This article will appear in the Armenian Weekly’s upcoming magazine on Ottoman genocides, co-edited by Khatchig Mouradian (coordinator, Armenian Genocide Program, CGHR, Rutgers University) and Sabri Atman (director, Seyfo Center–the Assyrian Genocide Research Center).
Mardin is an ancient and beautiful city, built on the steep slope of a mountain that descends from the fortress on top. Houses were literally built on top of each other, with one family’s roof becoming another family’s terrace. It’s a very well-ordered form of residential chaos that evolved over the centuries and withstands mordernization. Because of the height of the mountain, people living in Mardin can see for many miles around—far into the surrounding plains, far along the main road to Diyarbakir, sometimes even as far as the Syrian border.
Because of this building pattern, Mardin was also an open-air theater that provided residents with an outstanding view of major events that ripped through the small city in World War I. Although Mardin was far from the frontline, large elements of its population were harassed, deported, imprisoned, tortured, paraded through the streets, and massacred. Residents could also see the caravans of deportees coming from the northern provinces, who were marched past the city on their way to Der Zor. The horrors that took place were observed by many. Some perhaps enjoyed them like the spectators of Roman gladiator fights; others saw it as the wrath of God punishing His people for some collective sin; still others saw it as the murdering of innocent citizens falsely accused of treason and of plotting revolt. A great number of observers saw the terror as a historical moment that forever shattered the traditional, subtle and balanced multi-religious, multiethnic pattern of life that had evolved in Mardin. Some called it nakabat, the Arabic word for catastrophe; some called it firman, believing it was decreed by the sultan; and some called it qafle, the Syriac word for massacre. But generally it is now known as seyfo, a general term used in many Middle Eastern languages for sword, as in “1915 the year of the sword.”1
We know of the chronicles, diaries, and annotations of various people who were residing in Mardin in 1914-15 and who described the reign of terror that was instigated by mutasarrif (local governor) Bedri Bey, police chief Memduh, and others beginning in June 1915.2 Some of the writers are only known by their initials, such as A.H.B., A.Y.B., and P.V.M.; others published their books anonymously, like Ishaq Armale, who had fled to Lebanon. In some cases, the writings lay unpublished for decades after they were first written down, like those of the French Dominican monks Jacques Rhétoré (whose manuscript was discovered in Mosul after the first Gulf War), Hyacinthe Simone, and Marie-Dominque Berré. A few, like the diary of the American Alpheus Andrus, are still known only in manuscript form.3 These writings are likely just the tip of the iceberg; many other chronicles were probably written, but have disappeared or remain undiscovered. One person that we know wrote a manuscript that has been lost is the Catholic priest Joseph Tfinkji. His manuscript presumably contained a great deal of information about the Armenians and Syriacs who escaped from Mardin and were given asylum by the Yezidis in the Sinjar Mountains, as he served as the priest there. At any rate, Mardin is the one place in the Ottoman Empire that provides us with a relatively complete day-by-day description of the persecution of the Armenians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs.
