The Zeytun Riots

Zeytun, whose name is Süleymanlı today, was an ancient settlement center founded on the Zeytun River in a narrow valley at the feet of steep and woody Mount Berit, which has an altitude of 3014 meters and is between the Göksun River and the Ceyhan River in the northwest of Marash. The region where Zeytun is situated is quite indented as it has many rivers which are watery and have shoot. The place is called Zeytun (Olive) as both sides of the mountains had olive trees in large quantities (Ahmet Cevdat Pasha, 1991, 120-121). Zeytun County, which is part of the Marash Sandjak of the Aleppo Province, is a place of great significance in terms of the development of Turkish-Armenian relations. Zeytun Armenians made it a habit of not giving taxes by taking advantage of the hardship of the access of the state to this place due to the fact that the land they were living in was a steep and hilly place. There had always been riots in this region as some of the Zeytun Armenians saw brigandage as a kind of source of income. In the number of these riots, generally broken out not to give taxes seemingly, there was an increase after the last quarter of the 18th century (Günay, 2007, p. 228-230).

The fact that Armenians living in Zeytun were always in a state of uprising also drew the attention of missionaries who were conducting activities in Anatolia. Missionaries who were from the “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions,” which was doing activities concerning the renewal of Armenian churches in 10 cities including Marash by gathering in Istanbul in 1832, made connections with Armenians living in this city and at the same time being their targeted mass. Zeytun Armenians who got the support of foreigners in this way attacked the Muslim villages in the region. Thereupon, Bayezidoğlu Süleyman Pasha took Zeytun under siege. Even though this siege was very effective, it was removed before a definite result was gained due to winter conditions. The Zeytun Armenians broke out events also in the years 1836, 1840, and 1842. The government wanted to know why the Zeytun Armenians broke out in so much unrest and they sent a committee to the region to investigate this. At the end of the investigation in the region, it was understood from the reports which were read in the Vala Assembly that the riots in Zeytun were not only about the issue of taxes but the issue had a political aspect as well (Günay, 2007, p. 230-231).

The Zeytun Armenians’ attitudes, which did not recognize the authority of the state, continued also in 1853 and 1854. The events starting with the impact of the conflict between the Bayezid and Dulkadir families in 1854 were not able to be stopped with the influence of the Marash people objecting to the regulations of Edict of Reformation in 1856. Among the precautions of the government to stop the conflicts, which started in May, they were to send additional military troops to the region (A. MKT. UM, 236/15) and to collect the weapons of the people living in the Zeytun region and Marash (A. MKT. UM, 240/14). The Zeytun Armenians reacted to the plan of placing many Cherkes and Caucasian immigrants in this region in 1857 and some immigrants being hosted in Elbistan (MVL, 628/37). When the attacks of Armenians against the immigrants increased, Hurşit Pasha walked up to the Zeytun Armenians who did not give taxes and attacked Marash. Hurşit Pasha was not successful in his operation and Aziz Pasha was appointed to his position (Aghassi, 1897, p. 112-113).

After the declaration of the Edict of Reformation, there were unrests in different parts of the Ottoman Empire. The most important of these was the unrest in Lebanon. The Marunis living in Lebanon were protected by France and the Durzis were protected by Britain. There was no unity among the Marunis due to different reasons (Karpat, 2001, p. 68-69). The fact that Durzi and Sunnis wanted to re-establish their dominions by taking advantage of the divisions among the Marunis caused the tension in the relations of the communities living here. The events spread to Syria and around 7,000 to 12,000 people from each religion died. The issues were taken to an international dimension by Britain and France, and Lebanon was given the status of a privileged and independent province on 9 June 1861 (Shaw&Shaw, 1983, 183). To the lieutenant governorship of Lebanon, a Catholic Armenian, Davit Efendi, was appointed by being conferred with the rank of vizier (Karal, 1983, p. 41).

