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Syriacs commemorate their massacre

While the world prepares to commemorate what has become known as the Armenian genocide, the Syriacs are still struggling for international recognition of the massacre of members of their community in 1915.
Syriac Christian monks attend a service at the ancient monastery of Mor Gabriel, 15 km (9 miles) away from the town of Midyat, in Mardin province of southeast Turkey January 13, 2009. Tucked amid rugged hills where mosques and minarets are silhouetted in the distance, the fifth century Mor Gabriel monastery stands out as a relic of another era when hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians lived and worshipped in Turkey. But a land dispute between Mor Gabriel and neighbouring villages is threatening the mo

Perched on a hilltop overlooking the plateau of Tur Abdin in southeastern Anatolia, the ancient Syriac village of Aynwardo commands an excellent defensive position. In its heavily fortified fourth-century church, a clutch of desperate Syriacs held out against Ottoman troops and Kurdish irregulars for 60 days in the summer of 1915, while the Syriac population throughout the region was being put to the sword. Although many of the defenders were shot after the siege ended, the resistance mounted in Aynwardo is proudly remembered by Syriacs as a glimmer of light in the darkness of their near annihilation. It is therefore to Aynwardo that local and diaspora Syriacs will march from the market town of Midyat this summer in what local organizers call the “first public commemoration of the Syriac genocide” in their homeland of Tur Abdin.

The Syriacs, also known as Assyrians or Arameans, are an ancient Mesopotamian people who were among the first to adopt Christianity and are perhaps best known today for retaining their Aramaic language, a variant of which was the language of Jesus Christ. Never very populous, they were decimated by about half in the massacres of Anatolian Christians that began in 1915. Although these killings officially targeted Armenians, neither Ottoman authorities nor local Kurds made a distinction between the Christian peoples in southeastern Anatolia, famously arguing that “an onion is an onion, no matter what its color.” Scholars estimate that up to 300,000 Syriacs were killed. Emigration of the survivors from the region continued for the rest of the century. The vast majority are dispersed around the globe today with the events of 1915 seared into their collective memory as the Year of the Seyfo, or Year of the Sword.

While the world prepares to commemorate what has become known as the Armenian genocide, however, the Syriacs are still struggling for international recognition of their ancestors' fate. “The Assyrian genocide has remained somewhat in the shadow of the Armenian genocide,” Sabri Atman, director of the Swedish-based Seyfo Center for Assyrian Genocide Research, told Al-Monitor. “Historians and politicians have not been sensitive enough to the issue.”

The campaign for recognition can sometimes be frustrating, activists say. When the World Council of Arameans, one of several Syriac diaspora associations, recently petitioned Germany for recognition of the “Aramean genocide,” the German Foreign Ministry responded with a pre-formulated letter on the Armenian issue that did not even mention the Arameans beyond a salutary sentence. The association’s president, Johny Messo, told Al-Monitor, “Needless to say, we are not content with this approach.”

The tragedy of the Syriacs has long occupied a blind spot in the public perception of the 1915 massacres. Even as the slaughter of the Anatolian Christians was happening, the killing of Syriacs was underreported by international observers chronicling the fate of the Armenians. As Atman explains, this was partly because most Assyrians were killed in the remote villages where they lived and not under the eyes of foreign observers in cities or on forced deportation marches like the Armenians.

Later, eyewitness reports on the Syriac dimension of the massacres, assembled by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, were omitted in the publication of his papers, the title of which, according to German historian Gabriele Yonan, was changed from “The Treatment of the Armenians and the Assyrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire” to “The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.” 

Internal factors have also worked against the Syriacs. As Atman points out, Armenian survivors were better organized than other Ottoman minorities and more confident in their identity. They were also better educated and more worldly, rising quickly in the societies of their diaspora host countries as writers, politicians and artists who could influence public opinion. While Armenians had developed a sense of nationhood long before the end of the Ottoman Empire, for the Syriacs the flight into exile was only the beginning of a search for identity that continues today. At present, they remain bitterly divided between those who identify themselves as Assyrians and those who call themselves Arameans, furthering the confusion of observers and hindering their common cause of recognition.

“Naturally it saddens us that our tragedy is not known and not recognized,” Atman said. Beyond sorrow, the lack of recognition has also brought disadvantages to the Syriacs in real ways. Unlike the Armenians, Greeks and Jews, the Syriacs have never been accepted by the Turkish republic as a non-Muslim minority under the Treaty of Lausanne, a clear breach of the treaty that has never been challenged by the co-signatories. As a result, they do not even enjoy the limited minority rights accorded to other minorities, such as their own schools and the right to safeguard their language and culture. Subjected to decades of assimilation and Turkification policies, most remaining Syriacs have fled the region, where only a couple of thousand remain today.

All the more poignant are the plans for the first genocide commemoration in Tur Abdin. Events are being led by the Syriac Unity Association, a local organization that was closed by authorities this month for technical irregularities in its bylaws. Association President Yuhanna Aktas told Al-Monitor that having lodged an appeal, the group remains active pending the decision of the appeals court and is continuing with its preparations for the commemoration.

Although June was selected for the march to Aynwardo, the organizers have also decided to hold a symbolic hunger strike in Midyat to commemorate April 24, the date of the first deportation of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. “It was in June 1915 that the killing of the Syriacs began in Tur Abdin,” Aktas said. “But since it is the April date that people now associate with the genocide, that is what we will do.”

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