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The Birth of ‘Great Calamity’: How ‘Medz Yeghern’ Was Introduced onto the World Stage

by Vartan Matiossian on October 25, 2012

… Listen, O Lord, to the lament that rises from this place,
to the call of the dead from the depths of the Metz Yeghérn …John Paul II (2001)

Words matter. Some people try to keep them meaningful, while others render them meaningless. And while some struggle to preserve memory, others fight to impose amnesia.

Medz Yeghern”1 is the most common term used by survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their descendants to identify what befell the Armenian nation in 1915. Over the past decade, American, European and Turkish news outlets have consistently translated Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity.” The Turkish media has repeated this seemingly innocuous translation over and over again in an attempt to deny the genocidal intent inherent in the meaning the victims themselves have given to the phrase.

In a parallel development, influential Armenian-American writers and editors have uncritically adopted this translation. We have come to the point where many readers and writers, Armenian and non-Armenian alike, appear to be sincerely convinced that the word “yeghern” has meant “calamity” over the past hundred years. This article, the first in a series, will explore the birth of “calamity” after Pope John Paul II and President George W. Bush used Medz Yeghern.

‘Chart’ and ‘Medz Yeghern’

Armenians across the diaspora have heard and applied the word “chart” (“massacre”) to describe the events of 1915. It has been widely used colloquially and is sometimes even seen in writing: Early on, journalist Sebouh Aguni, a survivor of the genocide, used the word chart in his 1920 book Milion me hayeru charti badmutiune (“The History of the Chart of a Million Armenians”). In 2009, British journalist Robert Fisk wrote the following when President Barack Obama first used Medz Yeghern in his April 24 address: “Like Presidents Clinton and George Bush, [Obama] called the mass killings ‘great atrocities’ and even tried to hedge his bets by using the Armenian phrase ‘Meds Yeghern,’ which means the same thing—it’s a phrase that elderly Armenians once used about the Nazi-like slaughter—but the Armenian for genocide is ‘chart.’ And even that was missing.”2 Fisk was, in fact, mistaken in his choice of the word; nowadays, there is a clear-cut difference between the legal terms to designate a non-systematic massacre (chart, or “massacre”) and systematic mass killing (tseghasbanutiun, or “genocide”). Sabra and Shatila during the Lebanese Civil War was a chart; Rwanda was a tseghasbanutiun.

Medz Yeghern, frequently shortened to Yeghern in writing, is not an esoteric phrase used only by the highly literate. It was indeed adopted by Armenian intellectuals to describe a massacre much greater in scale and destruction than the Armenian massacres of 1895-96 and the Cilician Armenian pogroms of 1909 (the latter were also called yeghern in the 1910’s and later), but it soon became the most widely used and heard phrase among all classes of Armenians, even after tseghasbanutiun, the loan translation of “genocide,” was coined in 1945. Although the usage of Medz Yeghern may have quantitatively decreased in books and the media since the late 1980’s to early 1990’s,3 it is still very much alive in many Armenian-language periodicals and books in both Armenia and the diaspora.

Pope John Paul II and ‘Metz Yeghérn’

Long before 1915, the definition of yeghern had shifted to the primary meaning of “crime” or “evil.” A yeghernakordz was defined as a “criminal” (vojrakordz) or “evildoer” (charakordz) who was brought to trial before a yeghernatad adean (“criminal court”), this last word being used only in Western Armenian.

In a book chapter first published in 1986, Rev. Levon Zekiyan (signing as Boghos Levon Zekiyan), a scholar and former member of the Mekhitarist Congregation who remains an Armenian rite priest of the Catholic Church, had sensibly noted when speaking of the “catastrophe of the Metz Yeghern”: “The genocide was consummated by a total uprooting, which the Armenian language simply wants to indicate with a proper name, Aghet (catastrophe) or Yeghern (crime), within the corresponding metaphysical radicality. These nouns are normally accompanied in the common use by the qualifier Metz (great) to simply underscore their wholly singular scope and signification in the history of the Armenian people.”4

Around a decade later, in 1995, the Italian translation of a short book by French-Armenian historian Claude Mutafian appeared under the title Metz Yeghérn: Breve storia del genocidio degli armeni (“Metz Yeghérn: A Short History of the Armenian Genocide”). The phrase was transliterated using Classical/Eastern Armenian phonetics and used as a synonym of genocide. The back cover provided its translation: “Metz Yeghérn, the ‘Great Evil’: That’s how the Armenians remember their holocaust, with a word which means, together, physical and also moral evil that hurts, tortures, kills.”5

In 2000, Pope John Paul II was not “struck with senile dementia”—as the Turkish newspaper Milliyet headlined6—when he issued a joint declaration in English with the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II during the latter’s visit to the Vatican, and stated: “The Armenian Genocide, which began the century, was a prologue to horrors that would follow.”7 On Sept. 26, 2001, in a short speech given in Yerevan at the Genocide Memorial on the hill of Tzitzernakaberd, the head of the Roman Catholic Church said, “We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people, and dismayed that the world still knows such inhumanity,” and read the following prayer in English:

“O Judge of the living and the dead, have mercy on us!
Listen, O Lord, to the lament that rises from this place,
to the call of the dead from the depths of the Metz Yeghérn,
the cry of innocent blood that pleads like the blood of Abel,
like Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.”

The English version of L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, quoted the prayer and gave the literal translation of Metz Yeghérn for the benefit of its readers: “great crime or great evil.”8 The Pope used the same transliteration found in Mutafian’s book (in its fifth print by 2010), which contained a postface by Rev. Zekiyan.

