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Treaty of Sèvres and Cilicia Special Section: The Final Destruction of Armenian Cilicia


What happened in Cilicia after World War I can be viewed as a tragedy on its own, or as part of the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide. Either way, it was a great blow to the Armenians who had survived the World War and the efforts of the Ottoman Empire to uproot and annihilate them as a people.

The Armenians had been deported from their homes in Cilicia and in other parts of the Ottoman Empire to sites now found in Syria, Iraq and Jordan starting in 1915. At the end of the world war, the British and the French occupied Cilicia as well as various other parts of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The Armenians began to return to their homes, encouraged that these great Western powers would ensure their safety and allow them to rebuild their lives. Cilician Turks and some other Muslims viewed the Armenian welcome of the occupying powers with hostility.


Cilicia is located today in southeastern Turkey, extending from the coastal areas off the Mediterranean Sea to mountainous areas. Armenians had begun emigrating there in large numbers starting in the 10th century, fleeing Seljuk Turkish invasions of their homeland proper, and eventually established a kingdom, which lost its independence in 1375 after attacks by Seljuk Turks and the Mamluks of Egypt.

Armenians maintained a degree of autonomy in small areas of Cilicia, especially in mountainous locales like Zeytun and Hajin, for a long period of time, and there remained a majority population, but in many regions, many people of Turkish, Kurdish, Arab and Circassian origin settled. The nineteenth century efforts to reform the Ottoman Empire attempted to end the autonomy enjoyed by some martial Armenian communities. The reform efforts were not enough to stem the decline of the empire, which in turn had grave repercussions for the Armenians.

The Cilician Armenians were subject to three sets of massacres in the span of little more than a generation. Their etiologies are a subject for a different article.

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The Hamidian massacres of the 1890s were followed by the Cilician massacres of 1990, and then of course a full-scale genocide. Naturally Armeno-Turkish relations would be difficult henceforth.

Not only surviving Armenians native to Cilicia returned after the end of the war. Armenians from other areas who were not allowed to return to their own provinces remained in Cilicia, which was closer to the locations to which they had been deported.

Attempts at Justice

When the Armenians returned, they sought lost family members and properties. Sometimes young children and women had been taken by Muslim families as servants or concubines. Homes, lands, animals and various items of personal property had been confiscated either by the state or taken by neighbors.

The French and British attempted to facilitate this process by creating local commissions, which had both Armenian and non-Armenian members. The return of property was uneven. Where Armenians were more numerous, such as in towns like Hajin, they were much more successful in obtaining properties (and even in a few cases may have gone beyond what was legitimate). Where they were less numerous, the local Muslim population attempted to obstruct the process.

It was also hard at times to reintegrate Armenian women and children who had been taken by Muslim families into their original families. Some feared new Muslim/Ottoman violence if they returned to their Armenian identities. There were women who had children from their Muslim captors and did not want to leave the latter. Some of the Muslim captors forcibly resisted attempts to free Armenians,

Armenians wanted particular individuals who caused great harm through violence and rape punished. They applied to the Ottoman court system which the occupying British and French allowed to function in Cilicia, but usually did not receive justice there. They also petitioned the British and French to take direct action.

The latter did expel some leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress from Cilician lands, and did arrest a few perpetrators of crimes. However, they took action in an opportunistic fashion, and allowed Ottoman leaders to remain in power when they seemed willing to collaborate with the occupiers even when their hands were stained by the crimes they had committed against Armenians. Overall, the Armenians saw little justice after their return to their homes.

Military and Political Leadership

The defeated Ottoman Empire was allowed to continue to politically administer its territories until the decisions of the peace conference, so the British and French kept the local Ottoman system of government in place in the occupied portions of Adana and Aleppo provinces which constituted historical Cilicia. They had their own military officials who supervised the administration as well as controlled their occupying forces.

The wartime agreements for the partition of the Ottoman Empire allotted Cilicia (which included additional territories to the north such as the provinces of Sivas (Sepasdia) and Mamuretülaziz (Kharpert) that could never be militarily seized) to the French, but the British had to initially occupy much of this area militarily until the French had sufficient troops to take over at the end of 1919.

The troops used by the French included members of the Armenian Legion, volunteers (“gamavors”) who came from places like the United States and France to avenge the deaths of loved ones, help save their remaining compatriots and hopefully create an Armenian state after the war. The French as administrators attempted to appeal to both Muslims and Armenians and so worked to lessen the numbers and the role of the legionnaires in Cilicia.

