THE ARMENIAN MASSACRES AND THE TURKISH CONSTITUTION
Written by Diana Abgar and originally published in 1910
The Turkish Constitution came with a bound that shook the equanimity of Europe. To the anxious and jealously watching eyes of Europe the “sick man in her midst” was at last becoming moribund. His recovery was as startling as unexpected. Europe had not correctly gauged the latent forces within the Turkish Empire, neither had she correctly estimated the far-reaching astuteness of the tyrant on the throne.
Assailed by enemies from without and within, feeling the foundation of his throne crumbling, Abdul Hamid, arch murderer and assassin, performed his own auto da fé, and rose from his ashes a constitutional sovereign. The obduracy of the merciless tyrant melted like wax before the approach of personal danger, and the act was necessary to save himself.
Hopes rose high at such a magnificent coup d’état of the revolutionaries. Young Turks and Armenians fell on each other’s necks, embraced, and mingled their tears of joy together. Leaders of the Turkish Constitution proclaimed in public speeches that the Turks owed the deepest debt of gratitude to the Armenians who had been the initiators of their struggle for Freedom, and in the Armenian graveyard at Constantinople Turks held a memorial service and kissed the graves of the Armenian dead, whom they called “the martyrs whose blood had been shed for Turkish freedom.”
At the banquet given by Abdul Hamid to the Delegates of the Turkish Parliament, the Armenian Delegates alone refused to attend, declining to be the guest of the man responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen.
The Armenian revolutionaries had stood behind the Young Turk party and joined hands with them; already the nation at large imagined itself breathing the air of Freedom, and already in anticipation drank in deep draughts of the air of Liberty.
The awakening came all too quickly. In spite of the Constitution the machinations of Abdul Hamid and his palace clique could find fruitful ground among a fanatical populace to whom the Padishah was not only the Lord’s anointed but the Lord’s appointed, the delegate of the Prophet on whom his sacred mantle had fallen; added to this the incentive of pecuniary rewards to a brutal soldiery and the lust of plunder, and once more the horrors of massacres were let loose on the Armenians. There followed sacked and burning villages, plundered and devastated homes, an unarmed population put to the sword, and as in every case, cruelties of the most hideous and ferocious nature perpetrated on women and children.
In the whole long story of the massacres, courage to face their oppressors has never been found wanting on the part of the Armenians. It is on record that the women of a whole mountain village surprised by Turkish soldiers, in the absence of the men, fought and resisted to the last gasp, and finally, to escape the clutches of the brutal soldiery, committed suicide with their children by precipitating themselves from their mountain cliffs. A nation which could produce such women, and which has had the simple courage to die for its faith, as no Christian people has died before, is not wanting in brave men, but no amount of bravery and heroism can save an unarmed population from being mowed down by soldiery equipped with modern instruments of carnage and slaughter.
The horrors of Adana coming on the heels of a Constitution they had aided, and from which they had hoped so much, presages grave fears for the Armenians.
No one doubts that a great forward movement is reaching its culminating point in the destiny of Asia. The West has learnt its all of religion (the moral and guiding principle of mankind) from the East, and now the East would fain learn the law of restraint and the law of freedom (the protecting principles of mankind) from the West. Inspired by this feeling the liberal Turks decidedly mean well, and they are animated with a sincere desire to ensure peace and security of life and property for the heterogeneous peoples under the Turkish sway, but they themselves have had to contend and still have to contend with a fanatical populace.
To the Mahommedan world at large the Caliph of Islam is the envoy of God, the sacredness of whose person must be inviolate. Abdul Hamid, the astute politician, knew that the security of his sovereignty depended on his Caliphal rights, and his main policy during the long period of his execrable reign had been directed towards preserving and asserting the same; thus we can see how his dethronement, which the liberal Turks would gladly have accomplished simultaneously with the inauguration of the Constitution, had to be deferred to a later period, and how it was necessary for the Sheik ul Islam to pronounce the Caliph a traitor to his sacred trust, a violator of the holy law of the Prophet, before his dethronement could be dared or accomplished.
The Christian Armenians in Turkey live in the midst of the followers of a hostile religion, with no power or force behind them which makes for protection. Who does not know that the great numerical preponderance of Hinduism keeps the balance of power in India, and restrains bloody religious hostilities; and when we review the whole religious history of Christian Europe, and that terribly long roll of crimes committed in the name of Him who expounded His religion with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the precept of loving one’s neighbour as one’s self, we cannot feel surprise at the fanatical outbursts of the followers of Mahommed, the founder of a religion whose doctrines certainly fall short of the humane principles inculcated by the Founder of Christianity. If authentic historical facts prove to us that horrible and atrocious cruelties have been perpetrated by Christian nations, not only on other religionists, but on fellow Christians of different denominations, how then can we expect better things from the Turk unless some power or force restrain him?
