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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

A Journey from Hadjin to Saimbeyli

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 9 Juin 2020, 08:51am

Catégories : #Génocide, #Sous la Turquie, l'Anatolie


How the anti-Armenian "background noise" spreads in Turkey


[This essay was initially published in French on susam-sokak.fr on March 4, 2016]

Hadjin before the Genocide. Picture published on the website hadjin.com

Hadjin before the Genocide. Picture published on the website hadjin.com

Hadjin, Hadjine, Hadschin, Hadjn or, according to the Turkish writing Hacin, is a modest mountain town of Cilicia (former Kingdom of “Little Armenia”, XIInd- XIIIrd century), on the road from Adana to Kayseri, whose current name is Saimbeyli; it occupies a key position, which has earned him a tragic destiny.

Before 1915, it was an almost exclusively Armenian city, as R. Kévorkian and P. Paboudjian indicate in their book. It was the capital of a caza of 13,500 inhabitants according to the 1914 census; however, according to the diocesan census, the city alone had more than 26,000 Armenians (Kévorkian and Paboudjian, 1992). This order of magnitude is admitted by Paul du Véou (La Passion de la Cilicie, 148): 3000 houses, 30,000 inhabitants, all Armenians, in 1914.

The photographs of the time show an impressive city, spanning the sides of a narrow valley. According to its description by Kévorkian and Paboudjian, it included a Notre-Dame cathedral located inside the walls of the citadel, two churches (Saint-Georges and Saint-T'oros), two Protestant churches, an American mission, a high school where 1,200 students were studying in 1914, another high school (Saint-Mesrop), a convent (Saint-Jacques), located outside the city, and also housing a college and an orphanage. The crops were poor, due to the terrain and the altitude above 3000 feet: mulberry trees, vines, livestock, but most of the resources came from crafts (production of manisa, a very popular cotton fabric) and caravan trade.

Cilicia is one of the rare regions to have escaped the massacres committed in 1894-1896. But in 1909 political unrest provided the pretext for "one of the cruelest and savage massacres ever recorded in the history of mankind", with the assassination of most of the Armenians in Adana. It was a prelude to the 1915 genocide (Dadrian, pp. 305-308). The city of Hadjin, although besieged for two weeks, was spared (Babiguian, 1909).

A comparison of photographs from the past with the present appearance of the small town reveals a striking discontinuity since only the topography has not changed. There are still some traces of the old days: the ruins of the cathedral fortress dominating the city, and those of the old convent on the opposite slopes. The rupture is obviously radical in the composition of the population. Formerly almost entirely Armenian, even if Turkish sources mention a Muslim quarter and describe a bi-communal life for several centuries, the city is now exclusively Muslim. The break occurred in 1915 as for all Armenian communities, but in the case of Hadjin, the tragedy went on, until October 1920.

In order to respond to the Armenian "awakening of memory" during the 1970s, the Turkish state elaborated a counter-narrative of the events of 1915, claiming that what happened then was a "genocide of the Turks" by the Armenians. Hence, if the word "genocide" (soykırım) remains forbidden relating to the fate of the Armenians, it is widely used when it comes to Turkish victims. There actually were Turkish victims, of course, whose memory, impregnated with nationalism, until now feeds a strong resentment.


Left to right: General view of Saimbeyli (surrounded by a circle, the ruins of the fortress); photo published on the website saimbeyli.bel.tr. The ruins of the fortress, current state. The ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent (click to enlarge)Left to right: General view of Saimbeyli (surrounded by a circle, the ruins of the fortress); photo published on the website saimbeyli.bel.tr. The ruins of the fortress, current state. The ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent (click to enlarge)Left to right: General view of Saimbeyli (surrounded by a circle, the ruins of the fortress); photo published on the website saimbeyli.bel.tr. The ruins of the fortress, current state. The ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent (click to enlarge)

Left to right: General view of Saimbeyli (surrounded by a circle, the ruins of the fortress); photo published on the website saimbeyli.bel.tr. The ruins of the fortress, current state. The ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent (click to enlarge)

