The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 

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The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire


The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were mainly living on their millennial ancestral homeland, called the “Eastern Six Vilayets” under the millet system. They were also populous in Cilicia and the major cities of Ottoman Turkey, where many rose to prominent positions in finance and business. In accordance to the dhimmi system, Armenians, as Christians and Jews, living under the Islamic laws, were guaranteed limited freedoms such as the right to worship but were, in effect, treated as second-class citizens. They were forbidden to carry weapons and to ride horses, their children were subject to the Devshirmeh system (giving up boys to be forcefully converted to Muslims and raised as Turks), their houses could not overlook those of Muslims, and the ringing of church bells could not disturb Muslims. Testimony against Muslims by them was inadmissible in courts no matter the crime. Violating the dhimmi system, would result in punishment carried out by the authorities ranging from paying fines to the execution of the “offender”.


In the nineteenth century, frustrations with these restrictions lead many of the minorities to protest for greater freedom. In 1839, the Ottomans implemented the Tanzimat reforms to help improve the situation, although they were mostly ineffective. When several ethnicities of the Balkans, frustrated with the prevailing conditions, had often revolted against Ottoman rule, Armenians remained dormant during these years, earning them the title of “millet-i sadika” or the “loyal millet.”


In the mid-1860’s to early 1870’s under the reform laws of Sultan Abdulmejid, Armenians began to ask for better treatment from the Ottoman government, after amassing the signatures of peasants from eastern Anatolia. The Armenian Communal Council petitioned the government to relieve the situation of towns: Widespread forced land seizure, forced conversion of women and children, arson, protection extortion, rape and murder was common. Other problems were improprieties during tax collection, criminal behaviour by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial. Despite the set rules, local Turks, Kurds and other Muslims treated their Christian neighbours as before.



The Red Sultan (1876-1909)


At this crucial time, Abdulhamid II accede the throne, becoming the 34th Sultan. He was tyrannical, debauched, mistrustful and ruthless. He takes over a country with an empty treasury and banking defaults. While power being in the hands of Midhat Pasha and the “New Ottomans” (a progressive movement), Abdulhamid promises Midhat a constitution on the European model. He passes the first constitution of Ottoman Turkey in 1876 on the eve of an international conference on the question of reforms in the Balkans. By January 1877 and at the end of the conference, he removes Midhat Pasha as Grand Vizier and dissolves the Parliament. Midhat Pasha is exiled and murdered on his orders in 1884. Abdulhamid considers that the political structures of western norms are not applicable with the centuries old Ottoman political culture. To build his treasury, he imposes a heavy tax burden over his subjects, especially the Christians.


Bosnia revolts against the taxation in 1875 and Bulgaria follows in 1876 to become free from the Ottomans. The Turks ruthlessly massacre more than 12 000 men, women and children in Bulgaria, and thousands more all over the Balkans. The Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca of 1774 gave Russia the right to interfere in Ottoman affairs to protect the Sultan’s Christian subjects. The British Government defends the Ottoman actions, and a furious Russia declares war.


The war of 1877-78 takes place in the Balkans and on the Caucasus fronts. The Russians along with other volunteer ethnic armies deal the Ottomans a crushing defeat. Able generals from the Balkan and Armenian generals in the Tsar’s Army like Mikhail Loris-Melikov and Ivan Lazarev among others bring victories to the Russian forces. In March of 1878 and under pressure from Britain, Russia enters into a settlement under the Treaty of San Stefano, in which the Ottoman Empire recognises the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and autonomy of Bulgaria. Article 16 states that Russians would leave the Armenian provinces, once the Sultan implemented the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security from Kurds and Circassians. For commercial and political interests in mind, Britain’s Disraeli and the Austrians insist that a new treaty be drawn up in June of that year, at a congress of powers in Berlin.


At the Congress of Berlin, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro were recognised as independent. And autonomous Bulgaria was greatly reduced and the Austro-Hungarian Empire occupies Bosnia-Herzegovina. An Armenian delegation headed by Bishop Mkrtich Khrimian is sent with a formal request for implementation of the reforms for Armenians. Germany’s Bismarck dismisses the delegation and refuses them a place on the agenda. Britain secretly agrees with the Ottoman Empire that it would militarily protect it from Russia and receives Cyprus in exchange. Disraeli reverses article 16 to 61, which returns two Armenian provinces with no Russians or Europeans to protect the Armenians. It leaves the same abusing Sultan as the “guarantor” of their security from Muslim continuing abuses.


After the Russo-Turkish War, the treatment of the more than 2,5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Government became an international issue. Despite the promises of reform by the Sublime Porte at the Congress of Berlin, the situation even grew worse. Not only Russia but the other European powers were to oversee the Armenian reforms. An angry Abdulhamid made sure that the conditions of the Armenians grew worse. Now it was dangerous to be identified as an Armenian across the Empire. As the Millet structure degraded and as a result of constant persecutions, Armenians begin to rethink their position in the world. In this analysis the Armenian subjects of the Empire influenced by the Armenian Diaspora and following the Balkan examples.


