This book describes Nansen’s visit to Armenia and Georgia in 1925. By this time the Communists were firmly in control, both in Moscow and in the outlying states making up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This excursion provides an interesting contrast with the Russia of the Tsar seen in Siberia - The Land of the Future.
As he travels from Greece, through the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea, Nansen follows in the wake of the Greek hero, Jason. Jason and his Argonauts found the Golden Fleece at Colchis, which is thought to have been in present-day Georgia. In the face of the total control shown by the new régime, Nansen skilfully weaves the legends of Georgia’s former ‘golden age’ through his account of the region under Communist rule. Many of these traditions involve the beautiful Queen Tamara.
Nansen was the head of a commission making enquiries into conditions in Armenia for the League of Nations. The object was to see if the new communist state was able and willing to have several thousand displaced Armenian refugees returned and settled on unused land. The commission subsequently reported its findings to the League of Nations. Writing from his home at Lysaker in July 1927, Nansen “endeavours to give some idea of our journey, our work, our impressions of the country and its people, and our proposals”. Nansen also gives a summary of the history of the Georgian and Armenian nations. “I feel sure that no one can study the story of this remarkable people [the Armenians] without being profoundly moved by their tragic fate. In spite of a disheartening consciousness of the defects in my presentation of their case, I hope that the facts themselves will speak from these pages to the conscience of Europe and America.” Nansen does not spare the feelings of the Turks who persecuted the Armenians. His main aim is to gain sympathy from westerners for the desperate plight of the Armenian peoples. The Ottoman Empire, [the original ‘Sick Man of Europe’] had lost all of its remaining imperial territories between 1912 and 1923, at least 325,000 of its fighting men died in warfare between 1914 and 1918. However, the Turkish Republic under Kemal Atatürk survived as a dynamic, more liberal and modern state.
After the Council of the League of Nations had repeatedly discussed whether something could not be done for the Armenian refugees, who were living in great destitution in various countries, it requested the author of this book, as the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees, to take up this case with the rest. Realizing the burden of responsibility that such an arduous task would involve, I declined; but was ultimately persuaded to try what I could do in co-operation with the International Labour Bureau. The Assembly of the League placed at our disposal a sum to defray our expenditure in making the necessary investigations and doing other preparatory work.
The modern state of Armenia owes its legal existence to arrangements which were made following the First World War. Nansen quotes the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres between Turkey and the Allies, 1921. However, the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923 [which Nansen attended] and where a final settlement was made between the Allies and Turkey, ignored the Armenians. Various actions resulted in an Armenian Bolshevik administration being recognised by the Soviet Government in Moscow, while the Turks meanwhile cleared their territories of Armenians. Under the terms of the Sèvres Treaty, the President of the United States had defined the frontiers of an independent state, but Bolshevik Armenia did not conform to these boundaries. The reality, which is what always concerned Nansen, was a huge devastated area with a small powerless state at its centre. Into this were flooding hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over the Near East.
Chapter 1 To Constantinople
Southward bound. Behind us, the wild ramparts of the Alps, marking the northernmost frontier of the world the ancients knew; in front, the basin of the Po, sunny and summer-like and serene as the smile of a woman. Endless fields of maize, wheat and rice; rows of vines and mulberry trees; harvesters in bright red shirts; and Verona like a mediæval poem, with her time-honoured amphitheatre. Then out to Venice and back again - Venice, like a sleeping seabird with damaged wings, rocking on the Lido, and dreaming of strange happenings in the lands of the East. And so from Trieste in the afternoon, southward over the Adriatic on board the Italian steamer Semiramis…
On we steam... The evening is very still, the vault of heaven high and spacious; a myriad stars glitter there, and the moon floods the Mediterranean with her gentle radiance. During thousands of years this was ‘the sea’ of the ancients, surrounded by their oikoumene, the inhabited earth. Along its shores cultures and world-empires grew up, flourished, and fell into decay...
And what has brought us here?
We are steaming east across these immemorial waters in order to try to lend a helping hand to a small people struggling for existence - one of the little nations that has suffered most in the course of ages from the conflicts between those great empires.
From the world whither we are bound a name floats down to us upon the tide of the ages; its sound suggests Eastern tales of wonder, sunk in the silent depths of the ages. Semiramis, or Shammuramat! Daughter of Babylon, wise and beautiful, queen of Nineveh, the favourite wife of Samsi-Adad. When this warm blooded woman was consumed by so burning a love of Armenia’s handsome and noble minded king, Ara, that in spite of his refusal to marry her she determined to conquer both himself and his kingdom, and marched against him with a great army. The virtuous Ara fell in the battle; but in despair at her loss Semiramis reawakened him to life by her passionate kisses. She ruled the mighty kingdom for her son Adadnirari. When, according to the legend, Adadnirari tried to rid himself of her by the agency of a eunuch - doubtless because he alone could resist her charms - she forgave her son, commanded the satraps to obey him, died by her own hand, and ascending to heaven in the form of a dove was enrolled among the gods. In the one legend we have the apotheosis of sexual, in the other that of motherly love, the two basic instincts of all created life. The Mediterranean and all these eastern lands teem with the myths and legends about the strange and wonderful things that happened among peoples that came, and had their day, and passed away. Fortune’s wheel...
When I woke up the next day (June 6) an arid brown mountain-island lay just inside us. Could it have been this naked rocky holm (Ithaca) that Odysseus dreamed of and laboured to reach for so many years? On the other side of us was a larger and loftier island, Cephalonia. It looked equally barren. These shores and bluffs seem strangely dry and scorched; it is owing to the absence of green turf, which cannot live under the fiery heat of the southern sun. Are these then the lovely Ionian Isles? They cannot always have been so bare. Probably the cause is man’s usual lack of foresight in cutting down the woods which once shaded these rocks, in the days when demigods chased laughing nymphs through the tangled thickets.
Just ahead of us are the Oxia Islands, where the naval battle of Lepanto took place in 1571. Two hundred Turkish ships were destroyed, and the author of Don Quixote lost his left hand. Farther on, in the bay behind, is Missolongi, with its memories of the heroic defence from 1822 to 1826 in the Greek war of liberation, and of the author of Don Juan, whose heart is buried there. We steer inside Zakynthos (Zante), which Homer called ‘rich in woods’, an epithet no longer appropriate. Inland from the coast to the east lies the land of Arcadia, where Fortune was said to dwell - but very, very far away…
Nansen and his party visit Athens, climbing to the Acropolis -
First, some five thousand years ago, those steep hillsides sheltered the cave-dwellers of the Stone Age; then one or two thousand years later, it was the site of the king’s castle; then, in the Golden Age, when it became the centre of the world’s culture, the mighty temple was erected in honour on the Greek’s virgin goddess Athene. Again, after eight hundred years, the Parthenon became a church for the Christian’s Blessed Virgin Mary; then, after upwards of a thousand years, a mosque for the Allah of the Turks; and finally a Turkish gunpowder magazine, which exploded during the Venetian siege (1687). Now there are only the ruins of its former greatness.
This then, was the Athens of the Greeks! How many, after deducting the slaves? Compared with the great cities of to-day it was hardly more than a village. But think how many of mankind’s greatest minds this little town contained…
Looking out across the country one is constantly struck by its aridity, treelessness, and dearth of green. It gives a curious impression of sterility, which probably accounts for its peculiarly warm, chequered tones of yellow, golden brown, and red. Some say that the country has become drier and warmer than it was in the days of the ancient Greeks. But there is no sufficient ground for accepting this theory. The river Kephissos can hardly have contained more water then than now; and we know from old descriptions that it could be pretty dry in those days, too, when the Marathon runners reached Athens covered with dust. But man can bring about considerable changes, for instance by cutting down or burning the woods…
With its mountains and valleys, and its numerous bays, headlands, and islands, Greece, as well as the west coast of Asia Minor, has a certain resemblance to Norway. But in this case it is not the glaciers of the ice ages that have chiselled out the land, but other forces of nature - water and the fires of the underworld, rivers and volcanoes; and consequently the surface formations are different. But it was the long indented coast with its wealth of harbours, and the numerous islands, that made the Greeks of old into bold seafarers and clever traders, capable of founding flourishing colonies and creating a highly developed culture.
Constantinople and Refugees
An Armenian deputation arrived punctually at the hotel in the afternoon. In addition to Armenians resident in Constantinople, who had not fled when the Turks took over the city in 1922 [from the British], there were now 5,000 Armenian refugees. The problem of the moment was to send some 800 of them to Armenia. The necessary visas had been promised by the Armeno-Russian Government. Nearly 11,000 dollars had been received from American sources. The deputation wanted me to get the whole matter arranged.
Tuesday, June 9th
The French boat we were going by was not to leave till the following day, so I had time to see the Russian refugees who had come from Varna in Bulgaria. This affair is a tragedy. There are many Russian refugees in Bulgaria, mostly from Wrangel’s defeated army, who first came to Constantinople. As the Leagues’s High Commissioner for Russian Refugees it fell to my lot to try to help them.
“Wrangel’s army”, refers to part of the anti-Bolshevik [White] forces ranged against the Red Army of Communist Russia. It was made up of a wide range of private individuals of many nationalities, in addition to Russians. A British contingent was, incidentally, among the last of the ‘White’ forces to be defeated, fighting in the area which was to become Armenia. All the anti-Bolshevik forces were defeated by 1921.
The present Bulgarian Government feared that some of the Russian refugees were Communists, who might prove a source of dangerous infection, and accordingly desired to get rid of them. Those who were considered doubtful were segregated in a camp near Varna, and last spring 250 of them were crowded on a small, crazy vessel, the Triton, barely large enough to carry 50 people. With the barest rations for a short time, they were launched on the Black Sea to sail to Odessa. But no agreement had been made with the Russian Government for their reception, and the Russian authorities had not even been informed that they were coming. Accordingly, on their arrival at Odessa they were refused permission to land. The frail Triton had to put to sea again; but whither bound? It was useless to go anywhere in Russia, and equally useless to return to Bulgaria; there was nothing for it but to try Turkey. It was a long voyage, and one can hardly imagine the sufferings of all these people, short of food and water, and herded together in that miserable little boat, so leaky that she could barely keep afloat. At last, after a voyage of 26 days, she reached Constantinople in April in a sinking condition. Salvation was at hand, and great was the joy on board. But no, not even the Turkish authorities would allow these unfortunates to land so they had to remain on board.
Next a tug was dispatched to tow the Triton back through the Bosporus and out into the Black Sea again; but when the towing commenced the despair of those on board turned to fury. The Triton was sinking - was half full of water - and the Russians screamed, shouting for help, and threatening to jump overboard. Luckily an English ship lay alongside. The captain heard their shouts, and grasping the situation, got hold of the Turkish police and warned them that they would be held responsible for the loss of life if they dared to carry through this act of inhumanity. The attempt to tow the sinking ship had to be given up, and the Russians were allowed to leave her. They were permitted to stay in a small enclosed area on the shore opposite where the Triton sank.
