BY VAHRAM L. SHEMMASSIAN, Ph.D
This essay is a brief account of the history of Musa Dagh Armenians from mid-nineteenth century to the present. Musa Dagh was situated by the Mediterranean Sea, in the Svedia sub-district within the Antioch district of the Ottoman Province of Aleppo. Presently, it is located in the Samandagh district in the Hatay province of Turkey. Armenians are believed to have lived in Musa Dagh since antiquity. To date, their origins remain shrouded in uncertainty. They spoke a dialect called Kistinik, meaning, the language of Christians. In nineteenth century, six main Armenian villages existed: Bitias, Haji Habibli, Yoghunoluk, Kheder Beg, Vakef, and Kabusiye, with a total of about 6,000 inhabitants. The original villages from which the others emerged were Haji Habibli, Yoghunoluk, and Kabusiye.
The nineteenth and early twentieth century proved a period of change that transformed the Musa Daghtsis from an isolated, obscure, and ignorant lot to a conscious collectivity fighting for its very existence as part of the larger Ottoman Armenian community facing total annihilation by its own, Young Turk government. Several factors effected this transformation. A retired British diplomat by the name of John Barker, who had a summer residence at Bitias and other property in Kheder Beg, experimented with new vegetables and fruits acquired from around the world, improved the silkworm seeds for sericulture, the main occupation in the area, and introduced medicines to fight epidemic diseases. Equally important, foreign travelers visiting him exposed Musa Dagh to the outside world for the first time through their published accounts. American Protestant missionaries likewise made inroads in Musa Dagh beginning in 1840, leading to the establishment of Protestant churches in Bitias in 1857 and in Yoghunoluk in 1869-70. The direct or indirect teachings of the American ideals of equality and freedom must have impacted the people’s thinking to some extent. Then came Capuchin missionaries from Europe and established the St. Paul congregation in Kheder Beg in 1891. Their presence, too, must have influenced the locals in terms of European notions of human rights.
Armenian clergymen, educators, and revolutionaries likewise stopped by Musa Dagh beginning mid-nineteenth century. When the Armenian National Constitution was promulgated in the Ottoman Empire in 1863, the Prelacy in Aleppo dispatched clergymen to its parishes in northwestern Syria to introduce reforms. As a result, the majority Apostolic community of Musa Dagh underwent some positive changes, albeit with difficulty. Similarly, as a consequence of the ongoing Armenian social, cultural, and political Renaissance across the empire, “national” primary schools were established in Musa Dagh, whereby youngsters began to learn about Armenian civilization with its accomplishments.
Revolutionary societies penetrated Musa Dagh beginning in the 1890s. Outside activists belonging to the Social Democrat Hnchakian Party (SDHP) established there what they termed “absolute monarchy” from 1893-96. Many Musa Daghtsis, including large numbers of women, adhered to the SDHP, were indoctrinated, and underwent some military training. A degree of “racial “awareness” was thus attained. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) became interested in Musa Dagh during the Zeytun uprising of 1895-96. Agents were sent to Musa Dagh in the early 1890s to introduce the party’s ideology and platform. An actual ARF sub-committee was formed in 1908. The Reformed Hnchakian Party had a cell in Haji Habibli beginning in 1911, and a few followers in some of the other villages. All three parties smuggled arms into Musa Dagh for self-defense, although their respective quantities cannot be verified. The need for self-defense became more acute during the 1909 Armenian massacres in Cilicia and northwestern Syria. Musa Dagh was spared the carnage thanks to the self-defensive measures it adopted as well as the presence of a British warship that prevented the Muslim ruffians from assailing Musa Dagh.
