Musa Dagh in the 19th and Early 20th Century

Vahram Shemmassian, Ph.D.
Director of Armenian Studies Program
California State University, Northridge
Armenian Musa Dagh, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea some 15 miles to the southwest of the biblical town of Antioch, existed from time immemorial.  Unfortunately, not much is known about its history prior to the 19th century.  In early 20th century, it encompassed six main Armenian villages, namely, Bitias, Haji Habibli, Yoghun Oluk, Kheder Beg, Vakef, and Kabusiye, with a total of more than 6,000 inhabitants, who spoke a dialect called Kistinik, meaning, the language of Christians.  This article will focus on the 19th and early 20th century, a period that transitioned from obscurity and ignorance to immortality through resistance to the genocide.


The main source of livelihood in pre-WWI Musa Dagh, as in the entire region of Antioch, was sericulture.  Although the majority of Musa Daghians were self-made experts, some attended the Seri cultural Institute of Bursa, a technical school established in 1888 under the direction of Prof. Kevork Torkomian, a student of Louis Pasteur.  But whether school-educated or self-made, each year many expert sericulturists and their helpers from Musa Dagh, constituting almost 10% of the total population, also supervised the silk farms of rich Turkish landlords in the general vicinity.

Unfortunately, two factors dealt a heavy blow to the silk industry—nature’s wrath and usurer manipulations.  First, locusts and especially severe winters destroyed the mulberry leaf crops.  During the period between 1864 and 1901, for instance, nearly one in every four seasons proved catastrophic.  Second, the nature of loan transactions diminished profits drastically.  Poverty compelled many villagers to borrow money from local or Antioch merchants at high interest rates, usually 20%-30%.  Despite this chronic economic malaise, some encouraging signs existed.  One such welcome change involved the appointment in 1909 of an Armenian from Constantinople by the name of Onnig Tosbat as Director of Silk Control of Aleppo province.  Significantly, Tospat established his headquarters in Antioch, wherefrom he introduced new regulations, thereby benefiting the indigenous cultivators.

Agriculture was not developed like sericulture.  Because of its steep and limited terrain, Musa Dagh was ill-suited for the farming of cereals, compelling the population to import 90% of its wheat.  Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, grew plentifully, but animal husbandry fell far short of capacity.  Artisanship was similarly neglected, except for comb making in Yoghun Oluk, where the overwhelming majority engaged in it.   In early twentieth century, the annual output was estimated between 1 and 1.5 million combs, exported mostly to Egypt.
The barinak (barons) or aghalar constituted another impediment to a healthier socio-economic life.  There existed between the Turkish notables of Antioch on the one hand and the barinak of Musa Dagh on the other a patron-client relationship which proved disastrous to the Armenian peasantry as a whole.  In order for the barinak to appease their patrons, they raised bribes through usurpation.  In their eternal rivalries, the Antioch notables also pitted one barin against the other, who, in turn, polarized Musa Dagh society or inflamed existing feuds.  The situation worsened by various types of legal and illegal taxes, which by all indications were very heavy and collected harshly.

Rampant impoverishment compelled many Musa Daghians to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  The United State became a magnet, especially after the 1909 massacres.  The immigrants settled mostly in the East Coast, where they worked in silk factories and operated small businesses.  One of the earliest Musa Dagh settlers on the West Coast, Abraham Seklemian of Bitias, in 1908 co-founded and became the first editor of Asbarez newspaper in Fresno, California  Most immigrants would not see Musa Dagh again.

Until the 1840s all Musa Daghians adhered to the Armenian Apostolic Church.  But beginning with that decade American Protestant missionaries and later European Capuchin friars made inroads, forming their separate denominations.  As the Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo underwent a process of reorganization according to the provisions of the 1860 Armenian National Constitution, so did the Musa Dagh Apostolic community, albeit in timid steps and with difficulty.  When prelates and/or their representatives visited Musa Dagh on different occasions to introduce changes, they encountered persistent ignorance and intrigue especially when dealing with parish council elections.  What also hindered progress was the status of priests.  Most were illiterate, some were ordained or defrocked based on the whims of influential notables, and still others were unfit for spiritual leadership.  Indeed, a few exceptions existed.

The first contacts between Protestant missionaries and Musa Dagh took place in 1840.  Seventeen years later, in 1857, a Protestant church was officially established in Bitias, followed by that of Yoghun Oluk in 1869 or 1870.  As for the remaining villages, for financial reasons they were treated as satellite communities dependent on either Bitias or Yoghun Oluk.  Initial persecutions by the Apostolic church, rampant poverty, lack of seriousness on the part of some adherents, erratic behavior by a few pastors, threats from splinter groups, and the inadequacy of church buildings kept the Protestant community of Musa Dagh wavering between hope and despair.

This denomination’s size varied according to category.  Communicant membership averaged 171 persons, adherents averaged 577 persons, church attendants on Sundays averaged 401 persons, and Sabbath School goers averaged 382 persons.  Interestingly, each and every communicant member signed an agreement, whereby he or she promised to follow church rules and pay membership dues based on income.  Those who failed to fulfill their obligations were suspended and/or expelled.

