The Destruction of Ottoman
Erzurum by Armenians
Presented during a Conference by Erzurum, Ataturk
University, September 2002
by Prof. Justin McCarthy
I am very pleased to
be in Erzurum today. I am especially glad to be among my colleagues, the
professors of Atatürk University, who have done so much to investigate the
massacres of the Turks of Erzurum and to teach us the story of the saddest
period in Turkish history.
and Conflict in Erzurum Province
Before considering their
history, it is essential to first identify the people of Ottoman Erzurum Vilâyeti.
Armenians often claimed Erzurum,
but in 1914 no Armenian had ruled Erzurum for more than 900 years. More important, the
population of Erzurum was solidly Muslim. There were five times as many Muslims as
Armenians in the province. Early in the nineteenth century the percentage of Armenians had
been somewhat larger and the percentage of Muslims somewhat smaller. But Erzurum had not
had an Armenian majority for many centuries. In Ottoman times, Erzurum had always been at
least two-thirds Muslim.
(I say "Muslim" rather
than "Turk", because the Ottomans kept all their population records by religion.
Anyone who says he knows precisely the ethnicity or language of the inhabitants of the
Ottoman Empire is inventing his statistics. All evidence indicates, however, that the
majority of Erzurum's Muslims were Turks.)
Erzurum in 1912
* less than 1%
Just to give you an idea where "Erzurum"
Now to the Armenians of Erzurum. For
many years, Americans and Europeans have been told that the Armenians were
persecuted. Is this true? It is not. Some Armenians did indeed suffer, but what they
suffered was not persecution.
indeed hard for the Armenians of Erzurum. They did not live as comfortably or as
safely as the Armenians in Western Anatolia or Istanbul. They were often poor;
making a living by farming land that could barely support their families. They were
sometimes in danger, robbed by Kurdish tribes or bandits. The government could not
protect them properly. Sometimes the government officials who should have protected
them instead took advantage of them.
The life of
the Armenians was indeed hard, but they were not alone. The life of Erzurum's
Muslims, including the Turks and the peaceful Kurds of villages and cities, was just
as difficult. They too were poor. They too were robbed and killed. They too went
that all the people of Erzurum suffered alike is often hidden from the world. That
is due to the reporting of missionaries and foreign diplomats. Most of the Europeans
and Americans tended to report only the murders of Armenians, not the murders of
Muslims. They sent reports of robberies of Armenians, not of robberies of Muslims.
Luckily, some Europeans, especially certain British consuls, and the Ottomans
themselves kept records of what was really happening in Eastern Anatolia.
little time here for examples of the difficulties of life in Erzurum, but one of the
best examples is the career of Hüseyin A?a.
Hampson, one of the many British consuls who served in Erzurum, was no friend of the
Turks, but he occasionally simply reported what occurred. In 1891 he sent a report
on the activities of Hüseyin A?a, a sub-chief of the Haydaranl? Kurds in Ele?kirt.
Hüseyin had plundered another Kurdish village, carrying off all their sheep. He
murdered the Muslim religious leader of Patnos, ?eyh Nuri. Then he burned down nine
villages, tortured and murdered the Muslim inhabitants, and carried off their sheep
and other animals. He was accused of murder, robbery, extortion, and rape by Muslims
and Christians alike. All, no matter their religion, suffered at his hands. Finally,
with great difficulty, he was caught and held in Erzurum.
While Hüseyin was being held, his brother and son took over the family's work and
robbed twenty-one more villages.
was reported to command 2,000 men. This may have been an exaggeration, but one can
see why the government had great difficulty in controlling him.
was only one of the tribesmen who disrupted the life of the settled population of
Erzurum. Erzurum Province was a place of insecurity. In 1893, the caravan from
Erzurum to Bitlis was attacked by Kurds before it had gone five miles from the city.
The inspector of the Tobacco Regie was robbed by Kurds in 1892. Both Armenian and
Armenian merchants protested that they could not trade because of the actions of
bandits. The Muslim merchants of Erzurum formerly complained to the government in
Istanbul of the insecurity in the province. They said the Kurdish tribes were
attacking Turks and Armenians alike.
Why was Erzurum unsafe for both Muslims and
Christians? It was not the Ottoman administrators or the Ottoman system. Some valis
were good, some bad. Most seem to have done as well as they could with the resources they
had. Even the Europeans praised some governors as well-intentioned and energetic men. The
problem was that they had so few resources. What was needed in Erzurum was money. The
gendarmes were often not paid even their small salaries. Officials too went unpaid. Money
was needed to hire more police, soldiers, and officials. Money was also needed for seed,
fertilizer, better roads, and all the things that would have made Erzurum a better place.
But there was no money.
Who was to blame for the poverty
of Erzurum? Partly it was the Ottoman Government. The Ottomans were never good
accountants. But the main cause of Ottoman weakness was beyond Ottoman control. The
Russians had damaged the Ottoman Empire both militarily and economically in the 1877-78
war. In addition to the loss of manpower, supplies, and productive territory, the Ottomans
had been forced to pay a crushing indemnity of 800 million francs. Then the Empire was
forced to spend great amounts to defend against the next Russian attack. The Ottomans were
forced to spend ten times as much on the military as on the police and gendarmery, and
twenty times as much on the military as on education. The "friends" of the
Ottomans only worsened the economic state by enforcing the capitulations. No wonder the
gendarmes could not be paid.