Years passed, and the masses simply yearned for reforms, dreaming only for a normal administration under Ottoman rule... “The mere mention of the word “reform” irritated him (Abdul Hamit), inciting his criminal instincts” writes historian Osman Nuri. Armenian small organisations started printing newsletters and bulletins to enlighten the Armenian public about their rights and ways to protect them. Later the first major organisation was the Armenakan Party in 1885, and the Huntchak Party in 1887. In 1890 the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaksutyun) was formed in Tbilisi. Its members armed themselves into fedayee groups to protect the people from Ottoman oppression and massacres in the Armenian provinces. Armenians begin clamoring to obtain the reforms which were promised. They protest in 1892 and 1893 at Merzifon and Tokat and are met with violence and harsh methods. Abdulhamid declares that “Without Armenians there would be no Armenian problem”


In 1894, systematic pogroms swept over every district of Turkish Armenia. The wholesale slaughter of Armenians, forced conversion of villages, the looting and burning of hundreds of settlements, taking away their possessions. Sultan Abdulhamid prepared special attacking force from Kurds calling them “Hamidieh”. Along with the Ottoman Army they attacked men women and children killing them without distinction. His First Secretary wrote in his memoirs about Abdulhamid that he decided to pursue a policy of severity and terror against the Armenians, and in order to succeed in this respect he elected the method of dealing them an economic blow. He ordered they absolutely avoid negotiating or discussing anything with the Armenians and inflict upon them a decisive strike to settle scores. More than 300 000 Armenians were massacred in 1894-1896. In Sasun the Armenians resisted the massacres. But they eventually succumbed to superior numbers. A group of Dashnak volunteers stormed the “Ottoman Bank” in 1896 in order to alarm the Europeans. Hamid had 6000 Istanbul Armenians massacred.


In 1897, Abdulhamid declared that the Armenian question was closed. All the Armenian revolutionaries had either been killed, or had escaped to Russia. The Ottoman government closed Armenian societies and restricted Armenian political movements. The formation of Armenian revolutionary groups began roughly around the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1878 and intensified with the first introduction of Article 166 of the Ottoman Penal code, and the raid of Erzerum Cathedral. Article 166 was meant to control the possession of arms, but it was used to target Armenians by restricting them to possess arms. Local Kurdish tribes were armed to attack the defenceless Armenian population.


ARF member’s attempts to assassinate Abdulhamid in 1905, but he escapes death by luck. He eases the Armenian persecutions as a result.


The “Young Turk” revolution of 1908 reverses the suspension of the Ottoman parliament in 1878, marking the onset of the Second Constitutional Era. Armenians hail the revolution. Hamid restores the Constitution in July. In April 1909 he and Islamist forces attempt a countercoup. It fails to restore him, but more than 30 000 Armenians are massacred in Adana by revolting army units, religious students and clerics asking for Sharia law. Hamid is finally deposed in April 1909 after 33 years of tyrannical rule. His 65 years old brother Resat Mehmet becomes Sultan Mehmed V, a mere rubberstamping figurehead for the new government.



A. The Early Years (1923-1934)


With the Treaty of Lausanne, an estimated 200 000 Greeks were to remain in Turkey following the 1923 population exchange. The Armenians were reduced from 2,5 million to around 150 000 after the Genocide. Turkey declared that no Armenian was ever allowed to return of the people that escaped (now Republic of Armenia).


Mustafa Kemal becomes the republic’s first president and subsequently introduces many radical reforms in political, social, legal, educational, and economic sectors. Kemal urges his fellow Turks to look and act like Europeans. On October 28, 1927 the first population census counted the population at approximately 13,6 million, with a 9% literacy rate. A new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin alphabet was accepted on November 1, 1928. After 10 months, Kurdish, Arabic and Persian languages were banned, replaced by only the Turkish language.


With the Liberal Republican Party, Jihadi groups joined the liberals. They were suppressed with widespread and bloody methods. The liberal party dissolved on 17 November 1930 and Turkey became a single party dictatorship until 1945.


The Kurds declared independence in 1927. By September 17 1930, the Turks suppressed the rebellion with 66 000 troop and 100 planes. The most important Kurdish rebellion in modern Turkey was in 1937-1938, based around the Kizilbash heartland of Dersim. The Turkish Army mobilised 50 000 troops to suppress the rebellion. Turkish forces claimed at least 40 000 Dersimlis, who were deported and massacred following this defeat. Southeast Anatolia was put under martial law and was subject to military occupation. In addition to destruction of the villages and massive deportations, Turkish Government encouraged Albanians and Assyrians to settle in the Kurdish area to change the ethnic composition of the region.


During WW2, Turkey imposed Jizya, an increased property tax on all Christians and Jews in the country (Greeks and Armenians). The Jizya was even imposed on the Dönmeh (converts to Islam). Those who did not pay were condemned to forced labour in the quarries of Askale, near Erzurum. They did this to “turkify” the economy. With the draconian Varlik Vergisi in 1942; anticipating the fall of Stalingrad, Turkey concentrates troops on the Caucasian border. Turkey quarantines all Christian men between 18-45 years old, and orders 3 large crematory ovens from Germany... The Turkish officer committee with the leadership of General Cemil Cahit Toydemir – invited by Hitler, visits the Eastern front and English Channel coasts on 25 June – 7 July 1943. Gen. H. Erkilet, Gen. Ali Fuat Erden and Hitler at Wolfsschanze discussed various strategies.


With Germany nearing defeat, Turkey declares war on the side of the Allies on February 23, 1945 as a ceremonial gesture, to become a charter member of the United Nations in 1945.



B. The West and NATO (1945-1954)


After the war the Soviet Union attempts to annul the Treaty of Kars with Turkey and return parts of Northwestern Armenia. These efforts are halted by intervention from Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman.


The close relationship with the United States begins with the Second Cairo Conference in December 4-6, 1943 and the agreement of July 12, 1947 which implements the Truman Doctrine. After 1945, in light of the Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, the US supports Greece and Turkey with economic and military aid to prevent their falling into the Soviet sphere. The act grant Turkey more than 100 million USD in aid.


On June 25, 1950 the Korean War starts. Despite being criticised inside Turkey, the Army along with other 16 nations goes to war against North Korea. Turkey participates in this campaign in order to gain membership in NATO, which Turkey joins in 1952.




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