THE ARMENIAN REBELLION OF THE 1720S AND THE THREAT OF GENOCIDAL REPRISAL
As document 6 reveals above, the Sublime Porte questioned the "loyal nation" status of the Armenians as early as the 1720s and did not hesitate to blame the entire Armenian nation (Millet) for the Armenian resistance in Karabakh and Kapan. There remains no doubt that this status had always been very fragile;165 besides, it contained an inherent danger — the fact that the Armenians previously had been perceived by the Ottoman Turks as a nation incapable of rebellion psychologically reinforced the latters' wrath against them. Thus, historically, the formation of anti-Armenian genocidal attitudes in the Ottoman Empire was strongly conditioned also by independent cultural variables. Nevertheless, rumors circulated in the 1720s about the desire of the Sultan to eliminate the Armenians altogether were spread most probably by the Porte itself, with the aim of intimidating the Armenians.
In the 1720s, the Armenians' apprehensions about "total extermination" were far from being irrational and stemmed from both their sober assessment of the political, institutional, and cultural realities of the 18th century Iranian and the Ottoman Empires and from direct threats made against them. A seemingly ahistorical question suggests itself: if the Ottoman Armenians had risen up for their national liberation in the 1720s, as the Eastern Armenians did, what might the Porte's verdict have been then? In the light of the evidence presented in
this study, one can assert with considerable confidence that having the full support of the military and Muslim clergy the Sultan would have chosen "total extermination of the Armenians" (setting aside the question of what success such a policy might have had). This assertion is significant enough to reconstruct the entire framework of Armenian Genocide studies, hitherto primarily conducted within the context of the period between the 1870 and 1923. That the decision to exterminate the Armenians was considered long before the Ottoman Empire was collapsing at the turn of this century indicates an urgent need to explore thoroughly the relevant historical data from the early modern Ottoman period. At the same time, it points to a much needed reappraisal of the crucial role that culture and symbols played in the history of the Turkish-Armenian relations.
Three basic considerations, among others, could have dissuaded the Ottoman regime from undertaking the extermination of the Armenians in the 1720s.
1) Although we have some scanty evidence about the Armenian attempts to prepare uprisings within the Ottoman state (in the provinces of Van and Diarbekir, but possibly elsewhere as well) in the 1720s with the aim of joining the Eastern Armenian liberation war,166 these plans were never realized. A number of historical reasons were responsible for this outcome of which the two decisive ones were: (a) the Eastern Armenian leadership's failure to expand effectively its political-military power beyond Karabakh and Kapan during the 1722-1724 period and (b) the early concentration of large Ottoman armies in the region.167 Further, the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, together with the influential class of the Armenian bankers and merchants,168 worked vigorously towards the restoration of their image as a "loyal nation." For example, in violation of several principles of the bylaws of the Armenian Church169 in February 1726 they elected in
Constantinople a new Patriarch of All Armenians, Karapet Ulnetzi (1726-1729), an Ottoman Armenian cleric who unlike his predecessor170 was fully trusted by the Sublime Porte and was able to establish favorable relations with the new Ottoman administration of Eastern Armenia.171 Thus, the Ottoman Armenians continued to live in full compliance with the provisions of the Millet system, characterized by the superordinate-subordinate dichotomy between the ruling group and other ethnoreligious entities.172
2) Any massive destruction of the population in the Ottoman Armenian provinces would have resulted in the complete devastation of the rear and communication lines of the Ottoman armies that were fighting with bitter exertion and varying success on the Iranian fronts. In effect, under the material conditions of the time such an undertaking would have caused an outright defeat of the Porte in its Iranian campaign. Furthermore, it could have provoked a larger Armenian uprising.
3) Finally, economic considerations were of prime importance as well. In this regard let it suffice to quote Michel Febvre, the seventeenth century Italian missionary, who served in the Ottoman Empire for a long period:
[The Turks] are tolerating the Christians and Jews on account that they benefit from them more than from their [Muslim] subjects. And they allow them to live on the [same] basis, as it is done for sheep and bees - for their milk and honey.173
In this respect one point calls for discussion. Subsequently, only two distinct historical time frames allowed the Armenians to organize national-liberation movements comparable in dimension with the armed struggle of 1722-1735. First, during
the period from the 1890s to 1921, the year when the first Armenian republic (the two and a half year-old achievement of preceding hard struggle) was finally crushed under joint Russian-Turkish pressure; second, from 1988 to 1994, during the national campaign for the liberation of Karabakh from Azerbaijani domination.
