Sunday, September 30, 2012

Demonstration of Bab Ali - September 30, 1895

The three great powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia), backed by Germany, Austria, and Italy, had demanded that Sultan Abdul Hamid II introduce the reforms in the “provinces inhabited by Armenians,” as stipulated by the Treaty of Berlin (1878) in what was called the Armenian Reform Program of May 11, 1895. The refusal of the sultan to carry the reforms led the Social Democratic Hnchakian Party to stage the demonstration of Bab Ali (Great Door or Sublime Porte) in Constantinople on September 30, 1895.
The party was represented in the Ottoman capital by the Board of Directors, that give instructions for nearly all party activity in Turkey with the approval of general headquarters at Geneva, and the Executive Committee, which directed the organization work according to the instructions of the Board of Directors.
The Executive Committee chose three men to supervise the demonstration after receiving the order from the Board of Directors. The leader was Garo Sahakian. After various discussions, the Board of Directors decided that the demonstration should be peaceful. Months of preparations were ended on September 28, when the Hnchakian Party presented a letter in French to the foreign embassies and to the Turkish government. The letter stated that the demonstration would be “of a strictly peaceful character” and would be aimed to express Armenian wishes with regard to the reforms. It added that “the intervention of the police and military for the purpose of preventing it may have regrettable consequences, for which we disclaim beforehand all responsibility.”
The demonstration took place two days later. The Turkish government had taken security measures; soldiers were posted on the streets around administrative buildings, and the police were alerted. Around noon, the Hnchakian leaders entered the Armenian Patriarchate, from where they led thousands of demonstrators to the palace of the Sultan.
Garo Sahakian, head of the demonstration, was to present the petition to the Sultan on behalf of both the Armenians of Constantinople and of the six Armenian provinces. The petition, written by the Hnchakian Board of Directors, complained against massacres, unjust arrests, Kurdish injustices, corruption of tax collectors, and the massacre in Sasun (1894). It demanded: (a) equality before the law; freedom of the press; freedom of speech; and freedom of assembly; (b) right of habeas corpus to all persons under arrest, and permission to Armenians to bear arms if the Kurds could not be disarmed; (c) a redrawing of the six Armenian provinces; (d) an European governor for the provinces; and (e) financial and land reforms.
Garo Sahakian and some demonstrators, after reaching the gates of Bab Ali, were denied entrance by the officer in charge, and Sahakian was seized by the zaptiehs (Turkish police). Brought before a Turkish official, he was imprisoned after delivering the petition. Fighting and violence had already broken out. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested on that day and for several days ensuing. The prisons became crowded with wounded men and scores of dead bodies were collected from the streets of Constantinople.
The rioting and bloodshed in Constantinople alarmed the Turkish government and disturbed Europe. The Ottoman Council of Ministers assembled to discuss the situation, while some of the leading European papers gave much attention to the rioting in Constantinople. Finally, pressure by European governments induced Sultan Abdul Hamid to sign the Armenian Reform Program on October 17, 1895, about a month after the bloody demonstration. The Hnchakian Revolutionary Party considered this a great victory. However, this signature did not bring peace to Ottoman Armenians. Like so many decrees by the Sultan, this one too became a dead letter.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Birth of Nahabed Rusinian - September 23, 1819

