Zeytun – Armenian city in Mountainous Cilicia

Set in the rugged landscape of Mountainous Cilicia, the Armenian city of Zeytun held a remarkable history until its devastation by the Ottoman forces in the early 20th century.

Three mountain streams, cascading into deep gorges, created a natural amphitheater where the city nestled. Zeytun, first established between the 1st and 2nd centuries BC as Ulnia was a southern hub of Lesser Armenia. Its population was predominantly Armenian, with a smaller Greek community.

As the 11th century rolled in, Ulnia became part of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, a sovereign state stretching from the east of the present-day Turkish resort of Antalya up to the Turkish-Syrian border. During this period, the city’s population experienced significant growth, spurred by Armenian migrants from the Seljuk-ravaged capital of Armenia, Ani.

Following the collapse of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in the 15th century, Mountainous Cilicia virtually gained autonomy. The formidable mountain terrains thwarted any attempts by the Egyptian Mamelukes or the Ottomans to infiltrate. The local population, just like their Armenian counterparts in Artsakh and Syunik, rallied strong defenses, preserving their independence for a few more centuries.

Zeytun, in the 17th century, boasted 11 churches and two monasteries, Prkich and Astvatsatsin, which hosted a university, a seminary, and two schools, collectively nurturing a vibrant academic community of 600 students. Four distinct quarters – Shovoryan, Yakhubyan, Yeni-Dunyanyan (Verin), and Surenyan – named after their leaders, made up the city, while 29 surrounding Armenian villages offered a rural counterpoint to the urban life.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Zeytun held its ground against repeated Ottoman sieges, defending its autonomy for an impressive 485 years following the downfall of the Armenian kingdom in 1380.

However, by 1865, Zeytun succumbed to diplomatic pressures. The Ottoman Empire convinced European diplomats to encourage Armenians in several mountainous regions, including Zeytun, to acknowledge Ottoman supremacy in return for ‘written guarantees of their safety and extensive internal autonomy’. Believing in European assurance, Zeytun disarmed and conceded to the Ottoman sultan’s authority.

Unfortunately, this trust was short-lived. The Ottomans reneged on their promise of autonomy, and a series of massacres began in 1876, leading to the ultimate destruction of Zeytun’s populace in 1915. The surviving Zeytuns, under French protection, attempted to revive their city in 1918, but a final massacre in 1921 shattered these hopes.

In 1923, the city was renamed Suleymanli. For many decades it housed a closed Turkish military base, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the Turkish government initiated the demolition of the remaining Armenian structures to establish a new settlement.

As of 2010, the ‘village of Suleymanli’ was home to 459 Turks, a stark reminder of the vibrant Armenian city that once was.

Vigen Avetisyan

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