But it is here where the comedy of errors begins. The BBC rushed to report the same day of the prayer that, “The Pope has skirted controversy [with Turkey] on his visit to Armenia by avoiding the word ‘genocide’ in his prayers for those who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks… His use of the Armenian term, ‘Metz Yeghern,’ which means great calamity, to refer to the murders staved off the potential diplomatic storm which the word ‘genocide’ might have provoked from Turkey.” Its analyst Felix Corley repeated the equation “Metz Yeghern = big calamity,” and stated that it is “the term the Armenians have used which has the same resonance as ‘Shoah’ does for Jews.”9

The next day, a correspondent for the The New York Times reported: “In the end, the pope said nothing to whitewash the issue. … But in his remarks, in English, he used not the word ‘genocide’ but the Armenian term ‘metz yeghern.’ This signifies genocide to people here, but translates literally as ‘the big calamity.’ … Later in the day, Turkish officials said they were satisfied, in part because the word ‘Turk’ had not been mentioned, either. … Armenians had no complaints, either. At an ecumenical service tonight, Catholicos Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s supreme patriarch, used the same term the pope had, ‘metz yeghern,’ in an address in Armenian, though the remarks distributed in English did translate the phrase as ‘genocide.’”10

But on the same day, The Guardian published an article that showed more of an understanding of the Armenian phrase: “The entire prayer was in English except for metz yeghern, which means great crime or great evil in Armenian. … For more than 75 years the Armenians have used metz yeghern to refer to what they say was genocide, a word coined during the second world war in response to the Holocaust. Some dictionaries say that over the years yeghern has come to mean genocide.”11 It was echoed in a dictionary of political and economic terms of Eastern Europe published in 2002: “Armenia, as an independent State since 1991, has lobbied persistently for ‘the Armenian genocide’ (Armenians use the term ‘metz yeghern,’ meaning great crime or great evil) to become an internationally accepted part of the historical record.”12

That same day, on Sept. 27, the Pope signed another joint declaration with the Catholicos of All Armenians that addressed “the extermination of a million and a half Armenian Christians, in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the Twentieth Century.”13 His signature beneath the word “genocide” for the second time in less than a year was further proof of his full endorsement of the content and wording of the speech. The BBC failed to report it, while The New York Times did not consider it suited for all the news that’s fit to print.

The Armenian National Committee of America had taken note of the joint declaration and its use of the word “genocide,” and did not take offense to the Pope’s use of Medz Yeghern. Their press release that day was entitled, “Pope Condemns Armenian Genocide; Rejects Turkish Government Pressure,” and stated, “In a short speech at the Genocide Memorial the Pope noted that ‘The horrible violence that was brought onto the Armenians, repels us,’ and later referred to the Armenian Genocide, in Armenian, as the Medz Yeghern.”14

Ironically, selective reporting of the Pope’s actions became a memory for Armenian-American journalists. In 2009, Harout Sassounian, the publisher and editor of California Courier, and Edmond Y. Azadian, a permanent columnist of the The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, would cite the BBC to support their contention that the Pope had skirted the issue.15 Khatchig Mouradian, the editor of The Armenian Weekly, would declare that Medz Yeghern had become “‘a four-letter word’ once Pope John Paul II and President Barack Obama began using it in order to avoid saying ‘genocide.’”16 Completely omitted was the fact that the Pope had used Karekin II’s same word (officially translated as “genocide”), and had backed it one day later with their joint declaration, even though Turkey had protested its use in 2000 and “the Turks had asked that he avoided using that word [in Armenia].”17

George W. Bush and ‘Great Calamity’

The source for the semantic guesses of the BBC and the New York Times remains unclear. The latter may have inspired some White House speechwriter hungry for ideas, for the translation made its way into the following sentence from President George W. Bush’s April 24, 2003 address: “Many Armenians refer to these appalling events as the ‘great calamity.’” His statement in April 2005 again tiptoed around the word “genocide” with the following line: “This terrible event is what many Armenian people have come to call the ‘Great Calamity’…”18

These exercises in rhetoric were not lost on Armenian commentators such as Sassounian, who in 2003 remarked: “Here is a sample of the verbal gymnastics that the president engaged in this year: ‘horrible tragedy,’ ‘mass killings,’ ‘forced exile,’ ‘appalling events,’ ‘great calamity,’ ‘the suffering that befell Armenians in 1915,’ ‘a tragedy for all humanity,’ and ‘horrendous loss of life.’” Bush’s 2005 statement prompted Sassounian to write the following: “Once again, the president’s handlers have put in his statement just about every euphemism in the English language to avoid saying genocide, such as forced exile, mass killings, terrible event, Great Calamity, horrible loss of life, human tragedy, and suffering.”19

Former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch unveiled the mystery of the Armenian source for “Great Calamity” on June 19, 2008, in response to questions from Obama, then a junior Senator from Illinois, during her Senate confirmation hearing:

Obama: “How do you characterize the events surrounding the Armenian Genocide?”

Yovanovitch: “…The United States recognizes these events as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, the Medz Yeghern, or Great Calamity, as many Armenians refer to it.”

Obama: “If confirmed, what actions will you take to remember the victims of the Armenian genocide?”

Yovanovitch: “If confirmed, I will continue the tradition of participating in the official memorial event held in Yerevan every April. I will refer to this great historic catastrophe as the Medz Yeghern, the term often used within Armenia to refer to that dark chapter of history.”20

Yovanovitch, currently deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Eurasian and European Affairs at the State Department, had conveniently forgotten half of the story: The term is often used within (and outside) Armenia as a synonym of the word genocide to refer to that dark chapter of history. Among many examples, the detailed entry of Medz Yeghern in the authoritative Encyclopedia of the Armenian Question, published by the Haykakan Hanragitaran (Armenian Encyclopedia) in 1996, begins: “Medz Yeghern: The massive deportation and annihilation of the Armenian population of Western Armenia, Cilicia, and the other provinces of the Ottoman Empire, executed by the governing circles of Turkey during the First World War of 1914-18. The Turkish policy of genocide [tseghasbanutiun] of the Armenians was conditioned by a series of factors, of which the ideology of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, carried by the governing circles of the Ottoman Empire since the mid-19th century, had premiere significance.”21

To conclude this introduction of our investigation, we may thus state that:

1) Pope John Paul II, the first non-Armenian dignitary who used the phrase Medz Yeghern, was inspired by an Armenian source and consistently used both Medz Yeghern and “genocide” one after the other in 2001. Medz Yeghern, as stated by the Vatican semi-official newspaper, meant “great crime” or “great evil,” and not “big” or “great calamity,” as some international media misleadingly suggested. Armenian commentators believe that the Pope avoided condemning the genocide.