The Ottomans did what they could
to make Erzurum more secure for both Armenians and Muslims. 51 Armenians were actually
enrolled as gendarmes in Erzurum Province in 1896, braving the opposition of the Armenian
revolutionaries. The vali wanted 218, but no more could be found, because the pay was so
irregular. Even the most loyal Armenian subject of the sultan had to feed his family.
It would be absurd to think that
the Ottoman Government approved or fostered the state of unrest in Erzurum and elsewhere
in Eastern Anatolia. There is no evidence that the Government held any animosity toward
its Armenian subjects, but one need not assume governmental good will, only self-interest.
The Government needed money. The only way to obtain the money was from taxes. The only way
to increase taxes was to increase production, and that demanded improved security.
Security for all, Muslims and Armenians, would have been good for the government.
The question of whom
suffered more from attacks by tribes and bandits, the Muslims or the Armenians cannot be
answered. Neither can one say whether Muslim farmers or Christian farmers were better off.
Both Armenians and Turks complained
of Kurdish raids. Neither was doing very well.
It is known that in some
respects the Armenians were in a much better position than the Muslims. In the cities and
towns the Armenians were wealthier and had more economic and social opportunity. This was
true all over the Ottoman Empire.
Nowhere was the superior
situation of the Armenians more evident than in education. In 1881 there was only one
public secondary school for Muslims in the city of Erzurum, with 120 students. The
students, all boys, had few textbooks and no maps. Sixty-five Muslims were enrolled in a
better private school. Another 1,500 Muslim students were enrolled in one form of
elementary school or another. Altogether, approximately ten per cent of the Muslim boys of
Erzurum City attended school. 70% of the Armenian children, boys and girls, attended
school. Each of the three Armenian millets--Gregorian, Catholic, and Protestant
(American missionary), had its schools. They were well equipped, especially when compared
to what was available for the Muslims. The primary cause for the difference between Muslim and Armenian education was
obviously money. The Armenians could afford to pay for their education, and the American
missionary schools were supported by donations from the United States.
Armenians, not Muslims, could
expect help from Europeans. Armenians who were beset by Kurdish tribes or over-zealous tax
collectors could rely on European consuls to advance their cause to local officials. This
was a privilege seldom afforded to Muslims.
The Armenians also benefited
because they could escape. Armenians were constantly leaving the Erzurum Province during
the final Ottoman decades. Approximately 1,000 a year went to the Russian Empire. The
Ottoman Administration frowned on this migration, but it could not stop it. Armenian men
and sometimes families often traveled to Istanbul for work or as permanent migrants. Some
went to America.
Did these migrants leave for
political reasons? It is doubtful if that was ever a prime motivation. They left for
understandable economic reasons. There were jobs and a better life in Istanbul, Erivan,
and America. In each place, Armenians had support systems and charities that helped them
get started in new lives.
Why did the Muslims, even more
poor than the Armenians, not leave Erzurum as well? There were no such support systems for
them. They were not welcome in America. The American Christian churches that sent
missionaries to the Ottoman Empire also aided Armenians who went to America. They did not
assist Muslims. Except for some skilled workers, Russia surely did not want more Muslim
immigrants. And what would Erzurum's Muslims do in Istanbul? Turks from Anatolia did
routinely go to Istanbul for work, and had been doing so for quite some time. But those
Turks, primarily from regions close to Istanbul and from the Black Sea provinces, had
support groups--villagers who had gone before them and helped new migrants. Those support
groups were not there for Erzurum Muslims.
What Drove the Armenian and Muslim
All was not
animosity between the Muslim and Armenian communities. The two communities had lived
side by side for nearly 900 years. Merchants and craftsmen had natural business
connections. In at least one incident, Muslim merchants contributed to a collection
for destitute Armenians. Armenian leaders often had good relations with Ottoman
officials. But many factors worked to drive the two communities apart. In times of
famine in the 1870s and 1890s, for example, American missionaries distributed relief
to the Armenians, but seldom or not at all to the Muslims. It was common for
European consuls and American missionaries to write words such as, "Great
distress is actually prevailing throughout the whole of Kurdistan. At Kharpout this
almost amounts to famine. While at Bitlis, Van, and Erzeroum great poverty
exists," then to ask that aid be sent for the Christians alone! The famine and
poverty of the Muslims were not their concern. All this cannot have helped
The schools provided to
the Christians by the Armenian Church and the Americans gradually led to an Armenian
populace that was better educated and more able to cope with the modern world. This
caused both Muslim resentment and a sense of superiority among the Armenians.
The psychological climate
engendered by the relative educational superiority of the Armenians, by the
favoritism showed them by Westerners, and by the promises of revolutionaries that
Armenians would soon rule cannot be quantified. One British observer, the consul at
Erzurum, made an attempt at a description. (It must be remembered that the British
did not easily criticize Armenians.)