I shall now analyze a few observations from the many eye-witness accounts available. Most are taken from the very detailed descriptions by Armele and Rhétoré. Their usual point of observation was from the terrace of the building that now houses the Mardin museum, but was then the Syriac Catholic patriarchy. But on the morning of July 4, 1915, Armale was outside the city walls taking a walk on the small hills just beyond the western gate. He is broken off from admiring the trees bearing wonderful fruit by a terrible scene:
“What is that I see over at Ömer Agha’s water spring? A great caravan advances like a herd of sheep or cows. I must take up my telescope and look! An enormous army of close to 10,000 people! Most of them are women and children. There are some elderly too. I see soldiers who escort them, but beat them and kick them. They try to flee. Above them rifle barrels appear. My ears hear shots. I see a group that is surrounded by some soldiers. I see them brutally drive them toward a fort. Oh God! Where to? To the water well, just like during the latest weeks! They take off their clothes, pull out knives, and attack them, stabbing them and throwing them down headfirst into the well. And so they go back [to the caravan]. What an atrocity! …
“They come nearer in groups like grasshoppers and they must be about 8,000. How strange! A short while before they looked like 10,000. Where are the others? Can these murderers have killed 2,000 in 3 hours? How many were they when they left their homes? They must have been many more. I heard a few days ago that they amounted to 50,000. They come from Erzurum, Lice, Harput, and other Armenian cities…
“The leaders of Mardin with their graying hair have arrived [to where I stand]. They sit on horseback and watch how women and children rush about in panic. Their faces show amusement. In their heads are greed and immoral thoughts. They spur on their horses and ride towards the water spring. Some get there first in order to steal and plunder. I watch out so they don’t attack me. I better hide under a tree. …
“I see wealthy Muslims with their wives pushing their way through the weeping and sorrowful Christians. They are out to get people. They choose and select among the women and children, especially among the girls. And they demand that they renounce their religion. … The wealthy Mardin women manage to get a hold of a large number of boys and girls, and the soldiers don’t object; rather, they invite it. I see some persons return with their catch. Some lead boys from their horses, others have caught girls whom they veil so that the kidnapper’s friends cannot see them and begin to quarrel. One man has filled his pockets with gold and silver and returns laughing. … Others converse happily on their way back and cannot hide their joy over the goods they have gotten in such a short time. … The soldiers have resumed their harassment of the Armenians, and hit and kick them badly. They force their prisoners forward in the heat of the afternoon.”4
What Armale witnessed was the total brutalization of the Muslim civilian population following weeks of human caravans being sent through their neighborhood. He saw how the local people were invited by the escort to steal and kidnap. He saw how many participated in the plunder. The deportations and massacres had by this point been going on for a month, and had clearly made the locals nearly immune to the fate of the Christians. This was a far cry from the good neighborliness that was a part of traditional Mardin life. Many of Mardin’s Armenians and Syriacs would never have imagined that their neighbors could turn on them. They expected instead to be protected, as had happened in 1895 when local urban Muslim clans, the Mishkeviye and Mandalkaniye, beat off an external attack.
Armale recounts the Armenians’ reaction to the first reliable information on plans to eliminate them. “Some leading Muslims employed Christian servants, who by hiding listened to what was said and told of the secrets. We did not believe them and said, ‘Our friendship with the Muslims is purer than the eye of a rooster and stronger than iron. It would be impossible to turn such a friendship into hostility and mildness into harshness, because we have no conflicts with each other.’ We added that in our area, there were no hundred percent Armenians or opponents to the government. No, we are, praise God, Catholics and loyal to the state and follow its decisions to the letter of the law. Therefore, it has no reason to harass us and claim that we are hostile and plot treason. … But we were disappointed. The truest friend and the dearest comrade became the worst and most distrustful enemy. The sheep became wolves and the doves became snakes.” Here, we can see a remarkable aspect of most genocides—namely, that people who are normally peaceful and trustworthy can change into violent and brutal people. They participate in actions they would otherwise—before, and even later—consider as immoral and impossible.
An absolutely essential step in creating a climate that permits immoral acts has to do with the activities of the leading personalities in the community. Some aspects have to do with dehumanizing the victims, describing them as creatures no longer human. The vali (provincial governor) in Diyarbakir did this by viewing the Armenians as bacteria. But other aspects have to do with preparing the population through propaganda and disinformation; and for this, the propaganda must come from a level of authority. In Mardin, we can see a total shift among the leadership. Up until early June, the mutasarrif of Mardin was a humane official by the name of Hilmi Bey. Hilmi went out of his way to maintain balance among the Muslim and Christian communities. He showed great kindness towards the Armenian archbishop Ignace Maloyan and managed to persuade the sultan to grant Maloyan a gold medal in April 1915. Even Hilmi’s predecessor, Shefik Bey, took honor in treating the Christians as full Ottoman citizens. Hilmi refused to follow vali Reshid Bey’s orders to arrest the leading Christians. He is reported to have said, “I see no reason to need to arrest Mardin’s Christians. So I cannot agree to your demand.” Shefik sent the following message to the Syrian Catholic archbishop Gabriel Tappuni: “I have some papers with an order to deport and kill you. But I know they are falsified and have no grounds. As proof of my friendship to you, I have written to the vali and sworn my oath of your upright loyalty to the state.” Several other Ottoman officials also refused. For this, Hilmi was demoted and transferred to Iraq; some of the lesser officials were assassinated on the orders of the vali. In their place came new persons from the outside ready to organize the murders and deportations. Most important was the previously named Bedri Bey, the vice vali; Memduh, the provincial police chief; Tevfik, the adjutant of the vali; and Harun, the commander of the provincial gendarmerie. They found a few Mardin residents who were willing to collaborate with the criminal court judge Halil Adib, and together collected a volunteer militia that the locals called Al Khamsin (the fiftymen).
