The historian’s job is to keep lies from ruling the day, from having the final say. Without historians’ patient rigor, we would be at the mercy of what our politicians and pundits tell us about our national histories. The best history writing saves us from that delusion and resignation. It is not simply informative, it is emancipatory, even redemptive. Ümit Kurt’s 2021 book The Armenians of Aintab: The Economics of Genocide in an Ottoman Province is one such history, whose rather prosaic title does little to prepare one for its potent revelations.
Survivors have often claimed that simple greed was the driving force behind the evisceration of the Armenian race. In his book, Kurt — lecturer in history in the School of Humanities, Creative Industries, and Social Science at the University of Newcastle — lends credence to these claims, demonstrating the cultural and economic richness of the Armenian community prior to the genocide and the expropriationist motives of the Ottoman regime and its civilian proxies. Our conversation about his seminal book occurred over the course of a week via email.
ARIS JANIGIAN: Recently I had a conversation in LARB with Bedross Der Matossian about his book The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century (2022). That book details the 1909 massacre of some tens of thousands of Armenians in the city of Adana, part of a continuum of terrors visited upon Armenians by Turks that culminated six years later in the genocide. I started by asking Der Matossian, “What was it like, as an Armenian, to revisit this wrenching period in our peoples’ history […] Did it make the historian in you pause on occasion to grieve?” So, I’d like to start this interview in a similar vein: What was it like, as a Turk, to revisit the genocide, that horrific period in my people’s history? Did it make the historian in you pause on occasion to … The word “grieve” might not be right, so I will ask you to complete the question even as you answer it.
ÜMIT KURT: As a historian and perhaps even a narrator (how the historian Hayden White characterized the historian’s task), it is very difficult to separate your research topic from your personal history, especially when you are working on the dark annals of your own country’s history. You are sometimes a passive agent and sometimes active. It starts with your upbringing and continues in your education and, in fact, is with you your whole life. At some point, “your” people’s history became part and parcel of “my own history.” I did not own your people’s history; on the contrary, it came to own me.
But I do not actually define myself as a Turk — it was never my identity; it was imposed upon me through education, society, and family. Yet strangely enough, even when I was a kid, I always instinctively and unconsciously resisted embracing it.
Could you tell us more about that?
I was raised by a Kurdish mother and an Arab father but learned none of their mother tongues. My father never let my mother speak Kurdish with me and my siblings. He grew up a Turkish Muslim person par excellence. Presumably, it was the only way for him and his Arab family from Aleppo to survive in Turkey. As a little kid, I used to eavesdrop while my mother was speaking Kurdish with my grandmother and aunties. When my father came in, the conversation suddenly switched to Turkish. This led me to develop a certain kind of resistance to everything about Turkishness and the nationalism surrounding it.
Most studies of the Armenian genocide, and more generally of violence in Anatolia, focus on grand politics and the decisions within the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Your book, I think, is seminal in that it has the potential to shift the discussion. It demonstrates how local actors helped perpetrate the atrocity. But before we get to the heart of your findings, would you be kind enough to tell us about the genesis of this project?
The book was inspired by a journey I began years ago. As I wrote in the book, after I graduated from Middle East Technical University in Ankara in 2007, I found myself again at my parent’s house in my hometown of Gaziantep, formerly known as Aintab. One day I got a call from an old friend: “Ümit, where have you been? It’s been ages! I know a great place in Kayacık where we can catch up.” Though I was born and raised in Aintab and had not left the city until college, the word “Kayacık” did not mean anything to me. It was just another district in the city, a neighborhood I had never visited and of which I knew nothing.
My friend said she would wait for me at Papirüs Cafe and gave me directions. I took a bus to the Kayacık, and upon arriving found myself surprised by the charming atmosphere, letting myself get lost in the side streets. I was on a narrow street with beautifully constructed stone houses lining each side, taking one back to a simpler, though slightly mysterious, time. Tucked away between the high-rise, concrete apartment buildings of “modernized” Gaziantep, this neighborhood was like an architectural mirage. I felt nostalgic for a past that was never mine.
Finally, I found Papirüs Cafe, which turned out to be in one of those exotic houses. Like most of the houses on the street, it had been converted into a café as part of the process of “restoring” the city. As I entered, a few letters carved at the top of the majestic gate caught my eye. Not recognizing the script, I simply assumed these were Ottoman characters. Inside, I was once more left speechless. A spacious courtyard with staircases on either side leading up to two large rooms welcomed me. The rooms were filled with antique furnishings, and the high ceilings were adorned with frescoes and engravings similar to Florentine cathedrals.
