street in constantinople

2

Imagine Yusuf Confessing an Embarrassing Secret

“You like to do what?” Y/N stifled a laugh. If it wasn’t for her perfect balance, she’d have fallen off the viewpoint by now.

“Please don’t make me repeat that,” said Yusuf with a frown. She’d never seen him this nervous before. If anything, she’d always thought him to be too outgoing, too lively, too sure of himself, to be embarrassed about anything. Who’d have thought he’d have a secret that reduced him to this.

Y/N gazed down to the busy Constantinople streets below. The city was bursting with life, teeming with people and activities. That also means that little privacy could be had down there. One prying ear and he’d be mocked forever. That’s why he chose to tell her up here.

“Is it so bad?” Yusuf asked upon seeing how hard it was for Y/N not to laugh.

“No, no, no!” she replied immediately, “It’s charming, really. A little eccentric, but lovely. It’s just that, I’d never have expected that from you. Caught me by surprise.”

“Glad to hear that.”

“Honestly, though, there has to be a reason you told me,” Y/N gave a subtle smile, “Do you want me to oblige you in some way?”

“Only if you want to,” Yuzuf shrugged, but Y/N could tell that he was trying not to show how happy he was with her offer, “Just don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t,” said Y/N, “Because I like you.”

Even as Jews endured waves of pogroms in the last decades of the Russian Empire, Armenians suffered even more violent pogroms under the Ottoman Empire. Identified through their language, culture, and religious heritage from an independent Christian church dating back to A.D. 303, Armenians had developed thriving communities across much of Western Asia and Eastern Europe in Persia, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Armenians in the Ottoman Empire lived in Constantinople and Smyrna, but they were concentrated in eastern Turkey, in cities and towns including Erzerum, Diyarbekir, and Van, where their neighbors were Turks and Kurds.

Ottoman loss of territory in the west, in Greece, and in Bulgaria paradoxically created both opportunity and danger for Armenians living in the empire’s capital, Constantinople, and in its east. New laws pressed on the Ottomans by the European powers established greater equality between Ottoman subjects of different religions, but Ottoman defeats also heightened the government’s antagonism toward Christian minorities living in the empire, most notably Armenians. At the same time Armenian revolutionary parties, led chiefly by Armenians abroad, hoped to bring about European intervention by mounting insurrection against Ottoman rule. There were two main parties: the Hunchakists and the Dashnaks.

Beginning in the autumn of 1895, an explosion of violence shook the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian subjects. The immediate spark lay in events in Constantinople. On September 30, 1895, some two thousand to four thousand Armenians marched toward the sultan’s government in the Ottoman capital to present a petition protesting attacks during the preceding year on Armenian villages in the highland region of Sassoun. The protesters also raised demands that could easily be interpreted as infringing on Ottoman sovereignty: they demanded reorganization of the Armenian eastern provinces along “homogenous ethnographical divisions,” and called for a new post of governor general to be filled by a European. Security at the Ottoman court, however, prevented delivery of the petition, and after a brief altercation between protesters and gendarmes, the rally ended in a riot. Mobs then attacked Armenians in the streets of Constantinople. As the British ambassador Philip Currie reported, based on information he received from a “trustworthy eye-witness,” Softas (Muslim students of theology) and Turks “supplied with clubs, set on the Armenians in the streets and beat many of them to death under the very eyes of the police.”

A wave of violence followed that decimated Armenians as massacres struck town after town in eastern Anatolia. British Vice Consul Telford Waugh at Diyarbekir recalled that the Armenians “talked of massacre, much as in England we discuss the weather.” At Trebizond on the Black Sea coast, for example, tension rose in early October amid reports of assassination attempts against Turkish officials. On October 4 thousands of armed Muslims swept through the streets as Christians took refuge. A full-scale massacre of Armenians, chiefly of men, followed on October 8. The British vice consul at Trebizond reported that “hundreds of armed Turks filled the streets, rushing madly about, and slaughtering every Armenian they could meet.” He estimated that five hundred were killed before the massacre ended.

Many more massacres took place at towns and villages in eastern Anatolia. Mobs repeatedly looted and burned houses and shops, and murdered Armenians. Much as in the pogroms against Jews, Armenians fought back. At Erzerum, the scene of a slaughter on October 30, self-defense forces, probably Hunchakists, fired on Turkish soldiers. But the violence ended only after the city’s bazaar had been destroyed. In all, amore than a thousand shops were ruined. British Acting Consul Henry Cumberbatch saw 309 bodies buried in a single grave after the massacre. Similar attacks in hundreds if not thousands of villages throughout the countryside extended to other Christian minorities, including Syrians, Chaldeans, and Jacobites. From Erzerum, Cumberbatch reported that Kurds and Muslim villagers raided “all the Armenian villages, with very few exceptions” throughout several eastern districts.

The number of massacres declined after November, but the violence did not end. During the massacre at Urfa near Syria on December 28-29, a cathedral crowded with Armenians seeking shelter was burned. An account by an American missionary reported that soldiers broke into the cathedral, and “then entering, they began a butchery, which became a great holocaust…. For two days the air of the city was unendurable." 

The worst violence of 1896 occurred in June in the city of Van, near Turkey’s eastern border. Following a clash involving Turkish gendarmes and soldiers and a group whose identity was never established, mobs of Muslim civilians and Turkish forces attacked Armenians. Defenders, organized by the Armenian political parties, fought off a military assault for days before being slaughtered en route out of the country, despite having received a promise of safe passage. 

In sum, the massacres of Armenians amounted to massive collective punishment for the activities of Armenian political parties. Responding to British complaints about harsh treatment of Armenians in 1894, Sultan Abdul Hamid II had already established that he personally supported a policy of sweeping reprisals for Armenian rebellion. It is difficult to trace the transmission of a policy of massacre from central authorities to the local level, but reports of massacres indicated that these attacks against Armenians were coordinated. On several occasions killing began with a signal from a bugle or gun. According to a report from Marsovan, a town south of the Black Sea, the massacre of Armenians began on November 15, 1895, after Muslims left mosques, and "at the same, time, just as if a signal had been given, the villagers swarmed into the town from the surrounding country.” As the American missionary George E. White (who stayed in Turkey long enough to witness the genocide of 1915) later recalled, “the storm burst with the noon call to prayer from the minarets." 

The response of ordinary Muslims varied. Some took part in violence and theft. Indeed, the attacks may have been organized by gender: men and women sometimes carried out different tasks. The British diplomat Robert Graves, for example, learned from his temporary replacement as consul at Erzerum, Henry Cumberbatch, that "hundreds of Turkish women flocked into town carrying sacks in which to remove the loot of the Armenian quarter.” Massacres then targeted Armenian men, though some Armenians were rescued by their Muslim neighbors. 

Despite the violent attacks of the 1890s, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire survived as an important group at the end of the nineteenth century. In that sense they were not yet cleansed from the empire, though estimates of those killed ranged from a few tens of thousands to upward of 100,000. Still, Armenians now found themselves in an extremely precarious position. The Ottoman Armenians had become an ethnic minority who faced special risk. Even the memory of earlier massacres did not prepare them for what would befall them some twenty years later.

—  Benjamin Lieberman, Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe