Will Untapped Ottoman Archives Reshape the Armenian Debate?
Turkey, Present and
by Yücel Güçlü
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2009, pp. 35-42
The debate over what happened
to Armenians in World War I-era Ottoman Anatolia continues to polarize
historians and politicians. Armenian historians argue that Ottoman forces
killed more than one million Armenians in a deliberate act of genocide. Other historiansmost famously Bernard
Lewis and Guenter Lewyacknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died
but question whether this was a deliberate act of genocide or rather an
outgrowth of fighting and famine. In recent decades, the debate has shifted
from academic to legislative grounds. In 2001, the French parliament voted to
recognize an Armenian genocide. In 2007, U.S. political leaders narrowly averted an Armenian genocide
resolution in the House of Representatives. While Armenian activists lobby
politicians to recognize an Armenian genocide formally, which is likely to be a
first step toward a demand for collective reparations, and genocide studies
scholars seek to close the book on the Armenian narrative, it is ironic that
many of the archives that contain documentation from the period remain untapped.
Richness of Ottoman Archives
soldiers march through a town. During World War I, Ottoman soldiers fought
Russian troops in areas populated largely by Armenians.
In 1989, the
Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivleri (the Ottoman Archives
division of the Prime Minister's Office) in Istanbul fully opened its doors to scholars regardless of their
nationality or subject of research. The Ottoman Empire's central state archives originally consisted of two groups of
documents: the records of the Imperial Council and of the Grand Vizier's
office. From time to time, the state added other collections, for example, the
records of the finance departments and the Cadastral Survey Office. The
government registers include copies of the texts of imperial orders and decrees
sent to provincial officials and judges and replies to reports from across the
empire. They relate to questions of law and order, state revenues, military
arrangements, foreign relations, administrative assignments, and other matters
submitted for the sultan's consideration. Survey registers of rural and urban
populations and their production convey figures and other information collected
for administrative purposes. Likewise, there are specific registers dealing
with the non-Muslim peoples of the Ottoman
Empire, such as church
registers and registers concerning other non-Muslim communities (millets).
These run through World War I and contain valuable information on the question
of Turkish-Armenian relations.
There are approximately 150
million documents that span every period and region of the Ottoman realm in the
stacks and vaults of the Ottoman Archives. Each day, new collections in these
Ottoman archives are opened to researchers. All these extensive records are
well preserved and organized.
The first published catalog of
Ottoman archival holdings appeared in 1955 and consisted of ninety pages of
archival inventory and commentary. Archivist Attila Çetin followed in 1979
with a more extensive catalog, which is also available in Italian. As the classifying and organizing of the
archives continued, the catalog grew. The 1992 edition is 634 pages long. The
expanded 1995 compilation provides access to even more documents. Revised
editions are to be forthcoming from time to time, as more detailed descriptions
become available for the various fonds or individual record groups.
Ottoman archival documentation
constitutes an unequaled trove of information about how people lived from the
fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries in a territory now comprised of
twenty-two nations. İlber Ortaylı, director of the Topkapı Palace Museum at Istanbul, argues that the history of the Ottoman Empire should not be written without Ottoman sources. He is not alone in this. His position is
buttressed by a number of specialists in the study of the Ottoman state and
society. Albert Hourani, for example, the late British scholar of Middle
Eastern affairs, argued that his best advice to history students considering
Middle East specialization would be to "learn Ottoman Turkish well and
learn also how to use Ottoman documents, since the exploitation of Ottoman
archives, located in Istanbul and in smaller cities and towns, is perhaps the
most important task of the next generation."
Archives and the Armenians
There are few comprehensive
sources about Armenian life in Anatolia outside of Ottoman archival sources. Diplomatic records,
such as those cited by Armenian historian Vahakn Dadrian, as the basis for
discussions among genocide scholars are spotty and intertwined with wartime
politics. The Ottoman Ministry of the Interior
(Dahiliye Nezareti) was the government department directing and supervising the
relocation and resettlement of the Armenian population. The collection of the
ministry documents covers the period from 1866 to 1922 and consists of 4,598
registers or notebooks. It is classified according to twenty-one
subcollections, according to office of origin. Among the available documents in
the Ottoman archives are several dozen registers containing the records of the
deliberations and actions of the Council of Ministers, which set policies,
received reports, and discussed problems that arose regarding the relocations
and other wartime events. The minutes of its meetings, deliberations,
resolutions, and decisions are bound in 224 volumes covering the years 1885
through 1922. These registers include each and every decree pertaining to the
decision to relocate the Ottoman Armenians away from the war zones during World
War I. The Records Office of the Sublime Porte (Babıali Evrak Odası)
also contains substantial documentation, including the correspondence between
the grand vizier and the ministries, as well as the central government and the
provinces that can illuminate the events of 1915.
