Remembering The Armenian Genocide
April 24th 2022
A Tale of Denial
When Orientalist representations seep through the porous boundaries of ourselves, the demand for media representation is a demand for an authentic self.
100 years on, the largest mass murder of Armenians is still widely unrecognised.
Disclaimer - This article is not a comprehensive summary of the genocide and the events leading up to it. Many books have been written on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, please refer to the articles, books and webpages mentioned in the bibliography.
From 1915 to 1917, ethnic Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were deported from their homes, and systematically slaughtered. It is estimated that over a million ethnic Armenians died; some starved to death or died from exhaustion on long death marches, others were massacred in their homes or executed. Yet to this day, many countries around the world continue to deny that the event was a genocide.
Modern Armenia is a landlocked, West Asian country located in the Caucasus region separating Europe and Asia. It was home to an ancient civilisation, and in around 300 CE, was the first kingdom in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion, after the conversion of King Tiridates III (1). By the 19th century, the historical Armenian homeland had come under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the west, and the Russian Empire in the east.
Eastern Anatolia (modern day Turkey), of great importance in the context of the genocide, historically had a large Armenian Christian, Kurdish Muslim and Circassian population (1, 2). The Kurds and Circassians often looted Armenian towns in the area, a source of great anger and frustration (3, 4).
“By the 19th century, the historical Armenian homeland had come under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the west, and the Russian Empire in the east.”
Armenia under the Ottoman Empire
Under the Sunni-Muslim Ottoman Empire, in modern day Turkey, religious minorities were organised into millets - communities based on religious background. Millets enjoyed some freedom in governance, but paid higher taxes, and were seen as second-class citizens (5). The Armenians were one millet; others included the Jews and Assyrians.

Some Armenians were able to ascend to important positions in government, earning positions of power within the Empire. For example, one Ottoman Armenian, Gabriel Noradunkyan, became the Ottoman Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1908 to 1910 (4). Life for the majority was not like this, but the power of these select few Armenians was a cause for resentment for Turkish nationalists.
Early tensions: the ‘Armenian Question’
In the 1870s, Orthodox Christian minority groups in the Balkans staged a series of uprisings. They eventually fought a war, alongside the primarily Orthodox Christian Russian Empire, gaining cessation from the Ottomans. This resulted in the loss of Ottoman dominance in the Balkans.

Spurred by the uprisings, many Armenians began to push for equal rights within the Empire, and for protection against looting by the neighbouring Kurds and Circassians. They sent a delegation to peace talks following the wars in the Balkans, appealing for protection from looting and violence by their neighbours. Seeing the events in the Balkans, some Armenian nationalists saw an opportunity to leave the Ottomans, and create an Armenian nation ruled and protected by the Christian Russian Empire. Internationally, the problem this caused came to be known as the ‘Armenian Question’.
The Hamidian Massacres
Following the wars in the Balkans, as part of peace agreements signed with the powers of Europe, the Ottoman Empire agreed to conduct reforms and to guarantee Armenian security against the Kurds and Circassians (6). These agreements irritated the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who bought into harmful Armenian stereotypes. He remarked that they were ‘hiding behind the great powers’ and were ‘cowardly and coy like a woman’ .

Instead of enforcing these reforms, the Sultan trained and armed Kurdish, Turk and Circassian bandits, who became known as the Hamidiye Alaylari. His aim was to secure the loyalty of the Hamidiye and protect the borders of the fragile Empire, which was gradually losing territory and facing economic crisis.The Hamidiye went on to pillage Armenian towns with impunity, taking goods without payment and harassing civilians.
In 1894, the Sultan started to actively target Armenians, alongside Ottoman armies and the Kurds. A resistance sprung up in Sassun, in the eastern part of the Empire. Armenian revolutionary groups armed the locals and fighting ensued. The Armenians were overwhelmed by the numbers of Ottoman and Kurds, and the violence was condemned by Western powers, who asked for further reformation (4).
“The Hamidiye went on to pillage Armenian towns with impunity, taking goods without payment and harassing civilians.”
Western condemnation only amplified tensions, and in 1895, a massacre broke out in the city of Diyarbakır, spreading across the Empire. Armenians were indiscriminately slaughtered, and other Christian minorities, such as the Assyrians, were also targeted. It is estimated that between 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians were killed in the Hamidian massacres, which lasted until 1897. Many Armenian societies and political movements were banned or restricted.
Turkification, The Young Turks and genocide
By the start of the 20th century Ottoman hegemony was in decline. The diminishing power of the Ottoman Empire, and the autocratic rule of Abdul Hamid II led to a revolution. A new group, the Young Turks, came to power in 1908, with a new nationalistic vision of the Empire. They were headed by the secretive Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) (7).