The legionnaires attempted spontaneously to intervene to liberate Armenians in captivity, at times leading to clashes with local Muslims. They also had tumultuous relations with Muslim troops from North Africa and Asia serving under the French and British.

The Armenians of Cilicia formed National Unions in each town and city which helped in the resettlement of Armenians and the attempts at justice. In places like Zeytun and Hajin, which had small Muslim populations, these unions served as de facto local governments. At their head was the Armenian National Union in Adana, which often dealt with the French and Ottoman authorities. A Cilician National Union representing most cities was not formed until June 1920. Armenian inter-political party councils were also formed in many places and later there was a supreme council with political party representatives.

Perhaps the most prominent Armenian political figure in Cilicia was Mihran Damadian, who served as Plenipotentiary Representative of the Armenian National Delegation, based in Paris, to the French government. A leader of what became the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party, he attempted to resolve internal issues among the fractious Cilician Armenians and helped organize National union branches.

Catholicos of Cilicia Sahag II Khabayan, as leader of one of the four main institutions of the Armenian Church worldwide was active, in attempting to lobby for the rights of the Cilician Armenians, as were local Armenian Catholic and Protestant leaders.

Dreams of Future Independence Dashed

The French initially gave some signals that an Armenian state could be created in Cilicia, in addition to their use of the Armenian Legion. For example, several French administrators had “Armenia” in their titles, such as colonel Edouard Brémond, Chief of Administration in Armenia, or François Georges-Picot, High Commissioner of Syria and Armenia, but soon these titles were changed.

Armenians may have wanted Cilicia part of an integral Armenia, or if not, as an independent state. However, it turned out that the French initially hoped to hold onto Cilicia and Syria. The Paris Peace Conference was supposed to make the final decision. In the meantime, the European powers made various deliberately misleading statements directed at public opinion while the US avoided taking on the role of mandatory power for an integral Armenia including Cilicia.

By mid-1919 it became clear that the victorious powers would not create an integral Armenia, and by the end of 1919, that there would not be an independent Cilicia either. Yet the French still encouraged Armenians to believe that France came to Cilicia to protect the Armenians until the latter were ready to govern themselves.

The French constantly had difficulties in controlling Syria, to the south of Cilicia, because of the Arab independence movement under Emir Faisal. The Armenians suffered from this. One result was the February 28, 1919 massacres of Armenians in Aleppo, and concurrent attempts to attack Armenians in parts of Cilicia.

The replacement of British troops by French from the end of October to early November 1919 weakened control over the local populations, since the French did not have as many troops or military equipment as their predecessors. Attacks multiplied on Cilician Armenians in the winter by Turkish Nationalist supporters.

The French, who had eyes on Cilicia since the beginning of World War I, if not earlier, did not really intend to allow its transformation into an Armenian state. This is evident from French diplomatic correspondence from the fall and winter of 1919. Furthermore, if France itself would not be able to retain hold of Cilicia, the inclination of some high level French officials was to come to a broad accord with the Turkish Nationalists, using Cilicia as part of their pack of disposable bargaining chips for other goals. Informal discussions between Turkish Nationalist and French officials were held from the fall of 1919.

The informal discussions turned into public negotiations at European conferences beginning in early 1920, with the French willing to give up most of Cilicia for economic concessions and the Kemalists always striving to obtain more.

Fighting and Final Expulsion

The retreating Ottoman armies left arms caches and men, in the guise of gendarmes, behind to prepare for a resistance struggle in 1918. The Ottoman government protested the British and French occupation of Cilicia. Weak responses to attacks on the French and Armenians in 1919, European divisions and diplomatic overtures, the fear of increasing immigration bolstering the Armenian population of Cilicia and making it irretrievably lost to the Turks, and the allure of the rich resources of Cilicia encouraged the concentration of Turkish forces against Cilicia. At the Sivas Congress of Turkish Nationalists (September 4-11, 1919), it was determined that regular military units near Cilicia would secretly aid Cilician Turkish nationalist organizations. Turkish Nationalists began larger scale fighting against the French and the Armenians from January 1920.

The Armenians were seen as allies of the French, but the French at times abandoned the Armenians to the attacks of the Turkish Nationalists. The most infamous case is that of the city of Marash. The French pulled out suddenly after three weeks of fighting, although they appeared to have the military edge, in February 1920, and tried to do it in secret so that the Armenian civilian population would not follow and encumber the French troops. Nonetheless, thousands of panic-stricken Armenians learned of the retreat and attempted to follow. This led to several thousand more Armenian deaths from attacks and the bitter cold.

