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.

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Khachkars – Gravely Unique and an ‘Endangered Specie’

Some years after I had returned from teaching and traveling in Southeast Asia, I thumbed through photos I had taken. In one, I stood next to a large gravestone. At first, i couldn’t remember why I would ever ask someone to snap such a picture of me.

A closer examination of the black and white jogged the memory of my initial surprise at finding such a grave marker in – of all places – Macau, the Portuguese-run settlement off the southern coast of China. The stone itself was in no way special. It looked so much like any I had seen in North America. But the name and dates on it were special, Robert Morrison, 1782 – 1834. Why in the world would Robert Morrison be buried in Macau? Wasn’t Mr. Morrison the Scottish Christian who had made the first English-Chinese dictionary and given the Chinese people their first, published, Chinese translation of the Bible? Then why was his body in neither China nor Scotland?

When I turned over this pebble on the beach of history, I discovered that the Chinese Emperor hadn’t allowed Robert Morrison to work on his dictionary and Bible translation inside China. And due to alternating pressures from the suspicions of the Cantonese mandarins (Chinese magistrates) about foreigners and their intentions and objections from the Roman Catholic priests in Macau over the fact that Mr. Morrison was a Protestant, Mr. Morrison and his wife had been forced to split his decades of effort between Canton and Macau. After he died in Canton in 1834, he was buried in Macau because the graves of his first wife and their first infant lay there.

While the circumstances surrounding Robert Morrison’s burial were unique, I hadn’t viewed his memorial gravely unique.

The khachkars of the ancient Armenians, however, proved to be remarkably and gravely unique. Intricately carved of pink or yellowish stone, these headstones showed in delicate and complex relief a central, single cross ( or a set of three) surrounded by saints, angels, birds, and symbols for infinity or eternity.

While some khachkars were carved as early as the ninth century, many more were erected as burial memorials from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. For over half a millennium, khachkars could be found everywhere in the area of Asia Minor that had once been Armenia and not just in its cemeteries.

It was as if, in response to the destruction of their churches and their capital Ani, the Armenian people must commemorate the deaths of their loved ones with the ultimate symbol of Christianity, Christ’s cross.

Even after Armenians were deported by Persia’s Shah in the early 17th century from Julfa, the capital city that had taken the place of Ani, Julfa’s cemetery of 10,000 khachkars remained. The same was true of other areas in Turkey from which Armenians were removed in 1915. No Armenians remained, but their khachkars did.

The removal of Armenians from their lands was apparently not enough. Within the last four or five decades even those evidences of Armenian existence have been attacked – by sledge-hammer, pick axes, and, more recently, bulldozers. The khachkars have been broken up and the fragments reused for the buildings of Kurds and Turks.

A case in point is the cemetery of what had once been Julfa’s. Those khachkars were turned to rubble by Azeri soldiers under orders from the government of Turkey in 2005. Four hundred years after the Julfa Armenians were deported and their city was leveled, the Turkish government removed the last sign that Armenians had ever lived in that area of modern-day Turkey – their gravely unique Armenian symbol of a Christian’s death, the khachkar, the stone cross.

Although the extent of Turkish efforts to eradicate surprises me, such action should not. After all, God’s Word calls Jesus Christ and His death on a cross, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” (I Peter 2: 8) For two thousand years, Christ’s cross has been an offence to many people, not just to Turks.

The beauty of it is that efforts to eradicate the symbol in no way destroys Christ’s ability to redeem those who believe in Him.

City of One Thousand and One Churches

As was mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, two men, Grigor Lousavoritch (in the 4th century) and Mesrob Mashdots ( in the 5th century), blessed Armenians and Armenia with unique gifts. Grigor brought Christianity and built churches and cathedrals; and Mesrob created an alphabet for the Armenian language. Shortly after Mesrob’s creation, scholars translated the Bible into Armenian and the Church of Armenia started monasteries.

