Will Untapped Ottoman Archives Reshape the Armenian Debate?

Real Side News
April 12 2009

Will Untapped Ottoman Archives Reshape the Armenian Debate?
April 11, 2009

Turkey, Present and Past
by Yücel Güçlü
Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2009, pp. 35-42

The debate over what happened to Armenians in World War I-era Ottoman
Anatolia continues to polarize historians and politicians. Armenian
historians argue that Ottoman forces killed more than one million
Armenians in a deliberate act of genocide.[1] Other historians-most
famously Bernard Lewis and Guenter Lewy-acknowledge that hundreds of
thousands of Armenians died but question whether this was a deliberate
act of genocide or rather an outgrowth of fighting and famine.[2] In
recent decades, the debate has shifted from academic to legislative

In 2001, the French parliament voted to recognize an Armenian
genocide.[3] In 2007, U.S. political leaders narrowly averted an
Armenian genocide resolution in the House of Representatives. While
Armenian activists lobby politicians to recognize an Armenian genocide
formally, which is likely to be a first step toward a demand for
collective reparations, and genocide studies scholars seek to close
the book on the Armenian narrative, it is ironic that many of the
archives that contain documentation from the period remain untapped.

The Richness of Ottoman Archives millets). These run through World War
I and contain valuable information on the question of Turkish-Armenian
relations. In 1989, the BaÅ?bakanlık Osmanlı
ArÅ?ivleri (the Ottoman Archives division of the Prime
Minister’s Office) in Istanbul fully opened its doors to scholars
regardless of their nationality or subject of research. The Ottoman
Empire’s central state archives originally consisted of two groups of
documents: the records of the Imperial Council and of the Grand
Vizier’s office. From time to time, the state added other collections,
for example, the records of the finance departments and the Cadastral
Survey Office.

The government registers include copies of the texts of imperial
orders and decrees sent to provincial officials and judges and replies
to reports from across the empire. They relate to questions of law and
order, state revenues, military arrangements, foreign relations,
administrative assignments, and other matters submitted for the
sultan’s consideration. Survey registers of rural and urban
populations and their production convey figures and other information
collected for administrative purposes. Likewise, there are specific
registers dealing with the non-Muslim peoples of the Ottoman Empire,
such as church registers and registers concerning other non-Muslim

There are approximately 150 million documents that span every period
and region of the Ottoman realm in the stacks and vaults of the
Ottoman Archives. Each day, new collections in these Ottoman archives
are opened to researchers. All these extensive records are well
preserved and organized.

The first published catalog of Ottoman archival holdings appeared in
1955 and consisted of ninety pages of archival inventory and
commentary.[5] Archivist Attila Ã?etin followed in 1979 with a
more extensive catalog, which is also available in Italian.[6] As the
classifying and organizing of the archives continued, the catalog
grew. The 1992 edition is 634 pages long. The expanded 1995
compilation provides access to even more documents. Revised editions
are to be forthcoming from time to time, as more detailed descriptions
become available for the various fonds or individual record groups.[7]

Ottoman archival documentation constitutes an unequaled trove of
information about how people lived from the fifteenth through the
early twentieth centuries in a territory now comprised of twenty-two
nations. İlber Ortaylı, director of the Topkapı
Palace Museum at Istanbul, argues that the history of the Ottoman
Empire should not be written without Ottoman sources.[8] He is not
alone in this. His position is buttressed by a number of specialists
in the study of the Ottoman state and society. Albert Hourani, for
example, the late British scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, argued
that his best advice to history students considering Middle East
specialization would be to "learn Ottoman Turkish well and learn also
how to use Ottoman documents, since the exploitation of Ottoman
archives, located in Istanbul and in smaller cities and towns, is
perhaps the most important task of the next generation."[9]

The Archives and the Armenians

There are few comprehensive sources about Armenian life in Anatolia
outside of Ottoman archival sources. Diplomatic records, such as those
cited by Armenian historian Vahakn Dadrian, as the basis for
discussions among genocide scholars are spotty and intertwined with
wartime politics.[10] The Ottoman Ministry of the Interior (Dahiliye
Nezareti) was the government department directing and supervising the
relocation and resettlement of the Armenian population. The collection
of the ministry documents covers the period from 1866 to 1922 and
consists of 4,598 registers or notebooks. It is classified according
to twenty-one subcollections, according to office of origin. Among the
available documents in the Ottoman archives are several dozen
registers containing the records of the deliberations and actions of
the Council of Ministers, which set policies, received reports, and
discussed problems that arose regarding the relocations and other
wartime events. The minutes of its meetings, deliberations,
resolutions, and decisions are bound in 224 volumes covering the years
1885 through 1922. These registers include each and every decree
pertaining to the decision to relocate the Ottoman Armenians away from
the war zones during World War I. The Records Office of the Sublime
Porte (Babıali Evrak Odası) also contains substantial
documentation, including the correspondence between the grand vizier
and the ministries, as well as the central government and the
provinces that can illuminate the events of 1915.[11]