This autonomous administration, which took place under the pressure of the Big Powers, not only damaged the reputation of the Ottoman Empire in the region, but also caused other Ottoman subjects to want the same kind of governance; and therefore, new conflicts to occurred (İlter, 1995, p. 102). The Zeytun Armenians asked for help from France to be able to gain a similar status like Lebanon. Even though French Emperor Napoleon promised independence to them by supporting the Zeytun Armenians at the beginning (Jorga, 2005, p. 546), when France’s demand about the conversion of the Zeytun Armenians to Catholicism was rejected by them (Nalbandian, 1958, p. 119), France informed the Ottoman Empire about the situation. Even if the Zeytun Armenians were not able to get the support of France, they made it a habit to ask for help from European diplomats and countries after this occasion (İlter, 1995, p. 105).

Even though the Zeytun Armenians rebelled to object the laws of the state before, after 1860 they started to rebel to reach their purpose of establishing an independent state (Jorga, 2005, p. 504), to gain the attention of the Big Powers, and to disturb the order and peace of the Ottoman Empire (Günay, 2005, p. 236). The seeming reason for the riots broken out in 1860 and 1862 was the objection to the placement of Muslim immigrants in Marash. After the Zeytun Armenians arranged attacks on the Muslim villages in the region and carried out massacres, the Marash lieutenant governor Aziz Pasha walked up to Zeytun with the irregular troops, which were mostly formed by volunteers and two mountain artilleries. However, he was not successful and one of the mountain artilleries was captured by the Armenians (A. MKT. MHM, 244/10). This advantage of the Zeytun Armenians did not last long. Aziz Pasha defeated the Armenians nearby in the Alabaş Village. Aziz Pasha informed the Foreign Affairs Ministry on 27 August 1862 that the security was ensured in Zeytun, the people of Zeytun expressed their remorse, and even paid their debts and that he did not enter the center of Zeytun not to allow any looting (OBE I, document no: 153, p. 340). Even if public order was secured in Zeytun, the Zeytun Armenians complained about Aziz Pasha to the Patriarchate and France due to his practices. The Ottoman Empire created a commission including Armenians and sent it to the region. Aziz Pasha was also dismissed from the service (A. MKT. MHM, 240/77). In the report prepared at the end of the investigation, it was written that the Zeytun Armenians attacked Muslim villages, massacred people, fought against the soldiers employed to ensure the security in the region, and that the criminals should be tried and punished (OBE I, document no 157, p. 344).

The Ottoman Empire took extensive administrative and economic precautions called the “Reformation Organizations” in the region (Ahmet Cevdat Pasha, 1991, p. 108-120, 212-213) and wanted to prevent the conflicts to be aroused after this. Other Ottoman Armenians were inspired by this struggle of the Zeytun Armenians against the Ottoman Empire for their own riots in later years. They started to see the people in Zeytun which they called “Eagle Nest” (Svazlian, 2005, p. 61) as heroes. They wrote poems and novels talking about them and their struggles (Çelebyan, 2003, p. 22-23) and these stories were heard by Armenians living in other places and made their national feelings also high.

The Zeytun Armenians, who were not satisfied with the regulations of the Ottoman Empire in the region, continued to maintain a rebellious attitude in the hard times of the Empire. For instance, during the war with Russia in 1877-1878, they rioted for not being taken into military service. The Zeytun Armenians attacked Muslim villages and burnt mosques. They attacked the Bozdoğan Tribe and killed some members of the tribe. The government decided that the Zeytun people would be taken into military service (ATASE, ORH, K. 2-10, G. 897). However, this could not make them act loyal to the state.