Feeling a surge of pride in my hometown and ancestors, I decided to talk to the owner to try to glean some information about the history of the house. He wearily explained that he inherited this place from his grandfather. It must have been especially strong coffee they were serving that day, as I was emboldened to press further: “And how about your grandfather? From whom did he buy this place?” The man paused hesitantly, and then softly murmured to the ground beneath him, “There were Armenians here.” I said, “What Armenians? What are you talking about? Were there Armenians in Gaziantep?” He nodded. I was getting annoyed. “So, what happened to them? Where did they go?” He retorted indifferently: “They left.”
Alongside another million and a half. “They left” — so chilling, straight from a Beckett production. A perfect illustration, too, of the average Turk’s monumental ignorance.
Yes. I mention in my book how I was naïve, to the point of being ignorant — a 22-year-old university graduate, unaware of the existence of Armenians in my hometown? As I rode the bus back home, I pondered why the Armenians — why anyone — would just leave and hand over such an exquisite property. A few years later, I discovered that the house belonged to Nazar Nazaretian, Honorary Consulate to Iran, who was a member of Aintab’s wealthiest and most prominent family, and that he, his children, and his grandchildren lived there. Those letters above the gate were not Ottoman but Armenian, spelling out the surname of Kara Nazar Agha, who built the house.
Years later, I would also have the chance to meet the youngest member of the family, Shusan, whose grandmother was deported at the age of one during the genocide. Shusan kindly spoke Turkish to me in Aintab dialect. That building is no longer Papirüs Café for me. For me, it is the house of Kara Nazar Agha, the Nazaretians’ home, the house where the grandmother of Shusan was born. Hence, for me, the houses in Kayacık are the homes of the Barsumians, Pirenians, Ashjians, Kradjians, Leylekians, Cebedjians, and Karamanugians.
Some years back, I was lunching with Adam Michnik, the great Polish solidarity leader and editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Gazette), and the equally great Polish poet, the late Adam Zagajewski. At some point, Adam asked me about the Armenian genocide, and I found myself trying to explain as best I could why Turks and Kurds turned so suddenly violent against people they had once considered close neighbors and friends. I wasn’t doing a very good job of it, when Michnik jumped in and said, “From my experience, when the explanation gets too complicated, or there is no explanation at all, the explanation is usually money.” A brilliant one-liner, for sure, but I had a hard time swallowing such a base explanation for a crime of that magnitude. That is, until I read your book.
Michnik has a point. It is exceedingly evident that money has an enormous, though not absolute, explanatory power in mass violent incidents, including genocide, especially in explaining why locals get involved in the process of destruction.
The deportation and genocide of Aintab Armenians was not implemented by rabble brought in from the countryside to carry out an act recognized as too despicable for respectable people, nor performed by Aintab’s more ordinary have-nots, but rather brought about by the district’s Muslim notables, landowners, dignitaries, and the city’s elites.
Through its acquisition of Armenian wealth, a new political class of nouveau riche was born. You can draw a straight line from the CUP to those who would take up positions of power after the war as members of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party. The elimination of the Armenians laid the foundations for a new elite that would sustain its status over generations, long after World War I and its aftermath was only a memory.
This political elite, soon to be titans of industry, would also be the future keepers of the Turkish Republic. To admit to anything other than that the Armenians had just up and left might be to admit that the genesis of their riches was genocide — that the factory their children believed their fathers or grandfathers had built was built by Armenians; that the mansion floors their children played on was stained with Armenian blood. Armenians haunt the existential foundation of the Turkish Republic. Of course, admission of guilt would also trigger reparations on the order of untold billions in today’s dollars. Only these mind-altering costs to Turkish identity and treasure can explain Turkey’s totalitarian control of speech surrounding the massacres, the irrational and murderous striking of facts and people, like Hrant Dink, from the public domain — anything and anyone that might dispute this grimmest of self-serving fairy tales. All in perfect keeping with what we know of human psychology: absent contrition, perpetrators only double down on the justification for their crimes.
Precisely! The perpetrators and their families profited from the genocide to the extent that, after 1923, entire generations were educated and provided for by the starting capital of Armenian property acquired in 1915. While the reports published in the 1914 edition of Annuaire Oriental clearly show that Armenians from the region controlled all aspects of the economic and business life, the 1925–28 editions of the Gaziantep Ticaret Odası Yıllığı (Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce Yearbook) confirm that no non-Muslim merchants remained in the city, as I point out in the book.
Until the mid-1940s, the influence of Muslim elites over the city continued. The mayors of the city for the years 1921–50 all came from the same influential families.
Your book helps fill a relative dearth of scholarship on genocides and atrocities other than the Holocaust. Congolese, Armenians, Cambodians, Rwandans, to name just four other victims of genocide, if we learn about them at all … well, their slaughter stirs our sympathies but fails to ignite our imaginations. Is this the reason we bemoan the Russian horrors perpetrated in Ukraine today but barely bat an eye when we learn that the Saudis, with our help, have created a comparable humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen? It’s almost as though these “others” belong to a remote, dusty, hellish world to begin with, where such vast-scale human disasters are sadly inevitable.
