There are locations that have come to represent something emblematic in a people’s collective memory. The location and the name stop merely denoting a place, a city, a village, and start representing historic moments, or symbolic images closely associated with a people’s history. The memory of such an historical place can survive 100 years or more even when the place no longer physically exists, or even when it is destroyed, and the people who used to live there have vanished.
In the history of Armenians, Zeytun bears such emblematic significance. On the one hand, the name signifies heroic resistance and on the other, genocide and martyrdom.
Zeytun is located in the north of historic Cilicia and in the centre of the Taurus Mountains. There were houses on cliffs and bridges over deep valleys. The historic town gave the impression of a natural fortress. Zeytun’s heroic/tragic history started in the second half of the 19th century. This period coincided with the Ottoman Empire’s efforts to suppress the semi-independently functioning emirates. There was a push to strengthen the central government. The Kurdish emirates were the main targets, the presence of which in the eastern provinces had become evidence of the government’s inertness, absence, and weakness. It is believed that the initial pressure by the Ottoman Government on Zeytun fits within a general narrative of undermining the independent spirit of this small Armenian emirate.
There are various contradictions in the history of the Ottoman Armenians. The history of Zeytun is expressive in this respect. In other parts of the empire, especially in rural areas, the Armenian tiller had been deprived of his land and had become the local Kurdish or Turkish agha’s or bey’s subject. The dejected Armenian villager sought the Ottoman Government’s presence, hoping that with this reinforcement he would have support; that the Government would stop the violation of his rights by restraining the local rulers who would oppress him. The Zeytun Armenians were not in such a situation; though briefly, it is worth mentioning that in the 1860’s, the Armenians in Zeytun revolted because the government wanted to put an end to this semi-independence and freedom that they enjoyed. Simply put, they were not ready to obey a government system that imposed heavy duties.
Years before these events, the Zeytun Armenians had resorted to arms when in the 1830’s the whole of Cilicia was invaded and occupied by the army of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt after the defeat and retreat of the Ottoman forces. Under these circumstances, the Zeytun Armenians had joined the local Turkish tribes and fought against the Egyptian occupation, which in reality posed a threat to Zeytun’s semi-independent status. This resistance was in fact directed towards any power that threatened their autonomy.
The story of the Zeytun rebellion in the 1830’s is not often recalled. The 1860’s rebellion and others that followed were quite another matter. In the 1860’s, the Istanbul Armenians lived a literary, cultural, spiritual and intellectual renaissance, which was the reason why news of resistance from Zeytun resonated in the form of poems, patriotic songs and books written about Zeytun in the second half of the 19th century. As such, Zeytun started to become the embodiment of the idea of ‘fighting for freedom’ in the collective mindset of the Armenians, at the same time embodying torture and martyrdom on the road to resistance. The years that followed saw more rebellions and this image was to grow stronger in people’s minds.
While Zeytun had come to represent a flag and a slogan in the collective imagination of the Armenians, it had also come to represent an obsession in Ottoman political circles. In the second half of the 19th century, the Armenian Question came into existence, which then became the reason why Ottoman authorities distrusted their Armenian population and why they generally regarded Armenians as internal enemies and as separatists.
Although this attitude would have its highs and lows, nevertheless it always prevailed within the upper ruling class. The existence of such a rebellious Armenian locality would simply be seen as a threat. The fact that the Zeytun population was firstly and foremost fighting for its economic autonomy, would simply be forgotten. The authorities would focus on weakening and oppressing this centre of resistance. A military base was built on the opposite hill and Muslim refugees arriving from the Caucasus were settled in locations nearby. As such, it was not a coincidence that Zeytun was one of the first targets of the mass deportations and massacres during the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Heroism and martyrdom, these are the two words symbolizing Zeytun in the collective memory of the Armenians. However, Zeytun is in fact much more than what the Armenians have kept in their collective post-genocide memory. As in most of the cases, the life of Armenians in Zeytun with its multilayered heritage and local history has been neglected and gradually forgotten.
Zeytun was also the symbol of a variegated Armenian life: it had its own dialect, its own festivities and traditions, its own religious customs, its own cuisine, its crafts (including the manufacture of arms), its church and places of pilgrimage, its treasures preserved for centuries in the churches, its educational institutions and many other things, which pertain to Zeytun’s local life and social environment.
All of these also belong to the Armenian heritage of Zeytun, and we cannot disregard them when we talk about Zeytun’s Armenian heritage. Reconstructing this heritage through photographs, research, and art works would be a form of respect made in the memory of those who once lived and gave life to this town. Many of them were killed during the perpetration of mass violence, while the survivors were deprived of their basic right to live in their native Zeytun.
The Armenian Zeytun no longer exists; there are only remnants of the old opulent life there. Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct the Armenian memory of Zeytun – if only fragments of it – with whatever means we have, to give new value to the rich Armenian heritage of Zeytun. Such endeavours are small victories against the man-made evil aimed at destroying the Zeytun Armenians and their age-old heritage. These are small but important triumphs against time, which slowly erases the Zeytun Armenians’ memory and their last traces.