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

Palu - Interethnic relations

A family photograph from the village of Baghin near Palu, 1905.

Back row, left to right: Arzun Mahdesian-Khodigian, Bedros Mahdesian. Front row, left to right: Sahag Mahdesian (standing), Manug Mahdesian (standing), Boghos Mahdesian (seated), Mesrob Mahdesian (standing), Khachadur Avedisian (seated) (Source: History of the House of Baghin, op. cit., page 7)

The majority of the population of the district of Palu is Kurdish. If in this region there are more than 300 villages, only approximately 40 are inhabited by Armenians, the overwhelming majority of the remainder being Kurdish. Turks live in the town of Palu, as well as the nearby village of Seydilar and a few others. Thus when we examine existing inter-ethnic relations, we must, in the case of the town, pay attention to Armeno-Turkish relations and Armeno-Kurdish relations in the villages

Armenians and Turks in the town of Palu

Palu town’s three Turkish and four Armenian quarters (at the end of the 19th century, only two Armenian quarters remain) are separate from one another. The number of Turks is double that of the Armenians.

Armenian testimony gives the impression that the Turkish and Armenian communities living in the same city each have developed separately and have ways of living that are unique to themselves. But that doesn’t mean that inter-relationships and mutual influences don’t exist here. To find such links one has to examine the lives being led in specific areas, the most important of which is the market.  No matter how peaceful coexistence is between the two groups, the reality is that mutual suspicion and prejudice have always existed between them, and it would seem that they have given a general form to the links between the two peoples.

Let us take the baths as an example. The town has its stone-built bathhouse, located in the lower Turkish quarter. Like the Turks, the Armenians have free access to that public place. But the interesting thing is that specific days of the week have been allocated to the Turks and the remainder to the Armenians. In other words the bathhouse is not generally the place members of both communities get together. [1]

The two communities differing attitudes to each other’s religious edifices is also interesting. Armenian testimonies clearly stress the point that the Armenians are frightened of passing the Turkish mosque. It is obvious that there is a great desire and interest in seeing the interior or even entering it, but the fact remains that courage is lacking. The Turkish approach to Armenian holy places is entirely different. They often visit Armenian places of pilgrimage, enter the churches in the town having sworn an oath, or have the priest pray for a sick relative. [2]

Mesrob Grayian, who often enriches his book with personal recollections of his youth, has related many instances in which Armenians’ fear of the neightbouring Turks appear. For example, he tells how he often went out of the Armenian quarter up to the summit of Mount St. Marsuba with neighbourhood friends. There they would examine the ruins of the castle and it’s many crevices. We know that the most interesting parts of the castle are located on the other side of the mountain, in other words in the northern part. The castle entrance is here, as are the Urartuan cuniform inscriptions or the underground way that, according to tradition, leads to Mesrob Mashtots’ hermitage, as well as another cave that is thought to be an underground road dug as far as the Aradzani River, emerging close to Kntiga Rock. But young Mesrob Grayian doesn’t have the courage to go there with his friends, bearing in mind that they could be seen in that part of the castle by the people living in the Turkish Zovia quarter, especially by those of their own age. [3] It is notable that the author notes that it is only after the Ottoman Constitution, or more accurately in 1914, that he, his fellow graduates and their teacher ascend that side of the mountain and finally have the opportunity to visit those architectural-legendary places. [4]

We suppose that in the case of the town and villages, the best place to bring these three groupings – Kurds, Armenians and Turks – together to create social links is the town market. All the grown men, due to their trade or business have links to it. Young boys often help their fathers or, outside school hours are apprentices with one or other skilled artisan. It is certain that this continuous link with the market and the dynamism there are the reasons for the Palu male Armenian to master spoken Turkish and Kurdish (with its various dialects).