Hadjin, 1915-1920


In 1915, the vilayet of Adana, including the sanjak of Sis (Kozan) and, on its northern border, the kaza of Hadjin was emptied of its Armenian population. Adana had already suffered the massacre of 1909; Armenians from Sis, Hadjin, Karsbazar (Kadirli), Shehr (or Char, now Tufanbeyli), Rumlu (or Urumlu, now Doganbeyli) were all "deported to Syria" - most of them were quickly murdered. Lepsius estimates their number at around 100,000. According to Raymond Kévorkian, on May 23, 1915, "squadrons of cavalry and infantry from Zeytun took control of [Hadjin]. On May 27, they arrested 250 eminent Armenians interned in the administrative residence (konak) and in a requisitioned monastery, where they are tortured and executed. On June 10, the deportation of 5,000 Armenians begins under the supervision of Colonel Hüseyin Avni. The first convoy, by forced marches, towards Osmaniye and Aleppo by the Kiraz mountain road, includes 150 families. The 5,000 Armenians from the neighboring kaza of Feke were expelled soon after” (Kévorkian, 2006, pp. 743-744).

At the end of the war in 1918, around 200,000 Armenians were surviving in Syria, mainly around Aleppo, grouped in refugee camps. In January 1919, the Allied command decided to organize their repatriation. Colonel Bremond was responsible for overseeing the return of some 120,000 people to Cilicia, including Marash, Zeytoun, Antep and Hadjin; for security reasons, even Armenians from other regions are temporarily settled in Cilicia, in principle under the protection of French troops. The result was, in the words of Vahé Tachjian, populations "crowded [...] in unsanitary conditions" (Tachjian 2004, 62). As Tachjian explains, France then had an "imperialist objective" with the creation of an area of influence, if not a colony, which would ensure significant agricultural production, notably cotton. A large Armenian population in Cilicia "protected" by France was to be the instrument.

The Légion d'Orient (Eastern Legion), created in 1916 with the Armenian fighters of the Musa Dag, which in early 1919 became the Armenian Legion, was supposed to support this policy. Under a French command and a French flag, it was supposed to restore order in devastated Cilicia. That was a huge mistake. Untrained, undisciplined, manipulated in various ways by Armenian nationalist organizations, mainly moved by a desire for revenge, these fighters were ineffective and often engaged in robbery and abuse of the Turkish population. As the local administration remained Turkish, the attempts of the Legion to disarm the Muslim population and to free Armenian women "detained" by Turkish families were punctuated by many incidents. The inconsistencies of the French command and government increased the inefficiency of the Legion. Moreover, instead of supporting the Armenians, the French authorities were gradually compromised with the Kemalist movement, until the recognition of the new republican regime by France (treaty of Ankara, October 1921).

Elements of the Armenian Legion in Mersin, 1916. Old postcard

Elements of the Armenian Legion in Mersin, 1916. Old postcard

But the surviving deportees returned home whenever they could. According to Paul du Véou, eight thousand of them went back to Hadjin, whose population reportedly reached about 12,000 inhabitants in 1920. Du Véou, a militarist and colonialist essayist who openly expresses his hatred and disdain of the Turks (depicted as "the Horde", "the Barbarians" in his book), recognizes that "every Armenian was out for revenge". The main concern of any Armenian, apart from staying alive, was the recovery of his property, his land, his house, which had been confiscated very often, occupied at the end of the war by demobilized elements and deserters from the Turkish army, or even by muhajir (displaced Muslims from the Balkans or the Caucasus). The French authorities were not present enough on the ground to ensure the restitution of the Armenian properties to order and safety. In addition, Cilicia was infested with brigands of all kinds, including deserters from the Armenian Legion. Disorders were unavoidable.

According to Stanley Kerr, an American who was in Marash during the siege of the town in 1920, the Armenians considered the French authorities "too impartial" because they should have acted more clearly in their favor (Kerr 1973). On the other side, the mere existence of the Armenian Legion, operating under the French flag, seemed to confirm in the eyes of the Turks that the Armenians were traitors.

In February 1920, the French abandoned Marash and postponed their line of defense between Hadjin and Adana, at Sis (Kozan). And when the Turkish nationalist forces placed the city under siege (April 1920), the inhabitants of Hadjin, although in a very precarious situation, refused to leave their city again. The small town, defended by Tchalian, a lawyer, resisted six months. The news barely reached the outside world; reportedly, an "Armenian Republic of Amanus" was proclaimed there in August. But on October 15, 1920, under intense bombardment, the city falls into the hands of the Kemalists and most of the population perishes.

