Zeytun was a grain of salt in the eye for the Turkish nationalism. Along with sacred places and relics that attract pilgrims and immerse them in reverential contemplation, there are such places that excite the fierce anger and hatred of chauvinist fanatics.
The reasons for this hatred of Zeytun were completely clear. First, in this city, almost until the end of the 19th century, there have been free self-government and order of things that reminded the dominant nation of some unpleasant experience gained in antiquity.
Secondly, Armenians of Zeytun have preserved their desire for independence that sometimes turned into arrogance, which has been characteristic of them throughout their history. But the unexpected behavior of the Armenians in 1896 was the most inexcusable; it still remains an indelible memory, a constant source of hatred in the Turks.
It was then that the “good” sultan Abdul Hamid formed “Hamidiye” – gangs of soldiers recruited from temporarily released convicts, robbers, and nomads. The creation of such gangs had only one goal – to have dashing thugs at disposal who are ready to provoke events without conscience, with the help of which the sultan hoped to silence the Armenian population calling for reforms.
These volunteers did a very good job almost everywhere. But in Zeytun, they didn’t manage to cause a massacre and paid for their intentions with their blood. But what’s more, the people of Zeytun also beat regular battalions which were hurrying to the rescue of the Hamidiye groups.
These battalions also suffered great losses. After this, the siege of the city with numerous troops did not bring any success. Zeytun was impregnable. In the end, European diplomacy stood up for the brave Armenian population, and the ambassadors at the Sublime Porte who did not know how to get out of the disgraceful situation achieved a complete amnesty for Zeytun. The immense humiliation caused a desire for revenge in the Turks.
All belligerent nations — not only the Ottomans — tolerated defeat inflicted upon them by a comparable opponent. But to be beaten by representatives of a race alien to the military ideal — scribes, merchants, and artisans — the soul of a warrior will never forget this. Thus, the new government inherited from the old the shameful memory of the defeat in Zeytun along with a fierce hatred. And where, if not in a big war, will there be a chance for revenge?
© Franz Werfel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh”