Pre-1915 Genocides/Massacres that Occurred in the Ottoman Empire

From our knowledge, there were two major mass ethnic cleansings that happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which are the Hamidian Massacres and the Adana Massacre. Since these two events are not covered so much in media or informational posts on social media, we have decided to do an in-depth description on these events.

The Hamidian Massacres occurred from 1894 to 1896, and was the first genocidal attempt at the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. This event occurred during Sultan Abdulhamid II’s reign (last sultan to rule the Turkish state), where 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians died.


Sultan Abdul Hamid II

It started in summer 1894 in Sasun, where the government used their massacre attempts of Armenians resisting the Kurdish “encroachment into the last recesses of the mountains to order the sacking of the alpine hamlets”. This resulted into Armenians holding protests against the Sultan and his reign, along with persuading the government to provide reforms for Armenian provinces. As a result of the demonstration made by Armenian political parties in Constantinople demanding these said reforms, the police caused a massacre to break out in the city and spread to all the Armenian cities in the south.

In addition this mob seized Urfa (Edessa) and burned the city’s cathedral, where over 3,000 Armenians were hiding. During August 1896, after an attempt made by Armenian political parties to take over the European bank in Constantinople, the government responded by killing 5,000 to 6,000 Armenians within the span of three days. 

Interestingly, this was a massacre committed during a time where Europe and the Ottoman Empire had no conflict going on. This is one of the main reasons why the UK, US and other European countries’ press and media covered these massacres. These events also ruined Sultan Abdulhamid’s image, with individuals in the press often calling him “Great Assassin” or “Red Sultan”. 

Armenians call these events the “Great Massacres” (and in literature, as “Armenian Massacres”), and later the name was changed to “Hamidian Massacres” to differentiate these massacres with the Armenian massacres that occurred starting in 1915. The purpose of the massacre was a clear message made by the sultan to Armenians that their proposed reforms are not going to happen.

During this time, thousands of Armenians either fled the Ottoman Empire or were forced to convert to Islam. To make things worse, countries like Germany and Russia did not condemn the sultan’s brutality because of their own personal interests with the Ottoman Empire. As a result of this, Armenians who stayed in the Ottoman Empire still remained as second-class citizens, and did not have laws that provided them with equal protection. In addition, it conveyed to the whole world the vulnerability of Armenians as a minority in the Ottoman Empire. The massacres set a “precedent” of the events leading up to the Armenian Genocide.

The Adana Massacre, which occurred in April of 1909, is an event where 30,000 Armenians were slaughtered by Sultan Abdulhamid II’s supporters. The event occurred at the same time that the Sultan’s supporters were engaging in a counter-revolution, which was because of the Young Turk Revolution in 1908. Adana was different from other provinces in the Ottoman Empire, where migrant workers from other regions (e.g., Bitlis, Hadjin) came to work in Adana because of its “economic and agricultural centrality” within Anatolia. Experts state that the different ethnic compositions in the region was the catalyst which caused the Adana Massacre to occur.


The Adana Massacre on the Front Cover of the Le Petit Journal newspaper

The environment created after the Young Turk Revolution enabled Armenians in Adana to have political parties and cultural revival (odes, dramas, and poetry), which caused the Muslim population to become nervous. In addition, the relationship between the Armenian leaders and the government of Adana was not good, which made Sahag, the Catholicos of Sis, to send a telegram to the government of Istanbul, where he wrote that there are massacre threats in Adana. Istanbul ignored the warning, saying: “we do not want to believe in the existence of the threat of massacre.” Also, Bishop Moushegh (prelate of Adana) told Armenians to buy arms in order to protect themselves. However, this did not look good for Armenians, as Bishop Mushegh was portrayed as an agitator by Adana’s Muslim population, and as a result, “banished to Cairo.”

There was another catalyst in the Adana Massacres, which was an attack on an Armenian (by the name of Hovhannes) by Turks (the leader was a man named Isfendiar) in March 1909. As a result, Hovhannes killed Isfendiar, wounded several other Turks, and ran away to Adana’s Armenian area. From that area, he escaped to the country of Cyprus. The death of Isfendiar was a spark to anti-Armenian comments and actions made by the Turks.

There were two waves of the Adana Massacres. The first wave of massacres was on April 14-16, 1909. When Armenians opened up their businesses and shops on April 14, they soon saw Turks and other Muslims destroying these shops with axes, swords, hatchets, which caused them to become nervous and close the shops. The Muslims saw it as an attempt for Armenians to attack them, so they soon started looting the town’s center. The mob also burned the Armenian quarter, and most Armenians were hiding in their schools and churches. These events lasted 3 days, and many Armenians were killed and wounded. A lot of Muslims were also killed, but that was as a result of them attacking the Armenian area in Adana Armenians asked for help in Istanbul since they were running out of weapons, and as a result, the government in Istanbul (the governor, or vali) established a meeting of reconciliation between both sides. Then the situation calmed down.


Armenian Quarters Burnt during the Adana Massacre

The second wave of massacres happened from April 25th to April 27th. Experts say that the publication Committee of Unity and Progress (Young Turks) leader Ihsan Fikri in newspaper Itidal had a big influence on the second wave of massacres. In an issue that came out on April 20, 1909, there were verbal attacks to Armenians, that they were preparing for an uprising, that they were doing “crime” and “barbarianism”, and other lies about Armenians. Then, the Turkish government sent 850 soldiers “to help preserve order”, which the Armenians were delighted about. However, when the soldiers set up camp the first day, shots were fired at their tents. There was a rumor that Armenians threw the first shot, which caused the commander of the soldiers Mustafa Remzi Pasa to order an attack on the Armenians back.

On Sunday, April 25, the soldiers set a church on fire, which housed many Armenians. The soldiers, along with the mobs, attacked the Armenian area in Adana, and destroyed most Armenian houses and businesses as a result until April 27th. Specifically, over 4,000 Armenian dwellings were burned. The second wave was more violent and larger than the first wave of massacres. As a result of the second wave, the Turks were spreading the rumor that Armenians caused the attacks of the second wave and killed Muslims, which resulted into Muslims attacking Armenians in other cities.

A last point that should be made about the Adana Massacres was that there was a quote from Zabel Yessayan’s, a famous Armenian novelist, book about Armenians in Adana (during her travel to Adana from Istanbul in 1909): “Nothing has been spared; all the churches, schools, and dwellings have been reduced to formless piles of charred stone, among which, here and there, the skeletons of buildings jut up. From east to west, from north to south, all the way to the distant limits of the Turkish quarters, an implacable, ferocious hatred has burned and destroyed everything.”

We hope that the analysis of both massacres in the Ottoman Empire towards Armenians provided you with more insight as to why these two events were major catalysts that caused the Armenian Genocide to occur.