The Armenians seem to possess in an eminent degree the
art of making enemies, and competent observers are of opinion that a notable
demoralization of the national character in these regions was produced by the lavish
distribution of relief after the massacres of 1896. This decadence has been still
further accentuated since the restoration of the Constitution and mainly by the
pernicious influence of the Tashnakists and the Armenian refugees from the Caucasus.
Immorality and drunkenness prevail among the Armenians of this district to an extent
which would surprise the readers of British pro-Armenian literature, and even in the
principal Armenian school of Erzurum, which is under the chairmanship of the Bishop,
the doctrines of socialism and "free-love" are openly taught. The outcome
of this state of things is a growing insolence on the part of the Armenians which is
remarked on by all travellers and is assuredly not unnoticed by the Moslems,
irritated as the latter already are by the efforts of the Tashnakists to acclimatize
the tenets and outward manifestations of Western socialism; . . .
What had led to such a
state? It was not acts of the Ottoman Government that drove the Muslims and
Armenians apart. Despite all the problems of Erzurum Province, the Muslims and
Armenians had lived together under that government and under the same basic social
and economic system for nearly 400 years. It was acts of the Russians and the
Armenian Revolutionaries that finally split the communities and ultimately destroyed
The Russians began to suborn the loyalties of
Armenians in the 1790s. They depended on Armenians as spies and even troops when
they conquered Azerbaijan and Erivan. They encouraged the Armenians to move to
territory the Russians had conquered, offering them incentives to do so.
In 1878, 25,000
Anatolian Armenians migrated to Russia, replacing 60,000 Turks evicted by the
Russians. Why did the Armenians move? Undoubtedly one of the causes was fear of
revenge. We know that the Armenians of the Ele?kirt Valley had welcomed the Russians
and given them assistance. Armenians had persecuted the Muslims of Erzurum City when
the Russians ruled and expected trouble once the Russians left. It is one thing to
mistreat Turks when the Russian Army is protecting you, quite another to stand up to
the Turks on your own.
The Russians offered free
farms and homes to Armenians who would come into their Empire. The homes and farms
of evicted Turks were empty, waiting for new dwellers. The Russians at least
promised not to tax immigrants. For poor Armenians, it was a very tempting offer.
The Armenian support for
Russian imperialism and the exchange of populations naturally caused fear and
distrust between Muslims and Armenians. It was to the benefit of the Russians to
foster that distrust.
The Russians had a very
important strategic interest in the Erzurum Vilâyeti. Erzurum, as I am sure you
know, was the keystone of Ottoman control of all of Anatolia. Impassible mountains
meant that Russian invaders had very few possible paths to Central Anatolia. Ottoman
forces in Northeastern Anatolia might have poor communications and limited supplies
and manpower, but they did have good defensive terrain, exactly the sort of terrain
that could be held by the Turkish askers, among the best defensive fighters
in the world. The Russians knew this. They knew from the bloody battles of the War
of 1877-78 that taking Eastern Anatolia would be a horrible task. They also knew
that their invasion would be aided by an internal enemy that would disrupt supplies,
hamper communications, and draw troops from the front to battle a rebellion behind
the lines. That was to be the task of the Armenians.
Unlike the Ottomans, the
Russians had good reason to want disorder in the Ottoman East. A weakened Ottoman
Empire was good for the Russians, who hoped to conquer it. Troubles in Erzurum were
also propaganda victories for the Russians. The Russians could depend on the fact
that the sufferings of the Armenians would appear in the European press. They could
count on American missionaries to send reports of real and imagined misery among the
Armenians. No reports of the equal suffering of the Muslims would be sent, nor would
they appear in European newspapers. Each report of suffering Armenians made it more
difficult for European politicians to take the side of the Ottomans.
After the war of 1877-78
the Russians made it their business to foment unrest in the eastern provinces. They
even aided Kurdish rebels against the Ottoman State. However, Russian activities had
little success with the Kurdish tribes, perhaps, as will be seen, because the
Russians were at the same time supporting the Armenian revolutionaries who were
attacking the same Kurdish tribes.
The Russians must
have been deeply involved with the activities of the Armenian revolutionaries. Until
someone studies this period in Russian archives there is little direct evidence. It
is known that the Russians promised the Armenians independence in Anatolia in World
War I, a promise they cannot have meant to keep. Circumstantial evidence for Russian collusion with the Armenian societies
is compelling. The societies held their meetings in Russian territory. Dashnak
rebels repeatedly crossed the border from the Russian border with impunity, attacked
Kurdish villages or Ottoman officials, then escaped across that same border. Russian
rifles appeared in Armenian hands all across Eastern Anatolia. Armenian terrorists
had agents within the Russian imperial armory at Tula who provided them with guns.
Can anyone believe that the Russians were such fools that they had no idea what was
happening. Did the Russian police or spies not notice that the Dashnaks were meeting
in Tiflis? Did they not notice that guns were missing?