Capuchin friars founded a mission in Kheder Beg in 1891, and shortly thereafter they gained a following at Yoghun Oluk as well, but were less successful in Vakef, Kabusiye and Haji Habibli.  Being a Protestant bastion, Bitias remained out of Catholic reach.  By the start of WWI the Catholics (of the Latin rite) of Musa Dagh numbered about 500.  According to Capuchin sources, the Musa Daghians converted to Catholicism first and foremost for socio-economic rather than spiritual reasons.  Extreme poverty, heavy taxation, abuse on the part of notables, legal wrangling, all contributed to change of religious affiliation.  This situation placed a heavy financial burden on the Capuchins, who sought funds from private donors in Europe to augment their meager budget.  But despite their disillusionments, the Capuchins remained determined to keep the Musa Dagh mission open in hopes that the younger generations educated in their schools would become true Catholics.


Educational life in Musa Dagh during the first half of the 19th century could be described with the word “barrenness,” for hardly could anyone read, write, and or calculate taxes on paper.  This situation changed during the second half of the century thanks to Protestant and Catholic missionaries, who not only declared war on illiteracy for its own sake, but also and foremost for proselytizing purposes.  The Apostolic community lagged behind for many decades because of utter negligence, before it realized the urgency of learning to combat the alien inroads and to promote nationalism.

In 1856, a Protestant missionary made a reference to the existence of “a small school” in Bitias, which was perhaps the earliest educational institution in Musa Dagh.  Its curriculum included Reading, Writing, Spelling, Grammar, Geography, Arithmetic, Turkish, Physiology and Armenian, not to mention the fact that students had to attend the daily devotional exercises.  Protestant education in Yoghun Oluk began in earnest in 1880.  Short-lived schools were opened in the other villages as well.  Despite the many difficulties, such as the lack of adequate facilities and teachers, hardened mentalities that boys had to contribute to the cottage industries and girls to the house chores at a young age, and budgetary constraints, some positive aspects to Protestant education existed.  For example, the average number of students increased from 81 in the 1880s to 102 in the 1890s to 117 in the 1900s.  Girls constituted about one-third of the total student population.  Similarly, the Protestants were the first to introduce coeducational schools.

The Capuchin friars, like Protestant missionaries, attached great importance to education in their overall efforts at establishing a Catholic community in Musa Dagh. They inaugurated their first school at Kheder Beg in 1891, and subsequently four others for both genders in Yoghun Oluk and Vakef.  The curriculum included French, Armenian, and a few other subjects.  Since tuition was free in Catholic schools, both Protestant and Apostolic schools experienced difficulty in recruiting students.  But some social forces worked against the Catholics.  As one friar lamented, if some students, “at their leaving the school about the age of 13, had not submitted to the dissolvent influence of their surrounding, [that is to] the allurements of the custom of an incredible religious apathy, [and] if our Catholic girls would not have married but Catholics, soon Kheder Beg would be and exemplary mission.”

Information respecting education in the Apostolic community prior to the 1890s is scanty.  At the turn of the century, some positive developments occurred.  Four factors occasioned this trend.  First, the activity of Hnchakian revolutionaries during the 1890s awakened the national consciousness of the ignorant peasantry to some extent.  Second, a few visiting clergymen and a relatively enlightened local priest gave sermons on the virtues of education.  Third, the incumbent locum tenens of Aleppo seized every opportunity to promote learning and dispatched teachers to the village communities.  Fourth, the Egypt-based Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Constantinople-based United Societies coordinated their efforts in establishing a network of urban and rural schools that benefited Musa Dagh as well.  As a result of these activities, all six villages of Musa Dagh had a school each, which, nevertheless, maintained a sporadic existence due to financial limitations, lack of teachers and textbooks, and competition from the other denominations.

Since all schools in Musa Dagh were elementary, students who desired to further their studies traveled primarily to Aintab, Kesab, and Bursa.  Approximately one-third of all outgoing students enrolled at the Central Turkey College and the Girls’ Seminary, both American missionary institutions of higher learning in Aintab.
Despite the numerous impediments, education had made some strides by World War I.  The statistical evidence is clear.  Of people born in Musa Dagh between 1890 and 1900, only 18 percent was literate.  However, that figure had increased to 46 percent with the generation born during the following decade.  This upward trend continued at the Port Said refugee camp between 1915 and 1919 and again in Musa Dagh during the interwar years (1919-1939).


The activity of Armenian revolutionary societies in Musa Dagh must be viewed within the larger context of Armenian oppression and suffering in the Ottoman Empire, demands for reform, protection of life and property, and aspirations for autonomy and/or outright independence.  The Social Democrat Hnchakian Party, on its way to initiate an uprising at Zeytun in order to attract European interest to the plight of Armenians across the empire, penetrated Musa Dagh in 1893, establishing what it termed “absolute monarchy” for the next three years.  Most Musa Daghians, including women, joined the movement through a variety of methods including propaganda, indoctrination, and playing on fears. To be sure, there was some opposition from the conservative and religious circles, as well as unanimous disapproval on the part of foreign diplomats and missionaries posted in the region.  While the government reacted to the overall tense situation by sending reinforcements and a commission of inquiry, it refrained from the actual use of force for fear of European intervention.  The episode thus ended peacefully, whereby the revolutionaries surrendered and ultimately were sent abroad as agreed upon.