2) President George W. Bush picked “great calamity” and used it twice in his addresses on April 24. As his appointee Ambassador Yovanovitch later showed, the source of that expression, ascribed to “many Armenians,” was Medz Yeghern. The Armenian media never challenged the translation while criticizing Bush’s “verbal gymnastics.”


[1] Armenian words will be transliterated throughout this series on the basis of Western Armenian phonetic values, except in the case of quotations and bibliographical references in the footnotes.

2 The Independent, April 28, 2009.

3 Khatchig Mouradian, “From Yeghern to Genocide: Armenian Newspapers, Raphael Lemkin, and the Road to the UN Genocide Convention,” Haigazian Armenological Review, vol. 29, 2009, p. 129.

4 Boghos Levon Zekiyan, L’Armenia e gli armeni. Polis lacerata e patria spirituale: la sfida di una sopravvivenza, Milan: Guerini e Associati, 2001, p. 35.

5 Claude Mutafian, Metz Yeghérn. Breve storia del genocidio degli armeni, translated by Antonia Arslan, Milan: Guerini e Associati, 1995, back cover. The phrase did not appear in the text; the French original had been published as Un aperçu sur le génocide des Arméniens (Paris, 1995).

6 Quoted in Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, New York: Random House, 2005, p. 543.

7 See

8 L’Osservatore Romano, English version, Oct. 3, 2001.

9 “Pope Avoids Armenia Controversy,”; Felix Corley, “Analysis: Pope Treads Cautiously in Armenia,”

10 The New York Times, Sept. 27, 2001.

11 The Guardian, Sept. 27, 2001.

12 Alan John Day, Roger East, Richard Thomas, A Political and Economic Dictionary of Eastern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge International Reference on Current Affairs, 2002, p. 26.

13 See

14 See

15 Harut Sassounian, The Huffington Post, April 28, 2009; Edmond Azadian, The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, June 13, 2009.

16 The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Oct. 27, 2011.

17 The New York Times, Sept. 27, 2001.

[1]8 See

19 California Courier, May 1, 2003; California Courier, April 28, 2005.

20 Asbarez, July 11, 2008.

21 Haykakan Harts Hanragitaran (Encyclopedia of the Armenian Question), Yerevan: Haykakan Hanragitaran, 1996, p. 303.

The Evil That We Do Not Know: ‘Medz Yeghern’ and the ‘Old Language’

by Vartan Matiossian on December 12, 2012

Then he stopped and announced, ‘You know, there was on this land a medz yeghern, a great cataclysm,’ as the survivors called the genocide.

Aris Janigian (2009)1

The following spring, the Armenian and Turkish ministries announced that they had agreed on a plan of good relations, which allowed President Barack Obama, in his anticipated April 24 address, to refer to the events of 1915 not by the desired designation but by an Armenian alternative: Medz Yeghern, meaning ‘great calamity.’

Garin Hovannisian (2010)2

If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and the massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians. Meds Yeghern. The Great Catastrophe.

Chris Bohjalian (2012)3

Above are quotes from Armenian-American fiction and non-fiction writers. These excerpts indicate that “Great Calamity” and similar terms have become a common translation for “Medz Yeghern.” The trend has also been seen in academia, where non-Armenian academics have used the term. Among them is diaspora theorist William Safran, who wrote, “These events took place in the homeland, but they served to mark the ethnonational consciousness in the diaspora as well, especially events of a negative nature, such as…the Armenian yeghern (catastrophe), the Turkish genocide…”4 Of course, the dominant discourse of the Turkish mainstream, be it as “Great Calamity”5 or as “Great Catastrophe,” is seen in books authored or co-authored by Turkish and Turkish-Armenian writers and scholars.6We may assume that the latter either follow the flow or are genuinely convinced that this is the actual translation of the phrase.

However, an internet search may also yield many English-language Armenian outlets that translate Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity,” or, sometimes, “Great Crime.” There is a duality that makes necessary, after the survey of Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-English vocabularies, to explore their ultimate source: the Armenian language.

The meaning of ‘yeghern’ in Classical Armenian

We may start by pointing out that calamity and crime are related to each other in that they both stem from the same underlying concept of evil. Evil and crime are closely linked to each other because an evil intent produces an evil act, a crime. Evil and calamity are also closely linked; the Armenian word charik (which etymologically comes from char, “bad”) means both “evil” and “calamity.”

Armenian monolingual dictionaries and literary texts also help us understand both the literal meaning of yeghern and the context in which it was used.