The representatives of foreign countries started to pressure the Ottoman Empire over the Armenians by depending on the right of protecting Armenians given to them by the Berlin Treaty. During the uprising of 1878, the Zeytun Armenians were supported by Britain. As a result of the encouragement of the Armenians by this support, the events continued in 1879 as well. Big Powers reminded the Ottoman Empire of Article 61 of the Berlin Treaty and asked for the needed reformations to be done in necessary places and offered for a commission to be established to investigate the Zeytun events. The Marash Vice-Lieutenant Governor Mazhar Pasha and the Council of State member Nuryan Efendi were assigned to investigate the issue. Later on, the Aleppo Consul of Britain and the Sis Catholicos also joined this commission (Günay, 2007, p. 257). At the end of the studies of the commission, the demands of the Zeytun Armenians such as the reduction of taxes, the issue of a general amnesty, and a banishment of tribes from entering the Zeytun region were accepted by the government (Y. A. RES, 4/27). The government went for a new administrative regulation in the region. A Christian vice-governor was appointed to Zeytun (Y. A. RES, 4/32). The administration of the county was regulated in a way that all units about justice and public order consisted of Muslims and Christians. In order to ease the transportation to Zeytun, a bridge was constructed on the Ceyhan River and also it was decided that a military post was constructed in Zeytun to ensure the public order (İ. DH, 786/63865).

Giving Privileges to the Armenians of Zeytun

After the establishments of the Hunchakian committee in Geneva and the Dashnaksutyun committee in Tbilisi, Zeytun was made an area of activity by these committees arranging activities against the Ottoman Empire. The arming of Armenians in the region increased. There were events which worried the government between the years 1890-1895 (Günay, 2007, p. 279-287). The event of the Zeytun Armenians, which left the Ottoman Empire in the most difficult situation, was the uprising they started in the autumn of 1895. This uprising, which was organized by some people under the leadership of Aghassi who was a member of the Hunchakian committee, was not able to be stopped by the Ottoman government on many grounds like the advantage of Zeytun’s geographical position, the capture of the Zeytun Military Post with its soldiers and weapons by Armenians, an absence of accommodation for Ottoman soldiers sent to the region, and the objection by Abdulhamit II to the suggestion of bombarding Zeytun as women and children would also die. The Zeytun Armenians captured the government building and hung a cloth they called the Armenian flag there (Y. A. HUS, 344/127). Although the Ottoman government decided to react fiercely to this situation, it could not put into force the decisions taken. The Big Powers did the mediation and prevented this (İ. DH, 1313 B/67). At the beginning of February, a compromise on the issue was achieved. According to this, the Ottoman Empire would pass a general amnesty covering the leaders of the uprising as well. A Christian governor would be appointed to Zeytun and soldiers and officers working in Zeytun would be selected from the people of Zeytun. The tax debts of the people of Zeytun would be deleted, the weapons of the Zeytun Armenians would remain with them, and the weapons of the Turks and Cherkes in the surrounding villages would be collected. All of these points would be implemented under the observance of European countries. For this, consulates of the Big Powers would be established in Marash. The freedom of life, property, honor, and religion of the Zeytun Armenians would be guaranteed by European countries (Uras, 1987, p. 492-493).

The Attitude of the People of Zeytun against the State in World War I

The Zeytun Armenians left the Ottoman government in a difficult situation also in the First World War. The Zeytun Armenians did not conform to the call of mobilization. The Allied Forces attempted to open a battlefront from inside against the Ottoman Empire (DH. EM. UM. 2 Şb, 54/20-15). Zeytun was determined as the most suitable place for this. Armenians were assigned to cut the supply connections of the Fourth Army and to keep the Ottoman Army occupied. Armenians attacked Muslim villages in the region and blocked the ways. They trapped the Ottoman soldiers passing through the way. Thereupon, the Ottoman government sent some soldiers from the battlefront to Zeytun (ATASE, BDH. K1. 2287, dos. 32-12. Fh. 1-8). During the military operations in Zeytun, nine Ottoman soldiers, including Major Süleyman Bey, were martyred and many were injured. 32 of the rebels died. The rest of them escaped (DH. EM. UM. 2. Şb, 54/20-16). This operation was influential on draft dodgers. Some of the draft dodgers surrendered and some were arrested and submitted to draft offices. The government decided that the leaders of the Zeytun Armenians were sent into exile with their families, thinking that the Zeytun Armenians would continue to keep the army occupied inside the state (DH. ŞFR, 52/253). After this decision, a group of 35 families from Zeytun were made to travel to Konya. The name of Zeytun was changed to “Süleymanlı” for the memory of Major Süleyman Bey (İ. DH, 1514, 1333/B-34).


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