These unfortunate refugees carried on a wretched existence on the unsheltered beach, with very little clothing and no provisions; many of them would have succumbed but for the work of Miss Anna Mitchell at the League’s office for refugees at Constantinople. When I arrived she had only enough for a few more days, and did not know where to turn next. She was very anxious for me to pay them a visit, however, and I did so.
What misery! They had only a small plot of ground at their disposal close to the beach. Part of it was covered by a sort of roof, probably an old roof erected to cover some boats. An oblong bit of ground, 6 feet by 2 for each person, marked out by a few bricks, did duty for a bed. A heap of earth or stones was the pillow, and a few rags on the bare earth served as a kind of ‘mattress’. Children had come into the world here, and one or two people had left it, and wonder is that more had not succumbed. The daily ration was a little bread and a cup of thin soup.
The refugees had had a little money when they came, about seven hundred Turkish pounds in all. But the Turkish police had confiscated this, and refused to return it because, so far as I could understand, it was to be used to meet the cost of transporting the refugees elsewhere - presumably to the churchyard. It could hardly be taken as rent for their present accommodation!
What was to be done? The difficulty was, that in order to get away from the isolation camp in Bulgaria they had declared themselves willing to return to Russia, with the result that they were regarded as Bolsheviks, and no country would have them. It looked pretty hopeless; but we have had many similar and even greater dilemmas to unravel in connection with our work for the refugees in Europe.
In the end the solution of this particular difficulty was that we were able, by means of the money placed at my disposal by Mr. Chr. Erichsen, of Copenhagen, to arrange for the temporary maintenance of the refugees. Afterwards the big American Near East Relief organization supported them for a couple of months on condition that a definitive settlement could be guaranteed within that time; and I gave the guarantees asked for. Finally, France was induced to take a small number of the refugees who were good workers; and on my earnest representations the Soviet Government in Moscow kindly agreed to take the rest on condition the Bulgarian Government abstained in future from sending Russian refugees to Russia without making the necessary arrangements with Moscow.
Chapter 2 From Constantinople to Batum
In the afternoon of Wednesday, June 10th, we were to go on by the French steamer into the Black Sea. An Armenian deputation came on board with a splendid basket of flowers as a parting gift. Such touching gratitude is almost painful when one has done nothing for them yet, and all one can say is that the will is there, without knowing how far the deed will follow suit.
We could see Stamboul’s chequered masses of houses with the broad mosque-cupolas above, and a forest of masts and funnels in the Golden Horn. We turned in the cramped space between ships lying at anchor and steamed north-east through the Bosporus, while the cupolas of the mosques over Stamboul [Constantinople] and the slender masts of the minarets stood out dark for a long time against the sunny western sky, and Constantinople slowly sank behind us…
During all the changes of a thousand years the Byzantine Empire [the remains of the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople], in spite of all its failings and weaknesses, formed a remarkable centre of civilization here, with contributions both from the East and West. Up to its last stubborn death-struggle on the fifteenth century it successfully stemmed the tide of the advancing hordes of uncivilized barbarians...
First came the Persians, though these had a culture of their own. Then followed the Arabs, whose impetuous onset, continuing for four hundred years, broke again and again against this massive bulwark. For seven consecutive years (672-679) they besieged Constantinople by land and by water. The Bosporus was full of their ships, but they could not withstand the Greek fire, and the greater part of their forces were destroyed...
And all the time this invincible stronghold must have been an unrivalled arena for political intrigues, pursued with all the cruelty and faithlessness of those days, while the birds of prey gathered over and over again in fresh flocks in the neighbouring lands to the east, south, and north, often to hurl themselves against the very gates of the city.
It was here, moreover, in “Miklegard,” that our forefathers the Verings, sometimes together with Armenian brothers in arms, formed the emperor’s bodyguard and a separate force which fought and made raids in the countries round, against Turks, Saracens, West-Romans, and Bulgarians. Here, too, the Norwegian chieftain and warrior-champion, Harald Handmade, strong, astute, and cunning, performed his deeds of valour and destruction.
The “Verings” or Varangians were the Vikings of the North; however ‘Viking’ means warrior, and these men were often traders or settlers. In any case, the term ‘Viking’ seems only to have been applied by the inhabitants of Britain to the visiting Norse. By making use of the great rivers of Russia, together with ‘portages’, where the boats were carried overland between rivers, they could float their longboats down to the Black Sea where sails and rudders were fixed and they coasted Bulgaria to Micklegard [or Micklegirth] - the great Byzantine city of Constantinople. The first visit [in 860] took the form of a raid - typical of Norse behaviour.
Acts of cruelty and violence were by no means only on the side of the enemies of civilization. Can we imagine a more incredible atrocity than that perpetrated by the able Christian emperor Basil II, who, after defeating the Bulgarians in 1014, sent 15,000 prisoners home with their eyes put out, some of them, however, being allowed to keep one eye in order to guide the rest! The prince of the barbarians, more sensitive than the Christian conquerors, died of a broken heart at the sight of his men.
Constantinople was finally taken by the Turks in 1453.
Our steamer was gliding steadily onwards through the curious, narrow strait… The strait is like a large winding river, which has cut its channel with steep sides through the comparatively low rocky land which connects Asia and Europe. How can a channel like this have been formed? In several places there seemed to be indications, in the form of flat terraces on the hillside, of a time when the sea level was higher than it is now... In those bygone days, when the sea was rather higher, this ridge of land which dammed up the Black Sea, making it into a lake cut off from the Mediterranean, would be gradually eroded down to approximately the level of the sea. But later on the sea sank, the Black Sea became a lake again, and a big, strongly-flowing river poured out again across this ridge, cutting its channel deeper and deeper. After that the sea rose; and it continued sinking and rising several times until it finally came to rest at the present height, while the channel of the river became the strait we navigate today.
In the long periods when the climates of the earth were so warm that there were no large glaciers either in Greenland or the Antarctic, the sea was higher than now, possibly by 20 metres or more. But in the ice ages, when vast ice-caps covered Europe, parts of Siberia, North America, the Antarctic, and elsewhere, so much water was held fast in these glaciers that the sea sank far below its present level. In the time of the lower sea-level - not so very long ago - the Black Sea was a lake, and a mighty river flowed through the Bosporus Valley. Already in those days there were men dwelling in the great forests.
William Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia University developed a theory to explain the flood legends such as the story of Noah’s Flood. They suggested that after the last Ice Age [which ended about 12,000 years ago] the ice melted and sea levels rose sufficiently for waters of the Mediterranean to inundate the Black Sea. This happened relatively suddenly, about 7,000 years ago, when a surge of sea water was funnelled through the narrow Bosporus and swept cataclysmically into what was then an isolated freshwater lake. The lake would have risen by about six inches per day, rapidly flooding the settlements built around its shores. Taking up this theory, Bob Ballard has been searching beneath the Black Sea for traces of buildings inundated by sea water along the shore-line of the former lake. In 1999 he found freshwater mollusc shells in the Black Sea, which supported the theory that the Black Sea had once been a freshwater lake. Radiocarbon dating of timbers which may have formed houses seemed to support the date of the inundation as being around 7,000 years ago. It has been suggested that this event fuelled the tradition of Noah’s Flood.
We went ashore. A crowd was waiting there to see the strange new arrivals; there were several photographers on the spot, and even a cinematographer who turned the handle all the time we were leaving the boat and getting into the waiting cars. So far it did not feel much as if we were in another continent. We drove to our carriage, which was waiting for us on the railway line, and were met there by an Armenian named Narriman Ter Kasarian, an official of the Transcaucasian Government, who was to be our companion and adjutant during the whole journey through the Transcaucasian republics. As he had some likeness to Napoleon III we generally called him Napoleon, which was easier to remember.
There was one... thing I particularly wanted to see in Batum; the pipe line which carries the petroleum all the way overland from Baku to the Black Sea. At length I saw the pipe line, that remarkable artery which, since it was completed in 1906, has conveyed so much power and light to Europe. This pipe line is nearly 900 kilometres long; it runs from the Caspian Sea, the surface of which is 26 metres below the level of the ocean, to a height of 950 metres above it, and then descends again to the Black Sea. The iron pipe has an inner diameter of about 20 centimetres, and according to the engineer the line was now conveying 10 million poods (164,000 tons) of petroleum a year. He stated that it could convey up to 30 million poods annually. Baedeker, published before the war, says that 70 million poods of oil flow through the pipe line in the course of a year. There would seem to be a mistake somewhere.
During the recent exceptionally cold winter such an enormous quantity of snow had fallen in this damp climate that its weight had crushed in the tops of the petroleum tanks, and those which had not yet been repaired looked sadly out of shape, like battered tin cans.
At one o’clock, or as much after that hour as is considered in a hurry, there was a grand lunch with a characteristic Russian menu. First sakuska (cold dishes) with quantities of delicious caviare, smoked sturgeon, and other dainties, accompanied by vodka; then boiled sturgeon, chicken, and many other dishes with delectable Caucasian wine.
In this mild, damp climate sub-tropical vegetation flourishes luxuriantly. There are rich woods of oak and beech, besides taxus, laurel, edible chestnut, walnut, tamarisk, box and magnolia. The trunks are festooned with vines, ivy, and honeysuckle, and the ground is thickly covered with rhododendrons, azaleas, various kinds of ilex, nuts, camellias, tall ferns and much beside while the glades, where the sun has access, there are the most glorious, brilliantly coloured flowers... It is easy to feel that one is near the land of the wondrous Garden of Eden and the cradle of the human race. But there is a serpent even here in the form of malaria, decidedly prevalent in the marshy plain, which would be the better for draining…
‘Verzeihen Sie, darf ich fragen, sind Sie Herr Doktor N.?’ Two sunburnt young men were standing before me, with fair, unmistakably German faces and most original costumes - something between Tyrolese national dress and a bathing-suit. They had on shirts with broad turnover collars open at the throat; incredibly abbreviated, wide shorts reaching only half down the thigh, bare knees, long stockings, and gymnasium shoes, with field-glasses slung over their shoulders, and cameras.
‘Wie famos! wollen Sie uns ein Autograf in unserem Tagebuch geben?’ I was handed a notebook, and gave them the desired autograph. They had come on foot all the way from Syria, and intended to continue eastward into Asia, with no luggage, so far as I could make out, except what they were carrying; not too much money; and, what was worse, without the usually indispensable passport and visa. How they had got so far was a puzzle, but at any rate they had managed it, and seemed in excellent form.
In the afternoon we had tea at the Near East Relief, the great American organization which for many years past has done such splendid work for the Armenians in Asia Minor and Russian Armenia... We also met Miss Coe, an English lady who had waited several days to meet us. She had been to Armenia on behalf of the Lord Mayor’s Fund, and was now intent upon lecturing in England and America in support of our work for the Armenian refugees...
