Armenian Karakala, Kars

Among the Californian Armenian community is a disproportionate number of descendants of immigrants from the small village of Karakala, or Kara-Kala, near Kars. On incoming American passenger lists and in naturalisation records, the place of origin of these immigrants will usually be shown as Russian Armenia, because the region around the city of Kars became the Russian Karsskaya oblast from 1878 to 1917. Before that period, the region was part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore a minority of US immigration records, especially for those Armenians born in Karakala before 1878, may state Turkey or Ottoman Empire, rather than Russia, as place of birth.

There is little to be found on the internet – at least, in the English language and of value to genealogists – about Karakala. There is confusion as to its exact whereabouts. The primary reason for this confusion is that the place name is not unique: there are multiple candidates. Furthermore, place names changed under modern Turkey and some Armenian villages were completely razed and have disappeared from the map. However, the true location of Armenian Karakala can be determined with confidence.

Imperial Russia, like other late 19th century empires, took a lively interest in demographics and ethnography (not least because nationalism needed to be monitored as the single biggest challenge to empire). Russian gazetteers of the period show the administrative geography (the hierarchy of local government from regional capital down to village), the population breakdown and usually something of the ethnicity (natsionalnost or nationality in Russian) of the inhabitants. The colossal 1897 Russian Census was a monument to just such a preoccupation with the population of empire.

Gazetteers for Kars oblast record the entire population down to the smallest villages of no more than 50 inhabitants. The Russian gazetteers for the 1900s and 1910s show consistently that there were nine places called Karakala in Kars oblast. However, Armenian Karakala – the source of the Californian immigrant population – is readily identified. Each of the various entries for the settlements named Karakala gives the nationality of its population. In this respect, while cities and towns in eastern Anatolia were usually of mixed population, the villages in the hinterland tended to be occupied by a single people. Only one of the nine places named Karakala had an Armenian population: of the remaining eight, seven were Muslim villages, identified carefully as Kurdish, Turcoman/Turkish and even Karapapak, and one a Yezidi village.

Under Russian rule, Armenian Karakala seems originally to have been classed as an obshestvo (community) in its own right, with the nearby Turkmen selo or village of Hadzhi-Halil subordinate to it, within the okrug (or district) of Magaradzhik (a Greek Orthodox village). However, later Karakala lost its obshestvo status and became simply a selo like Hadzhi-Halil in Magaradzhik obshestvo inMagaradzhik okrug. The other two villages in the immediate grouping were Azat (which was Greek Orthodox) and Kany-Kei (another Armenian settlement).

Across Kars oblast, the majority of Armenian settlements were growing rapidly during the years leading up to WW1, due to natural growth (families were large) and in-migration. Karakala was an exception to this trend. In 1902, the village comprised 464 souls (as they are described in the gazetteers) residing in 43 households; in 1908, 400 and in 1910 408; by 1914, it had 489 souls living in 79 homes. All were Armenian. The explanation for the mid-1900s dip and the otherwise relatively slow growth in population size and reduction in household size in Karakala is the significant emigration from the village to North America.

So where is Karakala? It is situated 17.5km SSE of Kars and is today called Merkezkarakale. The prefix Merkez (“central”) simply signifies its location in Kars Merkezi, or the central district of the Kars province of modern Turkey; this name was not used during either the Ottoman or Imperial Russian eras. 8km to the NNW is Azat; about 5km to the N is Magaradzhik, now called either Mağaracık  or Ataköy in Turkish; 5km to the NW is Kany-Kei, now known as Gelirli; and 2km to the S is Hadzhi-Halil, now spelt Hacıhalil in modern Turkish.

The first Google Map shows Armenian Karakala, marked with a yellow pin, in the context of the other Armenian settlements in Kars.


The second Google Map shows Armenian Karakala, marked with a yellow star instead of a pin, along with the non-Armenian villages named Karakala.


A third Google Map shows Armenian Karakala in the context of the surrounding villages of different ethnicity or nationality. The Armenian villages are marked with blue pins, and Karakala is the one marked with a blue star instead of a pin at the centre of the map.


There is an old photograph of the village of Armenian Karakala online:

Karakala old photo

Armenian Karakala – photo ©

If one studies Merkezkarakale in satellite view at high magnification on the  Google Map, one thing that is noticeable and common to both photograph and satellite image is the village’s linear structure – essentially it is a single street with plots to the left and right set back at different short distances from the road. Although 100 or more years may have passed, and the village will have been rebuilt and extended, and perhaps shifted its centre of gravity, its basic plan seems remarkably similar today. The axis of the village is NW to SE. The road in the satellite view, extending off to the right half way down the village street (heading roughly N), looks like a more organic recent development. The old photograph seems to have been shot from an elevation and may have been taken on the rising ground SE of the village.


Merkezkarakale today, orientated to match old village photograph 

This is the only village named Karakala with a linear settlement plan in the former Kars oblast.If one looks at each of them in turn at high magnification on the Google Map, it will be seen that all of the others are organic, sometimes seemingly random, clusters of low buildings. Merkezkarakale is the only one with the planned look and feel of a linear village. It has been suggested that Armenian Karakala was built shortly after the Russian administration arrived in 1878; if so, then this would be consonant with the appearance of a “modern” rectilinear and planned layout.

It is not clear whether there are any surviving genealogical records for Karakala; and, if so, where they are held; and whether they cover both the Armenian Apostolic and the village’s burgeoning Armenian Protestant or Evangelical sect known as the “Jumpers” which generated many of the emigrants to California. The 1908 Kars oblast gazetteer explicitly describes the village as Armenian Protestant, so we know that the correct place has been identified.

Among the surnames of the original immigrant Armenian families with roots in Karakala are Katanian, Keosababian, Mooshagian, Nalian, Perumian, Shaharian and Stepanian.

This blog and the accompanying maps first appeared on the bluebirdresearch website in 2010 and 2011.