April 24th marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide, the systematic killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. It remains a controversial topic, since Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, has refused to acknowledge that genocide occurred, and many of Turkey’s allies (including the U.S.), will not recognize it either, for fear of offending Turkey. It is a shame that politics has gotten in the way of widespread recognition of what really happened, because only through recognition can we heal the wounds of the past and prevent such massive tragedies from recurring. That is why I would like to take on a more serious topic than usual this week, and present a few maps which help to explain the situation in Armenia before, during, and after the genocide.
The Armenian nation stretches back to antiquity, although the size of its reach has shifted greatly over the millennia. From 83 to 69 B.C., the Armenian Empire held its largest swath of territory under Emperor Tigranes the Great. As the map below shows, Armenia stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, including parts of modern-day Turkey and Syria.
Ancient Armenian Empire under Tigranes the Great (via Wikipedia, Robert H. Hewsen “Armenia: A Historical Atlas”. The University of Chicago Press, 2001)
However, the Armenian Empire soon lost territory to the expanding Roman Empire and never was able to regain it. In later years, the Armenians were invaded by several other large empires, such as the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. Great numbers of Armenians fled their homeland and settled in other countries of Europe, although many did stay, even though they were often not in control of their own land. On the eve of World War I, the the Armenian homeland was controlled by the Ottomans, but the Armenians had begun fighting for their independence, just as the Greeks before them. The Ottomans would not let them go easily.
This map shows the extent of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia (orange), areas where Armenians were living before the Genocide (shaded), the current nation of Armenia (red), and parts of neighboring countries where significant populations of Armenians live today (lighter red). As you can see, large parts of the then-Ottoman empire had high percentages of Armenians living there, although this is no longer the case.
Distribution of Armenians in the Caucasus (via Wikipedia)
An ethnic group does not suddenly vanish off the map by accident. Although Turkey claims that these Armenians died from a civil war, the evidence is clear that an organized, coordinated genocidal plan was enacted on the part of the government. In a similar fashion to the Holocaust, Armenians were deported along specified routes in order to be executed together in designated areas.
Map of Armenian Genocide (via Wikipedia)
As a result of the genocide, the Armenian presence in the area known as “Western Armenia” in Central Anatolia was terminated after over two thousand years. After World War I, in 1918, Armenia declared itself an independent nation, which the Ottoman Empire, defeated and on the verge of collapse, accepted. The new nation’s territory, however, only included the smaller, Eastern section of Armenia’s historical homeland. The map below, presented by the Armenian National Delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, shows that Armenia was hoping to achieve much more.
A Map Presented by the Armenian National Delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris, 1919. (via Wikipedia; American Committee for the Independence of Armenia, New York, 1919)
Subsequent wars between Turkey, Armenia, and Soviet Russia changed the borders of the Armenian nation several more times during the 20th century. Border disputes in the region are still ongoing, including one between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Most significantly, though, Armenia is still claiming the Western Armenia region of Turkey. Armenian activists believe that achieving recognition of the Genocide is one important step towards achieving this. However, as I explained earlier, Turkey’s many important allies around the world have made greater recognition difficult.
Millions of Armenians, faced with violence and uncertainty in their homeland over the centuries, have created strong communities in other countries. Below is a map showing the extent of the Armenian diaspora around the world:
Armenian Diaspora (via Wikipedia, http://geocurrents.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Armenian-Diaspora-map.jpg)
The genocide suffered by the Armenians was one of the first in modern times, but it was far from the last. Each time a tragedy on this level occurs, we hear the refrain of “never again!”, and yet, such ethnic extermination has been a recurrent evil over the past century. Rather than ignore or downplay what has happened, it is better to acknowledge it and move forward through peace and reparations, lest the cycle of violence continue. It has been 100 years without Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but it is still not too late.