It is ironic, therefore, as
politicians seek to deliberate on questions of history, that few historians
investigating Armenian issues have actually consulted the Ottoman archives. As
Australian historian Jeremy Salt has explained,
The Ottoman archives remain
largely unconsulted. When so much is missing from the fundamental source
material, no historical narrative can be called complete and no conclusions can
be balanced. If the Ottoman sources are properly utilized, the way in which the
Armenian question is understood is bound to change.
There is little explanation as
to why more historians do not consult the Ottoman archives. They are open to
all scholars. Bernard Lewis, Cleveland Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern
Studies at Princeton University, who has worked extensively in the Ottoman
archives since 1949, has argued that "the Ottoman archives are in the care
of a competent and devoted staff who are always willing to place their time and
knowledge at the disposal of the visiting scholar, with a personal helpfulness
and courtesy that will surprise those with purely Western experience. [These
records] are open to all who can read them." The late Stanford Shaw, Professor
Emeritus of Turkish and Judeo-Turkish History at the University of California, Los
Angeles, also spoke
highly of the helpfulness of the archivists. He argued that the sheer amount of new
material available removed any excuse for any scholar investigating various
nationalist revolts not to spend time examining the new sources.
Even Taner Akçam of University
of Minnesota, one of the most vocal proponents of Armenian genocide claims,
noted the improvement in the working conditions of the archives. In a recent
article, he thanked the staff and especially the deputy director-general of
state archives for their help and openness during his last visit. The archivists are now helpful to all
researchers, not only those pursuing research which supports the Turkish
The archives of the Turkish
General Staff Military History and Strategic Studies Directorate in Ankara (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Genelkurmay Askeri Tarih ve
Stratejik Etüt Başkanlığı Arşivleri) provide a
military perspective. Indeed, more than the Ottoman Archives in the Prime
Minister's Office, this repository provides a rich trove of information about
internal conditions in the empire, operations of the Ottoman army, and the
Special Organization (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa), somewhat equivalent to the
Ottoman special forces, for the period 1914-22.
The World War I and War of
Independence archives alone number over five and a half million documents
spread among Turkish General Staff Division reports and War Ministry files.
Division 1 (Operations) contains military operations plans and orders,
operations and situation reports, maps and overlays, general staff orders,
mobilization instructions and orders, organizational orders, training and
exercise instructions, spot combat reports. Division 2 (Intelligence) contains
intelligence estimates and reports and orders of battle. Divisions 3 and 4
(Logistics) contain files concerning procurement, animals, munitions,
transportation, rations, and accounting. The Ministry of War files contain the
General Command's ciphered cables to military units as well as the papers of
the infantry, fortress artillery, and other divisions. Vehip Pasha's Third Army
(Erzurum), Jemal Pasha's Fourth Army (Damascus),
and Ali İhsan Pasha's Sixth Army (Baghdad) are included among the staff files. These also include
the Lightning Armies and Caucasian Armies groups.
The cataloging and microfilming
of the military archives repository up to the end of 1922 is complete.
Once-secret documents should provide new information on the Armenian issue. In addition to the microfilmed
documents, the Turkish General Staff Military History and Strategic Studies
Directorate publishes volumes of documents from its collection, including Latin
alphabet transliteration of all documents.
Justin McCarthy, professor of
Middle Eastern history and demographer at the University of
Louisville/Kentucky, one of the few Western scholars to have done systematic
research in the Ottoman archives, has written that the "reports of Ottoman
soldiers and officials were not political documents or public relations
exercises. They were secret internal reports in which responsible men relayed
to their governments what they believed to be true." Indeed, the military records have
already called into question conventional wisdom about the Special
Organization, namely, the organization's involvement in the Armenian
Other Ankara Resources
The Turkish Historical Society
(Türk Tarih Kurumu) at Ankara is also open to the public. The society houses private
collections relating to strategy and political matters in the twentieth
century, which include the papers of World War I-era war minister Enver Pasha
together with those of his chief aide-de-camp and brother-in-law, Kazım
Orbay. The Enver Pasha collection, donated in 1972 by his daughter Mahpeyker
Enver, consists of 789 single, disparate items of handwritten notes, memoranda,
reports, military records, cards and invitations, dispatches, letters of
appreciation of colleagues and opponents, photographic albums, topographic
maps, charts, private correspondence, diaries, and miscellany for the period
1914-22. There are no restrictions on access to these. Because in the early decades of the
twentieth century it was customary for officials to keep their papers upon
their departure, these remain a relatively rare resource. Orbay's papers add additional
insight because they enable historians to gauge which issues most occupied the Ottoman Empire's highest ranking military official of the time. Few scholars have
used this last collection perhaps because they remain unaware of it.