The name of amateur poet Francis Scott Key would not have gone down in history if it not were for his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which later became the U.S. national anthem. Equally, the name of amateur poet Nahabed Rusinian would have not reached us if not for his popular poem “Cilicia,” which later became a cherished song. Rusinian was born in 1819 in the village of Efkere, a few miles northeast of Caesarea (Kayseri). He received his primary education in his birthplace, and at the age of ten he moved with his father, who was a palace painter, to Constantinople. He attended the Armenian school of Scutari, one of the suburbs of the Ottoman capital, where his interest for Armenian language, history, and culture flourished. However, his father’s premature death forced him to leave school and get a job as a translator for a Turkish pasha.
The promising Rusinian had gone under the radar of wealthy Armenians, such as Garabed Balian (the imperial architect who built the renowned palace of Dolmabahçe) and writer Krikor Odian’s father, who helped him financially to pursue higher studies. He traveled to Paris, where he attended medical school at the Sorbonne and also followed courses of literature and art as an auditor.
The environment of Paris in the 1840s nurtured Rusinian with the elements to develop his interests in language, arts, and philosophy, but also shaped his liberal views, particularly with the 1848 revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. After obtaining his medical degree in 1851, Rusinian returned to Constantinople and, along with his daily work and his teaching duties at the university became an active participant in the political life of the Armenian community. His penchant for free expression and democratic participation threw him into the struggle for democratization of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire. He joined efforts with his comrades from Paris, Stepan Voskan and Krikor Odian, to put forward the project of a National Constitution (Azkayin Sahmanatrutiun), a legal instrument that would establish the grounds for internal administration within the community. It would also reflect the need for modernization and democratic change that was the driving force of that generation.
As part of his quest of modernization, Rusinian was also very active in the promotion and development of the Modern Armenian language (ashkharhapar) as a written language instead of Classical Armenian (krapar). He was a member of the Armenian Educational Council in 1854 when he published his textbook “Orthology” (Ughghakhosutiun), where he made quite radical proposals for the grammar of the language. The heated debates between the partisans of krapar and ashkharhapar would continue for several decades.
In 1855, the Armenian Patriarchate forbade the use of Rusinian’s textbook, as well as of his other book, “Calendar of Feasts” (Donatsuyts), because of their eccentric proposals which modified radically both Armenian grammar and calendar.
Nahabed Rusinian was among the group of seven intellectuals who drafted the Armenian National Constitution, which was finally approved by Sultan Abdülaziz in 1863. Rusinian passed away in 1876, at the age of 57, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The song “Cilicia,” which he wrote and was later put to music by Kapriel Yeranian, has become a cherished song for Armenians from Armenia to the latest corner of the Diaspora. It has also become, unofficially, a hymn of sorts of the Catholicate of the Holy See of Cilicia.
As a side note, Armenian scholars have shown a long time ago that “Cilicia” was strongly inspired by French composer and songwriter Frédéric Bérat’s (1801-1855) poem “Ma Normandie,” written in 1836, which incidentally has been used as the semi-official hymn of Jersey, one of the islands of the British Channel, and sometimes as an unofficial hymn of Normandy, in France.
For the French text of the song and its English translation, click here. 
To hear Cilicia (Giligia) rendered by the Chamber Choir of Yerevan with the Alan Hovhannes Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Krikor Pidedjian, click here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Battle of Arara - September 19, 1918

The Battle of Arara, on September 19, 1918, was the most remarkable performance of the Armenian Legion. Initially named Légion d’Orient (Eastern Legion), the Armenian Legion was formed in November 1916 as the result of an agreement between Boghos Nubar Pasha, president of the Armenian National Delegation, and the French government. It would be a foreign legion unit within the French army, originally formed by Armenians and Syrians of Ottoman nationality, under the command of French officers.
The aim of creating the Legion was to allow Armenians to contribute to the liberation of Cilicia and to help them realize their national aspirations towards the creation of a state in that region, under Ottoman domination. The Legion was to fight only Turks and only in Cilicia.
Six battalions were formed, each containing 800 volunteers. Most soldiers were recruited from the survivors of the self-defense of Musa Dagh in 1915, living in refugee camps in Port Said, Egypt. Others were volunteers who came from France, the United States, and even South America.
Legionnaire Hovhannes Garabedian (seated)
The Legion was first deployed in Palestine, to help the French and British armies against the Ottoman and German alliance. The Palestinian front was crumbling upon the advance of the British expeditionary forces. The Armenian volunteers had a decisive role in the Battle of Arara, which was part of the Battle of Megiddo. British general Edmund Allenby commended Armenian forces in his official dispatch to the Allied High Command, "On the right flank, on the coastal hills, the units of the Armenian Legion d'Orient fought with great valor. Despite the difficulty of the terrain and the strength of the enemy defensive lines, at an early hour, they took the hill of Dir el Kassis.” Allenby remarked, "I am proud to have had an Armenian contingent under my command. They have fought very brilliantly and have played a great part in the victory.”
The Allied victory over the Ottoman-German troops opened the doors for the occupation of Palestine and Syria. After the campaign was ended, the Armenian Legion was deployed in Cilicia. They were active around the cities of Adana and Mersin involved in skirmishes with local civilians and unorganized Turkish militia, as well as protecting the surviving members of the local Armenian population which was returning from the deportation of 1915.
In May 1920, Armenians declared an independent state in Cilicia. However, this state was short lived as France disbanded the Armenian Legion and recognized Turkey's sovereignty over the region in 1920. The advancement of the forces of Mustafa Kemal provoked new massacres of the Armenian population and the evacuation of Cilicia by the survivors in 1920-1921.
A monument for the Armenian troops killed during the battle of Arara was moved from its original location on the battlefield to Mount Zion in October 1925.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Catastrophe of Smyrna (September 9-22, 1922)

