By Bedross Der Matossian

In April 1909, two waves of massacres shook the province of Adana, located in the southern Anatolia region of modern-day Turkey, killing more than 20,000 Armenians and 2,000 Muslims. The central Ottoman government failed to prosecute the main culprits, a miscarriage of justice that would have repercussions for years to come. Despite the significance of these events and the extent of violence and destruction, the Adana Massacres are often left out of historical narratives. The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century offers one of the first close examinations of these events, analyzing sociopolitical and economic transformations that culminated in a cataclysm of violence.

In the summer of 1909, Zabel Yesayan, the prominent Armenian novelist and activist from İstanbul, traveled with an Armenian delegation to the region of Adana to aid in the relief efforts for the Armenian survivors. Upon arriving, she painted a vivid image of the scene:

The destroyed city spreads under the magnanimous and dazzling sun like an endless cemetery. Ruins all over. Nothing has been spared. All the churches, all the schools, and all the houses have been turned into piles of shapeless and scorched heaps of stone, through which the skeletons of buildings are erected here and there. From the east to the west and from the north to the south, until the farthest borders of the Turkish neighborhoods the unforgivable and cruel hatred have burnt down and destroyed everything. And through this deadly solitude, through the vast heaps of ashes stand up two imperishable minarets with audacity.

Yesayan’s literary description of the human and material suffering of the city, published two years later under the title Aweraknerun Mēj (In the Ruins), is a testimony of the Adana massacres of 1909. Like many of her contemporaries, Yesayan was shocked by the horrors she saw in Adana. In an era in which the Armenians of the empire thought that they had been relieved of the shackles of Hamidian despotism, the Adana massacres came to prove otherwise. Armenians were unable to comprehend the catastrophe and its magnitude. Their dream of living in harmony with their Turkish brothers after the revolution was shattered. After the courts-martial failed to the deliver justice to the victims of the massacres, their trust in the Young Turk regime diminished, as many believed that the CUP was involved in the massacres.

The ARF was the only Armenian political party that continued its cooperation with the Young Turks. Immediately after the massacres, negotiations began between the ARF and the CUP that resulted in an agreement of cooperation on August 3, 1909. The terms of the accord included defending the constitution, countering reactionary movements, dispelling the false statement that the Armenians were seeking independence, and extending provincial rights.3 This cooperation was conditional on the government taking the necessary actions on vital issues arising from the Adana massacres. Thus, despite all criticisms, the ARF decided to make a final attempt to cooperate with the CUP for the sake of preserving the constitution and pursuing land restitution and reform, the two bastions of its policy with the Young Turks. Although according to one historian “one cannot rule out a degree of self-interest in the decision [to cooperate with the CUP],” the Dashnaks always adhered to their primary goal of land restitution and reform in the eastern provinces. However, the reluctance of the CUP to pursue these goals would be a crippling blow to ARF-CUP cooperation in the years to come.

The Balkan Wars of 1912–13 created an opportunity for the revival of the Armenian Question. Armenian leadership, aided by European powers, pressed the Ottoman government to improve the condition of the Armenians in the eastern provinces. Known as the Armenian Reforms, this international initiative is considered one of the last attempts by Armenians, Europeans, and the Ottoman government to find a “solution” to the Armenian Question. The European interest in reforming the provinces should also be seen as part of the competition between the European powers (Italy, Britain, and France) and Russia on the one hand and Germany on the other. The Armenian Reforms were prepared in İstanbul by André Mandelstam (the dragoman of the Russian embassy) and the representatives of the Armenian National Assembly at a meeting that also included the ambassadors of France, Britain, and Italy. However, the reform project, signed in February 1914, was abolished by the Ottomans on December 16, 1914, after the Ottoman Empire joined the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and initially, Italy) against the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia).

The Armenian Genocide, which was perpetrated by the inner clique of the CUP during World War I, led to the extermination of the Armenians of the eastern provinces. I do not adhere to the continuum approach in interpreting the Armenian Genocide—which argues that the previous phases of violence culminated in genocide—but one thing seems undeniable: the level of ethno-religious tensions in the empire was so high by the beginning of the twentieth century that any crisis, whether due to internal or external factors, had the potential to explode in a cataclysmic spiral of violence. Unlike the counterrevolution of 1909, the crisis of World War I unleashed a series of massacres on the Armenians that spread throughout the empire.

On the eve of World War I in July 1914, 80,000 Armenians lived in the province of Adana according to one estimate; the city of Adana had a population of 26,000 Armenians. In 1915–16, Talat Paşa, the chief architect of the Armenian Genocide, entered the remaining Armenian population of the province of Adana in his notebook at 12,263 out of what had been 51,723 in 1914 according to his estimates. Prior to the war, the political situation in Adana was tense. The Young Turk leader İsmail Sefa (Özler) had begun to advocate for the elimination of the capitulations and the nationalization of the economy, leading to bitterness on the part of the Armenian and Greek entrepreneurial middle classes. As in other provinces, the authorities began arresting Armenian leaders and professionals. On May 20, 1915, deportations of Armenians from Adana began; the first convoy consisted of four thousand Armenians. Talat Paşa sent Ali Münif Bey—the Adana MP and his second in command in the Ministry of the Interior, as well as a member of the Special Commission on Deportation—to the city to oversee the process of deporting Armenians from Adana, Tarsus, and Mersin. Consequently, the authorities arrested around one hundred Armenians, including Garabed Gökderelian and the lawyer Garabed Chalian, all of whom were deported to Aleppo. Muslim refugees (muhâcirs) were settled in the Armenians’ places. These details fail to appear in Münif ’s memoirs. From early September until late October of 1915, Münif supervised the deportation of five thousand Armenian families. The deportees were taken to concentration camps in İntilli and Katma, and then to the transit center at Karlık located near the Aleppo railroad station. The only Armenians who were allowed to remain in Adana were the craftsmen and specialists who “catered” to the needs of the Ottoman army. The Armenians of the port city of Mersin and of other districts and subdistricts of Adana met a similar fate.