The Hnchakian experience left a lasting impact on Musa Dagh society.  From the revolutionaries’ standpoint, the Armenian villagers were now imbued with national awareness.  Other observers, however, saw things differently.  The American missionary C.S. Sanders, for example, wrote in 1906:  “These Christian villages are destroying themselves so terribly has treachery become a characteristic of them since the regime of the [Hnchakian] revolutionary party.”  An Armenian reporter, covering Musa Dagh in 1911, likewise attributed some of the causes of pervasive social malaise to the Hnchakian era.  In the final analysis, the Hnchakian revolutionaries could not be blamed for feuds commonplace in Musa Dagh before their arrival.  During their tight governance of public life, however, they failed to create a lasting civic infrastructure for Musa Dagh society to function more responsibly after their departure.

The other main political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF/Tashnagtsutiun), was formally organized in Musa Dagh during summer the summer of 1908 as the Red Mountain Subcommittee (Garmir Ler Yentagomide).  By 1915, it had three subcommittees—the initial Storm (Potorig) and later Lightning (Shant) and Vahan the Wolf (Kayl Vahan)–with a total membership of over fifty youths, who were mostly literate.   Initially, The ARF took cautious steps to make inroads in Musa Dagh because of opposition from the conservative segment of society.  Once the ARF decided to go public, however, its members demonstrated a signal resolve to surmount any opposition, even if it meant rebelling against their own parents.  With a self-imposed discipline, they eventually gained respect as an organization acting in the public’s interest.  And although the degree of influence they wielded cannot be readily determined, their dominance in post-WWI Musa Dagh politics hints at some progress that they had made by the eve of WWI.  The third political society, the Reformed Hnchakian Party (Veragazmial Hnchagian Gusagtsutiun), penetrated Musa Dagh in 1911, but its influence was limited to a small circle of adherents in some of the villages.

If the raison d’etre of Armenian political societies was to ameliorate the lot of their people in the Ottoman Empire, no opportunity promised better hope than the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.  But the euphoria was short-lived, as reactionary forces vented their anger at the Armenians in Cilicia and north Syria through massacres.  Musa Dagh was spared thanks to a show of force and the timely arrival of a British battleship.  This resolve was repeated during the genocide, when two-third of Musa Daghians resisted, while the remainder heeded the government’s order of deportation.  The self-defense was later immortalized in Franz Werfel’s novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.   Given the deeply fragmented state of Musa Dagh society in the 19th and early 20th century, the 1915 resistance was a rare instance of relative unity and cooperation.

Musa Dagh (Musa Ler in Armenian) was the site of the famed resistance during the Armenian Genocide. Of the hundreds of villages, towns, and cities across the Ottoman Empire whose Armenian population was ordered removed to the Syrian desert, Musa Dagh was one of only four sites where Armenians organized a defense of their community against the deportation edicts issued by the Young Turk regime beginning in April 1915. By the time the Armenians of the six villages at the base of Musa Dagh were instructed to evict their homes, the inhabitants had grown suspicious of the government’s ultimate intentions and chose instead to retreat up the mountain and to defy the evacuation order. Musa Dagh, or the Mountain of Moses, stood on the Mediterranean Sea south of the coastal town of Alexandretta (modern-day Iskenderun) and west of ancient Antioch.

With a few hundred rifles and the entire store of provisions from their villages, the Armenians on Musa Dagh put up a fierce resistance against a number of attempts by the regular Turkish army to flush them out. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Armenians had little expectations of surviving the siege of the mountain when food stocks were depleted after a month. Their only hope was a chance rescue by an Allied vessel that might be patrolling the Mediterranean coast. When two large banners hoisted by the Armenians were sighted by a passing French warship, swimmers went out to meet it. Eventually five Allied ships moved in to transport the entire population of men, women, and children, more than four thousand in all. The Armenians of Musa Dagh had endured for fifty three days from July 21 to September 12, 1915. They were disembarked at Port Said in Egypt and remained in Allied refugee camps until the end of World War I when they returned to their homes. As part of the district of Alexandretta, or Hatay, Musa Dagh remained under French Mandate until 1939. The Musa Dagh Armenians abandoned their villages for a second, and final, time when the area was annexed by Turkey.

In the face of the complete decimation of the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire, Musa Dagh became a symbol of the Armenian will to survive. Of the three other sites where Armenians defied the deportation orders, Shabin Karahissar, Urfa, and Van, only the Armenians of Van were rescued when the siege of their city was lifted by an advancing Russian army. The Armenians of Urfa and Shabin Karahissar were either massacred or deported. Musa Dagh stood as the sole instance where the Western Allies at war with the Ottomans averted the death of a community during the Armenian Genocide.

Armenian Musa Dagh as a Summer Resort in the Sanjak of Alexandretta During the 1920s-1930s

For a number of Armenians in Syria estivation offered a respite from resettlement hardships after the World War I genocide and the scorching summer heat characteristic to cities and other habitations.  It also constituted a channel for refugees to reconnect spiritually with their lost village life in the homeland, by sojourning at Armenian-inhabited hamlets nestled on hills in the host country.  Other Armenians and ethnically diverse people came from Egypt, France, and elsewhere.  This activity took place mainly in the autonomous Sanjak (county) of Alexandretta/Iskenderun (hereafter the Sanjak) in the northwestern corner of Syria, then under French mandate.

