Adana – History of an Armenian City

Modern Adana is one of the rapidly developing cities in Turkey. Few of its current residents are likely aware of the true history of the city, which was one of the main settlements of Cilicia and played a significant role in the life of the Armenians of Cilicia until the 1930s. Even after massacres, pogroms, deportations, and attempts to eradicate Armenian heritage, the Armenian trace is still felt in Adana and almost all areas of the once mighty Armenian Cilicia.

Like other major cities, Adana also had Armenian educational and religious institutions. Along with Mersin and Tarsus, Adana was one of the key cities of the region, hence it was home to many educational institutions. Armenian newspapers were published in Adana. The Armenian Apostolic Church operated three high schools. There were two higher Armenian educational institutions.

Catholic and Protestant Armenian institutions also operated and were considered the best not only in Cilicia but also in the Aleppo region. Western missionaries were particularly active in Adana, so the city had several Armenian-French and Armenian-English educational institutions. Local Armenian youth, besides Turkish, were also fluent in French and English.

Hotels and banks, as well as many businesses, belonged to local Armenians. Armenian newspapers like “Adana,” “Cilicia,” “Ayi dzayn,” “Tavros,” and others were printed in the city and were funded by local patrons and Armenian charitable organizations.

Before the horrific massacre of Armenians in Adana in 1909, the city had a population of 45,000 people, of which 13,500 were Armenians. The rest were Turks, Arabs (both Muslims and Christians), Greeks, Assyrians, Jews, Circassians, Kurds, as well as Levantines. Armenians lived in the central districts of the city, in the south, and west of Adana. The local Armenian population was divided into followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as Catholics and Protestants.

Armenian Catholics and Protestants each had a church and were closely related to the local Levantine population, especially the French and Genoese. The Armenian Apostolic Church had 4 churches: Minasa, Amberd, Holy Mother, and Stepanos. During the reign of Abdul Hamid, as well as during republican Turkey, efforts were made at the state level to change the ethno-demographic picture of Cilicia and, in particular, Adana.

The primary Muslim groups in the city were the Turkmen and Turks, who led a semi-nomadic lifestyle, as well as the Ottoman Ramazanoglu clan, whose members held high positions in the city. However, to change the ethnic and religious face of Adana, Balkan Turks were relocated from various regions of the Ottoman Empire, as well as Islamized Cretan Greeks, who outnumbered other groups in certain city districts.

Moreover, the Ottoman government relocated Circassians, Chechens, Dagestanis, and Abkhazians to Adana. They settled on the outskirts of the city, in areas predominantly inhabited by Armenians. Due to state policies, a portion of the local Armenian population, facing persecution from the incoming Turkish subjects, was compelled to move further into the country and even migrate to the USA and Western Europe.

But even after the prolonged Armenian exodus from the city, Adana still remained predominantly Armenian until the bloody massacre of 1909, where over 10,000 Armenians were killed. In the city, 1,200 Armenian houses (out of 2,000) were burned down, along with 6 churches, 16 schools, and educational institutions. To this day, experts cannot estimate the real loss of the city’s Armenian capital. Hundreds of homeless Armenians sought refuge in the city’s surroundings.

Local Armenians managed to organize self-defense only in three districts. The fact that the Armenian massacre and pogroms were organized is evidenced by hundreds of archival documents from that time. Western missionaries, diplomats, and journalists witnessed the horrific Armenian massacre in Adana.

Some of them were so shocked by what they saw that they left the city, hoping to inform the global community about the events in Adana. The Russian ambassador in Constantinople, Zinoviev, wrote that the peaceful Armenian population was brutally exterminated. French Catholic missionary Father Benoit recalled the massacre and pogroms of the Armenians with horror while documenting the chronology of events.

The “New York Herald” correspondent G. Gibbons wrote about the main slogan of the murderers, who shouted, “Slay, slay these giaours.”

In addition to the Armenians, a portion of the local Christian population – Arabs, Assyrians, and Greeks – were also killed. Entire Christian districts of Adana – Ersel, Jamuz, Memerli, Idadiye, Shabaniye, and the area of the Latin Rite Catholic church were completely destroyed. Surprisingly, in the eyes of the global community of that time, the Young Turks unpunished exterminated the Armenian population for a whole month, and no country condemned these events. The English journalist Benson saw a direct link between the events in Adana and the genocide of 1915, noting that the events in Adana were a precursor to the future genocide and that the Young Turks were conducting an “experimental policy” regarding the extermination of the Armenians.

One way or another, the Turkish government achieved its intended result. The weakened Armenian population either tried to leave the region or, staying in their homeland, felt entirely alienated. After these events, Turks began to treat Christians particularly aggressively. Representatives of the Ottoman Turks, who became the ethnic majority after the extermination of the Armenians in 1909, were appointed as city council leaders.

Adana’s Armenians tried to rebuild the Armenian quarters of the city, but the 1915 genocide ultimately shattered their hopes. After the 1915 Armenian genocide, most of the city’s Armenian population perished at the hands of the Young Turks. As in all regions of Anatolia and Western Armenia, alongside the killings and deportations, significant groups of the Armenian population were Islamized.

In Cilicia, Islamized groups of Armenians remained in Zeytun, Marash, Tarsus, and Adana. After the proclamation of the Turkish Republic and during Atatürk’s rule, the situation of the surviving Armenians in Turkey remained challenging. Atatürk and his predecessors tried to completely oust the Armenian element from Turkey.

Interestingly, Turkish intelligence of that era (1937-1959) had information that ethnic Armenians remained in all provinces of the Turkish Republic. This included followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, hidden Armenians (crypto-Armenians), Islamized Armenians (Kurdified, Arabized, Turkified), and Armenians who survived among the Zaza people in the Dersim region. In subsequent years, Turkish foreign intelligence continued to identify the residences of the aforementioned Armenian groups. In the 1970s, the Turkish government relocated Turkic groups from Afghanistan, China, and India to the region.

Today, Adana is one of the most densely populated cities in Turkey, with a population of 1,572,000. The city is divided into five major districts, home to representatives of several ethnic groups. Islamized Greeks from the island of Crete, Turkmens, and Turks themselves constitute the majority of the population in two of the city’s districts.

The eastern part is inhabited by Arabs (the Yuregir district). The city has seen the rise of a significant Kurdish community. Adana is also home to the so-called “gypsies” – the Sonos, while other ethnic groups are scattered throughout. As for the Armenians of Adana, there are no followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the city. Numerous sources report that among the Arab Alevis and Kurds of Adana, there are Armenian families who secretly practice Christianity.

According to Protestant organizations in Turkey, many of the city’s Protestants also have Armenian origins. Two old Armenian churches have been converted into mosques. The Armenian church also houses the Central Bank of Adana. Another Armenian church serves members of the city’s Catholic community. Parts of the city have preserved old Armenian structures, where time seems to have stood still, waiting for justice.

Regrettably, the Armenian massacre in Adana has not been sufficiently researched to this day. And, finally, how does the Armenian diaspora perceive the events in Adana a century later? Adana remains silent for now.

by Arman Akopyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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