Societies--Dashnaks and Hunchaks
"revolutionaries" nor "rebels" is the best word for the Armenian
terrorist groups, because it implies that the Armenian societies, the Dashnaks and
Hunchaks, wished to overthrow their own government. The Hunchaks were founded in
Switzerland by Russian Armenians. The society most involved in Erzurum, the Dashnaks, was
founded and organized in the Russian Empire. Its most active members were in Russia. Yet
the Dashnaks did not act to overthrow Russian rule in Erivan Province (today the Armenian
Republic). They directed their attention to the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian societies espoused
the philosophies of revolutionary Europe. They were socialist, sometimes radically
socialist, and surely nationalistic. They adapted the methods of revolutionary Europe to
Anatolia. They developed cadres of supporters in Ottoman Anatolia, preparing for their
ultimate revolt, but the Hunchaks and especially the Dashnaks were in no way indigenous to
Anatolia. They were revolutionary organizations born in the soup of Russian revolution.
From the Russian Empire they spread their message to Anatolia. Ottoman gendarmes arrested
groups of Armenian rebels every year. These were usually crossing over from Russia. They
carried Russian rifles and revolutionary propaganda printed in the Russian Empire.
Like their European
counterparts, the Dashnaks and Hunchaks spent much of their energy on their own people,
spreading their doctrine, arming supporters, and preparing for ultimate revolution.
Closely following Marxist doctrine, they adopted violence as the necessary element of
In their first phase of
activities, before World War I, Armenian revolutionaries seldom engaged in assassination
of Ottoman officials. The first ones whom the revolutionaries intended to murder were
members of Kurdish tribes. The intent of the Armenian revolutionaries was to foment
reprisals, especially reprisals from Kurds. This was set out in the now famous report of
the missionary educator, Cyrus Hamlin. He
reported a meeting with an Armenian rebel. The Armenian stated that the rebels would
attack Kurds, causing massacres of Armenians in retaliation. This, the Armenians assumed,
would bring European intervention, as it had in Bulgaria, and lead to the creation of an
independent Armenia. FO SOURCE? A naive belief, but one the Armenian revolutionary
societies put into practice.
Reports of Armenian rebel
actions were numerous: 200 revolutionaries killing 30 Kurds, wounding 11, and burning 25
houses in the village of Shato.
There were pitched battles between rebels and Kurds in H?n?s. One large group of revolutionaries even tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the
Ottoman Empire by attacking frontier outposts of the Ottoman military, through which they
were forced to pass.
On the eighth of November,
1899, a band of Armenian revolutionaries, armed with Russian rifles, crossed from Russia
near Ele?kirt and entered the largely Armenian village of Hanzar, killing a number of
Kurds. The kaymakam of Toprakkale marched on the village with a force of gendarmes. In the
ensuing battle, an estimated 15 rebels, 30 villagers, and 14 gendarmes and officials were
killed. The rebels escaped across the Russian border. It was rumored, although not
substantiated, that Kurds from the surrounding area took revenge on the Armenians of
The Armenians who carried out
the raids on Kurds almost always came from Russian territory, occasionally passing through
Iran on their way to Anatolia.
The neighboring provinces
of Van, Bitlis, and Haleb experienced the same level of violence from the Armenian rebels.
The modus operandi of the rebels was the same. Kurds were attacked in the hope of
retaliation, which sometimes came. In some cases the rebels were killed or apprehended,
but it was usually villagers--Muslim and Armenian, innocent and guilty alike--who suffered
Armenians Targeted for Murder
The other group targeted for murder by the
Armenian revolutionaries were Armenians themselves. The revolutionaries knew that
elements of the Armenian Community were supporters of the Government. Merchants,
many Community officials, and government officials (including Armenian policemen)
depended on good relations with the state for their own advancement. Even ordinary
members of the Armenian populace should have been willing to come forward with
information on the rebels, if only for a monetary reward. One of the purposes of the
Dashnak revolutionaries was to silence such men. The weapons were intimidation and
The police could not
protect Armenian informers or businessmen who took the Ottoman side. "For the
informers would have in the first place to fear the vengeance of the
revolutionaries, against which the unpaid and inefficient police force are
themselves powerless to protect them."
Records abound of
Attacks upon Armenians by Armenian revolutionaries, such as the assassination of an
Armenian who dared to serve on the government Administrative Council in Malatya.
Radical nationalists who demanded independence murdered less radical Armenians who
wished reform within the Ottoman Empire. Even the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul was
the subject of an assassination attempt by another Armenian.
The methods of the
rebels are illustrated in a letter from the British consul Cumberbatch in Erzurum:
I have the honor to report that the emissaries of the
revolutionary or 'Hunchakist' party are credited with the murder on the 5th
instant of two Armenians of some position in this town, named Artin Effendi
Serkissian, a lawyer, and Simon Agha Bosoyan, a merchant. They were stabbed in a
most daring manner in a crowded thoroughfare and both died instantly afterwards. One
man, a Russian Armenian of this place, has been arrested on suspicion.
It is generally thought that Artin Effendi was killed because
he was suspected of having acted as an 'informer' and because he had quite recently
refused to join the secret committee being formed here. It was not intended to
injure Simon Agha but he must have got mortally wounded in defending his friend.
At Erzinghan, some ten days ago, another Armenian called
Garabet Der Garabet was also murdered. He was considered a spy of Zekki Pasha and
the same agency is credited with his death.
