The town of Palu built on the slopes of Mount St. Mesrob (source: Victor Pietschmann, Durch kurdische Berge und armenische Städte, Wien, 1940)

Palu - Local rule

Panorama of the town of Palu (source: C.F. Lehmann-Haupt, Armenien Einst und Jetzt, Berlin, 1919, p. 466)
Panorama of the town of Palu (source: C.F. Lehmann-Haupt, Armenien Einst und Jetzt, 1919)

We don’t think that the socio-economic structures and the locale rule in Palu district are unique. It is possible that there are similar ones in many areas of the Armenian highlands and other places to the south where a majority population of Kurds exists. These are the places where the Ottoman authorities have always had difficulty in imposing their supremacy, and are providing the opportunity for the Kurdish tribal leaders, beys and aghas to increase their power. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the centre, Istanbul, has tried to replace these forces here and there with Hamidiye, semi-official Kurdish forces under a tribal leader. In the case of Palu Hamidiyes don’t exist. Here the Kurdish beys and aghas rule almost despotically and the whole geographical region is unofficially divided up between them.

In his book concerning the events of 1877, the monk Rev Boghos Natanian points out that a group of 13 beys, under the title of ‘Kara Djimsid’ exists that enjoy great authority.[1] Rev Harutiun points out in his book that four beys – Ibrahim, Rushdi, Shukri and Tefik – are ‘the real lords and governors’ of the district of Palu, a situation which has continued after the declaration of the Ottoman Constitution.[2] Ibrahim and Rushdi are two brothers whose seat is in Sakrat village. Their father was Nedjib pasha. Armenian sources recall that their father was Nedjib Pasha, and approximately 40 villages are under their influence, including the Armenian villages of Sgham and Okhu. The villages of Til, Armudjan, Gulishger and Kharagerig are within the Tefil Beg’s jurisdiction. Nor Kiugh and Nor Kiugh’s Mezre were under Shukri Beg’s control.[3]

Any one of these beys’ entry into the town is a ceremony. He is mounted on a fine horse which has silver and gold accroutriments on both sides. The richness of the bey’s clothes are also very different from those of the people of Palu, be they Armenian or Kurdish. Armed guards, with stern faces and likewise finely dressed, walk alongside this personage. All the Turkish and Armenian citizens of the town have to stand up and salute him as he passes.[4]

The beys are the great landowners and the majority of the land tilled by the Armenian and Kurdish peasantry belongs to them.[5] They inspire respect and terror especially in these rural areas, and it is said that even if the Armenian has the necessary funds to build himself a beautiful house, he doesn’t dare to do so. The custom, in reality, is that the house belonging to the bey has to be the best in the villages under his control.[6] The Armenian or Kurdish peasant is often forced to carry out free collective work for the bey, such as, for example, gathering wood, building houses or loaning him their mules. An expression of his power is shown in the case of marriage. Thus, if a man is to marry a girl from another village, then the beys controlling the two villages have to give their consent, something that is generally granted through bribery.[7] In other instances, if the proposed marriage is rejected by the girl’s parents, the prospective bridegroom may ask for the bey’s intervention. It may then be the case that the marriage takes place at the bey’s order.[8]

The Kurdish beys can, in a very short time, raise armed groups from among their loyal followers and subjects. Under these circumstances what is the local Ottoman authority’s role? The town’s Ottoman kaymakam is extremely slack regarding this great force. He has no military strength, especially any that can maintain the peace. Murders and subversion of the law by the beys are often received with the tolerance of the powerless by the local government bodies. But there is a ‘boundary’ for each such subversion. In reality the local authorities in Palu are a sort of referee in this very mixed order formed by the beys and aghas. It is also important to bear in mind that great competition often exists between the Kurdish rulers. It is true that the local Ottoman government authorities generally seem powerless in this situation, but the contradiction is that they defend the minimum level of socio-economic stability within the region. The kaymakam generally intervenes when this or that bey or agha goes, in one way or another, beyond the boundaries of the agreed rules and thus threatens the existing socio-economic balance. When the situation has become this serious, the Ottoman authorities attempt to use means of punishment and can ask for the intervention of Ottoman armed forces stationed in nearby provinces.

