The mass killing of Ottoman Armenians is today widely recognized, both within and outside scholarly circles, as an act of genocide. What is less well known, however, is that it took place within a broader context of Ottoman violence against minority groups during and after the First World War. Among those populations decimated were the indigenous Christian Assyrians (also known as Syriacs or Chaldeans) who lived in the borderlands of present-day Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. This volume is the first scholarly edited collection focused on the Assyrian genocide, or “Sayfo” (literally, “sword” in Aramaic), presenting historical, psychological, anthropological, and political perspectives that shed much-needed light on a neglected historical atrocity.
Contextualizing the Sayfo in the First World War
David Gaunt, Naures Atto and Soner O. Barthoma
“We should not let them return to their homelands”
— From a telegram of Talaat
to the governors of Mosul and Van provinces,
30 June, 1915.
This book focuses on a little-known genocide
of the Assyrian peoples
that took place at the same time as the well-known Armenian genocide
during the First World War. The sorrow and loss caused by the killing
and displacement of ancestors has been a painful memory for the
Assyrians ever since. But the memory of the massacres, deportations
and expulsions of the Assyrians has long been confined inside families
and religious communities, only seldom told to outsiders. As with the
Armenian genocide, the official stance of Turkey has been to deny that
anything near a genocide ever befell the Assyrians. Representatives
of the various traditionally Syriac-speaking Christian minorities, here
referred to collectively by the cross-denominational name ‘Assyrians’,
estimated that 250,000 of their number perished between 1914 and
1918. The population had been reduced to half its original size (Namik
and Nedjib 1919). Before 1914 the Assyrians lived in a wide region in
what is now south-east Turkey, north-western Iran and the northern
parts of Syria and Iraq. Academic source-based research on their fate
has only recently started (de Courtois 2004; Gaunt 2006; Hellot-Bellier
2014). Fortunately, it is becoming integrated into the overall history of
the Armenian genocide and in that way is increasingly recognized as a
genocide in its own right (Suny, Göçek and Naimark 2011; Kaiser 2014;
Kévorkian and Ternon 2014; Suny 2015; De Waal 2015). But there are
still many aspects that need further investigation.
The genocide during the First World War did not come without warning.
For decades the Assyrian peoples had been the victims of increasing
violence and dispossession, to which the Ottoman governments were constant
bystanders. Much of this violence had a colonial aspect, that is, to
seize land and property, but other aspects were religious, that is, forced
conversion to Islam or death; another aspect that came late into the overall
picture was political, to create a homogeneous Turkish national identity
by destroying those peoples and cultures that were considered impossible
to assimilate. Although the motives varied, the long chain of massacres
kept a feeling of vulnerability alive. When the genocide began, it was
preceded by posters spreading jihad propaganda among the local Muslim
population, in the manner of an announcement (Hellot-Bellier 2014).
The first instance of mass violence that specifically targeted Assyrians
in the nineteenth century was in the 1840s, when the Kurdish emir of
Bohtan, Badr Khan, invaded the Hakkari mountains twice and attacked
the Assyrian tribes. According to European newspapers, tens of thousands
were murdered. Further mass violence followed in the 1870s
and in the so-called Hamidiye massacres of the 1890s. In most parts of
south-eastern Anatolia, when Armenians were attacked, their Assyrian
neighbours suffered the same brutality.
Massacres and ethnic cleansing in Anatolia proceeded in a manner
that makes it difficult to generalize (Gaunt 2015a). Basically, the events
reflected territorial and religious divisions among the Assyrians, thus
shaping three very different patterns. One pattern, that of ethnic cleansing,
refers to the Hakkari mountain area populated by people belonging
to the Church of the East (formerly also known as Nestorians); the
second pattern is that of imperialist invasion and concerns the district
of Urmia, a part of north-western Iran populated both by members of
the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church; and the third is that
of the systematic attacks on towns and villages in the neighbourhood of
the province of Diyarbakir (also spelled Diyarbekir) populated mostly by
Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic believers. Details of these events
will be presented later in this introduction.
In a nutshell, the official Ottoman government’s deportations and
massacres of Assyrians started on 26 October 1914.1
Through a ciphered
telegram, Minister of the Interior Talaat ordered the deportation of
Assyrians living along the border with Iran. They were to be sent inwards
to central Anatolia and dispersed so that only a few would be living in
any particular village. This order was never implemented because war
with Russia broke out a few days later. Instead, irregular Kurdish cavalry
perpetrated massacres intended to cause the population to flee. From
this starting point, attacks on Assyrians spread eastwards into Iran and
westwards into the provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Harput and Aleppo.
Ottoman troops, irregular Kurdish cavalry, pardoned criminals, local
jihadists and specially formed death squads were the prime perpetrators.
In all territories the Assyrians tried to mount armed resistance and in
a few cases were successful. The houses and other property of the victims
were confiscated by the state and redistributed to Muslim refugees.
The bulk of the government-sponsored killing ceased with an order by
Interior Minister Talaat to stop the hostility against the Assyrians (but
not the Armenians) on 25 December 1915.2
After that date, Assyrians
were still being attacked but on an individual basis and without the commitment
of government resources. The war ended in November 1918
and some of those Assyrians who had survived tried to return to their
homes. When the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, a new
wave of state violence was directed against the Assyrians remaining in
Turkey. Those trying to revive their villages in Hakkari were driven out
by a large military operation. The Syriac Orthodox patriarch was sent
into exile and members of his church living in the town of Urfa were
deported in 1924. Only a tiny enclave of Assyrians remained in the tiny
south-eastern district of Midyat (also known as Tur Abdin).
Most of the killings and deportations had a local background. The
case of the Assyrian mountaineers of Hakkari differs greatly from
the story of the Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans. The Assyrian tribes of
the Hakkari mountains had an autonomous legal position under the traditional
secular-religious leader Patriarch Mar Shimun, who combined
both religious and secular tasks in his leadership. The Ottomans called
these people Nasturi (Nestorians). These Assyrians lived on both sides
of the Turkish-Iranian border and this position was becoming increasingly
precarious. Russia and Turkey both had ambitions in Iran and
this conflict affected all of the many different ethnic groups living in the
border zone, primarily Sunni and Shia Kurds, Turkish-speaking Azeris,
Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Jews. The Assyrian tribes on the
Turkish side of the border were isolated, living in small villages in alpine
terrain. By the end of the nineteenth century, they were in contact with
Russian diplomats, military and religious figures, who promised them
protection (Lazarev 1964). In all fairness, the Ottomans also sought
to woo the Assyrians but had less success as siding with Russia gave
the Assyrians hope of greater autonomy. Even the British government
had contact with the Assyrians through its consular officer in Van who,
under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, was to monitor the
human rights of the Christian minorities, and the Anglican Church
established a mission (Coakley 1992). As the war loomed, Russian influence
increased and some Assyrian communities joined the Russian
Orthodox Church. Inter-ethnic clan conflicts undermined the unity of
the Assyrians. Before the outbreak of the First World War, the Russians
intensified their contact, but the Ottomans had efficient spies and knew
of the communications. Obviously worried, on 12 July 1914, Minister
of the Interior Talaat Pasha telegraphed the provincial government of
Mosul and ordered a report on the ‘Nestorians’ – how many they were,
where they were settled, what their political orientation was and what
steps the provincial governor considered appropriate.3
After weeks of border skirmishes along the Iranian border, the
Ottoman Empire commenced formal hostilities with the Russian Empire
in November 1914. Although Iran declared neutrality, the Ottoman military
plans included a violation of Iranian territory in order to encircle
the Russians and seize the oilfields at Baku. This manoeuvre involved
the invasion of the north-western border district of Urmia, which had
a large number of Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean settlements.
