Armenians under Ottoman rule
The western portion of historical Armenia, known as Western Armenia, had come under Ottoman jurisdiction by the Peace of Amasya (1555) and was permanently divided from Eastern Armenia by the Treaty of Zuhab (1639). Thereafter, the region was alternatively referred to as "Turkish" or "Ottoman" Armenia. The vast majority of Armenians were grouped together into a semi-autonomous community, the Armenian millet, which was led by one of the spiritual heads of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. Armenians were mainly concentrated in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, although large communities were also found in the western provinces, as well as in the capital, Constantinople.
The Armenian community was made up of three religious denominations: Armenian Catholic, Armenian Protestant, and Armenian Apostolic, the Church of the vast majority of Armenians. Under the millet system, the Armenian community was allowed to rule itself under its own system of governance with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government. Most Armenians—approximately 70%—lived in poor and dangerous conditions in the rural countryside, with the exception of the wealthy, Constantinople-based Amira class, a social elite whose members included the Duzians (Directors of the Imperial Mint), the Balyans (Chief Imperial Architects) and the Dadians (Superintendent of the Gunpowder Mills and manager of industrial factories). Ottoman census figures clash with the statistics collected by the Armenian Patriarchate, but according to the latter, there were almost three million Armenians living in the empire in 1878 (400,000 in Constantinople and the Balkans, 600,000 in Asia Minor and Cilicia, 670,000 in Lesser Armenia and the area near Kayseri, and 1,300,000 in Western Armenia).
In the eastern provinces, the Armenians were subject to the whims of their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors, who would regularly overtax them, subject them to brigandage and kidnapping, force them to convert to Islam, and otherwise exploit them without interference from central or local authorities. In the Ottoman Empire, in accordance with the dhimmi system implemented in Muslim countries, they, like all other Christians and also Jews, were accorded certain freedoms. The dhimmi system in the Ottoman Empire was largely based upon the Pact of Umar. The client status established the rights of the non-Muslims to property, livelihood and freedom of worship, but they were in essence treated as second-class citizens in the empire and referred to in Turkish as gavours, a pejorative word meaning "infidel" or "unbeliever". The clause of the Pact of Umar which prohibited non-Muslims from building new places of worship was historically imposed on some communities of the Ottoman Empire and ignored in other cases, at the discretion of local authorities. Although there were no laws mandating religious ghettos, this led to non-Muslim communities being clustered around existing houses of worship.
In addition to other legal limitations, Christians were not considered equals to Muslims and several prohibitions were placed on them. Testimony against Muslims by Christians and Jews was inadmissible in courts of law wherein a Muslim could be punished; this meant that their testimony could only be considered in commercial cases. They were forbidden to carry weapons or ride atop horses and camels. Their houses could not overlook those of Muslims; and their religious practices were severely circumscribed, e.g., the ringing of church bells was strictly forbidden.
German ethnographic map of Asia Minor
in 1914. Armenians are labeled in blue.
In the mid-19th century, the three major European powers, Great Britain, France and Russia, began to question the Ottoman Empire's treatment of its Christian minorities and pressure it to grant equal rights to all its subjects. From 1839 to the declaration of a constitution in 1876, the Ottoman government instituted the Tanzimat, a series of reforms designed to improve the status of minorities. Nevertheless, most of the reforms were never implemented because the empire's Muslim population rejected the principle of equality for Christians. By the late 1870s, the Greeks, along with several other Christian nations in the Balkans, frustrated with their conditions, had, often with the help of the Entente powers, broken free of Ottoman rule. :192
The Armenians remained, by and large, passive during these years, earning them the title of millet-i sadika or the "loyal millet". In the mid-1860s and early 1870s this passivity gave way to new currents of thinking in Armenian society. Led by intellectuals educated at European universities or American missionary schools in Turkey, Armenians began to question their second-class status and press for better treatment from their government. In one such instance, after amassing the signatures of peasants from Western Armenia, the Armenian Communal Council petitioned the Ottoman government to redress their principal grievances: "the looting and murder in Armenian towns by [Muslim] Kurds and Circassians, improprieties during tax collection, criminal behavior by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial". The Ottoman government considered these grievances and promised to punish those responsible, but no meaningful steps to do so were ever taken.:36
Following the violent suppression of Christians during the Great Eastern Crisis, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Serbia, the United Kingdom and France invoked the 1856 Treaty of Paris by claiming that it gave them the right to intervene and protect the Ottoman Empire's Christian minorities.:35ff Under growing pressure, the government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II declared itself a constitutional monarchy with a parliament (which was almost immediately prorogued) and entered into negotiations with the powers. At the same time, the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople, Nerses II, forwarded Armenian complaints of widespread "forced land seizure ... forced conversion of women and children, arson, protection extortion, rape, and murder" to the Powers.:37
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 ended with Russia's decisive victory and its army in occupation of large parts of eastern Turkey, but not before entire Armenian districts had been devastated by massacres carried out with the connivance of Ottoman authorities. In the wake of these events, Patriarch Nerses and his emissaries made repeated approaches to Russian leaders to urge the inclusion of a clause granting local self-government to the Armenians in the forthcoming Treaty of San Stefano, which was signed on 3 March 1878. The Russians were receptive and drew up the clause, but the Ottomans flatly rejected it during negotiations. In its place, the two sides agreed on a clause making the Sublime Porte's implementation of reforms in the Armenian provinces a condition of Russia's withdrawal, thus designating Russia the guarantor of the reforms. The clause entered the treaty as Article 16 and marked the first appearance of what came to be known in European diplomacy as the Armenian Question.