Smyrna was the second city of the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian population, together with most Armenians from Constantinople, had been spared deportation in 1915. But in 1922, after the success of the Kemalist movement, Armenians and Greek residents were not spared. According to American Consul General George Horton, before the fire of 1922 there were 400,000 people living in the city of Smyrna, of whom 165,000 were Turks, 150,000 Greeks, 25,000 Jews, 25,000 Armenians, and 20,000 foreigners from Italy, France, Great Britain, and the United States.

Greek troops had landed in Smyrna in May 1919. The Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 ended with the complete victory of the nationalist army headed by Mustafa Kemal. On September 9, 1922, the Kemalist troops occupied Smyrna. Four days later, on September 13, the fire began. It continued for nine days. Estimated Greek and Armenian deaths resulting from the fire and massacres range from 10,000 to 100,000.

The Smyrna Catastrophe Painting by Vasilis Bottas
The fire completely destroyed the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city; the Muslim and Jewish quarters escaped damage. There are different claims about who was responsible for the fire; however, numerous eye witness accounts singled out uniformed Turkish soldiers setting fire to Greek and Armenian homes and businesses.

The testimony of Fatih Rifki Atay, a well-known Turkish writer, editor, Parliament member, and close friend of Mustafa Kemal, is quite important:

Gavur (infidel) Izmir burned and came to an end with its flames in the darkness and its smoke in daylight. Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists as we were told in those days? ... As I have decided to write the truth as far as I know I want to quote a page from the notes I took in those days. ‘The plunderers helped spread the fire... Why were we burning down Izmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighborhoods in Anatolian towns and districts with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and be denied to us.’

“. . . If there were another war and we were defeated, would it be sufficient guarantee of preserving the Turkishness of the city if we had left Izmir as a devastated expanse of vacant lots? Were it not for Nureddin Pasha, who I know to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic and rabble rouser, I do not think this tragedy would have gone to the bitter end. He has doubtless been gaining added strength from the unforgiving vengeful feelings of the soldiers and officers who have seen the debris and the weeping and agonized population of the Turkish towns which the Greeks had burned to ashes all the way from Afyon.

“. . . At the time it was said that Armenian arsonists were responsible. But was this so? There were many who assigned a part in it to Nureddin Pasha, commander of the First Army, a man who Kemal had long disliked ....”

Despite the fact that there were at least 21 Allied warships and other ships in the harbor of Smyrna, the vast majority, citing "neutrality," did not pick up Greeks and Armenians who were forced to flee from the fire, and Turkish military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of those who were drowning in the harbor and who were forcefully prevented from boarding Allied ships. A Japanese freighter, however, dumped all of its cargo and filled itself to the brink with refugees, taking them to safety at the Greek port of Piraeus.

The catastrophe of Smyrna became the last link in the Turkish genocidal chain that had unfolded in 1915.