The National Library (Milli
Kütüphane) at Ankara houses thousands of Muslim court records, most of which
were transferred from local museums and offices scattered around Turkey. These records contain a vast array of information
concerning imperial administration, city government, the affairs of townspeople
and villagers and deal with almost every aspect of the lives of the subjects be
it personal status, taxes, loans, sales, price regulations, complaints, flight,
or theft. Any matter requiring official resolution, registration, verification,
or adjudication was potentially the domain of the Muslim judge (kadı)
even when the matters applied to non-Muslims, such as Armenian Christians. Many Turkish historians have employed
Muslim court records extensively for Anatolian regional studies, but they
remain relatively untapped by Armenian historians.
Sole reference to Ottoman
archives will not and should not satisfy historians; a full study of the
Armenians during World War I should consider material from all sides in a
conflict. The Armenian community maintains a number of archives. The archives
in Watertown, Massachusetts, contain repositories from the Dashnak Party
(Dashnaksutiun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and the First Republic
of Armenia. Both of the above together with the archives of the Armenian
patriarchate in Jerusalem and the Catholicosate, the seat of the supreme religious
leader of the Armenian people, in Echmiadzin,
Armenia, remain closed to non-Armenian researchers. Tatul
Sonentz-Papazian, Dashnakist archivist, for example, denied İnönü University scholar Göknur Akçadağ access to the Watertown archives in a June 20, 2008 letter. Dashnaksutiun
archives are also not available to those Armenians who do not tow the party
line. Historian Ara Sarafian, director of the Gomidas Institute in London, complained that "some Armenian archives in the
diaspora are not open to researchers for a variety of reasons. The most
important ones are the Jerusalem Patriarchate archives. I have tried to access
them twice and [been] turned away. The other archives are the Zoryan Institute
archives, composed of the private papers of Armenian survivors, whose families
deposited their records with the Zoryan Institute in the 1980s. As far as I
know, these materials are still not cataloged and accessible to scholars." Beyond the closure of Armenian archives
to non-Armenian and even to some Armenian scholars, few of these allow the
public to access catalogs detailing their holdings.
Many scholars writing on the
Armenian question utilize Britain's National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office)
in Kew Gardens. While the British government has made available many of
their diplomats' reports for study, much material from the British occupation
of Istanbul (1919-22) and elsewhere in Anatolia following World War I remains
closed to researchers under the Official Secrets Act and are only partially
available in the archives of the government of India in Delhi. British
authorities say they remain sealed for national security reasons. Their release
should be important to historians as they will include evidence regarding
returning Armenian refugees and other related matters. Files of the British
Eastern Mediterranean Special Intelligence Bureau also remain closed, perhaps
because the British government does not wish to expose those who may have
committed espionage on behalf of Britain. These are important because they should enable
historians to research British espionage and sabotage, demoralizing propaganda,
and attempts to provoke treason and desertion from Ottoman ranks during and
immediately after 1914-18. The documents of the Secret Office of War
Propaganda, which under the direction of Lord James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee
developed propaganda used against the Central Powers during World War I, also
remain sealed. Their opening will allow historians to assess whether British
officials in the heat of war created or exaggerated accounts of deliberate
International Historians' Commission
History cannot be decided by
politicians weighing either constituent concerns or emotions more than
evidence. Nor should the debate on history be closed while the existing
narrative utilizes only a small portion of the source material. The same holds
true not only for Armenian historians but also for their Turkish counterparts
Rather, historians should work
together to consider all source material, both in Armenian and Turkish
archives. Each should be open fully. Cherry-picking documents to
"prove" preconceived ideas and to ignore documents that undercut
theses is poor history and, in a politicized atmosphere, can do far more harm
On April 10, 2005, Turkish
prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extended an invitation to Armenian
president Robert Kocharian to establish a joint commission consisting of
historians and other experts to study the developments and events of 1915, not
only in the archives of Turkey and Armenia but also in those of relevant third
countries such as Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the
United States, and to share their findings with the public. Ninety-seven members of the Council of
Europe's Parliamentary Assembly at Strasbourg signed a declaration calling on Armenia to accept the Turkish proposal. In his annual commemoration message to
the Armenian-American community in 2005, President George W. Bush expressed
support for Turkey's proposal, declaring, "We look to a future of freedom,
peace, and prosperity in Armenia and Turkey and hope that Prime Minister
Erdoğan's recent proposal for a joint Turkish-Armenian commission can help
advance these processes." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
reiterated the point two years later, telling Congress,
I think that these historical
circumstances require a very detailed and sober look from historians. And what
we've encouraged the Turks and the Armenians to do is to have joint historical
commissions that can look at this, to have efforts to examine their past, and
in examining their past to get over their past.
