Ümit Kurt, The Armenians of Aintab: Economics of Genocide in an Ottoman Province (Harvard University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ümit Kurt (ÜK): Following my graduation from the 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 received 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.

I took a bus to the Kayacık neighborhood, and upon arrival found myself dazed by the charming atmosphere, letting myself get lost in the side streets, and leaving my poor friend waiting. I was on a narrow street with beautifully constructed stone houses lining each side. 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.

I found Papirüs Cafe, where we were to meet, which turned out to be located in one of those houses. It had been converted into a cafe as part of the process of “restoring” the city. Upon entering, 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, 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 frescos 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. I pressed further: “And how about your grandfather? From whom did he buy this place?” The man paused hesitantly before responding. And then after a few moments, he 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 with the opacity of his answers. “So, what happened to them? Where did they go?” He retorted indifferently: “They left.”

As I rode the bus back home, I pondered why the Armenians—why anyone—would just leave and hand over such an exquisite property to someone. I was a naïve, to the point of ignorant university graduate, unaware of the existence of Armenians in my hometown. A few years later, I would find out 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 used to live in this house. Those letters above the gate were not Ottoman but Armenian, spelling out the surname of Kara Nazar Agha, who built the house.

Thus the idea to work on this topic and write a book out of it arose. This book is the story of Aintab Armenians, who were torn away from their homes, neighborhoods, and the city where they were born and raised. It is the account of how their material and spatial wealth changed hands and was transformed. It is the historical record of their persecution and subsequent erasure.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ÜK: Most studies of the Armenian genocide and more generally of violence in Anatolia miss the local dimension and focus on grand politics and the machinations within the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). My book has the potential to provide new insights on local agency and the role of local societies in the perpetration of this atrocity. It brings back the notion of “class,” which has experienced an eclipse in recent years in genocide studies. It shows that the economic and political/ideological interests of the perpetrators (the gentry, different sectors of the urban population, and ordinary Muslims) overlapped in the process of Armenian persecution and that the intersection of these two interests determined the momentum and intensity of the violence. In this regard, the case of Aintab suggests that the Turkish republic cannot be fully grasped without taking into consideration the concept of “class.”

This is a study of the Armenian genocide but also the biography of a city in a time of trouble and violence. It discusses micro-foundations and social legacies of ethnic violence. It also provides new insights on the cause and origins of genocidal policies and their impact in the making and re-making of provincial elites and, by extension, of the modern Turkish republic. It not only looks at the local dynamics of genocide and community reformation, but also considers the evolving, mutually-informing relationship of the metropolitan power center to its regional periphery, thereby revealing a very significant locus of agency amongst regional elites.

At the core of the book is a series of studies of the nationalization of state practices at the local level: the expropriation and liquidation of properties and businesses of Armenians; their forced mass deportations; and their extermination. The book focuses on the origins and implementation of these practices in the city of Aintab. My book resonates with studies on the economic, social, political, and cultural transformation of the Empire, all of which greatly influenced post-Ottoman Turkish state and society formation.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ÜK: In my previous work, Aintab 1915: Genocide and Perpetrators, I wrote about violence and its local dynamics with an awareness of its embeddedness in a specific historical time and place. In The Armenians of Aintab, I try to show how these dynamics played an extremely important role in the disintegration of social relations and the breakdown of social fabric in the city of Aintab, and the persecution, forced deportation, and mass murder of Armenians. Accompanying the massacres, in this book I also elucidate the confiscation and plunder process of the property and wealth of Aintab Armenians. In the second half of the nineteenth century, we can talk about how the increasing influence of Europe and Qajar reform, alongside the advent of nationalism, resulted in new ideological, economic, and political fissures in urban societies. These fault lines became manifest in new forms of violent mobilization driven by political and ideological motives as well as economic. This book goes beyond my previous work by focusing on these motives as a whole. Before, I had analyzed macro and micro levels of collective violence. My book brings the meso level into the picture, revealing and discussing the activities of various “middlemen” of violence—notables, mid-ranking officers, and tribal leaders.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

ÜK: The book will interest scholars who study the history and politics of the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish republic; minorities in the Middle East; the Armenian Genocide and events of similar nature experienced during World War I; the history of localities; Holocaust and comparative genocide studies; and interethnic relations. My book clearly shows that enduring family fortunes were built on state-sanctioned expulsions and theft of assets through the manipulation of the Ottoman-Turkish legal system. This is an exemplary late Ottoman social history of a prosperous, but also gravely traumatized provincial town. And this is a story that could, and should, be told about other post-Ottoman peoples and lands. That is the impact I would like my book to have. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ÜK: I am working on two book projects now. One deals with the micro-dynamics of restraint of violence and what micro-mechanisms make restraint possible on the ground by focusing on a very interesting adultery incident occurred in Adapazarı in 1911. Through this particular event, I try to explain why intercommunal killings happen in some situations, but not in others. I argue that with a careful microhistorical research it is possible to reveal certain local factors that lead to restraint.

