Tuesday, 10 July 2007

This is a summary of the twentieth-century history of the old town of Van, its community/communities and their destruction during the First World War and the genocide. (I will (eventually) link to photographs of sites where appropriate.)

The General Directorate of the Republic of Turkey State Archives stated that:
In the wake of the eruption of the Van Rebellion, on 9 C. 1333 (24 April 1915) the government sent a secret circular to provincial and sanjak governors with the aim of disbanding the revolutionary committees which had initiated these incident[s] and which had armed the Armenians. In this circular it requested that the Armenian committee headquarters be closed, that their files be seized and that the committee leaders be arrested. [16 (BOA. DH. ŞFR, nr. 52/96, 97, 98)] Following the circular sent by the Supreme Military Command to all units on II C. 1333 (26 April 1915), 2, 345 individuals were arrested. [17 (Kâmuran Gürün, Ibid., p.213)] It is these arrests that are the basis for the annual commemoration of April 24 by Armenians as a day of massacre.
Already in 1914, however, there was a Special Organisation established to deal with, as Erzurum Party Chief Hilmi described them to Special Organisation Head Bahaettin Şakir, the 'persons to be liquidated at home' (Akçam, 2004: 160).

While there had been a Revolutionary Party, Y. K. Rushdouni had noted (on the 7th of June 1915) that,
the three leaders of the former Revolutionary Party called Dashnagists, who since the proclamation of the Constitution had been changed into a political party and had come to an understanding with the Young Turks, exhorted the people to endure in silence. Better, they said, that some villages be burned and destroyed unavenged than give the slightest pretext to the Moslems for a general massacre.
Already, earlier in the war (but unfortunately lacking a complete reference for Y. K. Rushdouni's narrative in Gotchnag),
the Turkish Army rallied again, and instead of pursuing the enemy, they exterminated the Armenian and Syrian population of Bashkalé, Sarai and all the surrounding villages. They had massacred all the male population, and in certain places---according to the reports of a Turkish commander who was a Russian subject---had thrown them into wells.
(This account also has the values both of acknowledging the massacres of other communities, like the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syrian Christians and documenting the process of extermination.)

As Vahakn N. Dadrian (2003: 276) relayed,
As the wartime Austrian Military Plenipotentiary to Turkey stated in his memoirs, the Van uprising was "an act of desperation" (Akt der Verzweiflung). The Armenians, he went on to say "recognized that the general butchery [die allgemeine Schlächterei] had begun in the environs of Van and that they would be the next [victims]."
(According to one chronology, on the 15th of April 1915 that Armenian refugees began to 'arrive and notify the inhabitants that 80 villages in Van Province were already obliterated and that 24,000 Armenians had been killed in three days'.)

On the 24th of May 1915, Grace Higley Knapp had written to Dr. James L. Barton,
The fact cannot be too strongly emphasized that there was no "rebellion." As already pointed out, the revolutionists meant to keep the peace if it lay in their power to do so. But for some time past a line of Turkish entrenchments had been secretly drawn round the Armenian quarter of the Gardens. The revolutionists, determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible, prepared a defensive line of entrenchments.
(See also A. S. Safrastian's account, given on the 2nd of December 1915, that 'the Turkish Government wanted to dispose of the "rebellious" Armenians of Van' and that the assassinations of Armenian leaders and 'massacres of Ardjish, cleared up all doubts' that, 'an appeal to arms was the only argument which could save their [Armenians'] life, honour and property'.)

On the morning of the 20th of April 1915, the Armenian community barricaded in the old town, the Ottoman army's siege and bombardment of the old town began; it continued until, over the course of a few days culminating on the 18th of May, the Ottoman army withdrew before the Russian military and the Armenian paramilitaries arrived.

Nathalie Tocci (2001: 3) noted the subsequent 'massacres committed by the Armenians and the Russians towards the Muslim population' during the Russian army's occupation of the area. T. A. Sinclair (1987: 182) recounted that, a month later, the 'Armenian population moved out with the Russian troops'; but the Russian army was certainly not "heroic" and the survivors had no choice but to follow them.

