share

 Home | History | 1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History

The Assyrian Genocide of 1915

by Professor David Gaunt. Published in Seyfo Center, April 18, 2009.

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 04:35 PM UT


Professor David Gaunt. Photograph: Dikran Ego

About the author

authorDavid 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. His most recent work is the Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I (Georgis Press 2006) and the edited volume Collaboration and Resistance during the Holocaust: Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (Bern, 2004).

“As with most middle easterners, the basic binding is first to family and clan, then to religion and only in the last resort to nationality. The final stage of a unified Assyrian ethnic identity has not been attained.”

— Professor David Gaunt

Introduction

Today the ethnic category Assyrian is used for indigenous Christian peoples living in Kurdistan and northern Mesopotamia who speak (or once spoke) an Aramaic Semitic language. They were among the first peoples to become Christians and have kept ancient theologies, which came to differ very much from European Christianity.

Of all modern genocides, that perpetrated on the Assyrian peoples of Kurdistan during World War I is one of the most obscure and little known.[1] Somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 Assyrians, about half of the population, were killed or died from starvation or disease in a series of campaigns orchestrated by the Ottoman Turkish government. Despite considerable attention at the time, it has fallen from memory and is passed over in surveys of the history of genocide. The aim of this article is to simply narrate the story and its aftermath, but doing this necessitates dealing with the complicated ethnic and geographic background as well as contrasting this mass-murder with the better-known genocide of the Armenians, which took place at the same time. One of the lessons of the Assyrian genocide is that their enigmatic ethnic origins coupled with internal divisions into a labyrinth of religions compounding highly disputed national identity contributes greatly to the neglect of the Assyrians. The Republic of Turkey is famous for denying the Armenian genocide and it also rejects the similar claims of the Assyrians. However the International Association of Genocide Scholars has deemed what happened to them genocide.

Today the ethnic category Assyrian is used for indigenous Christian peoples living in Kurdistan and northern Mesopotamia who speak (or once spoke) an Aramaic Semitic language. They were among the first peoples to become Christians and have kept ancient theologies, which came to differ very much from European Christianity. Because of language and religion they are distinct not just from their Muslim Kurdish, Arab, and Turkish neighbors, but also from the Armenian and Greek Christians with their Indo-European languages. By the start of World War I there were an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 Assyrians who mostly lived inside southeastern Anatolia, but also in the closest Arab provinces and along the Iran’s side of the Turkish border. The Assyrians were much less numerous than the several million Armenians. Taking one or two subgroups to represent the whole, many synonyms have been used by western writers to describe the entire group: Syrians, Jacobites, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans, Chaldeo-Assyrians and so on. Quite naturally this causes overwhelming confusion among those who today unprepared begin to study older documents. By the time of the First World War, the British and Russians used the term Assyrian, while the Americans and French used Syrian.

Since the world war the name Assyrian has been generally used in international contexts. All of the peoples acknowledge some heritage from the classic Assyrian Empire (destroyed in 612 B. C.). But a vociferous group inside the Syrian Orthodox Church, for reasons best known to itself, insists vehemently on being called Syrian (sometimes Syriac or Aramean) as identity. The stronger the grip of this church, the less likely is a person to identify as Assyrian. As with most middle easterners, the basic binding is first to family and clan, then to religion and only in the last resort to nationality. The final stage of a unified Assyrian ethnic identity has not been attained. This internal dispute concerns doubts whether the eastern and western subgroups share a common history, and this includes the genocide of 1915. Although they are joined by language (but in mutually incomprehensible dialects) the basic east-west split is over theology with three major churches at loggerheads with each other. Each church had a traditional homeland isolated from the others. The Nestorian church was located along both sides of the Turkish-Iranian border and was the first to enthusiastically adopt the name Assyrian. One group in northern Iraq broke away from the Nestorians to form the Chaldean Church, which is united with Roman Catholicism. Together they collectively use Assyro-Chaldean or Chaldeo-Assyrian. Completely separate from these two is the Syrian Orthodox Church, which was strongest in the Turkish province of Diyarbakir. In addition there were Catholic and Protestant converts. In no province did the Assyrians form a majority, but the autonomous Nestorian tribes were a majority in the Hakkari Mountains in the extreme southeast, and the Syrian Orthodox dominated the Midyat district of Diyarbakir province.

Number of victims

In material prepared in 1920 by an Assyrian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference the number of killed during the war was estimated as 250,000. At renewed peace negotiations in Lausanne in 1923 a count of 275,000 was used. Having seen some of the primary lists used by the delegation, I observed that several Assyrian enclaves, that were located inside areas with much larger Armenian majorities, were missing. It is likely that the number of victims is higher as they were slaughtered at the same time and manner as their Armenian neighbors.

Van and Diyarbakir provinces had the highest number of victims with 80,000 and 63,000 killed, respectively. Going to more detailed investigations, the Syrian Orthodox Church specified the killing of 90,313 believers including 154 of its priests and 7 bishops and the destruction of 156 church buildings.[2] The Chaldeans reported the loss of 6 bishops, 50 priests and 50,000 of its faithful.[3] The Nestorians were so decimated and dispersed that they never managed to present any detailed figures.

When World War I came to an end the surviving Assyrians found themselves driven from their homes and forced to live in refugee camps in the southern Caucasus, in Syria and foremost in encampments in northern Iraq. A handful of women and children were kept as slaves in Turkish households. Only a fortunate few remained unharmed in their homes.

