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The Van region of eastern Turkey, the site of the eponymous uprising, massacres and deportations, was a focal point of the tumultuous events that took place in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. The Van Uprising has been often used by denialist historians to establish a pretext for the general deportation of Armenians from that region and elsewhere. However, a closer study of the Ottoman state’s policies vis-à-vis Van and the experiences of its Armenian inhabitants conjures up a different reality; the sheer magnitude of the violence that visited this region, and the difficulties associated with attempts at the analysis and description of that violence, has left much for historians to debate .
Presenting his research on this subject was Ara Sarafian, an archival historical specialising in late Ottoman and modern Armenian history and director of the Gomidas Institute. This lecture was organised by Dr Krikor Moskofian (Director of the Programme of Armenian Studies) and supported by the Armenian Society of UCL (University of London). The chair was Raphael Gregorian.
The events that befell the Armenians of Arjesh (Erciş), a town to the north-east of Lake Van, are at odds with denialist discourse; Mr Sarafian’s talk focused on this history, using it to contextualise the Van Uprising. In 1914 the region – which at the time contained more than fifty Armenian villages, home to over 10,000 Armenians – would see armed conflict between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Sarafian’s investigations are part of a wider move to study the events of the Van region at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Sarafian places great importance on the demography of eastern Turkey as a tool for understanding late Ottoman history and the early days of modern Armenia. It remains a highly-contested sphere of debate due to the limitations imposed on access to archives, and the few existing studies of the demography and geography of these eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire suffer from inaccuracies. In the case of Arjesh, Sarafian relies on a study of a Russian military intelligence officer called Mayevsky, who was based in Van. Mayevsky conducted a systematic study of the population and political geography of Van and Bitlis for military purposes. His meticulous studies show the names of villages which he personally visited, as well as those which he encountered on other maps, while populations are broken down according to ethnicity, and even tribal associations. This is significant, since many equivalent Ottoman demographic maps do not distinguish the ethnic composition of Muslim communities, who supposedly constituted a unified Islamic community, or ümmet. According to Mayevky’s survey, the Armenians of Arjesh district, comprising roughly 17% of the population, were a minority among the Muslim population (61% Kurds, 22% Turks). According to Sarafian, looking at such demographic surveys allows us to gauge positions of various social groups vis-à-vis the state and each other.
More descriptive accounts of the Van region describe Kurds as predominantly pastoral, Armenians as mostly peasants; indeed, the Arabic word fellāḥ (‘peasant’) has been used by Kurds of the region to describe Armenians even to this day. The merchant class was also Armenian, while the administrative class was Turkish. Furthermore, the Kurds were organised into tribes, each tribe enjoying different relations with the state and with each other. Tensions existed between nomadic groups (generally Kurds) and the sedentary population. If looked at from a Marxist perspective, these tensions can be seen to have arisen mostly out of ecological-economic disputes, rather than ethnic or religious ones. For example, during periods of drought and famine, pastoral Kurds would lose a significant proportion of their livestock, while sedentary Armenians would lose their crops. The Armenians, however, would be able to make up for the losses much quicker than pastoral Kurds, and so the Kurds would be more susceptible to long-term damage resulting from times of hardship, thereby sowing the seeds for conflict with Armenians. Relations were not always so strained, though, and there were periods of positive co-existence and trade between these social-ethnic-economic groups.
An Armenian intellectual named A. Do (Hovhannes Der-Mardirosian) was sent to Van to compile a report on the events there between 1914-1916. His work is the single most valuable source in the study of the violence of this period. A. Do had access to a range of records, including access to eyewitness, for his comprehensive analysis of the background to the Van Uprising.
Sarafian went on to explain that recently a new trove of affidavits have been unearthed and published in Armenia concerning the Armenian Genocide. These eyewitness accounts were collected from survivor-refugees in different parts of the Caucasus in 1916. The first volume is entirely on the province of Van, including Arjesh. Sarafian explained that his case study of Arjesh 1915 was originally undertaken for an independent evaluation of A. Do’s work, which, he added, withstood such scrutiny to a remarkable degree.
Given the data at hand, Sarafian stated that it is possible to present a critical account of what happened in Arjesh in 1915. The massacres started on 19 April 1915. According to affidavits, there is no evidence of Armenian armed activity preceding this date; the Armenians of Arjesh compliant, trusted their kaymakam Riza Bey, and did not harbour any expectations of an imminent massacre. Yet they were identified, trapped and killed in a methodical manner over two days. On 19 April, Rıza Bey summoned Armenian men to the government office supposedly for conscription, where they were imprisoned, tied up and killed. Systematic killings were carried out by policeman, clearly at the direction of a central authority. The number of those murdered in the city of Arjesh hovers around the 2,500 mark.
A couple of intriguing aspects of these massacres again hint at the organised nature of the crime, as opposed to the work of an aimless horde of murderers. Women and children were, by and large, not killed. They were even kept safe and fed – an indication of directives fulfilled from above. Secondly, the main killers were not the looters; the state later brought in Kurdish elements to rob and burn villages. Although there are cases of local Kurds saving Armenians, the typical narrative is that of Armenian villages succumbing to a rabble. There are other accounts of young men in other locations in the province of Van being ordered by the authorities to assemble and surrender their weapons, so the murders in Arjesh were most probably part of a broader plan to destroy Armenians. Whereas a large-scale self-defence operation was organised in the city of Van, the Armenians of Arjesh made no such plans and were more inclined to escape to the Caucasus if they could. It becomes evident that the Ottoman state was intent on destroying Armenian communities throughout the Van region.