It is unfortunate that the Armenian
government has failed to accept the joint commission, for without joint
consideration of all evidence, the wounds of the past will not heal and,
indeed, when an incomplete narrative enters the political realm, the
consequences can be grave.
Yücel Güçlü is first counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington,
D.C. The views expressed in this article are the author's own
and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic
 See, for
example, Vahakn N. Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide
(Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995), p. xviii.
 Bernard Lewis, professor of Near Eastern
Studies at Princeton University, to Shaike Weinberg, director of the Holocaust
Memorial Museum, Princeton, N.J., Oct. 11, 1991, United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum Archives, Director of the Museum: Subject Files of Jeshajahu
'Shaike' Weinberg, 1979-1995, Box: 7; Bernard Lewis, Semites and
Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York and London:
W.W. Norton and Co., 1986), p. 21; Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History
of the Last 2,000 Years (New York: Scribner, 1995), pp. 339-40; Guenter
Lewy, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide (
Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2005), pp. ix, xii; Guenter Lewy,
"The First Genocide of the 20th Century?" Commentary,
Dec. 2005, p. 51; Guenter Lewy, "Revisiting the Armenian Genocide," Middle East Quarterly, Fall
2005, pp. 3-12.
 BBC News, Jan. 18,
 Yusuf Sarınay, "Türk
Arşivleri ve Ermeni Meselesi," Belleten, Apr. 2006, pp.
291-310; Metin Coşgel, "Ottoman Tax Registers (Tahrir
Defterleri)," Historical Methods, Spring 2004, pp. 87-100.
 Murat Sertoğlu, Muhteva
Bakımından Başvekalet Arşivi (Ankara: Ankara
Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Yayınları, 1955).
 Attila Çetin, Başbakanlık
Arşivi Kılavuzu (Istanbul: Enderun Kitabevi, 1979).
 Yusuf Ihsan Genç et al., Başbakanlık
Osmanlı Arşivi Rehberi (Ankara: Başbakanlık
Basımevi, 1992); Mustafa Küçük et al., Başbakanlık
Osmanlı Arşivi Katalogları Rehberi (Ankara:
Başbakanlık Basımevi, 1995); Ilber Ortaylı,
"Başbakanlık Arşivinin 1995 Yılı
Yayınları Üzerine: Verimli Bir Yılın
Değerlendirilmesi," Türkiye Günlüğü, Jan.-Feb. 1996, pp.
 Ilber Ortaylı, Osmanlı
Barışı (Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2007), pp. 217-29;
idem, Osmanlıyı Yeniden Keşfetmek (Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2006), p. 124.
 Nancy Gallagher, ed., Approaches to the
History of the Middle East: Interviews with Leading Middle East Historians
(Reading: Ithaca Press, 1994), p. 43.
 Lewy, "Revisiting the Armenian Genocide."
 Genç, Başbakanlık Osmanlı
Arşivi Rehberi, pp. 384, 352.
 Jeremy Salt, "The Narrative Gap in
Ottoman Armenian History," Middle Eastern Studies, Jan. 2003, p.
 Bernard Lewis, "The Ottoman Archives
as a Source for the History of the Arab Lands," Journal of the Royal
Asiatic Society, Oct. 1951, pp. 139-55; idem, From Babel to Dragomans:
Interpreting the Middle East (Oxford and New York:
Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 418-9.
 Stanford Shaw, Studies in Ottoman and
Turkish History (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 2000), p. 600.
 Stanford Shaw, "New Research
Opportunities in the Ottoman Archives of Istanbul," Belleten, Aug. 1994, p. 465.