This word is a prime example of a curious entanglement. The Dictionary of Classical Armenian (henceforth, Haigazian Dictionary), compiled by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice,attests to the existence of the words yeghar (եղար) and yegher (եղեր) in Classical Armenian as meaning“lamentation, cry.” They originated words like yegharamayr > yegheramayr (եղերամայր, “mourner”) and yegheragan (եղերական, “lamentable”). The same dictionary cited the word yeghern (եղեռն) as meaningcharik (evil, calamity), tarnutiun (bitterness), zhandutiun (perniciosity), medzavnas kordz (harmful act), abiradutiun (lawlessness).7

An unidentified medieval author of a commentary on Armenian mystic poet Gregory of Narek’s Book of Lamentation wrote that a yeghernakordz(եղեռնագործ)or a charakordz (չարագործ, “evildoer”) was someone “who commits an act that merits lamentation.” The reference was quoted by the New Dictionary of Classical Armenian (henceforth, New Haigazian Dictionary), published by three Mekhitarist monks in 1836-37, which defined yeghern as charik (չարիք, “evil, calamity”), vdank (վտանգ, “danger”), vojir (ոճիր, “crime”), aghedk (աղէտք, “catastrophe”), badahar (պատահար, “event”) and vnas (վնաս, “harm”). The dictionary also mistakenly derived the word yegheragan (“lamentable, tragic”) from yeghern on the basis of that reference.8

The conflation of the two terms in the New Haigazian Dictionary is likely the source of our modern confusion between “calamity” and “tragedy” when translating yeghern. In attempting to explain the origin of yegheragan in Modern Armenian, one would perhaps be led to think that since yegher (եղեր)does not exist as a single root, then yeghern (եղեռն) may have something to do with “tragedy” or “lamentation,” as Armenian linguistic laws establish that ռ (rr) becomes ր (r) and not the other way around (compare դառնալ > դարձ). Dictionaries of Modern Armenian even list the use of yeghernagan (եղեռնական, “criminal”) and yegheragan (եղերական, “lamentable, tragic”) as synonyms, labeling it as “antiquated.”9

In his Dictionary of Armenian Roots (1926-35), linguist Hrachia Acharian (1876-1953) compiled all etymological attempts for yeghern, but did not offer an etymology of his own.10 His disciple, Guevorg Jahukyan (1920-2003), suggested an Indo-European origin and derived it from the reconstructed root *el (“to annihilate, to harm”), of which we have the Greek ollumi, oleko (“to annihilate, to destroy”) and perhaps Hittite hullai (“to triumph, to defeat, to annihilate”).11It is less possible, but not completely unlikely, that the same root yielded the reconstructed word *եղեռ “crime,” which originated both yeghern and yegher.

It is noteworthy that the New Haigazian Dictionary defines aghed (աղէտ) as “anhnarin charik, vnas; vojir, abiradutiun,”12 which shows that both yeghern and aghed meant “crime” and “calamity” in Classical Armenian.

The meaning of ‘yeghern’in 5th-century texts

The oldest attestations of yeghern appear in the Armenian translation of the Bible in the 5th century. Amos 3:10 states: “‘They do not know how to do right,’ says the Lord, ‘those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds’” (Revised Standard Version, RSV); the Classical Armenian translation of the same biblical passage would translate into English as, “‘They did not know the yeghern that would happen to those,’ said the Lord, ‘who stored up violence and misery in their provinces.’” In this context, where “An adversary shall surround the land, and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered” (Amos 3:11, RSV), yeghern should be interpreted as “evil” to remain within the framework of the RSV version. Nevertheless, the interpretation “calamity” cannot be excluded.

Interestingly, the Western Armenian translation, directly from the original Greek and Hebrew, renders the same passage as “‘for they do not know to do ughghutiun,’says the Lord; ‘they store up privation and robbery in their palaces,’” where ughghutiun means “right”; it implies that if they do not do right, they do evil.13 The Eastern Armenian translation (from Classical Armenian) repeats the phrase as “They did not know the yeghern to happen to them…” The translators contextualized the word with the meaning of “evil”; otherwise, they would have rendered it as aghed (“calamity”).14

Yeghern appears once again in the Bible in a quite problematic passage of 2 Maccabees 4:50: “But Menelaus, because of the cupidity of those in power, remained in office, growing in wickedness, having become the chief plotter against his fellow citizens” (RSV). The Classical Armenian translation is literally: “And so through the greed and avarice of those who were in power, Menelaus remained. He established malice, being medz yeghern vnas to his citizens.” It is quite likely that the words medz yeghern functioned as a qualifier of vnas (“harm”). The adjective medzyeghern (one word), which is not used in Modern Armenian, appears in early bilingual dictionaries translated as “crimeful, heinous” or“execrable, abominable; very wicked, heinous.”15 The Eastern Armenian translation renders “medz yeghern vnas” as “great evils” (“medzamedz charikner”).16

Yeznik Koghbatsi, a remarkable scholar who was among the group of translators of the Bible, used yeghern three times in his Refutation of the Sects:17

1) “[W]e say that that has happened to man not for yeghern, but for goodness” (I: 11);

2) “If Ormizd [Ahura Mazda] learned his father’s thought, why did he not also learn his evil brother’s intention to perforate the abdomen and come out, and go to take the kingdom, which would be yeghern for him and his creatures?” (II: 4);

3) “Or when someone sees his friend going to bandit-filled places and says that he will encounter yeghern, he will not be the cause of harm” (II: 16).

The first occurrence clearly means “evil”; the second can also be interpreted either as “evil” or as “calamity”; while the third definitely associates “bandit-filled places” with “crime.”18

The New Haigazian Dictionary included the following quotations from the Armenian translations of one of the Church Fathers, John Chrysostom:

1) “That yeghern fell on their heads”;

2) “When the greatness of evil [char] succeeds, yeghern is at its head.”19

We assume that the first case likely corresponds to the English translation, “The evil will come round upon his head,”20 while the second reference may be translated as “crime.”

