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Meds Yeghern – the Armenian tragedy Agatha Christie overlooked

Meds Yeghern — “Great Crime” — is what the Armenian language calls the purge that the Ottoman Empire carried out against Armenians living in Anatolia between 1915 and 1918. From the survivors’ memories we learn how drastic these actions were.

In her 1934 memoirs of her travels in the Middle East, Agatha Christie included the story of Aristide, an Armenian cab driver living in Beirut. The man told the intrigued writer how a brotherhood of blood connected him to the Bedouin tribe of Anajza.

When he was only 7 years old, along with his parents and siblings, he was thrown into a deep pit, doused with tar and set on fire. His family was burned alive. But the boy, miraculously saved, was found by Bedouins and raised as their own. Although these few sentences promise a dramatic story, the famous crime fiction author quickly loses her interest. She doesn’t give a second thought to the fact that Aristide’s story is not an isolated incident, nor that it is only one of the many facets of the tragedy that befell the Armenian people in the early 20th century. [1]

Meds Yeghern or genocide

Meds Yeghern—“Great Crime”—is what the Armenian language calls the purge that the Ottoman Empire carried out against Armenians living in Anatolia between 1915 and 1918. There was no accident in it. Christians were suspected of supporting Russia, with which the Empire was at war at the time. What is more, the newly forming nation of the young Ottoman Empire was to be homogeneous and comprised primarily of Turks.

The displacements, pogroms and “death marches” towards Syria were ordained by the highest authorities and carried out by Turks and Kurds. From the survivors’ memories we learn how drastic these actions were. [2] It is estimated that as a result, from the 2–2.5 million population of Armenians living on the territory of the Empire, between 600,000 and 1.5 million people died. [3]

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Genocide, the term used to describe these tragic events, was coined as late as 1944, together with Raphael Lemkin’s Axis Rule In Occupied Europe. [4] The formation of this term and its meaning in international law was undoubtedly influenced by the Nazi crimes. As a direct response to them, Lemkin was also involved in the creation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which the United Nations General Assembly adopted on December 9, 1948. Nevertheless, it was the history of the Armenians whose suffering was not accounted for after World War I that drew Lemkin’s attention.

The long road to international recognition of the Armenian tragedy

In 1921, while the Versailles peace conference was still underway, in Berlin an Armenian student assassinated the former Turkish Minister of Interior Affairs Mehmed Talaat. Soghomon Tehlirianin, because that was the student’s name, thus avenged his mother’s death—by taking the life of a high Turkish official co-responsible for the purges. The German justice system acquitted Tehlirianin; [5] the trial was covered also by the Polish press at the time. His self-administration took place the same year, when 130 Turkish soldiers, detained in Malta and accused by the Armenian delegation at the conference of crimes against their nation, were released without trial. [6]

The Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day was established on April 24. It is the date of the deportation of the Armenian intelligentsia from Istanbul in 1915. Of the thousands of people who had to leave their homes, the majority lost their lives.

On the 50th anniversary of this event, huge spontaneous protests took place in Yerevan, the capital of the then Armenian SSR, with the slogan of regaining the “Armenian lands.” The USSR, which had avoided the subject of the Armenian Genocide since the end of World War I, now wanted to avoid irritating Ankara and decided to channel this anger. A memorial complex was erected a few dozen kilometers west of Yerevan. To this day annual ceremonies commemorating the victims of the genocide are held at this place. [7]

Eternal flame at the Tsitsernakaberd monument in Yerevan, Armenia, on the 2014 Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian) via commons.wikipedia.org.

The ongoing Armenian-Turkish conflict

Although more than a century has passed since these events, the Armenian-Turkish conflict does not fade. The reason for this is not only Turkey’s failure to acknowledge the scale and significance of the crimes committed. The conflict was revived again in late 2020 with the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. It lasted intermittently since the 1980s, its main parties being Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter supported by Turkey. [8] Azerbaijan’s victory in the latest stage of this conflict, while not actually benefiting Turkey, was humiliating for Armenia.

However, as in many conflicts of this type, the most painfully affected was the local civilian population. Already in early October 2020, it was reported that over half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population, consisting largely of Armenians, had to be displaced due to fighting in the area. [9] While the agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan guarantees the residents a return home, not everyone will have a place to return to.

