Musa Dagh in the 19th and Early 20th Century

Armenian Musa Dagh, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea some 15 miles to the southwest of the biblical town of Antioch, existed from time immemorial. Unfortunately, not much is known about its history prior to the 19th century. In early 20th century, it encompassed six main Armenian villages, namely, Bitias, Haji Habibli, Yoghun Oluk, Kheder Beg, Vakef, and Kabusiye, with a total of more than 6,000 inhabitants, who spoke a dialect called Kistinik, meaning, the language of Christians. This article will focus on the 19th and early 20th century, a period that transitioned from obscurity and ignorance to immortality through resistance to the genocide.

The main source of livelihood in pre-WWI Musa Dagh, as in the entire region of Antioch, was sericulture. Although the majority of Musa Daghians were self-made experts, some attended the Sericultural Institute of Bursa, a technical school established in 1888 under the direction of Prof. Kevork Torkomian, a student of Louis Pasteur. But whether school-educated or self-made, each year many expert sericulturists and their helpers from Musa Dagh, constituting almost 10% of the total population, also supervised the silk farms of rich Turkish landlords in the general vicinity.

Unfortunately, two factors dealt a heavy blow to the silk industry–nature’s wrath and usurer manipulations. First, locusts and especially severe winters destroyed the mulberry leaf crops. During the period between 1864 and 1901, for instance, nearly one in every four seasons proved catastrophic. Second, the nature of loan transactions diminished profits drastically. Poverty compelled many villagers to borrow money from local or Antioch merchants at high interest rates, usually 20%-30%. Despite this chronic economic malaise, some encouraging signs existed. One such welcome change involved the appointment in 1909 of an Armenian from Constantinople by the name of Onnig Tosbat as Director of Silk Control of Aleppo province. Significantly, Tospat established his headquarters in Antioch, wherefrom he introduced new regulations, thereby benefiting the indigenous cultivators.

Agriculture was not developed like sericulture. Because of its steep and limited terrain, Musa Dagh was ill-suited for the farming of cereals, compelling the population to import 90% of its wheat. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, grew plentifully, but animal husbandry fell far short of capacity. Artisanship was similarly neglected, except for comb making in Yoghun Oluk, where the overwhelming majority engaged in it. In early twentieth century, the annual output was estimated between 1 and 1.5 million combs, exported mostly to Egypt.

The barinak (barons) or aghalar constituted another impediment to a healthier socio-economic life. There existed between the Turkish notables of Antioch on the one hand and the barinak of Musa Dagh on the other a patron-client relationship which proved disastrous to the Armenian peasantry as a whole. In order for the barinak to appease their patrons, they raised bribes through usurpation. In their eternal rivalries, the Antioch notables also pitted one barin against the other, who, in turn, polarized Musa Dagh society or inflamed existing feuds. The situation worsened by various types of legal and illegal taxes, which by all indications were very heavy and collected harshly.

Rampant impoverishment compelled many Musa Daghians to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The United State became a magnet, especially after the 1909 massacres. The immigran’s settled mostly in the East Coast, where they worked in silk factories and operated small businesses. One of the earliest Musa Dagh settlers on the West Coast, Abraham Seklemian of Bitias, in 1908 co-founded and became the first editor of Asbarez newspaper in Fresno, California Most immigran’s would not see Musa Dagh again.

Until the 1840s all Musa Daghians adhered to the Armenian Apostolic Church. But beginning with that decade American Protestant missionaries and later European Capuchin friars made inroads, forming their separate denominations. As the Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo underwent a process of reorganization according to the provisions of the 1860 Armenian National Constitution, so did the Musa Dagh Apostolic community, albeit in timid steps and with difficulty. When prelates and/or their representatives visited Musa Dagh on different occasions to introduce changes, they encountered persistent ignorance and intrigue especially when dealing with parish council elections. What also hindered progress was the status of priests. Most were illiterate, some were ordained or defrocked based on the whims of influential notables, and still others were unfit for spiritual leadership. Indeed, a few exceptions existed.

The first contacts between Protestant missionaries and Musa Dagh took place in 1840. Seventeen years later, in 1857, a Protestant church was officially established in Bitias, followed by that of Yoghun Oluk in 1869 or 1870. As for the remaining villages, for financial reasons they were treated as satellite communities dependent on either Bitias or Yoghun Oluk. Initial persecutions by the Apostolic church, rampant poverty, lack of seriousness on the part of some adherents, erratic behavior by a few pastors, threats from splinter groups, and the inadequacy of church buildings kept the Protestant community of Musa Dagh wavering between hope and despair.