The dictionary even quoted historian Eusebius of Caesarea as part of its inaccurate identification of yeghern and yegher: “Cries [yeghers]and crimes [vojirs] were rampant throughout the land of Egyptians.”21

The following table summarizes the seven uses of yeghern and their most suitable translation:

Source                 Meaning
Amos 3:10 	        Evil/Calamity
2 Maccabees 4:50 	Crimeful, heinous (medzyeghern)
Yeznik I:11 	        Evil
Yeznik II:4 	        Evil/Calamity
Yeznik II:16 	        Crime
John Chrysostom 	Evil (?)
John Chrysostom 	Crime

Acharian defined the Classical Armenian meaning of yeghern as “portzank, charik,”both denoting “evil” and “calamity.” While it may be argued that he did not translate yeghern as “crime” in Classical Armenian, it is highly significant that he defined vojir as yeghern; moreover, he noted, yeghern “in the new literary language, means vojir [crime].”22 Jahukyan correctly defined yeghern in Classical Armenian as “portzank, charik, vojir.”23

Yeghernbelonged to the semantic fields of “evil,” “crime,” and “calamity” in the 5th century CE. We will see whether it continued to have these three meanings in modern times, in “the new literary language”; and whether Acharian, the greatest Armenian linguist of all times, was right or wrong.


1 Aris Janigian, Riverbig, Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2009, p. 66.

2 Garin K. Hovannisian, Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, p. 249.

3 Chris Bohjalian, The Sandcastle Girls, New York: Doubleday, 2012, p. 6.

4 William Safran, “Comparing Visions of the Nation: The Role of Ethnicity, Religion and Diasporan Nationalism in Armenian, Jewish and Sikh relations to the Homeland,” in Mitchell Young, Eric Zuelow and Andreas Sturm (eds.), Nationalism in a Global Era: the Persistence of Nations, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 39

5 Fuad Dundar, Crime of Numbers: The Role of Statistics in the Armenian Question (1878-1918), New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2010, p. 6.

6 Selçuk Akşin Somel, Christoph K. Neumann, and Amy Singer, “Introduction: Re-Sounding Silent Voices,” in Amy Singer, Christoph K. Neumann, and Selçuk Akşin Somel (eds.), Untold Histories of the Middle East: Recovering Voices from the 19th and 20th Centuries, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 6; Susae Elanchenny and Narod Maraşliyan, Breaking the Ice: The Role of Civil Society and Media in Turkey-Armenia Relations, Istanbul: Istanbul Kültür University, 2012, p. 14.

7 Bargirk haykazian lezvi (Dictionary of Classical Armenian), vol. 1, Venice: Antoni Bortoli, 1749, p. 227, 239.

8 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi (New Dictionary of the Classical Armenian Language), vol. 1, Venice: S. Lazarus Press, 1836, p. 654.

9 See, for instance, Eduard Aghayan, Ardi hayereni batsadrakan bararan (Explanatory Dictionary of Modern Armenian), vol. 1, Yerevan: Hayastan, 1976, p. 323.

10 Hrachia Acharian, Hayeren armatakan bararan (Dictionary of Armenian Roots), vol. 2, Yerevan: Yerevan University Press, 1928, p. 694.

11 Guevorg Jahukyan, Hayeren stugabanakan bararan (Armenian Etymological Dictionary), Yerevan: Asoghik, 2010, p. 213.

12 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi, p. 39.

13 Astvatzashunch girk Hin yev Nor Ktakaranats (Holy Bible: Old and New Testament), Constantinople: M. Hohan, 1857, p. 1025.

14 Astvatzashunch matean Hin yev Nor Ktakaranneri (Holy Bible: Old and New Testaments), Holy Echmiadzin: Bible Society of Armenia, 1994, p. 1093.

15 Father Paschal Aucher and John Brand, A Dictionary English and Armenian, Venice: Armenian Academy of S. Lazarus, 1821, p. 213, 421; Rev. Matthias Bedrossian, New Dictionary Armenian-English, Venice: St. Lazarus, 1875-1879, p. 464.

16 Astvatzashunch matean Hin yev Nor Ktakaranneri, p. 697. The deuterocanonical books such as II Maccabees have not been translated into Western Armenian.

17 Yeznka Koghbatsvo Bagrevanda yepiskoposi Yeghdz aghandots (Refutation of the Sects by Yeznik Koghbatsi, Bishop of Bagrevand), Venice: St. Lazarus Monastery, 1926, p. 46, 140, 180.

18 The Eastern Armenian version gives the meanings of “evil,” “evildoing,” and “tragedy” (Yeznik Koghbatsi, Yeghdz agandots [Refutation of the Sects], A. A. Abrahamyan, translator, Yerevan: Hayastan, 1970, p. 48, 91, 110).

19 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi, p. 654.

20 The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1851, p. 835.

21 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi, p. 654.

22 Acharian, Hayeren armatakan bararan, vol. 2, p. 694; vol. 5, Yerevan: Yerevan University Press, 1931, p. 501.

23 Jahukyan, Hayeren stugabanakan bararan, p. 213.

Source: Armenian Weekly

The `Great Calamity' Hoax: What `Medz Yeghern' Actually Meant for the Survivors

Posted by Vartan Matiossian on January 4, 2013 in Opinion

`All those human-like monsters who executed the Medz Yeghern and tainted their hands with the innocent blood of the Armenians.' Yervant Odian (1920)

During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the word yeghern had already entered dictionaries of Modern Armenian and literary texts with the primary meaning of `crime.' It was used, both alone and within the phrase Medz Yeghern, as one of the names of the pogrom of Adana in 1909. [image: 1x1.trans The `Great Calamity' Hoax: What `Medz Yeghern' Actually Meant for the Survivors]

Yervant Odian

The echoes of this massacre had barely died out when a large-scale program of extermination was put into practice by the Ottoman-Turkish government. Along came the words yeghern and Medz Yeghern. This article will discuss their use in some of the many texts penned in the first two decades years after 1915.