The [railway] line runs north along the coast. What a beautiful world! On one side, blue waters beneath a brilliant sky, in which the sun was sinking towards the rim of the sea. On the other, green wooded mountain slopes rising up steeply from the narrow seaboard towards the dark blue vaults above.
Now and then we saw tea plantations cultivated in terraces; and down on the level, tall dense growing thickets of bamboos. The bold notes of the reed warbler reached us as we sped past sedgy marshes, and we heard nightingales singing in the woods...
At the stations we passed there were throngs of merry holiday makers who had come out for the day from Batum. Handsome women in light summer dresses made patches of bright colour against the dark overhanging foliage as they waved to us...
By and by we left the coast and entered a wide plain where the woods had been destroyed and the ground was entirely covered by bracken and low bushes. Not a soul to be seen anywhere, and no sign of cultivation; yet from the train it looked as if all this country could be cultivated and support thousands of refugees...
We were approaching the wide plain in which the river Rion flows - the ancient Phasis which watered the wealthy country of Colchis, the land of Aurora, whither the legendary ram fled and was sacrificed on the strand in the fire of sunrise, its fleece being hung from the tree of the nocturnal sky and guarded by the dragon of jealousy. Hither came the Argonauts on their adventurous voyage, sailing up the river Phasis to find the Sun king Æetes of Colchis. Here the Sun-hero Jason met in the forest the king’s lovely daughter, Medea the sorceress, with whose help he tamed the fire breathing iron oxen; here he slew the dragon, sowed the dragon-seed, dispelled the darkness, and obtained the golden fleece.
We travelled on. We, too, had a dragon of jealousy to slay, and a golden fleece, the friendship of the people, to win; but we could not hope to find a sorceress waiting to help us tame the fire-breathing oxen.
What a sight met my eyes when I pulled up the blind next morning (June 15th)! A vast blue mountain rampart in the north, with snowy peaks like sun-clouds hovering high above them, as if the crust of the earth had been raised on end during Titans’ assault on the heavens, at the boundary where two continents meet. The mountain giants stand there still, guarding the gateway from Asia to disunited Europe. Against this wall the spasmodic migrations of the human race have broken again and again in the world’s history, and numerous remnants of the many wandering tribes who passed that way survive in its narrow valleys...
Considering Tiflis has pretensions to being a large town, with a population of about 275,000 according to the last census, it covers remarkably little ground... no doubt the explanation is that the houses are very close together, especially in the old part of town, and that the streets and alleys are narrow. Further, there is now a house famine there, as in all large towns, and the inhabitants are packed together in comparatively few rooms. Most of the houses are low, but for all that they contain a surprising number of people.
Nansen had been met at the station by a collection of dignitaries - the Italian, Persian, Turkish, German and other consuls, a representative of the International Red Cross from Moscow, and the American representative of Near East Relief, with whom Nansen and his party stayed. The President of the Federation of Transcaucasian Republics met them later, and discussed various places that refugees could be settled - parts of Georgia, and a large plain in Azerbaijan.
Some buffaloes passed by, black beasts with their horns laid back, such as one often sees in these parts. I took a photograph of them, and the two boys in charge of them came to the car and looked into my camera, wanting to see the picture of their buffaloes. I took another snap of their faces; they laughed, but were disappointed when they found there was still no picture to be seen.
The houses are low, of the typical Georgian kind, with a balcony or open gallery in front of the upper storey, where the family spend a large part of the day... From morning to night the life in these confined streets is intensely varied and gay; donkey drivers hawk their fruit and other wares, and now and again a bullock cart rumbles noisily past over the cobbles. Liveliest of all are the crowds round the bazaars and in the market place, where goods of every sort are on sale and all kinds of nationalities are in evidence: Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Russians, Persians, Turks, and Tartars, buying and selling. On the ground in front of the houses sit whole families working, and handicraftsmen generally have their workshops in the street. The furniture of their few rooms indoors is simple in the extreme; as a rule it is little more than four walls and a floor. But everywhere there are bright coloured costly rugs; they are to sit on, and take the place of furniture.
As one looks at these alleys with their motley crowd of light hearted people, one cannot help thinking of all the horrors, the inhuman looting and cruel massacres that these selfsame streets have witnessed time and again in the past - at the hands of Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Tartars, and, not so long ago, of the Georgians themselves. But the stream of life fills up the gaps and flows indifferently on.
Then came the evening, and our friend Napoleon gave a dinner, with caviare from the Kura, and wines from the Caucasus - red wines of good body and a splendid golden-yellow one.
What a still night! Kura’s stream ripples slowly past its banks, and above the black hillsides rise steeply towards the dark vault above, spangled with innumerable stars that glitter with all the brilliance of southern lands and are reflected in the wavelets of the river. Dark against the stars looms the ancient royal castle on its lofty cliff. ...A changing pageant passes by in the night. Warrior hosts, the ring of chargers’ hoofs, waving plumes, forests of swaying lances, rearing war horses, and shrill bugle notes as the victors return from their distant conquests in the east or the west. By this very river, beneath the selfsame stars, Shot’ha Rust’haveli dreamed and wrote poems to his queen. They are banqueting in the castle; the lights glitter on polished arms and cuirasses, shine on gay silks and pearls; the hall is crowded with courtly knights and lovely dames. But look, there she stands, tall and queenly. Her peerless head is set proudly on her majestic shoulders, her deep eyes shine wondrously in the torchlight; and like a flourish of trumpets in the night her name resounds: Thamara!
Alas for us mortals, shut out from these things by the gulf of ages…
I took the opportunity to slip off quietly up the road leading to the church of the Holy Cross, which stands all alone high up above the valley on the steep mountain. Dupuis and Quisling followed, and presently the fat journalist who accompanied us from Tiflis came hurrying after... It was a stiff climb, and the day was uncommonly warm. Our amiable friend the fat journalist, who had put a handkerchief on his round bald head, seemed to be almost melting from the heat; but he still toiled on bravely behind us up the steep ascent.
The church stands at the very edge of an almost perpendicular precipice which drops down to the banks of the Aragva and the Kura far below. Where it is accessible from the mountain behind, it was once surrounded by a high wall with watch towers... A couple of rooms in the ruins of the old wall are tenanted by a monk, who acts as the caretaker of the church, and probably at certain prescribed times rings the big church bells hanging under a frame of huge gnarled tree trunks on the green outside it.
According to Georgian historians the building was commenced by Mthavar (i.e. ruler) Stephan I after A.D. 590.
The legend is that it stands of the spot where St Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia under King Mirian at the beginning of the fourth century, first raised the sign of the cross, a cross made of vine branches. In the middle of the floor of the church is a tall stone erection, which the monk told us was originally an altar built by the fire worshippers. If so this cliff must have been a holy place in ancient times, which would explain why the cross was raised exactly here. And the next step would be that Christianity took over the sacred site and built a church there...
The ground plan of the church is quadratic, with semi circular recesses or apses on each of the four sides... Above the square rises the dome in its tower, octagonal outside, with a pointed roof.
It is precisely this kind of inwardly square domed building... that is characteristic of Georgia and Armenia. This architectural feature has already been mentioned in connection with St Sophia at Constantinople. It seems to have been a regular form adopted... as early as the fourth or fifth century.
Up in the dome are four narrow windows which admit a dim light. A little light comes in also through the narrow windows in the apses; but it is not sufficient to illuminate the lofty interior, wrapped in the mysterious twilight of centuries. The stone walls of the church inside are quite bare and simple, without any decoration, except some remnants of frescoes which we could not see properly in the semi-darkness…
The bareness of the interior gives one the impression that the church has never been used, or possibly it was never made properly ready for use. It is strange, too, that the churches in Georgia were so often built on high inaccessible cliffs, where no doubt they could easily be seen by the people and the Deity, but where it was not so easy to visit them…
Beside this large church is a quite small, long shaped one with a dome, said to have been built... between A.D. 546 and 586. We saw a stone seat which, according to our informant, was the throne of the ancient kings. At last in the same room with Thamara! And I stood reverently before the time honoured stones where perhaps she once sat in all her dazzling beauty. But on second thoughts it seemed less likely. The Georgian rulers left Mtskhetha as long ago as the beginning of the Sixth century, before this church was built, and it is rather improbable that they should have come all the way from Tiflis to sit on this stone seat.
It would have given the occupant of the chair a great feeling of power to sit high up on the mountain, at the sheer edge of the precipice, and survey his or her kingdom stretching for as far as the eye could see...
The stone seat, like the fire worshipper’s altar, was later enclosed by a church. It would seem entirely probable that, while in the area, later monarchs would attempt to cement their links with their royal past. For example, one thinks of future kings of Britain travelling from Buckingham Palace, London, to Wales for their ‘enthronement’ or investiture as ‘Prince of Wales’ at Caernarfon Castle. Nansen has a point, however - the British monarchy must have found this type of travel inconvenient, as Edward II brought the ‘Stone of Scone’, part of an ancient Scottish throne, from Scotland to be incorporated into a throne in London upon which the monarch is still crowned. This is such a powerful symbol that the Scottish stone was carried back to Scotland by Scottish separatists [it was broken in the process] shortly before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the middle of the twentieth century. The motive was to prevent her sitting on the Scottish stone [and hence the Scottish throne] at her investiture....
On descending to the road we motored up to Mtskhetha. The ancient capital has lapsed into a village... Non the less we are here upon historic ground - ground that has been holy to the Georgians ever since heathen and fire worshipping days; it is the immemorial heart of the country, and no other district enshrines so many memories of its earliest history... At this place... the main routes meet; from the south-east, coming from the Caspian Sea and Persia; from the north, coming through the pass through the Caucasus and the Saguramo Valley; and from the west, coming from the Black Sea, Colchis and Imeretia. Naturally, therefore, it was an important hub of traffic and trade, and a centre of culture, from very remote times. Here resided the ancient kings of Georgia: here for hundreds of years, lived the Katholikos of the Georgian Church.
The fine cathedral still towers high above all the low groups of houses. We stopped by a gate which might well have been the entrance to a fortress... We rang a bell, and the gate was opened. We stepped into a wide square, in the middle of which rose the cathedral with its arches and gables and its high dome tower... The bishop himself advanced in a dignified fashion to meet us - a tall stately man, more than six feet high, with handsome regular features, and a long glossy, coal black beard, wearing a black gown that reached to his feet, and a tall black mitre. He bade us welcome, and conducted us into his cathedral.