There was one very big problem that the organizers of the genocide had to confront: Mardin’s Muslim leaders had a long-standing tradition of protecting the Christians. In the Hamidiye massacres of 1895, the Mandalkiye and Mishkiye tribes had banded together to protect the city from a well-organized assembly of enemies who sought to massacre the Armenians. The Milli Kurdish confederation under Ibrahim Pasha was also famous for its protection of Christians at that time. Therefore, the provincial government officials had to make every effort to get the Milli, the Mandalkiye, the Miskiye, and other tribes to break with their pro-Christian past and join the government’s plans. This was done in May 1915, prior to the major arrests by night time meetings with fanatic anti-Christian propagandists, like Zeki Licevi and his brother Said. On the political level the Ittihadist National Assembly member Feyzi arrived from Diyarbakir and according to Armale said, “Let no Christian remain! He who does not do this duty is no longer a Muslim.” On May 15, a large meeting was held under Feyzi’s leadership with local members of the Ittihad ve Terraki party, some of the leading administrators, a doctor, a mufti, three shayks, as well as aghas from the Dashkiye, Mandalkiye, and Miskiye tribes. Feyzi, according to Rhétoré, provoked those who expressed a lack of interest in killing the Christians. “You surprise me. What is holding you back? Is it the fear of one day having to pay for this? But what happened to those who killed Armenians in Abdul Hamid’s time? Today Germany is with us and our enemies are its enemies. This will surely give us victory in this war, and we won’t have to answer to anyone. Let us get rid of the Christians so we can be masters in our own house. This is what the government wants.” The men at the meeting were required to sign a petition that the Christians were traitors and had to be disposed of. Even those who were not enthusiastic signed the petition, so as not to be different from the others. In this way, they became the core of the planning for the elimination of Mardin’s Christian residents and met repeatedly to make plans. The involvement in the genocide of the Christians’ once-traditional protectors was thus secured.
All of these preparations were necessary for the swift elimination of the Armenians and of those Syriacs who were Catholic or Protestant. It seems that there was a local agreement that Mardin’s Syrian Orthodox Christians (the “orphans of Muhammad”) would be spared. According to Rhétoré, the city of Mardin in this period had a Christian population of 6,500 Armenians; 1,100 Chaldeans; 1,750 Catholic Syriacs; 7,000 Syriac Orthodox; and 125 Protestants. In the entire Mardin sanjak, there were nearly 75,000 Christians of all denominations. During the massacres nearly 48,000—or 64 percent—disappeared, and this includes the rural Syriac Orthodox population that was not part of the agreed exclusion.
Perhaps the most horrifying scene witnessed by the Mardin residents was the sending away of the first transport of Christian prisoners on June 10, 1915. Mardin’s Christian elite, which amounted to more than 400 adult men, had been imprisoned during the past week on trumped-up charges of planning a revolt, and hiding weapons and bombs. Many had been tortured into giving false confessions. But on the night of June 10, a ghastly spectacle was arranged, intended to terrify the population and break the possibility of any resistance.
“At the fall of darkness, Mardin residents could see soldiers going up to the fort and then returning to the prison. They carried iron rings, chains, and thick ropes. They called out the names of the prisoners one by one, and they tied them with ropes so that they could not flee… Then those who were thought to be Armenians were taken from the others. Rings were pressed around their necks and chains around their wrists. In this way they were bound, drawn, and chained for several hours… After having arranged the men in rows, they forced them out through the prison gates. Above them weapons and swords shined. The prisoners were kept totally silent. And a town crier cried out, ‘The Christian residents who leave their houses will be amputated and put together with their co-religionists.’ Then they trudged along the main street 417 priests and other men. Young and old, Armenians, [Catholic] Syricas, Chaldeans, and Protestants.