It is of considerable interest to note that despite clear dissimilarities all three of these ethnopolitical social movements arose and developed in geopolitical situations, which had following major identical characteristics:
1. The outbreak of sharp interethnic and interstate conflicts throughout the Caucasian region, including Transcaucasia;
2. The intense geostrategic rivalry between Turkey, Iran, and Russia;
3. The derivation of the Caucasian crises from sweeping internal crises in at least one of the above mentioned regional "superpowers," specifically:
a) the period from 1722 to 1735 witnessed successive Afghan, Russian, and Turkish invasions of Iran and the concomitant breakdown of the Safavid Empire;
b) the period from the 1890s to 1921 coincided with a series of regional wars, World War I, and successive revolutions in all three powers — in Russia (1905-1906, 1917), in Iran (1905-1911), and in Turkey (1908, 1919-1922).
c) the period from 1988 to 1994 corresponded to the collapse of the Soviet Empire and its serious aftermaths.
As for the Armenian liberation attempt of the 1720s, although it had many elements of self-defense (especially in the protracted armed resistance of Karabakh and Kapan), it had been planned decades before and therefore affords a unique
case of rebellion whose original aim was — as stressed at the clandestine meeting of the Vaspurakan Armenians in September 1722 where there was a broad representation of the population - "the liberation of all of blood-drenched Armenia".l74 Thus, the Armenian liberation movement of the 1720s differed substantially from the movement at the turn of this century, which was essentially a self-defense phenomenon overwhelmingly concerned with the physical preservation of Western Armenia rather than the independence of all Armenia. Recently, Mkrtich Nersisian, the patriarch of genocide studies in Armenia, pointed once again to the false thesis of modern Turkish historiography that depicts the Ottoman Empire as a harmonious living place for every ethnic grouping.175 The late medieval-early modern Armenian aspirations for independence, demonstrated most vigorously in the 1720s, prove the reality of severe ethnoreligious oppression as practiced and institutionalized in the Ottoman state.
The Ottoman ruling establishment's new, Europeanized military thinking, which ensued in the 19th century, could have had only a modest impact on the Porte's genocidal policies of the turn of this century. James Reid's idea that the Ottoman Turkish military strategy of the massive destruction of populations developed later only through the 19th century following upon 1) the experience substructure of the raid tactics of irregulars in Turkey and the Caucasus, and 2) the influence of the modern European warfare concept of total war,176 now appears to be unconvincing. As has been shown here, the Ottoman Turks had developed their own "annihilation ethic" much earlier. Much more valid is Dadrian's presentation of "Islamic Sacred Law as a Matrix of Ottoman Legal Order and Nationality Conflicts."177 Indeed, "genocidal ideologies may persist for a long time without becoming actualized in genocides."178 Turkish society proved to be extremely reluctant to accept modernization as implemented through Tanzimat
reforms in the 19th century. Certainly the reforms did not reach and change the traditional Millet structure of intercommunal attitudes.179 As a result, the Ottoman Turks retained and perpetuated many elements of their early modern society, including the belief system underpinning that society up to and during the Armenian massacres period of the 1890s-1922. Specifically, the Ottoman-Turkish tradition of genocidal retribution towards a rebellious ethnic group emerged during the Armenian Genocide in a twofold sense:
1) It provided a ready and convenient model for the Ottoman elite to exterminate the Armenians. Thus, Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to Turkey from 1913 to 1916, echoed this conclusion: "They (Ottoman elite) criticized their ancestors for neglecting to destroy or convert the Christian races to Mohammedanism at the time when they first subjugated them. Now... they thought the time opportune to make good the oversight of their ancestors in the 15th century." According to Austrian Vice-Field Marshal Pomiankowski, another well-informed witness and observer of the Armenian Genocide, "many intelligent Turks" spoke out that the conquered people "ought to have been exterminated long ago."180
2) Since it was already well known to the official classes and lower strata of the ruling ethnoreligious group, the order on the extermination of the Armenians was, using Morgenthau's parlance, "enthusiastically approved"181 by them and put into a conventional pattern of hostile behavior.
Finally, to recall and slightly amplify Mosca, "whatever practical value political science (including genocide studies — A. A.) may have in the future, progress in that field will be based upon the study of the facts of society, and those facts can be found only in the history of the various nations....it is to the old historical method that we must return."182
Armen Aivazian The Armenian Rebellion of the 1720s and the Threat
of Genocidal Reprisal Yerevan, 1997