On the eve of war, as an important matter of security, Minister of the
Interior Talaat Pasha sent a decree to the province of Van to deport the
Assyrians from the Ottoman side of the border. His order of 26 October
The position of the Nestorians has always remained dubious in the eyes of
the government on account of their predisposition to be influenced by foreigners
and to act as a channel and an instrument for them. Because of the
operation and efforts in Iran, the importance of the Nestorians to the government
has increased. Especially those who are found at our border area
with Iran, because of the government’s lack of trust . . . [they will be punished
by their] deportation and expulsion from their locations to appropriate such
provinces as Ankara and Konya, to be transferred in a dispersed fashion so
that henceforth they will not be together en masse and be settled exclusively
among Muslim people, and in no location to exceed twenty dwellings.4
The Assyrians resisted deportation, and confrontations with civil and
military authorities continued throughout the autumn and winter of
1914–15. Massacres of villagers were carried out as an instrument to
terrify the population into fleeing across the border into the part of Iran
occupied by Russia. Some of the leaders responded by activating the
provisions of their agreement with the Russians for mutual help. On
the Iranian side of the border, the Russians organized an Assyrian self-defence
militia, armed with army-surplus rifles, and gave them some
training (Matveev and Mar-Yukhanna 1968; Genis 2003). The Christian
militias existed up to New Year’s Day 1915, when a makeshift Ottoman
army under the provincial governor of Van, Jevdet Bey, rushed into the
Urmia district to fill a vacuum of power as the Russians pulled back their
troops to face an offensive in the southern Caucasus. The Ottomans
occupied the district until May 1915. During the occupation, numerous
atrocities were committed against those Armenians, Assyrians and
Chaldeans who had not managed to flee. Returning Russian soldiers discovered
a huge massacre of 707 Armenian and Assyrian civilian males in
the village of Haftevan (near Salamas) when they arrived on 10 March
1915. Reports of similar atrocities in this and other places came from
American and French missionaries who had remained in Iran to care
for refugees seeking asylum in mission complexes (Toynbee and Bryce
2000). The Iranian government also informed foreign embassies of the
atrocities (Empire de Perse 1919). Alarmed by these reports, the governments
of Great Britain, France and Russia issued a joint statement
published in major newspapers such as the New York Times and the
London-based Times on 24 May 1915 declaring that in consideration
of the Ottoman ‘crimes against humanity and civilization . . . all members
of the Turkish government . . . together with its agents implicated
in the massacres’ will be held personally responsible and punished
(Gaunt 2006). This warning was proclaimed on 24 May, just at the official
start of the anti-Armenian deportations inside Turkey, and had no
effect there. Inside Iran, the Russian army, led by Russian-Armenian
generals and supported by local Armenian and Assyrian volunteers,
defeated troops under General Halil, who retreated into the Hakkari
mountains. The defeated Ottoman army withdrew deep into Turkish
territory, destroying whatever Christian communities they happened to
come into contact with, most notoriously slaughtering the Armenian
and Chaldean populations of the towns of Bashkala, Siirt and Bitlis.
A Venezuelan mercenary in Ottoman service witnessed these events
(Nogales 1926). It has to be said that the victorious army manned by
Armenian and Assyrian volunteers was no better disciplined than the
Ottoman, and it took revenge by pillaging Muslim villages, slaughtering
the men and raping their women. The Russian civil authorities constantly
complained about the atrocities committed by these soldiers and
their allies during punitive raids (Holquist 2013: 347–348).
The most important assistance given to the Russians was during the
Turkish bombardment of the Armenian quarters in the town of Van,
which began on 20 April 1915. Assyrian warriors joined forces with
a Russian detachment, which had rushed to relieve the Armenians.
During this campaign, in mid-May the Assyrian warriors fought against
and stopped General Halil’s army, which had intended to reinforce the
Turkish troops in Van. Of course, the Turks considered this an act of
revolt, even though it was devised as a tactical protective measure. This
defiance resulted in a concentration of civil and military might for the
purpose of punishing the Assyrians. The governor of Mosul, Haydar
Bey, was granted extraordinary powers to invade the Hakkari mountains,
which had been transferred to his jurisdiction.5 Soldiers under
Haydar Bey’s command joined forces with several local Kurdish tribes to
mount an attack from several sides. Although the Assyrians fought well,
they were outnumbered, outgunned and had difficulty in finding supplies
and food. They retreated high up into the mountains, where they
had no chance of survival. Talaat Pasha ordered Haydar Bey to drive
them out and concluded, ‘Let them not return to their homelands’.6 By
September, driven by desperation, most of the Assyrians from Hakkari
had fled into Russian-occupied Iran, never to return, even though many
of the males had volunteered for service in the Russian army in the
hope of being able to return. Assyrian military units remained part of
the Russian army until the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, and
after that time they continued to defend the area, retaining sporadic
contact with the British. The Assyrian militia was still in place in 1918
when a Turkish army invaded present-day northern Iran and a great
many Assyrians fled south to join up with the British in Iraq. During
this mass flight on foot, many of the refugees were killed in attacks by
Turkish units. In effect, by the end of the First World War the border
zone between Iran and Turkey had been ethnically cleansed, an operation
in which the Ottoman army played the most important role, but
which had also been supported by local Kurdish tribes.
These examples of the activities of the Ottoman army in repressing
and expelling Assyrians from their homes are documented in Ottoman
sources because their resistance brought the matter to the attention of
the highest civil and military authorities. However, many other Christian
communities were haphazardly annihilated, for which there was felt to
be no need to consult with the central government, and hence relevant
archival documentation is unavailable. Throughout the province of
Diyarbakir, Syriac villages were systematically destroyed at the same
time as those of their Armenian neighbours. In many places, like the
important administrative city of Harput, the Assyrians had assimilated
into Armenian society and spoke the Armenian language. One of the
professors of Armenian literature at the Protestant college in Harput,
Ashur Yusef, was a Syriac Protestant and he was murdered together
with his colleagues in Diyarbakir in June 1915. The organizers of the
massacres made little distinction between the two groups. For example,
in the Beshire district east of Diyarbakir, although both the Assyrians
and Armenians spoke Kurdish, they retained their different religions.
In the town of Mardin, all of the Christian groups spoke a local variety
of Arabic, particularly the large Catholic community into which were
integrated the Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Chaldean congregations.
Any violence targeting Armenians in such places as Harput,
Mardin and Beshire became a general massacre of Christians rather
than a specific Armenian massacre. Levene has proposed the term ‘zone
of violence’ to describe eastern Anatolia during late Ottoman times.
There was not one single Armenian genocide, but rather a ‘series of
genocidal and near genocidal massacres encompassing . . . additional
national groups’ (Levene 1998: 394).
The Question of Genocide
Assyrians today usually refer to their genocide by the term Sayfo (also
spelled Seyfo), Aramaic for ‘sword’.7 The year 1915 has become the
symbol of this genocide and has been referred to in terms of ‘the year
of the sword’ (see more on this term in the chapter by Shabo Talay in
this volume). Sayfo as a designation has been in oral use since the event
itself and was obviously used even earlier as a metaphor for massacre.
Nevertheless, in publications it has only been used since roughly the
1980s, when the first publications of witness testimonies and oral history
appeared in Europe.8 Previously, in addition to Sayfo, the Arabic
word for catastrophe, nakba, was used.9 In some areas the Turkish word
firman, which means an ‘official decree’, was commonly used because
many people in rural Anatolia, both victims and perpetrators, believed
the sultan had ordered the massacres (Talay 2010).
Since the 1990s, Assyrian political activists have advanced the idea
that what happened to their people in the First World War and its
immediate aftermath can be considered genocide. Agitation and lobbying
began against the background of increasing international recognition
that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. Assyrian
groups patterned their activities on the Armenians: commemorations
were held on or around 24 April, memorials were raised throughout the
world in localities where there were large diaspora communities, youth
groups created educational materials, organizations urged parliamentarians
to submit bills for the recognition of Sayfo as genocide and, in
a few cases such as in Sweden, such a bill was actually passed. In 2007
the International Association of Genocide Scholars issued a statement
to the effect that what happened to the Assyrians was genocide. This
activity of recognition began before there was much scientific research,
so discussions of whether the facts fit any definition of genocide became
a matter of choice within a ‘black and white’ dichotomy of cruel perpetrators
against innocent victims.