The genocide was still in progress when the word yeghern was used to describe it outside the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. One of the first instances of its use was a book published by Archbishop Mushegh Seropian in Boston. In 1916, he invoked a `criminal fraternity' as responsible for the extermination: ``The Turkish execution of the German method' is perhaps the best adjective to characterize the last Armenian yeghern. I do not know what name must be applied to that criminal [ vojrakordz] fraternity, Turko-German or German-Turkish?...' Note the use of the words `last Armenian yeghern,' implying that there were previous `Armenian yeghern,' such as Adana. The mention of a `Turkish execution' eliminates any concept of passivity that could be tied to a `calamity,' but involves a `criminal,' an active perpetrator, actually labeled `criminal fraternity.' Seropian quoted German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg a few pages later, commenting: `This declaration would be enough proof before history of the German commission of a crime [vojrakordzutiun] in the yeghern of the Armenian extermination.'1 Clearly, the accusation that Germany had committed a crime related to the Armenians could not have been framed in terms of a `calamity.'

It is already noticeable that the word yeghern had acquired a meaning that went beyond `crime,' as the use of the words vojrakordzutiun and yeghern in the same sentence seem to show. Its approximate translation as `pogrom' may have already been surmised in this period.

Yervant Odian: `I come from those infernal places of the Yeghern'

Other books and articles published outside of the Ottoman Empire may have also used the word yeghern, whichresurfaced there only after the end of the war. On Nov. 21, 1918, famous satirist Yervant Odian (1869-1926) published an article in the daily Jamanak upon his return to Constantinople after three and half years in exile in Syria. `I come from those infernal places of the yeghern, where the Zohrabs, Aknunis, Khajags, Zartarians, Siamantos, Varoujans, Sevags, Daghavarians-the Brain of a whole nation-were shredded to pieces by the hands of the worthy heirs of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan,' he wrote.2

This telling paragraph conveys the idea that the `worthy heirs of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan' first killed off the intelligentsia-a crime that was a manifestation of a great, unmitigated evil. It may be complemented by the following paragraph written by Odian in March 1920 about turning April 24 into an Armenian day of commemoration. Here, the fallen emperors of Germany and Austria are named alongside the Young Turk triumvirate as having an equal part in `execut[ing] the Medz Yeghern.' The meaning of the phrase is clearly indicated by the reference to the `enormous crime' in the next sentence: `Thus, every year, all churches, all schools, all national institutions will recall the memory of the great Armenian martyrdom, reading anathemas of malediction to the Wilhelms, the Franz Josephs, the Envers, the Talaats, the `Cemals, and all those human-like monsters who executed the Medz Yeghern and tainted their hands with the innocent blood of the Armenians. That day, let all preachers, all speakers, all teachers, and all newspapers remember once again the enormous crime [vojir]and pillory of its authors. Let the whole Armenian nation mourn and cry over its martyrs.'3

The first book on the victims of `Medz Yeghern'

At the beginning of 1919, Simon Kapamadjian (whose whereabouts during the genocide remain unknown) published a 48-page booklet that appears to be the earliest instance when the words Medz Yeghern appeared on the cover of a book, in this case, as a subtitle: `The Victims of the Medz Yeghern with Their Pictures, Poems and Articles of Our Best Writers (...).' The main feature was a section of pictures and brief biographies of 20 well-known victims of the genocide, and a catalogue of 94 others. The author apologizes at the end of the section, writing: `The idea of having committed an injustice weighs over me when I think that it was impossible to present here many talents hidden in deep corners of the provinces who were victims of the MEDZ YEGHERN. I hereby confess the insufficiency of my means and I ask my noble readers not to ascribe this involuntary flaw to any ulterior motive. I pay my deep homage to all the fallen, as well as to those bright intellects who were extinguished by savage criminals [ vojrakordz].'4

It is clear that Kapamajian had a `great crime' foremost in his mind when he wrote Medz Yeghern. His reference to the `bright intellects who were extinguished by savage criminals' leaves no doubt that he followed his dictionary of 1910 and understood yeghern according to his own definition of `breach of political or moral law, evil, harm' cited in our previous article.

Bryce, Morgenthau, and `Medz Yeghern'

The pictures of the well-known victims of the genocide were published in Constantinople in 1919 as a poster under the title `Medz Yeghernin zohere' (The victims of the Medz Yeghern).5 The poster was most likely printed for the first commemoration of the arrests of intellectuals on April 24. At that time, the literary weekly Shant published a special issue that included an article on writer Roupen Zartarian, signed by Zohrab Garon (Hovsep Keshishian), and starting with the following sentence: `One of the famous figures of the brilliant Armenian literary phalanx, who became the victim of the Medz Yeghern, in his highest degree of fecundity (...).'6 The context for the phrase appears in a piece in the same issue by another survivor, the writer Mikayel Shamdanjian (1874-1926): `The Turkish yeghern had materially succeeded, but had failed in essence. Many, many went to fill the road to perdition and I believe that those few who saw death and survived, returned more empowered.'7 `Turkish yeghern' can only be understood as an action like a `crime,' `atrocity,' or `massacre,' and not, as in the previous cases, as a passive event like `calamity.'

The same year, Shamdanjian published his memoirs under the title `The Tribute of the Armenian Mind to the Yeghern: Thoughts and Feelings from an Exile,' while Yenovk Armen would translate the memoirs of U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau into Armenian, with the title `The Memoirs of American Ambassador Mr. Morgenthau and the Secrets of the Armenian Yeghern,' and Peniamin Bedrossian would translate the British `Blue Book,' published by James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee, with the title `The Blue Book of the British Government on the Armenian Medz Yeghern (1915-16).' In 1922, Hagop Sarkissian, the translator of Ittihadist Parliament member Hagop Babikian's report about the massacre of Adana, would refer to his friend, writer Ardashes Harutiunian (1873-1915), as a `victim of the unspeakable Yeghern.'8

Aram Andonian: `Horrible Yeghern'/`Fearful Crime'