“When they passed the Muslim quarter, the women came out and joked. They insulted the prisoners. Children threw stones. When the prisoners came to the Christian quarter, the residents could not go out to talk or say farewell. Many stood by the railings on their roofs and wept, praying to God. … The Christians shuffled in silence like pupils on their way to school. They made no sound. … When they came to the western city gate, those monks that were still free and the American missionaries went out on the roofs to see their friends for the last time and say farewell. They found them in a tragic state, so that blood could clot in their veins and terror hold them in its grip. There could not have been anything more difficult for the eye to see or more painful for the heart than standing there and looking down on the many chained co-religionists. Every time anyone cast a glance at that street, he would be reminded of the noble archbishop, the venerable priests, and the march of the dear Christians.”
In the front marched the police chief Memduh. Many of the 400 prisoners bore the signs of torture and were very weak. Some had bleeding feet and fingers from nails that had been pulled off; broken bones; cuts about the head. Some had to be supported by others to walk at all. Beards had been torn. The chains rattled accentuating the ghostly silence. And at the end of the procession came the Archbishop Maloyan, who was handcuffed, barefoot, and limping after bastinado (foot whipping). All of the men in this first deportation from Mardin were killed in the night between June 10 and 11—some at Omar Agha’s water spring, some at Sheykhan, some at the ruins of the Zarzavan fort. Their families in Mardin were told that they had arrived safely at their destination. No one believed this.
There were few that did not lose a family member that night. This death march through the center of town was an effective announcement of the start of a reign of terror. The silent march in clanking chains through the Muslim and then Christian quarters polarized the population along religious lines. To all it was obvious that the government—through the police chief and the soldiers—had targeted the Armenians; in the case of Mardin, this meant that even the Syriac Catholics and Protestants were considered to be Armenian by the local authorities, for they too had been handcuffed and chained like ordinary criminals. The escorts allowed the Muslim residents to approach the prisoners and abuse them verbally and physically. Thus, the local mob came to be an active participant in the scene orchestrated by the authorities. And it created alliances among the mob, as they would in the future need to rationalize their actions and judge them as being moral. They were no longer just bystanders, but participants, although not of the worst kind.
The Christians that night were confined to their houses and could do nothing but wave and weep. The procession became a show of the absolute power of some, and the absolute weakness of the targeted victims. Knowledge of this death march spread quickly throughout the Ottoman provinces. In Mosul, the German consul Walter Holstein heard of it either from Hilmi or Shefik. He informed his ambassador in Istanbul of the ongoing “general massacre,” who in turn wrote to Berlin; the German government protested strongly to Talat Pasha, who was then forced to send a reprimand to the vali of Diyarbakir (who ignored it).
Witnesses interpreted this targeting of Mardin’s Armenians as an anti-Christian act, and viewed the victims as martyrs of the Christian faith. There were several local reasons behind this conclusion. Foremost was that the group of 400 leaders included not just Armenians of the Catholic Church but also all other Catholics—the Syriacs and the Chaldeans—and even Protestants. As all groups spoke the local Arabic dialect and many had Arabic names, the distinguishing feature of the Armenian language was lacking. The various Catholic groups had very close relationships; the priests, particularly, met often across religious lines. Thus, the target group was seen as being constructed on the grounds of religion, not on Armenian background alone. Second, the first wave of imprisonments and the death march that followed included many of the leading religious figures in the city. And they sustained particularly brutal treatment. Third, almost all of the witness testimonies came from those who had received religious education and saw the genocide of 1915 as a repeat of the martyrdom of the early Christian church in Roman times. They highlighted the choice given to the prisoners to either convert to Islam or die, and praised those who chose to die rather than convert. These scenes are told in great detail. They also emphasized that it was the wrath of God that struck the army with the typhus epidemic in 1916. The biblical analogies go back to visions of the Apocalypse, the end of the world, and the coming of the Last Judgment.
