Zeytun was an Armenian settlement in Western Armenia. It used to be a major city in Armenian Cilicia. The city of Zeytun was surrounded by the chain of the Taurus Mountains.
The name “Zeytun” comes from the Armenian word “Dzetun”, meaning “vegetable oil.”
The city consisted of four quarters – Surenian (or Central), Verin tagh (or New, Yeni Duniya in Turkish), Shovoryan (or Baz Bayir), and Yagubyan (or Kargezlar). The quarters were ruled by “barons”, the heads of princely families that had arrived in Cilicia in the 11th century mostly from Ani, as well as from Van and Sasun.
Zeytun (now Suleymanly) was among the districts that received nearly no harm when the Ottoman Empire captured Armenia. The Zeytunians helped the Ottomans in their wars with other Turkish tribes, and therefore, Sultan Murad IV officially recognized their independence in 1618 in exchange for annual tax payments.
In the city, criminals were never imprisoned: they were either executed, expelled from the community, or obliged to pay a fine.
The area of the city was fortified and included Armenian and Turkish villages, but not a single Turk was allowed to live within the walls of Zeytun itself. For centuries, right up until the fateful 1915, the Zeytunians have prevented anyone from seizing control in the city.
In addition to Zeytun, other cities such as Gandzasar and Shushi in Karabakh, as well as the settlements of Musa-Dag and the mountain region of Sasun enjoyed full or partial autonomy.
Those inaccessible settlements were easy-to-defend thanks to their location in enclosed ravines or inaccessible mountaintops. Invaders avoided these areas until the Armenian Question arose in the 19th century. In 1808, 1819, 1829, 1840, and 1860, the Turkish authorities organized their first marches against Zeytun.
In 1862, Aziz Pasha attacked the city with an army of twelve thousand soldiers, but four thousand Zeitunians managed to defend their autonomy. With the personal intervention of Napoleon III, Zeytun gained independence and was exempt from taxes.
In 1863, Armenian prince Levon Zeytunsky, while in Milan, sent Garibaldi a petition proposing him a plan to free Cilicia from the Turkish yoke. The “Garibaldins” were to sail to the Cilician coast, liberate Sis, and attack Marash and Adana where the Turkish Pashas had only small garrisons and limited resources.
In exchange, the Armenian prince promised Italians possessions in Cilicia. Interestingly, in the same time period, Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin addressed Garibaldi with a similar proposal. The Italian hero did not pay attention to these requests.
In 1865, the Zeitunians were forced to put up with the Turkish rule and accept the appointment of the first Turkish governor. However, in 1872 and 1875, they expelled Turkish policemen from the city. In 1877-1878, they rebelled again and restored their independence for three years.
During the period of mass killings of Armenians in 1895-1896 by the order of Abdul-Hamid, the successful actions of Zeytun mountaineers put a stop to the killings in Adana. 1,500 Armenian mountaineers restricted the movement of 24 Turkish battalions and numerous detachments of Kurds and Circassians.
As a result of the intervention of European powers, a treaty between Zeytun and Ottoman authorities was concluded. The treaty ensured a five-year tax exemption, the appointment of a Christian as the governor of Zeytun, and a general amnesty for Zeytun.
In 1915, the genocide of the Armenian people planned by the Young Turks began in Zeytun, a stronghold and a symbol of the Armenian resistance. Fahri Pasha commanded the operation together with German officer Eberhard Wolfskehl.
The Turks also violently suppressed the self-defense of Armenians in Urfa and tried to seize Musa-Dag. Armenians in Zeytun were savagely killed, and the surviving women, elderly, and children (15,000 people) were deported to Deir el-Zor. Zeytun would be populated by Turks exiled from the Balkans.
After the defeat of Turkey in WWI and the establishment of a French protectorate in Cilicia, a part of the Zeitunians returned to the city. But in 1921, they were again deported by the new Turkish authorities, the Kemalists.