After the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918), which ended World War I, France occupied Cilicia. In December 1918, France sent four battalions of the Armenian Legion to take over and oversee the repatriation of more than 170,000 Armenians to Cilicia. According to a statistic produced in 1919 by the Armenian Patriarchate Information Bureau (Teghekatu Divan), 47,075 Armenians—more than half of the original population—managed to return to the province of Adana. However, the French occupation of Cilicia, which provided some hope for Armenians, was cut short by the incursion of Kemalist troops. While some Armenians resisted the Kemalist troops, thousands were massacred. The remaining Armenians retreated with the French forces. On October 21, 1921, France signed the Ankara Agreement with the Kemalists and relinquished Cilicia. This was a shock to the Armenians. By January 1922 the region was completely under Kemalist control.

Unlike the massacres of Adana in 1909, which were locally organized and implemented by various interest groups, the Armenian Genocide during World War I was centrally planned by the state through multiple mechanisms. The bureaucratic apparatus and the cooperation of local elites as well as paramilitary organizations proved to be crucial in coordinating and executing the genocide throughout the eastern provinces. During the genocide, the CUP was motivated by a grandiose detrimental ideology of solving once and for all the Armenian Question. Such an ideological motivation was not present among the perpetrators of the Adana massacres. On the contrary, in 1909 the CUP itself was more concerned with threats of its own existence as a result of the counterrevolution. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the CUP’s attitudes toward Armenians changed drastically in the subsequent five years.

In his memoirs written in Berlin and published posthumously, Talat Paşa accused the Armenians of inciting the Adana massacres in order to bring about foreign intervention with the goal of recreating the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. However, he added, “By saying this I do not want to exclude the participation of the Muslims in the massacres; my intention is to prove that these incitements and provocations were used by Armenians and Bulgarians for political purposes.” After the massacres, Talat Paşa became the minister of the interior. Despite accusing the Armenians, he stated that his desire and goal was to unite the various nationalities, especially Armenians and Turks, in a bond of friendship. He claimed that, despite his political views, he still wanted justice to prevail:

On this issue, as an unbiased government person forgetting my political goal, I wanted the perpetrators of the massacres, be they Muslims or Armenians, to be punished. I insisted that in these events the mufti who has incited people to massacre, as well as the other Muslims, be punished. As a result, the court sentenced the mufti and his partners to death. And I was the one who ensured the approval of the Ministerial Council’s decision.

Destroyed buildings are shown in the city of Adana following the 1909 massacres. Credit: Ernst Jackh, Columbia University. 

This was the same Talat Paşa who, six years later, would become the main architect of the second genocide of the twentieth century.

The feeling of existential threat, heightened emotions, and suspicions regarding the intentions of the Armenians, as well as geostrategic calculations, became important factors in finding a final solution to the Armenian Question. Faced with external enemies as well as (imaginary) internal ones, the members of the inner clique of the CUP decided the fate of the Armenians through an orchestrated genocide. The architects of the Armenian Genocide were some of the same CUP members who had demonstrated sympathy to the Armenians in 1909. As argued in this book, given the appropriate conditions and political stresses, ordinary men can turn into brutal murderers.

Going beyond essentializations, this book has unpacked the factors that led to the massacres of Adana. These factors were rooted in both long-term and short-term developments. The former consisted of major transformations that took place in the province as a result of global economic changes, reforms, the sedentarization of nomadic tribes, migrations, and immigration in the nineteenth century. Adana’s geographic location and its fertility for cotton production transformed it into a major economic hub that attracted Armenians from the surrounding provinces, migrant workers, and Muslim refugees. However, while modernization in the second half of the nineteenth century led to an acceleration in the pace of cotton production, it also caused severe anxiety among the workers who supported their families by itinerant labor in the fields. Uneven economic development in the region led to the growing resentment of the migrant workers—as well as of the Muslim lower and lower-middle classes—toward the Armenians, whom they saw as the chief beneficiaries of Adana’s incorporation into the global economic system. The sedentarization of tribes in the region of Cilicia and the resettlement of Muslim refugees from Crimea and the Caucasus led to a dramatic rise in the competition over resources. The land question in Anatolia, which became the crux of the Armenian Question in the second half of the nineteenth century, also resonated in Adana. The expropriation of Armenian lands in Adana during the Hamidian period and their reallocation to Muslim refugees and roaming tribes became one of the most significant sources of ethno-religious tension in the region.

Bedross Der Matossian is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

The following piece has been excerpted from The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century, by Bedross Der Matossian, published by Stanford University Press, ©2022 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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