Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Armenian Genocide remembrance
|“||"What on earth do you want? The question is settled, there are no more Armenians.||”|
—Talat Pasha, main perpetrator of the genocide
The Armenian Genocide has a long and complicated background, which began in the early age of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. The empire, for most of its history, was a multi-cultural, multi-religious one, which fostered a culture of pluralism that, while not egalitarian in any way, was unique for European empires in the early modern period.
However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the age of nationalism brought ideas of self-governance, equality among people, but also scientific racism to the reaches of the Ottoman Empire. As the call for reforms and equal rights for non-Muslims strengthened during the mid 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was forced to sign the Edict of Gülhane and the Edict of Imperial Reform, aiming to create a unified Ottoman identity, in which Muslims and non-Muslims were equal. These reforms, while ambitious, not only failed to create this unified identity, but also ushered in a new era of European influence, which replaced the morally lenient, pluralist Ottoman culture with European culture, and emphasized the role of ethnic and national identity in the empire.
In retaliation, the Ottoman government, under the rule of the infamously authoritarian Abdulhamid II, began to pursue a policy of pan-Islamism. This rejection of both European demands for equality and traditional Ottoman pluralism ultimately lead to the Hamidian massacres, when disorganized Ottoman forces killed at least 100.000 Armenians. After this, many European nations demanded better conditions for Armenians in the empire, an issue that was framed at the time as the Armenian Question.
The reign of Abdulhamid II ended with the Young Turk revolution, which, at least in its very beginning, emphasized equality between ethnicities and religions. However, the party that came into power, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), once a diverse coalition of everyone from left-wing nationalists, liberals, and what might best be called proto-fascists, began to center around the Three Pashas: Enver Pasha, Talat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha.
The Three Pashas were famously ultranationalistic and tried to 'Turkify' the empire. At first, these changes were limited to place names (a practice that still continues to this day) but they were later expanded to practices of assimilation. These practices were generally unpopular, especially with non-Turks, and as the Ottomans entered WWI, the Three Pashas, paranoid about possible resistance to their actions, began to execute their 'solution' to the Armenian Question.
The genocide began in April 1915, when the Ottoman government in Istanbul rounded up hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and deported them to Ankara. Soon afterward, an order was issued to relocate ethnic Armenians away from Turkish-inhabited areas through death marches. Many regional governors objected to or hesitated to accept this order at first, but were either relocated or forced to accept with military pressure.
The general public had a range of opinions. Some, especially those in certain religious sects such as the Mevlevi Order, hid Armenians from authorities, often facing death themselves, as they thought of the genocide as a gross violation of their religious and moral values, while some actively endorsed and contributed to the genocide. The majority, however, either chose or were forced to sit idly as the massacres continued.
The relocations and massacres were further accelerated after the siege of Van, during which Armenian defenders attempted to resist the Ottoman armies. This gave the Ottoman government a key excuse for the genocide, which denialists and justifiers use even to this day: that Armenians were Russian collaborators, and the Pashas simply had no other choice other than forcing Armenians out of the Russian borders. This excuse does not stand to scrutiny, however, considering that those who did manage to survive the marches were sent to extermination camps located along the present-day borders of Iraq and Syria, among many other reasons. The systematic nature of the killings died down after 1918, but massacres continued until the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923. Starting in 1919, the perpetrators who had not already fled Turkey were court-martialed, but the Pashas had already fled the country.
24 April, the date of the start of the Armenian Genocide, is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, observed in Armenia and a few other countries.
To this day, the Turkish government continues to deny that the Armenian Genocide ever took place, and resents the Armenian government for bringing it up regularly at international forums, making it a major bone of contention in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Leaders of many countries have been hesitant to recognize the genocide; the United States government only made the declaration in 2021. Referring to the Armenian Genocide as such remains illegal in Turkey.
As a result of the genocide, the historical region of Western Armenia was largely ethnically cleansed on its Armenian population, and today is a part of Turkey, while the modern country of Armenia comprises only the eastern half of the historical Armenian lands. The result of this is that Mount Ararat, the holiest site in the world to ethnic Armenians, today lies in Turkish territory.
- 2 Armenian Genocide monument, Armenia Square (São Paulo/Downtown, metro "Armenia"). Inaugurated in 1966.
Visiting the sites of the Armenian Genocide can be emotional, upsetting, and sometimes surreal. You'll see and learn things that are difficult to grapple with, and it's hard to anticipate exactly how you'll react. You may find yourself hurrying to get away from the site as quickly as you can, morose and weary as you physically feel the weight of what you're seeing, or unexpectedly detached and distant—or some combination of these.
Given the evil nature of the crimes committed in the Armenian Genocide, you would be forgiven for thinking the places where the crimes were perpetrated would look in some way evil too, or be in isolated locations tucked out of sight. This is not always the case, and the surroundings may often be positively mundane, and be in close proximity to roads, homes and workplaces filled with people going about their daily lives. The sun may be shining. It is this contrast between expectation and reality, or between horror and banality, that can cause you to feel strangely disoriented.
Be prepared for complicated and heavy emotions, and do not expect to just move on cheerfully to your next activity once you leave. Conversely, you may need to do just that. Your experience at the site may weigh on you for the rest of the day and beyond.