BY SHARLA A. PAUL
NEARLY A CENTURY ago, Mihran T. Kalaidjian, a passionate young Congregationalist minister in Nyack, New York, envisioned an enlightened Near Eastern state, a place where Christians, Muslims, and Jews could live as equals, contrasting and complementing one another like the deep red and brilliant yellow threads of a woolen kilim, the traditional flat-weave carpet of that region.
A Yale University graduate student of history, philosophy, and theology and an activist in the U.S. Armenian community, Kalaidjian had immigrated to the United States in 1904 from the Anatolian Plain in Turkey, then the domain of the vast but declining Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish problem is a very complex one; it is not only a political one, but is racial and religious at the same time. What is, then, the future of Turkey? he asked in a 1906 essay in the journal Armenia.
More than two million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire, concentrated in the eastern provinces and straddling the border of Tsarist Russia. As Christian subjects of an Islamic state, they had no legal rights, could not vote or serve in the military, and were heavily taxed. In 1909, the revolutionary Young Turks came into office with the motto liberty, justice, equality, fraternity, ending centuries of autocratic rule under the Ottoman sultans and promising democratic reforms. The new government seemed to be the answer to the Armenians prayers.
I remember well both the uncanny thrill and poignancy of discovering my grandfathers publication while doing online database research on the Armenian genocide, says Walter B. Kalaidjian, professor of English at Emory and the grandson of Mihran Kalaidjian. On the one hand, I felt a certain empowerment in picking up the thread of his writing and of his utopian commitment to a modern world order. On the other hand, I was struck by the irony of what the future of Turkey soon became for him and his entire extended family, community, and nation.
As the First World War raged throughout Europe in the spring of 1915 and the Turks waged expensive and bloody battles against the Allied Russians, the same government that originally had offered hope to the Armenians began a systematic deportation and elimination of nearly the entire Armenian population within its borders. Spurred by nationalism and pan-Turkism, the government accused Armenians of sympathizing with the Christian Tsarists, massacred some one million Armenians, looted and burned Armenian homes and villages, and forced hundreds of thousands of women, children, and elderly to leave their homes in death marches to the deserts of what is now Syria. A distraught Mihran Kalaidjian turned his efforts to relief and resettlement, traveling as a fundraiser and lecturer for the Near East Relief Society, which provided assistance to Armenian refugees fleeing Turkey.
The twentieth centurys first genocide was well underway.
NEXT PAGE: Echoes of these grisly images. . .
| Circa 1915: Armenian women and children refugees gather on
the banks of the Euphrates River at Deir-el-Zor, a principle deportation
destination in what is today Syria. The refugees were marching to
Baghdad from their homes in Kharpert, the site of major massacres.