My other project focuses on a genocide perpetrator, Mustafa Reşat Mimaroğlu, who attained influential positions in post-genocide Turkey. He was the one who carried out arrests of Armenian intellectuals and politicians on April 24, 1915. I examine the continuation of a genocidal regime in the modern Turkish republic and how genocidaires such as Mimaroğlu constituted core elements of the new state by examining his life and his relationships with Diran Kelekian, who was arrested by his former student Mimaroğlu from Darülfünûn-u Şahâne. 

J: Could you tell us a little bit about the research discoveries that helped form your book?

ÜK: While doing my archival research for the book, I encountered a fantastic incident. I was searching for the reports and records of the Abandoned Property Liquidation Commissions and their Aintab branch. This commissions were founded by the Ottoman ruling government, then in charge of liquidating and selling Armenian movable and immovable properties in the public auctions after their forced deportations. The government kept entire records of these sales and other transactions of these commissions. Over the course of one and a half years’ research in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, I could not manage to obtain records of these commissions, 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.

I paid a visit in 2015 to Los Angeles to meet a friend of mine who was a descendent of a genocide survivor (late Pakrad Kazazian) from Aintab. He wanted to introduce me to his cousin whose grandfather, Sarkis Yacoubian, was also from Aintab and survived the genocide, ending up in Aleppo and opening up a bakery there. Uncle Pakrad took me to her house. 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 which could be useful for my book. After some time browsing, I realized a report of the Aintab Liquidation Commission was right in front of me and that 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 so groundbreaking. What I found proved and documented what the Aintab Abandoned Property Commission, an official state institution, did to the wealth and properties of a deported Armenian. The documents clearly showed and proved plunder and spoliation under the veil of legality. To date, this kind of documentation had not been done. 

Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion, pp. 212-14; 217-19) 

The slaughter and plunder followed deliberated and declared intent on the part of local perpetrators, who were assisted in their deadly campaign by the Ottoman central authorities. While the pattern of destruction remained locally determined, the central government provided the overall context that allowed for sustained human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. In the case of Aintab, a “suitable” sociopolitical atmosphere was created through the relentless efforts of the Muslim elites to lobby the central authorities to deport Armenians, whose deportation these elites then facilitated in return for obtaining the Armenians’ abandoned material riches. During 1915, these elites propagandized against Armenians, presenting them spuriously as a rebellious threat, as had been done previously in 1895. The seizure and transfer of Armenian property undergirded popular support for the deportation and ultimate elimination of their fellow citizens. Armenians had constituted the middle and upper middle class of the Aintab population, and they had predominated in manufacturing, agricultural production, and interregional trade. Thus their expulsion was a moment for opportunity, for the bandits who robbed Armenians of their personal belongings on the road and especially for Aintab’s Muslim elites, who seized the assets and properties the Armenians left behind. These elites had already done their part toward purging their city of its Armenians by lobbying Ottoman authorities in the imperial center for months, charging their unwanted neighbors with rebellion and treason, and demanding their expulsion.

Once the deportations began, Aintab gentry were well positioned to appropriate Armenian goods, properties, and businesses either directly or—via the good offices of the Abandoned Property Commissions and Liquidation Commissions—indirectly through the state. The CUP functionaries of Aintab—including Ali Cenani, district governor Ahmed Faik Bey, and Bulaşıkzâde mufti Arif Effendi—people in good standing with them, and war veterans were those most likely to receive monies, businesses, and properties, or to lease them for nominal fees, in turn transformed those people into capitalists (in the full sense of the word). The mayor, court officials, tax and treasury administrators, title deeds officers, and security forces also obtained immovable and movable assets of Armenians.

By taking up the cause of the CUP and ethnic Turkish nationalism, the leading families of Aintab—including Cenani, Mennazâde, Taşçızâde, Istırapzâde (Barlas), Daizâde, Kethüdazâde Göğüş, Battalzâde (Budak), Fazlızâde, and Haciağazâde—secured their control over the local CUP organization and parliamentary representation for the city. These individuals were far from the only beneficiaries. Direct perpetrators of the massacres often had their own pecuniary motives. Viewing the entirety of the process, the function of appropriation was as important as the individual purposes; huge numbers of people were bound together in a circle of profit that was at the same time a circle of complicity.