Armenians and Kurds in the village

We will pass over the relations between the Armenian peasant and the Kurdish bey or agha and concentrate on the horizontal links between the Armenian and the Kurdish villager. These last may be split into two different groups in the first instance:

a) Purely Armenian villages and their Kurdish neighbours
b) Mixed population villages.

a) It is to be noted that in the case of the first group the richest means of developing mutual links is, once again, trade. Armenian and Kurdish neighbours often sell their goods in the town. But they also continuously trade among themselves. Thus, for example, the many self-seeded vegetables growing in the mountains around Palu, which are generally wild grasses or plants, some of which are much sought after in the town market or in the villages. Being generally mountain dwellers, the Kurds harvest these kinds of wild vegetables and trade them in Armenian villages. The Armenians use cereals as barter for them. Rev Harutiun, in his book, points out that the Kurdish villager prefers to carry on his trade in the Armenian villages rather than sell his wares in the town market. The reason for this is that the Armenian and Kurdish peasants are continuously cheated by the Armenian and Turkish merchants of Palu. It is obvious that general solidarity and co-operation is created there every time they trade with the Kurdish or Armenian peasant arriving from the village. The aim of this association is to carry on trade to the profit of the townsman. [5] We can find an example of this form of rich mutual relations between the Armenian and Kurdish villagers in the book about Baghin. Baghin, which is a large Armenian village, is well known for its yaghdjis (oil traders). The Armenian villagers have become specialists and trade animal oils not only in Palu district, but also in the regions round about, such as Kharpert (Harput), Mezre, Ourfa, Mardin, Severeg, Dikranagerd (Diyarbekir) and Malatia.  What is interesting is that they don’t produce their own oil. Instead they obtain it from neighbouring or provincial Kurdish and Kurd-Zaza villages. In other words, barter takes place between the Armenian and Kurdish villager; in return for the oil he has prepared, the Kurd generally receives the Baghin speciality, wooden ulbas (buckets or pails). The Kurd prefers to sell his oil to the people of Baghin directly, rather than in the local markets, be they near or far, where he is convinced that the local merchants will always cheat him. [6]

The harvesting of the cotton crop in Armenian villages (in the months of October or November) is also an opportunity for many mountain-dwelling Kurds to arrive in the Armenian villages and, through barter, create bi-lateral relations between both Armenians and themselves. The Kurds bring pomegranates, apples, walnuts, pears, raisins, bastegh (bastık, apricot sheets) with them all of which are be bartered for cotton. Havav is also a well-known, vibrant market, where the region’s Kurds come, especially those of whom live in Kiurum, thus establishing a continuous trade link. [7]

It is notable that the Kurd, or more correctly a large number of Kurds appear in Armenian sources as the most deprived layer of the district’s population. If the Armenians’ main source of nourishment is wheat, Armenian authors stress that many Kurds use gelgel, which, in local dialect, is the name of a cereal. The latter is part of the millet family, but is larger, which leads us to suppose that it very like maize and in Armenian is called ‘Jerusalem millet’. This cereal doesn’t hold an important place in human nourishment among Armenians and is given more to animals. [8] The many incidents of robbery from Armenian fields, whose perpetrators are also poor Kurds, are also noted. These don’t resemble other forms of robbery, when a Kurdish bey or his followers can attack an Armenian village and force the inhabitants to give up – without recompense – valuable objects. Here we have more to do with the sort of incidents that are the main reasons for which are the Kurds’ poverty and deprivation. These are Kurds that often steal grape vines from the Armenians’ vineyards. They are often caught by the Armenian watchmen and beaten, and sometimes robbers are killed. It is these same poor Kurds who, after the cotton harvest come to those areas and beg for cotton from the Armenian peasant. [9]

b) The writers of memorial books about villages where the population is a mixture of Kurds and Armenians are generally Armenians born in those villages. They often express the same point of view – that the village Kurds are former Armenians that, due to circumstances, became Muslim and Kurdish. In reality the subject of the Armenian origin of the Kurds occurs in almost all memorial books including that of Palu. It has become a topos which is repeated every time something is written about this district’s Kurds. It should be said that the explanations put forward by the authors are often very general or based on insufficient proof. The thought is often repeated, for example, that Armenians have been converted as a result of warfare and massacres. Kurdish village names are recalled that often have meanings in Armenian, and which drive authors to emphatically state that the Kurdish inhabitants are either former Armenians or that they simply live in Armenian villages. In the same vein, the permanent presence of the Kurds in places of Armenian places of pilgrimage is recalled, as is the fact that the Kurds make the sign of the cross on their bread. [10]

In Okhu, a village with a mixed population, there are more definite proofs of the Kurds having Armenian ancestry. Parunag Topalian reports that the young Armenians had a habit of calling the village Kurds gess-gess (half-and-half). This means that for the village Armenians a number of the Kurds were Armenians. Relations between the Kurdish and Armenian masses are good. When an Armenian visits a Kurdish neighbour, the guest is immediately invited to sit down near the hearth, the most important place. Apart from this, when their sons go through the ceremony of circumcision, it often happens that the parents seat the child on an Armenian neighbour’s lap. This is an important symbol of the strengthening of family links. [11]

It is important to know that the Kurds and Armenians living in mixed population villages live in separate quarters.