The pre-war background

Since the middle of the nineteenth century the dire plight of the Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire had become part of international humanitarian concern. A series of diplomatic conventions aimed to improve their status. Chief among them was the Treaty of Berlin 1878 which bound the Sultan to allowing Christian participation in local government in places where they made up a substantial proportion of the population. But this was not implemented. Foreign consuls, who monitored humanitarian conditions, informed of ceaseless abuses. However, the more the Europeans and Americans tried to help the Christians, the more a fanatic backlash grew, particularly in the backward countryside of Kurdistan. Even the government was irritated over the European concern given the Christian minority and feared it as a step towards carving these areas away from the empire.

World opinion first realized the danger to the Assyrians in the 1840s when Kurdish emirs attacked mountaineers and farmers. European newspapers reported that the number of victims was ten thousand.[4] Funds were collected for their relief. From the 1890s the situation in the Turkish interior deteriorated rapidly into a lawless state. Among the many reasons was the tightening bureaucratic control of the central government, which aimed to break traditional autonomy and which brought about anarchic banditry. Another was the increasing need for nomadic tribes to settle in permanent villages and they had the blessing of the government to seize Christian land. Accompanying this was widespread anti-Christian propaganda, which even permeated the attitude of the authorities. Raids against villages accompanied by forced conversion to Islam became everyday occurrences and the outright seizure of land became routine. Even the most notorious aggressors could hardly ever be brought to justice if the victim was non-Muslim. Several full-blown massacres were directed against the Armenians, but the mobs crying death to the unbelievers would attack Assyrians as well.

The worst pre-war outrages happened in 1894-96 and are called the Hamidiye massacres since the reigning Sultan Abdul Hamid II was believed to have encouraged the rioters behind the scenes. Thereafter he was known as the “Red Sultan” in the foreign press. His government blamed the victims for provoking the violence through their constant appeals for outside intervention. In Diyarbakir city pogroms occurred in November 1895 killing about one thousand Armenians and destroying two thousand of their shops. But the violence also afflicted Assyrians: altogether 173 killed, 89 houses plundered, and 308 shops torched.

Although the Young Turk revolution of 1908 reinstated a constitution that granted non-Muslims political rights, anti-Christian sentiments were so deeply entrenched that they actually intensified in the critical years previous to the world war. In April 1909 in the city and rural district of Adana, a thriving center of cotton production, mobs murdered tens of thousands of Christians. Estimates by contemporaries reckoned with 20,000 deaths, overwhelmingly Armenian, but including 1,272 Assyrians. A member of the National Assembly concluded: “no distinction was made between the Christians. The Syrian Orthodox and the Catholics who do not have any similarity with the language of the Armenians … were killed.” Turkish political hate-speech increasingly fixed on the high-profile radical Armenian movements, which had a revolutionary past, as potential disloyal elements but passed over the Assyrians in silence. The vulgar anti-Christian opinion of the eastern provinces, however, saw no difference. When new identification cards were issued, the registrars only wrote “hiristiyan” (Christian), in the space for religion, thus making it very easy to mix Assyrians in the fate of the Armenians.

From the start of the World War rumors spread that the Christians should expect the worst. The Ottoman army mobilized in early August 1914, but war did not start until the following November. At first some of the Christians were enrolled in front-line units, but soon it became the rule to put the Christians in unarmed labor battalions, serving as bearers, trench-diggers, construction workers under armed guards. Ultimately, most of the soldiers in labor battalions were shot during 1915. Some new recruits fled home and went into hiding after their first taste of army brutality. In the polarized atmosphere Muslims accused the Christians of deserting much more than Muslims. In turn, Christians suspected that they were hit harder by army requisitions and conscription than the Muslims. Throughout there was a strong Muslim belief that all Christians hoped for the victory of the enemy. It is highly likely that a November 1914 declaration of jihad, which called on Muslim soldiers in the British, French and Russian armed forces to mutiny, produced the side effect of endangering Turkey’s Christians. Threats, arrests, assaults and murders of Christians became common. Authorities targeted individual Christians and this became particularly noticeable in early 1915. Searches for deserters led to the lynching of Assyrian draft-dodgers in mid February. In the following months soldiers swept throughout the provinces. In town after town Christians were ordered to deliver up their weapons, even churches and cemeteries were ransacked for hidden guns and bombs. Sometimes manipulated photos of seized weapons were published giving a seeming credence to the rumors of a planned rebellion and increasing the feeling of panic. Almost without exception, Christians who were public employees lost their jobs. Soon Assyrian and Armenian notables were arrested en masse accused of treason. As a rule they would be tortured to confess knowledge of anti-Turkish plots.

