Why we should read... `The History of Sasun' by H Boghossian (360pp, 1985, Yerevan) Armenian News Network / Groong September 12, 2016 By Eddie Arnavoudian The history of the Ottoman occupied western Armenian region of Sasun, like the history of 19th and early 20th century Ottoman occupied Armenia is also in part the history of the rise of modern Turkish nationalism that embedded in the Ottoman State set about the destruction of any and all manifestations of Armenian national economic, social and cultural development. To an emergent Turkish nationalist elite the advance of any other nation within the Empire represented a threat to its own ambition of appropriating exclusively for itself what remained of dwindling Ottoman territories and resources. The 19th century Ottoman drive to centralise state power was a major weapon in the service of this Turkish nationalist ambition and was to be wielded against Armenian Sasun that with a majority Armenian population, a long tradition of autonomy and armed self-defence (See Note 1) was to become an inspiring centre for Armenian national development. Armenian Sasun's battles in defence of its historic autonomy became epics of resistance and heroism in the Armenian popular imagination. Boghossian's valuable volume sheds a sobering light on the historical processes at work. I. Through the 19th and into the early 20th century, with its churches, its monasteries and its armed fortifications and with the Monastery of St Garabed at its heart, Sasun was second only to the Ararat plains and Etchmiadzin as a historic and defining Armenian stronghold. If Ararat produced philosopher Yeznig Goghpatsi and historian Khazar Barpetsi, Mush-Sasun produced Mesrop Mashtots, founder of the Armenian alphabet and Movses of Khoren, father of Armenian historiography! For centuries, St Garabed had been a magnet for Armenians from every corner of the land and from the Diaspora too. In the 19th century it was a gathering point for festivities, music and entertainment as well as news and trade (p89, 90-93). Armenian Sasun and Mush that had acquired formal autonomy as far back as 1605 was from the 19th century on to become a hotbed of resistance to the centralising Ottoman-Turkish State (See Note 2). Struggling to defend its autonomy Sasun also became a rallying point for the Armenian national movement. II. The destruction of a relative Armenian-Kurdish harmony in Sasun was to be Ottoman strategists' first objective. This harmony that formed a backbone for Armenian Sasun's autonomy was a product of mutual dependence. Kurdish lords required agricultural and craft labour and Armenian Sasun was a ready supply. In addition though autonomous, Armenian Sasun remained subordinate to Kurdish fiefdoms, often joining their battles against Ottoman State attack. Tensions begin to develop in the 19th century in part due to growing Armenian and Kurdish competition for land. Relations were aggravated further by the mounting demands and uncontrolled plunder of Kurdish lords seeking to compensate for revenues lost to an increasingly assertive central Ottoman authority. Hoping for release from escalating Kurdish elite exploitation Armenians often aligned themselves with centralising Turkish forces. So, relations deteriorated further still (See Note 3). Attempts were made to restore these, but they came to nothing. The dye had been cast for the battles of the last decade of the 19th and the first of the 20th century (p77-79) III. Rebutting claims that the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM) was an artificial, foreign sponsored and manipulated movement Boghossian summarises the objective conditions that actually pushed Armenians to revolt. (p152). Though faint glimpses of Ottoman reform under the rubric of the Tanzimat did reach Mush and Sasun nothing was to compensate for plunder and taxation to which Sasun's Armenian communities were subjected (p40-42, 60-64, 68) from 1870s on, now by Kurdish forces in co-ordination with Ottoman state forces that until the 1890s had not set foot there (p156-7, 162-4, 165). But before resort to open resistance Sasun Armenians, as with Armenians generally, sought redress through Ottoman authority. Church leader Khrimian Hayrig established a commission to examine `Letters of Complaint' addressed to Ottoman authorities (p58, 71-74). Included in these were protests against taxation of the dead, taxation of those who had actually migrated as well as complaints about the requirement to billet, feed and tend to men and animals of tax collectors (p73-78). ithout a glance these