Arts and the Armenian Genocide

From the spring of 1915 to the fall of 1916, the Ottoman “Young Turks” and their auxiliary and civilian sympathizers murdered between 664,000 and 1.2 million Christian Armenians in the Medz Yeghern (the Great Crime) otherwise known as the Armenian Genocide. Western Armenia, the area under Ottoman control was full of intellectual and religious life and important sites such as the Narekavank Monastery, the city of Van, and even the highly symbolic Mount Ararat, just 8km across the modern Armenian border from the Khor Virap Monastery. The Armenian genocide happened in phases of oppression and deportation beginning with the targeting of Armenian intellectuals, such as the composer Komitas Vardapet after the rise of the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) and Talaat Pasha. After the intellectuals, civilians were systematically and individually massacred and sent on death marches out of Ottoman Armenia, many of them ending up in the Syrian desert, with Der Zor (Deir ez-Zor) as the final destination and killing center for the deportees. [1]

The Ottoman Turks used the First World War as a pretext for the genocide, claiming that Armenians would join forces with their enemies. The Armenians stood in the way of the “Pan-Turkism” which the Turkish government hoped to implement to create a super-empire stretching from Turkey through the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia all the way to China. The Ottomans provided the model for the genocide that followed. First, there are the fractures of imperialism, of “shatterzones” and “bloodlands” between empires, and of ethnic minorities caught between superpowers or not aligning with supra-state ethnic aims.[2] The second, is the cover of warfare for genocide. For the Armenians it was the First World War, for the Holocaust it was the Second World War and this continued into the latter 20th century with genocide in Cambodia, Sudan, and of the Yazidis in Iraq. The Armenian genocide was in many ways the template for the Nazi and subsequent genocides; as Hitler wrote, “who, after all, today speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?”

The first two phases of the Armenian Genocide focused on the conscription and murder of Armenian men followed by the extermination of the civilian population beginning with intellectuals. The third phase of the genocide is characterized by the murder of women, children, and the elderly to Der Zor. During this phase, women were also raped and forcibly converted to Islam, the resulting children were raised in Turkish households of the perpetrators, and children were stolen from Armenian families and taken to be raised in Islamic homes. The forced conversion of women, the use of rape and intermarriage, the theft of children, and the mass murder of intellectuals have left an indelible mark on the Armenian cultural and national heritage.[3]

Lawyer Raphael Lemkin studied the Armenian case carefully as he prepared for the Nuremberg trials. He successfully lobbied for the specific term “genocide” to describe the destruction of civilian populations as defined in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.  Part of this resolution is the foundational “Article II” which addresses the crimes of the Armenian Genocide as much as the Holocaust including explicitly describing the theft and forcible conversion of children as a genocidal crime. Because the Armenian Church was such an integral part of culture, churches, monasteries, and the clergy were the first targets of the genocide, and thousands of manuscripts and medieval artifacts were destroyed in the genocide. The holy city of Van remains in modern Turkish territory, formerly Western Armenia, and remaining Armenian historic sites have been renamed, Turkified, and destroyed even since the 1980s.

National feast and dancers at St. Garabed Apostolic Church which was fully destroyed in 1915. From the collection of the Norwegian missionary, Bodil Katharine Biørn.

However, cultural genocide has not been officially included in Article II, even though Lemkin and others recognized the impact of the destruction of spiritual, cultural, and community life as a specific aspect of genocide. As Peter Balakian has noted, the destruction of the Armenian Genocide was a deliberate cultural destruction (epistemicide) as well as a genocide with lasting effects on subsequent generations, the loss of relics and landmarks, and the destruction of Armenian intellectual life.[4] Composers like Komitas, preserved the intellectual and religious traditions of Armenia in their music, and used songs and lyric poetry to preserve the Armenian language. Subsequent composers in Eastern Armenia under Soviet control, like Arno Babajanyan integrated folk music into classical compositions in a process of reclaiming Armenia musical heritage and transmitting it to new audiences.

The fourth phase of the Armenian Genocide is often considered to be its denial.[5] While Turkey fights acknowledgement by any means, the United States, for example, did not officially recognized the Armenian genocide until 2022. The Armenian diaspora is divided between Western and Eastern Armenians. Western Armenians are primarily the descendants of those who survived the genocide who immigrated through the Middle East (Syria and Lebanon) to South and Central America and the United States. Eastern Armenia is the seat of the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin, which was part of the Russian Empire then the USSR, and has been an independent state since 1991. Genocide denial continues to be an issue for Armenians who diligently preserved their religion and language both in the diaspora and under Soviet control. However, the preservation of Armenian identity is not only cultural as Turkey has supported Azerbaijan in territorial conflicts and the war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The cultural destruction of Armenia also destroyed the mechanisms for documenting historical culture and the genocide as it unfolded. Music like that of Komitas, should therefore be read as testimony and preservation.

By Alexandra Birch, April 2024


  1. Raymond Kévorkian, The Armenian genocide: A complete history (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011).
  2. Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, eds., Shatterzone of empires: Coexistence and violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman borderlands (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).
  3. The Armenian Genocide Museum “Tsitsernakaberd” has many sources for additional research and excellent bibliographies for reference:
  4. Peter Balakian, Raphael Lemkin, Cultural Destruction, and the Armenian Genocide, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 27, Issue 1, Spring 2013, Pages 57–89,
  5. Taner Akçam, From empire to republic: Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008)
Komitas Vardapet in 1902 (colourised)

Komitas Vardapet in 1902 (colourised)

Arno Babajanyan's (1921-1983)

Much of Arno Babajanyan's (1921-1983) music is rooted in Armenian folk music and folklore.