Van is at the very heart of the propaganda struggle between Turkey and Armenia over the terrible events of World War I. The city became a battleground in April 1915 when Armenian civilians, considered Russian collaborators by the Turkish authorities, barricaded themselves in a quarter of the old town and mounted a resistance against Turkish forces. Much of the city was destroyed when the Turkish garrison up on the Rock pulverized it with heavy artillery during which around 6000 Armenians were killed. During the rest of the war the town changed hands a couple of times; but following the Tsarist collapse in late 1917 the Russians and remaining Armenians left for the last time.
Armenian history and Christianity
The Armenians had first appeared in the region in the late seventh century, following the collapse of the Urartian Empire. Although usually the vassals of more powerful states, they gradually developed their own identity, a process which began to crystallize with the advent of Christianity, which they fervently embraced. Towards the end of the third century Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt the new faith, thanks mainly to the efforts of St Gregory “the Illuminator”. The invention of the Armenian alphabet in 404 by Mesrop Mashtots furthered the Armenians’ view of themselves as a distinct race.
This separate identity was further strengthened when the Armenian Apostolic Church refused to accept the ruling of the Byzantine Council of Chalcedon in 451, which declared that Christ had two equal and co-existent natures. The Armenians, in retaining their monophysite views (ie that Christ had a single, divine nature), cut themselves off from the mainstream Byzantine Orthodox Christian world, which held that Christ combined both human and divine natures.
Armenian culture, particularly in the Van basin under the Artsruni dynasty, flowered in the ninth and tenth centuries, but the arrival of the Selçuk Turks and other Turcoman groups in the eleventh century heralded the start of a decline in their fortunes.
The Ottomans finally took control of Armenia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ottoman rule benefited the Armenians who, like the other non-Muslim minorities, were conceded substantial control over education and family law, and even earned for themselves the epithet of sadık millet (loyal nation). During the nineteenth century, however, as the Ottoman Empire declined, some Armenians (along with other Christian groups in Anatolia) developed nationalist aspirations – often encouraged by the Russians, who were intent on fragmenting the Ottoman Empire.
The Genocide issue
In 1915 the Turkish authorities ordered the deportation of all Anatolian Armenians to Syria. All across Anatolia Armenian women, children and the elderly were rounded up for transportation, men of fighting age were executed. Between 700,000 and one and a half million Armenian civilians were killed between 1915 and 1920. Today Armenians, both in the modern Republic of Armenia and the diaspora, claim these events constituted genocide. The Turkish state vehemently refutes the charge, arguing that up to 600,000 Turks and Kurds were killed by Armenians in their attempts to wrest their own state from the hands of the dying Ottoman Empire.
This dispute still poisons relations between Turks and Armenians. Diplomatic relations were broken off in the 1990s and the land border between the two countries remains closed. Efforts at rapprochement have been tentative, the Turkish government’s restoration of the long-neglected Armenian church on Akdamar island is at least at start. The issue is a PR nightmare for Turkey, which constantly lobbies other countries not to officially acknowledge the “genocide” (twenty-one have done so).Read More