Such a situation is, for example, the competititon between Ibrahim bey and Rushdi bey from Sakrat village and Tefil (Teyfur) bey from Til village. The Sakrat beys and their forces have attacked their Kurdish competitor in 1908 so as to take control of Gulishger village. This is regarded by the Ottoman authorities as beyond the generally agreed boundaries set or a serious upsetting of the established status quo, an act creating instability in the region. The rebellious beys are arrested, are tried in Diyarbekir and imprisoned for a time. Later however, giving way to intervention and various pressures, the authorities have released the beys who have returned to Palu.[9]

The Armenian element cannot present its protests against the robber Kurdish beys to the local authorities. Clearly on the local level no mechanism for justice exists. Whatever exists is only apparent and cannot be a force against the Kurdish beys’ despotism and arbitrariness. For this reason it is often noted that no ordinary Palu citizen, be he Armenian, Turk or Kurd ever informs the local legal bodies of any kind of lawlessness (robbery, murder etc). There is great suspicion that the legal organs are totally unreliable. More than this – there is a conviction that justice is a tool in the beys’ hands therefore the ordinary citizen of Palu shrinks from appealing to it. But this refers mostly to everyday legal matters, for which the people of Palu well know that local bodies don’t have any power or will to intervene. Apart from this, incidents have taken place when an action the bey has adopted has endangered not only an entire Armenian village’s way of life but even its future. In these instances approaches are made to the local authorities.

We don’t know if the Kurdish peasant, in his turn, presents protests to the local authorities about the various pressures imposed by the beys. In the case of the Armenians we know that they have place they can always protest to: in this case it is the Sublime Porte - the central authorities in Istanbul. Thus written protests are, in the first instance, sent to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul that, in its turn, if they are considered to be valid, passes them to the Porte.[10] It is another question, as Natanian often repeats, that these written protests remain unanswered.

In the face of these beys’ power the Armenian or Kurdish peasant is generally a landless and destitute maraba. Despte the reforms concerning the ownership of land that were published as part of the tanzimat many years before, in the case of Palu we know that the maraba state actually continues. It is in these years of reform that a number of villages have pursued court cases against the Kurdish beys for the pressures and oppression they practice, and have succeeded in freeing themselves from this despotism to a certain extent. But they have been temporary victories. The ups and downs that the Empire faced have always provided opportunities for the beys to rebuild their positions and increase their power.

The tithe (ashar) or government tax

The beys and aghas power is clearly demonstrated in the method of collecting government taxes. The main one, levelled on agricultural production, is the one-tenth tax (tithe) known as ashar which is also the main source of income for the Ottoman treasury. The information that the Rev Harutiun gives us concerning its collection in Palu district is very good, especially as he lives in a village, has seen and experienced it at close quarters. In the first place, the government does not take part in its collection. Rev Harutiun regards the reason for this as the cost of sending government officials to such distant places. The government, in place of this, has decided that it is better to put all the villages’ tithes up for auction and sell them to local wealthy people. Thus the government receives the value of the tithe tax in advance, the buyer having to collect the actual tax in kind, store it, transport it and finally sell it himself. The auction takes place in the Palu government office courtyard at the time when the crops are just ripening. The auction date is officially announced in advance. The wealthy people who want to bid for the tithe assemble on the day in the courtyard, as do the members of the kaymakam’s governing council (irade medjlisi), which includes the Armenian prelate of Palu and two other Armenian members. Then the herald (munedig) announces the name of the first village, points out that its tithe is on sale, and calls for bids. So the bidding opens, the bidders present their bids, the price rises until, at the end, only one or two bidders are left. Then the single or both remaining bidders have to provide the official body present with guarantees, only after which do they sign the auction’s bill of sale. Thus the tithe belongs to the buyer and the government remains distant from subsequent activities relating to it.[11] Government bodies only intervene when the collector is in dispute with the villagers. In these cases the intervention of the police is usually in favour of the successful tithe buyer.[12]