With its simple Georgian circular style, high dome, massive piers and thick walls, it produces an impression of austere dignity. The church has been destroyed over and over again by ruthless enemies, and its fortunes reflect the history of Georgia. Many kings of Georgia are buried in the church, and their tombs are covered by flat gravestones. The king who built the church had been buried in the middle of the floor, we saw his flat tombstone; but it had been left nameless for fear it should be discovered and destroyed... The last king but one, Heraklius II, lies buried on the right in front of the altar. We were told that he died at the age of eighty-nine in 1798, after taking part in sixty different wars. It was with this king in mind that Frederick the Great of Prussia said to his soldiers that they must try and fight as bravely as the Georgians. The bishop’s eyes shone with pride as he told us this. On the left of the altar lies the last king, George XIII, who at his death in 1801 gave his country to the Russian Tsar to save it from the Persians…
Chapter 4 Chapters in the History of Georgia
The country of the Georgians is situated on the southern side of the great Caucasus range, and its northern boundary approximately follows the highest ridge of these mountains. On the east it is bounded by the mountainous country of Daghestan and the plains of Azerbaijan, on the south by Armenia and the Kars region, which is now Turkish, and on the west by the black sea. The republic is about 73,000 square kilometres in area, and has a population of about three millions. It is a land of striking contrasts, with wide fertile valleys, lovely wooded glens, rugged gorges, and titanic mountains. It is the wonderland of Eastern Chivalry, famous for its dauntless warriors, its courtly men, and its beautiful, stately women.
The history of the Georgian nation is as remarkable as the country. Although it has had to fight almost incessantly for its liberty and independence against far more powerful neighbours, it nevertheless ranks, among the nations of our time, as one of those with the longest line of kings - a line continuing more or less unbroken for two thousand years. A warrior nation this, preferring war to peace, whose greeting when two men meet is: ‘May victory attend thee,’ with the response: ‘And thee also’…
It is a characteristic, in a way, of the manner in which this race still lives in the Middle Ages, that several of the Georgian mountain tribes, for instance the Khevsurs, still preserve ancient chain-mail, shields, and swords from the time of the Crusades, and use them on great occasions…
Of the religion of the Georgians we know little. In remote times they seem to have worshipped the sun and moon and five stars (the planets)... But the chief god at a later time was called by the Iranian name of Armaz - the Persian Ahura Mazda (lord of wisdom) or Ormuzd. His holy place was at Mtskhetha, where there was a copper statue of him with breast-plate, helmet, and shoulder-armour of gold, and eyes of beryl and emerald. His worship was connected with human sacrifices. Beside him stood two other statues, representing the old divinities Ga and Gatzi. It is a triad of gods such as is often found among Eastern peoples (cf. also the Christian Trinity). Moreover, other deities - Zaden, Aïnina (= Anahit?), Danana (= Nane?), and ‘Aphrodite’ - are stated to have had holy places in the same neighbourhood. Adding these gods together we obtain the holy number seven, corresponding to the previously mentioned heavenly bodies, viz, sun, moon, and five stars.
In addition to this cult, with temples and images of the gods, which was the state religion proper, fire-worship evidently spread widely as time went on, especially among the upper classes...
This remarkable people was constantly at war in defence of its nationality; its beautiful country served as a continual bone of contention between its mighty neighbours... It could not, indeed, be otherwise with a country occupying the bridge between the Caspian and Black Seas. Across this bridge the Caucasus forms a massive mountain barrier, upon which successive waves of invasion... broke again and again...
There were only a few ways through, or past, the Caucasian mountain rampart, by which the nomad hordes of the north could attack; one was the narrow, marshy seaboard plain by the Caspian; another was the narrow gorge called the Daryal Pass (i.e. Dar-i-Alan, the ‘Alan Road’), or the ‘Iberian Gate’ of the ancients, which traverses the mighty ridge of mountains below the lofty volcanic glacier of Mkimvari or Kasbek; a third ran somewhat farther west up the Ardon Valley from the north, through the Khasar Gorge to the valley of Rion and Kutais or through the Roki Pass and down the valley of the Liakhva to Gori by the Kura; and a fourth way from the north followed the coast of the Black Sea.
It is really astonishing that this people, harassed in so many ways for two thousand years, has been able to preserve its distinct nationality and culture right up to our own time, and not only so, but has more or less preserved its independence, without being swallowed up or blotted out by the great invading waves of stronger nations which have flowed back and forwards over this bridge of land between the two seas. One would suppose that constant war, pillage and turmoil would have prevented all development, yet the Georgians have at all times maintained a high level of culture, as the importance of their literature testifies.
After Alexander the Great’s alleged conquest of the country and appointment of a satrap at Mtskhetha, East Georgia is said to have regained its freedom under the leadership of Pharnavaz, who became the first king of the country about the year 302 B.C.; but this is not certain...
For many centuries Mtskhetha [see Nansen’s visit above] was the capital of the country, until about A.D. 500, when the capital was transferred to Tiflis, where King Vakhtang Gurgaslan (the wolf-lion) had apparently taken up his residence in about A.D. 469. Tiflis was farther away from the valleys of the Caucasus, and less exposed to the sudden incursions of the mountain tribes.
Christianity is said to have been introduced into East Georgia by the virgin St. Nino and King Mirian, who was converted by her between A.D. 317 and 332, soon after its introduction into Armenia; but it was doubtless long before the flames were extinguished on the last of Georgia’s fire-altars, and relics of the fire-worshippers’ religion survive in legend and custom...
About the middle of the sixth century Guaram became the ruler of East Georgia. He was its first prince of the noble Armenian family of the Bagratids, who in subsequent centuries gave the country many gifted kings. Persia and Byzantium, which dominated West Georgia, were continually in conflict over East Georgia, until the Emperor Heraclius crushed the power of the Persian Sasanids on Nineveh’s plain of ruins in A.D. 627. This, however, only opened the way for a more dangerous enemy, the Arabs... Their suzerainty over East Georgia lasted, with interruptions for about four hundred years, but did not always embrace the whole country. The kings were more or less vassals of the Arabs. In spite of the difference of religion the Arabs helped to raise the standard of Georgian civilization in more ways than one.
Georgia as a whole was first united under King Bagrat III (985-1014), while incursions by Seljuk Turks, notably lead by Alp Arslan, continued unabated. This was, however, the beginning of Georgia’s ‘Golden Age’ which was to last until the start of the thirteenth century.
In 1089 Georgia passed under the rule of its most powerful and notable monarch, David III (1089 -1125), known as the ‘Renovator’. He gathered together the country which came into his hands as a blasted wilderness, torn asunder by the Arabs, Turks, Byzantines, and left it 36 years later a flourishing kingdom. After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, he expelled the last Arab garrison from Tiflis in the year 1100. This ascetic philosopher-king was a man of high religious culture, yet at the same time an eminent general who led his troops to victory in wars of conquest... Under him Georgia’s power increased as never before, and the wealth of the country was largely augmented by the rich plunder he constantly won in war and by the measures he took to promote trade...
At this epoch there was much intercourse with Byzantium. Several kings, including Bagrat IV (1027 - 1072) and David the Renovator, married Byzantine princesses, and the daughters of Georgian kings married Byzantine emperors and princes. The most famous of these was Bagrat IV’s daughter Martha, who became empress under the name of Maria, and was the most beautiful woman of her time.
After King David the country increased in prosperity until it reached its climax of power and culture under Queen Thamara (1184 - 1212). When she ascended the throne of the Bagratids the frontiers of the land extended far beyond the limits of the Georgian language, and the people were decidedly well-to-do, thanks to the long period of settled rule. This sagacious queen’s personal characteristics exercised a good influence on her subjects. She was beautiful and gracious, and must have possessed an irresistible charm. Her contemporaries had hardly words strong enough in which to sing her praises; she was praised for her energy, her warlike prowess on horseback or on foot, for her utterances, which breathed peace, leniency, and moderation, and for her wise answers. Without sternness or anger, calmly and without involving herself in difficulties, she was able to manage the most obstinate and wilful men.
She ruled her people with a mildness and humanity which were unknown in those days. No one was condemned to be flogged by her command, and she was still more sparing of sterner punishments, so that she even pardoned the rebels who rose against her at the instigation of her first husband, whom she had repudiated. The nobles and the peasants were alike her faithful adherents; armies marched enthusiastically to battle at her command, and generally returned victorious; all her campaigns ended successfully, the frontiers of the country being extended to the Caspian Sea in the east and the Black Sea in the west; and the political prestige of the kingdom was greatly increased, so that the neighbouring peoples in the mountain valleys of the Caucasus had to acknowledge her suzerainty and pay tribute.
Under Thamara’s rule Georgia - state and Church alike - had a remarkable succession of prominent men and leaders. Several of these were Armenians. The commander-in-chief was an Armenian named Sarkis Mkhargdseli; and he was supported by three relations, one of whom was the queen’s second husband, David Soslani. The superior clergy and some of the nobles must have been comparatively well educated, and the latter, who won a great deal of booty in the wars, must largely have lived a life of refinement and luxury. The brilliant centre of all this was Thamara’s splendid court, which constantly received visits from princes and other distinguished men. The beautiful queen was not one to hoard the riches which mounted up in her treasuries. She was exceptionally liberal, and loved to be surrounded by gaiety and lavish amusements. She gave magnificent entertainments with banquets, tournaments, and performances by dancing girls and tight rope dancers. Above all, there were great hunting expeditions, for she was a passionate devotee of the chase; it must have been a pageant worth seeing when she rode forth into the woods and fields with her falcons and her hounds, at the head of a train of knights mounted on fiery steeds with gorgeous trappings. On their return they would be regaled at a sumptuous banquet with singing and music, and the ring of drinking cups, and endless hunting talk…
Besides hunting they delighted in various kinds of contests and games, especially those that called for strength and suppleness of body: ball games, archery, horse racing, ball games on horseback, and wrestling... They were happy, light hearted people, living a life rich in adventure.
How early the nation got its own script is uncertain... Alongside of the religious literature there gradually came into existence a more worldly and light hearted form of writing. In Thamara’s time it attained a high standard... At every banquet there were songs to the accompaniment of lutes and the ring of goblets, celebrating love, joy, suffering, and chivalrous deeds.
The most celebrated poet is Shot’ha Rust’haveli, who lived in Thamara’s time. In his great epic ‘The Man in the Panther Skin’ he gave his countrymen a truly remarkable national poem of exceptional value. One of the heroines is the adored queen herself, whose name in the poem is Thinat’hin:
The shining light of the world; whoever
Looked at her, she bereft him of heart, mind, and soul.
... but there is an undertone of wistfulness:
Their tale is ended like a dream of night,
They are passed away, gone beyond the world.
Behold the treachery of time;
To him who thinks it long, even for him it is of a moment.
...through all the tribulations of seven hundred years this poem has lived, and still lives on the lips of the Georgian people...
The architectural achievements under Thamara were so notable that popular tradition nowadays, as I have said, ascribes to her all the more impressive castles and other buildings whose ruins survive, in the same way that she is made the heroine of all the legendary exploits of past days.
One of the most interesting buildings was the cathedral at Kutais, which was built before Thamara’s time, by King Bagrat III in A.D. 1003. It is similar to the church of St Gregory at Dvin in Armenia, and indeed, Nansen says, some of the master builders may have been Armenians.