Initially, minorities cooperated with the new order, welcoming the political reform and elections after the despotism of Abdul Hamid II. However, the ideology of the CUP and the Young Turks became increasingly nationalistic, and in 1913, a coup d’état led to three of the most nationalistic individuals, known as ‘the Three Pashas’, gaining dictatorial power. They wanted to form a solely Turkish state, and saw the Christian minorities, such as the Armenians and Assyrians, as a barrier to achieving their goal.

When World War I began, the Ottomans chose to side with Germany, against the Triple Alliance of Russia, the UK, and France. Ottoman Armenians fought for the Ottomans, but Russian Armenians fought for the Russians, much to the anger of the CUP, who had implored they fight for the Ottomans.
“Armenians were used as scapegoats for the defeat. While retreating, the Ottoman armies massacred the Armenian populations they encountered.”
At the Battle of Sarikamish in 1914, the Ottomans lost to the Russians, amongst whom were Russian Armenians (4). One of the Three Pashas, Enver Pasha, blamed Armenians, and portrayed them as traitors. Contemporary historians, such as Akçam (8), claim that these allegations were intentionally fabricated. They suggest that poor leadership, alongside heavy snow, were to blame, rather than Armenian treachery. Regardless of this, Armenians were used as scapegoats for the defeat. While retreating, the Ottoman armies massacred the Armenian populations they encountered.
The so-called ‘Armenian Question’, of what to do with the Ottoman Armenian population, was once again raised, this time in the context of the nationalistic CUP, who wanted a Turkish nation. The Three Pashas found their solution in the Armenian genocide.
In 1915, the Three Pashas decided that in order to make space for their new Turkish empire, they would have to remove and eradicate the existing Armenian inhabitants of Eastern Anatolia (4).

This started with the disarmament of Ottoman Armenian soldiers, who were then either worked to death in labour battalions, or rounded up and executed. These soldiers were the first victims of the genocide. Simultaneously, civilians were being massacred and kidnapped by a combination of Turkish military police, and Hamidiye.
“It is estimated that over a million Armenians died; some starved to death or died from exhaustion on long death marches, whilst others were massacred in their homes or executed.”
In Van, one of the centres of Armenian culture, locals put up an armed resistance against the massacre, which was used as evidence of further treachery by the CUP. The Three Pashas rounded up Armenian intellectuals, politicians and community leaders across the Empire, including several deputies to the Ottoman Parliament. The majority were murdered in the months to follow to eliminate any potential resistance. All Armenian political organisations were forcefully disbanded.
Death Marches
The majority of those who were deported were forced to walk up to 1000km to reach the dessert, without food or water, in the blazing heat of summer. Individuals who fell behind were either abandoned or shot dead. During the first few days of the march, all males over the age of 12 would be taken aside and executed at killing sites. There are accounts of men being tied back-to-back and being thrown into rivers to drown. The rivers soon became blocked and polluted, and explosives were used to clear the corpses (9).
Conversion under duress
Some Armenians were spared deportation provided they converted to Islam, and renounced their culture, language and names. Women were required to marry into Turkish households.
Sexual Violence
Throughout the marches, rape was widespread and women and children were often sold as sex slaves.
Those who survived the marches and made it to the desert were kept in concentration camps, rife with disease (4). Some died from outbreaks of typhus and cholera, others from dysentery, pneumonia, starvation, or sheer exhaustion. Female prisoners were raped, and Bedouins (nomadic Arab tribes) were allowed to conduct raids on the camps. In Aleppo, there were accounts of children being sold to Turks, Arabs, and Jews; their parents wanted to spare them the fate of a death in the camps. In 1916, when the camps were slowly shut down by the CUP, the remaining survivors had their throats slit.