The French had made a complete turnaround. In September, the Armenian Legion was dissolved; du Véou plausibly insinuates that Hadjin was sacrificed to the Turks as part of a bargain for the armistice.

Such is, very simplified, the story of Hadjin during those dark years. The deportation, the genocide, the massacres and endemic violence between 1918 and 1920, and ultimately the siege of the city, make that at the end of 1920 there were almost no more witnesses of this history, neither on the Turkish side nor, obviously, on the Armenian side.

Ancient map extract published on the site hadjin.com

Ancient map extract published on the site hadjin.com

Turkish visions of the past


Hadjin, then completely destroyed, became Turkish again at the end of 1920. As in all of eastern Anatolia, during the decades following the genocide, economic activity was either disorganized or non-existent. There were no more artisans, no more agriculture, no more capital, no more services. The Turks had to reinvent a country that they had destroyed, and it took a long time. The population having been "cleansed" of the Armenians and "Turkified", the young republic erased the old names to complete the task, and in December 1923 Hadjin became "Saimbeyli", named after Saim Bey, the winner of 1920; the victor's seal was further completed by the name given to two of the three districts of the town: "Islam" and "Fetih" (a word specifically designating a victory over the "unbelievers"). Following the same model, Rumlu became "Doganbeyli", and Sar (Char, Shehr), "Tufanbeyli". In Saimbeyli, therefore, the Turks only settled slowly. Fifteen years after the events, the city had only 800 inhabitants, growing all the more slowly (1500 inhabitants in 1950) that the end of mining activities in the area pushed a part of the population to migrate to Adana.

Even today, the population of Saimbeyli is stagnating around 5000 inhabitants, far from its previous situation. It gained 2012 the status of "municipality" (belediye) on which depend 28 villages of the surroundings. Altogether, the enlarged municipality includes 15 to 16,000 inhabitants. It is a small administrative center, with a high school, a prison, a "cemetery of martyrs" created in 1951 for the Turkish victims of this story. The Turkish flag floats on the ruins of the fortress, and on the other side of the valley, near the ruins of the convent, a giant flag has been painted on the ground, as is the custom in Turkey. Thus the population, the names, the monuments or what remains of them, and the soil itself, have been stamped with Turkishness, and Saimbeyli has become an ideal place for the ultra-nationalist MHP party.

Left photo: Google Earth screenshot showing on the left the landscaped flag, on the right the ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent. Right photo: Opening ceremony of a street in Saimbeyli in 2014, with the banner with the three crescents of the MHPLeft photo: Google Earth screenshot showing on the left the landscaped flag, on the right the ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent. Right photo: Opening ceremony of a street in Saimbeyli in 2014, with the banner with the three crescents of the MHP

Left photo: Google Earth screenshot showing on the left the landscaped flag, on the right the ruins of the Saint-Jacques convent. Right photo: Opening ceremony of a street in Saimbeyli in 2014, with the banner with the three crescents of the MHP

Today, the population is conservative, even reactionary. As a result of municipal elections in 2014, the MHP won 51% of the votes and the Islamist AKP 34%. As for the general elections held in June and November 2015, the MHP won more than one-third of the votes each time and the AKP about half. The proportions are the same in Kozan (ancient Sis), while the MHP largely won in Tufanbeyli (former Char) in June 2015, and in Adana this party reigns over the town.

Should we be surprised? Turks in the region suffered violence from Armenians in 1919 and 1920; obviously, their sufferings are not in proportion to those of the Armenians, but for a victim, the slightest scale of a massacre is not a consolation. Resentment, reinforced by nationalism, was transmitted to the next generations.

Above all, the perpetration of genocide can not leave a society in peace, especially since the facts are not recognized. But the ultra-nationalism of the MHP tranquilizes souls and legitimizes the acts of the past by proclaiming unceasingly the superiority of the Turk and the Muslim on all Others, hammering a historical narrative that presents the Armenian basically as a traitor. The discourse of the MHP – and that of the state as well – is able to free the Turks of the sense of guiltiness, since the Turk is decisively depicted as the victim, in the affairs of 1915-1920. To the Turks who took the place of the Armenians, voting for the MHP seems to be a guarantee of stability and of not returning to the previous situation; a supporter of the MHP has no self-doubt, he is confident, sure of his right and of his own superiority.

