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A History of Destruction: The Fate of Armenian Church Properties in Adana [i]

By: Mehmet Polatel
Genocidal processes involve the loss of large numbers of human life. The motivation behind these processes is always related to the destruction of a certain group of people. However, it is not only the people that make a community; the idea of the community is also related to shared values, everyday routines, culture, literature, and religion. Thus, genocidal processes not only target certain groups of people, but also the symbols, buildings, and monuments that belong to them. This article examines the fate of religious buildings in Adana after the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in a process of destruction that aimed to erase the proof of Armenian existence in the region.

The Armenian district of Adana in ruins (Photo source: The Armenian Genocide Museum Institute)
The Adana region had been inhabited by Armenians since the 4th century. As Adana was one of the first regions in the Ottoman Empire to integrate with the world economy through cotton production, it presented a great location for the Armenian community to prosper. This prosperity was reflected in the number of schools, monasteries, and churches functioning in the region. Armenians occupied with trade and artisanship actively participated in the public life of the city. Apart from the central district of Adana, Tarsus, Hadjin, Sis, and Cebel-i Bereket were the four major areas in the Adana province that had a considerable Armenian presence. As the administrative structure of the Ottoman state was based on the millet system, Armenians were given representation on the administrative council on the basis of religious difference. The Apostolic, Catholic, and Protestant communities were represented by their religious leaders in this council. The Armenians of Adana mostly lived in the Khidir-Ilyas neighborhood, around the Notre Dame church, and in the city center, around the Saint-Etienne parish. Reflecting the size and prosperity of the community in the province was the dynamic intellectual and educational community life present. [ii] There were 1,500 students at the Abkarian, Ashkhenian, and Aramian colleges in 1913. There was also a girl’s school that had more than 500 students. According to the statistics of the Patriarchate, there were 25 schools with 1,947 male students, 808 female students, and 69 teachers in the province. Seven of these schools were in Sis, and provided an education to 476 boys and 165 girls, with 19 teachers.[iii]
Genocide and Armenian properties
Following the deportation decision, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) carefully controlled the state of Armenian properties. There were two parallel processes regarding the Armenian properties: one legal and one illegal. The legal process began with the cabinet decision to protect the Armenian properties left behind and allocate them to immigrants from the Balkans and Caucasus.[iv] Another legal decision was a secret order to inform local governments about the management of the Armenian properties. This secret order included the establishment of liquidation commissions to manage the properties, including the sale of movable properties and the distribution of land, houses, and crops to the immigrants and tribes.[v] Finally, on Sept. 27, 1915, the CUP adopted a law regarding the abandoned Armenian properties; it was defined as a temporary law: “the law about the abandoned properties, debts, and credits of the population who were sent elsewhere.”[vi] While it did not include any articles different from the secret order, it served to legalize the aims of the order. In a practical sense, the CUP used the properties for different aims: the settlement of immigrants,[vii] the establishment of a national economy,[viii] and the provision of the needs of the state, people, and military.[ix] Sacred places like churches and monasteries were excluded from the expropriation and appropriation practices. It was declared that they would be protected and taken care of. Existing goods, pictures, and holy books from the churches were to be registered and preserved. In a new regulation adopted in November1915 defining the procedures of liquidation, usage rights of the materials from the schools and monasteries were transferred to the Ministry of Education.[x] This declaration, however, stayed on paper and the properties that were declared protected were also confiscated by the state.
Confiscation in Adana
The CUP aimed to de-Armenize the Adana province—which included the plain of Adana, Mersin, Sis, and Tarsus—and fill them with Muslim immigrants from the Balkans and Caucasus. The genocide struck Adana in the summer of 1915, when the CUP ordered the deportation of Armenians from the villages of Adana province. In this order, the government also requested the names of the villages and number of deportees. [xi] The CUP government then targeted the provincial towns. The complete deportation of the Armenians of Sis was ordered on June 17, 1915. [xii] Other towns followed one by one. In October 1915, 9,000 Armenians were deported from Dörtyol. With the exception of Baghdad Railway employees and military staff, Armenians were to be “deported without exception” (bilâ-istisna teb’id).[xiii] The Abandoned Properties Commission of Dörtyol was authorized to proceed with the liquidation of Armenian immovable property and its transfer to the Muslim population.[xiv] The immovable properties were used for various, multifaceted aims, including fostering Turkish business in Adana and resettling the now-empty villages and towns with Muslim immigrants from the Balkans.
According to Talat Pasha’s own notebook, 699 buildings were confiscated in Adana province:
Table 1: Confiscated buildings in Adana
Name of district       Number
Tarsus            9
Cebel-i Bereket        5
Kozan (Sis)   229
Kars    22
Hadjin            50
Hadjin Shar   25
Hadjin Rumlar         25
Feke   30
Feke Karadere          25
Feke Karaköy           130
Feke Yerebakan       30
Feke Dikme  30
Ceyhan          86
Total   699
Source: Bardakçı, 2008, p.93.