At the time (but unfortunately lacking a full bibliographical reference), an unnamed journalist interviewed Sylvia Gazarian for the Pioneer Press, who observed that, while Armenian civilians were 'under their protection for a month',
Russian treachery became evident when they evacuated the town. They pillaged every standing home. When we demanded that they should stay and protect us, the general said: "If you don't want us to leave you, come along."
The Russian army returned in September. On the 9th of December 1915, using information furnished by the British Consul at Batoum, the UK Foreign Office reported that:
In view of the anti-sanitary condition at Van, sickness of every kind is prevalent among the orphans of massacred Armenians, large numbers of whom have now accumulated at Van and in its district. The children are fatherless and motherless. They are in a terrible condition. Most of them are starving, and have become so emaciated that they look more like skeletons than human beings. All buildings at Van have been destroyed by fire. No places of refuge exist for the infants. The Field Lazaretto of a Russian regiment has taken some of these orphans under its care and protection, and they seek warmth and shelter under the overcoats of the Russian soldiers.
The Russian army remained until the armistice of 1917.

Sinclair (1987: 182) said that:
A town in the full sense was founded about 1930.... However by the beginning of the Second World War house walls in the old city were still standing. The Garden City's trees, on the other hand, were gone and the gardens uncultivated: the present thick covering of trees seems to be the result of planting since then.
As Tocci (2001: 2) observed, however, the old town of Van is now 'a sea of overgrown, rubble-strewn mounds'.

Sinclair (1987: 182) noted that there had been a variety of domestic, commercial, bureaucratic and military buildings within the walls, as well as the Kara Koyun Mosque, 'whose site recent excavations have made clear' and 'several churches'. When I visited, the mosques were undergoing restoration, but the ruined churches were not even being preserved in their ruinous state.

Sinclair (1987: 182) observed that, even in the Nineteenth Century under the Ottoman Empire, before the destruction of old Van, '[t]he sites occupied by the former cities were still lived on; and the governor often forbade access to the citadel' for survey or excavation, but still now, 'the citadel and particularly the old city have not been thoroughly explored by excavation'.

Tocci (2001: 2) supposes that '[t]he complete abandonment of this area and the lack of any reference to its history, render the tragedies of the past all the more vivid', but I suspect that that is only the case for those who already know its history; for those who do not, it renders those tragedies and travesties not only physically invisible, but also emotionally unreachable, even unbelievable.

The old town of Van will continue to lack survey or excavation, as the Turkish State would have to issue an excavation licence for a dig in which the first thing the archaeologists would find would be the material evidence of the Ottoman Empire's violent destruction of the Armenian community.

The military-dominated Turkish state and its state apparati, like the General Directorate of the Republic of Turkey State Archives, whose false narrative opened this post, do not want the public to know 'the [true] basis for the annual commemoration of April 24 by Armenians as a day of massacre'.

* I didn't have the opportunity to explore the 'Garden City' suburb, which had been, according to Sinclair (1987: 182), the main residential area. (A contemporary Armenian refers to it as 'Aikesdan (the Vineyards)'.)

Akçam, T. 2004: From empire to republic: Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide. London: Zed Books.

Dadrian, V N. 2003: "The signal facts surrounding the Armenian genocide and the Turkish denial syndrome". Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 5, Number 2, 269-279.

Knapp, G H. 1915: "Letter [private correspondence with Dr. J. L. Barton]", 24th May. Available at: http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/1915/bryce/a02.htm#15

Rushdouni, Y K. 1915: "Letter [private correspondence, 7th June]". The Guardian, 2nd August. Available at: http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/1915/bryce/a02.htm#16

Safrastian, A S. 1916 [1915]: "Narrative [2nd December 1915]". Ararat, January. Available at: http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/1915/bryce/a03.htm#19

Sinclair, T A. 1987: Eastern Turkey: An architectural and archaeological survey - Volume 1. London: The Pindar Press.

Tocci, N. 2001: "Our future southeastern Turkish frontiers". Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies. Available at: http://shop.ceps.be/downfree.php?item_id=107

UK Foreign Office. 1915: "Memorandum on the condition of Armenian refugees in the Caucasus and orphans at Van". London: UK Foreign Office. Available at: http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/1915/bryce/a07.htm#48

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