The use of these words by survivors continued. Writer Aram Andonian (1875-1951) indicted the `whole Turkish people' for `monstrous crimes' in the first page of his memoir Medz Vojire (The Great Crime), published in 1921. They carried `the entire responsibility for this horrible yeghern,' he wrote in his introduction. `But the Armenian martyrdom lacked principally a voice of conscience and piety, a cry of resistance on the part of the millions who constitute that people who carry the entire responsibility for this horrible yeghern. Five years, those five years of terror! During those five years not a single Turk ever raised a voice of protest against those monstrous crimes [vojir] committed on behalf of the whole Turkish people in the hell called the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, everyone was given to a sort of sadistic pleasure while a whole people was being killed with a barbarity unknown to history.'9

The first sentence of Andonian's paragraph is particularly relevant, because the sentence is backed by the English translation published in 1920 (The Memoirs of Naim Bey), which cannot be said to have been altered with any purpose: `What is principally lacking in the records of Armenia's martyrdom is the voice of conscience on the part of the millions who constitute the nation that is entirely responsible for this fearful crime. '10

Kevork Mesrob: `One of the first victims of the Medz Yeghern'

Historian Kevork Mesrob published a 60-page exposé of Turkish denial in 1922. He introduced documents from the Armenian Patriarchate related to the assassination of the prelate of Erzinga (Erzincan), Very Rev. Sahag Odabashian, in December 1914 with the following statement: `Very Rev. Odabashian was one of the first victims of the Medz Yeghern, whose assassination may be regarded as one of the proofs that confirm that the Turkish government had previously decided and organized the massive killing (chart) and annihilation of the Armenians.'

Mesrob undoubtedly meant `Great Crime' when he made reference to one of the first victims of the Medz Yeghern.One document, a report by the prelate of Sebastia, Rev. Knel Kalemkiarian, incidentally noted: `The first travelers who crossed the scene of the yeghern noted the traces of European horseshoes, only used by the horses of officials.'11 The `scene of the yeghern,'where the ecclesiastic had been killed, was what is called `crime scene' in plain English.

Garabed Kapiguian: `Yeghernabadum'

Writer Garabed Kapiguian (1876-1950) wrote an account of the massacres and deportations in his native region of Sebastia. First serialized in 1919 in the periodical Yeridasart Hayastan of Providence, R.I., his account was published in book form in 1924 under the title `Yeghernabadum of Lesser Armenia and Its Great Capital Sebastia.' The neologism yeghernabadum indicated the `story of the crime,' while the word yeghern was used three times, in all cases with the meaning `crime,' when talking of Odabashian's killing:

(1) `...[He] becomes the victim of such an absolutely political yeghern, Turkish treason';

(2) `Rev. Vaghinag, prelate of Karahisar, reports by telegraph this great yeghern to the Armenian Prelacy...';

(3) `The yeghern was so absolutely the result of the conspiracy of the Turkish government...'12

Grigoris Balakian: `Yeghernakordz Ittihad fugitives'

In 1922, in Vienna, Very Rev. Grigoris Balakian (1875-1934) published the first volume of his memoirs, The Armenian Golgotha: Episodes of the Armenian Martyrdom. From Berlin to Zor 1914-1920 (the second volume would be posthumously published more than 35 years later).

The recently published English translation has omitted his emotional preface, entitled, `To You, Armenian People,' and dated August 1922, where Balakian used the word yeghernabadum four times in the first three pages:

`This bloody book is your holy book. Read it without getting bored, don't doubt at all of this yeghernabadum, and don't think that the writings are tendentious exaggerations.'

`I have expected in vain since the armistice that more able people executed this hard duty. However, with the exception of foreign eyewitness missionaries and the brief travel notes of a few Armenian exiles, the yeghernabadum of your inenarrable martyrdom has not been published so far.'

`Yes, I did not want to write because my heart and my pen felt weak to write down your yeghernabadum that blackens the bloodiest pages of human history.'

`Because all those who shared with me the thorny road to the Armenian Golgotha asked me to write the inenarrable yeghernabadum of their suffering and exile.'13

There is no doubt that yeghernabadum again indicated the `story of the crime.' The conceptual frame of Balakian's text revolves around the analogy of the Armenian annihilation with Christ's journey and crucifixion. The use of images such as bloody book, martyrdom, bloodiest pages of history or Golgotha ensure that the author is not talking about a calamity.

After quoting German Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz's 1914 suggestion to deport the Armenian population of the Ottoman-Russian border, Balakian wrote: `But as we will unfortunately see, what which had seemed impossible to everyone at that time, and even become a subject of derision, became possible during the World War, as did a litany of other tragic [yegheragan] and criminal [yeghernagan] events, as well as widespread human slaughter unprecedented in the annals of mankind.' He was well aware of the difference between yegheragan and yeghernagan; a few pages later, he would refer to `what horrible pitch the frenzy of the Turks could reach and what criminal [yeghernagan]consequences it could have...'14 Frenzy can, most likely, lead to criminal and not calamitous actions.

To close the circle, it is worth quoting the following: `Still, the course of the Armenian political parties toward the Turkish government was always friendly and never conspiratorial, as the major criminal [yeghernakordz]Ittihadist fugitives responsible for shedding Armenian blood are now endeavoring to show, of course in the hope of gaining exoneration for their great crime [ vojir].'15

Needless to say, someone who sheds blood is the perpetrator of a crime [ yeghern-a-kordz] and not of a calamity.

Mardiros Sarian: `The Greatest Yeghern of all times'

In 1933, a survivor from Smyrna, Mardiros Sarian (unrelated to the homonymous Soviet Armenian painter), published a rare booklet with a conversation he had overheard in February 1916 from his room in the `Turque Hotel' in Konia, where he had first been deported with his family (in the same manner as deported Armenian intellectuals had found lodging in Armenian or Greek homes in Changr for a few months before meeting their fate). He had written down his notes in 1918; the text remained unpublished for 15 years.

