Earth, Fire, Water

Revisiting the Armenian genocide

In the following excerpt from Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Random House, 2000), I offer one perspective on the historical experience of the Armenians. Yet while I am sympathetic to the Armenian worldview and support some form of commemoration of what they have suffered, I believe that given the specific circumstances of the moment, with our troops risking their lives for a better Iraq, and the Turks contemplating an invasion of northern Iraq, now is the worst possible moment to anger the Turks with a Congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. Alas, justice will yet again have to wait.

The Armenian capital of Yerevan sits under the spell of Mount Ararat, soaring 16,874 feet over the surrounding plain; a giant smoky-blue pyramid capped by a craggy head of silvery-white snow. On many days, the summit emerges from a platform of clouds halfway up the sky, like a new universe in formation. The name Ararat is from the Armenian root for "life" and "creation," ara. Mount Ararat is Armenia's national symbol, appearing on maps and banners and in paintings. Ararat is where Noah's Ark is supposed to have come to rest. In nearby Echmiadzin, the Armenian Vatican, where sits the "Catholicos of All Armenians," a shard of stone said to be petrified wood from the Ark is embedded in a silver-plated icon. Armenians choose to think they are the first people who settled the earth after the Deluge.

From the unfinished cement balcony of my hotel room, Mount Ararat looks close enough to touch—a pure and dreamlike vision of heaven that humbles the ramshackle iron roofs and barracks-style apartment blocks of Yerevan. But Ararat is unreachable. It lies beyond the border with Armenia's historic enemy, Turkey. The border between the two countries is sealed with barbed wire. In the words of an Armenian poem:

We have already seen the other side of the moon.
But when will we see the other side of Ararat?

Ararat's power as a mythic symbol is intensified by its location in Turkey. Ararat calls forth the forbidden land—the lost part of historic Armenia encompassing much of present-day Turkey and the site of the 1915 genocide, when a crumbling Turkish regime starved, exiled, and killed over a million Armenians. Whenever they look toward the southwestern horizon at the awe-inspiring mountain, the inhabitants Yerevan are reminded of ancient and medieval glory, and of twentieth-century mass murder.

Armenia is the quintessential Near Eastern nation: conquered, territorially mutilated, yet existing in one form or another in the Near Eastern heartland for 2,600 years, mentioned in ancient Persian inscriptions and in the accounts of Herodotus and Strabo. Armenians trace their roots to Hayk, son of Torgom, the great-grandson of Japheth, a son of Noah himself. While their rivals the Medes and Hittites disappeared, the Armenians remained intact as an Indo-European people with their own language, akin to Persian. In the first century B.C., under Tigran the Great, Hayastan (what Armenians call Annenia) stretched from the Caspian Sea in the east to central Turkey in the west incorporating much of the Caucasus, part of Iran, and all of Syria. In A.D. 301, Armenians became the first people to embrace Christianity as a state religion; today, Orthodox Armenia represents the southeastern edge of Christendom in Eurasia.  In 405, the scholar Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet, still in use today. (When I remarked to a friend in Yerevan that the Armenian alphabet looked vaguely similar to the Georgian one, she shrieked: "Nonsense. There is a joke that when the Georgians needed an alphabet, they asked Mashtots, who took the macaroni he was eating and threw it against the wall. The patterns it made became the Georgian alphabet.")

Armenia soon became engulfed by the Roman and Byzantine empires. But when the Arab caliphate fell into decline in the ninth tenth centuries, Armenia rose again as a great independent kingdom under the Bagratid dynasty, with its capital at Ani, in present-day Turkey. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turk chieftain Alp Arsla1 overran Ani, Kars, and the other Armenian fortresses, destroying over ten thousand illuminated manuscripts, copied and painted at Armenia monasteries.  Independent Armenia survived in the form of baronies but eventually fell under the rule of Turks, Persians, and, later, the Russian czars and commissars. It is the Russian part which forms today's independent state.

Now squeezed between Turkey to the west, Iran to the south, Azerbaijan to the east, and Georgia to the north—with its lost, far-flung territories lying in all directions—this newly independent former Soviet republic straddles the Caucasus and the Near Eastern desert to the south. Like Israel, Armenia is a small country—its population is only 3.5 million—surrounded on three sides by historical enemies (the Anatolian Turks, the Azeri Turks, and the Georgians), but it boasts a dynamic merchant tradition and a wealthy diaspora. Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Teheran, and Istanbul all have influential Armenian communities. Jews and Armenians also share the legacy of genocide. The Nazis' World War II slaughter of the Jews was inspired partly by that of the Armenians in World War I. "Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?" Hitler remarked in 1939.