There are many definitions of genocide, but nearly all see it as a systematic
campaign organized by governments and their apparatuses to
destroy targeted ethnic and religious groups. The UN convention of
1948 talks of full genocide but also refers to ‘partial’ genocide, in which
a substantial part of a targeted population, but not all of it, is destroyed.
Therefore, it is not dependent on the total eradication of the target.
The concept of ‘partial destruction’ has not been sufficiently discussed.
Genocide is directed at the destruction of a national group as a conscious
community; it does not matter that some individuals survive if the community
to which they had belonged no longer exists (Feierstein 2012).
Genocide is not just the outright murder of a people; it can also take
the form of forcing a people into conditions in which they cannot survive
(ghettos, camps in the desert, death marches). Massacres are also
combined with forced expulsion or acts of extreme terror to drive people
to abandon their homes voluntarily. In this sense, it is close to ‘ethnic
cleansing’. The purpose is usually to win a piece of territory completely
or nearly completely emptied of the target population.
The intention of the Ottoman government to remove the Assyrians
from their homelands is not in doubt. The government definitely knew
it was acting against populations that were not Armenians. In the documents
cited in Turkish, the members of the Church of the East are called
Nasturi, the members of the Syriac Orthodox Church are called Süryani
and the Chaldeans are called Keldani. It is not a case of mistaken identity,
except in those places where language assimilation with the Armenians
had taken place. As mentioned above, Minister of the Interior Talaat
Pasha expressed suspicions about the loyalty of ‘Nestorians’ in July
1914 and sent a deportation order to expel the Nestorians along the borderlands
with Iran as early as October 1914. When they resisted, in July
1915 he ordered the army to drive them from the Hakkari mountains,
never to return. In the case of Azakh, one of the last entrenched positions
of Syriac defenders, Minster of War Enver ordered the suppression
of the village using the ‘utmost severity’.10 Talaat even sent a contingent
of mujaheddin under his command to lend the siege a Muslim-Christian
twist. After the attack failed, Enver conferred with the Commander of
the Third Army about returning to finish the job when a better opportunity
should present itself. Other high-ranking Committee of Union and
Progress (CUP) members were involved: Naci Bey had been the committee’s
Inspector General for Anatolia and both he and the provincial
governor, Reshid Bey, were well-respected members of the Young Turks’
That Enver intended the destruction of Azakh and its defenders is
beyond question. Because of the presence of German military advisors,
these events came to the notice of the German government. Obviously
that government understood that the task of the Ottoman army was
to exterminate the defenders and therefore it insisted that no German
soldiers should be involved.
Members of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Azakh and members of
the Church of the East in Hakkari took up arms in order to confront
the Ottoman civil and military authorities. Therefore, the Ottoman government
officials were able to describe the actions they took against
them as punitive measures against rebels and traitors. However, as the
German consul in Mosul pointed out, they were simply trying to save
themselves from certain annihilation or expulsion. This point seemed
to have been recognized by the government as, on 25 December 1915,
an order arrived in the eastern provinces bringing news of a change of
policy. ‘Instead of deporting all of the Syriac people found within the territory’,
they should be ‘detained in their present locations’.11 However,
by that date most of the Christian heartland in the Mardin sub-district
had been destroyed, with the exception of the defended villages, some
families who had found asylum in monasteries and some isolated villages
in forested areas. It was therefore an ongoing genocide that was
only halted at the eleventh hour.
Another point that indicates the intention to annihilate all Christians
in the eastern provinces is the way the Ottoman government turned
a deaf ear to international criticism. Against the background of the
atrocities committed against Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans
in the Turkish-Iranian borderlands, the declaration of 24 May 1915
had no effect. Furthermore, German diplomatic protests decrying the
atrocities of the governor of Diyarbakir, Reshid Bey, in instigating a
general massacre of all Christians received only a pro forma response
from the Ottoman government. Nevertheless, Germany did lodge a
protest about the killing of more than four hundred Armenian, Syriac
Catholic, Chaldean and Protestant leaders from Mardin and its vicinity
on the night of 10–11 June 1915.12 This had come to the attention of
the German consul in Mosul who immediately informed his ambassador
and government. The German response was to insist that the universal
massacre of Christians should be stopped and that Reshid be dismissed.
Talaat telegraphed Reshid on 12 July saying that ‘measures adopted
against the Armenians are under no circumstances to be extended to
other Christians . . . you are ordered to put an immediate end to these
acts’.13 However, despite this warning, the general massacre of Christians
did not stop, Reshid was not replaced and, at the end of his term of
office in Diyarbakir, he was rewarded with the provincial governorship
of Ankara. His closest ally in orchestrating the general massacres, his
deputy-governor, Bedreddin Bey, took over his position. Whether or
not Talaat’s telegram was genuine, or merely a ploy to appease the
diplomats, is a matter of debate. Its importance lies in showing that
Talaat was aware that Christians who were not Armenians had been
arrested, tortured and murdered, and that he had not intervened to stop
it. Certainly Reshid had a long-standing reputation for brutality and
hostility towards Christians and this was one of the reasons the local
Diyarbakir CUP group insisted on his appointment to replace an alleged
too ‘Christian-friendly’ governor, Hamid, in March 1915 (Bilgi 1997).
Another indication of the occurrence of genocide is the high number of
victims. In a rare show of inter-sectarian cooperation, in 1919 Assyrians
of all denominations presented a petition to the Paris Peace Conference
stating that altogether 250,000 of their number had been killed in
Anatolia or Turkish-occupied Iran during the war. They calculated that
this was about half of the original population. By 1922, at the Lausanne
peace negotiations, they raised that number to 275,000. However, the
delegate, Afram Barsoum, Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese
in Syria, gave a lower figure of 90,000 for the Syriac Orthodox and
90,000 for the combined Church of the East and Chaldeans, resulting in
a total of 180,000. In other words, the earliest stated numbers of victims
range from as low as 180,000 to as high as 275,000. The accuracy of these
figures is impossible to check. How they could obtain information from
a decimated population that had been dispersed all over the world is
also hard to understand. The various churches lacked their own precise
statistics that would give an accurate starting point from which to calculate
the percentage population loss. Most estimates from the immediate
prewar years indicate a total Assyrian population ranging from 500,000
to 600,000 (Gaunt 2006: 19–28, 300–303). Given the nature of the peace
process and the desire of the Christians to be compensated in proportion
to the extent of their suffering, it would have been natural for them
to give somewhat exaggerated figures. However, the estimate of 50 per
cent is an overall figure and contemporary observers found much higher
percentages in certain important localities. Jacques Rhétoré, a French
Dominican monk interned in Mardin from 1915 to 1916, recorded that
in the sub-district of Mardin, 86 per cent of Chaldeans had disappeared
along with 57 per cent of the Syriac Orthodox, 48 per cent of the Syriac
Protestants and 18 per cent of the Syriac Catholics (Rhétoré 2005:
136).14 The manner in which people were murdered had been extreme
in places and had been proceeded by the gratuitous public humiliation
of local leaders and their families. For instance, in Mardin on 10 June
1915, four hundred prisoners were paraded through the main street
of the town in heavy chains. The deputy-governor of Diyarbakir and
the chief of police organized the march. Many of the Christian leaders,
particularly the heads of churches, displayed visible injuries caused by
torture and beatings (Armale 1919: part 3 chapters 4–5; Rhétoré 2005:
72–74; Sarafian 1998: 264; Simon 1991: 65–71; Ternon 2002: 133, Gaunt
2006: 170–173). As they trudged through the centre of town, the Muslim
population was encouraged to insult them, while the families of the victims
were forbidden to leave their houses. Female Assyrian witnesses
claimed sexual abuse, rape and other forms of gender-based atrocities
(Naayem 1920 reveals many such cases).