Christianity has now partly emancipated herself from the ferocities which darkened and poured the red stream of blood on her white banner: but to the Mahommedan world at large, religion is still the powder magazine which a spark can ignite.
“Better the Czar than the Sultan, but better any form of national autonomy than either Czar or Sultan” has been the principle which has animated the Armenians, and the goal towards which they have been striving for thirty years.
National Autonomy has been the dream of the Armenians in Turkey, but it is well to consider if such a dream has any possibility of realization. Bulgaria declared her independence, and Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, but these reductions of Turkish power were accomplished by the force that stood behind them. Have the Armenians any such force which could accomplish their deliverance? Have they an organized army at their command? Are they equipped with all the necessary weapons of modern warfare? are questions it is well for the nation to ask before it makes itself a target for Turkish bullets.
On the other hand is it likely that the Turks will willingly give the Armenians independence? To do so would mean that they should themselves dismember their own Empire, and when we see Christian Governments actuated in their foreign policy by the supremest selfishness; Christian Governments striving tooth and nail in their own self interest to keep possessions which are lawfully not their own, then why in the name of common sense should we expect such extraordinary magnanimity, or such super-nobility from the Turk.
Armenia stands in the unhappy position of being divided between Russia and Turkey (if we except Persia, which does not count for much since 1827). It is evident that even the Czar Liberator, if he had been allowed to carry out his humanitarian endeavours, would have liberated Armenia from Turkey, not to give her independence but to make her into a Russian possession, for to have given Turkish Armenia independence would have been tantamount to fostering the spirit of independence in those provinces of Armenia which had already passed under Russian rule.
It is well known that the Emperor Alexander II was guided and influenced by the liberal principles of Loris Melikoff (or properly Melikian according to the Armenian termination of his name). Melikian enjoyed the personal friendship of the Czar, and the successful victor of Kars was rewarded by his august master with the office of Prime Minister. The policy of Melikian made for the Russofication of Armenia, and while it is not possible that he loved Russia more than he loved his own country, it is rather more than probable that he saw in the Russofication of his nation the only way of saving its people.
With the death of Alexander II Melikian’s star passed out of the horizon of Russian ministership; his liberal principles were not acceptable to Alexander III, and the policy of Russia towards the Armenians underwent a decided change.
Since the disastrous war with Japan the policy of Russia towards the Armenians has undergone another change. In the years preceding the war, the reigning autocrat had pursued the policy of his father to an even greater degree of repression. Not only had national schools and theatres been closed in Russian Armenia and newspapers suspended, but the Czar went still further, and confiscated the lands and the wealth of the Armenian church.
The late Armenian Catholicos Mukertich Khirimian (one of the delegates sent to the Congress of Berlin by the Patriarch Nerses), to whom his own people had given the beloved appellation of “Hairik” (little father) had by his noble life of self-sacrifice, his unceasing labours for the cause of the people, and his remarkable individuality, come to be regarded as a sort of holy man. There in the Cathedral of Etchmiatzin, under the venerable dome where for seventeen hundred years the successors of Gregore Loosavoritch (Gregory the Illuminator) had each in his turn held sway, and worshipped on the spot where the vision of Christ the Lord had descended, there before the altar of Christ, had Hairik the holy man lifted up his voice and cursed—cursed the Czar; and cursed Russia—Pious Russia with its pious Czar at its head shuddered, and the astounding reverses in the war with Japan that followed were attributed to Khirimian’s curse.
Russia in Expiation made Reparation: the ban on schools, theatres and newspapers was removed, the church lands and the church wealth were restored, and the Czar of all the Russias in a friendly note to the Armenian Catholicos assured him of the Imperial friendship, and the Imperial solicitude for the welfare of his people.
The return from exile of the Patriarch Ezmerlian to Constantinople, was quickly followed by his nomination to the See of Etchmiatzin, left vacant by the death of his predecessor, and now we hear of the Catholicos appealing to the Russian Government to take over the protectorate of Armenia from Turkey. Ezmerlian knows Turkey, he has been in close touch with the liberal Turks, and he knows the Turkish nation as a whole; he knows also that the present and immediate future of Russia is dark in the gloom of autocratic Czardom, and a man of his intellectual attainments and liberal principles can have no sympathy with absolutism. The appeal therefore of the Catholicos Ezmerlian (the Iron Patriarch as he is familiarly known) must be read as a premonition, that not only has all hope of wresting national autonomy from Turkey died in his resolute heart, but also that he entertains grave fears of the possibility of the horrors of Adana being repeated.