By May and June 1915, general massacres of Christians were underway and ordinary Armenians and Assyrians found themselves the focus of public contempt, being attacked for no other reason than their non-Muslim identity. Under the pretense that Assyrians refused to hand over their weapons, this period of individual harassment culminated with attacks by death-squads on villages close to Diyarbakir. Their instigator, Reshid Bey the provincial governor was convinced that the Armenians and Assyrians had rebelled. He motivated the creation of a special militia that witnesses called chete (gangs) because the regular army was away at the front. As a rule, a village would be suddenly encircled, quickly disarmed and the males liquidated, the women and children dispersed. In towns Assyrians could have Muslim friends and sometimes they were warned in advance of planned house searches. In April 1915 Assyrians in Mardin began as a precaution to burn all books and papers in French or Armenian. By late May 1,600 of Diyarbakir city’s Christian notables, not just Armenians, had been imprisoned to stop the purported revolt. They were tortured and then sent away in groups by raft down the Tigris River, where they were murdered at suitable places. Downriver in Mosul, corpses and severed limbs were seen floating past during the second week in June. When the German consul protested to Mosul’s governor, he was informed that Reshid Bey of Diyarbakir alone was responsible. By this time the Istanbul government had issued its first deportation decrees for Armenians (May 27, 1915) but they had not mentioned Diyarbakir since it was far from the front-line. The consul observed that what was happening was a “general massacre” not limited to the war-zone or to Armenians.

The Assyrians call this genocide the year of Seyfo (the Sword). Its details differed from place to place and from church to church. The degree to which an Assyrian subgroup was affected depended on how they reacted to the initial government aggression, how well or badly they were organized, how well or badly they got along with their Muslim neighbors. In most places the killing and ethnic cleansing of Assyrians was nearly total.

The eastern Assyrians

As mentioned, a native Assyrian population lived along both sides of the Turkish-Iranian border. They formed two small churches: the Nestorian and the breakaway Chaldean Catholics. They spoke a distinct dialect and used the same liturgy. With considerable exceptions the Nestorians were strongest in Turkey and Iran, while the Chaldeans were strongest in Iraq.

What happened to the eastern Assyrians can be characterized as a catastrophic full-scale forced government-ordered ethnic cleansing involving extreme loss of life. The motives for the government were political and military - to remove a potentially disloyal group from a strategic border. This came to focus on the Nestorian tribesmen. Economic and religious motives played a secondary role. Marked by precipitous 3,000 meter-high mountains the wild Hakkari area is the poorest and most isolated in Turkey. Assyrians had to leave to work in distant countries. Although calls for religious jihad were used to fire up the local Muslims the brunt of the violence was done by the Ottoman army.

A badly organized church, not even the patriarch knew the size of his flock but guessed a total of 150,000 in 1912. Russian spies were interested in military capacity and had little cause to exaggerate. They reckoned a population of between 100,000 and 135,000. Since the last half of the nineteenth century the Assyrian tribesmen had grown dissatisfied with their conditions: of tradition they were autonomous, but as the Ottomans strove for greater central control this freedom eroded. Through the patriarch they had contacts with British and Russian missionaries. The religious relations led to further political conversations, which came to the ears of the Turkish authorities. On October 26, 1914, on the eve of the declaration of war, Minister of Interior Talaat Pasha ordered the deportation of Assyrians living along the border. He accused them of collaborating with the Russians, and they would be deported hundreds of kilometers into the interior. They were to be dispersed with only a few families in each village in order that their language and culture would disappear and they would end up totally assimilated Turks.

Although the deportation never came to effect, the authorities harassed the Assyrians through arrests and summary executions. Repeated attacks by cavalry provoked a state of guerilla warfare as the Assyrians gradually retaliated. The Assyrians entered the administrative town of Julamerk and discovered official documents indicating the plans for their annihilation. In early May 1915 a defeated Ottoman army retreated across the border through Hakkari after having perpetrated atrocities on the Nestorians and Chaldeans of Iran. The Assyrians then decided on a joint effort with the Russians, who were rushing to relieve the besieged Armenians in near-by Van, to halt the Turkish soldiers. In the short-run this was an effective campaign disrupting the retreat, but in revenge the Turkish soldiers cut down any and all Christians it encountered. Thy left in their trail a bloody slaughter extending as far west as the city of Sairt.

The fate of the Assyrian tribes was sealed by the government decision for a full ethnic cleansing that came as a response. The Minister of Interior decreed drive them out and never “let them return to their homelands.” Fresh troops were brought up and a coordinated three-pronged invasion took place in June 1915. This army had heavy weapons and field guns, while part of the Assyrians fought with flintlock rifles. The Assyrians battled back bitterly, but even when victorious, they lost men and provisions. Encircled, their last resort was to clamber further up the high ridges where there was neither food nor shelter. Help promised by the Russians could not get through. Faced with the specter of certain death for his people, the patriarch decided breakout and head for the Russian lines. By October an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 mountaineers struggled into Russian occupied territory, leaving only a small rear guard. Up to a hundred thousand Assyrians were unaccounted for. The Hakkari district was from that moment on ethnically cleansed of Christians including destruction of houses, churches and crops. The refugees settled in tent camps in the open and many died of exposure during the winter.

Outside of a few places in Iran, where they shared the fate of their Nestorian neighbors, most of the Chaldeans lived in the Arabic speaking provinces and were safe from much of the physical damage. A series of Ottoman provincial governors decreed against attacks on Christians in the province of Mosul. This in itself shows geographic planning – that Armenians and Assyrians would be driven out of the envisioned Turkish homeland in Anatolia, but survivors gained refuge in Arab territory. Unfortunately, 40,000 Chaldeans lived in enclaves in Anatolia and on Iran’s side of the border and felt the full brunt of ethnic and religious hostility.