In conclusion, a number of conditions make it possible to recognize
the Sayfo as a genocide. Chief among them was the deep involvement
of the civil and military commands of the Ottoman government in
plans to target Assyrians of all denominations. Secondly, hundreds of
thousands out of a relatively small population fell victim. Thirdly, the
Assyrian homeland in Hakkari was completely destroyed and never re-established.
Fourthly, the Syriac Orthodox were nearly wiped out and
only saved by an order of December 1915 calling a temporary reprieve
to the aggression. The Chaldeans had the best chance of survival as
the majority of the members of this church lived in the southern provinces
of Mosul, Bagdad and Basra, which were not part of the 1915
anti-Christian campaign. However, those Chaldeans who lived in the
Anatolian province of Bitlis, particularly in or around the towns of Siirt
and Cizre or in the Urmia district of Iran, were subject to great cruelty
and had little chance of survival unless they had been able to flee
What Were the Causes?
Genocides are complex. There are usually multiple and entangled ideological,
economic and social causes. The Assyrian case is no exception.
There were geopolitical as well as regional and local causes over which
the groups had little control. Alongside these were Turkish nationalistic
ideological causes and, finally, there were social and economic causes
specific to the localities in which the target populations lived.
On a macro level, these peoples lived in a historically very unstable
borderland. These regions are territories prone to ethnic and religious
mass violence. Bartov and Weitz (2013) have identified what they
term a geographic ‘shatterzone’ of extreme violence extending from
the Baltic region of Northern Europe through Eastern Europe down to
the Middle East. This ‘shatterzone’ emerged in the borderland friction
between the German, Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires. To the
cases described in this book can be added the fact that these Oriental
Christian peoples were caught up in the additional friction between
Turks, Iranians, Kurds and Arabs, all with their nascent national movements.
In this type of violent territory, all people needed to be on their
guard against personal attack. In a genocidal situation, even the target
population might respond with violence and seek revenge.
A similar concept of a territory prone to persistent extreme religious
or ethnic violence is Mark Levene’s idea of the ‘zone of genocide’, which
he applies directly to eastern Anatolia in the period 1878–1923 (Levene
1998). The date 1878 refers to the Treaty of Berlin, which ended the
Russo-Turkish War and provided for the appointment of foreign consuls
inside Turkey to act as guardians of the rights of Armenians. Christian
Gerlach’s (2006) term ‘extremely violent society’ is also relevant here.
His concept seeks to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in the term
genocide – particularly that of the implied moral dichotomy of perpetrators
and victims. The above-mentioned theories place extreme ethnic
and religious violence within a particular type of disputed geography,
creating a certain type of social structure – one in which there are persistent
unresolved and long-standing ethnic conflicts. They also have
the advantage of removing the role of complete innocence from the
target population. In a zone of extreme violence, even the victims can be
Another high-level explanation comes from Donald Bloxham (2005),
who emphasizes the perfidious influence of Great Power involvement as
a background to genocide. The nineteenth-century rivalry known as the
Great Game between Russia, Britain, Germany, Austria and France in
bids to gain influence over the declining Ottoman Empire destabilized
that country. The Great Powers became increasingly involved in the situation
of the non-Muslim minorities and what today is called their human
rights. Their not-so-altruistic involvement included plans for grabbing
territory under the premise of protecting the non-Muslims. This outside
interference created a backlash that put the minorities at risk of retribution
through the connivance of officials. In 1908, the patriarch of the
Church of the East, Mar Shimun, begged the British consul in Van to
stop protesting about the pillaging of Assyrian villages as the protests
only made matters worse (Heazell and Margoliuth 1913: 205–8). French
consuls at Diyarbakir were equally ineffectual, although they did document
numerous cases of seizure of Christian property and unsolved
murders and kidnappings (de Courtois 2004). During the First World
War, the Russians and then the British promised the Assyrians that
they would be granted independence if they participated in the struggle
against the Ottomans. Despite the Assyrians siding with these powers,
in the end their dreams were crushed, resulting in a justified feeling
of betrayal (Stafford 1935; Malek 1935). The German intervention was
connected with that country’s need for a socially stable Turkey in order
to benefit German economic interests. Consequently, it supported the
idea of making Turkey homogeneous so as to rid itself of the (potential)
internal conflicts caused by unassimilated minorities. At the outbreak
of the world war, German diplomats and military advisors agreed to the
deportation of the Armenians, even though they thought the measures
unnecessarily cruel. And, as already mentioned, they protested
when non-Armenians were made victims (Weitz 2013).
On the national level, there was an acute demographic crisis a few
years after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Turkey had to cede a
large amount of territory in Europe through the Balkan Wars of 1912–
13 and large waves of Muslim refugees streamed into Istanbul and western
Anatolia. By and large, the refugees were rural families and needed
farmland and places to live. The Minister of the Interior, Talaat, developed
a scheme of demographic engineering that would disperse them in
Anatolia to encourage the Turkification of those many Balkan refugees
who were not already Turkish speaking. The refugees would be resettled
in eastern Anatolia on land possessed by people suspected of disloyalty.
The upshot was orders to move populations. The order to resettle
the Assyrians of Hakkari was just one step in this greater scheme. New
waves of Muslim refugees were created as people fled from front-line
regions. During the world war, the Directorate for the Settlement of
Tribes and Immigrants controlled the conditions and direction of resettlement
(Akçam 2012). The forced removal of Christian farmers greatly
facilitated the resettlement of Muslim refugees.
This general and national background intertwined with local factors
to create a very violent situation. Among the local factors was the
emergence of a provincial civil administration prone to violence against
non-Muslims. Genocide in the Ottoman Empire was not accomplished in
the set-up of a modern bureaucratic system as was the Jewish Holocaust,
but depended instead mainly on the enthusiasm of brutal local leaders
who could build up an ad hoc organization of volunteer death squads,
reinforced in places by pardoned criminals. The massacres were organized
by a provincial committee that determined the times and places
of depredations. In Diyarbakir, a political and administrative symbiosis
could build upon an already-existing, fatal anti-Christian hostility alive
among the Muslim population. Some of the highest administrators, like
governor Reshid of Diyarbakir, belonged to the so-called Teshkilat-i
Mahsusa (Special Organization), the combined espionage and assassination
group of the CUP. To implement the planned eradications, local
leaders and administrators created paramilitary militias under their
The local political club of the Young Turks in Diyarbakir was dominated
by the Pirinççizâde clan, which had a history of violence against
non-Muslims. They were close to the CUP leadership through their relative
Ziya Gökalp, the principal ideologue and a member of the party’s
Central Committee. When Pirinççizâde Arif was mayor of Diyarbakir,
in 1895, he instigated a bloody pogrom against Armenian and Assyrian
businesses, leading to more than a thousand deaths in the city and the
destruction of eighty-five Assyrian villages in the vicinity (Gaunt 2013:
320). In 1908, Arif also ordered the slaughter of the non-Muslim Yezidis
living to the west of Diyarbakir (Kaiser 2014). His son, Aziz Feyzi,
became a delegate to the newly established National Assembly, where
he was noted for his hostility towards the Armenian delegates. Allegedly
he had assassinated Ohannes Kazazian from Mardin, his political rival
in elections, in 1913 (Üngör 2011: 48). He was also instrumental in
having Reshid Bey appointed governor of Diyarbakir in March 1915.
Reshid brought with him a personal bodyguard of Circassian warriors
and hitmen who became embroiled in all sorts of anti-Christian violence
as well as in the assassinations of Muslim dissidents. Furthermore,
the provincial administration created local militias of Muslim males
exempted from conscription and they were based in the major towns,
given military rifles and led by reserve officers. They made up a collection
of death squads that could be rapidly deployed.
