Dr. Owen Miller

Sasun Massacres Reexamined by Academic Owen Miller at NAASR


By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Dr. Owen Miller summarized his research on the massacres of Armenians in Sasun in 1894 at a talk at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) on March 16.

Miller, an affiliated faculty member this year at Emerson College in Boston, was introduced by Marc Mamigonian, NAASR’s director of academic affairs.

Miller, a graduate of the University of California Santa Cruz, with master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University, completed his doctoral dissertation in 2015 on Sasun. He accompanied his talk at NAASR with PowerPoint illustrations and the caveat that his research on Sasun is still ongoing and thus incomplete.

Miller came to his dissertation topic in an unusual manner. He explained that he began studying Ottoman Turkish at Columbia with a textbook written by V. Hovhannes Hagopian, which he found quite good. Becoming curious about Hagopian’s life, Miller did some research and was shocked to learn that Hagopian, a star professor at Anatolia College in Merzifon in the east of the Ottoman Empire, was killed during the Armenian Genocide. This inspired Miller to learn more about the Genocide, and in turn got him interested in the autonomous mountainous region of Sasun south of the city of Mus (Moush). Sasun was under the rule of Kurdish feudal lords in the first part of the 19th century, but central Ottoman forces came to conquer its small principalities.

Miller, who often made connections to pertinent events elsewhere in the world during his talk, pointed out that the Ottomans bought modern rifles and other weaponry from the US and Europe to gain an advantage over local feudal forces. He said that the Ottoman efforts were similar to the conquest of the Mayan uplands in the 1850s, or French campaigns in the mountainous areas of North Africa. The same technology was used for dominance throughout the world.

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In the 19th century while the Ottomans were pushing out Armenians during a series of wars, large numbers of Muslims were also being expelled from the Russian Empire and settled as a counterweight to Ottoman Armenians and other peoples seen as unreliable by the government. These immigrants clashed with their new neighbors.

Miller traced the upsurge in Armenian nationalist sentiment in the 19th century through key turning points. One of these was the 1889 kidnapping and rape of a 14-year-old Armenian girl, Gulizar, by a Kurdish warlord named Musa Bey who enjoyed the backing of the Ottoman state. This led to a local protest movement in Moush, and radicalized Armenians in the Ottoman capital, especially after a sham state trial. Even Europeans paid attention to the trial.

Young students in Constantinople formed a branch of the Hnchagian Party and organized further protests in Constantinople focusing on conditions in the eastern provinces.

During the same time period, Owen related, Mihran Damadian, educated abroad, and from a wealthy Catholic family in Constantinople, was appointed as principal of the Nersisian Central School in Mus in 1884, and saw great impoverishment among the peasantry. He began supporting organizing for self-defense against local warlords.

Meanwhile medical student Hampartzum Boyajian, together with Dr. Jelalian, helped organize one of the first branches of the Hnchagian Party in the capital city. Perhaps it is not a coincidence, Miller ruminated, that the first incarnation of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) party was formed the same year at the same institution as the Hnchagian branch by medical students for political reasons.

Damadian, back in Constantinople, became a central figure in organizing the 1890 Kum Kapu demonstration demanding more attention to the Armenians of the countryside, and opposing the Armenian patriarch’s perceived indifference to their suffering. This demonstration led to a wave of arrests. Damadian escaped to Athens, as did Boyajian. The arrests radicalized Armenians because many were arrested on flimsy pretexts, often for the purpose of personal enrichment by local Ottoman officials.

Topics: History

Back in the Sasun area, Owen related, Hasan Tahsin Pasha, governor-general of Bitlis province, was encouraging pastoralist groups to defeat local power holders so that he in turn could increase his own power. Tahsin sent a series of increasingly panicked reports to the central Ottoman government that large numbers of Armenians armed with Martini rifles were in the mountains ready to cause problems. The central government panicked in its turn. The sultan ordered local forces to destroy the “bandits” and leave a legacy of terror.

Consequently,12 battalions of Ottoman soldiers murdered and plundered the Sasun Armenians over the course of three weeks, from August to September 1894. The orders were carried out by Ottoman Fourth Army commander Zeki Pasha, the brother-in-law of the sultan, though the cavalry military commander Edhem Pasha, in Moush, refused to obey these same orders.

Zeki Pasha went to Sasun after the murders and wrote a report which was a cover-up. Miller found that this became the official state version of the events, and was repeated in a large number of Ottoman documents. It even ended up in the New York Times and various European newspapers, probably on the take from the Ottoman government.

Miller observed that American missionaries in the area began to collect local information about what happened. In their reports, they presented a much more complex situation, and these reports also reached Western newspapers.

Most Western journalists were denied entry to the region, but two enterprising correspondents managed to get first-hand information. Dr. Emil Dillon of the Daily Telegraph, pretending to be a Cossack, managed to smuggle himself into the area. Daily News reporter, Frank Scudamore, was another who wrote influential reports.

Miller stated that despite the value of their accounts, Ottoman studies today continues to accept the same kind of framing that the Ottoman state entertained about journalists, that they are untrustworthy individuals, just like the Christian missionaries.

Miller mentioned briefly Zeytun and Dersim as two other autonomous mountainous regions with Armenian populations (and Kurds in Dersim) and varied societal structures.

He concluded with a comparison of the cover-up of the My Lai massacre by American soldiers with that of the Sasun massacres of Armenians. In 1968 Charlie Company murdered 400 women and children, and military commander Col. Oran Henderson, like Zeki Pasha, tried to send Charlie Company to the wilderness so its members would not tell their stories, just as Zeki Pasha restricted his soldiers to their barracks for the same reason.

This attempt at controlling historical narrative is a common one. Miller remarked at the end of his talk that it was important to understand that archives reflect the views of those in power, but unfortunately Ottomanists today still have not figured this out.

After his formal presentation, Miller answered questions from the audience. When asked about the varied estimates of the numbers of Armenian dead in the Sasun massacre, he declared that the lack of accurate demographic information was a problem, but under the circumstances he found Garo Sassuni’s figure of one to two thousand killed to be the most credible estimate. In response to another question, Miller critiqued Justin McCarthy’s recent book, Sasun: The History of an 1890s Armenian Revolt, as “a very problematic piece of scholarship.” He found it to be essentially a reworking of the Zeki Pasha report, replete with factual errors.

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