Inside Turkey the Armenians were portrayed in the eyes of the government as a treasonous fifth column cohorting with the enemy. But this was hardly a reasonable motive for massacring non-combatant Assyrians in neutral Iran. The first to be massacred were males living in Salmas district. This was a crossroad where the Turkish and Russian armies fought many battles. Perhaps equally important, the Ottomans hoped to annex this district and thus treated it as if it was already theirs, making “facts on the ground.” Another reason was that Chaldean Catholics had close relations with France through missionaries. For a few months an Ottoman army commanded by Jevdet Bey (brother-in-law of war minister Enver) made its headquarters there. Pretending they needed to be registered, more than eight hundred local Armenian and Assyrian men were gathered in February 1915. During the next days most of them were beheaded and their bodies thrown into wells. After the Turkish retreat Iranian authorities found the corpses. This was an early indication of a general intention to annihilate Christians. News of this and other atrocities spread rapidly to the international press. In May came a strongly worded condemnation from British, French and Russians to hold “all members of the Turkish government … together with its agents implicated in the massacres” responsible for these crimes against “humanity and civilization”.[5]

In the administrative capital of Urmia 3,700 Assyrians had found asylum in a French mission complex. In mid February 1915 Turkish troops entered the mission and captured sixty males. Among them were many priests and a bishop. Soon afterwards three were hanged in public and forty-eight were shot while the bishop was held for a huge ransom. “We saw numbers of Muslims who made a spectacle of the place of execution,” recorded a nun. In addition to outright executions, more than 600 refugees died of disease and starvation.

The main Chaldean settlements in Turkey were in a region known as Bohtan with an important bishopric in the town of Sairt. The Chaldeans here were massacred in early June 1915 on the orders of above-mentioned Jevdet Bey. A Kurdish chief hid bishop Addai Sher who was an internationally known scholar. But after a few days he was found and both he and the Kurdish chief were shot. Sairt’s other Christians were slaughtered and their corpses littered the countryside. A Venezuelan mercenary witnessed an “atrocious spectacle afforded by a hill beside the highway. The ghastly slope was crowned by thousands of half-nude and still bleeding corpses, lying in heaps, or interlaced in death’s final embrace… Overcome by the hideous spectacle, and jumping our horses over the mountains of cadavers, which obstructed our passage, I entered Sairt with my men. There we found the police and the populace engaged in sacking the houses of the Christians. At the seraglio I met various sub-governors of the province, assembled in council under the chief of the local gendarmes, Nasim Effendi, who had directed the massacre in person. From their talk I realized at once that the thing had been arranged the day before by Jevdet Bey.” Those who managed to survive the massacre were death-marched out in a column that was repeatedly plundered by the guards and attacked by Kurdish tribes.

The destruction of the Chaldean community in Anatolia was near complete. The planned nature of the genocide is clear since south of the Mosul province border, attacks on Christian villages were prohibited. This meant that the core of the Chaldean Church in present-day Iraq remained intact, while its northern dioceses were obliterated.

During the war many newspaper articles, brochures, books, lectures and benefit-rallies made the world aware of the suffering of the eastern Assyrians. When the Americans began to organize relief work the major association was the Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief and it had a subsidiary named the Assyrian Relief Fund. It later changed its name to the Near East Relief. The reason for this awareness of Assyrian suffering was a flow of information from missionaries and diplomats stationed in Iran who interviewed refugees streaming over the border or who observed the repression of the Ottoman occupation army.

The western Assyrians

In contrast to the eastern Assyrians, what happened to the westerners was totally hidden from the eyes of the world. Here the few missionaries still active were subject to stringent censorship. Very few refugees came from this region. No German or American consuls were stationed in the western Assyrian regions. Therefore most information about the genocide was assembled after the war was over through interviews with survivors.

The genocide of the western Assyrians took the form of provincially organized campaigns initiated behind the scenes of the Armenian deportations, and without the full knowledge of the central government. In order to keep the campaign secret the Assyrians would normally be massacred outright rather than being marched away like the Armenians. The motive for the annihilation here is not as obviously political or military as was the case of the eastern Assyrians. The western Assyrians were badly disorganized and had no political movements. As a tiny minority, they did not demand autonomy and had weak foreign contacts. The military need was non-existant as their settlements were far from the frontline. Instead, religious and economic regards motivated the genocide. Most western Assyrians were farmers and lived in large villages with decent farmland long coveted by their Muslim neighbors, some of whom still lived the life of nomads. When thinking of grabbing land and getting plunder, local politicians and nomad chiefs saw little reason to distinguish them from the Armenians, who were actually quite rare in the Assyrian homelands. They inflamed religious fanatics to spur Kurdish tribesmen, who became the main aggressors. On occasion, the ministry of interior would make a show for foreign diplomats to stop to the massacres against the non-Armenian Christians, but as a rule such orders arrived after a long delay when the damage had already been done. Because the campaign against the western Assyrians was not part of the central government’s policy, but rather a popular initiative, it places itself somewhere in a grey-zone between genocide and full-scale mass-murder. Still, even when the central government made its show to intervene in favor of non-Armenian Christians, it did not replace the responsible provincial administrators and politicians who learned to carry on in even greater secrecy. Sometimes they would simply lie and say they needed to attack “Armenian villages” or crush “rebels”. In the end only the city-dwelling Assyrians stood a chance while the countryside was reduced to rubble.

