The Aftermath of the 1890s Massacres
By Peter Balakian
Excerpt from Peter Balakian: The Burning Tigris (London 2004).
Describes the massacres on the Armenians prior to the Armenian genocide 1915-17.

Danish translation: Eftervirkningerne af massakrerne i 1890-erne
Published on November 17, 2011

When the chain of massacres that had begun in 1894 at Sasun and continued through the end of 1896 was over, the death toll was beyond anything anyone could have imagined. There had never been an event of mass slaughter in modern history like this one. According to Ernst Jäckh, a German Foreign Ministry operative, and a Turcophile, two hundred thousand Armenians were killed and another fifty thousand expelled, and one million Armenian homes were pillaged and plundered. The French historian Pierre Renouvin, president of the commission in charge of assembling and classifying French diplomatic documents, concluded that the number of Armenians who perished in the Sultan’s massacres was 250,000. [25] Johannes Lepsius, a German pastor who travelled through the Armenian provinces on an investigative mission in the aftermath of the massacres in the summer of 1896, put forth a cautious estimate of one hundred thousand dead from the immediate killing, but estimated that the aftermath of massacre would bring with it the deaths of another one hundred thousand from famine, disease, and injury. [26]

Lepsius realized that the enormity and significance of the loss could not be measured solely in terms of lives. The cultural destruction of the sultan’s program was of genocidal proportions because it so devastated “the social fabric and cultural institutions” of Armenian society and culture. According to the data compiled by Lepsius, by the spring of 1896 the sultan’s massacres had resulted in the following: 2,500 towns and villages were left completely desolate; 645 churches and monasteries were destroyed. Survivors in 559 villages, plus hundreds in cities, were forcibly converted to Islam. This included fifteen thousand Armenians in the provinces of Erzurum and Harput who converted under the threat of death. In addition, 328 churches were recast into mosques, 508 churches and monasteries were plundered, and 21 Protestant and 170 Apostolic priests were killed; 546,000 people were reduced to destitution. [27]

William M. Ramsay, the British ethnographer who had spent more than a decade doing research in Turkey, and who admired the Turks and was often critical of the Armenians for their passivity, assessed the trauma of massacre on Armenians and their culture:

Turkish massacre does not mean merely that thousands are killed in a few days by the sword, the torture, or the fire. It does not mean merely that everything they possess is stolen, their houses and shops looted and often burned, every article worth a halfpenny taken, the corpses stripped. It does not mean merely that the survivors are left penniless—without food, sometimes literally stark naked.... Sometimes, when the Turks have been specially merciful, they have offered their victims an escape from death by accepting Mohammedanism.

“That is only the beginning, the brighter and lighter side of a massacre in Turkey,” Ramsay goes on with an almost Conradian sense of the horror:

But as to the darker side of Turkish massacre—personal outrage and shame—take what the more freespoken historians of former times have told; gather together the details of the most horrible and indescribable outrages that occasional criminals of half lunatic character commit in this country; imagine those criminals collected in thousands, heated with the hard work of murder, inciting each other and vying with each other, encouraged by the government officials with promises of impunity and hope of plunder—imagine the result if you can, and you will have some faint idea of the massacres in the eastern parts of Turkey. There has been no exaggeration in the worst accounts of the horrors of Armenia. A writer with the vivid imagination of Dumas and the knowledge of evil that Zola possesses could not attain, by any description, the effect that the sight of one massacre in the Kurdish part of Armenia would produce on any spectator. The Kurdish part of Armenia is the “black country.” It has become a charnel house. One dare not enter it. One cannot think about it. One knows not how many maimed, mutilated, outraged Armenians are still starving there. [28]

The British consul Henry Barnham, who oversaw Aintab and Birecik in Aleppo Province, made it clear in his account how powerfully the killing of Armenians was motivated by Islamic fanaticism and a jihad mentality:

The butchers and the tanners, with sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, armed with clubs and cleavers, cut down the Christians, with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” broke down the doors of the houses with pickaxes and levers, or scaled the walls with ladders. Then when mid-day came they knelt down and said their prayers, and then jumped up and resumed the dreadful work, carrying it on far into the night. Whenever they were unable to break down the doors they fired the houses with petroleum, and the fact that at the end of November petroleum was almost unpurchasable in Aleppo suggests that enormous quantities were bought up and sent north for this purpose. [29]

Muslim clerics played a perpetual role in the massacring of Armenians; imams and softas would often rally the mob by chanting prayers; and mosques were often used as places to mobilize crowds, especially during Friday prayers. [30] Christians were murdered in the name of Allah. One survivor, Abraham Hartunian, described the desecration of two Armenian churches (one Gregorian—Armenian Apostolic—and the other Protestant) in the town of Severek in Diyarbekir Province:

The mob had plundered the Gregorian church, desecrated it, murdered all who had sought shelter there, and, as a sacrifice, beheaded the sexton on the stone threshold. Now it filled our yard. The blows of an axe crashed in the church doors. The attackers rushed in, tore the Bibles and hymnbooks to pieces, broke and shattered whatever they could, blasphemed the cross and, as a sign of victory chanted the Mohammedan prayer: “La ilaha ill-Allah, Muhammedin Rasula-llah” (There is no other God but one God, and Mohammed is His prophet). . . . The leader of the mob cried: “Muhammede salavat!” Believe in Mohammed and deny your religion. No one answered.... The leader gave the order to massacre. The first attack was on our pastor. The blow of an axe decapitated him. His blood, spurting in all directions, spattered the walls and ceiling.” [31]

Two letters from a Turkish soldier on duty in Erzurum with the Fourth Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-fifth Regiment, written to his parents and brother in Harput, also lend insights into Turkish attitudes about killing Armenians. The letters came into the hands of a British Consul after the massacres in that city and were put in the consular file marked “confidential.”