 Taner Akçam, "Deportation and
Massacres in the Cipher Telegrams of the Interior Ministry in the Prime
Ministerial Archive (Başbakanlık Arşivi)," Genocide
Studies and Prevention, Dec. 2006, pp. 320-1, ftnt. 6.
 Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Genelkurmay Askeri
Tarih ve Stratejik Etüt Başkanlığı Arşivleri (ATESE),
Genelkurmay Başkanlığı Harp Tarihi Dairesi Tarihçesi
(HTDT), 1961, folder: 1, file: 1, no. 1-14.
 Author interview, Colonel Ahmet Tetik,
chief of the archives division of the Turkish General Staff Military History
and Strategic Studies Directorate, July 11, 2008; ATESE, HTDT, 1961, folder: 1,
file: 7, no. 1-15; on the importance of the Ottoman military archival sources,
see Edward Erickson, "The Turkish Official Military Histories of the First
World War: A Bibliographic Essay," Middle Eastern Studies, July
2003, pp. 190-8.
 Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Genelkurmay ATESE ve
Denetleme Başkanlığı Yayın Kataloğu (Ankara: Genelkurmay Basımevi, 2005).
 See, among others, Arşiv
Belgeleriyle Ermeni Faaliyetleri, 1914-1918, vols. 1-8 (Ankara: Genelkurmay Basımevi, 2005-2008).
 Justin McCarthy, Conference on the
Reality of the Armenian Question (Ankara: Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi Basımevi, 2005), p.
 Edward Erickson, "Armenian Massacres:
New Records Undercut Old Blame," Middle East Quarterly, Summer
2006, pp. 67-75; Tuncay Öğün, Kafkas Cephesinin Birinci Dünya
Savaşındaki Lojistik Desteği (Ankara: Atatürk
Araştırma Merkezi, 1999).
 "1972 Yılı Çalışma
Raporu," Belleten, July 1973, p. 425.
 Uluğ Iğdemir, Cumhuriyetin 50.
Yılında Türk Tarih Kurumu (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu
Basımevi, 1973), p. 51; Fahri Çoker, Türk Tarih Kurumu: Kuruluş
Amacı ve Çalışmaları (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu
Basımevi, 1983), p. 143.
 Mahmut Şakiroğlu, "La
bibliothèque nationale d'Ankara," Turcica, 20 (1988): 243-6. The
best descriptions of the contents of Turkish Muslim court records series and
its various uses for historiography thus far to appear have been Ahmet
Akgündüz's Şer'iye Sicilleri: Mahiyeti, Toplu Kataloğu ve Seçme
Hükümler, 3 vols. (Istanbul: Türk Dünyası Araştırmaları
Vakfı Yayınları, 1988); Amy Singer, "Tapu Tahrir Defterleri
ve Kadı Sicilleri: A Happy Marriage of Sources," Tarih,
 For insightful discussions on the
importance of Muslim court records see Halil Inalcık, "Ottoman
Archival Materials on Millets," in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis,
eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural
Society, vol. 1 (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1982), pp. 437-49;
Cahid Baltacı, "Şer'iye Sicillerinin Tarihsel ve Kültürel
Önemi," Osmanlı Arşivleri ve Osmanlı
Araştırmaları Sempozyumu 17 Mayıs 1985 (Istanbul:
Türk-Arap Ilişkileri Incelemeleri Vakfı, 1985), pp. 127-32; Jon
Mandaville, "The Jerusalem Shari'a Court Records: A Supplement and
Complement to the Central Ottoman Archives," in Moshe Maoz, ed., Studies
on Palestine during the Ottoman Period (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, the
Hebrew University, and Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1975), pp. 517-24; Amy Singer, Palestinian
Peasants and Ottoman Officials Rural Administration around Sixteenth-Century
Jerusalem (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp.
 Ara Sarafian, "Génocide arménien et la
Turquie," Nouvelles d'Arménie, Sept. 2008, p. 1.
 Anatolian News Agency, Apr. 11, 2005.
 For an appraisal on the subject, see "Turkey and Armenia: When History Hurts," The Economist, Aug.
6-12, 2005, p. 26.
 "President's Statement on Armenian
Remembrance Day," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Apr. 24,
 Congressional transcripts, United States
House of Representatives, Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign
Operations, Mar. 21, 2007; Associated Press, Mar. 21, 2007; United Press International,
Mar. 21, 2007.