With its long, three aisled shape, and its great height in proportion to the width, the cathedral at Kutais must have presented a soaring aspect similar to much later churches in Europe. Several of the arches were pointed... There were also rudimentary compound pillars resembling those seen in Gothic architecture, and these are found in a more developed form in the cathedral at Ani in Armenia, completed a few years before the cathedral at Kutais was begun.
After the decease of Thamara, the era of Georgia’s greatness soon came to an end. ...it is a strange feature of the history of the Georgian people that its two most striking personalities are women: St. Nino the apostle of Christianity, and the great queen. The fact testifies to a mentality utterly different from Islam’s [then] doctrine that women have no souls. Even among the Persians, by whom the Georgians were influenced in so many ways, woman was not held in such high esteem as this.
Eight years later, in 1220 and 1222, the savage warrior hosts of the Mongols invaded the country from Persia... In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death carried off thousands of the inhabitants, while an even more sinister guest was the lame Mongolian Timur Lenk [Tamerlane or Tam Lin whose fame spread so far that his name is recorded in English folk-song]. Between 1387 and 1403 his savage hordes overran and sacked the country six times...
The history of these centuries is unutterably grim, with its monotonous, blood stained chronicles of continual wars, battles and destruction, feuds and treacheries, murder and rapine, and incursions of Turks, Persians, Tartars, and mountain tribes, attended by the most inhuman massacres...
The clergy sank into ignorance and immorality, while the nobles were demoralized by the humiliating political conditions... the slave trade flourished... The French traveller and jewel merchant Chardin, writing in the second half of the seventeenth century... tells of a poor but enterprising nobleman who had recently sold twelve priests and his own wife to a Turkish sea captain at Trebizond. But we must not assume that the customs of Georgia were much worse than those of Europe at the same epoch... Chardin has a good deal to say in praise of East Georgia; he found the food excellent, with the best bread and fruit in the world, an ample variety of fish, meat, and any amount of game; the wine, too, was splendid, the women still more so. Of the latter he says: ‘To see them without loving them I consider impossible. One cannot imagine more entrancing faces or more beautiful limbs than those of the Georgian women. They are tall and slim, without being disfigured by fat. The only thing that spoils them is the paint on their faces...’
The aged King Heraklius died in 1798... Georgia had lost its last support and protector...
The king’s intriguing widow Daria and his numerous sons by three marriages were chiefly interested in dividing the inheritance. One of the sons became King George XIII, but found himself in a very difficult position and applied to Russia for help; meanwhile his brother Alexander also laid claim to the throne and applied to the Persians. These latter, with a horde of Lesghians, invaded the country, but were driven back on the arrival of the Russians. For the moment the danger was averted; but not long after King George, lying on his death bed at Tiflis, sent a message to the Tsar Paul of Russia to offer him the throne of Georgia. In 1801, therefore, East Georgia was united with Russia... and gradually the other Georgian territories were also absorbed by the Russian Empire...
Under Russia the exhausted nation enjoyed a military protection it had never had before, and material prosperity followed in due course. But on the other hand the Russian Government was accompanied by its usual defects: excessive centralization of all administration, with the ruthless suppression of every sign of independence ...and above all a general Russianizing policy... In 1884 the hitherto separate Georgian army was incorporated in the general military organization of the Russian empire... All this aroused increasing discontent.
A sudden industrialization of the country, chiefly the exploitation of oil, gave rise to class and racial antagonisms. The abrupt transition from feudalism to industrialism produced a class of workers “all the more dangerous because they would swallow without criticism any of the latest doctrines...”
In 1904 - 1906 serious disturbances broke out in various parts of Transcaucasia. Ultimately they were suppressed after a good deal of bloodshed, but they were a serious warning of coming events.
Then came the Great War of 1914, and the Russian Duma revolution of March 1917 was greeted with enthusiasm in Transcaucasia. In place of the Viceroy in Tiflis Kerenski [the Russian Prime minister under the last Tsar] appointed a committee of four... to administer the internal affairs of Transcaucasia; but most of the power was in the hands of the newly formed and virtually Socialistic workmen’s and soldier’s councils.
After the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917 in Petrograd things became even more complicated. Various committees were set up to run Georgian, Armenian and Tatar affairs.
On the 18th of December 1917, the Russian general who was nominally in command of the Russo-Caucasian troops signed an armistice with the Turks; but his troops were gradually disintegrated by Communist propaganda and returned to their homes, and the Transcaucasian peoples were left to defend their frontiers unaided, while the Turks advanced from the west and became more and more aggressive.
On April 14, 1918, they took Batum. On April 22nd the Seim (Transcaucasian Assembly) declared the independence of the ‘Transcaucasian Republic’. On May 26th it decided to dissolve the republic after an existence of five weeks. Georgia now declared itself independent, and formed an alliance with the Germans, whereupon the country was occupied by German troops, and thus saved from the Turks.
Then came the defeat of Turkey and Germany, and the Turkish armistice was signed on October 30, 1918. This completely altered the position in Transcaucasia, as the Germans and Turks had to withdraw from Georgia, Batum, Russian Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In March 1919 Denikin [the general leading the anti-Bolshevik, 'white' forces, together with large contingents of foreign sympathisers, mainly British in the Caucasus] attacked the Georgians, but this was stopped by the Allies, who appeared to favour the independent border-states.
Meanwhile the Georgian Government were trying to negotiate an alliance between the Transcaucasian republics, which they attempted again after Denikin’s army broke up at the beginning of 1920... Finally…when the White Army in the Crimea had been destroyed, the Bolsheviks attacked Georgia in February 1921. They were aided by a Bolshevik rising, chiefly of Russian and Armenian elements, in Tiflis, and in the end the Georgian Government had to seek safety in flight.
A Soviet Government was now established in Georgia under Georgian Bolshevik leaders... the three Transcaucasian Soviet republics - Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - were united in a federation, which in turn was united to the great Russian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The outcome of so many untoward events was doubtless inevitable, and necessary for the sake of stability. Standing alone these republics could not have held their own against their more powerful neighbours.
As things are it seems probable that the future both of the Georgians and the Armenians will best be safeguarded by adherence to the Russian State, but with a free and independent Government, which will administer the internal affairs of these nations, watch over and promote the development of their characteristic civilizations, and permit them to live their own life, with their own language and institutions, unhampered by restrictive measures like the unfortunate attempts of the Tsarist Government to Russianize them.
Nansen here ends with a rather forlorn hope for the future. As he describes, Georgia is a country blessed with exceptional natural splendours. The land is remarkably fertile, with a long growing season and, as Nansen testifies, vineyards which produce gorgeous wines under ideal conditions.
During the long years of the Communist regime, Georgia was more fortunate than her neighbours. While agriculture was collectivised elsewhere, with starvation and death for many, in Georgia the peasant economy continued with the rich soil providing luxuries. Stalin was born there, later attending a Georgian Orthodox Church school and this was enough to ensure special treatment for the country. For example, Stalin allowed the Georgian Church to maintain its own identity, while other national Orthodox Churches were abolished. From the 1960’s, representatives of the Orthodox Patriarch attended international religious conferences. However in 1997 the Georgian Church left the World Council of Churches, stating that they no longer recognised other faiths as legitimate.
The U.S.S.R. provided, if nothing else, stability and order. The Caucasian states were never completely ‘Russianized’, despite the long occupation. It was to take about 70 years for Georgia, Armenia, and the other countries of the Caucasus to regain their liberty. But with the downfall of Communism, the stability and relative affluence of Georgia began to fail. Mikhail Gorbachev, while instigating the end of the Soviet era, began to fight widespread alcoholism in the U.S.S.R. One unforeseen consequence of this was that some of the best vineyards in Georgia were destroyed. In a worsening economic climate, religious and racial intolerance lead to widespread unrest, with minorities facing persecution. However, if these problems can be solved, the future for Georgia should be assured. Georgia has a rich history and some remarkable monuments remain untouched by time [and man]. With bountiful natural resources and beautiful, awe-inspiring scenery, it could be an ideal tourist destination.
Chapter 5 To Erivan. The Physical Features of Armenia
At seven in the evening of June 16th our train left Tiflis for Armenia. The station was packed, and people had to fight for their lives to get into the train. It looked quite hopeless for the crowds of men and women, with huge trunks and boxes and baskets, who swarmed in front of every carriage, pushing and struggling forward in serried ranks, amid a pandemonium of shrieks and curses. But it is wonderful what one of these carriages can digest, and little by little the passengers squeezed in. How they were bestowed, goodness knows; but the train rolled out of the station at last without leaving anybody behind on the platform.
Towards daybreak we crossed the watershed between the valleys of the Kura and the Arax at a height of 1,952 metres above the sea. When I drew the blind I saw the Armenian plateau, and in the distance the immense volcanic bulk of Mount Alagöz, with its white summit glittering in the morning sunshine. The country was bare and treeless; nothing green in sight, and no wooded slopes. Was this parched, dun coloured land to be cultivated for the refugees? It did not look very promising from the window...
Now that Erivan has become the capital of the Armenian republic, and an asylum for multitudes of refugees, the town is very much overpopulated... there is a serious shortage of houses, and the inhabitants have to live in very crowded conditions. There is a regulation to the effect that no one has a legal right to more than two square metres of floor space, which, as somebody observed at a soviet or municipal meeting, is the usual churchyard allowance.
Our meeting with the Government committee lasted two and a half hours. We began with general questions. I was first asked to give a general account of the object of our mission and why we had come. After that I asked whether the Armenian Government would be willing to receive any more refugees, and whether it would be possible to accommodate them. The Vice President replied that there was not much room left in their little country now that they had received so many refugees - some hundreds of thousands - already, but that the Government nevertheless wished to do everything in their power to assist their kinsmen, if these could be brought to Armenia without cost to the country, and if outside help could be obtained to make possible the irrigation and cultivation of new land.
We thereupon agreed to begin the next morning with the important plan for irrigating the Sardarabad plain, which had been represented to us as particularly desirable. To a question as to when we wished to start, we answered as soon as possible - bearing in mind the idiosyncrasies of Oriental punctuality. They suggested five o’ clock next morning. Very good.
Later in the evening we were entertained at a big dinner with sakuska and caviare, Armenian cognac, etc., and many different courses accompanied by good Armenian wines, both red and white. They certainly live well in this country! It was late before we got back to our hotel.
Outside the corner room that I occupied was a balcony. As the wall towards the south had been heated up all day by the sweltering sun, the room was stifling, so I threw the balcony doors wide open. Outside, the night was cool and fresh. I could well understand the Oriental custom of going up on to the roof at sundown and sleeping under the starry vault. Supper and breakfast are eaten there, too.