These buildings ranged from individual houses to large farms and estates. The losses in Sis/Kozan are striking: They add up to one-third of all the buildings confiscated in the entire province of Adana.
The Ottoman state also confiscated properties belonging to the community: Eight schools and churches, covering a territory of 14,400 m2 with an estimated value of 46,400 Turkish gold liras, were seized by the state. Fifty-six community buildings and plots, covering 16,488 m2 and worth 43,785 Turkish gold liras, were also seized.[xv]
The Catholicosate of Sis overlooked the town and was a large building—constructed on 1,250,000 m2—with 50 rooms and halls. The building was coated with high-quality earthenware Kütahya tile and housed a library of 4,000 books and 400 manuscripts, along with an antique art museum. The tax the Catholicosate paid was roughly 100,000 Turkish gold liras. The diocese was also in possession of a historical church and residential buildings covering 14,500 m2 and worth 2,000 Turkish gold liras. The Catholicosate also owned several houses and shops, two water mills, a 10,000 m2 garden, a 30,000 m2 field, and a 10,000,000 m2 farm with depots, stables, plots, 130 cows, 30 muzzles, and flocks of goats and sheep. The properties of the Catholicosate of Sis covered a total of 11,687,100 m2 and were worth 167,520 Turkish gold liras.[xvi]
The churches in the provinces and neighborhoods also experienced astronomical losses. These losses were counted and documented in the archives of the Armenian Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon:[xvii]
—Surp Asdvadzadzin in the Hidir Ilyas neighbourhood;
—A school in the compound of that church (Ferman of February 1816): 6,000 m2, 25,000 Turkish gold lira (TL);
—Surp Stepanos and school in the Bucak neighborhood, burned in 1909 (Ferman lost): 5,000 m2, 18,000 TL;
—Church in Hiristiyanköy (Ferman of March 1848): 1,000 m2, 1,000 TL;
—Church in İncirlik (Ferman lost): 800 m2, 800 TL;
—Church in Sheikh Murad (Ferman lost): 1,000 m2, 1,000 TL;
—Church in Abdo-oghlu, burned during the French occupation (Ferman lost): 200 m2, 200 TL;
—Church in Missis, burned during the French occupation (Ferman lost): 400 m2, 400 TL.
The state used the Armenian properties for its various interests. Some were transferred to Turkish firms. Others were shared among local officials and citizens. Big buildings like churches were converted into prisons. The local authorities in Adana offered the conversion of six buildings in the province into prisons. Reporting to the Interior Ministry, the governor of Adana claimed Adana was in serious need of a new prison and offered to transform a church—and the school next to the church—into a prison with some refurbishing.[xviii] The Interior Ministry accepted the offer and authorized the governor to put the plan into practice. In the end, those holy places that had been declared “protected” were converted into prisons.[xix] Before this change, the prison was a room in an old police station. Not by chance, this police station was also moved to a different building—one on Armenian property.[xx] Church buildings and fields were also used for different purposes. According to the memoirs of Damar Arıkoğlu, who was a CUP representative for Adana and represented the province as a parliamentarian from 1920-46, an apprentice school was established in the yard of an Armenian church in the province.[xxi]
After 1918, surviving Adana Armenians attempted to return to their homes. Restitution soon became an obstacle. The heirs of murdered and deceased deportees encountered difficulties when trying to reclaim property. The principle of “appearance in person” (isbât-ı vücud) was in force, and only the person registered on the property could claim it back. Many of those people had, of course, been killed, and their documentation often lost.
A few dozen Maronites, Greek Catholics, and Armenian Catholics stayed in the region. These communities were also dispossessed in Adana, Mersin, and Tarsus. The state confiscated storehouses, rectories, churches, gardens, farms, houses, and convents, and used them for its own purposes. As the Treaty of Lausanne did not name any specific groups that were guaranteed minority status, the government declared that these communities were not covered under the Treaty of Lausanne, and thus did not have the rights guaranteed for minority communities. The government ordered the seizure of all properties belonging to these communities on Jan. 21, 1926. The bell tower of the Maronite church in Tarsus was demolished and was converted into the district governorship in 1928. Maronite and Greek Catholic properties in Mersin were given to the Ministry of Education.[xxii]
Young Turk officials also bullied Father Ignace Terzian out of Tarsus, then terrorized the priest Jean Khalkovian in Mersin. Local newspapers participated in this pressure policy by launching a campaign of defamation against Khalkovian, claiming he had cooperated with the occupying French forces. Khalkovian was deported to Kastamonu and in 1926 was expelled from Turkey. Removing such an important community figure from the scene, the authorities were even more free in confiscating the properties of the Armenian Catholic community—18 hectares of agricultural land, a storehouse, shops, and many other belongings. The community was stripped to such an extent that the last Catholic Armenian in Adana, Msgr. Pascal Keklikian, was renting the Catholic community’s own property from the government. Although he tried to improve the conditions of his community, his efforts proved to be unsuccessful; the state was determined to destroy the same community he was trying to protect. In January 1927, the governor of Adana, Reşat Mimaroğlu (1880-1953), ordered the categorical confiscation of all Catholic Armenian properties in that province. The community had now lost everything: its church, rectory, schools, shops, land, houses. The dispirited and defeated Keklikian had no other option than to depart for Syria.[xxiii]
It is a widely reproduced myth that the Ottoman and Turkish states protected Armenian properties, especially its holy places. It is so popular that one can find this historically ungrounded myth in the declarations of state officials, not only those from Turkey but also from the U.S. However, one should look at the history without political bias to see the difference between myth and reality. This short article attempted to do this, sharing a motivation with other ongoing efforts to look at the history of the Armenian Genocide from a purely academic point of view free from politics.