Tourism and estivation in Syria and Lebanon developed with some success under French mandate.  Although political upheavals during 1925-1927, the world economic depression later in the decade and in the 1930s, and an aggressive campaign by other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean such as Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey to attract travelers had had an adverse impact on vacationing in French-mandated territories, still several thousand visitors came particularly from Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. The Sanjak benefited from this trend as well.

Four main areas of Armenian concentration existed in the Sanjak.  The first encompassed the synonymous coastal town of Alexandretta and several communities perched on the surrounding uplands.  The second included the rural towns of Kirik Khan and Rihaniye.  The third engulfed Musa Dagh and Antioch city.  The fourth consisted of Kesab (Kasab) on Jabal Aqra/Mount Cassius and its satellite hamlets.  Whereas the hilly habitations around Alexandretta town as well as Musa Dagh became centers of estivation during the period under study, Kirik Khan and Rihaniye did not develop as such.  Kesab, on the other hand, emerged as a summer resort after 1939 especially, when France ceded the Sanjak to Turkey, with Kesab, despite sustaining territorial losses in the process, remaining within the redrawn map of Syria.


Estivation in Musa Dagh, as elsewhere in the Sanjak, started slowly, because until the mid-1920s transportation to and from the Armenian villages was conducted via donkeys, horses, and mules.  In order to modernize communications, the French authorities attached great importance to the construction of roads across Syria and Lebanon.  Northwestern Syria thus witnessed a rapid expansion of the road network.  By the summer of 1926 automobiles could access Kheder Beg by trekking the Antioch-Svedia route.

The Antioch-Svedia road was also important because it covered two-third of the distance between Antioch and Bitias; the remaining segment of about 8 kilometers was completed in 1927.  Its inauguration took place on Sunday, December 4, with great fanfare.  Armenian, Arabic, and French newspapers in Antioch, Alexandretta, and Beirut covered the event.  The construction of roads in the region continued for several more years, connecting Beirut-Latakia-Kesab-Antioch, Bitias-Kheder Beg, and Aleppo-Antioch. Only Kabusiye remained inaccessible by car.
Sources of Attraction

Several factors propelled Musa Dagh in general and Bitias in particular into prominence as a summer resort.  First and foremost, the name Musa Dagh evoked romanticism, pride, admiration, and a sense of indebtedness, all inextricably associated with the heroic exploit of its people against the Ottoman Turkish genocidal campaign in 1915.  Indeed, the publication of Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in 1933 and its subsequent rendition from the original German into numerous languages captured the imagination of the international readership, making Musa Dagh a household name in various parts of the world.  Second, for Armenian estivators especially, this “little Armenia,” i.e. Bitias, with its dialect, customs, folklore, and hospitality, epitomized the traditional village in the Armenian homeland now vanished as a result of the genocide.  Third, Musa Dagh’s beautiful landscape, water springs and streams, and salubrious climate offered urbanites a much needed respite from the relatively hectic and stressful life and excessive summer heat in the cities.  Fourth, the proximity of the larger towns, especially Aleppo, made it possible for working fathers to visit their families over weekends.  Fifth, life was inexpensive; locally produced vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and other foodstuffs were cheaper than those sold in the cities.

In addition, certain individuals and groups visited Musa Dagh as part of archeological expeditions to the historical sites abounding the general vicinity, from Antioch to the Seleucid ruins scattered along the Mediterranean coast.  Although no agencies or tour guides existed to organize excursions for the general public, Movses Der Kalusdian, Serop Sherbetjian, and Fr. Benoit, the resident Capuchin missionary at Kheder Beg, furnished useful information for curious tourists.

The improvements effected in transportation and the heightened public awareness about Musa Dagh as a viable resort spurred a surge in the number of visitors after the mid-1920s.  Not only did this “growing development” lure Armenians from Aleppo, Beirut, Alexandretta, Egypt, Iraq, and the Sudan, but also Arabs, Turks, Jews, and Frenchmen.  Some members of the Aleppo Armenian elite, particularly from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Tashnagtsutiun (ARF) circle, often visited or summered at Bitias, and two ARF general congresses of Syria and Lebanon convened there.  Here, too, camped boy scouts from the Aleppo and Kirik Khan branches of the Armenian General Athletic Association (Hay Marmnamarzagan Enthanur Miutiun).  In addition, guest physicians, often acting on behalf of the Syrian Armenian Relief Cross (Suriahay Oknutian Khach), rendered free health services to estivators and natives alike.  Among the non-Armenian vacationers mention is made of the governor of Aleppo, the mayors of Antioch and Alexandretta, the commander-in-chief of French troops in north Syria and other French military officers, and several prominent Antioch families.  While certain individuals and groups spent limited time at Bitias, families staying the entire summer season constituted the bulk of vacationers, their number growing from eighty households in the late 1920s to 400 households by 1937.
Lodging and Other Services

The demand for accommodation was commensurate with the increase in the number of vacationers each summer.  Three hotels in Bitias satisfied partially this need.  Taniel Chaparian’s inn, originally a two-story silk house, consisted of several renovated rooms with comfortable European-style beds, a restaurant, a bath, and a covered dance floor in the backyard where many soirees took place.  The second inn emerged as follows.  The local Church Lovers’ Association (Yegeghetsasirats Miutiun), in search of a suitable parochial school facility, leased a religious endowment to Aharon Izmirlian, a restaurateur from Antioch, with the understanding that he would build a hotel on the land, operate it for ten years without rent, and turn it over to the parish council during off season to be used as school.

