Just over a century ago this week, Turkish and Kurdish forces invaded land that the Assyrian people had inhabited since antiquity and began exterminating them. The slaughter that ensued lasted from 1915-1923, leaving 300,000 Assyrians dead and innumerable women abducted.
Joseph Yacoub’s Year of the Sword: the Assyrian Christian Genocide, published in French in 2014 and translated into English in 2016, is the most accessible historical account of the events that composed the genocide, as well as a comprehensive case for those events as genocide. Yacoub, emeritus professor of political science at the Catholic University of Lyon, provides a distillation of sources in the languages used by both the perpetrators of and witnesses to the genocide. Year of the Sword is necessary for the breadth and depth of scholarship that informs that distillation, as well as the careful marshaling of it into analysis.
The Assyrian genocide formed one distinct yet indivisible chapter of a program of eradication that also encompassed the coeval Armenian and Greek genocides. The purpose was to put an end to the presence of all three Christian peoples in the territory that became the Republic of Turkey. The politics of the genocide were not the outgrowth of a robust nationalist ideology or tradition. (Turkish nationalism has always struggled to reconcile the need for an atavistic sense of racial origins, usually placed somewhere within Central Asia, and the need to subjugate and cohere territories in Asia Minor.) The Republic of Turkey was instead founded upon the application of violent jihad to the territorial boundaries of the emerging Turkish state. The Islamization of Turkey was inseparable from the establishment of its national sovereignty.
Yacoub discusses political developments in the decades prior to the genocide: the draconian centralization of power in the flailing Ottoman caliphate under Sultan Hamid II (1876-1909), and the nationalism of the Young Turks who supplanted him and ushered in an era of genocide. This background is not treated as an inductive source of understanding, but rather a context. Yacoub’s major focus is on detailing the act of killing.
The methods of the Assyrian genocide were mass murder, pillage, and the rape and abduction of girls. Christian Pfander, the German-American Pastor of Urmia (in today’s northwest Iran), wrote that “in the villages, the Kurds killed everyone they could get hold of.” Assyrians were “hacked to death with axes and thrown into the river,” or left “half-executed … exposed to the sun,” wrote Hyacinth Simon, a French missionary and author, since, as “one Kurd said: Our soil is too pure to act as a tomb for Christian dogs.” Clergymen were subject to spectacular forms of torture: “The skin was flayed from another priest’s head before his throat was cut.” One priest was “tied to a pile of dry cow dung and burnt alive,” another “stabbed to death as [he] knelt in prayer.”
In cities like Diyarbakir, sexual slavery meant being “passed from one Turk to another.” In more remote terrain—the killing fields of Urmia and adjacent Hakkari—gunmen would “even sometimes rape young women who were dying.” The American Medical Department in Urmia observed that “not a woman or girl above 12 (and some younger) … escaped violation.” Ascertaining the number of abducted Assyrian women has proved more elusive than establishing the death toll. Since “all the girls, women and children stolen by Turks were treated by them as Mahometans,” mass abductions served the symbiotic purposes of depleting the Assyrian population and its capacity for replenishment and reproduction and expanding the size of the conquering Muslim groups.
Yacoub’s attention to evidence of central planning and orchestration—the most pivotal of the legal pillars of genocide recognition—is one of Year of the Sword’s strongest legacies. Yacoub specifies a widely observed repetition of process to the killings. Key elements included the removal of men “to an unknown destination” and the reading aloud of an edict from the Ottoman state prior to executions and (“as sworn on the Koran”) an injunction to remain silent about “acts committed by the executioners” and “the fate of those executed.” That “all observers and witnesses confirm that the conduct of the Turkish authorities was motivated by a premeditated, defined and criminal objective,” argues Yacoub, confirms that “the driving force was not in the mountains but in the capital.”
Discussion of potential responses to the genocide accompanied the spreading of news. Yacoub is excellent in mapping the network of institutions and actors involved in deciding the fate of the surviving Assyrians.
Soon after their emergence as a national political entity in the modern sense, Assyrians sought to overcome the circumscribing hostility of their neighbors through outreach to the West. They were met with the reality that whatever sense of geographically expansive Christendom still existed in Europe was rapidly dwindling, and would disappear forever with World War I. One of the most telling individual lines in Year of the Sword speaks of Assyrian authors writing in their native Assyrian Aramaic: “Every author, without exception, expresses a sense of shock that Germany and Austria, two Christian countries, could have found themselves on the same side as Turkey during the war.”
A hope for Christian solidarity from the West—which in the 19th century formed the basis of external Assyrian political and institutional engagement—shaded into a prayer-like approach to the international community. From the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to the present day, Assyrians have been entrapped within systems of appeal and recourse to western powers, fuelled by a deep and tragic belief that the moral legitimacy of the Assyrian cause will finally be rewarded. Calls for a “safe haven” and “international protection” dominated Assyrian activist and advocacy efforts following the 2014 Islamic State invasion of the Nineveh Plain in Iraq, the last nexus of substantial Assyrian demographic concentration in the Middle East. It is deeply significant that Raphael Lemkin explicitly linked his novel category of genocide (among whose victims he listed “Christian Assyrians”) with the notion of international protection. The nation-state had created a brand of group massacre particular to its form, whose redress had to come through the moral power and legislated interventions of international institutions.
A lack of resources and state legitimacy following the genocide contributes to the ongoing failure (with some exceptions) by Assyrians to obtain recognition of it, a reward for its successful perpetration. The U.S. State Department, EU Parliament, and other bodies did, however, designate the more recent crimes of ISIS as genocide. In this case, the designation focused on the intention of the perpetrators and was not defined by the suffering of the victims, which consisted of an enumeration of religious groups, including Christians. No specific measures seeking to empower Assyrians followed the designation.
Genocide aims to erase the past in order to open a future free of its burdens. In Hakkari, the perpetrators were almost entirely successful in this aim. After thousands of years of continuous settlement by Assyrians, Hakkari exists today predominantly in a state of wilderness. Scattered ruins of churches—some 250 Assyrian churches and monasteries were destroyed—are quiet monuments to a genocide intimately remembered by its sons and daughters in Europe, yet largely unknown to the descendants of its perpetrators. Local Kurds often profess a lack of knowledge or curiosity as to why a Christian grandmother is listed on their ID cards. A local tradition of confusing crosses etched onto the stone of Assyrian churches with instructions to dig for treasure incites the exhumation of graves for personal enrichment, in a parody of excavation aimed at the recovery of the past.
Turkey refuses to acknowledge any genocide on its own soil. President Recep Erdoğan, who recently described the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar as genocide, said in 2009 that “it is impossible for Muslims to commit genocide.” Kurdish nationalist leaders continue to persecute Assyrians while occasionally invoking the events of the genocide as a way to underscore the need for an independent Kurdish state, dominated by the particular leadership making the invocation. Yacoub makes it clear that Kurds responded “enthusiastically under the planned and concerted direction of the Turkish authorities” to the call of “holy war proclaimed in Kurdistan” a century ago. Yet in a part of the world where martyrs are stacked like currency for claims made on the present, it is no surprise that the legacy of the Assyrian genocide, like ownership of the land that hosted it, is still up for grabs.
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Mardean Isaac is a writer and editor based in London. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has written for publications including the Financial Times, Lapham’s Quarterly and New Lines magazine.