documents discarded and conditions grew worse. Resistance followed inevitably. Initially it was local and apolitical. It was a natural defence of family, land and property. It was defence of traditional rights to be free of state taxation and a refusal to pay arbitrary tax demands from Kurdish overlords (p145, 162). This movement was then to be incorporated into the ANLM IV. Concerted Ottoman-Turkish pressure on Sasun opens in 1891 with a string of attacks leading to the decisive events of 1894. In 1891 and 1892 Ottoman assaults were repulsed in part as a result of joint Armenian-Kurdish efforts. But alas by 1893 the Ottoman State registered a strategic success that isolated Armenians from their erstwhile Kurdish allies. The ground was set for the major offensive of 1894. Despite valiant resistance led by Murat and the Social Democratic Hnchak Party, Sasun was overwhelmed. Triumphant Turkish and Kurdish forces wreaked revenge, slaughtering, plundering and torturing (p202-3, 210). Critically, for the very first time a Turkish military outpost was also installed in Sasun (p218). A major consequence was mass migration and the refusal to allow Armenians to return. 1894 did not break Sasun but its ancient autonomy was compromised. Most dangerously Armenian Sasun was now divided irrevocably from its previous Kurdish allies. This blow against Sasun was to diminish the entire Armenian national movement and was to simultaneously strengthen the Ottoman-Turkish State as it prepared for further assaults in 1895/6, 1904 and 1915. Turkish military forces renewed their offensive on Sasun in 1904, now as part of a wider assault on the Armenian national liberation movement. The odds were impossible (p257) with Turkish and Kurdish leaderships driven by a determination to subjugate Sasun (p256). Despite leadership, this time by Antranik, then still in ARF ranks, in unequal battle Armenian forces were defeated. Their communities were subjected once again to savage reprisal, suffering huge casualties and loss of property (p264-65). Then yet more Turkish troops were stationed in strategically important Armenian villages (p270). For all te epic heroism the great battles of 1894 and 1904 mark it, they appear to be only stages of steady retreat. V. In the years after 1904, despite cautioning, from Antranik among others, the ANLM leadership now dominated by the ARF, still demoralised and at a loss after the massacres of 1895/96, was drawn into alliance with the Young Turk movement. Even as Armenian communities welcomed the so-called 1908 Young Turk revolution, nothing changed for them. Boghossian reminds us of the total fraud that was the 1908 `Revolution'. The ARF signed accords recognising Ottoman territorial integrity. But the Young Turks refused to grant Armenians national minority rights (p291). They also rejected calls for proportional representation (p276) that resulted in glaring Armenian under-representation in the new Parliament (p280). Whatever formal law, mainly to silence the Istanbul ANLM leadership, in Armenian homelands the situation remained dire. Besides famine (p283), kidnapping, abduction, forced conversion and murder continued (p285, 288). Most significantly the land question was not resolved. Not only were plundered Armenian lands not returned but were settled by Cherkez and Turks even as new land was seized by the landlord class that the Young Turks come to serve (p282, 287, 289). In addition the Young Turks did not disband the Hamidiyes, the anti-Armenian Kurdish armed battalions that Abdul Hamid had set up as part of his plan to draw Kurdish elites into his fold. Meanwhile in alliance with the Young Turks the ARF had disbanded its armed contingents. And in June 1914 less than a year before the Genocide it also signed a loyalty pact with the Young Turks. As a result in the run up to 1915 against a veritable Young Turk onslaught, Armenians remained largely impotent. Political confusion combined with lack of military readiness was to lead to disorganisation, chaos and demoralisation. In 1915 it devastatingly undermined Sasun's resistance. Mush-Sasun in 1915 demands its own history of which Boghossian offers only a suggestion. Unprepared militarily (p311, 316), major strategic blunders and leadership desertions (p313, 340) left attempts at resistance ineffective. Having miscalculated and failed to seize the initiative of a first strike, the Armenian leadership evacuated Mush of its fighters, leaving the town's population at the mercy of arriving Ottoman military. Despite shoddy and even shady leadership Sasun resisted stubbornly