Around 1930, Nasib Khuri, the owner of Hotel Silpius in Antioch, forged a partnership with the brothers Garabed and Serop Keoseian of Bitias, whereby the latter made their two-story, ten-room house available to Khuri, who furnished it (moderately) as a hotel.  After a year the Keoseians paid their partner off and became the sole owners of Hotel Khuri, renaming it Hotel Jabal Musa.  The hotel fee of 6 Syrian pounds per customer per day covered three meals as well, served table d’h?te, that is, with a fixed menu and at scheduled times.  Breakfast included milk, eggs, jam, butter, olives, and five kinds of cheese to choose from; lunch consisted of five entrees, fruit, and coffee; and dinner comprised four entrees, soup, fruit, and coffee.  Drinks cost extra.  Since on any given day most customers were the families of French military and civilian officials, chefs Iskender Khamisian and Setrak Libaridian prepared mainly European dishes.  In the absence of electricity and refrigerators, ice in the form of frozen snow gathered during winter and preserved by a company in Antioch was utilized to keep perishable edibles fresh.

The three hotels alone could not accommodate the numerous visitors seeking lodging.  The solution rested in the unfurnished and furnished housing provided by the natives themselves.  Accordingly, virtually every household in Bitias was converted into some kind of a pension.  Finding vacancies on the spot without advanced booking sometimes proved difficult.  In order to facilitate the search for available lodging, a special village committee assigned one or two men (usually the municipal guards) to await the arrival of cars at the parking lot near Hetum’s Cafe, guide the passengers to available guest rooms for a commission, and mediate disputes arising between homeowners and tenants.  Sometimes street-smart lads upstaged the official middlemen to earn pocket money.

Income from the sale of homegrown and/or homemade food and other commodities augmented the revenues from rents.  Many households kept a few goats and/or cows, chickens, and beehives to produce milk, yogurt, cheese, other dairy products, eggs, and honey for personal consumption as well as to generate extra cash.  They also grew vegetables and fruits which were sold fresh, dried, or cooked.  For example, vacationers purchased sun-dried eggplants, zucchini, and peppers, tomato and pepper paste, and jam for winter rations.  Tonir (hearth) bread was likewise in great demand, as were wooden combs, ladles, and charcoal produced by local manufacturers.  The vacationers similarly frequented a daily bazaar of fresh produce at a neighborhood called Kabirlik. In addition to the home industries and the bazaar, there existed a number of businesses to satisfy similar and other needs.

The importance of tourism in Musa Dagh was also underscored by the relocation of the district’s governorship from its seat at Kheder Beg to Bitias during the summer season beginning with 1927.  This move must also be credited for the introduction of public services not available before.  For example, uniformed municipal guards watched security, lit “Lux” lamps on street corners from sunset until midnight, and visited the daily bazaar at Kabirlik to tax vendors (usually Alawi farmers from neighboring villages) and to make sure consumers were not ripped off.  They similarly collected garbage, swept the streets with bellan bushes, and sprayed water to settle dust.  Last but not least, the Bitias municipality, located at the house of Sargis Sherpetjian (“Khashtakints”) next to Hotel Aharon, established a central telephone and telegraph system and initiated a regular postal service between Antioch and Bitias. These modernizing measures, however elementary, simple, and/or limited in scope and application, improved the overall standard of living.
Pastime Activities

The atmosphere in Bitias during the summer months could be characterized as festive.  Hiking, camping, picnicking, flower and thyme picking, promenading, and serenading by amorous couples in nature’s bosom occurred daily.  After dark, families visited each other, chit-chatted, drank spirits, and sang folk, love, and patriotic songs.  In turn, children improvised toys from rudiments, played “Lido,” watched water crabs, threw stones at walnut trees in hopes of obtaining some walnuts, climbed trees, or simply frolicked carefree.  They likewise joined adults in swimming outings.

Other sorts of entertainment added to the merriment.  Armenian classical music, interpreted by violinist Hagop Nalbandian and vocalist Hovsep Seraydarian on businessman-producer Khachadur Shahin’s “Odeon” records filled the air.  Kemanchisd Rupen (Sapszian) in 1930 gave a solo concert with his traditional folk instrument.  To the natives’ delight, composer-songwriter Parsegh Ganachian in 1933 arranged the popular local folksong “Hele-Hele Ninnoye” and presented it for the first time as part of his choral repertoire in a concert at Hotel Aharon.  In the same vein, actor-director Parsegh Apovian in the summer of 1931 toured Musa Dagh staging “Ashkharhi tadasdane” (The Judgment of the World) at Bitias and Kabusiye, and “Ashik Gharib” (The Amorous Stranger or Minstrel) at Kheder Beg.  Another servant of the theater, known by the singular name of Chaprast, produced his own shows.

Two Armenian religious-national holidays attracted thousands of celebrants to Bitias and Damlajik, a central spot on Musa Dagh where the 1915 resistance had taken place.  The first event, held in mid-August, was dedicated to Surp Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God).  After collecting donations of sacrificial lambs, wheat, salt, and wood from the natives, the parish council oversaw the cooking of the traditional food of harisa in large copper kettles in ceremonious rituals that lasted from Saturday evening until Sunday morning.  Following mass, the priest blessed the harisa before it was distributed to impatient congregants pushing and shoving each other to fill their plates.