It was a clear night, with the immeasurably deep, almost black, sky of southern lands, and a flickering, flashing maze of stars which we have no idea in the north. Opposite the hotel was the park, with its fine old trees and the tea pavilion under them. Singing and the music of stringed instruments came up to me, and now and then, at a pause in the singing, the sound of many people clapping. I could see lights glimmering among the trees. There was also music in a café next door to the hotel…
On the square to the right in front of the hotel I could just make out in the dark a number of strange, ghostly shapes. On closer inspection they proved to be a whole caravan of camels standing quite motionless and silent in the street; apparently they would stand like that for hours on end, with uplifted, inquiring heads, a picture of the imperturbable resignation of the East.
Armenia and the Arax Plain
Armenia is a concept which has varied widely in the course of the ages. In the remote past it was a powerful kingdom which embraced fertile lands stretching from the Urmia and Van Lakes, the Taurus Mountains, and the sources of the Tigris in the south east and the south, to the Sevan Lake and Georgia in the north, and Erzingian and the Western Euphrates in the west. Afterwards it was torn asunder, divided and cut up, until it has finally dwindled into the little republic of Armenia, only about 30,000 square kilometres in area, and with a population of nearly one million, which, however, is rapidly increasing.
Nevertheless this little country is full of striking contrasts: wooded fertile valleys; scorched, arid wastes; high volcanoes; rugged mountain districts; and wide, level plains.
Look at Mount Ararat in the south. From the plain down by the Arax it rears itself up with its vast snowy dome 4,300 metres into the air. Surely there is not another mountain like it in the world. And on the north of the same plain a second Titan, the volcano of Alagöz, stretches up to 4,095 metres above sea level and between the crests of these Titans the distance is 87 kilometres. Yet the slopes are so gradual and continuous, and the proportions so well balanced, that one does not realize the immense height of these mountains; and the clearness of the atmosphere prevents one from seeing that the distances are so great.
This region is a world of its own, and has a distinctive character of its own. It is one of the central features of the ancient legend of the origins of the human race. Here, or at any rate somewhere near, was the site of the Garden of Eden with the four river heads, two of them being the Euphrates and the Tigris, which come from the ancient mountains of Armenia, while the other two may have been the Arax and the Kura. Here, too, was the second home of humanity where Noah descended from the mountain [following the great flood], planted vineyards, and taught mankind the joys of the grape. One objection to the story of the dove [which flew from the Ark and returned with] the olive leaf has been raised by a shrewd traveller, who noticed that olive trees do not grow in these parts. But we may console ourselves with the thought that Noah may not have been a particularly good botanist; or the dove might have flown very far, for she only returned to him ‘at eventide.’ At no great distance from here would also have been the plain in the land of Shinar, where the Tower of Babel was built.
Through the Arax Valley passed the natural route from the east to the west, between the Caspian Sea and Persia on one side and Asia Minor on the other... The wide plain on the Arax Valley is surrounded on all sides by high ridges of mountains, so that it forms, as it were, the flat bottom of a wide cauldron. In the south, running from the west north west to the east south east, is a high mountain rampart called Aghri Dagh, having as its huge south eastern bastion Mount Ararat, with Little Ararat’s pyramid as the extreme corner tower...
As one travels through these deserts like tracts one often lights upon traces of former dwellings, although the ground is completely parched in the late summer, with nothing growing on it but a few desert thistles. There are ruins of big churches and houses in places where not a soul lives now; and ones thoughts turn to the legends of great towns which flourished in the fertile Arax Valley in remote historical times, especially Armavir, which was built on this plain as long ago as the eighth century B.C.
The question occurs: Can the climate have become drier since those days? It has long been quite a fashion for the last few decades for geographers to explain all such cases - with which we are familiar in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and other places - by supposing that the climate of large areas, especially in Asia, has become drier... The American writer, Mr. Ellsworth Huntington, has been a particularly vigorous champion of such theories; and he is of the opinion that these changes in climate account for the great migrations, the military expeditions of the Mongolians, and so forth.
Although some such hypothesis offers a plausible explanation of many vicissitudes in the history of the human race, I cannot help thinking that the majority of these theories of climatic changes have been too superficial, and based upon very unstable foundations. In the case we are considering in the Arax Valley there is no need for such an explanation. On the whole people appear to be too ready to forget how largely the human race and their deeds or misdeeds may have influenced the conditions.
No doubt it is to flatter our own superiority that we are so prone to underestimate the cleverness of mankind in past ages, and believe that they were so far in their capacity to conquer and exploit Nature, especially if they could not write and keep records; for we are apt to estimate civilization by book learning... artificial irrigation was evidently an old and highly developed art which must have flourished in the regions near the Euphrates and the Tigris, and have fallen into decay later, when these countries were laid waste by the devastating barbarian hordes.
Without a doubt the Arax plain was cultivated by the help of artificial irrigation, even in the Stone Age, thousands of years B.C. At Sardarabad, where the country lying to the west is now an utter desert, an ancient cuneiform inscription of much later date has been found in which a ruler states that he has built ‘this canal’ and invokes direst penalties of the gods upon anyone who may destroy it. The country was subsequently laid waste, however, by fierce warrior hosts, and the canal was destroyed and disappeared... War, not fluctuations of climate, has brought about these great changes and turned the land into desert... especially when it is carried on in the brutal fashion that was usual in this part of the world...
Chapter 9 New Plans for Irrigation. Echmiadzin
In the afternoon we - the five members of the commission - were sitting in our hotel discussing our results of our investigations... Captain Quisling stood by the window... he saw a violent whirlwind sweep down from the hill above the town and along the main street - just the way we had come - whirling up the dust in a tall column... But we continued our discussion, ignoring the vagaries of the weather outside.
Presently, however, the noise in the street became so much louder and more noticeable that we had to look out. We jumped up and saw that the whole place was flooded by large quantities of water which came swirling down the streets from above. The water rose quickly; soon the street in front of the hotel was a rapid river, the square and park were inundated, and there was no exit from the hotel without getting into deep water. People went wading along on the pavements, keeping close to the wall, carriages were up to their axles, automobiles splashed through water which was not far from their motors, horsemen galloped by amid showers of spray, and a frightful din punctuated with shouts and screams rose into the air in all parts of the town.
What on earth had happened? Before sitting down to work we had noticed a black thunder cloud drifting across the sky above the mountains in the north, but without attaching much importance to the sight... Apparently, however, this cloud had been of unusual calibre, and there had been a regular cloud burst over the mountain slopes... in a narrow ravine through which a small river runs down to the town. This river, becoming tremendously swollen, had foamed down in spate, burst the banks of the irrigation canal above the university garden, and swept onward, flooding the upper part of the town.
Rather odd that just when we were immersed in our plans for helping to get water, much too much of it should come to our very door!
After half an hour it began to sink. Then it sank more and more quickly, and the street in front began to emerge from the sea, first in islands, then as a whole, though water was still swirling along the gutters…
Next morning our friend the newspaper reporter, who, by the way, was employed by the Government, paid us a visit and told us in his best French and with an air of deep concern the most shocking stories of the flood. The damage amounted to millions, and the corpses of 26 drowned people, mostly children, had been found near the station. Later on I heard that only one child had been discovered drowned in a cellar - but in the end that story evaporated too, while the material damage, though considerable, was reduced to quite manageable limits.
It is truly remarkable, however, that a single shower can give the water such power... A cloud burst is bound to be disastrous here, where there are no woods or vegetation to stop the water on the mountain slopes, and no lakes to regulate the flow of the rivers. Great masses of water suddenly sweep down in a devastating flood with nothing to hinder them, and that which would bring fertility and life of properly distributed brings death and destruction instead. Water is a good friend, especially in Armenia; but like its opposite, fire, it must be kept under control...
This is a large monastery... the great cathedral which is the national treasure of Armenia, the spiritual centre of the whole Armenian world.
Here the Katholikos - the Armenian patriarch or pope - has his house and garden... We were conducted first to a little square lake just outside the monastery. It had been made by the Katholikos Nerses V in the earlier half of last century...
After lunch we were shown the valuable collections in the library, especially the old Armenian manuscripts, including several early Gospels. Many of these manuscripts were handsomely illuminated with richly coloured miniatures…
We then walked across the big square to the cathedral. In front of this we were met by the senior bishop, accompanied by several other bishops. In long black gown and with a pointed hood over his head, a stately figure, grave, sagacious looking, and with a flowing grey beard, he advanced in dignified fashion to meet us, welcoming us cordially in fluent German...
We were ushered into the cathedral. The three bishops were all dressed alike in long black gowns with black hoods over their heads, and all had long grey or white beards - a venerable looking company.
The great hall with four huge piers in the middle to support the lofty central dome, the simple proportions, and the massive stone walls, all combine to produce an impression of stately dignity... The light falls from twelve windows in the dome... in the centre of the square formed by four large piers, on the spot where, in the sight of St. Gregory, the Only Begotten struck the ground with his golden hammer…
It is indicative of the conditions in which the Armenian Church has lived and the spiritual life of Armenia developed, that under the floor... there is a large cistern, constructed to contain sufficient water for the monastery if it were besieged.
The belfry over the main porch is said to contain a famous Tibetan bell with the mystic Buddhist inscription Ôm a hum.
The treasures and relics belonging to the cathedral are preserved in the annexe on its east side. The most important are St. Gregory’s right arm and hand, which possess deep significance, inasmuch as this arm has become the defence and safe guard of the Katholikos. There is also a piece of wood from the ark, which, as everyone knows, stranded on Mount Ararat not far from here; ‘where it was still to be seen up to very late times, though all traces of it have now disappeared.’ [!] For more on Noah's Ark, see http://www.csun.edu/~vcgeo005/bogus.html.
As we drove back through the streets of Erivan we suddenly stopped in front of what looked like a factory. We were led into a large courtyard, and there received courteously by a big man who evidently was the manager, and who took us down several flights of wide steps to some enormous cellars… As soon as I realized what was in the wind I decided that there was danger ahead!
First we went through several rooms with big vats in them; these vats contained brandy, and we were offered some. Cautiously I sipped just enough to taste; yes, it was certainly excellent. Then they brought some of another quality. Better still. But after that they offered us some extra fine old brandy; and it needed a good deal of self control only to sip that. We went on through a great many rooms where the wine was fermenting or in storage, and looked at the enormous vats. Then there were any number of samples of Armenian wines, white and red. All were good, but some, especially one old red wine, were so first rate that it was not at all easy only to put one’s lips to the glass. Moreover, our healths were drunk, and we had to return the compliment. Last of all came a muscatel, and I thought I had never tasted a more luscious wine. This time it was more than a sip!
It seemed strange to come up from this cool cellar, with all its rich treasures, and return to everyday realities under the scorching midday sun.
In the evening the Government gave a delightful entertainment in our honour in the Sirdar Garden, on the other side of the Zanga gorge, opposite the fortress of Erivan. This garden originally belonged to the Persian Sirdar who, during the Persian domination of the country before 1827, was satrap or governor of the province... A glorious garden it was - the Persians are experts in gardening and artificial irrigation. After the Russian conquest this... came into private hands; and later, after the Soviet revolution, it was taken over by the Government... We were entertained in the former owner’s house. He had been a rich Armenian who... when the revolution came had lost everything; but he had not the heart to leave his trees and flowers, so now he lived all the year round in two rooms in the cellar of his former house, working as a gardener in his former garden. He was present at the entertainment, and I talked with him; but no one seemed to think of him as the previous owner of the house and garden - he was just one of the employees with the rest.