In Palu the tithe buyers are always the same 3-4 people – the local influential beys. They take part in the auction, thus unofficially the collection of the tax becomes their ‘right’. No one else dares take part in the bidding, being certain that the same beys will regard it as trampling on their privileges and therefore repercussions will be inevitable. In such circumstances, when there is an absence of sharp competition, the auction bids cannot rise, so the whole operation may be considered to be a loss for the Ottoman treasury, thus it is obvious that the main beneficiaries of the situation are the beys. Rev Harutiun gives a village as an example of this, whose tithe is usually sold, every year, for 6,000 ghrush. The same author points out that there have been occasions when the beys haven’t been able to be present at an auction. The tithe then rises to 30,000 ghrush.[13]

Once the right to collect the tithe has been obtained, the designated person doesn’t himself go to the villages. He sends his representatives, called shayna or shahna (probably the Turkish word şahne), to collect them. The people who carried out these functions were also known as mültezims (contractors) or ashardjis. The villager has to treat these individuals with the greatest hospitality, sometimes having to bribe them for the whole time they are in the village, as otherwise they could make false accusations against him, leading to severe repercussions for the village itself. If the tithe concerns cereals, then the villager has already threshed the wheat or barley before the shahna arrives in the village. The threshed wheat or barley, still mixed with the chaff, is made into a pile that may be left for days. The reason is that the village has to wait for the shahna’s arrival and his permission to start winnowing. Finally the shahna give the long-awaited green light and winnowing begins. A hut made of branches and leaves is set up for the shahna next to the threshing floor, and it from there that he follows the winnowing.[14] The winnowed grain is then made into a pile, which is stamped with the shahna’s stamp in dozens of places. There is a wait once more, which might last for days, until a start is made to measure it. During all this, it is forbidden for anyone to go near the shahna or obliterate his stamps. Therefore the villagers are very careful and, during the entire waiting period, keep everyone and all the animals away from the pile. At the same time the villager must win over the shahna, feed him well and bribe him, until he finally ‘relents’ and measures the grain.

The measurement is made in the presence of the kizir (the bey’s representative in the village), the shahna, and his clerk, the village elder or res, as well as the crowd of villagers. The village kizir and one of the villagers hold the measuring vessel, called a kila, that holds approximately 60 kilos (132lbs). The shahna then gives the order and the vessel is filled with the grain from the pile with wooden scoops. When the first kila is completely filled, they begin to empty it a short distance away from the pile. When the grain is being emptied, it is the custom for the kizir to shout ‘bir, Allahım, bir’ (one, God, one). The first one has been measured. The filling and emptying of subsequent kilas is done by the villagers. When the second is emptied, the kizir shouts ‘iki, bereket’ (two, abundance). The whole operation is completed when there is only a small amount left in the pile. That small amout is usually reserved for the poor and is called galamas, or in the local dialect galamasd.[15]

Half of this measured pile of grain has to be handed over by the maraba villagers to the landowner who is usually the Kurdish bey or agha. The tithe is taken from the remaining half. Rev Harutiun points out that one shouldn’t accept the amount of ‘one tenth’ (the tithe) at its face value. It is usually more and usually represents one eighth, or in other words, 11.76%. According to the same author, there are also circumstances where the ‘one tenth’ has been represented as one seventh, in other words 14.28%. The villager himself has to personally transport the tithe as well as the landowner’s half of the production by carts pulled by donkeys to the bey’s barns. It is then the creditor’s turn. They are usually craftsmen from the same village – blacksmiths, cobblers and painters who have done work for the farming villager during the year. They wait for that special day in the village’s life to receive payment in kind – a portion of the grain left. It is only what is left after all this that remains to the villager.[16]

So the grains that pass over the threshing floor are those subject to the tithe, such as wheat or barley. Apart from those, the tithe is paid on vineyards, vegetable gardens, alfalfa or lucerne (used as feed for cattle) and orchards.