Politicians and artists who are not afraid to talk about genocide

Armed conflicts do not make old wounds heal faster. Especially if one of the parties refuses to admit to having inflicted the damage in the first place. However, there are more and more voices not afraid to call a spade a spade.

Unofficial sources of the media such as the Wall Street Journal and Reuters suggest that in a statement planned for April 24, U.S. President Joe Biden intends to officially call the mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century a genocide. [10] This would be consistent with his announcement a year ago, when he was still running for president, and with the actions of the House of Representatives which in 2019 passed a historic resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. [11] However, commentators point out that the fear of aggravating already strained relations with Turkey may prevent Joe Biden from taking this step.

Artists are also taking a stand on the Armenian Genocide. Among them is Fatih Akin, a German director of Turkish descent, who in his film Rana (2014) presented the story of a man trying to find his family after he learns that they may have survived the 1915 purge. Also, a Turkish writer Elif Shafak, in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, alludes to the complicated Turkish-Armenian relationship by telling the story of a family who discovers their true roots amidst the consequences of actions taken against Armenians.

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Among those affected by the right-wing Turks’ outrage over the Armenian tragedy is 2006 Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. He was taken to court for speaking in a Swiss newspaper about the enormous scale of the killings of Armenians in the early 20th century, even though he had not actually used the word ‘genocide’ in his statement. [12]

Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide in Poland

The Polish contribution to the commemoration of the genocide victims is Stefan Żeromski’s novel The Coming Spring. Published in 1924, that is several years after the purges had ended, it provides an emphatic description of the massacres carried out by Turkish and local Azeri troops.

For more information on cultural texts relating to the Armenian genocide, see Lesław Czapliński’s “MEC JEGHERN” znaczy zagłada (ang. “MEC JEGHERN means extermination”). [13]

The Foundation of Culture and Heritage of Polish Armenians encourages you to join the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day online here >>>.

The symbol of remembrance of the victims is the purple and blue forget-me-not flower.

Sources:

[1] Christie Agatha, Opowiedzcie jak tam żyjecie, Warszawa 1999.

[2] Armenian genocide: survivors recall events 100 years on, Channel 4.

[3] Szymon Ananicz, Turcja i Armenia w cieniu Wielkiej Tragedii, „Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich”, nr 167, 21.05.2015,

[4] Krzysztof Persak, 120. Rocznica urodzin Rafała Lemkina, 24.06.2020,

[5] Halil Berktay, Słowo na L, którego nie użył Pamuk, “Gazeta WYborcza”, 04.04.2011,

[6] Andrzej Zięba, Genocidium: Rafał Lemkin i Ormianie polscy we Lwowie,

[7] Zbigniew Rokita, Przeszłości nie można przewidzieć „Znak” kwiecień 2015,

[8] Wojciech Górecki, Górski Karabach: kapitulacja Armenii, sukces Rosji„Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich”, 10.11.2020,

[9] Połowa ludności Górskiego Karabachu musiała uciekać z domów z powodu walk , PAP, 07.10.2020,

[10] Humeyra Pamuk, Trevor Hunnicutt, Arshad Mohammed, Biden expected to recognize massacre of Armenians as genocide – sources, “Reuters”, 22.04.2021,

[11] Maciej Orłowski, Historyczna uchwała Izby Reprezentantów ws. ludobójstwa Ormian. „Żadne obce mocarstwo nie zmusi nas do milczenia”Gazeta Wyborcza, 30.10.2019,

[12] Maureen Freely, ’I stand by my words. And even more, I stand by my right to say them…’, “The Guardian”, 23.10.2005,

[13] Lesław Czapliński, „MEC JEGHERN” znaczy zagłada, “Akant”, 2015, nr 10,

[14] Remembering The Armenian MassacresBBC,

[15] An Armenian Genocide Survivor Speaks (1 of 3), testimony of the late Hagop H. Asadourian (1903-2003) recorded on April 24, 2003 in New York.

Cover photo: elderly woman on Armenian cementary. Credit: Montecruz Foto via flickr.com.

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