Dr. Umit Kurt

Kurt Focuses on Aintab Armenians’ Battle for Survival

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WATERTOWN — Historian Dr. Ümit Kurt presented a lecture on Thursday, April 12, on the battle for Aintab, which highlighted the intertwined histories and divergent paths of the Armenians and Turks in that city, now known as Gaziantep.

Even on a micro level, the subject is one particularly close to Kurt, currently a researcher at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, as he is a native of Gaziantep.

The lecture, co-sponsored by the Tekeyan Culture Association and the Armenian Museum of America and held at the latter’s Adele and Haig Der Manuelian galleries, engrossed the 60 or so attendees, many of whom were Armenians whose families had hailed from Aintab.

Jennifer Liston Munson, executive director of the Armenian Museum of American, welcomed the guests and spoke about the rebranding work at the museum, refreshing the galleries downstairs and rethinking the entire flow of how the museum works. She introduced Aram Arkun, Executive Director of the Tekeyan Cultural Association of the US and Canada.

Arkun spoke briefly about the tragic events after the Armenian Genocide when the Armenians returned to Cilicia believing in the promises of the occupying British and French powers, but were massacred or forced to flee by resurgent Turkish Nationalist forces. He then introduced Dr. Kurt as a specialist in particular on the events in Aintab.

Kurt in his lecture declared that in 1914 there were about 36,000-40,000 Armenians in Aintab, as well as very small Jewish and Greek populations, out of the total 80,000 residents. After the Armenian Genocide was launched, the majority of the Armenians were either killed or deported. Of the surviving Armenians, 18,000 returned to Aintab to resettle there.

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By January 1922, there were 36 Armenians in Aintab.

 

French-Turkish War

 

The Turkish-French war of 1920-1921 took place between the Turkish Kemalist Nationalist forces and French troops in Aintab. The war started on April 1, 1920 and ended with the city’s surrender to the French military forces on February 9, 1921. A later agreement (Ankara Agreement) signed between the Grand National Assembly in Ankara and the French government on October 20, 1921 led to the halt of all activities on the Turkish-French fronts. Despite the French victory, it ended with the French withdrawal from Aintab, as well as the resettlement of Aintab Armenians to the French mandates of Aleppo and Beirut starting in March 1921.

Kurt’s new book, The Heroic Battle of Aintab, is a translation of an Armenian diary by Kevork Baboian, which Kurt translated. It is the first work of its kind in the English language, an eyewitness account of what happened in Aintab in 1920-21.

The publication by Baboian, which he translated, fills in the gap in scholarship about the post-World War I period at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide in general and the events of Aintab in particular, Kurt said.

“It’s a first-hand comprehensive account of the French and British occupation,” he said.

“There are remarkable details about the course of the war,” Kurt said.

From December 1918 to October 1919, Armenians appealed to the British forces to protect them upon their return to Aintab. They were afraid to either return to their homes, rightfully, as many of the empty homes had either been destroyed or in cases of houses of worship, desecrated and covered with graffiti.

The Armenians were given the green light to return to Aintab after the mass roundups yet they could not.

“Armenians feared attacks upon return to Aintab,” Kurt said. The British therefore moved their troops from Kilis to Aintab to ensure their safety as well as to be able to move back into their homes and reclaim their properties.

Of course, the arrival of the British in defense of the Armenians inflamed the already sensitive situation there, angering many Turks who “claimed that not a single event endangering the safety of the return Armenians had occurred and the occupation was therefore illegal.”

According to Kurt, Baboian was “very active during the Aintab herosamard (heroic battle).” A member of the Hunchag party, he survived the events and eventually ended up in Aleppo and became a civil engineer. He taught at an Armenian high school in Aleppo for eight years and was even an envoy at the Genocide convention in New York. He died in Beirut in 1949.

Kurt stressed that members of the three Armenian political parties cooperated for an excellent resistance effort.

 

Aintab Defense

Baboian writes about the “three pillars of the Heroic Battle of Aintab,” April 1-30, 1920, Rev. Nerses Tavoukjian, a priest, Adour Levonian, and Avedis Kalemkerian. They headed a group who smelted guns and even a cannon, named “Vrej” or revenge, by the Armenians.

The Armenian resistance in Aintab was marked by unity and the participation of women and children. In fact, one of the striking slides he showed was of a group of women at a trench, with one holding a rifle. In fact, he said, women were on machine gun duty and dug ditches. As a result of the Armenian efforts, the death toll for them was much lower than in other cities.

Kurt spoke about the increasingly tense situation in the city as the Armenians were trying to return after 1915, with the help of the French forces.

As a result, tensions increased and the fight between the Turks and the Armenians, as well as the Turks and the French occupiers, with the Armenians caught in between, and last but not least, the disintegrating Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), which had ruled over the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent governing groups, which had sought to overturn the genocidal policies of the CUP leaders.

Of course, Kurt said, little changed in essence, as after every attempt to right the course of the country, the powers that be harkened back to the Ottoman policies.

One such example was the policy of seizure of “derelict” properties of Armenians who were no longer in Aintab, as they had either been killed for forced across the desert to Aleppo.

In his lecture Kurt stressed that many of the policies in the Ottoman Empire continued in the Republican era, including the forced forfeiture of Armenian properties and their resale for artificially low prices at public auctions.

The seizures and forfeitures of Armenian properties led to the formation of a new bourgeois class in Aintab.

St. Mary’s Church (now a mosque)

A series of laws and decrees, known as the Abandoned Properties Laws (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları), were issued in the Ottoman and Turkish Republican periods concerning the administration of the belongings left behind by the Ottoman Armenians who were deported in 1915. The best-known regulation on the topic is the comprehensive Council of Ministers Decree, dated May 30, 1915. The Directorate of Tribal and Immigrant Settlement of the Interior Ministry (İskan-ı Aşâir ve Muhacirin Müdiriyeti) sent it the following day to relevant provinces organized in 15 articles. It provided the basic principles in accordance with which all deportations and resettlements would be conducted, and began with listing the reasons for the Armenian deportations. The most important provision concerning Armenian properties was the principle that their equivalent value was going to be provided to the deportees.

The Temporary Law of Sept. 26, 1915 is also known as the Liquidation Law (Tasfiye Kanunu). Its chief goal was the liquidation of Armenian properties. According to its first article, commissions were to be established to conduct the liquidation. These commissions were to prepare separate reports for each person about the properties, receivable accounts, and debts “abandoned by actual and juridical persons who are being transported to other places.” The liquidation would be conducted by courts on the basis of these reports.

A lively question-and-answer period took place after the lecture, with many recalling seeing their own family homes being turned into businesses or expressing their concern for the safety of Kurt himself.

Kurt is a fellow at the Polonsky Academy in the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Kurt received his PhD from Clark University, History Department in 2016. He got his MA degree in European Studies from Sabancı University in 2008 and undergraduate degree in Political Science from Middle East Technical University in 2006.

The Heroic Battle of Aintab by Kevork Baboian, translated and introduced by Kurt, is published by Gomidas Press.

 

 

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