This denomination’s size varied according to category. Communicant membership averaged 171 persons, adherents averaged 577 persons, church attendants on Sundays averaged 401 persons, and Sabbath School goers averaged 382 persons. Interestingly, each and every communicant member signed an agreement, whereby he or she promised to follow church rules and pay membership dues based on income. Those who failed to fulfill their obligations were suspended and/or expelled.

Capuchin friars founded a mission in Kheder Beg in 1891, and shortly thereafter they gained a following at Yoghun Oluk as well, but were less successful in Vakef, Kabusiye and Haji Habibli. Being a Protestant bastion, Bitias remained out of Catholic reach. By the start of WWI the Catholics (of the Latin rite) of Musa Dagh numbered about 500. According to Capuchin sources, the Musa Daghians converted to Catholicism first and foremost for socio-economic rather than spiritual reasons. Extreme poverty, heavy taxation, abuse on the part of notables, legal wrangling, all contributed to change of religious affiliation. This situation placed a heavy financial burden on the Capuchins, who sought funds from private donors in Europe to augment their meager budget. But despite their disillusionmen’s, the Capuchins remained determined to keep the Musa Dagh mission open in hopes that the younger generations educated in their schools would become true Catholics.


Educational life in Musa Dagh during the first half of the 19th century could be described with the word “barrenness,” for hardly could anyone read, write, and or calculate taxes on paper. This situation changed during the second half of the century thanks to Protestant and Catholic missionaries, who not only declared war on illiteracy for its own sake, but also and foremost for proselytizing purposes. The Apostolic community lagged behind for many decades because of utter negligence, before it realized the urgency of learning to combat the alien inroads and to promote nationalism.

In 1856, a Protestant missionary made a reference to the existence of “a small school” in Bitias, which was perhaps the earliest educational institution in Musa Dagh. Its curriculum included Reading, Writing, Spelling, Grammar, Geography, Arithmetic, Turkish, Physiology and Armenian, not to mention the fact that students had to attend the daily devotional exercises. Protestant education in Yoghun Oluk began in earnest in 1880. Short-lived schools were opened in the other villages as well. Despite the many difficulties, such as the lack of adequate facilities and teachers, hardened mentalities that boys had to contribute to the cottage industries and girls to the house chores at a young age, and budgetary constraints, some positive aspects to Protestant education existed. For example, the average number of students increased from 81 in the 1880s to 102 in the 1890s to 117 in the 1900s. Girls constituted about one-third of the total student population. Similarly, the Protestants were the first to introduce coeducational schools.

The Capuchin friars, like Protestant missionaries, attached great importance to education in their overall efforts at establishing a Catholic community in Musa Dagh. They inaugurated their first school at Kheder Beg in 1891, and subsequently four others for both genders in Yoghun Oluk and Vakef. The curriculum included French, Armenian, and a few other subjects. Since tuition was free in Catholic schools, both Protestant and Apostolic schools experienced difficulty in recruiting students. But some social forces worked against the Catholics. As one friar lamented, if some students, “at their leaving the school about the age of 13, had not submitted to the dissolvent influence of their surrounding, [that is to] the alluremen’s of the custom of an incredible religious apathy, [and] if our Catholic girls would not have married but Catholics, soon Kheder Beg would be and exemplary mission.”

Information respecting education in the Apostolic community prior to the 1890s is scanty. At the turn of the century, some positive developmen’s occurred. Four factors occasioned this trend. First, the activity of Hnchakian revolutionaries during the 1890s awakened the national consciousness of the ignorant peasantry to some extent. Second, a few visiting clergymen and a relatively enlightened local priest gave sermons on the virtues of education. Third, the incumbent locum tenens of Aleppo seized every opportunity to promote learning and dispatched teachers to the village communities. Fourth, the Egypt-based Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Constantinople-based United Societies coordinated their efforts in establishing a network of urban and rural schools that benefited Musa Dagh as well. As a result of these activities, all six villages of Musa Dagh had a school each, which, nevertheless, maintained a sporadic existence due to financial limitations, lack of teachers and textbooks, and competition from the other denominations.