The politicians and governors of Diyarbakir may or may not have
been Turkish nationalists, but they did take part in the plundering of
Christian wealth and property. In Van province, where most of the members
of the Church of the East in the Ottoman Empire lived, the governor
was Jevdet Bey, a close relative of Minister of War Enver. Jevdet also
had a private army composed of gendarmes and others whose activities
were an embarrassment to the regular army. His anti-Christian hostility
was unleashed in early 1915 when he was the acting commander of
the Turkish army that invaded north-western Iran. The mass killing of
seven hundred Armenian and Assyrian men in Haftevan was reported
to have been undertaken on his orders. He called his cut-throat private
army the ‘butcher battalion’ (kassablar taburu). Jevdet can be seen as
the initiator of the Armenian deportations by creating an atmosphere of
panic by means of a series of reports of ‘Armenian rebellions’, which he
sent to Enver throughout March and April 1915 (Gaunt 2006: 106–7).
His forces fired the first artillery shells against the Ottoman Armenians
when they began to bombard the Armenian quarters in Van on 20 April
Another local factor, which might not have caused the genocide but
certainly contributed to its complexity and prevented stronger and more
strategic resistance, was the lack of unity among the members of the
Church of the East, Syriac and Chaldean churches. This disunity made
possible incidents in which some Christian communities stood to one
side as bystanders while their neighbours were massacred. The lack of a
common, non-ecclesiastical identity was compounded by the instability
of the major institutions – their churches. The Syriac Orthodox of Tur
Abdin with numerous farm villages were embroiled in long-term conflict
with the Syriac Orthodox patriarch based in Mardin. The authority of
the patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Shimun, was in question.
One archdiocese joined the Russian Orthodox Church and the leaders
of the Jilu tribe converted to Roman Catholicism. The Chaldeans were
equally split and in some places cooperated with Armenian and Syriac
Catholics in the use of church buildings. The instability of the churches
was matched by the divisions created by the social structure, which was
based on large clans in Tur Abdin, or on tribes in the Hakkari mountains.
Clans and tribes were rivals. All of these persistent hostilities enabled
the Ottoman authorities to play the game of ‘divide and rule’. In Midyat,
for instance, the Syriac Orthodox secular leadership was enticed by the
municipal authorities to turn over the rival Syriac Protestant minority,
who were said to be richer, to certain death. In Mardin, when the Syriac
Catholic, Protestant and Chaldean prisoners were being sent to execution
in June 1915, the Syriac Orthodox bribed their way to freedom.
In Hakkari, when most of the other tribes united to fight the Turkish
army, the Jilu tribe, whose leaders had just been assassinated on Mar
Shimun’s orders, declined to participate, and instead retreated into
Iran. Efforts by the few Assyrian intellectuals in the different churches
to unite their communities were to little avail (Gaunt 2013).
Many of the above-mentioned factors affected all non-Muslim minorities
in Anatolia, particularly the Armenians. This would partially explain
why Assyrians were caught up in a genocide despite not being clearly
defined as a target, as the Armenians were. The same background factors
that were relevant to the extermination of the Armenians resulted in
the partial genocide of the other Christian peoples. We are aware that
the background causes enumerated here are descriptive factors. They
do not actually explain why these groups were annihilated, not even
when all these aspects are combined.
The genocide perpetrated against the various Assyrian denominations
of northern Mesopotamia can be viewed from several perspectives,
each of which is legitimate. One approach focuses only on the
great catastrophe during the First World War, instigated by the Young
Turk government and its extreme nationalist Committee of Union and
Progress. This approach emphasizes the political ideology of the political
leaders and their desire to ‘Turkify’ the country by eliminating all
members of the population who were expected to resist. Indisputably,
the main actors were Talaat, the Minister of the Interior, who orchestrated
the genocide, and Enver, the Minister of War, who supplied the
support of the army when needed. The second approach emphasizes the
long-term escalation of anti-Christian violence from the mid-nineteenth
century, culminating in the great annihilation of 1915, followed by continued
persecution in Turkey and even in the new successor state of
Iraq. The first approach, with a short historical background, emphasizes
the role of the Young Turk government in radicalizing politics and systematically
orchestrating the murders, and places them in the context
of modern political genocides. This point of view stresses the importance
of ideology and nationalism to mass politics and of gaining popular
support for the repression of minorities (Mann 2005). The second
approach, with a longer historical background, places the killing inside
an increasingly lethal local inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict, and
puts it in the context of colonial genocides, pushing native peoples off
their land. The genocide can be seen as an extreme form of a ‘culture
of violence’, and some would call it genocide ‘by attrition’ (Fein 1997).
In this context, the slow evolution approach as an explanation of the
genocide distinguishes the following phases. Sporadic but later on recurring
bloody anti-Christian pogroms commenced in the mid-nineteenth
century and as a consequence of which non-Armenian Christians were
also increasingly caught up in the Armenian Question. This phase
continued in varying intensity up to the outbreak of the First World
War. The second phase began at the time of Turkey’s mobilization at
the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 until the spring
of 1915. In the mobilization phase, adult men were drafted into slave
labour battalions on the pretext of suspicions about disloyalty. Searches
for suspected army deserters in Christian quarters of towns led to indiscriminate
violence and the arrests of Christian leaders. The third phase,
from May 1915, was marred by an outburst of general genocidal atrocities
over a wide area, characterized by mass executions, destruction of
entire districts, death marches and rape warfare, continuing unabated
until November 1915. The fourth phase was that of the mopping-up
operations, in which the last survivors were pushed out of Hakkari
and the Urfa area and revenge was exacted on those who had led village
defences, and the final expulsion of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch
from Turkey in 1924. In this volume both short-term and long-term
perspectives are represented.
Roots and Settlement
The various Syriac-speaking church communities are indigenous to
eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia and most of their members trace
their heritage to the Assyrians, Arameans and/or Chaldeans. Ethnically,
they are probably a composite of people who converted to Christianity in
the first centuries ad, long before its acceptance by the Roman Empire.
They came to be known as Syrian(/c) Christians; Suryoye/Suryaye in
Syriac Aramaic. Originally, they spoke a variety of Aramaic local dialects
and used Syriac as their liturgical language. This hybrid ancient past is
very much reflected in the hotly disputed discourses about their origin,
especially within the group itself in its diaspora communities. Leaving
aside what happened in the past, contemporary identity debates in the
diaspora should be understood from the present-day perspective of the
context of having to establish a new life in secular states in which religious
identity is seen as a private matter and other forms of identification
(such as ethno-national) have become dominant instead. This
process of redefining the collective identity of the group concerned in the
diaspora has been discussed in several studies (Deniz 1999; Cetrez 2005;
Atto 2011). For a better understanding of the present ethno-politics
in a historical context, it is necessary to reflect briefly on the divisions within
the church in the early centuries of Christianity.
The first main split within Syriac Christianity goes back to the fifth
century ad, and emanated from various inner-Christian conflicts and
splits over sophisticated theological points dealing with the nature of
Christ. In 410, the Christians in Persia proclaimed their independence
from the patriarch of Antioch and the emperor in Constantinople at a
time when war was raging between Byzantium and Persia. The church
leadership of the Christians in Persia needed to adopt an independent
position in relation to the Byzantine Church if it was to win greater
acceptance from the Persian rulers. Thereafter, it became known as the
Church of the East.16 This church has also been known under the name
East Syrian Church, in contrast to the West Syrian Church, which grew
inside the Byzantine Empire.