For a long time, the Holocaust was studied as an unprecedented, unique, and singular “event,” the founding genocide of the fields of Holocaust studies and mass violence literature. The prevailing paradigm was that this event could not be compared with other mass murders, ethnic cleansings, and genocides that took place in history, and that these incidents could only be included in the definition of genocide to the extent that they contained patterns close to the Holocaust. This situation changed, however, towards the end of the 1990s, with critical and revisionist historians bringing to the agenda the colonial and annihilationist policies of European empires against autochthonous peoples in Africa, Aborigines in Australia, and Indigenous peoples in the Americas; through the concept of “settler colonialism,” a new paradigm emerged. Accordingly, the Holocaust could well be compared to these cases.
You demonstrate that the CUP was highly organized. Not surprising, I suppose, as they inherited a 600-year-old empire. Still, I was impressed, if that’s the right word, to see how methodically the expropriation was conducted. The Ottomans had layer upon layer of bureaucracies. It put together commissions to oversee the exile of Armenians. It laid out its plans, announced and executed them in writs. Its accounting was impressive even by today’s standards. I was amazed at its detailed ledgers of what Armenians left behind as they were sent on the death marches — life insurance policies, land, livestock, jewelry, and cash that the commissions deposited into central banks for “safekeeping.” Household goods down to the bowls and saucers — even a child’s pillow.
It’s important to note that these extraordinary measures were set in motion by laws, regulations, rules, and decrees that created a legal basis for a systematic campaign against the movable and immovable properties of Armenians. Genocide enabled the complete fulfillment of the policy of ethnic domination through expropriation. By way of a legal system, an entire community was reduced to the status of nonexistence. Again, the CUP and local governments concocted ways of making this illegal process look legitimate under the veil of the law. They prospered through the acquisition of Armenian property and wealth, elevating them into an even more privileged position.
In his book, Der Matossian argues that two social-emotional factors, hate and fear, were instrumental in fomenting the 1909 Adana Massacres. Your book would have us add “envy and greed” to explain the final solution to the Armenian Question. But why did the CUP bother to make it “look” legitimate? Did they hope to trick the Allies, who were supposedly concerned with the fate of the Christian Armenians? Were the Turks building a case for acquittal down the road: “Here are the papers; you see, we meant to bring them back — our accounting demonstrates as much — only complications occurred!” The excuses didn’t work, not at first. The architects of the genocide were tried and convicted by the Allies. You tell of how, after the war, under the guardianship of the British and then French, some Armenians did return to their homes, did reclaim their properties. But within a few years, Atatürk had consolidated power, and with a tacit nod of approval from those very same Allies, the Turkish Republic he founded rid itself of the Armenians who had returned or were left.
They bothered to make it “look” legitimate because they did not want the world, especially the United States, Russia, Britain, and France, to see it for what it was. This explains the complex bureaucratic mechanisms devised to deal with the administration of the belongings left behind by the deported Armenians. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust. Jews saw their wealth transferred to the treasury of the Third Reich. Jewish properties and wealth were appropriated within the limits of the “law,” which provided a legitimate guise for the Nazi leaders. But, in the case of the Nazis, this veneer of legitimacy operated mostly at a bureaucratic level — that is to say, the Nazi state did not really care about the legality of the process. In the case of the Ottoman Armenians, the Ittihadists made a serious effort to hide under the guise of legality when carrying out the crime. The government resorted to numerous oblique means to conceal their intentions, which, nonetheless, are readily discernible when analyzed closely.
I suppose it’s natural to ask how Armenians, as “second class” citizens — brutally taxed, with little legal recourse vis-à-vis Muslims, under constant and capricious threats of plunder and pillage — were able to accrue such wealth?
Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, the Empire’s Armenians underwent accelerated economic, educational, cultural, religious, and political change. Ali Nadir Ünler (1895–1986), a local notable who played an important role in Aintab’s official historiography, emphasizes that Aintab Armenians were considerably ahead of the Turkish Muslim community in terms of economic and commercial activities. The vast majority of artisanal businesses were in Armenian hands: soapmaking, jewelry making, copper working, tailoring, shoemaking, construction, blacksmithing, weaving, saddle making, and more. Ünler describes how they protected their craftsmanship jealously and refused to train Turks. Besides most fields of artisanship, Armenians controlled nearly all of Aintab’s trade, domestic and foreign. Most doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and lawyers were Armenian. Muslims, on the other hand, tended to earn less money as grocers, butchers, and the like.
