On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople’s Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government’s systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey; it was a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by which time more than a million Armenians had been annihilated and expunged from their historic homeland. For Grigoris Balakian, himself condemned, it was also the beginning of a four-year ordeal during which he would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood.
The Armenian genocide isn’t something I’d even heard of before finding this book for my Read the World Project. While I learnt about WWI in school, it was naturally focused on Britain’s involvement and little time was spent on what other people and countries that weren’t part of the main Allied forces or Central powers were going through. In fact, I don’t think I even learnt that Turkey was allied with Germany in WWI, Austria-Hungary and Germany were the ones we learnt about.
Naturally based on the subject matter Armenian Golgotha is a very intense and bleak read. Reading about what the Armenian people went through, from intellectuals to the everyday person, was very hard at times. Photos were included throughout the book which were hard to look at.
It’s wrong to presume but somehow I thought that the Armenians would be killed as quickly as possible, but that was not the case. Women were raped, people starved to death or faced countless diseases, and when hundreds of people were murdered at once, it wasn’t quick. A quote that stuck with me was from a Turkish soldier, describing how people were massacred: “It’s wartime, and bullets are expensive. So, people grabbed whatever they could from their villages – axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels – and they did the killing accordingly.”
The way that Balakian recounts the horrors he witnessed treads a fine line between clinical and emotional. Armenian Golgotha is full of facts and insights into the political, historical, and cultural context of the genocide which is very interesting and is – unfortunately – a reference point to other atrocities that have happened since. While Balakian never shies away from what happened it’s clear to see how his experience affected him. How the suffering he saw and experienced shaped him, and how he was still able to trust those who had been ordered to hate him and his people. A few brave Turks, who, with some of their German allies working for the Baghdad Railway were one of the many people who helped Balakian escape, showing while it’s easy to tar a group of people with the same brush, there are those who are willing to resist terrible orders.
That was one of the many interesting things in Armenian Golgotha, Balakian was often incredulous that his fellow Armenians would trust what the Turkish government was saying or promising, and the same goes for a lot of Turkish police and military, after what they’d been through. But there was still the odd person, especially those far enough away from the governments influence that may be willing to help.
Armenian Golgotha is an important account of a tragedy that I knew nothing of. I’ve learnt a lot from this memoir and the time spent on explaining historical or political contexts to certain situations was very helpful. It’s a tough read but also a compelling one.