In late July 1915, when Musa Dagh received a deportation order, two-third of the population chose resistance, whereas one-third complied with the command and was deported to the Syrian city of Hama and environs. More than half perished as a result of exposure, malnutrition, and diseases. The defiant majority fought the Ottoman Army and Muslim irregulars for more than forty days, and was rescued by French warships monitoring the coastline and taken to Egypt, where they would stay for four years in a refugee camp on the eastern banks of the Suez Canal across from Port Said. The international press covered this heroic saga with editorials, articles, and pictures. Material assistance poured into the camp from around the world. In 1933, Franz Werfel, a Jew then living in Vienna, Austria, published a historical novel, titled The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It was translated from its original German into numerous languages in subsequent years. Musa Dagh became a household name globally, and the saga itself was immortalized. It also inspired artists and intellectuals alike to create works that heartened especially oppressed people with messages of hope for survival. Unfortunately, a film project by the movie giant Metro-Goldwin-Mayer (MGM) was shelved due to pressure exerted by the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the US State Department. Fortunately, another film is currently in the pipeline.
At Port Said, the refugees lived in tents, and were fed through bakeries, a kitchen, and a soup kitchen. Children attended the Sisvan (old name of Cilicia) school run by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). The infirm were tended to in a clinic-hospital supported by the Armenian Red Cross. Men and women alike worked in various industrial departments operated by the American Red Cross and the British Friends of Armenia Society. Some 500-600 youths in 1916 formed the backbone of the French Légion d’Orient, later renamed the Légion Arménienne. This force, augmented by Armenian volunteers from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, fought victoriously against the Ottoman Army at the Battle of Arara in Palestine on September 19, 1918, thereby facilitating the Allied occupation of the rest of Greater Syria as well as Cilicia.
In 1919, the refugees at Port Said and survivors at Hama repatriated to Musa Dagh. The following two decades witnessed reconstruction and the resumption of old professions such as comb, spoon, and charcoal making, sericulture, and farming. A new textile industry inspired hope for a better future. Bitias, in particular, became a popular tourism and vacationing center. The three denominations reopened their churches and schools. Voluntary associations sought to ameliorate religious, educational, social, and cultural life. The SDHP and the ARF vied for political dominance through local councils and regional legislatures, with the latter party succeeding to a larger extent. Unfortunately, all this would come to an abrupt end in the summer of 1939, when France ceded the Sanjak of Iskenderun/Alexandretta, an autonomous province in northwestern Syria encompassing Musa Dagh and other Armenian communities, to Turkey. The overwhelming majority of Armenians chose to leave the area for other parts of Syria, and Lebanon, fearful of Turkish rule so tarnished with brutality in recent memory. Only 6 percent of Musa Daghtsis elected to stay behind. They are now concentrated in the village of Vakef/Vakifli, which has been showcased in recent years as the only Armenian village left in Turkey.
The majority that departed Musa Dagh encamped temporarily at Ras al-Basit, along the Mediterranean between the Armenian enclave of Kessab and Latakia. They were relocated to a place called Anjar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Not only did the French High Commission of Syria and Lebanon purchase the land, but it also constructed the houses. With much difficulty, hard work, and perseverance, Anjar in due course became a vibrant rural community. Last year it marked its seventy-fifth anniversary. In 1946-47, more than half of Anjar’s population resettled in Soviet Armenia.
Wherever they may be, the Musa Daghtsis commemorate their heroic feat of 1915 annually. Monuments have also been erected. The Damlajik monument on Musa Dagh itself was inaugurated on September 18, 1932 with pomp and circumstance. The remains of the eighteen fighters who lost their lives during the resistance were interred in a fenced cemetery nearby. In Armenia, a majestic monument and an adjacent museum stand on a hilltop in the town of Musa Ler (Musa Dagh), between the capital of Yerevan and the Holy See of Echmiadzin. In Anjar, a memorial complex is situated between the Harach College (high school) and the St. Paul Apostolic Church. In Cambridge, near Ontario, Canada, an edifice likewise attracts celebrants each September.
On this centennial of the Musa Dagh resistance to the Armenian Genocide, challenges remain. How to preserve Musa Daghtsi identity? How to preserve the dialect? How to impart the history? How to raise future generations conscious of their roots? And so on. Leadership, vision, imagination, ingenuity, technology, and other innovative approaches are key to meeting those challenges. Relegation to oblivion is not an option.