Theological debates in the Byzantine Empire resulted in the establishment
of various Christian churches of the Near East and the
Mediterranean. Archbishop Nestorius’s ideas about his concept of
Christology and the Virgin Mary were declared heretical at the Synod
of Ephesus (431). When as a consequence of this he settled in Persia, he
gained ascendancy in the recently established Church of the East, which
was already independent and chose to adopt a Dyophysite Christology,
which was closely, but not exactly, related to Nestorius’s position. This is
the reason the Church of the East has also been known by the erroneous
name Nestorian Church, after Nestorius. Throughout Ottoman official
documents and censuses, its members are referred to as Nasturiler. The
Church of the East was the first institution in modern times to use the
term Assyrian to express its collective identity (Surma 1920; Coakley
In the sixth century, the West Syriac Church continued to oppose the
Chalcedonian Creed to which the Roman rulers had committed themselves.
The persecution by these rulers forced the Syriac Orthodox
hierarchy and monastic orders to seek to escape the influence of the
emperor. Jacob Baradaeus (Bishop of Edessa, ca 500–578) played a fundamental
role in the setting up of a new, independent, stable organizational
structure for the Syriac Orthodox Church. Therefore, the Syriac
Miaphysites have erroneously been called Jacobites. In official Ottoman
documents they are sometimes referred to as Süryaniler and sometimes
Having been pushed to the periphery, Syriac-speaking Christians
gradually began to express their own traditional cultural identity. In
retrospect, it is possible to see that the divisions in the church were also
heavily influenced by non-theological struggles: political (mainly rivalry
between Byzantium and Persia), ethnic, social and geographical, not to
mention personal antagonisms between the clergy (Rompay 1997).
With the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, Syriac
Christians hoped they would escape the persecution to which they had
been subjected under the Byzantines. In many places, the Christians
formed a majority, although their rulers were Muslims. Under Arab
Muslim rule, all Christians acquired the status of dhimmis and no
major difference was made between the various Christian sects. As the
non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state, they lived under Sharia law,
and had the right of residence and protection from the ruler in return
for the payment of a special tax (jizya). Moreover, they had to abide by
certain rules that did not apply to Muslims. However, centuries after
the initial Islamic conquest, the combined negative consequences of the
failure of the Crusades and the Mongol invasions (Bagdad was taken
in 1258 and razed by Timur Lenk in 1401) brought near total destruction
to the indigenous Christian communities of Mesopotamia. By the
fifteenth century, the once-flourishing indigenous Christians found
themselves a decimated minority.
In their subsequent steady decline, the Oriental churches splintered
even more as they struggled with internal and external strife. The
Church of the East became a local church in the vast isolation of the
Hakkari mountains and, after a while, the office of patriarch became
hereditary to the Shimun dynasty, whose base was in an inaccessible
Hakkari mountain hamlet. In the mid-sixteenth century, a group within
the Church of the East split off and created a separate church. Its base
became the provinces that make up Iraq, with enclaves inside Turkey
and Iran. It sought union with the Vatican and was accepted under
the name of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the leader was termed
the Catholicos-Patriarch of Babylon. Throughout, the Ottomans designated
the members of this Church Keldaniler. In the second half of
the seventeenth century, under the influence of French missionaries,
a group of Syriac Orthodox split away and established the first Syriac
Catholic patriarchate in Aleppo. Later Protestant churches were also
Each church had a core area in which nearly everyone was a member
of the same church. The Syriac Orthodox core area was in the southern
part of Diyarbakir province, with concentrations around the market
towns of Mardin and Midyat as well as in the large rural district of
Midyat (known as Tur Abdin) consisting of about a hundred villages.
There were outlying enclaves near the towns of Harput, Adiyaman and
Urfa. The core area of the Church of the East was in the remote Hakkari
mountains, forming the Turco-Iranian frontier. It also had an enclave
around the Iranian administrative town of Urmia. The majority of the
Chaldeans lived in Mosul province, with enclaves around the Turkish
towns of Cizre and Siirt and Salamas in Iran.
All of these sects were small and their leaders bitterly reviled their
opponents as dangerous heretics, an attitude that promoted sectarian
exclusion and effectively hindered the growth of a cross-denominational
collective identity or common national movement. However internally
important these divisions were, outsiders paid little attention to them.
In the face of rising Turkish nationalism and Islamic radicalism in the
late 1800s, the term gavur (infidel) for all non-Muslims became a general
part of verbal abuse in Muslim discourse, blurring the fine distinctions
between the various Assyrian denominations and even those with the
Armenians and Greeks.
In the mid-nineteenth century, lethal conflicts between the Assyrians
and Kurds began when Kurdistan was rocked by a confrontation between
the Ottoman government and Badr Khan, the ambitious Kurdish emir
of Bohtan. Cizre, the town in which he resided on the Tigris River, had
many Christian settlements in its immediate neighbourhood. Then,
suddenly, a civil war erupted in the nearby Emirate of Hakkari, which
had been split over a disputed succession to its leadership. The upshot
was a breach between the Kurds and the Assyrians. Badr Khan used
the problem caused by the dispute as a pretext to launch an invasion
targeting the Assyrians who were on the losing side. An initial military
campaign in the summer of 1843 singled out the Assyrians for massacre
and European newspapers reported that an estimated seven to ten
thousand were killed. Hundreds were captured and sold as slaves. A
second invasion in 1846 destroyed any Assyrian village that had been
previously overlooked. It is a matter of speculation as to why Badr Khan
targeted the Christians, but he was known for his Muslim piety. His
operations were not confined to Hakkari, which lay east of Bohtan, but
also encompassed much of Tur Abdin, which was situated to the west.
Bowing to British pressure, the Ottoman government finally put a halt
to Badr Khan’s activities (Hirmis 2008; Gaunt 2012; Gaunt 2015b).
Controlling peripheral areas was a chronic problem confronting all
Ottoman governments. Centrally appointed provincial governors were
underpaid and quickly slipped under the thumbs of local clans and their
interests. State finances were so strapped that it proved impossible to
station regular troops in the area on a permanent basis (Hartmann
2013). Therefore, the state compromised with local power holders,
particularly the Kurdish emirs and the urban notables. The Ottomans
adopted a policy of binding the loyalty of selected Kurdish tribes to the
sultan. One fateful step in the 1880s was the establishment of irregular
Kurdish cavalry regiments (Hamidiye Alayları) on the same model as
the notorious Russian Cossacks. In return for loyalty to the sultan, these
tribes received a special extra-legal status and could behave with impunity.
The chief was given a military officer’s rank and the warriors were
supplied with uniforms and military arms. These regiments proved a
highly disruptive factor to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As military
regiments, they were outside the jurisdiction of the civil authority and,
as irregular troops, they were beyond normal bounds of military discipline
(Klein 2011). Their activities in the borderland region wrecked
the delicate balance of power between the Kurds and the Assyrians (see
Gaunt’s chapter in this volume).
In the late Ottoman period, politically motivated persecution focused
on the relatively strong Armenian nationalist movement. Several
Armenian political parties worked underground to achieve co-determination
in eastern Anatolia, and a small number of revolutionaries struggled
for total independence and in their campaign committed occasional
acts of violence. In response, Sultan Abdulhamid sought and found
enthusiastic support from latent Islamist forces. In 1895 and 1896, riots
directed against Armenians broke out in many towns and Assyrians
were sucked into these events haphazardly, even though they had no
political movement themselves. In November and December 1895, mobs
destroyed Christian homes and shops, over a thousand were murdered
in Diyarbakir and an untold number were killed in Harput. Most victims
were Armenians, but hundreds of Assyrians were killed and many
Assyrian villages were plundered. As Ug˘ur Ümit Üngör points out in
his contribution to this volume, the victimhood of the Assyrians was
almost always eclipsed by the greater interest given to the plight of
the Armenians. It has required painstaking research to rediscover the
Assyrian genocide behind the Armenian genocide.