As Thomas Kühne highlights, “killing and even murdering other people, terrorizing, humiliating, or causing harm to them, is not just destructive. For those who perpetrate violence and terror, it is creative and rewarding. It generates a social dynamic.” Perpetrators and bystanders “energized social life and built collective identity through committing genocide. The desire for community, the experience of belonging, and the ethos of collectivity became the basis of mass murder.” Another renowned Holocaust historian elucidates how the genocide against the Jews “served as a mechanism for social mobility—for moving into the better houses [of killed or deported Jews], taking over businesses, giving clothes and jewelry to one’s wife or mistress or fetching toys for one’s children, all facilitated by the shedding of blood.” In the same vein, as well as eradicating the Armenian community, deportation was a means of reorienting the Muslim population to a new ideological identity; more than enriching individual perpetrators, plunder was a way of rewarding the “reliable,” resourcing immigrants and refugees in order to properly integrate them, and creating a Turkish-Muslim bourgeoisie as a driver of national modernization in a Darwinian world of struggle.

Following the elimination of Aintab Armenians, the promise of economic power rallied active support for and participation in a macro policy operated by the CUP that aimed to annihilate all of Turkey’s Armenians. In fact, it was the drive for material gain that led administrative, political, local, and civil actors to pragmatically engage in the eradication of Armenians more actively than the central authorities. More important, property theft and material benefits acquired from the victims were an important means of further binding the beneficiaries to one another and the CUP regime. As early as March 1915, Aintab’s provincial notables and landowners as well as municipal officials and other bigwigs were casting covetous eyes on Armenian property, and the Istanbul government was well aware of these desires. In order to fulfill its policy of destruction, the CUP was required to make concessions. Therefore, one could argue that what motivated urban Muslim Aintab notables to join the CUP and take part in its genocidal policies was self-interest rather than a shared ideology; much of the implementation was enacted by local elites and the Muslim population at large out of a base desire to plunder the assets and property of the Armenian community, instead of the generally assumed ideological pressure and encouragements of the political center. This attitude, in turn, greatly widened the scope of complicity—not just in the sense of more people being involved as perpetrators or beneficiaries after genocide had been initiated, but also in the sense of more sections of society actively encouraging genocide in the first place. In this respect, the general paradigm in the relevant literature, which has approached the localities as passive agents of the Ottoman center, demands revision.

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. In other words, the elimination of the Armenians paved the way for the rise of a new upper class in Gaziantep. 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 1925–1928 editions of the Gaziantep Ticaret Odası Yıllığı (Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce Yearbook) confirm that no non-Muslim merchants remained in the city. Until the mid-1940s, the influence of Muslim elites over the city continued. The mayors of the city for the years 1921–1950 all came from the same influential families. These elites entirely dominated the industry and economy of Gaziantep in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of these men, moreover, were members of the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and representatives of the party’s branch in Aintab. Hence, was the Republican regime linked to its CUP predecessor via persecutory economic policy, personnel, and ideology.

Armenian assets such as shops, estates, and houses in the neighborhoods of Kozanlı, İbrahimli, Körkün, Eblehan, Büyükkızılhisar, Şekeroğlu, Sazgın, Isbatrın, Tışlaki, Akyol, Eyüboğlu, Kurb-ı Zincirli, and Tepebaşı began to be sold at rigged auctions to the members of those prominent families for very low prices in post-genocide Turkey. This real estate was auctioned by dealers associated with the Gaziantep Revenue Office. Auctions were preceded by newspaper announcements about the details of the sales in question, listing the approximate location, type, and value in liras of the properties in question and, most important, their previous owners—but with no reference to the state that had acquired the properties and was their current owner.

To sum up, the nouveau riche of Gaziantep were not only influential figures in the national resistance and the Republican period, but also emerged as the new captains of industry in the city. The economic elite of Aintab was being reconstituted along political lines. A new political class, based on such qualifications as previous CUP service, zeal in the Turkish-French war, and political reliability as Republicans, was able, through its acquisition of Armenian wealth, to lay the economic foundations that would sustain its status over generations, long after World War I and its aftermath were only a memory.

As a native son of Gaziantep, I now fully realize that through having attended the same schools with grandsons and granddaughters of those elites, I myself have witnessed the consequences of Aintab Armenians’ physical and material destruction. My account here can offer insight into local history but is only a small step in understanding the complete picture of not only what happened but also how and why these events transpired. Unseen in the archived letters, telegrams, and property lists are the trauma and suffering of Armenian survivors repeatedly subjected to attacks on their lives, culture, assets, and social status. The base motives of their former neighbors left some of the most indelible wounds, which more than a century later remain unhealed.