The anti-Armenian massacres and the Palu district in 1895-1896

The local history of these events reflects a great deal on the many forms of Armeno-Turkish and Armeno-Kurdish relations. It is obvious that there is a victim in the times of this sort of tragedy and mass violence – the defenceless and vulnerable side. In the case of Palu, if the Armenians on one hand are in the victim’s role, on the other hand the position adopted during this time of violence by the other two ethnic groups – the Turks and Kurds –has never been homogeneous, and various differences have appeared that are worth examining individually. In reality, to really understand these historic events it is necessary learn about the socio-economic structure of the Palu district. Here it is especially important to concentrate on the position that is held by the main rulers of the area –the Kurdish beys and aghas. Here great discrepancies are obvious. Clearly we can see, on one side, the direct participation in the massacres of their subject tribes, while on the other they adopt the position of defenders of the Armenian villages under their influence. [12] It is obvious that their interest in serfdom has an important part to play in this question. The Kurdish beys and aghas never wish to lose the most important working and skilled force that in fact is under their direct control, a wealth that in this case is the Armenian peasantry. But at the same time the bey can mercilessly attack Armenian villages that are outside his control and under the influence of a Kurdish enemy of his, massacre the population and loot its wealth.

It is also important to examine, in those days of violence, the position that is held by the Ottoman authorities. It is true that the Ottoman authorities have always been a weak presence, with overriding authority held by the beys and aghas, especially in this district. Be that as it may, the Ottoman authorities have always been an important part of the social balance that in a way has become the pledge within this area for the existence of peaceful relations or, more correctly, the absence of mass violence. Oppression, exploitation of labour and serfdom are things that have been seen to be  in existence in Palu district for a very long time. Against all this, the lack of strength to intercede by the local authority can clearly be felt, which has also made it indifferent to the actual situation. Despite this the authorities have maintained an apparent neutrality and been the side that has forbidden the worsening of the situation or the destruction of the status quo. It is as if the beys or aghas know the boundaries of their rule and unrestrained activities very well. But when they try to overstep them, they know that competing Kurdish rulers or the local authorities will come against them.

This is the balance that has been destroyed in 1895. The local authorities have made it obvious to the Kurdish beys and aghas that the situation that was current until now has changed and the boundaries that had previously been set may be disregarded. The upsetting of the previous arrangements is only temporary, but that is sufficient for several thousand Armenians to be massacred in the town and region of Palu in a few days, and houses looted and burnt. More than this – it is our opinion that the 1895-1896 massacres have upset the whole social environment, and basic changes came about especially in the area of Armeno-Kurdish relations. Armenian sources note that it is from this date that the position of the Kurdish beys becomes even stronger and the violence inflicted has increased greatly, and incidents of robbery have grown in Armenian villages. Against this the Armenian element trusts the neutrality of the local authorities even less, becomes even more self-contained and self-defence groups are beginning to be formed in some villages against Kurdish robberies.

  • [1] Mesrob Grayian, Palu: Pictures, recollections, poetry and prose taken from the life of Palu, Published by the Catholicossate of Cilicia, 1965, Antilias, p. 40.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 42.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 100.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 101.
  • [5] Rev Harutiun Sarkisian (nom-de-plume Alevor), Palu: its customs, education, intellectual state and dialect, Sahag-Mesrob Press, Cairo, p. 180-182.
  • [6] History of the house of Baghin, published by the Baghin reconstruction and educational union, ‘Hairenik’ Press, Boston, 1966, p. 107-110.
  • [7] Dikran S Papazian, History of Havav village, Palu, ‘Mshag’ Press, Beirut 1960, page 67.
  • [8] Sarkisian, op cit., p. 451.
  • [9] Sarkisian, op. cit., p. 46.
  • [10] History of the house of Baghin, op. cit., p. 17.
  • [11] Parounag Topalian, My ancestral village of Okhu, ‘Hairenik’ Press, Boston, 1943, p. 20-21.
  • [12] Grayian, op.cit., p. 468.