It is estimated that about 12,000 Armenians were killed in the Marash fighting and retreat, six churches and much of the city were burnt, and nearly all shops were looted. Few of those killed were direct participants in the fighting.

A good number were slaughtered in horrible ways involving rape, torture and mutilation. Several thousand were burnt alive. Many who surrendered on promises of protection, largely women and children, were then killed, including 4-500 in the Ulu Jami or Great Mosque.

What happened in Marash set the tone for the fate of Armenians elsewhere in Cilicia. It was part of a concerted final effort to clear Cilicia of Armenians, as well as of the French.

Urfa was cut off from February 1920 and its French garrison was massacred in April while retreating. The railroad was constantly interrupted in the Amanus in Feb and March and Bozanti fell at the end of May.

At the end of May, the French handed over Sis, Bozanti, Aintab (later retaken), and areas to the north of the Cilician railway line to the Turkish Nationalists as part of a short-lived armistice, and thousands of Armenians from the Sis area were evacuated. The abortive international Treaty of Sèvres of August 10, 1920, beloved by some Armenians today, only included the territories of Erzerum, Bitlis, Van, and Trebizond from the Ottoman Empire as part of an Armenian state (Art. 89). Adana and most of plains Cilicia as well as mountainous northern Cilicia were left to the Turks, while Baghche, Urfa, Aintab and Birijik as well as a portion of coastal Cilicia were included in Syria.

At the London negotiations in March 1921, the French agreed to relinquish more land to the Turks, including the Dort-Yol area. The Franklin-Bouillon agreement of October 1921, also known as the Treaty of Ankara, confirmed this and handed over the rest of Cilicia. It was ratified by the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923.

Armenians attempted to organize themselves militarily but they were largely dependent on French acquiescence and lagged behind the Turkish Nationalists. Nonetheless they played an important role in the defense of Armenian populations.

In places without French troops, like mountainous Hajin, the Armenians sometimes lasted for months against much larger forces, but without French help. Hajin fell in October 1920 and thousands of Armenians were massacred or enslaved. Several unsuccessful attempts were organized to assemble volunteers to go to the aid of Hajin from plains Cilicia. Other Armenian volunteers, upon French request, were formed into militias to help defend villages and agricultural work in the summer of 1920 in the Cilician plains area.

Damadian and the Cilician Armenian National Union, with the support of other local Christian communities, proclaimed Cilician independence on August 4, 1920. This was a desperate act to preempt the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres on August 10, which provided for the French evacuation of much of Cilicia in favor of the Ottoman Turks.

Unfortunately, the situation devolved quickly into a farce. Several of the Armenian political parties separately issued their own declarations of independence for Cilician territories a few days earlier. On August 5, Damadian and his new cabinet were evicted only a few hours after taking possession of the Adana government building by French soldiers, ending this episode, and of course the Treaty of Sèvres was signed (though never ratified).

Furthermore, in September 1920, the Armenian Legion was formally disbanded and the French began to disarm and expel Armenian volunteer forces and Adana National Union leaders from Cilicia. French victories against the Kemalists in the Adana area made Armenian volunteers and goodwill no longer that important, and even a hindrance, to French plans of relinquishing Cilician territory to the Turks.

The Armenians all began fleeing Cilicia after the Oct. 20 1921 Franklin-Bouillon Agreement and prior to the Turkish take-over in January, 1922, as they had no trust in the provisions of the Franco-Turkish agreement for their protection. Some fled south to Alexandretta, but fled once more when this region was handed over to the Republic of Turkey by France in 1939.

The result of massacres and persecution led to the ethnic cleansing of the remaining Armenians in Cilicia. Turkish Nationalist commander Selaheddin Adil Pasha’s instructions concerning Hajin, exclaimed during the fighting, made clear this goal: “Well then, this has become the head of a boil. Let us lance it and cause this disgusting thing to shrivel up from its root. Let a problem called Hajin not remain in the Tauruses. In these clean Turkish lands, the mountains of Kozanoglu smelling of thyme, the Armenian microbe has no business.”

Armenian toponyms and monuments were soon deliberately destroyed to erase the traces of Armenian existence in Cilicia, which is remembered today primarily by Armenians outside of this historical homeland.

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