[i] This article is based on the study Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property (London/New York: Continuum, 2011) by Uğur Ümit Üngör and Mehmet Polatel.
[ii] Raymond H. Kévorkian and Paul B. Paboudjian, Les Arméniens dans l’empire ottoman à la veille du génocide (Paris: Editions d’Art et d’Histoire, 1992), pp. 265-7.
[iii] Kévork K. Baghdjian, La confiscation, par le gouvernement turc, des biens arméniens–dits abandonnés” (Montréal: K.K. Baghdjian, 1987), p. 253.
[iv] Ottoman Prime Ministerial Archives (BOA), Meclis-i Vükelâ Mazbatası, 198/24, in Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri Genel Müdürlüğü Osmanlı Arşivleri Daire Başkanlığı (2007), Osmanlı Belgelerinde Ermenilerin Sevk ve İskanı, Ankara, pp. 155-157.
[v] Original document in Genelkurmay Askeri Tarih ve Staratejik Etüd Başkanlığı (December 1982), “Ahval-i Harbiye ve Zaruret-i Fevkalâde-i Siyasiye dolayısıyla Mahall-i Ahire Nakilleri İcra Edilen Ermenilere Ait Emval ve Emlâk ve Arazinin Keyfiyet-i İdaresi Hakkında Talimnamedir,” Askeri Tarih Belgeleri Dergisi, pp. 147-153. For the English translation of the original document in the Prime Minister Directorate General of Press and Information (1982), Documents, Ankara, pp. 74-80.
[vi] Takvim-i Vakayi, Oct. 28, 1915, no: 2303.
[vii] An example for settlement of immigrants: Republican Prime Ministerial Archives (BCA), 272, 12, 36, 10, 1, Oct. 5, 1915 and Oct. 16, 1915; an example for use of properties for needs of immigrants: BOA/DH.ŞFR, 61/247, Interior Ministry to Trabzon, March 3, 1916.
[viii] An example for showing the distribution of Armenian properties to Muslims to foster the national economy: BOA/DH.ŞFR, 59/239, Jan. 6, 1916.
[ix] An example for army: BOA/DH.ŞFR, 55-A/143, Sept. 8, 1915; an example for public use: BOA/DH.ŞFR, 55/330, Aug. 24, 1915
[x] Takvim-i Vakayi, Nov. 10, 1915, no: 2343.
[xi] BOA, DH.ŞFR 53/113, Interior Ministry to Adana, Bitlis, Aleppo, Erzurum, May 25, 1915.
[xii] BOA, DH.ŞFR 54/51, Interior Ministry to Adana, May 25, 1915.
[xiii] BOA, DH.EUM 68/89, 2. Şube, Fethi to Interior Ministry, Oct. 11, 1915.
[xiv] BOA, DH.ŞFR 54/346, Interior Ministry to Adana, July 6, 1915.
[xv] Baghdjian, La confiscation, p. 73.
[xvi] ibid., pp. 74-5.
[xvii] ibid., p. 275.
[xviii] BOA, DH.MB.HPS 49/31, May 14, 1916.
[xix] BOA, DH.MB.HPS 49/22, correspondence dated Oct. 24, 1915 and Jan. 6, 1916.
[xx] BOA, DH.EUM.MH 162/105, Sept. 24, 1917.
[xxi] Damar Arıkoğlu, Hatıralarım (Istanbul: Tan Matbaası, 1961), p. 95.
[xxii] Vahé Tachjian, La France en Cilicie et en Haute-Mésopotamie: aux confins de la Turquie, de la Syrie et de l’Irak, 1919-1933 (Paris: Karthala, 2004), pp. 225-6.
[xxiii] ibid., pp. 228-9.

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