The Islamist AKP has adopted the same interpretation of history, it has the same vision of the superiority of the Turk and of Islam. AKP and MHP, together, reassure, continue to reassure, as Atatürk did in his time, a country that was afraid to disappear.

From the 1950s, the state developed a stereotypical discourse on "the Armenian question" (Copeaux, 1997), which spread on to universities and then to history textbooks in the 1970s. Any Turk now knows how to use this rhetoric which is exactly the opposite of that of the "detractors" of Turkey. At the time (1998) when the debate on the recognition of the genocide by France scandalized Turkey, the mainstream Turkish newspapers published whole pages on the massacres in Adana in 1909 - but it dealt with the massacres of Turks by the Armenians! - using testimonies of some elderly witnesses.

This discourse infuses society until its capillaries. In a place like Saimbeyli/Hadjin, the population, which for the most part comes from elsewhere, must rely on a legitimizing narrative.

The municipality provides one on its website; it is based on the general narrative of history textbooks as I analyzed it in my thesis (Copeaux, 1997). As often, it begins with an evocation of the Hittite presence in the region, which is a way to legitimize the presence of the Turks, as their supposedly Hittite ancestry is perfectly integrated into the minds since the 1930s. The narrative admits that the region was during the XIIth-XIIIrd centuries under Armenian sovereignty, which resisted the Arab conquest of Asia Minor; this explains the existence of many Armenian fortresses, including the fortress-cathedral dominating the city. The convent, the many churches are also mentioned. The municipality's website admits that most of the population was Christian and that Muslims lived in harmony with them.

If the friendship has stopped, it allegedly was because "the Western powers pushed the Armenians to revolt. During World War I, they put themselves on the side of the enemies”. Therefore, "as a precaution, the State adopted population displacement measures that were implemented on May 28, 1915". Armenians were taken to the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. "After the war, they came back safe and sound". But the displacement caused "uproar" (çalkantı) to Europe, where "false allegations" (dedikodu) circulated. However, "in Saimbeyli, apart from the natural deaths, there were no casualties among the Armenians". And even, “we can say that they were privileged since, out of ten thousand displaced, ten thousand returned home, while each Muslim family of Saimbeyli deplored children killed at the front ".

While all was well, "the French occupiers pushed the Armenians to revolt". The Armenians of Hadjin formed bands of brigands, the Hacin gavuru, who attacked the travelers and fought the Kemalists. Thus "they perpetrated a genocide against Muslims, by taking the Inquisition as a model. 217 Turks were murdered . "

According to the city's website, this case provoked the intervention of the Kemalist forces (Kuvay-ı Milliye), who took the city on October 18, 1920. Hadjin was destroyed to such an extent that the administration was temporarily moved to Gürlesen, a nearby village (now Rumlu). The massacre of the 217 Muslims took place in the fortress church, destroyed when the Armenians "left ".

In broad outline, this story is frequently repeated. For example, in 2009, a geographer from the University of Nigde, Tülay Öcal, prefaces an article on the economic functions of the city with a historical introduction, which is silent on the whole period between Antiquity and 1920, but does not forget to mention "the massacre of the Turks by the Armenians".

Another scholar, Serdar Girginer (2005), an archaeologist of Adana, adds to the story of the municipality that “Armenians were moved between Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor”, "where they temporarily settled. (...) It was a normal decision in a time of war, and all the precautions had been taken on the humanitarian level. (...) Apart from those who had betrayed, the Armenians did not suffer ill-treatment; and officials who did not respect these provisions were severely punished. (...) The Armenians were allowed to return home. That’s what 8 to 10,000 of them did, helped by the French”. It has been since 1920 on that "they massacred the Turks of all the region, the worst episode having occurred in Hadjin". During the siege, "not one of the Muslims in the city was spared by the Armenians".

Most striking in the stories of Öcal and Girginer is that they are off-topic, introducing, respectively, a work of economic geography and an account of archaeological excavations. The very presence of irrelevant stories, in such contexts, denotes a concern for justification; they respond implicitly to a polemic whose opposing party is physically absent but present in the implicit, in the speech, in the minds of the authors and recipients of the stories.