Russia may go on massacring Jews until Russians have left off being fanatical devils, and learned to be human, but however much she may pursue the policy of suppressing nationalism, however much she may seek to absorb the nation into herself, she has stopped at slaughter as far as Armenians are concerned. In his appeal to Russia, the Catholicos can be actuated by no other motive except the one motive of safe-guarding the people, of whom he is the acknowledged head.
A man of high character and a dauntless patriot, known to his people under the beloved appellation of “Hairik” (little father). He was one of the delegates sent by the Patriarch Nerses to the Congress of Berlin in 1878. He worked for the cause of the people during his whole life, and died, worn out with heartbreaking disappointments; his dying words were, “We must not despair.”
In an article entitled “The Church of Ararat” by Henry W. Nevinson in Harper’s Monthly Magazine of April, 1908 there is given the following interesting account of the late Catholicos.
The old man was sitting up in bed, a gray rug neatly spread over him for counterpane. There was something childlike and appealing in his position, as there always is about a sick man lying in bed in the daytime. One felt a little brutal standing beside him, dressed, and well, and tingling from the cold outside. It was a time for soothing hands and motherly care to put this baby of fourscore years to rest. But his mother was long ago forgotten: even his wife had been dead for half a century; and his only nurse was a stalwart black-bearded bishop of middle age.
It was a long, low room, pleasant in its austerity. The whitewashed walls, the bare floor, the absence of all ornament, told of a clean and devoted mind. The windows looked upon a courtyard, silent but for the murmur and fluttering of pigeons. The old man’s hands lay quiet on the blanket, white, and wasted almost to the bone. The nightgown hid a form so thin it hardly made a ripple under the clothes. Through the white and shrunken face every lineament of the future skull was already visible; but on each side of the thin nose, hooked like a round bow, a great brown eye revealed the inward spirit’s intelligence and zeal unquenched. On his head was a close-fitting cap of purple velvet.
Thus, near the end of last December, one of a century’s greatest men—Mgrditch Khrimian, Katholikos of the Armenian Church, and soul of the Armenian people—slowly approaching to death, lay in the ancient monastery called Etchmiatzin, or “The Only-Begotten is Descended.” From the window of a neighboring room he might have looked across the frost bound plain of the Araxes, where the vines were now all cut close and buried for the winter. Beyond the plain stood a dark mass of whirling snow and hurricane that hid the cone of Ararat. And just beyond Ararat lies Lake Van, last puddle of the Deluge. On the shore of that lake, eighty-seven years ago, Khrimian was born. In 1820 the Turkish Empire was still undiminished by sea or land; the Sultan still counted as one of the formidable Powers of Europe. It was four years before Byron set out to deliver Greece from his tyranny, and established for England a reputation as the generous champion of freedom—a reputation which still rather pathetically survives throughout the Near East. Long and stormy had been the life upon which the Katholikos now looked back, but not unhappy, for from first to last it had been inspired by one absorbing and unselfish aim—the freedom and regeneration of his people. It is true he had failed.
From his earliest years, when he had witnessed the terrors of Turkish oppression in the homes of Armenians round Ararat, he was possessed by the spirit of nationality—such a spirit as only kindles in oppressed races, but dies away into easy-going tolerance among the prosperous and contented of the world. He began as a poet, wandering far and wide through the Turkish, Persian, and Russian sections of Armenia, visiting Constantinople and Jerusalem, and recalling to his people by his poems the scenes and glories of their national history.
Entering the monastic order after his wife’s death, he devoted himself to the building of schools, which he generously threw open to Kurds, the hereditary assassins of Armenians. For many years, while Europe was occupied with Crimean wars, Austrian wars, or French and German wars, we see him ceaselessly journeying from Van to Constantinople and through the cities of Asia, unyielding in the contest, though continually defeated, his schools burned, his printing-presses broken up, his sacred emblems of the Host hung in mockery round the necks of dogs. When elected Armenian patriarch of Constantinople (1869), he was driven from his office after four years. But the cup of Turkish iniquity was filling. The pitiless slaughter of Bulgarians and Armenians alike was more than even the European Powers could stand. With varied motives, Russia sent her armies to fight their way to the walls of Constantinople, and Khrimian found himself summoned to plead his people’s cause before the Congress of Berlin. Though he speaks no language but Armenian and Turkish, he visited all the great courts of Europe beforehand, urging them to create an autonomous neutral state for Armenia, as they had done with success for the Lebanon. In London he became acquainted with Gladstone; but Gladstone was then only the blazing firebrand which had kindled the heart of England, and, in the Congress itself Khrimian could gain nothing for his people beyond the promises of Article 61, pledging the Powers, and especially England, to hold the Kurds in check and enforce Turkey’s definite reforms. It is needless to say that none of these promises and pledges were observed. Beaconsfield returned to London amid shouts of “Peace with Honor,” and Armenia was left to stew.