It is estimated that around two million Armenians inhabited the Ottoman Empire in 1915. By 1917, when the systematic, state-sponsored genocide had stopped, less than half remained (10).
While state-sponsored massacres had ceased by 1917 (4), sporadic massacres continued until around 1923, when the Republic of Turkey came into existence (3). Beginning in 1919, Ottoman military tribunals implicated many of the masterminds of the genocide, including the Three Pashas, who were sentenced to death in absentia; the Three Pashas, and many of the other perpetrators, escaped abroad, and were not present at the tribunals. The same year, a new Turkish National Movement sprang up, and many of those implicated joined it. Two of the Pashas - Talaat and Cemal - were assassinated by a special unit of Armenian revolutionaries, as part of Operation Nemesis, a coordinated scheme to hunt down and kill those responsible for the genocide. The third, Enver Pasha, was killed in 1922, in an unrelated conflict, by a cavalry brigade under the command of a Russian Armenian.
Genocide Denial
A bewildering characteristic of the Armenian genocide is the continual denial of its existence, even over a century after the event. Turkey continues to vehemently deny that the actions of 1915 to 1917 were a genocide, despite widespread consensus from leading scholars. They argue that the plan was merely to resettle Armenians, in order to quell violent uprising. The interlinked nature of the genocide and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey means it is a taboo topic, and the government has gone to great lengths to maintain its denial. Evidence has been destroyed, and critics have been prosecuted under a law which criminalises ‘insulting Turkishness’ (11). One journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered in 2007 by Turkish nationalists, for his criticism of the denial.
“Survivors are few and far between, but their stories live on in their descendants. Those with family who survived speak proudly of their resilience.”
Many countries are reluctant to acknowledge the genocide, for fear of straining relations with Turkey (12). It was only in April 2021 that Joe Biden became the first US President to formally recognise the widespread killings as actions of genocide. The UK government, however, does not recognise the events as consistent with genocide, saying that ‘terrible suffering [was] inflicted on Armenians, but… our priority today should be to promote reconciliation’ (13).
Impact of the Armenian Diaspora
The Armenian genocide, and persecution in the years leading up to it, led many (Western) Armenians to leave their homeland in Eastern Anatolia and immigrate to other countries across the world. The genocide is therefore an important and traumatic event for the Armenian diaspora. Over 100 years after the genocide, survivors are few and far between, but their stories live on in their descendents. Those whose grandparents and great grandparents survived speak proudly of their resilience, but lament the lack of worldwide recognition, hoping for a future where the suffering inflicted on them is acknowledged in full (14). 24th April, the date when the genocide began, is Genocide Remembrance Day in Armenia, and is a public holiday. Every year on this day, hundreds of thousands of Armenians walk to Tsitsernakaberd in the capital, to lay flowers at the official memorial. There, an eternal flame burns, dedicated to all those who died in the genocide.
1870s: Great Eastern Crisis - Orthodox Christian groups in the Balkans agitate for cessation from the Ottoman Empire. Some Armenian nationalists see an opportunity for a separate Armenian nation under sympathetic Russian rule. This alarms the Ottoman Empire.

1890s: Armenians are slaughtered by Ottoman regiments, under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who then bans and restricts many Armenian societies and political movements.

1900s: Young Turks come to power, with a nationalistic vision of the Empire. The three Pashas gain power, wanting a solely Turkish state. They see minorities as a barrier to this.

1915-1917: The Armenian Genocide - the Three Pashas decide to deport Armenians to the barren Syrian desert. Armenian soldiers are executed under their orders, and many atrocities are committed in the state-sponsored genocide.

1919: Ottoman military tribunals sentence the Three Pashas and other masterminds of the genocide to death. They are not present at the tribunals, but are killed in the following years.

2021: Joe Biden becomes the first US President to formally recognise the genocide, over 100 years after it took place.
Exploring further
Armenian Institute
A London based organisation which hosts workshops, lectures and exhibits on Amernian culture.
British Armenian
A short (5 mins) blog piece by a British Armenian. Focuses on the international response and then impact on the Armenian diaspora.
Armenian National Institue
A website by the Armenian National Institute which provides a few articles on the genocide, along with lots of resources for further reading.
Modern Kurdish response. The Kurds have acknowledged their part in the genocide.
Recommended Further Academic Reading:
  • Alexis Demirdjian, A Moving Defence: The Turkish State and the Armenian Genocide, Journal of International Criminal Justice, Volume 16, Issue 3, July 2018, Pages 501–526,
  • Kévorkian, Raymond (2014). "Earth, Fire, Water: or How to Make the Armenian Corpses Disappear". Destruction and Human Remains: Disposal and Concealment in Genocide and Mass Violence. Manchester University Press. pp. 89–116. ISBN 978-1-84779-906-7.
  • Akçam, Taner (2012). The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15333-9.
  • "They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else" : A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny
1. Howe et al. (2022)
2. Gingeras (2011)
3. Kévorkian (2011)
4. Suny (2015)
5. Aviv (2016)
6. Treaty of Berlin (1878)
7. Akmese (2005)
8. Akçam (2012)
9. Kévorkian (2014)
10. Adalian (n.d.)
11. Demirdjian (2018)
12. Fraser (2015)
13. Foreign & Commonwealth Office (2014)
14. Karapetyan (2021)