In addition to forbidding any Armenian to retain any post of
Administrative employ, these even try to extort money from the richer Armenians, one
man having, three days ago, been summoned to hand over three hundred pounds to their
Even an Armenian youth of twenty, the only Christian student
at the 'Idadieh' College here has, this week, had an anonymous letter put into his
hand when he was standing alone at the door of the establishment, threatening him
with death from the same hands which had recently killed Artin Effendi if he did not
leave the school at once.
These cases will suffice to show the audacity and
determination of the dangerous faction the authorities have now to deal with.
The one activity
that most indicated the future plans of the Armenian revolutionaries was the arming
of their supporters in Eastern Anatolia. The Russian Armenians began to smuggle arms
into Erzurum and other Ottoman provinces almost immediately after the Russo-Turkish
War of 1877-78. In some areas they had occupied during the war, especially in
Beyazit, the Russians had armed the Armenians before they left. By 1880 bands of Armenians were crossing the border, leaving behind
weapons when they returned to Russian territory. It was common knowledge that this
transportation of weapons was taking place.
One example was the
distribution of Russian Berdan military rifles in I?d?r, across the Russian border. The
rifles were distributed to Ottoman subjects who produced papers proving they were
Armenians. The guns were then smuggled into Erzurum by the purchasers. This was a public
sale. The Russian police did nothing to
interfere. Erzurum was alive with rumors,
and often exaggerations, that the Armenians were arming themselves. It is certain,
however, that the rural Armenians, as well as many in the city, were armed with Russian
weapons. As mentioned above, the Armenian revolutionaries captured by Ottoman forces were
usually armed with Russian rifles. Armenian revolutionaries were even captured in Erzurum,
itself, with rifles. The rifles had been stamped with the name of the main Armenian
revolutionary party, "Dashnaktsuthiun."
Why did Armenian villages need
to be so well armed? Contemporary observers were of two definite and differing schools of
thought. Some, perhaps naive, commentators felt that the villagers were defending
themselves from Kurdish depredations. They were only being assisted by the Armenian
Revolutionary parties. Others felt that Armenians were being armed from Russia by the
Dashnaks and Hunchaks in order to prepare for revolution, activities fostered by the
The British reported
on such instances: In one, Ottoman forces found 34 Mauser rifles and 1,000 cartridges in
"the village of Sitaouk, about ten miles distant from Erzeroum." It was alleged
the weapons were needed for defense, but all the rifles had "recently been smuggled
from the Russian frontier, and they are all without stocks, apparently for convenience of
transport and concealment." They were being hidden in one Armenian house. The
villagers, according to the British consul, had always been individually armed. This
appears to have been a cache of arms, waiting for later use, not self-defense.
The outbreak of the world
war proved that Armenian arms caches had been secreted all over Eastern Anatolia, waiting
for the moment of rebellion. Ottoman investigators found a great deal of arms hidden in
basements, churches, and on farms, but these can only have been a small proportion of what
was hidden. The proof lies in the
tens of thousands of armed Armenians who rebelled in the Ottoman East. They were armed.
In the end it made no difference
if the Armenians armed themselves out of revolutionary fervor or out of the desire for
self-defense. When World War I began the Armenians were armed and ready to rebel. They
proved willing to use their guns against the Ottoman Government and against local Muslims.
The Erzurum Armenians in World War I
Despite all the research that has been done
recently, many questions remain on the history of the Turks and Armenians of Erzurum
Province. First among these is the question of the relocation of Erzurum's
Armenians: How many were deported; how many were refugees?
It is known that
some Erzurum Armenians were deported. They were among the first to be ordered
relocated by the Ottoman Government. The Government ordered their relocation because
they were close to the Russian border and thus were a grave danger. However, the number that was actually deported is unknown. Unreliable
accounts by missionaries and Armenians in Russia gave figures such as "10,000", a
suspiciously round and unreliable number. The deportees were mainly Armenians from
the largest cities--Erzurum, Erzincan, and Bayburt. Many of those who were in fact
deported died in Dersim. (It is worth noting that many Ottoman soldiers also died in
Dersim. While retreating from advancing Russian armies they were attacked by the
same Kurdish tribes and bandits who killed Armenians. The Dersim bandits did not
only kill Armenians. They killed anyone whom they could rob.) The actual number must
have been far fewer than 10,000.
analysis of Ottoman records made by Professor Halaçoglu has yielded few records of those deported from Erzurum, even though very
detailed figures were kept of deportees from neighboring provinces such as Sivas and
One thing is sure:
Armenian statements that almost all of the Erzurum Armenians were deported and
killed are ridiculous. This is demonstrated by the fact that so many Armenians lived
in Erzurum during the Russian occupation. When the Russians departed there were
enough Armenians remaining in Erzurum or returning from Russian Armenia to create an
army and attempt to run a government. If all the Erzurum Armenians were dead, where
did those Armenians come from? It is absurd to think, and no one then or now has
asserted, that these were Russian Armenians who had first come to Anatolia in 1916.