Most western Assyrians belonged to the Syrian Orthodox (also known as the Jacobite) Church. The core of this religion was solidly within Diyarbakir province. There was almost compact Christian settlement in the farm villages around the towns of Midyat, Nusaybin and Cizre, collectively called Turabdin. The patriarch never published any statistics over the size of his flock. Contemporary estimates point to a figure of between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. There were isolated enclaves mixed with Armenians outside the Assyrian homelands, foremost in Harput. One reason for the inability of the patriarch to give statistics was that his church was falling apart. A major cause was communication difficulties. The patriarchs resided in Mardin and spoke, like everyone there, Arabic. But most of his flock in the Turabdin retained a distinct western Assyrian vernacular, while others further distant adopted Armenian or even Kurdish language. The Turabdin diocese was in blatant confrontation demanding autonomy from the mother church. During the genocide the church leadership appears to have saved the Arabic speakers by collaborating with the Turkish authorities, but to have sacrificed the rebellious districts.

By late May 1915 fleeing Armenians had informed the Assyrians about the ongoing mass-violence in the north. The major slaughter of the Assyrian villages started in June 1915 and continued through early September. The provincial governor conspired with outlaws to attack rural villages. The Rama tribe, notorious bandits, was given a pardon in order to participate in the sacking of Assyrian villages along the Tigris River and cut down the Armenian prisoners sent on rafts down the river. In Mardin arrests of Christian notables in early June included both Armenian and Assyrian leaders from all denominations. To the surprise of the captives, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch managed to bribe the police into releasing just his parishioners, but ominously no others. Thereafter on the night of June 10 about 400 Armenian and Assyrian Catholics and Protestants were marched out and killed. Upon news of the mass-execution the Sultan decreed that all non-Armenians must be freed and after considerable delay this did happen in a few towns. However, this “Sultan’s pardon” met with limited respect and a large number of Assyrians were killed as soon as the prime goal of liquidating the Armenians had been reached, which was in early August.

Midyat was the only town with an Assyrian majority and the people lived in panic after witnessing the murdering and burning of the neighboring villages. However, when they asked the local governor what was in store for them, he replied that they need not worry as the government was only arresting Armenians. The sole Assyrian group admitted to be at risk was the Protestant since they were assumed to have foreign contacts through missionaries. In this tense atmosphere more than one hundred males from the Protestant community were arrested and executed in late June, while the other Assyrians acted as bystanders. The background to this breakdown of solidarity is very uncertain. Some say that the Syrian Orthodox quarreled with the Protestants because the latter would not supply guns. Others say that they were sacrificed in hope that the authorities would spare everyone else. Far from feeling secure, the remaining Assyrians soon realized that they would be attacked as large numbers of hostile tribes gathered. They decided on a preventive strike, seizing arms and ammunition. Troops were sent to crush the revolt. Fighting went on for about a week until the Assyrians had been routed. The events of Midyat have enabled Turkish historians to interpret the meager defense as a rebellion, thus justifying the full severity of its repression by the Ottoman authorities.[6]

The rural Assyrian villages were subjected to massacres from the early summer of 1915. Normally tribesmen and death-squads made up of townsmen surrounded the villages and fired on them when the people were harvesting. There was never an order of deportation, but rather shooting began direct. Usually the entire village was wiped out. Although a few youths might make it to another village, those who had families to protect would remain and be slaughtered. The countryside was strewn with corpses, and wells, ravines, ponds and pits overflowed with the dead. In some cases Kurdish landlords succeeded to convey their Assyrian peasants to the Arab provinces. A number of Assyrian villages actually withstood the attacks and two managed to hold out until an armistice was declared in November 1915. Azakh village even resisted units from the Ottoman army equipped with machine guns and canons. The provincial government called it a rebel “Armenian” village and thereby succeeded to divert an elite detachment to stage the siege and the minister of war ordered the rebels “suppressed immediately and with the utmost severity”. Amazingly the defenders held out and after a month the army pulled back to wait for a more opportune moment.

Although destruction was widespread, the anti-Assyrian measures had to be done in some secrecy while the anti-Armenian activities were committed in the open. Thus there was a greater chance for Assyrians to survive than for Armenians, particularly if they lived in the towns. A French Dominican monk who was held in house arrest in Mardin became witness to the destruction of the Christians. He attempted to calculate population loss for the Mardin district which was the southernmost part of Diyarbakir province. He reckoned that the Syrian Orthodox lost 29,725 out of an original population of 51,725, comprising 57 percent. The Chaledeans lost 6,800 or 86 percent and the Syrian Catholics lost 18 percent. In contrast the Armenian loss amounted to 97 percent.[7]

Interpretations of the genocide

The Assyrians were a dysfunctional array of small Christian communities split into several rival subgroups with no common aspirations for anything but freedom from harassment. But once World War I began they were up against overwhelming odds as the Ottoman state cynically used religion to enthuse its Muslim citizenry to support total war. This resulted in the demonization of non-Muslims, particularly the already vulnerable Armenian and Assyrian minorities. The Ottoman political leaders fixed their eyes on the Armenians, but in the mind of the Muslim man-in-the-street this broadened into hostility toward the Assyrians in places where there were few or no Armenians in southeastern parts of Diyarbakir province.

The instigators of the systematic killing were among Turkey’s highest political leaders. The minister of interior, Talaat, issued the deportation order of October 1914 against the Nestorians and ordered the ethnic destruction of Hakkari in June 1915. The organizer of massacres in Iran and in the towns of Sairt and Bitlis was Jevdet Bey, the governor of Van and brother-in-law of the minister of war. And he was also responsible for the bombardment of the Armenian quarters in Van. He used troops under the command of General Halil Bey, the uncle of the minister of war. The provincial governor of Diyarbakir, a former military doctor who considered Christians bacteria, was particularly noted for his blood-thirst. All of these personalities belonged to the same political group, the Committee for Union and Progress.