The entry of Christianity and the transformation of Armenian into a written language brought many other changes to Armenia. Classics from other languages were translated into Armenian. Whenever possible families sent their sons to Constantinople and Edessa for education. Scholars and religious leaders wrote church history, hymns, and other literature. The religious and literary developments during the fifth century brought in Armenia’s Golden Age. Armenia’s Christian Church became the backbone of a cultural unity.

By the ninth century, the city of Ani became independent Armenia’s capital and the city of one thousand and one churches.

The glory of Ani was pulled apart, however, by the Seljuk Turks two hundred years later. And in the thirteenth century, Tartars invaded from the east and completely destroyed Ani. (Its ruins reside within the borders of modern-day Turkey.)

Seven centuries before 1915, the churches of Ani had been torn into little more than rubble, but the invaders hadn’t succeeded in extinguishing Christianity from Armenian culture.

Ancient Land, No Natural Boundaries

In the 1980s, when I taught English night classes for new immigrant adults in Pasadena, California, two-thirds of my students were Armenians. Yet none of them listed their country of origin as Armenia. Rather, they declared that they came from Cyprus, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  Hmmm. Now that’s a head scratcher.

One young woman in the class told me she spoke Turkish, as well as several other languages. She also said she had no idea why because she had never lived in Turkey. The only reason that she spoke the language of a country in which she had never lived, I guessed, must have been due to her parents and perhaps her grandparents. They must have used Turkish in their daily life when the young woman was a girl. At least several of the older members of her family must have lived in Turkey originally and left the country.

The Armenian students of the class were in fact en diaspora. Ground zero must have been Turkey. But why? What happened to the original country of origin?

Once more, turning over some pebbles on the beach of history yielded some interesting scenarios.

Tradition among Armenians links them through Haig [Haik] to Japheth, a son of Noah, the man of antiquity who landed the ark on Mt. Ararat. Centuries later, an Indo-European group called Armen joined the descendants of Noah on the high plateau around that twin-peaked volcano. This combination of people groups gave the Armenians their spoken language and pre-Christian culture.

In the century prior to Jesus’ birth, an Armenian king extended the borders of his country from the Caspian Sea to Phoenicia on the Mediterranean Sea and from the Black Sea to the plains north of Iraq. So, at one point in its three-thousand year history, Armenia was a large country. 

As nations around the Armenians grew in size and strength, Armenia’s lack of natural boundaries made it easy to invade.

Zoroastrian Persians and Muslim Arabs were among those nations who did – after the Armenians had already adopted Christianity. Neither invader, however, was successful in converting most Armenians to a different belief system.

In the tenth century, Seljuk Turks pushed out of what is now Turkmenistan east of the Caspian Sea and invaded lands south and southwest of that sea. In 1071 A.D., the Turks defeated the Byzantines on the eastern edge of their empire at the Battle of Manzikert [Malagzirt] near Armenia’s Lake Van. This defeat opened up the Anatolian Plateau (and Armenia) for invasion by the Seljuk Turks. Within four hundred years, the Turks had taken all of Anatolia, the Byzantine city of Constantinople, and established the Ottoman Empire.

Wars over and around Armenia’s plateau homeland and invasions by other groups such as Tartars and Kurds continued. Armenians were forced to share their homeland with people of many languages, cultures, and religious creeds. In the end, Russia, Persia (Iran), and the Ottoman Turks chopped up Armenia’s territory between them, but the largest number of the Armenian people were concentrated in six eastern provinces of Turkey. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, approximately three million Armenians lived under Turkish rule.

In 1915, all that changed.

First Christian Nation

When searching for information about the Armenian language, one fact about Mesrob Mashdotz drew my interest. The person who encouraged him to form the alphabet was Sahag the leader of the Armenian Christian Church. As early as the fourth century, Armenia had a growing Christian community and needed the Bible translated into its own language for its believers to flourish. By 433 A.D., scholars completed the translation of the Bible into Armenian. Hmm… How did Armenians even become Christians?