Some Armenians must have
remained in the villages, some ostensibly converting to Islam, some not. Most fled
to Russia, then returned when the Russians invaded Erzurum. It was the Armenians who
remained and those who returned that formed the Armenian population of Erzurum
Vilâyeti in 1918. Along with Armenian soldiers from Erivan, it was these Armenians
who slaughtered the Muslims of Erzurum in 1918.
strongest evidence for the survival of the Erzurum Armenians is demographic. The
1897 Russian Census recorded 1,161,909 Armenians in the Caucasus Region, an area
that included Azerbaijan, Erivan, Georgia, Kars-Ardahan, and nearby regions. This population
would have increased naturally to 1,444,000 by 1914. The Armenian population could not have increased during wartime; the men
were gone, so the native Armenian population in the Caucasus in 1917 can be assumed
to have been the same 1,444,000. Richard Hovannisian has quoted figures from
"an official Russian source" for the Armenian population of the Caucasus
in 1917: 1,783,000. Subtracting the 1,444,000 natives from the 1,783,000 leaves 339,000. Those
339,000 came from somewhere.
"extra" Armenians can only have been refugees from the Ottoman Empire. In
the 339,000 would have been some refugees from Iran, and a small number of Armenians
who returned from the United States and elsewhere to fight on the Russian side, but
these small numbers would have had little effect. Hovannisian estimates: "By
the end of 1916, nearly three hundred thousand Ottoman Armenians had sought safety
in Transcaucasia, where nearly half were destined to die from famine and
Armenians in the
Russian Caucasus, 1917
Ottoman Anatolia, 1912*
The refugees from
Ottoman Anatolia can only have come from three provinces--Erzurum, Van, and Bitlis,
which together held 485,000 Armenians. It is unthinkable that many might have
successfully have made the journey from farther afield. If Hovannisian's figures for
1917 are correct, then 70 per cent of the Armenians from Erzurum, Van, and Bitlis
must have fled to the Russian Empire. Of course, his figures for 1917 are probably
overestimates of the Armenian population. However, if half the refugees had died,
lower estimates of the 1917 population would still have yielded a figure near
It should also be
noted that Ottoman officials recorded that "those in towns and villages east of
the Hopa-Erzurum-H?n?s-Van line did not comply with the call to enlist but have
proceeded East to the border to join the [military] organisation in Russia." Given the number of Armenian refugees in Russia,
these deserters cannot have left their families behind.
The conclusion can
only be that most of the Armenians of Erzurum were not killed by the Turks and other
Muslims, unless they were killed in battle as they fought Ottoman forces. Nor were
many Erzurum Armenians deported. They went to the Russian Empire, where they did die
of starvation and disease in great numbers. In other words, they died just as Muslim
refugees died. They were the victims of war, just as the Muslims of Anatolia, who
also died of starvation and disease, were the victims of war.
During and After World War I
Finally, what the Armenians
did to Erzurum's Muslims. I will not say much on this. You know the sad history of your
At the beginning of the
World War, it seemed as if Erzurum's Muslims might escape the fate of their neighbors who
were killed in Van and Bitlis. In those provinces a large proportion of the Muslim
population had been slaughtered by Armenians, both local and from Russia. However, with
the exception of Beyazit Sanca[k] in the east of the province, Erzurum was firmly under
the control of the Ottoman Army until it was quickly occupied by the Russians in 1916. The
strong Ottoman military presence undoubtedly protected the province's
Muslims from the Armenian bands that were killing Muslims elsewhere.
At least 300,000
Muslims fled Erzurum when the Russians advanced in 1916. However, even the Muslims who
remained behind were far less likely to be killed than those of Van or Bitlis. Most of the
mortality of Erzurum's Muslims does not seem to have been at the hands of the Russians.
The Russians actually seem to have been more solicitous of the welfare of the Muslims of
Erzurum during World War I than they had been in earlier wars. This does not mean that
Turks did not suffer massacre during 1916 and 1917. These massacres seem to have been
almost entirely at the hands of Armenian bands. It is doubtful if the Russians had control
over them. They had made a devil's bargain with the Armenians. In return for spying,
destroying communications and activities that hindered the Ottoman army, the Russians
tolerated the actions of Armenians.
Turks excavated in Erzurum
by their history in Erivan, the Russians probably felt they could contain the Armenians
after the war.
The Russians were always
practical. Their soldiers raped and plundered, killing the Muslims who stood in their way,
but their leaders were practical men. They showed no special hatred of Turks or other
Muslims. Instead they acted out of self-interest. Their history shows this: In 1829 and
1878 they welcomed Armenians into the Russian Empire, giving them the Turks' homes and
farms and forgiving taxes. Why? They did it to insure a loyal population on their border.
They knew that the Armenians would be their allies against the Turks. It was a practical
The Russians had evicted Crimean
Tatars, Abhazians, Circassians, and Laz for strategic reasons or because they wanted their
territories for themselves. They replaced the evicted Muslims with Russians, other Slavs,
and Georgians. Once again, a practical, although evil, decision.
The Russians did not attempt to
exterminate the Muslims from regions where extermination would be very difficult or where
they felt they could control the populace. In conquering Daghestan and Azerbaijan they
were cruel. They slaughtered the women and children and burned the villages of the Muslims
who opposed them. But the Russians did not evict the Muslim populations. They ruled them,
but they did not destroy them.