Many of those who perpetrated the murders were soldiers in the regular army or gendarmerie, or members of the reserve cavalry recruited from Kurdish tribes. In Diyarbakir special death-squads had uniforms and government-issue rifles. Only when they felt the need for large numbers were Kurdish tribes, inflamed by hate-speech, mobilized.

After the world war was over the eastern Assyrians, naming themselves Assyro-Chaldeans, argued that they had been brutally victimized and lobbied for an independent country. Assyrian claims for their own state rested also on the principle of national self-determination, but unlike the Armenians they found no sponsors among the victorious powers. They attempted to place a moral obligation on Britain to reward them for joining the war on the allied side in order to aid the British army in the war’s final year. As one writer put it the Nestorians were Britain’s smallest ally, but they had no documentary proof.[8]

The claim that the Assyrians declared war on the Ottomans is also one of the main arguments that Turkish denialist historians utilize to dismiss the claim that it was genocide. Historian Sonyel makes a great deal of the unsuccessful Assyrian resistance to justify their ethnic cleansing and eradication. He states that the Assyrians were duped by false promises of independence into joining the war. Thus they ended up betrayed by the western powers and having eternally offended Turkey.[9] Recently the Turkish Historical Society established an Assyrian section. Its first publication also blames the victims and echoes the theme of Assyrian treason.[10] However, the circumstance that a targeted population mounts a meager defense does not mean that their enemy has the right to resort to collective punishment and eradicates the entire non-combatant population or to make a full ethnic cleansing. Most genocide takes place in the shadow of war, sometimes in near civil-war conditions, and the Assyrian case is no exception.

Since the Turkish historians are fixed on the issue, it is necessary to describe the circumstances in which the Assyrians took part in the war. The Russians approached the Iranian Assyrians a few months before the war. They started to form self-defense units in border villages and they received training and some surplus rifles. Spies informed the Ottomans who issued their deportation decree of October 1914 accusing the Turkish Assyrians of being the instruments of the enemy. When the Ottomans staged their massive military thrust in the Hakkari Mountains in June 1915 it was preceded by the Assyrian attack on Turkish troops, who were regrouping nearby in the face of a Russian offensive.

It has thus been maintained that the Assyrians tribes “declared war” on the Ottoman Empire in May 1915, when it united with an advancing Russian brigade. However, no text of such a document has been found. No such declaration is mentioned in military histories, and there was no mention in publications printed during the war years, so an actual declaration probably is a myth or after-construction. Russian historians point to a growing desire, starting years before the war, from the Assyrians for Russian help with weapons for self-defense against immanent, and later realized Ottoman aggression.

Nevertheless, without a formal declaration of war, after the ethnic cleansing of Hakkari the Assyrian volunteers enrolled in regiments alongside Russian forces and fought many battles. Among their generals was the Nestorian patriarch’s brother. The cooperation with the Russians continued up to the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 but ended when Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with Turkey the following March. From this time on the Assyrian regiments remained alone in Northwest Iran equipped with abandoned Russian arms, ammunition and provisions. Strategically they stood between the Turkish army and the important oilfields of Baku.

At this moment encouragement came from British and French military who sent missions to see to it that the Assyrians keep on fighting, foremost to pave the way for the British army rushing to reach Baku before it fell into Turkish hands. Assyrian sources name a promise given at New Year 1918 by a British intelligence officer, that they would get their own country in return for aiding the British. Unfortunately for the Assyrians there was no formal letter from British government representatives granting them a state in return for an alliance, as was the case with the Sherif of Mecca in return for Arab participation. Thus it was possible to later deny that any promise had ever been given. The best that the Assyrians could summon up in the way of evidence were affidavits from French and Russian military and diplomats who witnessed the meetings.[11]

The politics of Assyrian genocide

One of the first tasks of the Assyrians after the war was to make a claim for self-determination along the principles of Woodrow Wilson. A first reaction asserted: “No nation in modern history has suffered as much as our nation. We have endured our massacres silently. The horrors … infinitely surpass those of Armenia. Often at the expense of the Assyrian atrocities the Armenians have received the sympathy of the European nations.”[12] This quote is symptomatic for how Assyrian activists in their eagerness for recognition positioned themselves against the Armenians. Exiles in the Caucasus echoed the same complaint: “we have suffered and suffered more than others, we should also be considered entitled to recognition and realization of our ideals. A nation that has fought and fought well; a nation that has given hundreds of thousands for the cause of the allies and its own freedom, it would be the very height of injustice not to receive the rights to which she is justly entitled. Every sacrifice has a reward, and the sacrifices of the Assyrians cannot be justly rewarded with anything short of their freedom.”[13] A sense of hurt can be felt in the complaint “The Assyrian atrocities have erroneously been listed under the name of Armenia. The Assyrian gallantry on battlefield, amazing as it has been to the French, Russian and British officers who have witnessed it, has been attributed to the valor of the Armenians.” [14] Although misguided and inappropriate, the Assyrians began national-political activity inspired by the spirit of self-determination, but accompanied by an acute sense of victimization.

