Bedross Der Matossian, The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Bedross Der Matossian (BDM): More than one hundred years ago, the province of Adana, in the southern section of the Ottoman empire and modern-day Turkey, witnessed two waves of violence that took the lives of thousands of people. More than twenty thousand Christians (predominantly Armenian, as well as some Greeks, Syriacs, and Chaldeans) were massacred by Muslims, and around two thousand Muslims were killed by Christians. Despite the massive bloodshed of the Adana massacres, most of the major books on late Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history fail to even mention these events. Where the massacres are considered in the historiography, the contested nature of the events has led to competing narratives. Starting from the premise that no such horrendous act happens in a vacuum, the aim of this book is to understand the full complexity of these massacres. The book attempts to interpret these events through a thorough analysis of the primary sources pertaining to the local, central, and international actors who were involved in the massacres as perpetrators, victims, or bystanders—something that has not been done yet in the academic or journalistic universe. Unlike other works on the topic, this book analyzes the events through the lenses of both Ottoman and Armenian history and with an interdisciplinary approach. The book is based on extensive research carried out in the past decade, consulting more than fifteen archives and primary sources in a dozen languages.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
BDM: Through a consideration of the Adana massacres in micro-historical detail, I offer a macro-cosmic understanding of ethnic violence in the Middle East and beyond. Events such as the Adana massacres do not occur sui generis; they are caused by a range of complex, intersecting factors that are deeply rooted in the shifting local and national ground of political and socioeconomic life. The book does not privilege one factor over another in explaining these massacres. The most important factors leading to the Adana massacres were the Young Turk revolution of 1908, discussed in my first book, which shook the foundations of the “fragile equilibrium” that had existed in the empire for decades; the emergence of resilient public spheres after three decades of despotic rule in which the public sphere was largely repressed; and the counter-revolution of 13 April 1909.
The book refutes the claim that certain cultures and religions are predisposed to violence—an idea that was and remains prevalent in the way some Western scholars and orientalists view Islam. The literature on genocide and massacres in recent decades has demonstrated that, in particular circumstances, ordinary men and women from many different religious and cultural backgrounds are capable of barbaric crimes. Instead of perpetuating the idea that certain human beings have a biological predisposition to commit crimes, the book suggests that scholars should examine how and why a rationalized society suddenly erupts at a particular juncture in history to produce massacres.
The dichotomy of Muslims versus Armenians encourages vast essentializations of the parties involved in the conflict and obfuscates a sound analysis of the socioeconomic and political factors that led to the massacres. By analyzing the changes in the sociopolitical, religious, and economic structures in the region, this book provides multi-causal and multi-faceted explanations of the events that unfolded in Adana. The book examines the violence and struggles for power in terms of failures and successes in the public sphere and more generally in relation to the 1908 revolution, using primary sources in a dozen languages. The Adana massacres are considered not as part of a continuum of Armenian massacres leading to the Armenian Genocide but as an outgrowth of the ethno-religious violence that was inflicted on the region in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While much work has been done on understanding ethnic violence in the Ottoman Balkans and the Arab Middle East prior to World War I, there is a lacuna in such studies in the region of Anatolia. This project aims to fill this gap. This book analyzes the history of the massacres through four interrelated themes: dominant and subaltern public spheres, rumors, emotions, and humanitarianism and humanitarian intervention.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
BDM: This book is part of a trilogy that I have been working on. In my first book, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the End of the Ottoman Empire, I analyzed the ambiguities and contradictions of the 1908 Young Turk revolution’s goals and the reluctance of both the leaders of the revolution and the majority of the empire’s ethnic groups to come to a compromise regarding the new political framework of the empire. This was done by concentrating on three diversified groups (Armenians, Arabs, and Jews) representing vast geographic areas, as well as a wide range of interest groups, religions, classes, political parties, and factions. The book demonstrated how the revolution with its contradictions and ambiguities led to a substantial upsurge in inter- and intra-ethnic tensions in the Empire, culminating in the counter-revolution of 13 April 1909 and leading to drastic upheaval in the capital and a spiral of violence in the provinces. The Horrors of Adana starts when the Shattered Dreams of Revolution ends by concentrating on the most horrendous event that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. By focusing on the provinces of Adana and Aleppo, the book examined the impact of the revolution on these provinces and demonstrated the factors and the reasons for the deterioration of the conditions leading to the massacres. There is no doubt that the revolution of 1908 opened a Pandora’s box of simmering political and socioeconomic tensions in the Empire. The post-revolutionary period demonstrated how the level of ethno-religious tensions in the empire was so high by the beginning of the twentieth century that any crisis, whether due to internal or external factors, had the potential to explode in a cataclysmic spiral of violence.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
BDM: I hope that the book will attract students and scholars from a variety of disciplines that includes but is not limited to students and scholars of Turkish/Ottoman and Middle East studies, and scholars and students working on genocide, violence, massacres, and ethnic conflict. Due to its interdisciplinary approach, the book would also be of interest to the disciplines of history, political science, sociology, and anthropology. One of the important goals of the book was to emphasize the necessity of understanding the history of this grim page in history going beyond essentialization and dichotomies by showing the complexities of the political and socioeconomic transformations and their impact on shaping the region of Adana. The book, with its inter-disciplinary and global approach, would be a useful addition to the vast literature on ethno-religious conflict, massacres, genocide, and ethnic conflict. The crimes perpetrated in the past century have revealed that no society in the world today is immune to mass violence. To prevent these types of violent episodes, it is crucial that we learn from the past.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
BDM: Currently I am working on the last volume of the trilogy on the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). This study will examine the reaction of non-dominant groups to the wars as well as the attitude of the Ottoman governments towards them. In addition to this, a new edited volume of mine, Denial of Genocide in the 21st Century, will be published next year by the University of Nebraska Press.