I had come to Armenia because I wanted to see the other side.  Throughout Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, I had heard people crudely, matter-of-factly curse the Armenians. The Armenians have been despised in these countries the way the Israelis and Jews have been in much of the Arab world, compared with "lice" and "fleas" sucking the blood from native peoples. I had come to Armenia to look again at the issue of national character, for here was a distinctly identifiable people and a country that was more ethnically homogeneous than most others in the region: While Jews comprise 83 percent of Israel's population, Armenians make up 93 percent of Armenia's. (Armenia used to be multiethnic, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris fled to Azerbaijan and abroad, while a similar number of ethnic Armenians fled Azerbaijan.)

Finally, I had come here to end my journey where it began: in the Balkans. Of course, Armenia is not exactly in the Balkans, situated as it is at the opposite end of Turkey from Bulgaria and Greece. However, along with Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia, Armenia was central to the tangle of nationality problems arising from the death of the Ottoman empire, a headache that bedeviled European statesmen at the turn of the twentieth century and that collectively was known as the "Eastern question." It was the national movements of the late, nineteenth-century Balkans that had inspired Armenian revolutionaries seeking freedom from both the Turkish sultans and the Russian czars.

But there was a crucial difference between the revolt of the Greeks and the Slavs against the Turks in the Balkans and the Armenian revolt: against the Turks in eastern Anatolia. The Balkans lay within the Ottoman empire but outside Turkey itself, so only imperial control was at issue; while in eastern Anatolia, Turkish and Armenian communities fought over the same soil. That is partly why—in the shadow of Mount Ararat—traditional ethnic killing first acquired a comprehensive and bureaucratic dimension…

The Armenian Genocide Memorial stands on a plateau overlooking Yerevan, in the same splendid isolation as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial outside Jerusalem. It consists of a forty-four-meter-high dark-granite needle and twelve inward-leaning basalt slabs forming an open tent over an eternal flame, with a museum and offices located underground. The Armenian Genocide, like the Jewish Holocaust, was an event that grew—rather than diminished—in significance over the decades, to the point where it became a collective memory of mythic proportions. The Jews created an identity for the Holocaust, as the Armenians did for the massacres at the hands of the Turks, as blacks did for slavery. Partly because the Armenian Genocide was harder than the Holocaust to isolate from the other violence of a world war, the term genocide is relatively new, applied retrospectively decades later.

Because the genocide occurred in the Turkish part of Armenia rather than in the Russian part, where the current Armenian state is located, its memory has always resonated more in the diaspora with its communities of survivors than in Yerevan itself --especially since any discussion of the genocide in Soviet Armenia was discouraged by Moscow, fearful as it was of a nationalist revival. Nevertheless, in 1965, there was a major demonstration here on the fiftieth anniversary of the massacres. This prompted Leonid Brezhnev to make a canny decision. He recognized that a sharpening of hostilities between NATO-member Turkey and a Soviet republic on Turkey's eastern border would benefit the Kremlin at a time when enthusiasm for the Cold War was waning; it would also allow the local population in a strategic and relatively prosperous Soviet republic to express its rage. This is why Brezhnev ordered the construction of the Genocide Monument in Yerevan. Completed by two Armenian architects in 1967, it is a Soviet-style edifice of brutish socialist realism, indistinguishable from many of the war memorials I had seen throughout the former Warsaw Pact nations, with weeds growing between the cracks of poorly laid stones.

Recognizing the genocide was one thing; actively encouraging its memory was another. "The Soviets used the genocide as a political weapon against Turkey but did not teach it in Armenian schools," Laurenti Barsegian, the Genocide Museum director, told me over glasses of cognac and "Armenian coffee" at ten in the morning. What had really ignited the collective memory of the genocide was the terrorist campaign against Turkish diplomats in the 1980s, organized by Beirut-based Armenians. "Killing Turkish diplomats was wrong, for they are just as human as we are," the museum director declared, "but, ironically, it worked. The genocide became more widely known."

Then came Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost, and, with it, the explosion of ethnic nationalism in Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of the Caucasus. "The enemy in Karabakh was not the Azeri Turks but our own past," Mikayel Hambardzumyan, a young local reformer, explained to me. "The genocide had given Armenians a nationalism built on defeat and masochism, like the Serbs and Shi'ites," he said, "but now the victory in Karabakh has changed that. It has made our nationalism healthier."  I noticed that some Armenian war dead from Karabakh were buried at the Genocide Monument, merging formally the crime committed against the Armenian nation at the beginning of the twentieth century with the ugly revenge exacted at its end.

Because the memory of the genocide had always burned deeper in the diaspora, Karabakh became the diaspora's war as much as Yerevan's, with money and volunteers coming from Armenian communities around the world. "Karabakh—much more than independence from the Soviet Union—unified Armenia with the diaspora," Aris Khazian, a geographer and intellectual, told me.