So it went on. Detained in Constantinople as prisoner, banished to Jerusalem for rebellion, and finally chosen Katholikos, or head of his Church and race, by his own people, he maintained the hopeless contest. Year by year the woe increased, till by the last incalculable crime (1894-1896), the Armenians were slaughtered like sheep from the Bosporus to Lake Van, and the lowest estimate counted the murdered dead at 100,000. Gladstone made the last great speech of his heroic life.
England attempted some kind of protest. But rather than join the Liberal demand for action, Lord Rosebery left his party for private leisure, and Russia, France, and Germany combined to secure immunity for the “great assassin.” It was the lowest point of Europe’s shame.
Blow followed blow. Hardly had the remnant of the Armenian people escaped from massacre when their Church fell under the brutal domination of Russia. Plehve ordained its destruction, and Golitzin was sent to Tiflis as governor-general to carry it out. Church property to the value of £6,000,000 was seized by violence, the Katholikos resolutely refusing to give up the keys of the safe where the title deeds were kept (June, 1903). For two years the Russian officials played with the revenues, retaining eighty per cent. for their own advantage. But in the mean time assassination had rid the earth of Plehve, and the overwhelming defeats of Russia in Manchuria were attributed to the Armenian curse. Grudgingly the Church property was restored, in utter chaos, and for the moment it is Russia’s policy to favor the Armenians as a balance against the Georgians, whom the St. Petersburg government is now determined to destroy.
Such was the past upon which the worn old man, stretched on his monastic bed, looked back that winter’s morning. Singleness of aim has its reward in spiritual peace, but of the future he was not hopeful. He no longer even contemplated an autonomous Armenia, either on Turkish territory or on Russian. On the Russian side of the frontier the Armenian villages were too scattered, too much interspersed with Georgians and Tartars, to allow of autonomy. On the Turkish side, he thought, massacre and exile had now left too few of the race to form any kind of community. Indeed, for the last twelve years the Armenian villagers have been crawling over the foot of Ararat by thousands a year to escape the Kurds, and every morning they come and stand in fresh groups of pink and blue rags outside the monastery door where the head of their Church and race lies dying. They stand there in mute appeal, as I saw them, possessing nothing in the world but the variegated tatters that cover them, and their faith in their Katholikos. Slowly they are drafted away into Tiflis, Baku, or their Caucasian villages, but nowhere are they welcomed.
Some of the bishops and monks, who form a council round their chief, still look for Europe’s interference, and trust that the solemn pledges taken by England and other Powers at Berlin may be fulfilled. The Bishop of Erivan, for instance, still labors for the appointment of a Christian governor over the district marked by the ill-omened names of Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum. I also found that even among the Georgians there was a large party willing to concede all the frontier district from Erivan to Kars, where Armenian villages are thickest, as an autonomous Armenian province, in the happy day when the Caucasus wins federal autonomy. But the majority of the Armenian clergy, who hitherto have led the people, are beginning to acquiesce in the hopelessness of political change, and are now limiting their efforts to education and industries. One cannot yet say how far their influence may be surpassed in the growing revolutionary parties of “The Bell” and “The Flag.” Of these, the Social Democratic “Bell” follows the usual impracticable and pedantic creed of St. Marx. The “Flag,” or party of Nationalist Democrats, is at present dominant, and at a great assembly held in Erivan last August (1906) they adopted a programme of land nationalization, universal suffrage and education, an eight-hour day, and the control of the Church property by elected laymen. If the Russian revolution makes good progress, they will naturally unite with the Georgian Federalists, on whom the best hopes of the country are set.
Whatever may be the political future of the Armenians, they seem likely to survive for many generations yet as a race, held together by language and religion. Except the Jews, there is, I think, no parallel to such a survival. It is a thousand years since they could be called a powerful nation. For almost as long they have possessed no independent country of their own. For six hundred years their ancient capital city of Ani has stood a splendid but empty ruin in the desert between Kars and the great mountain of Alagöz, which confronts Ararat, with nearly equal height. They have been rent asunder and tormented by Persians, Turks, Tartars, and Russians in turn. Even their religion is not nationalistic or distinctly separate from other forms of religion, like the Jewish. Except for metaphysical shades of difference, hardly comprehensible to the modern world, there is little to distinguish it from the orthodox Christianity of the Near East. Yet, through innumerable disasters and attempts at extermination, the race persists, like the Jews, with astonishing vitality, unmistakable in characteristics which may not be exactly heroic, but lead to a certain material success. After all, it is only in harassed and persecuted nationalities that true patriotism ever survives.