Sarafian placed his case study of Arjesh in the general context of Armenian studies today. In the lecture, he described the field as “patchy”, with an abundance of primary material but a lack of engagement with it, and says that such detailed analyses of particular episodes of the Armenian Genocide and late Ottoman history enable a more complete picture of modern Armenian history to come to the fore. Sarafian criticised the field for allowing too much “speculation” rather than answering questions with research and empirical data as an essential component of good history. He argued that much of modern Armenian history has still not been written because people did not expect more of “establishment historians.” In Sarafian’s view, detailed case studies are part of the bedrock of reliable historiography.
In the question and answer session following the lecture, Sarafian regretted the situation regarding access to archives, which are not all equally open to all scholars. Archives maintained by institutions with political interests either keep a substantial amount of material classified, or provide access only to those scholars who will use the material in their favour. This hierarchy of accessibility means that some scholars are unable to verify and criticise the claims and work of other scholars who hold differing views, and so creates a major obstacle for well-intentioned historians whose aim is a fair analysis and description of history, rather than the instrumentalisation of history for political purposes which can be seen on both the populist Armenian and denialist camps.
Mr Sarafian delved deeper into the perspective of denialist Turkish historiography and its portrayal of Armenians as rebels in 1915. This characterisation is often used as justification of the mass murder and deportation of Armenians as a measure to eliminate further instability and counter the threat of Russian encroachment. Nevertheless, the fact is that this argument is illogical and bereft of tangible historical evidence. Turkish nationalist historians – deniers of the Armenian Genocide – avoid any discussion of the context that led to Armenians resorting to self-defence in 1915, or for that matter, the very defensive nature of the actual fighting that took place with Armenians barricading themselves in city quarters. Sarafian referred to a book called The Armenian Rebellion in Van, co-authored by Justin McCarthy and three Turkish denialist historians, in which the Armenians are presented as causing unrest in the Van region since 1912, but which contains no discussion of the events of 1915, the village massacres and the background to them. The analysis of these authors is beguiling but unfounded, neatly omitting vital events and contextual points. For denialists, it is not about engaging with the historiography, but rather excluding key information. Edward Erickson is mentioned as a newcomer to the denialist game who looks at the Armenian issue through the lens of the Turkish military. While Erickson cites the Ottoman military archives in Ankara, a historian like Sarafian is not granted access to those archives to scrutinise Erickson’s work. Similarly, in the 1990s, while examining the work of Justin McCarthy, Sarafian was denied access to McCarthy’s sources at the Prime Ministry Archives in Istanbul. For his part, Mr Sarafian states that while he has seen some of the ARF archives in Boston, he does not cite them in his work because access to them remains restricted. He said he believed that all scholars must be given equal access to all records – even Turkish state intellectuals denying the Armenian Genocide.
Mr Sarafian finds another example of denialist historiography in Yusuf Sarınay. In a work on the events of 24 April 1915, Sarınay claims that the intellectuals arrested in Istanbul were kept safe in state custody until they were released in 1918, using the political prisoners sent to Ayash as his focus. Sarinay’s work was entirely based on Ottoman records. However, Sarafian investigated Sarınay’s assertions work and found them to be fabricated. Mr Sarafian wrote a reply to Sarınay in the Istanbul-based Armenian paper Agos, but Sarinay chose not to respond. The job of the denialist historian is not to engage with arguments based on evidence, and so, predictably, Sarınay did not respond.
The question of whether non-Armenian sources existed for the purposes of studying a case such as Arjesh was raised by the audience. Mr Sarafian mentioned that American missionaries wrote accounts of what happened in the Van region, and that he suspects that there are a host of Russian accounts in military archives which could be used to elucidate the situation in the Van region at the time. Sarafian expressed his frustration towards the lack of useful Ottoman Turkish records on this topic; the only record available to his knowledge is that of an account released by the military archives of a massacre of a Turkish/Kurdish village. On a related case, he gave the example of a reported massacre near Diyarbekir in 1915. When he went to the village in question, the local villagers stated categorically that no Muslims were massacred there in 1915, only Armenians. In the case of Arjesh after the arrival of the Russian army, there are accounts of Russians and Cossacks, not Armenians, looting Muslim shops in the city of Arjesh. The Turkish nationalist discourse does not tend to make this distinction. What took place in eastern Turkey during Russian occupation is still unclear and necessitates further research.
Mr Sarafian ended the lecture by noting that some of the best academic research on Armenians in late Ottoman history is by scholars from Turkey. One such example is Yektan Türkyılmaz, a Turkish scholar of Kurdish origin who also knows Armenian. He is not alone. Umit Kurt, Ugur Ungor, among others, are producing sound academic work on this topic. This shared past that was experienced by all ethnicities of the region, and collaborative efforts that transcend ethnic boundaries are to be encouraged in order to write a more objective history.