There is a different method of determining the tithe on vineyards. The shahna arrives in the village a few days before the grape harvest begins and visits the vineyards, taking the heads of the village with him – the reskizir, clerk, muhammis (quality inspectors) as well as several vineyard owners. Here, to gauge the total harvest they look at a few vines in each vineyard. It is the amount of grapes growing on these few vines that the inspectors use to calculate the total harvest. It is obvious that the higher the amount determined, the greater the tithe that will have to be paid for the vineyard’s owner. The muhammis, who are local villagers, give the first assessment of the size of the grape harvest. It could be that the shahna disagrees with their assessment, and so puts forward a higher figure. This leads to an argument between the muhammis and shahna. The assessors can of course insist on the correctness of their figure, at the same time remaining very polite to the shahna. This means that the final figure agreed on depends very much on the muhammis. If they want to save the vineyard’s owner money, they must find a way of persuading the shahna. It can also happen that an old disagreement exists between the owner and the assessor over the value of his crop. Then the muhammis deliberately appeals to the shahna to show him the abundance of grapes on selected vines, thus greatly raising the value of the assessment of the crop. In this sort of situation the right to intercede is given to the res and the village elders who in their turn can defend the landowner and in this way leave the question suspended. Finally the agreed amount of the crop is recorded in two different registers which are stamped. One of these registers is retained by the shahna, the other is held by the village clerk. Then the whole group returns to the village, where all the suspended matters are resolved. In this case the owner of the vineyard that is the subject of negotiation invites the whole group to his house, where a special table has been set for the shahna complete with raki or wine. The village elders, in this convivial atmosphere, try to win over the shahna. He finally gives way to the landowner’s advantage, the amount of the crop is finally agreed and the registers are stamped and finally closed. It is only after the shahna has left that the grape harvest begins.[17]

In Havav, which is the largest Armenian village in Palu district, we know that the grape harvest is also assessed by weighing. In other words each vineyard harvests its grapes which are then weighed and the tithe fixed. The village representatives and the officials collecting the tithe are all present during this operation.[18]

The cotton assessment is very like that of grapes. At about the middle of October or the the beginning of November, in other words just before the cotton harvest, the shahna arrives in the village and, with the group, examines the fields. Then the assessment of each field is made, the records are completed, signed and stamped. It is only after this that the harvest may begin.[19]

The general impression is that the district of Palu is the place where the Ottoman government is mostly absent from local life. This absence is, of course, felt – and in this case once more through the beys – especially during the collection of the tithe or military conscription. In fact there are more than 300 villages in this kaymakamalik (district) but not one doctor or pharmacist. They have established themselves in the town only a few years before the start of the First World War. There has never been a government record of births and deaths, at least not in the villages. The deceased is immediately buried without any government formalities. This means that there has never been a real census in the district.[20]

  • [1] Archpriest Rev Boghos Natanian, Tears of Armenia, or a report about Palu, Kharpert (Harput), Charsandjak, Djabagh Chur and Erzindjan (in Armenian), 1883, Istanbul, p. 49-50.

    [2] Rev Harutiun Sarkisian (nom-de-plume Alevor), Palu: its customs, education, intellectual state and dialect (in Armenian), Sahag-Mesrob Press, Cairo, 1932, p. f (6).

    [3] Mesrob Grayian, Palu: Pictures, recollections, poetry and prose taken from the life of Palu (in Armenian), Published by the Catholicossate of Cilicia, 1965, Antilias, p. 462.

    [4] Ibid., p. 462.

    [5] Natanian, op. cit., p. 55.

    [6] Sarkisian, op. cit., p. 236.

    [7] Natanian, op. cit., p. 54.

    [8] Parunag Topalian, My native village of Okhu (in Armenian), published by Hairenik Press, Boston, MA, 1943, p. 98-103.

    [9] Grayian, op. cit., p. 463.

    [10] Sarkisian, op. cit., p. g (7).

    [11] Ibid., p. 159-160.

    [12] Ibid., p. 105.

    [13] Ibid., p. 105.

    [14] Ibid., p. 104-106.

    [15] Ibid., p. 107-109.

    [16] Ibid., p. 109.

    [17] Ibid., p. 159-161.

    [18] Papazian, op.cit., p. 133-134.

    [19] Sarkisian, op. cit., p. 46.

    [20] Ibid., p. 253.