Since all schools in Musa Dagh were elementary, students who desired to further their studies traveled primarily to Aintab, Kesab, and Bursa. Approximately one-third of all outgoing students enrolled at the Central Turkey College and the Girls’ Seminary, both American missionary institutions of higher learning in Aintab.

Despite the numerous impedimen’s, education had made some strides by World War I. The statistical evidence is clear. Of people born in Musa Dagh between 1890 and 1900, only 18 percent was literate. However, that figure had increased to 46 percent with the generation born during the following decade. This upward trend continued at the Port Said refugee camp between 1915 and 1919 and again in Musa Dagh during the interwar years (1919-1939).


The activity of Armenian revolutionary societies in Musa Dagh must be viewed within the larger context of Armenian oppression and suffering in the Ottoman Empire, demands for reform, protection of life and property, and aspirations for autonomy and/or outright independence. The Social Democrat Hnchakian Party, on its way to initiate an uprising at Zeytun in order to attract European interest to the plight of Armenians across the empire, penetrated Musa Dagh in 1893, establishing what it termed “absolute monarchy” for the next three years. Most Musa Daghians, including women, joined the movement through a variety of methods including propaganda, indoctrination, and playing on fears. To be sure, there was some opposition from the conservative and religious circles, as well as unanimous disapproval on the part of foreign diplomats and missionaries posted in the region. While the government reacted to the overall tense situation by sending reinforcemen’s and a commission of inquiry, it refrained from the actual use of force for fear of European intervention. The episode thus ended peacefully, whereby the revolutionaries surrendered and ultimately were sent abroad as agreed upon.

The Hnchakian experience left a lasting impact on Musa Dagh society. From the revolutionaries’ standpoint, the Armenian villagers were now imbued with national awareness. Other observers, however, saw things differently. The American missionary C.S. Sanders, for example, wrote in 1906: “These Christian villages are destroying themselves so terribly has treachery become a characteristic of them since the regime of the [Hnchakian] revolutionary party.” An Armenian reporter, covering Musa Dagh in 1911, likewise attributed some of the causes of pervasive social malaise to the Hnchakian era. In the final analysis, the Hnchakian revolutionaries could not be blamed for feuds commonplace in Musa Dagh before their arrival. During their tight governance of public life, however, they failed to create a lasting civic infrastructure for Musa Dagh society to function more responsibly after their departure.

The other main political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF/Tashnagtsutiun), was formally organized in Musa Dagh during summer the summer of 1908 as the Red Mountain Subcommittee (Garmir Ler Yentagomide). By 1915, it had three subcommittees–the initial Storm (Potorig) and later Lightning (Shant) and Vahan the Wolf (Kayl Vahan)–with a total membership of over fifty youths, who were mostly literate. Initially, The ARF took cautious steps to make inroads in Musa Dagh because of opposition from the conservative segment of society. Once the ARF decided to go public, however, its members demonstrated a signal resolve to surmount any opposition, even if it meant rebelling against their own parents. With a self-imposed discipline, they eventually gained respect as an organization acting in the public’s interest. And although the degree of influence they wielded cannot be readily determined, their dominance in post-WWI Musa Dagh politics hints at some progress that they had made by the eve of WWI. The third political society, the Reformed Hnchakian Party (Veragazmial Hnchagian Gusagtsutiun), penetrated Musa Dagh in 1911, but its influence was limited to a small circle of adherents in some of the villages.

If the raison d’etre of Armenian political societies was to ameliorate the lot of their people in the Ottoman Empire, no opportunity promised better hope than the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. But the euphoria was short-lived, as reactionary forces vented their anger at the Armenians in Cilicia and north Syria through massacres. Musa Dagh was spared thanks to a show of force and the timely arrival of a British battleship. This resolve was repeated during the genocide, when two-third of Musa Daghians resisted, while the remainder heeded the government’s order of deportation. The self-defense was later immortalized in Franz Werfel’s novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Given the deeply fragmented state of Musa Dagh society in the 19th and early 20th century, the 1915 resistance was a rare instance of relative unity and cooperation.


Discussion Policy

Comments are welcomed and encouraged. Though you are fully responsible for the content you post, comments that include profanity, personal attacks or other inappropriate material will not be permitted. Asbarez reserves the right to block users who violate any of our posting standards and policies.