and heroically for at least 4 months. But still Armenian Sasun was brought to its end! VI. Besides its focus on Sasun this volume offers notable insight into the Ottoman-Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1895/96 and into Armenian conditions immediately prior to 1915 Genocide. Boghossian details the scale of the 1895/96 destruction (p230) that led to mass migration and forced conversion and delivered perhaps a decisive blow to the Armenian national movement devastating its chances of future successful resistance to Turkish elite nationalist attack. We read heartrending descriptions of suffering (p232-33, 236) so deep that well before 1915 it drove entire communities to abandon their historic homelands (p236). Meanwhile Kurdish and Turkish forces seize any opportunity to confiscate and settle on Armenian lands (p237-239). Boghossian notes that many at the time described Ottoman strategy as `demographic thinning' of the Armenian population. Boghossian also reminds us of the often overlooked immediate prelude to the 1915 Genocide. A nightmare of persecution, slaughter and destruction followed the Turkish call up of men from 18-45 years old (p305). Those not called up were used as porters in terrible conditions and suffered huge casualties (p305). Meanwhile villages were plundered of cattle, horses, food, stores and household goods (p306-308). Not in Istanbul, but in their historic homeland Armenians were being driven to virtual starvation and penury, with men murdered, women and girls abducted and thousands burnt out of their homes. Events in the years and the period immediately prior to 1915 fully justify every instance of Armenian resistance in 1915. This was not treason but a fight for survival and life! * * * Boghossian's history of Armenian Sasun that was a pillar and stronghold of the Armenian National Movement prompts one to a reconsideration of the historic character and role of our national liberation movement, at least in the western Armenian homelands. In Sasun, but one could suggest across historical western Armenia, the ANLM never rose beyond being a last defensive action by a people fighting against an infinitely superior genocidal Ottoman state systematically aided by European imperial powers. For all the epic heroism of Van and of Zeitun, of Sasun and Mush, for all the guerrilla battles and sacrifices, the ANLM failed to stay the hand of an emergent Turkish nationalism that in control of the Ottoman-Turkish state moved without compromise to destroy all Armenian socio-economic, cultural and political life throughout the Empire. The ANLM in a sense was leading a nation not in vigorous ascent but in retreat before the impossible odds of a state sponsored Turkish nationalism in alliance with European imperial powers. This is a bitter reality suggested by a reading not just of Boghossian but of 19th and 20th Armenian history generally. One must examine this. The truth will allow us to see more clearly the processes of historical development in Armenia prior to and after 1915 and possible paths of Armenian recovery and progress in the next decades of the 21st century. NOTES 1. Across the 19th century this Armenian majority was steadily eroded by plunder, slaughter, poverty, forced conversion to Islam and forced migration. Still Armenians remained a decisive majority right to the Genocide. Noting this, it needs to be added also that whatever the proportions of Kurds, Turks or Armenians these regions were always multi-national with each community having a rightful place. 2. With the decline of the Armenian principalities in Garabagh, the centre of national revival in historical homelands seems to shift to Sasun. There one Bishop Hovhanan a spirited churchman in alliance with Kurdish Bey Makhsud pushed to strengthen positions vis-rough mobilising Armenian armies in alliance with Georgian royalty, Kurds and Assyrians. This enterprise did not last and by the 1780s both Hovnan and Emin had gone and Ottoman power had imposed substantial reigns upon Kurdish feudal forces. 3. An adequate grasp of the collapse of Armenian-Kurdish harmony requires a full study of Kurdish nation formation and of the logic that drove the Kurdish elite of the time into alliance with the Ottoman Turkish State. It was this Turkish-Kurdish alliance that was to be Armenian Sasun's death sentence and indeed a major factor in the Ottoman State's and Young Turk's destruction of Armenian national life in the Ottoman Empire. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.
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