The conversation was held between an Ottoman military officer called Hüsni Bey (later revealed to be Albanian of origin), and a Young Turk official, Nejib Bey, in the presence of several other Turkish officers. Hüsni Bey had gone `from Konia to Tarsus, from Adana to Osmaniyeh, from Islayeh to Aleppo as far as Deir-er-Zor.'16 After describing the atrocities he had seen on his way, he questioned the purposes of the Ottoman government. This prompted Nejib Bey to reveal the plans of the Ittihad Party in considerable detail and characterize the ongoing annihilation as a fait accompli. His lengthy response provoked a counter response from Hüsni Bey, in which he applied the adjective `greatest' (medzakuyn)to the extermination: `Out of the 2,000 year history of Christian martyrdom, we were the ones who earned the title of those who had horrifically exceeded all tyrants and monsters in the unheard of numbers of our victims and torments caused, while the Armenian nation is seen as the 20th century's greatest hero and greatest victim and has been found worthy of admiration, even of adoration. Are we then to go on stubbornly believing that in view of this, the greatest yeghern, the fait accompli you have made so much of has any power?'17

Nazaret Piranian: `The Yeghern of Kharpert'

We will end by referring to Nazaret Piranian's The Yeghern of Kharpert, published first in installments in the daily Baikar of Boston, Mass., and appeared as a book in 1937. Writer Yervant Mesiayan noted in his preface: `Nazaret Piranian is warning to us `Don't ever forget.' This warning comes from the reminiscences of the terrible yeghern, which undoubtedly lighten fair passions of vengeance and fury, but also a deep awareness of Armenian fate, which we may rule just if we keep aflame in ourselves the sense of justice spiked by the Crime [Vojir] and the idea of right.'18 Indeed, `passions of vengeance and fury' could have only been lightened up by an action that generated them: the crime that also spiked a `sense of justice.' It is clear that yeghern and vojir were used here as synonyms.

The abovementioned examples illustrate how the combined forces of `evil' and `crime' imparted a particular power on the meaning of Medz Yeghern and accounted for its widespread use in the decades to follow. This is the reason that a word much less used than vojir in everyday language took its place with the meaning `Great [Evil] Crime.' The survivors had no need to coin a phrase to say `Great Calamity' when the word aghed (`catastrophe, disaster, calamity') already fulfilled that function.


[1] Archbishop Mushegh, Haykakan mghdzavanje: knnakan verlutzumner (The Armenian Nightmare: Critical Analyses), Boston: Azk, 1916, p. 70, 73.

2 Yervant Odian, `Voghjuyn dzez' (Hail You), reprinted in Teotig, Hushardzan nahatak mtavorakanutian (Monument to the Martyred Intelligentsia), Los Angeles: Navasart, 1985, p. 16.

3 Yervant Odian, `Azgayin nor tone' (The New National Anniversary), Jamanak, March 21, 1920, reprinted in Azg-Mshaguyt, April 24, 2010.

4 Simon Kapamadjian, Hayastani Kaghandcheke (The New Year Gift of Armenia), Constantinople: Simon Kapamadjian Bookstore, 1919, p. 12 (capitalized in original).

5 `Matenagitakan (1915-1921)' (Bibliography, 1915-1921), Haykashen taregirk, vol. I, Constantinople, 1922, p. 397.

6 Zohrab Garon, `Ruben Zardarian,' Shant, April 26, 1919, p. 293.

7 Mikayel Shamdanjian, `Ittihati hayajinj nopan' (The Armenian-Exterminating Crisis of the Ittihad), Shant, April 26, 1919, p. 299.

8 Hagop Sarkisian, `Artashes Harutiunian (hishatakner)' (Ardashes Harutiunian: Reminiscences), Haykashen taregirk, vol. 1, Constantinople, 1922, p. 266.

9 Aram Andonian, Metz Vochire. Haykakan verjin kotoratznere yev Taleat Pasha (The Great Crime: The Last Armenian Massacres and Taleat Pasha), Boston: Bahag Press, 1921, p. 5-6 (emphasis added).

10 The Memoirs of Naim Bey, second edition, Newtown Square (Pa.): Armenian Historical Research Association, 1964, p. IX (emphasis added).

11 Kevork Mesrob, `Trkahayern u turkere (1914-1918). antip u pashtonakan pastatughter' (Turkish Armenians and Turks [1914-1918]: Unpublished and Official Documents), Haykashen taregirk, Constantinople, 1922, p. 119-20.

12 G. Kapiguian, Yeghernapatum Pokun Hayots yev norin medzi mayrakaghakin Sebastio (Story of the Yeghern of Lesser Armenia and Its Great Capital Sebastia), Boston: Hairenik Press, 1924, p. 48.

13 Krikoris tz vard. Balakian, Hay Goghgotan. Drvagner hay martirosagrutenen. Perlinen depi Zor 1914-1920, vol. I, Beirut: Planeta Printing Press, 1977, p. 17-19 (second printing of the 1922 edition).

14 Grigoris Balakian, Armenian Golgotha, translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p. 21, 24 (Balakian, Hay Goghgotan, p. 61, 68).

[1]5 Balakian, Armenian Golgotha, p. 38 (Balakian, Hay Goghgotan, p. 81).

[1]6 Mardiros Sarian, Fe d'agombli yev Astudzo dem paterazm. Polis Nuri Osmaniyei mej Ittihatakanneru gaghtni voroshumnere. hayots bnajnjman sharzharitneru masin (Fait Accompli and War against God. The Secret Decisions of the Ittihadists in Nuri Osmaniyeh, in Constantinople: On the Motives for the Annihilation of the Armenians), Paris: n.p., 1933, p. 4.

17 idem, p. 40.

18 Nazaret Piranian, Kharperti Yegherne (The Yeghern of Kharpert), Boston: Baikar Press, 1937, p. [II].

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