J: How do you view the position of Armenian studies in the larger context of Middle Eastern and Turkish/Ottoman studies?
BDM: For decades Armenian studies has been marginalized in Middle Eastern, Turkish, and Ottoman studies due to political and ideological reasons. Ignorance and reluctance to understand the field too have contributed to this marginalization. Some scholars viewed the field as an archaic one remote from the two above mentioned fields. Others did not want to be associated with Armenian studies due to the Armenian Genocide, as they were concerned that any such association might endanger their access to the Ottoman archives or be tainted as advocating an Armenian “point of view.” However, in the recent two to three decades the situation has begun to improve. We are seeing more young scholars start examining the history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Although the concentration is on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this should be considered a welcome step. Armenians of the Ottoman Empire—representing diverse, complex, and stratified groups—have left a plethora of primary sources pertaining not only to the history of their own groups, rather about the history of the Ottoman Empire in general. Hence, it is time that Western Armenian be considered as one of the key languages in Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies. In addition, it is also high time that we consider these subjects as overlapping and intersecting fields and not as “area studies.” Similar to hybridity of identities, I would like also to promote here the idea that these “area studies” are hybrid and cannot and should not be studied in isolation.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-5)
Excerpted from The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century, by Bedross Der Matossian, published by Stanford University Press, ©2022 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.
On the night of Thursday, September 19, 2019, Turkish locals in the Seyhan District of Adana Province attacked and looted shops belonging to Syrian refugees in response to rumors that a Syrian man had tried to rape a Turkish boy. The rumor had spread very quickly on social media. The mob yelled, “Down with Syria, damn Syria!” The police later caught the suspect, who according to the Adana governor’s office, was a fifteen- year-old Turkish citizen with thirty-seven past criminal offences. The police detained 138 subjects for causing extensive damage to Syrian businesses, or instigating such acts on social media, and contained the situation. This was not the first time that Syrian businesses were targeted in Turkey; for example, in July of the same year, dozens of Syrian shops were looted by an angry mob over rumors that a Syrian boy had verbally abused a Turkish girl. With the arrival of 3.5 million refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, intercommunal tensions in Turkey have been high.
Such violent outbursts are not solely the result of rumors; they represent underlying political and socioeconomic anxieties. Furthermore, they are endemic in more than just one society, religion, culture, or geographical region. In the course of history, similar acts of violence have taken place— in the form of blood libels, riots, pogroms, massacres, or, in extreme cases, genocides—in different parts of the globe. From the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572) to the pogroms of Odessa (1905) and from the Sabra and Shatila massacre (1982) to the Gujarat massacres (2002), history is rife with such violent episodes. These acts of violence share similar societal stressors that become heightened due to major political or economic crises or upheavals. The outcome of these stressors is conditioned by local exigencies. The factors leading to the escalation of these tensions include, but are not limited to, competition over resources, xenophobia, wars, nationalism, influxes of refugees, land disputes, economic envy, and the proliferation of rumors. Specific events—minor or major, fabricated or true—can then become catalysts that mobilize dominant groups against vulnerable minorities.
More than one hundred years ago, the province of Adana, in the southern section of the Ottoman Empire and of present-day Turkey, witnessed a major wave of violence that took the lives of thousands of people. More than twenty thousand Christians (predominantly Armenian, as well as some Greek, Syriacs, and Chaldeans) were massacred by Muslims, and around two thousand Muslims were killed by Christians. Starting from the premise that no such horrendous act happens in a vacuum, the aim of this book is to understand the full complexity of these massacres. However, I would like to stress at the outset that this is not a definitive history of the massacres. The enormity and the complexity of crimes such as massacres and genocides make it impossible to write a definitive history; any scholar who claims to do so would do no justice to history. Each village, town, and district that was struck by the massacres could itself be the topic of a monograph. Hence, this book attempts instead to interpret these events through a thorough analysis of the primary sources pertaining to the local, central, and international actors who were involved in the massacres as perpetrators, victims, or bystanders. Unlike other works on the topic, this book analyzes the event through the lenses of both Ottoman and Armenian history and with an interdisciplinary approach. As Jacques Sémelin argues in his seminal work Purify and Destroy, “‘massacre’ as a phenomenon in itself is so complex that it requires a multidisciplinary examination: from the standpoint of not only the historian but also the psychologist, the anthropologist and so on.”