It is ironic, therefore, as politicians seek to deliberate on
questions of history, that few historians investigating Armenian
issues have actually consulted the Ottoman archives. As Australian
historian Jeremy Salt has explained,

The Ottoman archives remain largely unconsulted. When so much is
missing from the fundamental source material, no historical narrative
can be called complete and no conclusions can be balanced. If the
Ottoman sources are properly utilized, the way in which the Armenian
question is understood is bound to change.[12]

There is little explanation as to why more historians do not consult
the Ottoman archives. They are open to all scholars. Bernard Lewis,
Cleveland Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at
Princeton University, who has worked extensively in the Ottoman
archives since 1949, has argued that "the Ottoman archives are in the
care of a competent and devoted staff who are always willing to place
their time and knowledge at the disposal of the visiting scholar, with
a personal helpfulness and courtesy that will surprise those with
purely Western experience. [These records] are open to all who can
read them."[13] The late Stanford Shaw, Professor Emeritus of Turkish
and Judeo-Turkish History at the University of California, Los
Angeles, also spoke highly of the helpfulness of the archivists.[14]
He argued that the sheer amount of new material available removed any
excuse for any scholar investigating various nationalist revolts not
to spend time examining the new sources.[15]

Even Taner Akçam of University of Minnesota, one of the most
vocal proponents of Armenian genocide claims, noted the improvement in
the working conditions of the archives. In a recent article, he
thanked the staff and especially the deputy director-general of state
archives for their help and openness during his last visit.[16] The
archivists are now helpful to all researchers, not only those pursuing
research which supports the Turkish government’s line.

Turkish Military Archives

The archives of the Turkish General Staff Military History and
Strategic Studies Directorate in Ankara (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti
Genelkurmay Askeri Tarih ve Stratejik Etüt
BaÅ?kanlıÄ?&# xC4;± ArÅ?ivleri) provide a
military perspective. Indeed, more than the Ottoman Archives in the
Prime Minister’s Office, this repository provides a rich trove of
information about internal conditions in the empire, operations of the
Ottoman army, and the Special Organization (TeÅ?kilat-ı
Mahsusa), somewhat equivalent to the Ottoman special forces, for the
period 1914-22.[17]

The World War I and War of Independence archives alone number over
five and a half million documents spread among Turkish General Staff
Division reports and War Ministry files. Division 1 (Operations)
contains military operations plans and orders, operations and
situation reports, maps and overlays, general staff orders,
mobilization instructions and orders, organizational orders, training
and exercise instructions, spot combat reports. Division 2
(Intelligence) contains intelligence estimates and reports and orders
of battle. Divisions 3 and 4 (Logistics) contain files concerning
procurement, animals, munitions, transportation, rations, and
accounting. The Ministry of War files contain the General Command’s
ciphered cables to military units as well as the papers of the
infantry, fortress artillery, and other divisions. Vehip Pasha’s Third
Army (Erzurum), Jemal Pasha’s Fourth Army (Damascus), and Ali
Ä°hsan Pasha’s Sixth Army (Baghdad) are included among the staff
files. These also include the Lightning Armies and Caucasian Armies

The cataloging and microfilming of the military archives repository up
to the end of 1922 is complete. Once-secret documents should provide
new information on the Armenian issue.[19] In addition to the
microfilmed documents, the Turkish General Staff Military History and
Strategic Studies Directorate publishes volumes of documents from its
collection, including Latin alphabet transliteration of all

Justin McCarthy, professor of Middle Eastern history and demographer
at the University of Louisville/Kentucky, one of the few Western
scholars to have done systematic research in the Ottoman archives, has
written that the "reports of Ottoman soldiers and officials were not
political documents or public relations exercises. They were secret
internal reports in which responsible men relayed to their governments
what they believed to be true."[21] Indeed, the military records have
already called into question conventional wisdom about the Special
Organization, namely, the organization’s involvement in the Armenian
relocations. [22]

Other Ankara Resources

The Turkish Historical Society (Türk Tarih Kurumu) at Ankara is
also open to the public. The society houses private collections
relating to strategy and political matters in the twentieth century,
which include the papers of World War I-era war minister Enver Pasha
together with those of his chief aide-de-camp and brother-in-law,
Kazım Orbay. The Enver Pasha collection, donated in 1972 by his
daughter Mahpeyker Enver, consists of 789 single, disparate items of
handwritten notes, memoranda, reports, military records, cards and
invitations, dispatches, letters of appreciation of colleagues and
opponents, photographic albums, topographic maps, charts, private
correspondence, diaries, and miscellany for the period 1914-22. There
are no restrictions on access to these.[23] Because in the early
decades of the twentieth century it was customary for officials to
keep their papers upon their departure, these remain a relatively rare
resource. Orbay’s papers add additional insight because they enable
historians to gauge which issues most occupied the Ottoman Empire’s
highest ranking military official of the time. Few scholars have used
this last collection perhaps because they remain unaware of it.[24]

