Theses Doctoral

Sasun 1894: Mountains, Missionaries and Massacres at the End of the Ottoman Empire

Miller, Owen Robert

At the heart of this dissertation is a detailed analysis of the Sasun violence of 1893-1894. I used a variety of sources: consular reports (British, American, French, Russian, Italian); missionary material from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM); and Ottoman archival documents. My dissertation examines how different accounts of the violence were disseminated and censored in the years following the violence of 1894.
My central argument is that State centralization and the efforts of the Ottoman State to maintain a monopoly of legitimate violence and legitimate narrative must be understood in order to explain both the violence in Sasun and the larger breakdown of communal relations between the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire.
To summarize by way of chapter headings and short descriptions: I first examine two sharply divergent explanations for what happened in the mountains of Sasun in August and September of 1894. The first narrative, maintained by scholars within Ottoman Studies, presents the violence in Sasun as the first major rebellion of Armenian nationalists against the State. The second narrative, held by many scholars in Armenian Studies, has presented the violence as the first major episode of Ottoman State mass violence against its Armenian populace. This difference in interpreting the violence of Sasun as either a massacre or a rebellion can be traced back to 1894. Although these narratives are based on very different primary documents and assumptions, they both analyze the events in Sasun in terms of a broader story of Armenian Nationalism and State opposition to that Nationalism. The scholars of Ottoman Studies who have delved into the question of what happened in Sasun in 1894 have relied primarily on one account, a report by Zeki Paşa, the commander of the Ottoman forces in the area. Scholars within Armenian Studies have used a more diverse set of sources to tell the story (memoirs, foreign consul accounts, and contemporary newspapers). The goal of this dissertation is to trace all of the available narratives of Sasun to their origins and to evaluate all of the evidence together. I conclude the first chapter with a different approach that places more weight on the longue durée history of the Ottoman State’s efforts to centralize its authority by gaining a monopoly of both legitimate force and legitimate narrative.
In the second chapter I examine how three technologies (modern firearms, steamboats and telegraphs) were used to centralize Ottoman authority in the East. Through these technologies, the Ottoman State was able to first conquer and then, over the course of decades, entrench State rule in areas that had hitherto been autonomous. This centralization had some unintended effects as the new technologies dramatically changed local relations in Muş and Sasun. The spread of high-powered firearms from Europe, the availability of steam travel on the Black Sea and telegraphs dramatically changed local relations in Muş and Sasun. From the point of view of the inhabitants of Muş and Sasun, this period of centralization or reordering (Tanzimat) represented nothing less than a violent conquest by the State. As the local Emirs that traditionally ruled in plain of Muş were toppled, a new system of Warlord-Bureaucrats (assigned by the Ottoman Central Authority) grew in its place. For many, this new system simply meant that, increasingly, local resources were sent off to build palaces in Istanbul. One of the unintended consequences of these transformations was the creation of new forms of political identity as Armenian peasants from many areas began in Istanbul to identify their homeland as a geographically bounded place known as ‘Armenia.’
In the third chapter, I situate the beginning of the ‘Armenian issue’ as a struggle near Muş between Armenian peasants and their warlord Musa Bey. When peasants from Muş staged a protest against Musa Bey in Istanbul, the local struggle soon gained international attention. To undercut the charges of corruption, Abdülhamid II ordered Musa Bey to Istanbul to stand trial. When Musa Bey was acquitted in a highly irregular three-day trial, a group of young students at the Istanbul Medical School joined together with students from abroad to form the first branch of the Hunchak (Bell), a radical movement for Armenian political liberation. Back in Muş, the struggle between peasants and Warlord-Bureaucrats such as Musa Bey was a major factor in the creation of the Fedayi movement, a collection of Armenian self-defense groups who espoused Armenian political liberation. The combination of international attention, the formation of the Hunchak in Istanbul and the advent of the Fedayi in the Eastern provinces terrified the Ottoman State. Convinced that history was repeating itself, in the manner of the Bulgarian rebellion of 1876, the Ottoman State sanctioned greater repression of any dissent or sign of political organization within the Armenian communities of the East. Certain officials within the Ottoman Government benefited financially from this more authoritarian governance, and used the paranoia of the Ottoman center to enrich themselves. The result of all of this are the massacres in the Sasun mountains where Ottoman soldiers systematically murdered one to two thousand Armenian villagers, and burned their villages, over the course of three weeks in August to September of 1894.
In the fourth chapter, I examine how the violence of Sasun was interpreted differently, for example, by the investigations of missionaries and consuls, and by the censorship regime of Abdülhamid II. The main goal here is to show that the Ottoman State relied almost exclusively on a single legitimist report written by Zeki Paşa. Zeki Paşa’s report became the measure of ‘truth’ within the Ottoman State. To retain a monopoly of legitimate narrative, the Ottoman State utilized various forms of censorship – from banning newspapers from abroad, to forbidding any independent discussion of Sasun in the Ottoman Press, and from preventing peasants from the area from travelling, and eventually banning all journalists from abroad. At the same time, news of the massacres spread through word of mouth, and rumors of the Sasun violence increased tensions throughout the Ottoman Empire. When news of the violence finally reached London through missionary networks in mid-November, it ignited a much larger debate about the British Government’s support (now understood by many as complicity) for the autocracy of Sultan Abdülhamid II.
In the fifth chapter, I show how, within a year of the violence, two broad stories had coalesced. According to some, it was in Sasun where the Ottoman State first committed an organized massacre against its Armenian populace. According to other accounts, it was in Sasun where Armenian radicals first organized a full-fledged rebellion against the Ottoman State. Although these two stories were often interpreted in a myriad of different ways in Istanbul, London and Boston, the main ideas have been maintained until today in the fields of Ottoman Studies and Armenian Studies.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bulliet, Richard
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 2, 2015