The second feast, commemorating Musa Dagh’s successful resistance to the Turkish genocide in 1915, took place at Damlajik, where a pile of rocks had served as a makeshift altar during the actual fights.  For almost a decade mass was celebrated at this site, and requiem for the repose of those who had fallen in the battlefield was conducted in a nearby lot where eighteen wooden crosses were stuck into the ground.  But in 1932 this rough arrangement was replaced by a more fitting graveyard that included eighteen tombstones, each inscribed with the name of a fallen fighter.  The celebrants, including natives and vacationers alike, congregated at Damlajik from Saturday until Sunday afternoon, making their way on foot in several hours through difficult terrain.  Once there, they hoisted the Armenian and French tricolors and indulged themselves in feasting, fireworks, singing and dancing, reciting poetry, and reminiscing myriad details pertaining to the resistance.  Sunday morning was reserved for the official program consisting of mass, requiem, and speeches by Armenian and French dignitaries.  The organizers likewise sent telegrams to the French Minister of the Marine and the High Commissioner of Syria and Lebanon to express their appreciation and gratitude for the French goodwill vis-?-vis the Armenians of Musa Dagh.

The seventeenth anniversary celebrations took place on 18 September 1932 with pomp and circumstance as a new monument glorifying the resistance was unveiled.  The inauguration began with the “Marseillaise,” after which Movses Der Kalusdian thanked and praised “magnificent France” for using its weapons not to destroy, but rather to safeguard peace.  Sarkis Tosunian, chairman of the monument building committee, delivered “a beautiful address” in French.  Speaking on behalf of the High Commissioner, Colonel Huguenet surveyed amicable Franco-Armenian bonds through the course of history, considering the French assistance in 1915 a natural continuation of that close relationship.  Finally, Admiral Joubert, commander of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, paid homage to the Armenian martyrs.  The celebrations continued with an official banquet held in the shade of the centuries-old plane tree of Kheder Beg.

Outdoor cafes were popular pastime spots.  There were six cafes in Bitias, all established near waters.  One of them, that of Hetum Filian, was arranged around a large pool built by a retired British diplomat called John Barker (The Frank, i.e., European) a century before.  This cafe, like the rest, offered coffee, hookahs, and lokhum (a sweet), in addition to a pleasant ambience in which families and friends gathered together to have fun, chit-chat, knit, play cards and backgammon, and listen to music broadcast via a “His Master’s Voice” gramophone.

Ominous political clouds marred the 1938 vacation season.  Referring to the new Franco- Turkish regime in the Sanjak, now called the Republic of Hatay, an Armenian newspaper asked:  “Who can think about estivation in this political turmoil when the general mood is one of changing places, that is, leaving the Sanjak altogether?”  Despite the nice weather and the abundance and affordability of fruits, the number of vacationers dropped by 75 percent, from 400 families in the previous year to 100 families.  In addition to voluntary restraints, there existed official restrictions.  And in the following summer most Armenians and other ethnicities exited the Sanjak fearful of direct Turkish rule (to be established on 23 July 1939).

As the Armenians of Musa Dagh resettled in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, their new home, called Anjar, emerged gradually as a summer resort for a number of Lebanese and Syrian Armenians.  This reincarnation has retained some of the features characteristic to the bygone days in Bitias and Musa Dagh in general.

Vakef of Musa Dagh:

The Sole Armenian Village Left in Turkey

The Armenian village of Vakef (Vakifli or Vakifkoy) in Musa Dagh is situated in the Samandai district of the southern Turkish province of Hatay (formerly the Sanjak of Alexandretta). The word “vakif” is the Turkish version of the Arabic “waqf,” which means, among other things, religious foundation or endowment. Where did the Armenian village of Vakef—also pronounced as Maqf by the natives—derive its name from? According to oral tradition, the original settlers of Vakef were a few families from the Armenian villages of Yoghun Oluk and Kheder Beg who used to cultivate religious properties adjoining the Alawi village of Kurtderesi. As those households reestablished themselves in Musa Dagh permanently, they named their new habitat Vakef. Since, however, the village lands were in part charitable holdings, it can be surmised with relative certainty that Vakef’s name reflected the nature of its actual site.

According to a Turkish source, until the beginning of the 19th century Vakef belonged to Yoghun Oluk. During the reign of Sultan Mehmed II (1808-1839), however, its ownership was transferred to a Christian Arab by the name of Muhayyile (Mukhayel). This story does not explain why Vakef changed hands, nor does it say how it was reverted to the Armenians. In any case, it can be maintained with relative certainty that Vakef emerged as a viable village in the 1880s. As such, it was the smallest of the six main Armenian villages of Musa Dagh, containing four quarters, namely, Aste Qarshen, Ante Qarshen, Hajjelak, and Manjelak, and a satellite neighborhood called Nerke Izzir.

