Double Taxation for Armenians in the Ottoman Turkish Empire

The famous and wise early American Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a friend, “In this world, nothing is certain, but death and taxes.”  Whether a person lives in a North American democracy or in an autocratically-run empire, that is true.

In the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government demanded that non-Muslims pay income tax, a production tax, a poll tax for each adult male who was twelve years and older in each household, and customs dues on products brought into an area to sell. In general, non-Muslims had to pay more taxes than Muslims.

In 1891, Sultan Abd al Hamid effectively ratcheted up tax collections from Armenians when he recruited Kurds to form units of mounted militia he called Hamidiya. In exchange for their service, the Sultan brought the Hamidiya to Constantinople for training, gave them arms and uniforms with metal badges and lambskin bushbies, and told them they were exempt from regular military conscription. The Sultan allowed the Hamidiya to send the sons of their leaders to a tribal school in Constantinople and promised a school in a Hamidiya village for the sons of the other militiamen. Deploying most of the Hamidiya along a line between Erzerum and Van, Sultan Hamid allowed those Kurdish calvary units to remain close to their encampments and livestock on the Anatolian Plain in central Turkey.

But the Sultan could never quite find the money to pay them for their service. He ‘solved’ the problem of payment by giving the Hamidiya the right to collect taxes from local villages.

The main targets of the Hamidiya? Armenian shepherds, farmers, and villagers. With the encouragement of Turkish governmental officials, the Hamidiya pillaged and extorted at will. The Kurdish units would walk about towns and help themselves to whatever they wanted without paying. And they didn’t just collect sheep, farm products, and money. They took women and girls as well, killing any Armenian male who objected.

Once the units of armed and mounted Kurds were in place, the Turkish authorities in those provinces had no way to rein them in. Even the the local Turkish populations viewed the Hamidiya as brigands, bandits disguised as soldiers.

A common complaint from the Hamidiya to the officials in Constantinople was that the Armenian villagers balked at paying the Hamidiya anything. And with good reason. The Kurdish ‘soldiers’ weren’t the only ones ‘collecting taxes.’ The Turkish government, too, sent tax collectors around the towns and villages on the Anatolian Plains. Without any such thing as a signed receipt or proof they had already paid, Armenians were forced to pay again. 

Between the Turkish officials and the Hamidiya, the average Armenian on the Anatolian Plain faced double taxation and episodic periods of extortion and savagery PRIOR to 1915 – without even a hint of the representative voice in government that is so highly valued in a democracy.