On the following evening (Wednesday July 1st) there was a farewell entertainment. It began with a concert, at which we heard Grieg’s quartet in G minor and several compositions of the Armenian composer, Ailex Spenderian... Then came a big supper... and Armenian songs... These strange mournful songs were, in part, old folk songs which seemed rather like those of Persia. One was about a victorious Armenian king who was invading Georgia and had just crossed the river Kura. On the opposite bank he met a maiden whose brother he had slain in battle. Stopping his horse, she said: ‘You conquered my brother with your sword; but I will conquer you with my eyes.’ And her dark eyes were stronger than his sword: she went back with him to Armenia as his queen...
The notes of the Armenian folk songs echo long in the soul. I could not help thinking of what my friend Kurgenian said after hearing one of the melodies sung that evening: ‘Wouldn’t you say that a people whose soul goes out in songs and music like that can never die?’ And I felt that he was right.
The next evening our train was rolling over the plain. Erivan, the Zanga valley, and the beautiful gardens had been left behind. Away in the south Mount Ararat could be clearly seen in all its tremendous height, its broad cupola of snow shining brightly in the sunset. The first stupendous sight dominating the whole land when we arrived, it was the last we saw as we left that evening. And as a parting greeting it had doffed its huge cowl of mist.
The sun was sinking in flames behind the undulating landscape as we drew near to Sardarabad. Then darkness fell; but the moon shone brightly from the starry vault, and in its silver sheen we rushed on again past fruitful fields and through desert wastes. The vanishing contours of the surrounding heights loomed dimly in the distance. A few white moon clouds hung in space above the outlines of the mountains. ...And past us trooped a never ending pageant of the changing fortunes of bygone generations who had lived on these selfsame plains under the shadow of Ararat and Alagöz.
So many wars and struggles, such dire straights, so much suffering and misery over and over again - and so seldom a victory... But has any people in any part of the world suffered as this one has done? And to what end? To be deserted and betrayed at last by those who gave it such precious and binding promises in the sacred name of justice?
Politicians and statesmen - is it not time to stop the flow of high sounding words, before mankind loses its last shred of belief that anything in the history of nations is held sacred?
But the tranquil moon smiles indulgently in at the window. Poor misguided mortal, where is justice to be found?
Nansen continued to work for the return of the Armenian exiles, scattered all over the globe, to Soviet Armenia. Nansen undertook a lecture tour to the United States. He raised enough money to resettle 7,000 refugees in 1928, and signed an agreement to build 12,000 new houses in Armenia in 1929. Vidkun Quisling was dispatched to Moscow to try to arrange a resettlement programme. But, with the ascent of Stalin, the climate in Russia was changing. In June 1929, Quisling had to tell Nansen that the Russians had finally rejected further attempts at resettlement.
The Armenians During the Great War
The Armenians held a conference in July 1914, before the outbreak of war, to decide their future attitude. At the time their country was divided into two, between Turkey and Russia. They expressed themselves strongly against Turkey’s participation in the war, though they promised to do their duty if war came.
The… Turkish leaders were furious, and gradually evolved a plan for exterminating the intractable Armenian ‘vermin.’ A letter, dated February 18, 1915, from a member of the central committee of the ‘Young Turks’ [Turkish Rulers] to Jemal Bey at Adana (Cilicia) - who was the dictator in Syria during the war - and written ‘by order of a responsible authority,’ states that the central committee had ‘decided to liberate the fatherland from the tyranny of this accursed race, and to bear upon its patriotic shoulders the disgrace which that step will bring upon Osmanli history. The committee... have decided to exterminate all Armenians living in Turkey, without permitting a single soul to escape, and have therefore granted the Government plenary powers. The Government will give to the valis and commanders of the army the necessary hints as to the arrangement of the massacres.’ (See A. M. Benedictsen, Armenien, p 246 f, Copenhagen, 1925).
Careful preparations were made for carrying this plan into effect. Forces of gendarmes, selected for their anti-Christian bias, were dispatched all over East Anatolia to look for arms in the houses of the Christians; numbers of the more prominent Armenians were arrested, some being examined under torture in order to force them to reveal information about stores of arms and espionage. Bands of all sorts of roughs and hooligans - afterwards notorious as tyetas - recruited from the prisons and elsewhere, were formed under Young Turk leadership. All the Muhammedan men who had not already been called up were organized as militia; and arms were served out to them - but not to Christians...
By November 21, 1914, the irreligious Young Turks were able to proclaim a Jihad, or holy war, which made it a duty to kill all infidels who refused to embrace the faith of Islam. This step seems to have been taken at the request of the Germans in the hope of raising the Moslems of India and Africa against their Christian rulers, but it had the effect of increasing the Turkish hatred of the Christians in Anatolia. All Christian men between the ages of 20 and 43, and afterwards between the ages of 18 and 48, were gradually called up, although only those under 27 were legally liable to service. Those who were incapable of work had to act as beasts of burden, and between Mush and Erzerum alone 3,000 of them are said to have succumbed under the weight of their loads.
Accounts of the Turkish persecution and extermination of the Armenians in Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia during the Great War have now been received from many eyewitnesses - from members of the various American, German, Swiss, and Danish missions and organizations stationed there, and above all from the German consuls and officers in Asia Minor, and the German ambassadors. These accounts and documents have been collected and published by the well known German friend of Armenia, Dr. Johannes Lepsius, in his book entitled Deutschland und Armenien, 1914-1918, Sammlung diplomatischer Aktenstücke, Potsdam 1919. The following narrative is largely based upon these documents, which may presumably be regarded as reliable. The German officials would not have wished unnecessarily to blacken their allies the Turks, and they had no reason to represent the Armenians as being better than they really were.
The persecution of the Armenian population concentrated first on Zeitun in Cilicia… Under pretext of trying to capture a robber band in the neighbourhood, which had been joined by several deserters, 4,000 men were sent against Zeitun in March 1915, and the whole Armenian population of between 10,000 and 20,000 people were deported... In similar fashion the men of the village of Dörtjol, on the coast of Cilicia - who had successfully defended themselves during the massacres in 1909 - were deported to Aleppo to do forced labour on the roads, on the pretext that there had been some espionage in the town... The inhabitants of the village of Suedije, which had also escaped in the massacres of 1909, were to have been deported likewise, but made their escape to a cliff on the coast, where they defended themselves for several weeks with feeble weapons (even flint locks!) against a superior force of Turks until a French warship rescued the whole number - 4,058 men, women, and children...
Then came the so called ‘rebellion’ in Van, which the Turks have tried to exploit as the best proof of Armenian treachery; The American and German missionaries who went through it all have now furnished authentic accounts of what actually happened. (Cf. J. Lepsius, op cit pp xiii ff, 471 ff 1919.) In February 1915 Jevdet Bey, Enver’s brother in law, who was the vali of Van, declared at a meeting of Turks that ‘We have cleared out the Armenians and Syrians in Azerbaijan, and we must do the same with the Armenians in Van.’ On the pretext of making requisitions for the army the Armenians were plundered in the most scandalous fashion... After some disturbances, in which gendarmes were involved, at a village called Shatakh on April 14th, Jevdet Bey induced one of the chief Armenian leaders and three other Armenians, under the cloak of friendship, to go there and pacify the villagers; but on the way he had them murdered while they were asleep. At the same time (April 16th) he enticed another Armenian leader to come to him, and had him... murdered. Next day he prepared to attack the Armenian quarters in the town of Van simultaneously with the commencement of massacres in Ardjesh and the villages in the Hayoz-dzor Valley. In order to save their women and children the Armenians fortified themselves in their quarters in Van. The vali had ordered them to surrender 3,000 men for the army; but they knew only too well what the fate of these men would be, so they answered that it was impossible; they could raise 400, and would purchase the exemption of the rest by degrees. But the vali refused to agree in this proposal.
On the morning of April 20th some Turkish soldiers tried to rape an Armenian woman, and when some Armenian soldiers came to the rescue the Turks shot them dead. The German missionary, Herr Spörri, was an eye witness. Thereupon the shooting began; the Turks shelled the Armenian part of the town, and swept it with rifle fire. The Armenians defended themselves; they had some rifles, but not much ammunition, and had therefore to use this sparingly, while they encouraged the Turks to expend theirs. They made bullets, and manufactured 3,000 cartridges a day, besides gunpowder, and even in the end a couple of mortars. Meanwhile Turkish soldiers and Kurds ravaged the country round, massacring or mutilating men, women, and children... Refugees and their wounded flocked to the mission stations in Van, which were soon filled to overflowing.
The siege and bombardment lasted for 4 weeks, until May 16th; then it suddenly came to an end, and Jevdet Bey and the Turks retired. It turned out that unknown to the Armenians a Russian army was approaching; and its outposts arrived on May 18th quite unaware of what had been happening, as the Armenians had not been in touch with them.
According to the Armenian computation 12,000 shells were fired at the town, but with little effect. On the Armenian side there were only 18 killed, but many wounded, and the Turkish losses were probably about the same. When the Russian army shortly afterwards retired northwards for a time, the whole Armenian population of the Vilayet of Van, numbering nearly 200,000 fled to Russian Armenia.
This attempt of the Armenians to defend themselves against the Turkish attack in Van was promptly misrepresented in a communiqué which was sent by Enver Pasha and the Turkish Government to Berlin, and thence spread all over the world, as an attack by bands of Armenian insurrectionists who, in the rear of the Turkish army, had fallen upon the Muhammedan population. Out of 180,000 Moslems in the Vilayet of Van only 30,000 had succeeded in escaping! In a later report issued by the Turkish embassy in Berlin on October 1, 1915, the story was further embellished: ‘No fewer than 180,000 Moslems had been killed. It was not surprising that the Moslems had taken vengeance for this.’ Some 18 Turks, answering to the number of Armenians they had killed in Van, had turned into 180,000! This astonishingly impudent lie has a kind of foundation. According to statistics there should be 180,000 Moslems, including 30,000 Turks and 150,000 Kurds, in the Vilayet of Van. The Turks fled westwards when the Russian army advanced, while the 150,000 Kurds remained where they were, and were molested neither by the Russians nor the Armenians.
The whole episode is a typical example of the way the Turks treated the Armenians and tried to pretend that the Armenians were rebels and traitors... The reports of Germany’s consuls in Asia Minor and ambassadors in Constantinople show quite clearly that there is no proof whatever of Armenian treachery, or that they had any insurrectionist plans. (Cf. J. Lepsius, op cit p 1 xx f). The latter would in any case have been out of the question, for they had no arms, and most of the men had been taken away to serve in the army.