At the time of the annexation of the autonomous Syrian county or Sanjak of Alexandrettra by Turkey in 1939, the overwhelming majority of Armenians living there opted to migrate to other parts of Syria as well as to Lebanon. But a small number of Armenians preferred to stay. The reason why some Musa Daghians refused to leave is three-fold. First, they belonged to that segment of society which had failed to break the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) hold on the governance of Musa Dagh. Therefore, when in the summer of 1938 the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now called Republic of Hatay, entered a one-year transitional phase in its march toward unification with Turkey thanks to French duplicity, those disgruntled Armenians saw a window of opportunity to wrest power from the ARF. They thus began to collaborate with the emergent Turkish regime, first secretly then openly. One of them, Tateos Babigian, even became sub-district governor of Musa Dagh in April 1939 as an appointee of the Turkish government at Antioch. Second, those who stayed behind believed that they could live peacefully and harmoniously in republican Turkey, which, according to them, had come a long way in dissociating itself from the bloody Ottoman Empire and charting a new course. Intense Turkish propaganda aided in shaping this favorable opinion. Third, it was emotionally and psychologically difficult to abandon ancestral lands. The prospects of acquiring additional real estate also loomed on the horizon.

Those who stayed behind in Musa Dagh and nearby Zeytuniye in the plain of Svedia numbered 68 families or 384 persons, who constituted about 6 percent of Musa Dagh’s total population. The breakdown was as follows: Bitias, 4 families or 12 persons; Haji Habibli 1 family or 8 persons; Yoghun Oluk, 4 families or 28 persons; Kheder Beg, 4 families or 27 person; Kabusiye 3 families or 15 persons; Zeytuniye, 11 families or 64 persons; and Vakef, 41 families or 232 persons. In March 1940, the government took a census of Vakef and granted Turkish citizenship to its inhabitants. On this occasion, many last names were Turkified. Thus, Manjian became Manca, Babigian became Babek, Janian became Canoilu, Kartunian became Kartun, Silahlian became Silahli, Shemmassian became Aydin, etc. Only a few surnames retained somehow their Armenian “ian” or “yan” ending such as Kadiyan and Emlikian. Similarly, 23 individuals, having regretted leaving Musa Dagh in 1939, returned within a year, as follows: 13 from Vakef; 7 from Yoghun Oluk; and 1 from Bitias, Haji Habibli, and Kabusiye each. However, with the exception of two mothers, 21 had once again left for Syria and Lebanon by 1945. During the 1946-1947 relocation of Armenians from the Diaspora to Soviet Armenia, the inhabitants of Vakef petitioned to go to Syria and Lebanon in hopes of joining Armenia-bound caravans. Although the Turkish government was not opposed to such a move, nothing was heard from the organizers of repatriation. This issue requires further inquiry.

In 1964, that is, a quarter century after 1939, the number of Armenians still living in Vakef amounted to 66 families with a total of 291 members, of whom 158 female and 133 male. Nearly 80 percent of the residents were young, under 43 years of age. Twenty-three years later, in 1987, the number of Armenians living in the district had dwindled to 40 families or 169 individuals, as follows: in Bitias, 1 family with 5 members; Zeytuniye, 15 families with 59 members; and Vakef, 24 families with 105 members. The rest had migrated to the following destinations: Istanbul, 47 families or 165 persons; Iskenderun, 10 families or 40 persons; Antakya, 4 families or 20 persons; Ankara, 1 family or 13 persons; Soviet Armenia, 5 families or 19 persons; Lebanon, 4 families or 20 persons; and Europe and the United States, 15 families or 60 persons, for a total of 86 families or 337 persons. Recent estimates of Armenians found in Vakef during fall, winter, and spring vary between 25 and 38 families or between 135 and 150 individuals, mostly middle-aged and old. During the summer season, thanks to families returning to visit relatives, the numbers rise to 250-300 persons.

The Surp Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God) Armenian Apostolic Church of Vakef was established in 1910. For the past seven decades, it has had two resident priests, both native sons: Fr. Ghevont Kartun and Fr. Serovpe Gulian, who passed away in 2002. The parishioners have since petitioned the Patriarch of Istanbul for a replacement, which request he has been unable to satisfy because of the lack of sufficient clergymen to even occupy some of the vacant pulpits in the many Armenian churches of Istanbul. As a result, a visiting priest celebrates mass in Vakef only occasionally. The church and community are run by a parish council, a council of elders, and the Church-Loving Women’s Guild.

Vakef has remained within the radar of successive patriarchs of Istanbul, who have paid periodic pastoral visits. During a twenty-year period, between 1969 and 1989, for example, the late Patriarch Shnorhk Kalusdian visited Armenian remnants and churches in Anatolia six times. Four of those itineraries included Vakef. On June 17, 1989, he preached at the Surp Asdvadzadzin church and met privately with the parish council to discuss church matters, especially the old roof that was falling apart and causing rain to damage the interior. But despite the problem’s urgency, the government failed to grant permission for repairs for the next seventeen years, that is, until 1996, when the church, then almost in ruins, was finally restored. This granting of permission for renovation was believed to be in line with Turkey’s attempt at integration with the European Union (EU).

The church of Vakef celebrates the Holy Mother of God feast in mid-August of each year. This also coincides with the traditional blessing of grapes. On these dual occasions, a food called harisa is cooked and served to the numerous congregants visiting from various parts of the world. In September, the Holy Cross feast is likewise celebrated. For example, the incumbent patriarch, Mesrob Mutafian, together with two priests and the choir of St. Harutiun Church of Taksim in Istanbul, on Holy Cross Sunday, September 25, 2005 celebrated mass at Vakef. He was accompanied by 25 pilgrims from Istanbul, 40 pilgrims from Los Angeles, and an unspecified number from Anjar, Lebanon, the latter two groups consisting of Musa Dagh descendants.