This interpretation, however, makes it difficult to find alternative motivations behind the genocide. Material, social, and economic causes play very little role in theses testimonies—with one exception, that is: Hyacinthe Simon’s report. Simon gives a very long list of the vast sums of money that police chief Memduh and mutasarrif Bedri extorted or stole from the wealthy Christian families. That he could put together this long list indicates that the stolen money, jewelry, and property were common knowledge in Mardin and were discussed widely. The clergymen who were left in Mardin collected and spent large sums of money to get their fellow Christians released from prisoners, or to buy back kidnapped children who were being sold in the marketplace.
Witnesses in Mardin described the step-by-step process of harassment that led from occasional maltreatment to individual acts of murder, and finally to full-scale genocide. This process began with the declaration of mobilization in August 1914. But with the passing of each month, the feeling of a coming catastrophe grew. Archbishop Maloyan predicted his murder weeks in advance. In a letter to his congregation, written on May 1, 1915, he spoke of the decisions made by the government that would lead either to “extermination or martyrdom.” Others probably shared the same fears. The evidence available shows that there was little—arguably infinitesimal—political agitation that could be used by the government as a pretext for exterminating the Christian groups. On the contrary, local officials attested to their loyalty. As has been shown, new officials from the outside had to be handpicked for their brutality and groomed for the task of initiating the genocide. After the first death march, more deportations followed until September 1915, when there were very few “Armenians” left in place. The instigators and perpetrators had become very wealthy from the bribes and confiscated property of the victims. None of the perpetrators were ever put on trial. And there is still no monument to those officials who tried to save the Armenians.
Let us finish with the words of Jacques Rhétoré, on why he wrote in such detail of the persecutions of 1915: “The most important thing is not to let these memories be forgotten. I have written down as well as I could. I hope the reader will find what I wished to convey, that is first of all the horror of the terrible crimes that were committed, with an appeal to God’s and people’s judgment over those who so turned against their humanity by ordering and perpetrating them. After that comes my admiration for the victims, who in such high degree honored humanity.”
David Gaunt is professor of history at Södertörn University College, Stockholm, Sweden. He is a social historian who has written widely on the history of minorities and everyday life. He is the author of Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I, a seminal work on the Assyrian Genocide.
1 Shabo Thalay, “Sayfo, Firman, Qafle—Der erste Weltkrieg aus der Sicht der syrischen Christen,” in Akten des 5. Symposiums zur Sprache, Geshichte, Theologie und Gegenwartslage der Syriaschen Kirchen, Rainer Voigt, ed. Berlin 2006, 235-249.
2 Ishaq Armale, Al Qusara fi nakabat al-nasara (Lebanon 1919); Jacques Rhétoré, “Les Chrétiens aux bêtes: Souvenirs de la guerre sainte proclamée par les Turcs contre les chrétiens en 1915” (Paris: Cerf 2005); Hyacinthe Simon, “Mardine la ville heroique: Autel et tombeau de l’Arménie durant les massacres de 1915” (Jounieh, Lebanon: 1991); Marie-Dominque Berré, “Massacres de Mardin,” in Haigazian Armenological Journal 17 (1997) 81-106; A. H. B., “Mémoires sur Mardine 1915,” in Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea (Cairo) 29-30 (1998) 59-189; Vincent Mistrih, “Mémoires de A. Y. B. sur les massacres de Mardine,” in Armenian Perspectives: 10th Anniversary Conference of the Association International des Etudes Arméniennes, Ed. Nicholas Awde (London 1997) 287-292; P. V. M., “Autre documents sur les événements de Mardine,” Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea 29 (1998) 33-77; Ara Sarafian, Ed., “The Disasters of Mardin during the Persecutions of the Christians, Especially the Armenians, 1915” in Haigazian Armenological Review 18 (1998) 261-271; Abed Mschiho Na’man Qarabash, “Vergossenes Blut: Geschichten der Gruel, die an den Christen in Tűrkei verűbt, und der Leiden, die ihnen 1895 und 1914-1918 zugefűgt wurden” (Glane, Holland 1997).
3 Houghton Library, Harvard University.
4 Armale, 255.