On receiving a copy of the treaty, Britain promptly objected to it and particularly Article 16, which it saw as ceding too much influence to Russia. It immediately pushed for a congress of the great powers to be convened to discuss and revise the treaty, leading to the Congress of Berlin in June–July 1878. [note 4] Patriarch Nerses sent a delegation led by his distinguished predecessor, Archbishop Khrimian Hayrik, to speak for the Armenians, but it was not admitted into the sessions on the grounds that it did not represent a country. Confined to the periphery, the delegation did its best to contact the representatives of the powers and argue the case for Armenian administrative autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but to little effect.
Following an understanding reached with Ottoman representatives, Britain drew up an emasculated version of Article 16 to replace the original, a clause that retained the call for reforms, but omitted any reference to the Russian occupation, thereby dispensing with the principal guarantee of their implementation. Despite an ambiguous reference to Great Power supervision, the clause failed to offset the removal of the Russian guarantee with any tangible equivalent, thus leaving the timing and fate of the reforms to the discretion of the Sublime Porte.:38–39 The clause was readily adopted as Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin on the last day of the Congress, 13 July 1878, to the deep disappointment of the Armenian delegation.
Armenian national liberation movement
Prospects for reforms faded rapidly following the signing of the Berlin treaty, as security conditions in the Armenian provinces went from bad to worse and abuses proliferated. Upset with this turn of events, a number of disillusioned Armenian intellectuals living in Europe and Russia decided to form political parties and societies dedicated to the betterment of their compatriots in the Ottoman Empire. In the last quarter of the 19th century, this movement came to be dominated by three parties: the Armenakan, whose influence was limited to Van, the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun). Ideological differences aside, all the parties had the common goal of achieving better social conditions for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire through self-defense and advocating increased European pressure on the Ottoman government to implement the promised reforms.
Hamidian massacres, 1894–1896
Soon after the Treaty of Berlin was signed, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876–1909) attempted to forestall the implementation of its reform provisions by asserting that Armenians did not make up a majority in the provinces and that their reports of abuses were largely exaggerated or false. In 1890, Abdul Hamid created a paramilitary outfit known as the Hamidiye, which was mostly made up of Kurdish irregulars tasked to "deal with the Armenians as they wished".:40 As Ottoman officials intentionally provoked rebellions (often as a result of over-taxation) in Armenian populated towns, such as in Sasun in 1894 and Zeitun in 1895–1896, those regiments were increasingly used to deal with the Armenians by way of oppression and massacre. In some instances, Armenians successfully fought off the regiments and in 1895 brought the excesses to the attention of the Great Powers, who subsequently condemned the Porte.:40–42
In May 1895, the Powers forced Abdul Hamid to sign a new reform package designed to curtail the powers of the Hamidiye, but, like the Berlin Treaty, it was never implemented. On 1 October 1895, 2,000 Armenians assembled in Constantinople to petition for the implementation of the reforms, but Ottoman police units violently broke the rally up.:57–58 Soon, massacres of Armenians broke out in Constantinople and then engulfed the rest of the Armenian-populated provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Erzurum, Harput, Sivas, Trabzon, and Van. Estimates differ on how many Armenians were killed, but European documentation of the pogroms, which became known as the Hamidian massacres, placed the figures at between 100,000 and 300,000.
Although Hamid was never directly implicated, it is believed that the massacres had his tacit approval.:42 Frustrated with European indifference to the massacres, a group of members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation seized the European-managed Ottoman Bank on 26 August 1896. This incident brought further sympathy for Armenians in Europe and was lauded by the European and American press, which vilified Hamid and painted him as the "great assassin", "bloody Sultan", and "Abdul the Damned".:35, 115 The Great Powers vowed to take action and enforce new reforms, which never came to fruition due to conflicting political and economic interests.