The feeling of international neglect did have some basis in fact. For instance the voluminous report of Lord Bryce and Arnold Toynbee to the British Parliament devoted a hundred pages to the Assyrians, but this was fully obscured by the title given it “The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire”. Some of the earliest massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman army were on a mixed assembly of Assyrians and Armenians in northwest Iran. News about the early atrocities played an important part in the allied threat to prosecute the Turkish government for crimes against humanity and civilization. However, after this first burst of attention paid to the suffering of Assyrians, the amount of newspaper coverage declined as the killing stopped in Iran only to continue more intensely in Turkey’s dark interior thus disappearing from sight. Much of the international newspaper coverage was dependant on letters from eyewitnesses, and the Turks enforced strict censorship. The Armenians did have their own news centers in European countries and could give a steady flow of information, but the Assyrians lacked communication channels and depended on foreign mission organizations. Lack of accessible documents delayed the start of historical research, and even that suffers from partial coverage of events inside Anatolia.

A common problem of the Assyrian churches is the chronic disputed legitimacy of their leadership, which expresses itself in vicious quarrels, splits and local fragmentation. Up until 1882 the Syrian Orthodox was considered by the Sultan to be part of the Armenian “millet” and it had to make its views known through the Armenian Patriarch in Constantinople. Despite, or perhaps because of, its newly won autonomy, the Syrian Orthodox Church was in great disarray in the pre-war decades. There was constant bickering over appointments as bribery proved the best was to gain office. Of tradition, the strongest eastern Assyrian ruler was the joint religious and secular head of the Nestorians, who as a rule inherited the position from his uncle. But even his status was challenged by dynastic quarrels leading to conversion to Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy. On the eve of the Turkish invasion dynastic conflict led to the inexplicable assassination of the patriarch’s cousin the ruler of the large Jilu tribe, thus alienating them. In Urmia, probably the region’s most economically advanced city, the Assyrians insisted on selecting four separate community leaders – one each for the Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, and Nestorians. Efforts to select a single representative failed.[15]

Politically the Assyrians were split. Assyrians in Iran had close experience of the constitutional struggle and its conflicting political ideologies, some inspired by the oil-workers of Baku. Since Iran was more open to missionary activity than Turkey. They also had access to schools and colleges, many attended university in Europe or America, they had a number of newspapers and printing presses and were on the whole the most intellectually advanced of all Assyrians. In contrast, few inside Turkey had more than rudimentary education and they had little political experience. No intellectuals inside Turkey portrayed themselves as Assyrian nationalists, but rather they praised a form of Ottoman cosmopolitanism.[16]

Within a few days of the armistice ending World War I, the governments of France, Great Britain and the United States were on the receiving end of schemes from Assyrian associations pleading for their own independent country. Territorial claims covered areas in Ottoman Turkey and Iran. This included a region bordered on the west by the Euphrates River, in the north by the Murad Su River and thereafter following a line south of Lake Van to Lake Urmia, in the east from Lake Urmia and then following the Turkish-Persian border, in the south extending from the border over Tikrit to the Euphrates. The area designated included the important cities of Diyarbakir, Urfa, Mardin, Nisibin, Midyat, and Sairt inside Turkey; Urmia and Salmas inside Persia; Mosul, Kirkuk, Arbil, Suleimaniya, and Tikrit inside Iraq; plus a large chunk of Syria. An even larger claim was made on a map on the cover of the American monthly The New Assyria and it encompassed an enormous region extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, including Syria and Lebanon,[17] Most of the land had been inside the defeated Ottoman Empire, but Urmia and Salmas were in Iran, a state which had, although not very successfully, maintained its neutrality throughout the war. Arguing for the enormous territory, the delegates asserted that many of the Kurdish and Arabic groups living there originally had been Assyrians and thus there was a “racial” and “historical” bond.

Several separate groups traveled to Paris in 1919 to present the Assyrian claims at the Peace Conference. Their common aim was return to their homelands, get restitution for economic loses, form an independent state in northern Mesopotamia, or at the least an autonomous zone under British protection. They were to get none of this, and since the Assyrians were not given a chance to plead their case before the conference and were limited to private lobbying, which became more and more desperate. General works on the peace conference pass over the Assyrians in silence.

The reasons for this diplomatic failure are extremely intricate, but all indicated, that the Assyrians would not get their independent state or even a small autonomous province. The international situation after thearmistice was shaky and the victorious powers had already promised much of the defeated empire to the Italians, French, Greeks and Arabs. Although making a good argument on moral grounds, the Assyrians still gave a very disparate impression, in the end they could not argue in unison. Throughout the better-educated eastern Assyrians had taken the political lead. The Nestorians had longstanding channels to the Anglican Church, while the Chaldeans had close relations with France. But there was a fatal geopolitical flaw. Since Iran had been officially neutral it was not one of the victors and it was not a defeated country. It was not even present at the peace conference. Even though the Ottoman army had committed atrocities against Christians there during its occupation, the high-pitched Assyrian demand for territorial compensation from Iran could not be presented at the conference. Thus the Iranian Assyrians, the most politically and intellectually advanced had the bitter experience of being rejected on formal grounds by the only available international forum.