From the office of the director, I entered the museum, commissioned by post-Soviet Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, and opened in April 1995, on the eightieth anniversary of the genocide, completing the memorial complex begun by the Soviets on the fiftieth anniversary. The official anniversary of the genocide is April 24, the night in 1915 when the Turkish authorities arrested the political, intellectual, and religious leaders of the Armenian community in Istanbul and deported them to the Anatolian interior, where all were savagely murdered.

In the museum's somber basalt interior, I faced a wall-size map, made of stone, showing all the Armenian settlements of eastern Anatolia: Trabzon, Van, Erzurum, Diyarbekir, Bitlis, Sivas, and so on: 2,133,190 Armenian inhabitants, 1,996 Armenian schools, and 2,925 churches. I had traveled often through these now Turkish cities, where, except for the occasional ruin of a church turned into a pigsty that I had seen outside Trabzon, every trace of Armenian civilization has been erased. Nor do the Turkish authorities acknowledge that Armenians once lived on their soil. The Germans could concede their crime against the Jews because postwar Germany was forced to adopt the values and institutions of the Western allies and because the Jews had been a minority with no territorial claim—unlike the Armenians, whose very existence threatens Turkey's right to sovereignty over eastern Anatolia. In the Near East, where states built on a single tribal identity occupy formerly mixed areas, to acknowledge crimes against a whole people is to put your own dominion in doubt.

Passing through the dimly lit hallway, seeing grainy old photos of beheaded Armenians that the Turks had lined up on shelves, naked bodies stacked on hillsides and in trenches, and corpses swinging a few inches off the ground from makeshift gallows, I reflected on the trail of events that sparked such barbarism. I realized then that the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians—more than the Nazi Holocaust—are the appropriate analogy for recent events in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and East Timor, among other places. Hitler had no territorial motive for his industrialized racial killing. Indeed, the focus on killing the Jews may have distracted his war machine from fighting his real strategic enemy, the Russians. But eastern Anatolia in 1915—like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda—was a battlefield upon which two peoples fought over the same soil, with one in a strong enough position to destroy the other. The Armenian Genocide—like the humanitarian disasters of the 1990s—was mass slaughter arising from ethnic conflict over territory. Thus, what happened in eastern Anatolia is politically and morally a more complicated event than the Holocaust. Because the early twenty-first century may see more such humanitarian emergencies, the Armenian Genocide will grow in significance.

The Armenian Genocide occurred during World War I, when Ottoman Turkey was allied with Germany against czarist Russia and the Western allies. While an Allied fleet was bombarding the Dardanelles in western Turkey, eastern Turkey was open to Russian attack. At the same time, Armenians in eastern Turkey (Anatolia) were deserting the Moslem Turkish army and joining their fellow Orthodox Christians on the Russian side, and Armenians farther to the east in the Caucasus were organizing anti-Turkish militias. A brutal competition for land in eastern Anatolia made relations among the Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish inhabitants even worse, with Armenian villagers refusing to pay taxes to the Kurdish tribesmen who controlled the area on behalf of the Ottoman Turkish authorities. The Turks, in effect, subcontracted the slaughter of the Armenians to the Kurds, whose irregulars, the Hamidieh, murdered the Armenians. In many Anatolian villages, the absence of Turkish authority was worse than its presence.

According to Ronald Grigor Suny, the Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan: "Political disorder ... led to chaos.... A state of war existed between the Muslims and the Armenians as the government abdicated its responsibilities." Nevertheless, the various local massacres suggested a deliberate policy crafted in Istanbul. The museum displays a document issued by Talaat Pasha, a leading Turkish official, ordering the elimination—by whatever means necessary—of Armenians from Ottoman lands. Thus, 600,000 to 1.5 million people were murdered and exiled—people who had inhabited Anatolia for a thousand years before the Turks arrived. "In my apartment I have the key to my grandfather's house in Erzurum, in western Armenia, a house I can never enter because it is now in Turkey," an Armenian friend in Yerevan told me.

While specific individuals in the highest reaches of the Turkish government ordered the killings, it is also true that imperial authority was disintegrating, causing mayhem in distant reaches of the empire given over to ethnic hatred—a hatred aggravated by competition for scarce land and other resources. The Armenian Genocide was one aspect of an unwieldy, multiethnic empire's re-formation into smaller, uniethnic states. The same ingredients have been at work in our own time: in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Indonesian archipelago, and other places where large-scale human rights abuses have occurred. The collapse of empires and the desire for ethnic self-determination and regional independence are a messy, bloody business.

Excerpt from Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2000)