One Example of an
Internal Ottoman Report:
"Many massacres were committed by the Armenians until our army
arrived in Erzurum... (after General Odesilitze left) 2,127 Muslim bodies were buried
in Erzurum's center. These are entirely men. There are ax, bayonet and bullet wounds
on the dead bodies. Lungs of the bodies were removed and sharp stakes were struck in
the eyes. There are other bodies around the city."
Official telegram of the Third Royal Army Command, addressed to the
Supreme Command, March 19, 1918; ATASE Archive of General Staff, Archive No: 4-36-71.
D. 231. G.2. K. 2820. Dos.A-69, Fih.3.
One can theorize that the
same principle applied in Northeastern Anatolia. The Russians expected to win World
War I. In 1856 and 1878, the Russians had been forced to relinquish Erzurum by the
British, the Germans, and the French. They knew that this time they would be allowed
to keep it. They felt the Germans would be defeated, and the British and French were
their allies. Indeed, the British promised the region to the Russians in the
The Russians knew that
they could not evict the entire Muslim population of Erzurum and the rest of the
Ottoman East, unless they wanted to rule over a lifeless desert. They also knew that
the region would never attract large numbers of Russian immigrants. The Russian
people would not travel to the harsh climate and dangers of the Ottoman East. If the
Russians wanted a Christian population in Eastern Anatolia, they would have to rely
on the Armenians. It is doubtful if they wished to do so. No, the Russians wanted
both Muslims and Armenians in Erzurum. They could more easily control two groups
that hated each other than they could control only one group that hated the
It should also be added
that there were never enough Armenians in Erzurum Province to create an economically
viable land. Before the war, the Armenians had been only 17% of the population of
Erzurum Province. The Russians knew they needed the Muslim farmers and merchants of
Erzurum. The Armenians never made such rational calculations.
The worst suffering of
Erzurum's Muslims only came once the Russians had left. During the Russian
Revolution the Russian soldiers simply left Anatolia and walked home. They left
behind a small group of officers and a large number of Armenian soldiers. The
Armenians wished to make Erzurum a part of the Greater Armenian they had always
dreamed of. They could not do so if Erzurum was more than three-fourths Muslim. They
therefore began a policy of murder and forced migration of the Muslims of Erzurum,
just as they were doing to the Azeri Turks in Erivan.
The Ottoman Army
stepped in to retake Erzurum and to stop the slaughter of the Turks. The Armenians
could not stand against them. They retreated, and in their retreat killed all the
Muslims they could find. You surely know the details: In Beyazit Sanca[k], half the villages were destroyed, half the population
of Beyazit City dead. In the cities of Erzincan, Bayburt, and Tercan, all the Muslims who could
not escape to the mountains were killed. Each of those cities was destroyed. All the villages in the path of the retreating Armenians were likewise ruined,
their people killed. Ottoman soldiers retaking the cities found hideous
sites--streets littered with thousands of bodies, wells filled with corpses. The
city of Erzurum itself was described by the Ottoman captain who entered it, Ahmet
Refik, as a "city of ruins." In the first week after capturing the city,
Ottoman burial details counted more than 2,000 bodies, and many had not yet been
included. Ottoman forces overtook the Armenians so quickly that the majority of the
inhabitants of Erzurum were saved. Nevertheless, 20% of the Muslims of Erzurum City
had been killed.
An Austrian journalist on
the scene reported:
All the villages from Trabzon to Erzincan and from
Erzincan to Erzurum are destroyed. Corpses of Turks brutally and cruelly slain are
everywhere. I am now in Erzurum, and what I see is terrible. Almost the whole city
is destroyed. The smell of corpses still fills the air.
The Armenians were
retreating before the Ottoman Army. They were in danger. Yet they stopped whenever
they could to kill the innocent Muslims of Erzurum, despite the risk to their own
safety. This kind of hatred and madness cannot be explained. It is often falsely
claimed that the Turks committed a genocide of the Armenians. Yet this was the real
genocide, a genocide of the Turks.
At the end of the war,
one-third of the Muslims of Erzurum Province were dead.
Much can be learned from the
history of Erzurum. Armenians were a part of the Ottoman Empire, like the other subjects
of the sultan. They had problems. They had complaints. So did the other Ottoman subjects.
But were the Armenians persecuted? No. In fact, in many ways the Armenians of Ottoman
Erzurum had a better life than the Muslims.
Did the Ottomans select the
Armenians for ill-treatment? No. The Ottomans wanted Erzurum to be quiet, peaceful, and
productive. The Ottomans did not always succeed. In the world in which they lived, with so
many powerful enemies and so little money, the Ottomans could not insure a peaceful and
productive Erzurum, but they tried. That was only rational; a peaceful and prosperous
Erzurum meant a better Ottoman Empire. And the Ottomans were rational men who knew what
was good for their Empire.
Why, then, did Erzurum become
such a disaster in the time of World War I? To find the guilty parties, one must look to
the Armenian Nationalists and the Russians.