Making matters worse, the leadership of the Syrian Orthodox Church soon turned its back on the idea of an independent Assyria and began to make noises in favor of continued Ottoman sovereignty, even to the extent of denying the extent of the mass violence. An American aid worker read in an Istanbul newspaper an interview in which the patriarch stated that he had no complaint against the Turkish government and preferred it to any other.[18] A British intelligence officer inspecting Kurdistan, and who had already collected statistics on the genocide from local priests, had the strange experience of listening to the patriarch say that his community had been spared. What lurks behind these counterfactual statements is a mystery since the church had made its own investigation revealing catastrophic damage and 90,000 deaths. The dispute may date from when the patriarch used bribes to get his faithful out of Mardin prison, leaving the other Assyrians to a certain death. Naturally, this caused bad blood, and it forced more collaboration between the church leadership and the Turkish authorities.

Whatever the reason, the denial of the massacres by the patriarch quite naturally made it difficult to study or discuss the matter. The result was a long delay before the details of what happened to the Syrian Orthodox (in contrast to the openness of the Nestorian and Chaldean Assyrians) came to light and the first books were printed late in the twentieth century. The first was a documentary of oral history related by survivors living in Syria in the 1960s, the second a manuscript chronicle written by a monk during the war but never published until 1997.[19] Even to this day there are fierce controversies between church leaders, who desire to play down the massacres, and the parishioners who press for more open discussion.


[1] Unless otherwise noted the material here is taken from David Gaunt, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press 2006).

[2] Memorandum presented by Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Syria Severius A. Barsaum on April 2, 1920 printed in Sébastien de Courtois,. The Forgotten Genocide. Eastern Christians, The Last Arameans. (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press 2004), 237-239.

[3] Emmanuel Thomas to Pope Benoit V July 6, 1919 Vatican Arcives, Archivo Segreto, AA.EE.SS. 1919 rubr. 12 fasc.1.

[4] See Times( London): ”Massacre of the Nestorian Christians,” September 6, 1843; “Nestorian Christians – Kurdistan,” January 5, 1844; “The Nestorian Christians – Urmia,” January 29, 1845.

[5] The New York Times front page May 24, 1915.

[6] Israfil Kurtcephe, ”Birinci dünya savaşinda bir süryani ayaklanmasi.“ [An Assyrian Revolt in the First World War] Osmanli Tarihi Arastirma ve Uygulama Merkezi Dergisi 1:4 (1993): 290-305.

[7] Rhétoré, Jacques, “Les Chrétiens aux bêtes » Souvenirs de la guerre sainte proclamée par les Turcs contre les chrétiens en 1915. Étude et présentation du document par Joseph Alichoran (Paris: Cerf 2005) 136-138.

[8] W. A. Wigram, Our smallest Ally. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: London 1920).

[9] Salahi Sonyel, The Assyrians of Turkey. Victims of Major Power Policy. (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu 2001).

[10] Bülent Özdemir, Süryanilerin dünü bugünü: 1. Dünya Savaşı’da Süryaniler (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu yayınları 2008) [The Syrians Past and Present: Syrians in the First World War].

[11] Anonymous, The Assyrian Tragedy (February 1934). It is generally believed that the author was the patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII.

[12] Assyrian National Associations of America “The Assyrian Thanksgiving Day”, Izgedda. Persian American Courier November 6, 1918.

[13] Letter to the editor from Fraydoon Atooraya, president of the National Assyrian Central Council in the Republic of Georgia, Tblisi March 22, 1920, Assyrian American Courier May 26, 1920.

[14] “The Claim of the Assyrians”, Izgedda. Persian American Courier November 13, 1918.

[15] Eden Naby, “The Assyrians of Persia: Reunification of a ‘Millat’ 1906-1914”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol 8, No. 2 (1977), 237-249.

[16] Benjamin Trigona-Harany, Naum Faik and Aşur Yusuf. M. A. thesis Boğaziçi university, Istanbul 2008.

[17] Cover of The New Assyria February 15, 1918.

[18] Mary Caroline Holmes, Between the Lines in Asia Minor (New York: Fleming Revell 1923).

[19] Süleyman Hinno, Gunhe d Suryoye d Turabdin. [The Massacre of the Assyrians of Turabdin] (Glane-Losser: Bar Hebräus Verlag 1987); Abed Mschiho Na’man Qarabash, Dmo Zliho.Gunhe w sharbe mshihoye d shato 1915-18 [Spilled Blood. The Massacre and Suffering of the Christians in the years 1915-18] (Jönköping, Sweden: Ashurbanipal bokförlag 1997).

Bibliography:

Bryce, James and Arnold Toynbee (compilers), The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916. Uncensored edition. (Princeton: Gomidas Institute 2000, originally 1916).

de Courtois, Sébastien, The Forgotten Genocide. Eastern Christians, The Last Arameans. (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press 2004),

Gaunt, David, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press 2006).

Naayem, Joseph, Les Assyro-Chaldéens et les arméniens massacres par les Turcs. Documents inédits recueillis par un témoin oculaire. (Paris : Bloud et Guy 1920).

Rhétoré, Jacques, “Les Chrétiens aux bêtes » Souvenirs de la guerre sainte proclamée par les Turcs contre les chrétiens en 1915. (Paris: Cerf 2005)

Shabaz, Yonan, The Rage of Islam : An Account of the Massacre of Christians by Turks in Persia (Philadelphia : Judson Press 1918).

Werda, Joel E., The Flickering Light of Asia or the Assyrian Nation and Church (New York : author 1924).



History ForumHistory Forum

1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History


Do you have any related information or suggestions? Please email them.

AIM | Atour: The State of Assyria | Terms of Service