While I knew that the Book of II Kings (chapter 20, sentence 37) in the Bible mentions the land of Armenia (dating its existence around 681 years before Jesus’ birth) and the Book of Acts in the Bible describes the journeys of Paul, the Apostle, to cities of what is the western part of modern day Turkey, I had never learned how the people of Armenia became Christians. A little digging revealed the following story.

The few Armenians that heard about and practiced Christianity between 60 and 301 A.D. were persecuted by the Armenian kings. Late in the third century, a man named Grigor Lousavoritch went to Caesarea. While there, he became a Christian and brought his new faith back to Armenia. His attempts to share his faith landed him in the Armenian king’s dungeon. There Grigor languished for fifteen years. Grigor was suddenly released in 301 A.D. after the king’s sister had a dream. In her dream, an angel told her that their persecution of Christians must stop. Grigor was not only released, but he also baptized the king and his family at their request. Armenia became the first people to adopt Christianity as their national religion.

That means that prior to 1915, Armenians had identified themselves as Christians for one thousand six hundred fourteen years, long before Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia or the Turks even became Muslims.

Two Pebbles from the Beach of History

How does one tell the story of another people, that isn’t one’s own? By turning over one pebble at a time. When writing fiction based on a people’s history, the writer must figure out which pebbles require his or her attention. How does the writer know which ones to turn over? By sleuthing the answers to specific questions. 

Perpetually curious about Asian folk, in the 1970s I befriended a Vietnamese refugee newly-arrived in the Oregon community where I was living at the time. While my main goal was to help the woman and her family with their adjustment to life in the U.S., I wanted to find out some things about Vietnam, especially the language. I thought it totally unlikely for an Asian country like Vietnam to use Romanized script like English, Spanish, or German did. When my new friend wrote out the Vietnamese words for the the numbers one through ten, the basic colors, and common names for girls and women, I thought, Vietnamese looks like a Frenchman designed the spelling of the vowels  for the Vietnamese language. I decided to research the answer to the question, “Did a Frenchman have anything to do with the formation of the script for the Vietnamese language?”

My delight grew into wonder as I did my research. In the early 1600s, a Frenchman named Alexandre de Rhodes left Portugal to serve as a Jesuit missionary in Japan. Due to the persecution of Christians in Japan, de Rhodes went, instead, to Macao and then Vietnam. He learned Vietnamese and gave the language a Romanized phonetic script called quoc ngu that has been used since. WhenVietnamese rulers exiled Alexandre de Rhodes from their country, he was reassigned by the Jesuits to Persia. De Rhodes, the French linguist who gave the Vietnamese their script, was buried in the Armenian Cemetery of the New Julfa quarter of Isfahan, Persia.

Ten years after I had met the Vietnamese refugee, another question directed the turning over of another pebble. In my English as a Second Language (ESL) night class, one of the Armenian students repeatedly asked, “Teacher, who write English?” At first, his question seemed nonsensical, but he always asked the same question whenever he became frustrated with the spelling of English words. My student was implying, “Whoever developed the English writing and spelling system must have been crazy!” Guessing that the student’s question came out of his knowledge of the history of his own language, I asked myself, “Did a specific person design the Armenian writing and spelling system?” After all a specific person had done that for the Vietnamese language.

Research showed me that, indeed, one man had. Mesrob Mashdots was an Armenian scholar of the Greek, Syrian, and Persian languages. Armenian  up to Mesrob’s time had been an unwritten language. Late in the fourth or early in the fifth century, Mesrob invented the symbols for the seven Armenian vowels. By borrowing symbols from the Greek and Assyrian languages, Mesrob added twenty-nine consonants to form the original thirty-six lettered Armenian alphabet. With the later addition of two letters, this same Armenian alphabet has remained in continuous use for sixteen hundred years. The fact that the Armenian alphabet bears no resemblance to a Romanized script reinforces, in my mind at least, the alphabet’s antiquity.

Two questions, then, had piqued my curiosity, and initiated my research. But they hadn’t as yet compelled me to write a story that must be told. That came later.