The National Library (Milli Kütüphane) at Ankara houses
thousands of Muslim court records, most of which were transferred from
local museums and offices scattered around Turkey. These records
contain a vast array of information concerning imperial
administration, city government, the affairs of townspeople and
villagers and deal with almost every aspect of the lives of the
subjects be it personal status, taxes, loans, sales, price
regulations, complaints, flight, or theft. Any matter requiring
official resolution, registration, verification, or adjudication was
potentially the domain of the Muslim judge (kadı) even when the
matters applied to non-Muslims, such as Armenian Christians.[25] Many
Turkish historians have employed Muslim court records extensively for
Anatolian regional studies, but they remain relatively untapped by
Armenian historians.[26]

Armenian Archives

Sole reference to Ottoman archives will not and should not satisfy
historians; a full study of the Armenians during World War I should
consider material from all sides in a conflict. The Armenian community
maintains a number of archives. The archives in Watertown,
Massachusetts, contain repositories from the Dashnak Party
(Dashnaksutiun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and the First
Republic of Armenia. Both of the above together with the archives of
the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem and the Catholicosate, the seat
of the supreme religious leader of the Armenian people, in Echmiadzin,
Armenia, remain closed to non-Armenian researchers.

Tatul Sonentz-Papazian, Dashnakist archivist, for example, denied
İnönü University scholar Göknur
AkçadaÄ? access to the Watertown archives in a June 20,
2008 letter. Dashnaksutiun archives are also not available to those
Armenians who do not tow the party line. Historian Ara Sarafian,
director of the Gomidas Institute in London, complained that "some
Armenian archives in the diaspora are not open to researchers for a
variety of reasons. The most important ones are the Jerusalem
Patriarchate archives. I have tried to access them twice and [been]
turned away. The other archives are the Zoryan Institute archives,
composed of the private papers of Armenian survivors, whose families
deposited their records with the Zoryan Institute in the 1980s. As far
as I know, these materials are still not cataloged and accessible to
scholars."[27] Beyond the closure of Armenian archives to non-Armenian
and even to some Armenian scholars, few of these allow the public to
access catalogs detailing their holdings.

Many scholars writing on the Armenian question utilize Britain’s
National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) in Kew
Gardens. While the British government has made available many of their
diplomats’ reports for study, much material from the British
occupation of Istanbul (1919-22) and elsewhere in Anatolia following
World War I remains closed to researchers under the Official Secrets
Act and are only partially available in the archives of the government
of India in Delhi.

British authorities say they remain sealed for national security
reasons. Their release should be important to historians as they will
include evidence regarding returning Armenian refugees and other
related matters. Files of the British Eastern Mediterranean Special
Intelligence Bureau also remain closed, perhaps because the British
government does not wish to expose those who may have committed
espionage on behalf of Britain. These are important because they
should enable historians to research British espionage and sabotage,
demoralizing propaganda, and attempts to provoke treason and desertion
from Ottoman ranks during and immediately after 1914-18. The documents
of the Secret Office of War Propaganda, which under the direction of
Lord James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee developed propaganda used against
the Central Powers during World War I, also remain sealed. Their
opening will allow historians to assess whether British officials in
the heat of war created or exaggerated accounts of deliberate

An International Historians’ Commission

History cannot be decided by politicians weighing either constituent
concerns or emotions more than evidence. Nor should the debate on
history be closed while the existing narrative utilizes only a small
portion of the source material. The same holds true not only for
Armenian historians but also for their Turkish counterparts and

Rather, historians should work together to consider all source
material, both in Armenian and Turkish archives. Each should be open
fully. Cherry-picking documents to "prove" preconceived ideas and to
ignore documents that undercut theses is poor history and, in a
politicized atmosphere, can do far more harm than good.

On April 10, 2005, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an
extended an invitation to Armenian president Robert Kocharian to
establish a joint commission consisting of historians and other
experts to study the developments and events of 1915, not only in the
archives of Turkey and Armenia but also in those of relevant third
countries such as Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary,
and the United States, and to share their findings with the
public.[28] Ninety-seven members of the Council of Europe’s
Parliamentary Assembly at Strasbourg signed a declaration calling on
Armenia to accept the Turkish proposal.[29]

In his annual commemoration message to the Armenian-American community
in 2005, President George W. Bush expressed support for Turkey’s
proposal, declaring, "We look to a future of freedom, peace, and
prosperity in Armenia and Turkey and hope that Prime Minister
ErdoÄ?an’s recent proposal for a joint Turkish-Armenian
commission can help advance these processes."[30] Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice reiterated the point two years later, telling

I think that these historical circumstances require a very detailed
and sober look from historians. And what we’ve encouraged the Turks
and the Armenians to do is to have joint historical commissions that
can look at this, to have efforts to examine their past, and in
examining their past to get over their past.[31]

It is unfortunate that the Armenian government has failed to accept
the joint commission, for without joint consideration of all evidence,
the wounds of the past will not heal and, indeed, when an incomplete
narrative enters the political realm, the consequences can be grave
Yücel Güçlü is first counselor at the
Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this
article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey.

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