My brother, if you want news from here we have killed 1,200 Armenians, all of them as food for the dogs. . . . Mother, I am safe and sound. Father, 20 days ago we made war on the Armenian unbelievers. Through God’s grace no harm befell us. There is a rumor afoot that our Battalion will be ordered to your part of the world—if so, we will kill all the Armenians there. Besides, 511 Armenians were wounded, one or two perish every day. If you ask after the soldiers and Bashi Bozouks, not one of their noses has bled. . . . May God bless you.

In these letters, massacring Armenians is seen as a commonplace occurrence sanctioned by Islam as well as by the government. As Dadrian put it: “Here is a regimental unit of the standing army engaged in broad daylight in peacetime killing operations against unarmed civilian populations.” [32]

Among the most ghoulish scenes recorded was the extermination of the Armenians of Urfa. Urfa, once ancient Edessa (the city to which Christ’s disciples brought Christianity, in this dry region of southeastern Anatolia), had been the site of massacre in October 1895 during the wave of autumn killings of that year, and the Armenians remained under siege in their quarter of the town for the following two months. Then, on December 28th at midday, a bugle sounded and Turkish soldiers and civilians invaded the Armenian quarter. Doors of houses and shops were smashed open with axes and clubs, and people were shot on the spot. Their material goods and valuables were stolen, and kerosene was poured on the rest. At sunset, when the bugle sounded again, the killers retreated, and the Armenians who had survived sought refuge in their cathedral (Traditionally synagogues and churches were to be respected as places of refuge under Islamic law).

The next morning the Turkish troops fired through the church windows and broke down the iron door, mockingly calling on “Christ now to prove himself a greater prophet than Mohammed.” They began killing everyone on the floor of the church by hand or with pistols. From the altar they gunned down the women and children in the gallery. Finally the Turks gathered bedding and straw, on which “they poured some thirty cans of kerosene” and set the church ablaze. British Consul G. H. Fitzmaurice’s careful description reveals something about the religious ethos underpinning the killings:

The gallery beams and wooden framework soon caught fire, whereupon, blocking up the staircases leading to the gallery with similar inflammable materials, they left the mass of struggling human beings to become the prey of the flames.
During several hours the sickening odour of roasting flesh pervaded the town, and even to-day, two months and a half after the massacre, the smell of putrescent and charred remains in the church is unbearable. . . . I believe that close on 8,000 Armenians perished in the two days’ massacre of the 28th and 29th December. . I should, however, not be at all surprised if the figure of 9,000 or 10,000 were subsequently found to be nearer the mark. [33]

The massacres of the 1890s fully inaugurated the modern fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Abdul Hamid’s policy of massacre began what the social psychologist Irvin Staub has called a “continuum of destruction.” As Staub notes, “A progression of changes in a culture and individuals is usually required for mass killing or genocide. In certain instances—the Armenian Genocide, for example—the progression takes place over decades or even centuries and creates a readiness in the culture.” [34]

The Hamidian massacres also initiated the idea that massacre could be committed with impunity. While the European powers set up an investigative commission after Sasun and Van, and asked the sultan for reforms, there was no forceful intervention to halt the massacres, nor was there any punishment in the aftermath. There was, to be sure, worldwide coverage of the events and attendant outrage, and there was an outpouring of humanitarian relief and philanthropy for the surviving victims. The sultan was vilified in the European and the U.S. press as the “Bloody Sultan,” and depicted as a paranoid despot and a defiler of human freedom. Yet in the face of such world opinion, Abdul Hamid remained unrepentant, continuing to deny his actions and blame the victims.

By the end of the 1890s, the lack of political recourse or punishment let the sultan off the hook, and left Turkish society engaged in a culture of massacre that permanently dehumanized Armenians in an evolutionary process that would culminate in genocide in 1915. As Christian infidels, Armenians had already been marginalized. Now they became fair game.


[25] Ernst Jäckh, Der Aufsteigende Halbmond, 6th ed. (Berlin 1916), 139; P. Renouvin, E. Preclin, G. Hardy, L’Epoque contemporaine. La paix armée et la Grande Guerre, 2nd ed. (Paris 1947), 176, quoted in A. Beylerian, Les Grandes Puissances, L’Empire Ottoman, et les Armeniens dans les Archives Françaises (1914—1918), Paris, 1983, XXIII, in Dadrian, ibid. [History of the Armenian Genocide], 155.
[26] Lepsius, Armenia and Europe, xviii, 18—19.
[27] Ibid., 36; see charts and tables that present the destruction prepared by the Committee of Delegates in text under title of “Ambassadors’ Report”; the tables present the destruction by place and date, pp. 280—327.
[28] William M. Ramsay, Impression of Turkey During Twelve Years’ Wandering (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897), 211—12.
[29] Turkey 8 (1896), enclosure 1 in Doc. No. 52, pp. 47, 48; Ambassador Currie’s February 19, 1896, report.
[30] Dadrian, History of the Armenian Genocide, 150.
[31] Abraham Hartunian, Neither to Laugh or Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide (translated by Vartan Hartunian), 12—14.
[32] FO 195/1944, doc. no. 14, folios 66—67, “confidential” report by Harput’s Vice-Consul Raphael A. Fontana, May 18, 1896; Dadrian, History of the Armenian Genocide, 160.
[33] Turkey 5 (1896), 12—13.
[34] Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: the Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1989), 17, 66, 85.