order to keep tabs on migrations in and out of each district. When the census wasn't taken, the Population Register of Moslem males kept careful records of migrations.

Find out in which local district or 'kaza' your ancestor lived. Ottomans called their annual census the sicil-i nüfus after 1881 or the nüfus between 1831-1850. You can research the Ottoman Census and Population Registers named in Turkish the Nüfus Defter. Ottoman population demographics and statistics adjusted to satisfy tax desires, since the non-Moslem population was taxed but not conscripted into military service.

The annual census didn't cover every year. Check the Ottoman census for the years1881-1883, and 1903-1906. Family historians can search each census as well as separate registers to view supplemental registration of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. After 1881, the census takers counted all individuals (not only Moslem males) in the census and in the population registers. Sometimes people who thought all genealogy records were destroyed in fires in their native country are surprised to learn that census records may be archived far away inTurkey.

If you need text or a Web site translated into numerous languages, check out the Systran website. You can translate free an entire Web site or 150 words of text.

Web Resources on Former Ottoman Empire Genealogy Web Sites

Albanian Research List

Armenian Genealogical Society

Historical Society of Jews from Egypt

Jewish Genealogy

Lebanon Genealogy

Lebanon Genealogy Activities Map

Lebanese descendants of the Bourjaily Family (Abou R'Jaily). Descendants of Atallah Abou Rjeily, born about 1712

Lebanese Club of New York City:

Roots Web Lebanese Club, NYC

Lebanese Genealogy at rootsweb site

Middle East Genealogy

Middle East Genealogy by country

Sephardim.com

Syrian and Lebanese Genealogy

Syria Genealogy

Syrian/Lebanese/Jewish/Farhi Genealogy Site (Flowers of the Orient)

Turkish Genealogy Discussion Group

Turkish Telephone Directories Information: Türk Telekomünikasyon (Telecommunication)

Croatia Genealogy Cross Index

Eastern Europe

Eastern European Genealogical Society, Inc.

Eastern Europe Index

India Royalty

Romanian American Heritage Center

Slavs, South: Cultural Society

Ukrainian Genealogical and Historical Society of Canada

Rom (Gypsies)

See: McGowan, Bruce William, 1933- Defter-i mufassal-i liva-i Sirem : an Ottoman revenue survey dating from the reign of Selim II. / Bruce William McGowan. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1967.

Bogaziçi University Library

Seyhan Library


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