Judith Crispin. Anzac day, the Armenian Genocide and destruction of cultural heritage in the Caucasus.

Apr 20, 2015

“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”

Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944)

As we prepare to commemorate one hundred years since Australian forces landed at Anzac Cove, we might spare a thought for the victims of the Armenian genocide.

Causal connections between the April 25 Gallipoli landings and the order by the Ottoman Minister of the Interior on April 24 to round up and execute Armenian intellectuals, do not feature in our Government-curated Anzac narrative. To our shame, Australia is not among the twenty-two nations that formally recognise Turkey’s massacre of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.

One may wonder why it should matter if Australia continues to exclude the Armenian Genocide from its national story. But there are three good reasons to bring this particular genocide into public discourse and our Anzac commemorations.

Firstly, genocides are not simply crimes against a specific people, they are crimes against all humanity, and participating in their denial shames us as a nation. Common decency compels us to stand beside the Armenians on April 24 to denounce their historical genocide, as, indeed, we should denounce all genocides. This is my first and most important reason for urging Australia to recognise the Armenian Genocide.

But it is also worth noting that by continuing to deny the 1915 genocide, we miss out on an opportunity to honour Australia’s extraordinary humanitarian response to that event. Captured Australian servicemen held by the Ottomans in Turkey were unwilling eyewitnesses to the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocides. They essentially blew the whistle on Ottoman atrocities in the region.

Captain Thomas Walter White of the Australian Flying Corps, for example, reported mass Armenian graves in northern Mesopotamia and western Turkey. In the Jordan valley, Australian soldiers rescued Armenian refugees and a famously recounted story tells of Colonel Arthur Mills carrying a sleeping four-year-old Armenian girl to safety on his camel.

During the war, atrocities against Armenians were reported by Australian newspapers. Returning Australian soldiers, many of whom had assisted Armenian refugees in Turkey, joined the civilian Armenian relief fund. This grassroots movement raised millions in relief funds for the Armenian cause, and remains the largest humanitarian effort in Australian history.

It seems ludicrous that our Anzac commemorations focus on Britain’s failed Gallipoli campaign, which took almost 9000 Australian lives, but do not acknowledge the extraordinary humanitarian efforts toward the Armenians by allied soldiers and civilian Australians.

Another compelling reason to talk about the Armenian Genocide is to challenge the assumption that all of this occurred in the past and has no connection to current events. Ripples from the 1915 genocide can be clearly observed in Jihardi attacks on ancient Assyrian/Persian culture that we are reading about right now.

It must be emphasised that Lemkin’s definition of genocide signifies “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” This coordinated plan, which Lemkin suggests might include “disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion” extends beyond the mass murder of an ethnic group in its intentions.

Genocide seeks to wipe out all traces of a people—physically, culturally and historically. The current destruction of cultural monuments across the middle and near east has its very roots in the 1915 Armenian Genocide. When we watch ISIS destroy Assyrian monuments on You Tube, we are seeing something that was set in motion a hundred years ago—something that might not have occurred if the international world had held Turkey to account over the genocide.

Why, then, has Australia become an active participant in an effort to conceal the Armenian Genocide? Particularly given that Australia’s humanitarian efforts, and the rescue of Armenians by our soldiers in Ottoman Turkey remain unacknowledged as a direct result. The answer appears to be that Australia has buckled beneath the pressure of conjoined denialist efforts by Azerbaijan and Turkey—denial of both the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the ongoing cultural genocides in their countries. Only by bringing these events into the light of day will Australia regain its own dignified and honest history.

On the evening of April 24, 1915, sometimes called “Red Sunday”, Ottoman officials arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople before deporting and murdering them. The order, given by Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha the day before the Allies landed at Gallipoli, marked the start of the Armenian Genocide.

This murderous campaign was part of a wider extermination program targeting Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks who were seen as obstacles to Turkey’s unification with Turkic tribes in Azerbaijan and the creation of a grand Pan Turkish region.

The 1915 massacres merged seamlessly into later Turkish-Azerbaijani efforts to eliminate Armenian culture in Nakhichevan, in the early 2000s, and current attacks on Assyrian culture in Iraq by ISIS and their affiliates. The Ottomans went on to massacre between 1 and 1.5 million people in a government organised and systematic genocide.

Often described by Historians as the precursor to the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide was chillingly similar in detail to events engineered twenty-five years later by the Third Reich.

Armenians were murdered in concentration camps. They were gassed or sent on death marches into the Syrian Desert. Approximately 80,000 Armenians were set alight in haylofts and stables across the Muş plain. Thousands of others were taken into the Black Sea or the Euphrates and drowned. So many Armenian corpses were left in the Euphrates, in fact, that the course of the river was temporarily changed. The New York Times described hundreds of Armenians in crammed cattle trains or driven along Syrian roads “strewn with corpses”.

Like their Third Reich successors, the Ottoman Empire conducted medical experiments on their Armenian prisoners, injecting them with Typhoid infected blood and overdoses of morphine. Armenian businesses, farms, houses and private property were confiscated and financial institutions were ordered to turn over all Armenian assets to the Ottoman government.

The 1919 trials and court-martials of Ottoman officials firmly condemned Turkish atrocities against Armenians—and, in 1921, assassin Soghomon Tehlirian hunted down and executed former Turkish Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha in Berlin. The trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, which revealed an undercover operation to kill the architects of the Armenian Genocide, horrified international lawyer Raphael Lemkin. He went on, in 1943, to coin the word “genocide” to describe the Ottoman massacre of Armenians.

Since the 1920s Turkey has undertaken a systematic and highly funded campaign to oppose international acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide.