Anti-Armenian "background noise"


I don't know if the Turkish academics are explicitly encouraged to include in their books historical remarks unrelated to the subject. It probably is a token of conformity, which could guarantee the author of career facilities.

Other local historians practice a more frontal, more militant denial. An Adana teacher, Cezmi Yurtsever (this surname means "patriot"), publishes serial books on the "genocides" of Turks: The Genocide of Yesiloba (1990), The Genocide of Zeytinli (1991), The Genocide of Karakilise in Hadjin (1995), in all about twenty books of the same vein, all related to the history of Cilicia. It is one of those characters who cultivate, maintain, and spread resentment, chasing down everyone Armenian element of local history. Here is another example: in 2002, when a senior CHP party official visited Domingo Carvallo, former finance minister, in Argentina, he published in the newspaper Milliyet an investigation of his own about the minister's wife, of Armenian origin, whose grandparents were allegedly "responsible for the massacre of 10,000 people during the siege of Hadjin" (Milliyet , January 15, 2002).

State discourse is therefore widely relayed: by local authorities, by academics, amateur historians, then by the population itself. For example, in the "Saimbeyli" section of the online participatory dictionary Eksi Sözlük, contributors continue to victimize the Turks and only them: "The Armenians were deported during the war because they rebelled against the Ottomans. They returned to Hadjin, taking advantage of the political vacuum. Supported by the French, they massacred the Turks". Yet other contributors evoke the city's past wealth, its convent, its "Robert College" (sic), its wines, its renowned goldsmiths, "which today attracts many treasure hunters”. One feels that some of the young Internet users are troubled by this story: "It is an ancient Armenian city, but there is no one left, unless some of the inhabitants had a grandfather or a grandmother [Armenians ] but I do not know", wrote one of them in 2006.

It must be remembered that this type of discourse is multiplied throughout the country,  in as many regional history narratives, by regional historians and websites. The whole forms an anti-Armenian background noise grafted on the ultra-nationalist discourse, itself in tune with that of the State. The Armenian remains the Enemy par excellence because he is a type of otherness both familiar (neighbor, but Christian) and radical (traitor and bloodthirsty killer).

That is why his name and his figure are also mentioned in another context, about and during the Kurdish conflict, since what can be a man who resists the Turkish state if not an "Armenian bastard"? This insult is often tagged on the walls of Kurdish cities after their evacuation by the police, this is what is proclaimed sometimes on banners of ultra-nationalist protesters: any resistance to the state tends to be assimilated to a provocation of "Armenian" origin.

As I mentioned before, there is a radical discontinuity in the history of Hadjin as of any formerly Armenian place. It is perhaps reinforced by part of modern Armenian historiography, which refrains from specifying the current Turkish toponyms, which does not facilitate the identification of localities, whereas many Armenians make the pilgrimage on the spot. These books do not evoke, even briefly, their future after the genocide. Quite obviously, the discontinuity is not an impression: for the Armenians, the history of the city actually ends in 1915, with the end of hundreds of thousands of lives that were unique; and for the survivors, by a total break, the dive into another world, that of mourning and of a difficult resilience in exile.

Yet the continuity exists, not only because the slopes of the mountains and the course of the rivers have not changed. It exists through a memory that is maintained or developed with difficulty among the Turkish populations living in these places among ghosts. Even if these people come from elsewhere, they know that they do not live in some Nowhere, that the lands they cultivate belonged to others than their ancestors, that they did not build the imposing fortress. They are preoccupied with the past, they live with difficulty in this consciousness and their uneasiness is often expressed by the ultra-nationalist vote.

But uneasiness could one day be expressed differently. That's where continuity is, that's where history is, despite the efforts of the Turkish state, the past has not passed, its footprint remains strong, in the minds far more than in the landscape. It induces attitudes, mentalities, ways of thinking that, in turn, act on Turkey. I am not sure that this is "another story" because Hadjin's past, multiplied by hundreds of similar cases, continues to shape the present, negatively here, positively elsewhere, and this explains why Turkey will not be able to democratize as long as this problem of memory, as well as the Kurdish question, is not solved.

A Journey from Hadjin to Saimbeyli



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