A few days after the Armenians in Van had dared to defend themselves against the Turkish onslaught, Tala’at Bey, the Minister for the Interior, suddenly had all the chief Armenians in Constantinople arrested on the night before April 25th. Deputies, teachers, writers, doctors, lawyers, editors and priests were seized... altogether nearly 600 people were deported to Asia Minor without inquiry or trial. Tala’at declared it was merely a temporary measure of precaution - some of them might be dangerous - and promised that most of them should be speedily released. Only 8 of them returned after suffering great hardships; the remainder disappeared. Thus all who were capable of pleading the Armenian’s cause were conveniently put out of the way.
Then the Turks had what they considered the splendid idea of carrying out the whole plan of extermination as a ‘necessary military measure.’ They would have deportations of all unreliable elements from the neighbourhood of the front, on the lines of the German deportations in Belgium and France. Enver Pasha expounded to Baron Wangenheim, the German Ambassador in Constantinople, his plans for carrying out these necessary deportations ‘of all not absolutely trustworthy families from the rebellious Armenian centres.’ The ambassador sent a telegram on May 31, 1915, to Berlin, reporting the project, and saying that Enver ‘earnestly begs us not to prevent him... These measures will certainly involve great hardship for the Armenian population. I am, however, of the opinion that we can alleviate them in practice though we cannot prevent them in principle...’ He still believed in the Turkish accounts of the treacherous Armenian agitation, supported by Russia, which ‘threatened the existence’ of Turkey. It was not until a later date that he, too, discovered that these accusations were baseless.
Then, in June 1915, the horrors began to which we know no parallel in history. From all the villages and towns of Cilicia, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia the Armenian Christians were driven forth on their death march; the work was done systematically, clearing out one district after another, whether the population happened to be near the scene of war or hundreds of kilometres away from it. There was to be a clean sweep of all Armenians. As the majority of men had already been taken for war work, it was chiefly a matter of turning women, children, and the aged and crippled out of house and home. They were only given a few days’ or hours’ notice. They had to leave behind all their property: houses, fields, crops, cattle, furniture, tools, and implements. Everything was confiscated by the Turkish authorities. The things they managed to carry with them, such as money, jewellery, or other valuables, and even clothes, were subsequently taken away from them by the gendarmes; and if any of them had been allowed to take their wagons and draught animals, the gendarmes appropriated them on the way. The poor creatures were rounded up from the different villages and driven in long columns across the mountains to the Arabian desert plains, where no provision had been made for the reception and maintenance of these herds of starving wretches, just as nothing had been done to keep them alive on the march. The idea was that those who did not succumb or get killed on the way should at any rate die of starvation.
As soon as the columns had fairly started, the callous indifference of the guards turned into vicious brutality. The few men and elder lads were assembled, taken aside and killed. The women, children, and old people were driven on, suffering agonies of hunger and thirst; the food, if there were any, was scanty and bad; those who could not keep up were flogged on till they collapsed, or were killed. Gradually the columns became smaller and smaller, as hunger, thirst, disease, and murder did their work. Young women and girls were raped or sold by auction in places where the Moslem population had assembled; 20 piastres (3s) was paid for a girl who had not been violated, 5 piastres (9d) for one who had been violated or for a widow, and children went for practically nothing. Often bands of tyetas and Kurds swooped down upon the columns, robbing, maltreating, murdering, and violating the women.
A foreign witness has said that these deportation columns were merely ‘a polite form of massacre’; but in reality they were infinitely worse and more heartless; for instead of instant death they forced the victims to undergo all sorts of inhuman sufferings, while this cowardly and barbarous plan was to save the face of the authorities by posing as ‘a necessary military measure’! From June till August 1915, the hottest time of the year, when the victims were most likely to succumb, these processions of death wended their way endlessly from all the vilayets and towns where there were Armenians, southwards in the direction of the desert. Strange to say, Constantinople, Smyrna, and Aleppo were spared - or practically so - no doubt because there were too many Europeans to see what was going on, and because the proceedings in Smyrna were stopped by German officers.
As an instance of what these marches meant I may mention on the authority of a German eyewitness that out of 18,000 expelled from Kharput and Sivas, only 350 reached Aleppo, and that out of 19,000 from Erzerum there were 11 survivors. (Cf. A. N. Mandelstam, La Société des Nations et les Puissances devant le Problème Arménien, p 44, note 1, Paris, 1925.)
According to the estimates of Dr. Lepsius, an average of more than two-thirds of the people in these doomed processions succumbed and disappeared on the way; of the survivors - emaciated, almost naked skeletons - who managed to struggle on to Syria and Mesopotamia, the majority were driven out into the desert, there to die in fearful agonies. The columns marched on for months, and even at the end of their death march they were not left in peace, but were driven round in circles for weeks. The concentration camps were filled and emptied again while the cold blooded taskmasters allowed their unhappy victims to die of starvation and disease, or massacred them by the thousand. Typhus raged among them. The corpses by the roadside poisoned the atmosphere.
In several places the valis and the Turkish authorities considered it unnecessary to resort to the subterfuge of these deportations and had the Armenians massacred without further ado, as, for instance, in Nisibin (July 1st), Bitlis (July 1st), Mush (July 10th), Malatia (July 15th), Urfa (August 19th and October 16th), Jesire (September 2nd), Diarbekr, Midiat, etc. This was at least more merciful than the unspeakable sufferings entailed by the other method. On June 10, 1915, the German consul at Mosul telegraphed that 614 Armenian men, women, and children, sent down the Tigris by raft from Diarbekr, had been butchered: Only empty rafts had arrived at Mosul, the river was full of corpses and human limbs, and several other transports of the same kind were on the way. On 18th of June the German consul at Erzerum reported massacres near the garrison town of Erzinjan: Government troops of the 86th cavalry brigade, aided by their officers and some Kurds, had butchered between 20,000 and 25,000 deported women and children in the Kemekh gorge. In the town of Bitlis most of the Armenians were massacred: 900 women and children were carried off and drowned in the Tigris. And so it went on - a never ending tale of the most disgusting cruelties... The Armenian soldiers who had fought so bravely in the Turkish army that even Enver Pasha had to compliment them publicly on their bravery and loyalty were afterwards disarmed, set to hard labour behind the front, and ultimately shot by their comrades and by command of their own officers.
As soon as the German consular reports showed what the ‘deportations’ really meant, the German ambassadors handed the Sublime Porte a series of vigorous notes of protest, but without result. The Turkish leaders partly denied the facts, and partly gave it pretty clearly to be understood that they did not consider their allies competent to instruct them in humanity. Tala’at Bey cynically remarked to Count Metternich, the German ambassador, on December 18, 1915, that he was sure that the Germans would have done the same thing in the like circumstances. For the rest, the Porte deprecated German interference in their domestic concerns. The German Government’s efforts to put a stop to the atrocities came to nothing.
But although the German ambassadors and consuls could do little or nothing in that respect, their reports furnish a pitiless exposure of the misdeeds of their ally. The long list of ghastly documents and the unparalleled inhumanity of the atrocities committed make it perfectly clear that the whole thing was carried out in accordance with a plan carefully laid by the Young Turkish leaders and their committee. The cowardly fashion in which the Turks subsequently denied that there had been any atrocities, and that everything had been done intentionally and according to plan, does not make their case any better.
The German ambassador, Baron Wangenheim, wrote to Berlin on June 17, 1915, that ‘Tala’at Bey has... openly stated that the Porte wished to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the war to make a clean sweep of their enemies at home without being troubled by foreign diplomatic intervention.’ And on July 7, 1915, he writes again that the fact of the deportations also taking place in provinces which are not in danger of a hostile invasion, and the way in which they are being carried out, ‘show that the Government is really aiming at the extermination of the Armenian race in the Ottoman Empire.’ On July 10, 1916, Count Metternich telegraphed to Bethmann-Hollweg, the Imperial Chancellor, that the Turkish Government had refused to be deterred by the German representations ‘from carrying out their programme of solving the Armenian problem by exterminating the Armenian race.’
A telegram in cipher sent on September 15, 1915, runs as follows:
To the Police Office at Aleppo.
It has already been reported that by the order of the Committee the Government have determined completely to exterminate the Armenians living in Turkey. Those who refuse to obey this order cannot be regarded as friends of the Government. Regardless of women, children, or invalids, and however deplorable the methods of destruction may seem, an end is to be put to their existence without paying any heed to feeling or conscience.
Minister for the Interior
(A photographic reproduction of this cipher telegram is given in Åge M. Benedictsen’s Armenien, p 259, Copenhagen, 1925.)
On August 31, 1915, Tala’at Bey declared to the German ambassadors that ‘La question arménienne n’existe plus.’ His statement was fairly correct, inasmuch as nearly all the deportations had by then been carried out. Little remained but to see that any survivors of the death marches were wiped out, too. As we have seen, no attempt was made to receive or feed them; they were merely collected in concentration camps on the edge of the Arabian desert, practically without food and without any chance of earning a living.
In January 1916 between 5,000 and 6,000 Armenians from Aintab were sent ‘into the wilderness’; and in April 14,000 deportees were massacred in the camp at Ras ul Ain. By order of the Kaimakan, companies numbering 300-500 were conducted every day by bands of Circassins to the river, 10 kilometres away, and there killed, their corpses being thrown into the water. (Cf. Lepsius, op cit p 256.)
At Meskne on the Euphrates, east of Aleppo, where the Armenians were starved to death in one of the great concentration camps, 55,000 people, according to Turkish figures, lie buried. It is estimated that during 1915 60,000 deportees were sent to Der es Zor on the Euphrates; and the majority of them disappeared... In July 1916 20,000 were deported to Der es Zor; 8 weeks later, according to the testimony of a German officer, only a few artisans were left...
There are descriptions by eyewitnesses of the scenes among these starving and dying people which are so full of heart rending horror that they read like a nightmare. Miserable shadows of what had once been human beings - often men and women of high culture - would eat anything they could lay hands on, while the gendarmes sat indifferently gazing at their sufferings, keeping watch over them until they dropped dead. It was hell. And the Turkish authorities did everything in their power to prevent any relief from being sent, even by Germany, to these unfortunate creatures. When Dr. Lepsius applied to Enver Pasha in Constantinople, as early as August 1915, for permission to bring relief to the suffering ‘deportees,’ the latter answered that the Turks would relieve them, if the Germans wished to help they could send gifts and money to the Turkish Government, which would see that they were delivered to the right address. What the ‘right address’ meant, it is not difficult to guess. As for the Americans who brought relief, they were simply refused permission to land.
Many estimates have been made regarding the total number of Armenians killed. It is likely that nearly one and a half million Armenians died during the First World War. A large proportion of the total Armenian population. As a comparison about one and three-quarter million Germans and a similar number of Russians died, nearly a million British and Empire, around one third of a million Turks and 116,000 Americans.