April 24, 1915 was a very dark day for the Armenians of what is today eastern Turkey. There had been rising resentment of the Christian Armenians by the Young Turk government before and during World War I. For centuries, the Christian Armenians had been part of the Ottoman Empire inhabiting Eastern Anatolia. The Armenians had a strong sense of ethnic identity; they held tightly to their religion, language, and customs. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire had grown to numbers approaching 2.5 million strong. Usually they were poor peasants and kept to themselves. Being in the minority, they got pushed around alot, but some Armenians managed to rise to positions of wealth and power. That stirred up resentment among the Muslim population.
It appears that there were myriad conflicts and skirmishes between the Turks and the Armenians over a couple of decades and there were several times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when there was violence and mass killings. By 1915, the hostilities culminated in the round-up of 250 Armenian politicians and intellectuals living in Istanbul on April 24, 1915. Some of those arrested were even deputies of the Ottoman Parliament. Most of the men detained were killed within a few months. Throughout the summer and fall of 1915, Armenians were yanked from their homes and marched toward the desert of Syria where they were thrown into concentration camps. The men were usually slaughtered fairly soon after apprehension, but the women and children were starved or died on the journey across the desert. They were forced to walk for miles and miles in the hot sun with little or no clothing and shoes to protect their skin and feet. There is no adequate way to describe the horrific torture these people endured. By the time this nightmare ended, an estimated 1.5 million men, women, and children had been killed and over 150,000 children had been orphaned. (Our guide in Armenia told us today that the current thinking is that the number of slaughtered Armenians may have been closer to 2.2 million.) Many women and children were forced to renounce their Christian faith and take an oath to Islam. Many very young orphaned children were adopted by Turkish families, their names changed, and their Armenian heritage obliterated. The orphaned children over age five were slaughtered, many burned alive, many drowned, and many given poison to drink. This “ethnic cleansing” erased the once-large presence of Armenians from the landscape of the newly minted Republic of Turkey. The property and homes of these Christian Armenians were given to Muslim refugees. The Armenians were essentially wiped from the map of Turkey and the country was left in a fairly homogeneous state as it shed its past as the Ottoman Empire and became the Republic of Turkey. The Armenian genocide also precipitated an unprecedented diaspora as Armenians fled the genocide. There are large populations of Armenians in the US, France, and also in Russia. An interesting little fact is that many Armenians’ family names end in “ian.” Think Kardashian, Kevorkian, Tarkanian, Bohjalian, and Cherilyn Sarkisian (Cher).
By all standards, the murder of the Armenians was nothing short of a genocide, but Turkey has refused to label the events of 1915-1916 a genocide. They do contend that some killing took place, but say that it was necessary to quell a rebellious element during a crisis of national security. However, they maintain that, since the killing was not sanctioned by the government, it’s not a genocide. Sadly, not many countries will not call the genocide by that name because they don’t want to harm their relationship with Turkey.
Today we visited the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex in Yerevan, Armenia where we had a guided tour. Our little group was left speechless. It’s not the kind of place you leave blabbing excitedly about. No one said a word as we walked to our van. It will take everyone time to process. I have struggled with whether or not to post some horrendous photos, but feel I must to give the whole picture of this horrible event since so many people know so little about it.
Several years ago, we listened to an audiobook called The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Mr. Bohjalian is a favorite author of ours, and while it is really not true to say we enjoyed or loved the book, we were glad we listened to it. In preparing for this trip to Armenia, we listened to it again because we always try to learn more about a destination before we hit the ground and we wanted the event to be fresh in our minds. Since I could not ever remember learning anything in school about the Armenian genocide, I decided to poll friends and find out what other people learned as students. I spoke to about twenty people, and sadly, no one knows much about it; bear in mind that I am talking about people of all ages from all over the country. Every single person reported that they learned nothing in high school or college about the Armenian genocide. Zip, zero, nada. Incredibly, this included at least one history major. Only a few people would even make a wild guess as to when it took place and who was responsible for it; most people just shrugged because they had no idea. Absolutely no one even came close to the time period, but a few people did know that the genocide was committed by the Turks. I am clueless as to where to assign blame for this serious gap in the knowledge of American students, but I can only assume that it stems from the reticence of the United States to call the genocide what it was. Nonetheless, it’s a cold hard embarrassing fact that we know nothing or next to nothing about the Armenian genocide. A work of historical fiction such as The Sandcastle Girls is a good place to start to learn more about it. One of our travel companions is an Armenian-American. For people interested in learning more about the Armenian genocide, she recommends a PBS documentary “The Hidden Map,” and a movie entitled “The Promise.”