Like the Ottomans, the Russians
were rational. The Tsar wanted to expand his Empire. To do so, he had to disrupt the
Ottoman Empire. The Russians did not care about the fate of the Muslims of Erzurum. They
only cared about their own plans. They therefore supported the Armenian rebels. They
supported the Armenians because the Armenians would give the Russians what they wanted--a
weakened Ottoman Empire that would more easily defeated. The Russian policy was cold,
calculating, and immoral, but rational.
The policy of the Armenian
Nationalists was not rational, and thus it was much more dangerous for the Muslims of
The Armenians were people who
had lived among the Turks for 800 years. They were a minority that lived alongside a very
powerful majority. The majority, the Muslims, could have squashed the Armenians at any
time. They did not do so. Instead, they allowed the Armenians to keep their religion and
their customs. They even allowed the Armenians to become richer than the Muslims and to
have better schools. They allowed foreigners to feed only the Armenians in time of
starvation, but not the Muslims, and to provide a good education to the Armenians, but not
the Muslims. The Ottomans took the Armenians into the political process in which Armenians
became policemen, officials, and even ministers of state and members of parliament. Yet
the Armenian minority rebelled and ultimately lost everything. This was madness the
madness of nationalism.
The Armenian nationalists
declared that they had special rights not only the right to vote, not only the right
to become an important part of the Government, not only the right to become educated and
even wealthy. No, they demanded the counterfeit right of their 17% to rule over the other
83% of the people of Erzurum. They demanded the right to deny religious and cultural
freedom to the Turks who had allowed those freedoms to the Armenians. Ultimately, they
demanded the right to force out the Muslim majority and to make Erzurum into Armenia.
These were not rights. They were
crimes. As crimes often do, they led to the destruction of the criminals. They also led to
the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims and Armenians.
It was not the failings of the
Ottoman Government that destroyed Ottoman Erzurum. It was not war alone that destroyed
Ottoman Erzurum. It was the crimes of the Armenian Nationalists and their friends, the
Russian imperialists that destroyed Erzurum.
It is now late May 2003, and I'm putting the finishing touches on
TAT... I ran into this article, and decided to incorporate it as a "last minute"
addition. Like all of Justin McCarthy's wonderful works, I found "The Destruction of
Ottoman Erzurum by Armenians" very illuminating. For example, although I was aware
the Kurds (whom the Turks would refer to as "mountain Turks" to squash their
sense of identity) were a bit on the uncontrollable side, during this period of history, I
thought they would firmly be on the side of the Turks, since the Armenians were making
mincemeat out of all Moslems. However, it seems the Kurds were attacking the Turks like
they were attacking the Armenians. (They didn't discriminate! They believed in equal
The article really gave me a much better idea as to the basis of
why the Armenians behaved in the way they did, and I can only assume the developments in
the other vilayets where the Armenians wreaked havoc were not far off from what we have
learned took place in Erzurum. I was also fascinated by the behavior of the Russians.... I
thought they might have lent a considerable hand with the slaughter of the Moslems,
keeping in mind their record for Turkish ethnic cleansing that I first learned in scope
when I read Dr. McCarthy's "Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman
Muslims, 1821-1922"... but it seems the Russians' plans were a little more devious this time around, and they probably
maintained a hands-off policy as far as the atrocities, allowing the Armenians to do the
dirty work. This is in keeping with the observations
of Russian soldiers who were appalled at
the inhumanity on display from the Armenians.
As this is a later paper based on Dr. McCarthy's work (as opposed
to the other works of his that I've read and are featured on TAT), I can't help noticing
his generally clinical air has started showing signs of mild outrage. The more he has
applied himself to this topic as a serious scholar, the more he has come to the conclusion
the Armenian "Genocide" is just a bunch of Frank Pallone. (That's a
congressional synonym for the rhyme word, "baloney.") Listen:
The Armenians were retreating before the Ottoman Army. They
were in danger. Yet they stopped whenever they could to kill the innocent Muslims of
Erzurum, despite the risk to their own safety. This kind of hatred and madness cannot be
explained. It is often falsely claimed that the Turks committed a genocide of the
Armenians. Yet this was the real genocide, a genocide of the Turks.
The Justin McCarthy I'm familiar with would have left out the
word "falsely" in the next-to-last-sentence, as Prof. McCarthy has operated from
the standpoint, "Yes, the evidence is overwhelming that there was no
government-supported extermination policy, but there is still room for doubt." That's
because the professor is a true scholar, and the only force that guides him is the truth.
If conclusive evidence were to arrive the genocide actually took place, Prof. McCarthy
would be the first to acknowledge the genocide. I would be among those to acknowledge it
soon afterwards.... because truth is the only thing that matters.
With the passing years, Prof. McCarthy is now telling us flat out
there was no Armenian "Genocide." I understand
completely. Constructing this web site has increased my knowledge on the topic manifold,
and as much as I maintained an open mind (and still do)... the more I discovered new
arguments from both sides, the more I became convinced... as Sam Weems said, in so many
words... that the Armenian "Genocide" is about as credible as a three dollar
Related: An Ottoman report on
atrocities in Erzurum