In Muslim eyes, a number of significant factors underlay the superior position of Armenians by the late 19th century. Endless unsuccessful wars spelled conscription for young Muslim men, many fated never to return. Most of those who did return were either sick or disabled. Muslim peasants not drafted (like their Armenian counterparts) bore the cost in heavy taxes. Wealthier Armenians could buy exemption by paying the bedelat-ı askeriye, an exemption tax, and thus continue their economic activities. Such factors permitted some affluent Armenians to take over businesses and land that previously belonged to Muslims.
Just because Armenians have a world-class sense of irony, I’ll go ahead and say it: we do know a deal when we see one.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than half of the commercial, industrial, and agricultural wealth of the Aintab district was owned by Armenians, who constituted less than a quarter of the population. To be sure, Muslim imaginations exaggerated this wealth. Terekeler (probate inventories) and inheritance documents prove that Armenians became only comparatively rich.
Here — and similar to what Der Matossian argues — we find the paradox that the equality promised, and even to a degree granted, to Armenians under the new constitution put them in Muslims’ crosshairs. It was one thing for Armenians to hold economic power, but now they were allotted political power as well. Perhaps it was all too much for Muslims, especially Muslim Turks, to bear. Almost as though Armenians were reclaiming the world that was stolen from then, one reform at a time. It threatened a half-millennium-old social order, and it had to be stopped.
Let us go back to history again. From 1895 until 1915, Muslims and Armenians of Aintab, who had previously coexisted in relative harmony, turned against one another, with the former committing inconceivable acts against the latter. In the late 19th century in Aintab, the Armenian nation was modernizing under the influence of a burgeoning middle class. International pressure for reforms to ensure the rights of and protection for Armenians seemed to confirm this impression. The 1895 massacres featured extensive plunder of Aintab Armenians, which was an integral step in restoring the hierarchy that the massacres augured. Important members of Aintab’s urban Muslim elite, clergy, and local government were implicated in scapegoating Armenians and in cheerleading the killing — more so, it appears, than Abdülhamid II’s central regime.
Some of the self-same elites joined the local CUP branch in the second constitutional period, which at once safeguarded their social power, gave them influence in the new ruling regime, and gave the CUP a conduit into local affairs. Although this period at first appeared to create a sense of calm by placing both communities on an equal level, ethnic tensions soon reemerged. Different segments of the Muslim community perceived that the restoration of the constitution mainly favored Armenians, further exacerbating feelings of resentment as the Ottoman Empire continued to decline politically and economically. It ultimately erupted in Adana and its outskirts, where tens of thousands of Armenians were massacred. This was the prelude to the genocide.
Most historians have had a difficult time unearthing documents that demonstrate the willful intent of the genocidaires. The Turks have kept most of these archives off limits to scholars or have carefully eliminated damning evidence. How did you get your hands on these remarkable documents?
I must point out one thing very clearly: the government kept entire records of these sales and other transactions of abandoned-properties commissions, but over the course of one and a half years’ research in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, I could not manage to obtain them, including in the Aintab branch, as they were kept hidden and inaccessible for researchers. These records were essential for my book to document “legal” theft and the plunder and liquidation of Armenian wealth in a local place.
Then, something extraordinary happened. In 2015, I paid a visit to Los Angeles to meet a friend of mine who was a descendent of a genocide survivor from Aintab, the late Pakrad Kazazian. Uncle Pakrad had been supportive of my work since we first met. He wanted to introduce me to his cousin, whose grandfather, Sarkis Yacoubian, was from Aintab and had survived the genocide, ending up in Aleppo, where he opened a bakery. Uncle Pakrad took me to her house. It was quite a warm welcoming. After nice chats and delicious food, Pakrad’s cousin brought dozens of old papers and documents, all written in Ottoman Turkish, and put them in front of me. She thought that there might have been some materials that could be useful for my book. While getting lost amongst them, all of a sudden I realized that a report of the Aintab Liquidation Commission was lying in front of me and I was reading the auction results regarding the movable properties, assets, and goods of her grandfather, Sarkis Yacoubian.
What the documents were telling me was groundbreaking. They clearly showed and proved plunder and spoliation under the veil of legality. To date, this kind of documentation had not been done.
And it would not have been done but for the doggedness and courage of historians like yourself. For decades, academics, politicians, statepersons, and major media, including right here in the United States, have conspired against the Armenians and their memory. Today, the cruel and absurd fairy tale is no longer tenable; only Turkey, really, believes it anymore. Perhaps someday it too will face up to its history and make peace with the ghosts that haunt its existence.
Aris Janigian is the author of five novels, and co-author, along with April Greiman, of Something from Nothing (2001), a book on the philosophy of graphic design.
Sections of some interview responses are excerpted or reworked from Kurt’s book, The Armenians of Aintab: The Economics of Genocide in an Ottoman Province.