Although general anti-Christian violence grew steadily in the final
years of the Ottoman Empire, violence specifically targeting Assyrians
had been common for centuries. The motives for the violence were complex,
but included a lethal mix of the land hunger of Kurdish nomadic
tribes, the urgent need to find homes for Muslim refugees streaming
in after the defeats in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, newly radicalized
Turkish political and cultural nationalism and, on top of all that, popular
religious hatred which the authorities found easy to manipulate.
The Assyrian Christians were deeply divided – isolated from each other
by denomination, distance and dialects. These divisions prevented any
unified resistance, but the administration of the Ottoman government
nonetheless depicted them as dangerous insurgents threatening the
very existence of the nation.
At the end of the First World War, most of eastern Anatolian Turkey
had been cleansed of Oriental Christians. There were a few Assyrian
exceptions: some Tur Abdin villages had been passed over and some
refugees had been permitted to return from the Arab provinces to which
they had fled by local Kurdish aghas. Other refugees made their way to
Europe (particularly France) or the United States of America. Tens of
thousands of survivors were scattered in refugee camps in the Caucasus
states, which were later part of the Soviet Union, and in the emerging
countries of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Their leaders were not able to do
much for them. As the chapter by Naures Atto and Soner O. Barthoma
reveals, although the Syriac Orthodox patriarch did everything in his
support – including expressing full loyal support for the new political
line of the Turkish governing elite and downplaying the genocide
– he was forced to leave Turkey in 1924 by Atatürk. Thereafter, the
new Patriarchal See was established in Homs in Syria (1933). Jan van
Ginkel focuses on the role that one church leader played during the
time of genocide. He asks such questions as: what was the response of
the church leaders during the genocide itself and later? How did the
genocide influence the behaviour of religious leaders after the event?
How did the community respond to the behaviour of their secular and
religious leaders? In his chapter, he introduces a new, more or less forgotten
church leader from that time, Mor Dionysius ‘Abd an-Nur Aslan,
Metropolitan of Harput, Homs and Diyarbakir, to illustrate some aspects
of these questions.
The Aftermath of the Sayfo
After the First World War, the allied victors met at the Paris Peace
Conference (1919) to lay down the terms for the defeated powers, among
them the once mighty but by then long-crumbling Ottoman Empire.
The terms were quite severe and the vanquished empires were carved
up to make new states based on the principle of the rights of nationalities
to independence. In the midst of negotiations, a large but uninvited
group turned up calling itself the Assyro-Chaldean delegation, claiming
authority to speak for what they called the ‘Assyro-Chaldean nation’.
To complicate matters, other Assyrian groups turned up, one claiming
to speak for the Assyrians of Persia, another for the Assyrians of
Transcaucasia (Gaunt 2013). All told, these rival delegates hailed from
many places – the United States, Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey –
and had had different experiences during the war. Most delegates had
been born inside the Ottoman, Persian or Russian empires. Those who
lived outside the war area had little direct knowledge of the destruction,
but had high hopes for independence. The delegates told a remarkable
tale: their people formed Christian minorities which for centuries had
been dominated and persecuted by Muslim majorities. They insisted
that they had been promised their own country, first by Russia and
then by Great Britain, provided they joined them in fighting against the
Ottoman army. Some of them had done so, particularly those who lived
along the Turkish-Persian border. Now their representatives turned up
in Paris expecting to collect their reward. Their motive for fighting the
Turkish army was to defend their homes from ethnic cleansing and to
avert aggression. The British made many promises of independence.
The Balfour Declaration made to Jewish leaders assigned them a homeland
in Palestine and Sheriff Hussein of Mecca was promised Arab independence
in return for launching a revolt. But the Assyrians lacked
solid proof that similar oral promises made by middle-ranking officers
were the official standpoint of the British government. A number of diplomats
and military officers did give testimonies that such promises had
been made, but they were not confirmed by the British government.
Similar promises of independence made by Tsarist Russia were of course
worthless after the Bolshevik Revolution. Although they included many
influential public figures, supporters of the Assyrians in Britain lobbied
unsuccessfully for those whom they called ‘our smallest ally’ (Wigram
1920, Bentinck 1924).17
Far from all of the Assyrians had joined the allies in military campaigns
– fighting was mostly confined to the tribes living on the Turkish side of
the border and the village militias armed by the Russians on the Iranian
side of the border (Holquist 2015). They had been the target of persecution
and violen Abdulmesih ce for a long time and their plight had been
exacerbated after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Prewar Ottoman
violations of the Iranian border were daily occurrences and ambitions
were clear about annexing territory where Turkish speakers lived. For
this reason, the Assyrians maintained contacts with representatives of
Tsarist Russia in order to discuss the possibilities of Russian protection
(Lazarev 1964; Matveev and Mar-Yukhanna 1968; Hellot-Bellier 2014).
Apologists for the decision to rid Turkey of Assyrians usually generalize
by arguing that because the Assyrians took up arms against the government,
full military suppression and ethnic cleansing was their due
reward (see the chapter by Abdulmesih BarAbraham in this volume).
For Turkish apologists, the issue of resistance is – no matter how limited
and unsuccessful – the main legitimation for Ottoman state aggression.
However, under no circumstances are states allowed to annihilate
an entire population simply because it refuses to comply with a hostile
government order to vacate their ancestral homes.
The conflicting claims of the various Assyrian delegates to the
peace conferences led to deep disappointment. The Syriac Orthodox
Archbishop of Syria, Afram Barsoum, demanded the independence of
the provinces of Diyarbakir, Bitlis, Harput and Urfa – a region where a
majority of Syriac Orthodox lived – but he did not include the Hakkari
mountains or Urmia. Representing the most extreme claim, Joel Werda,
an Assyrian-American journalist born in Iran, called for the rebirth
of the ancient Assyrian Empire extending from the Persian Gulf to
the Mediterranean Sea. He illustrated his journal, Izgadda: Persian
American Courier, with a map showing this ‘new Assyria’. His group
made claims for Iranian territory, something the Peace Conference
refused to discuss since Iran had been neutral. Furthermore, many of
the territorial demands clashed with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which
divided a large part of the Middle East between Britain and France.
Some Assyrians curried favour with the French, others with the British.
The Assyro-Chaldean delegation was never officially recognized and
therefore had no authority to plead its case before the Peace Conference.
Some of the delegates did manage to obtain private audiences with the
British diplomat Robert Vansittart and Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s private
secretary. One very active Assyrian delegate, A.K. Yousef, a doctor
in the US army although born in Harput, tried to encourage the delegation
to coordinate its efforts with the Armenian delegations, but
to no avail. The Assyrian voices were submerged in a cacophony of
similar demands, often for the same territory, from other larger and
therefore more politically ‘valuable’ nationalities, such as the equally
victimized Armenians and the Kurds. However, all of these conflicting
nationality claims eventually came to nothing. Neither the Assyrians,
Armenians nor the Kurds were rewarded with parts of the Ottoman
lands. Relatively vague statements of the recognition of a need for the
special protection of the Christian minorities were made in the first
peace treaty dictated in the Parisian palace of Sèvres in 1920, and there
was mention of possible Kurdish and Armenian states. However, that
treaty was never ratified and by 1922 the Turkish war of independence
had created a completely new situation. A state of Kurdistan had been
proposed at Sèvres, in which the Assyrians would become a protected
minority. Nonetheless, even these weak expressions of support vanished
into thin air in the final treaty negotiated with the new Republic of
Turkey at Lausanne in 1922–23. Thereafter, European awareness of the
destitution of the Assyrians faded as the survivors were dispersed to all
corners of the globe.
In 1933, a new crisis drew international concern to the Assyrians.