But what has this got to do with cultural destruction? The beginnings of Armenian culture can be traced to Nakhichevan’s founding, in modern day Azerbaijan, during 3669BC. According to tradition Nakhichevan, whose name derives from the Armenian “Nakhnakan Ichevan” (Նախնական Իջևան), meaning, “first landing place”, was established by Noah after the Biblical deluge.

It was in this land, shadowed by holy Mt Ararat, that the theologian Mesrob Mashtots first created the Armenian Alphabet and founded the earliest Armenian schools.

In 1605 the population of Julfa, an important Armenian centre in Nakhichevan, were forcibly relocated to Persia by Shah Abbas. The town of Julfa was destroyed to prevent the Armenians returning but, recognising the importance of its historic cemetery, Shah Abbas ordered his soldiers to leave it untouched.

Julfa cemetery, which graced the banks of the river Arax, once held 10,000 ornate Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) from the 15th and 16th century, inscribed with Christian crosses, suns, flowers and climbing plants. Alongside these khachkars stood tombstones from the late 6th century and undated pagan gravemarkers from even earlier. This extraordinary cemetery, spread over three hills on Nakhichevan’s border with Iran, was home to the largest collection of East Christian cultural monuments on earth.

In 1920 Nakhichevan was declared part of Azerbaijan, a decision reinforced by the Treaty of Kars. This Treaty created a new border between Turkey and Armenia—ceding Armenia’s holy mountain Ararat to Turkey as well as important cities and the ancient ruins of Ani.

The last remaining 2,000 Armenians were deported from Nakhichevan in 1989. Official Azerbaijani historical records now state that Armenians did not live in the South Caucasus before the 19th century.

A premeditated campaign to erase all traces of early Armenian culture in Nakhichevan has been undertaken by the Azerbaijan Government. Of around 280 named Armenian churches in Nakhichevan, few remain standing today.


In 2005, in direct violation of the 1948 UN Convention on Cultural Heritage, Azerbaijani authorities demolished Julfa cemetery’s priceless khachkars with bulldozers, loaded the crushed fragments onto trucks and emptied them into the river Arax. Video footage and photographs taken from the Iranian bank of the river captured almost 100 Azerbaijani servicemen destroying Julfa’s khachkars with sledgehammers and other tools.

Demands by The European Parliament in 2006 that “Azerbaijan allow missions, such as experts working with ICOMOS who are dedicated to surveying and protecting archaeological heritage, in particular Armenian heritage, onto its territory, and that it also allow a European Parliament delegation to visit the archaeological site at Julfa”, were refused.

Shortly thereafter, Nakhichevan authorities constructed a military shooting range on the very ground where thousands of human remains lie, still unmarked.

Despite compelling evidence in photographs, video and satellite images, Azerbaijan has consistently denied the destruction of Julfa cemetery.

What we are witnessing now, in Australia’s refusal to recognise the Armenian Genocide, is the result of a combined denialist campaign by two politically and militarily allied countries, capable of exerting huge pressure on the international community through Turkey’s NATO role and Azerbaijan’s control of oil.

This combined effort has effectively silenced discourse around the conjoined events of the 1915 genocide and the ongoing destruction of Christian monuments in Azerbaijan, Turkey and elsewhere. In achieving this goal, Azerbaijan and Turkey have concealed important historical contexts for understanding recent attacks on Assyrian culture by ISIS and their affiliates.

Turkey and Azerbaijan’s deliberate efforts to blind international politics to past and present crimes against humanity has been tolerated by Australia, ostensibly, for the sake of Anzac Cove photo opportunities in 2015.

Turkey’s exclusion of NSW MPs from the 2015 Anzac Cove ceremony because of bipartisan support for a Parliamentary motion to recognise the Armenian Genocide, demonstrates a clear intention to use Anzac day to blackmail Australia into supporting Turkish denialism. Treasurer Joe Hockey, of Armenian heritage, called for Federal Parliament to formally recognise the Armenian Genocide while in opposition, yet refuses to jeopardise his dealings with Turkey now that he is in Government.

But the international tide is turning. In response to Pope Francis’s recent statement that the 1915 massacres in Armenia constituted the “the first genocide of the 20th century,” Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See. Following The European Parliament’s resolution to adopt the same term, genocide, in relation to Armenian history, Turkish President Erdogan stated, “It is out of the question for there to be a stain, a shadow called ‘genocide’ on Turkey.”

Many eminent Turkish academics presently advocate for genocide recognition, motivated by the same desire for historical truth that should be inspiring Australia’s own stance on the issue. Only by acknowledging this genocide can Turkey honour its past national heroes, the Oscar Schindler’s of the Ottoman Empire—men like Mehmet Celal Bey and others who saved thousands of Armenians from persecution.

Genocide includes massacres, but is not limited to massacres. Any systematised and organised attempt to erase a people should be considered an act of genocide.

When a force, such as the Ottoman-Turks and their Azerbaijani allies, seeks to destroy all traces of a people through mass murder, through destroying their cultural monuments and through an extensive and well-funded rewriting of history—there can be no doubt that we are speaking of Genocide. Australia’s role in the Armenian Genocide was humanitarian, admirable and praise-worthy. We should never forget that—but we should never have allowed our legacy to be tainted by Turkey’s efforts to suppress historical truth.

Perhaps this Anzac Day we will remember that our greatest victory at Gallipoli was not at Anzac Cove. What brought lasting honour to our nation is symbolised in the image of a four-year-old Armenian girl carried in the arms of an Australian camel-mounted soldier, to safety.

Dr Judith Crispin is the Director of Manning Clark House in Canberra. A practising artist, composer and writer, Judith is an honorary fellow of th Australian Catholic University and part of an international research team working on the digital repatriation of ancient Armenian culture.



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