Vakef Armenians had always been zealous about the education of their children. What hurt the learning process during the 1920s and 1930s, however, was the rivalry between the Social Democrat Hnchakian Party and the ARF to control community affairs, which led, among other things, to the split of the existing parochial school into two parallel institutions, thereby draining unnecessarily the resources of this small village. Things would grow worse after 1939, but for different reasons.

Soon after Musa Dagh was evacuated in 1939, the Antioch government asked the Armenian leadership of Vakef to pay the salary of a Turkish teacher as well. Since, however, the shrunk community could not shoulder the extra expense for a new hire, the school was closed. Its furniture and other belongings were gifted to the school at nearby Jireyri village, and children began to attend the public school at Buyuk Zeytinli village some 2 miles away. This situation continued for seven years, until the 1951-52 academic year, when the government provided Vakef with a female teacher from Niide by the name of Halide Hanum. Because in 1943 the old school building had been sold piecemeal by the Directorate General of Foundations (Vakiflar), a two-story house located next to the church, and previously belonging to Panos Ayntablian, was rented from the same Directorate General of Foundations for the annual sum of 60 liras. The Ataturk Ilk Okulu, or Ataturk Primary School, as the school was called, moved to a new facility in 1955. In 1964, teacher Mehmet Sabit Cokbilir taught 25 girls and 12 boys, or a total of 37 students. Another 9 students from Vakef attended middle school, 4 attended high school, 6 attended university, and 4 attended technical school. Due to the decrease of school-age children in subsequent years, the school closed its doors probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s, never to reopen.

As soon as the Armenians left Musa Dagh in July 1939, the Directorate of State Properties took charge of their abandoned properties. At the same time, the Vakef Armenians began to claim those holdings as their own, asking Tateos Babigian for verification papers, which he declined to issue. The hassle to grab land aroused jealousies and caused enmities, while the government sent armed guards to prevent anyone from gathering the crops, which were auctioned off. Within two years the other Armenian villages were occupied, at least partially, by Turks and Turkmen from surrounding Muslim villages. In March-April 1940, the Antakya government auctioned off the crops once again. The orange crop fetched 3,880 Turkish liras, the bay oil crop used to manufacture soap fetched 3,128 liras, and the medlar crop fetched 1,858 liras, for a total of 8,866 liras. When the French consul at Antakya inquired about the fate of the sums thus raised, the government responded that they would be deposited in the Central Bank as a trust fund for the Armenians. It is not clear as to what this meant or what actually happened to that money.

What is certain, however, is the fact that in 1943 the General Directorate of Foundations lay hands on some 1,508 donums or about 377 acres of land out of a total 2,818 donums or 705 acres belonging to Vakef village. What was more, of the balance 330 acres only 60 acres actually remained in the hands of the villagers, the remaining 270 acres being divided among the Treasury Department, State Property Agency, and the neighboring villages of Kurtderesi and Maiaracik. Naturally, these appropriations caused great economic hardship. For instance, an official registry for 1964 listed 15 agriculturists out of 47 as landless, and the remaining 27 as lacking sufficient cultivable land. As a result, a number of Armenians from Vakef migrated to Antakya beginning with 1944, as was the case with several households from the Horoz clan, or to Iskenderun, Kirik Khan, and Istanbul during the 1950s in the case of households from the Canoilu, Babek, and Silahli clans. They now worked as mechanics in factories, directors of movie theatre box offices, dealers of old ware, shoe repairers, and so on. Still others toiled as seasonal workers in Adana, Tarsus, and Mersin. Some were able to purchase land in their adopted towns, others returned to Vakef after saving money. Cold weather exacerbated the situation in January 1950, when many fruit trees were destroyed.

Vakef has been a citrus growing rural community since earliest times. But as mentioned, the lack of jobs due to limited private land has compelled the younger generation to move out. Presently, enterprising individuals and the local government are trying to reverse the trend by engaging in organic farming and receiving official certification from the EU with the approval of the World Bank. In fact, the submitted project for certification won first prize, and the Turkish National Olympic Committee recognized this achievement with a special award of its own. In 2004, the Vakef Village Cooperative exported 1 million Euros worth of organic oranges, raising the prospects for economic recovery and encouraging some expatriates to return to Vakef. Just eight-and-a-half months ago, on December 27, 2007, the Turkish Daily News reported that “a 5,000-square meter organic greenhouse area will open;in the next few days.”

The tourism industry is also given serious consideration. In 2000, the Association for Protection and Development of Vakifli was formed by its former inhabitants now residing in Istanbul. They assemble in their club at the Pangalti neighborhood to drink tea, play backgammon, chat, and eat their favorite traditional foods. But like Armenian compatriotic unions of old, they similarly are keen on improving the socio-economic status of their native village. Accordingly, they and the district government of Samandai have begun to implement a plan of eco-tourism with the renovation of abandoned traditional houses in the village.

To date, the four-room house belonging to the Shemmassians (Aydin) has been restored as a hotel, and the old school building has been converted to bed-and-breakfast. Similar projects are in the pipelines.
To conclude, while such measures portend well for the foreseeable future, the long term prospects are not as clear. These last of the Mohicans will continue to be showcased and draw interest as the residents of the sole Western Armenian village left in Turkey until history determines their fate.