The British mandate in Iraq was drawing to a close. In the new states
of Syria and Iraq, the British mandatory administration had actively
recruited Assyrian warriors into special military detachments named
Levies and used them to put down Kurdish and Arab rebellions, which
caused considerable ill will among the new Iraqi rulers. The League of
Nations recognized that they ran the risk of massacre once Iraq became
independent. Various projects for resettlement in other countries saw
the light of day, but none came to fruition. After the British relinquished
their mandate and Iraq became independent, the Iraqi army took
revenge and targeted Assyrian settlements, the largest Simele, with a
series of massacres in August 1933. Many Assyrians then fled from Iraq
to Syria. Raphael Lemkin had collected clippings of newspaper articles
dealing with these attacks in preparation for his ongoing, worldwide
comparative research on genocide.
One of the intentions of this volume is to stimulate researchers working
on the Sayfo to strike out in new directions. In several instances,
this has meant focusing on local studies rather than searching through
the political statements of high-ranking politicians to try to discover the
intentions of the Young Turk government. One local study has the added
importance of highlighting the situation of women during the massacres.
In her chapter, Florence Hellot-Bellier deals with the abduction,
rape and forced conversion of Assyrian women by Muslim men in the
region of Urmia, and attempts by the Assyrians to protect themselves
from Muslim violence. Systematic rape is not included as a criterion
in the 1948 United Nations convention on punishing and preventing
genocide, but it has been increasingly included in legal cases as a condition
calculated to destroy a national group (Stiglmayer 1995). There are
widespread accusations of rape warfare in the contemporary testimonies
Other contributions to this volume describe and analyse previously
unknown or little-used sources. Sebastian Brock takes up a recently
discovered colophon in a liturgical manuscript which gives an account
of mass killings of Assyrians in the Mardin area. It was written in the
Zafaran Monastery, and he compares it with another source, that of
Qarabashi, from the same monastery (Qarabashi 1997). Simon Birol
interprets an epic poem in the classical Syriac language written by Gallo
Shabo, who was the leader of a village in Tur Abdin which managed
to defend itself successfully against the assaults of Turkish troops and
Kurds. One key explanation offered by Gallo Shabo for what happened
to his people is God’s punishment for their sins.
One very important field of research is the consequences of genocide
for the families of the victims and the efforts of the survivors to commemorate
their victimization. This research goes in two directions. One
leads to the psychological effects of collective trauma. The other leads
to efforts to spread knowledge and to have the genocide recognized and
acknowledged. Taking the first line of reasoning, Önver Cetrez applies
psychological categories of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to determine
the degree to which the Assyrian community has been marked
by internal dissent and distrust of outsiders. He advances the idea that
present-day Assyrians suffer from the death of time, that is, they are
unable to distinguish between today and what happened in the past.
Finally, several of our contributors deal with the international repercussions
of genocide in the form of pressure put on the governments of
the countries in which they now live as citizens by the Assyrian diaspora
to officially acknowledge that these peoples were victims of genocide.
Throughout the Western world, parliaments are being asked to
make declarations recognizing that inside the Ottoman Empire the
Assyrian, Armenian and Greek peoples were victims of genocide. This
is not a demand usually placed on the agenda of a government or a
parliament, and deliberations are not always fruitful. The Republic of
Turkey has invested enormous resources in denying that anything criminal
was perpetrated against the Assyrians. Racho Donef describes such
denial activities produced by the recently created Assyrian section of
the Turkish Historical Society. The aim of this new section is to challenge
the Assyrian claims. As a rule, this is done by casting doubt on the
statistics presented and by claiming that the testimony of survivors is
flawed and therefore inadmissible. Abdulmesih BarAbraham describes
the key arguments employed by Turkish government officials when
denying genocide. He also makes an analysis of several recent ‘denialist’
publications by the Turkish Historical Society. Christophe Premat, a
political scientist, compares how the French and the Swedish parliaments
have dealt with diaspora demands for the recognition of genocide.
His study shows that the larger the group is, and the more votes it can
muster, the greater the possibility of getting a recognition bill passed.
The purpose of this volume is to initiate further research on the
Sayfo, as the results have led to more burning issues. Foremost is the
role of the Assyrian religious and political leadership, that is, to explain
the contacts between the Assyrians and the Russians and British before,
during and after the First World War and to explain the degree to which
some of the religious leaders were collaborating with the Turkish
authorities both during and after the war – whether out of necessity
to avoid worse, or otherwise. How much of a role did personal rivalry
between the leaders play in the failure of the Assyrians to develop a
united resistance? There is an acute need to recover documentation,
particularly from the archives and libraries of the religious institutions
of Assyrians. There should be plenty of material in the correspondence
between the patriarchs and the Ottoman authorities. Moreover, there
should be primary documents used by the Assyro-Chaldean delegation
to the Peace Conference in its estimation of the total number of victims.
Much more effort needs to be exerted to clarify the ambiguity of
the CUP government’s reaction when it realized that Assyrians were
caught up in a persecution that outwardly targeted only Armenians.
How and why were the two groups conflated as enemy targets? Hardly
anyone has yet touched on the impact of the Sayfo on the socio-economic
position of Assyrians in the post-genocidal period as a consequence of
the confiscation of their property. Furthermore, how has the Sayfo
affected institutions like their churches and secular organizations, their
emigration, their future orientation and their relationship with their
Muslim neighbours? What forms of collective trauma are to be found in
the post-genocide period and how are Sayfo memories transmitted and
reconstructed? How has the Sayfo affected different fields of art, including
the disappearance of some, and how is it expressed in art created by
post-genocide Assyrian generations? What are the effects of the Sayfo
on language and culture? These and many other questions raised by this
book should be on the agenda for future study.
- Minister of Interior to governor of Van province, 26 October 1914, the President’s Ottoman Archive, Istanbul (BOA) DH. ŞFR 46/78.
- Talaat to the Directorate of General Security for the Eastern Provinces, 25 December 1915, BOA DH. ŞFR 57/112, as cited in Akçam (2012: xx).
- BOA DH. ŞFR 42/263, as cited in Akçam (2012: xx).
- Minister of Interior to governor of Van province, 26 October 1914, BOA DH. ŞFR 46/78.
- Ministry of the Interior to Mosul vilayet, 7 June 1915, BOA DH. ŞFR 53/276.
- Talaat to valis of Mosul and Van, 30 June 1915, BOA DH. ŞFR 54/240.
- Smith (1903: 376) translates the Syriac Mawto dsayfo as ‘death by the sword’.
- Julius Yesu’ Cicek, Ktobo d-Seyfe (1981) is one of the first publications to use Sayfo.
- See the witness testimony of Ishaq Armale, in Al-Qusara fi nakabat al-nasara  1970. During the war he was secretary to the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mardin.
- Enver to Third Army Command, 27 November 1015. ATASE (Turkish Military Historical Archive, Ankara) Kol.: BDH, Kls.: 81, Dos.: 81/, Fih. 35-14. Reprinted in Gaunt 2006 482–483.
- Talaat to the Directorate of General Security for the Eastern Provinces, 25 December 1915, BOA DH. ŞFR 57/112, as cited in Akçam (2012: xx).
- According to Rhétoré (2005), 410 persons: 230 Armenian Catholics, 113 Syriac Catholics, 30 Chaldeans and 27 Protestants. Somehow, 85 Syriac Orthodox males already imprisoned managed to get released (Gaunt 2006: 170–73).
- Holstein to German Embassy, 10 July 1915; German Ambassador to Minister of the Interior Talaat, 12 July 1915, in Lepsius (1919: 101–3). Talaat to Reshid, 12 July 1915, in Turkey General Directorate of Ottoman Archives (1995: 75), and BOA DH. ŞFR 54/406.
- For other local estimates, see Gaunt (2006: 300–303).
- From a legal perspective, the Sayfo also meets the criteria mentioned in the Memorandum of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) on the Applicability of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to Events which Occurred during the Early Twentieth Century. 1 January 2002. The memorandum deals specifically with the Armenian issue. Access through www.ictj.org/publications.
- Today this church has two patriarchates and two different names: Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East (largest) and the Ancient Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East.
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