Adana, located on the Mediterranean coast in southern Anatolia, was one of the most significant economic centers in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. With a diverse population of Muslims (Turks, Kurds, Circassians, and Arabs) and Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Chaldians, and Arabs) and a large population of seasonal migrant workers, it was the hub of cotton production in the Ottoman Empire. At the end of April 1909, in a period of two weeks, brutal massacres shook the province of Adana and its capital, the city of Adana. Images of Adana after the massacres show unprecedented physical destruction of a once prosperous city. Local Armenian businesses, churches, residences, and living quarters were totally destroyed. The violence that began in the city of Adana soon spread across the province and poured beyond its borders eastward into the province of Aleppo. In terms of the number of victims, this was the third-largest act of violence perpetrated at the beginning of the twentieth century, following only the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) and the genocide of the Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1907 in the German colony of Southwest Africa. The central Ottoman government immediately sent investigation commissions and established courts-martial to try the perpetrators of the massacres. However, these courts failed to prosecute the main culprits of the massacres— a miscarriage of justice that would have repercussions in the years to come.
Despite the massive bloodshed of the Adana massacres, most of the major books on late Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history fail even to mention these events. Where the massacres are considered in the historiography, the contested nature of the events has led to competing narratives. While the Armenian historiography broadly argues that these massacres resulted from a deliberate policy orchestrated by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the leading Young Turk party, Turkish historiography generally claims that these events were the result of a well-planned Armenian uprising intended to reestablish the Kingdom of Cilicia. Many Armenian and European historians have agreed that the Adana massacres represent a “dress rehearsal” for the Armenian Genocide (1915–23). The prominent historian Raymond H. Kévorkian, in his monumental volume on the Armenian Genocide, discusses the background of the Adana massacres and, based on circumstantial evidence, incriminates the CUP. He concludes by saying:
Who gave the order? Who told high-ranking civilian and military officials, as well as the local notables, to organize these “spontaneous riots”? Was it the authorities, the state, the government, the CUP? Everything suggests that it was only the sole institution that controlled the army, the government, and the main state organs—namely, the Ittihadist Central Committee—that could have issued these orders and made sure that they were respected. In view of the usual practices of this party, the orders must have been communicated, in the first instance, by means of the famous itinerant delegates sent out by Salonika, whom no vali would have dared contradict.
Kévorkian’s assessment of the massacres takes into consideration the viewpoint of the Armenian intelligentsia at the time. Many Armenian scholars adhere to his approach. This consensus notwithstanding, it is important to keep in mind that Armenians were not passive objects who lacked agency; on the contrary, they were active subjects in their own history, a perspective that is usually sidelined in the Armenian Genocide historiography.
With this book, I offer a necessary corrective to these narratives. Through a consideration of the Adana massacres in micro-historical detail, I also offer a macrocosmic understanding of ethnic violence in the Middle East and beyond. Outbreaks like the Adana massacres do not occur sui generis; they are caused by a range of complex, intersecting factors that are deeply rooted in the shifting local and national ground of political and socioeconomic life. In addition, I do not intend to privilege one factor over another in explaining these massacres. The most important factors leading to the Adana massacres were the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which shook the foundations of the “fragile equilibrium” that had existed in the empire for decades; the emergence of resilient public spheres after three decades of despotic rule in which the public sphere was largely repressed; and the counterrevolution of April 13, 1909. The contestation of the legitimacy of the state’s power during the counterrevolution resulted in intense social violence that fed directly into the massacres. A major question that this book strives to answer is how and why public spheres in postrevolutionary periods become spaces in which underlying tensions surface dramatically, creating fear and anxiety about the future that manifests in violence.
Official narratives often attempt to explain such events as manifestations of “ancient hatreds.” They argue that these “ancient hatreds” manifest themselves in times of crisis when political or socioeconomic tensions ignite. In the case of the Middle East, rudimentary explanations of conflicts hinge on tropes such as sectarianism, Muslim-Christian conflict, or the clash of nationalisms. Such dull “explanations” only serve to perpetuate what authorities would like to hear. A question that every historian of this region should ask is, if “ancient hatreds” were the reasons behind conflicts and massacres, why did these episodes of violence begin in the nineteenth century? It is only in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the wake of internal and external transformations, that we see ethno-religious or “sectarian” violence manifest itself in the Ottoman territories. Hence, the “ancient hatreds” approach— as in the case of Yugoslavia—does not hold water in the case of the Ottoman Empire or the modern Middle East.
Furthermore, this book refutes the claim that certain cultures and religions are predisposed to violence—an idea that was and remains prevalent in the way some Western scholars and Orientalists view Islam. Even a prominent scholar of the Armenian Genocide did not shy away from certain Orientalist tropes in explaining the Armenian Genocide. The literature on genocide and massacres in recent decades has demonstrated that, in particular circumstances, ordinary men and women from many different religious and cultural backgrounds are capable of barbaric crimes.11 Instead of perpetuating the idea that certain human beings have a biological predisposition to commit crimes, I suggest that scholars should examine how and why a rationalized society suddenly erupts at a particular juncture in history to produce massacres. Having said that, it is important to highlight that scholars should be cautious about normalizing violence as an inevitable process in such cases.