The Battle of Holy Apostles’ Monastery: an Example of Unprecedented Heroism in Armenian History
Cover photo: Holy Apostles’ Monastery (Surb Arakelots Vank) / maximus101.livejournal.com
How It All Began
As we know, long before the genocide of 1915 the Turkish government had subjected the Armenian population to all kinds of discrimination, and the group of Armenian fedayeen tried to force with it. There was a period of time, when the actions of the fedayens were really evoking fear, hence the government brought into action more considered and tricky tactics.
In 1901 the government admitted thousands of Mohammedan refugees from the Caucasus, distributed guns to them, and settled them in the Armenian villages. Having incited the Kurds to persecute the Armenians for years, the government was now trying to use the poor Moslem refugees from the Caucasus to further frustrate the poor Armenians. Property belonging to Armenians was confiscated and given to the refugees.
Then the sultan imposed on the poor Armenian peasants the burden of feeding the Caucasian refugees. To guarantee the success of his diabolic scheme, government troops were settled in the Mush plain where they lived like parasites at the expense of the Armenian villagers. The Armenians of Taron submitted protests to the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, but Patriarch Maghakia Ormanian advised them to “be faithful to the government.”
The Russian consul of Mush, Umansky, promised to help if the Armenians embraced the Russian Orthodox creeds. Desperate Armenians of Taron rushed by the hundreds to Mush and demanded Russian priests. After a few weeks, realizing that even if they did adopt Russian Orthodoxy, it was questionable whether the promised help would ever come, they went back to their old church practices.
Not finding immediate relief from its continual tribulations, the people went from one extreme to the other. At first they demanded immediate, full-scale action by the fedayeen, hoping that Christian Europe might intervene on their behalf. Unfortunately, revolution would require years of preparation, and it could be disastrous if it were launched without adequate preparations. Finding no hope of immediate results in revolution, the people turned their backs on the fedayeen, and some went so far as to shout in the face of Hrair-Dzhoghk, “Go to hell!”
The peasants of Taron were utterly helpless, without a clue as to what to do. There was no hope from heaven, no hope from earth, no hope from the prelates, and no hope from the revolutionaries. Fedayeen realised that a new feat was needed to keep the morale of the revolutionaries high and to rekindle hope among the hopeless and destitute villagers.
In these difficult and trying days, Andranik rose to the occasion with a plan so bold and daring that it would amaze friend f and foe alike and keep everyone in the country in suspense for weeks.
While the government was after the fedayeen in the plain of Mush, Andranik decided to come down from the mountains of Sassun, barricade himself in a monastery right under the noses of the Turkish military commanders, and challenge the government to a fight. For this mission he would bring with him Gevorg Chavush, Hadji Hakob Kotoian from Mush, and others. The step, which Andranik was about to take near the start of his revolutionary career, was an extraordinarily risky one. By coming down from the mountains and going to the plain of Mush, Andranik was putting everything at stake — his career as a revolutionary warrior, his reputation as a leader, and above all, His life!
With only thirty daring and dedicated freedom fighters, Andranik would challenge the world’s most ferocious despot Sultan Abdul Hamid II. By all accounts it appeared to be an impossible mission.
On Saturday, November 3, 1901, Andranik and his group arrived at the monastery. There they found sixty to seventy orphans, plus teachers, priests, housekeepers, and shepherds — a total of eighty people.
Andranik dispatched Hovhannes Vardapet (priest), dean of the Monastery, to Mush in order not to implicate him in the forthcoming challenge to the government. Then he sent someone to Keliekuzan to give a note to his comrade containing the following message: "Dear Harutune, Come without delay, because most likely the monastery will be besieged. I shall dispatch two soldiers to the spring near Dsirin to escort you. If you don’t find them here, it means that I have not been able to do it because we are besieged. We’ll try to cover you when you approach the monastery. If we fail to take you in by sunrise tomorrow, we shall return to Sassun. If we fall at the walls of the monastery, you shall continue our work. All the comrades kiss you, Andranik."
The Battle of the Monastery
Meanwhile, the first thing the fedayeen did in the monastery was to build fortifications in preparation for the fight. It was hardly past noon when they heard the sound of a trumpet. Sixteen Turkish soldiers led by a captain were heading towards the monastery. Andranik ordered all the doors to be locked and the keys returned to him. Д priest was summoned as a spokesman.
The Turkish soldiers approached the monastery. Finding the doors locked, one of them shouted, “Why have you locked the doors?”
The priest answered, according to Andranik’s instructions: “A few days ago about thirty armed policemen and some Kurds came to the monastery. The orphans were frightened. The prelate in Mush sent instructions not to open the doors to any armed man.”
Andranik considered letting them through the side door, taking them by surprise and confiscating their guns and ammunition, but Gevorg and Hadji Hakob advised against complicating things, considering that Harutune was still out. After waiting for a quarter of an hour, the soldiers left.
On Sunday, November 4, the Turkish government sent word to the fedayeen to leave the monastery, but Andranik refused, well-knowing that Turkish soldiers would be waiting in ambush for them if they were to go outside.
On November 12, it turned very cold and started snowing. The six thousand Turkish soldiers encircling the monastery dug underground bunkers to protect themselves from the cold. The same day, the Turkish soldiers succeeded in breaking a hole in the eastern wall of the Astvadsadsin tower. Some soldiers got in through the opening, but the fedayeen counterattacked, killing a Turkish captain. The rest of the Turks pulled back.
Failing in their initial attempt to overwhelm the fedayeen with military power, the Turks resorted to diplomatic ruse. They dispatched an Armenian woman carrying a written message in her hand to the monastery. In the note the government asked: “What do you want? What is your purpose, and what are your demands?”
Andranik answered that he could not explain his demands in a letter. Instead he wished to have the military commanders, Ferik Pasha and Ali Pasha, escorted by the mayor of Mush, come to the monastery where he could submit his demands to them orally.
During the night of November 19, the Turks bunched a fierce attack on the monastery. The fedayeen fired back with the thirty-seven guns. The night was very dark, heavy fog was covering the Mush plain, and it was snowing continuously. It occurred to Andranik that the Turks might try to take advantage of the dark and break the large gate with cannons in order to rush in. The large door, which had double shutters, was covered with metal and large iron nails. Andranik went and personally guarded the gate during the night.
Benefiting from the intense darkness, during the night the Turks made an opening in the wall of the stable, silently slipped inside, and took up positions between the stable and the hayloft, within seventy steps of the fedayeen. Suddenly blaspheming in Kurdish, a soldier shouted at the fedayeen, “Andranik Pasha! Andranik Pasha! I’m from Mardin and the father of Hassan. Where will you flee from my clutches?”
In Andranik’s absence, Gevorg answered back in Kurdish, “I’m Little Gevorg and the lover of Hassan’s mother. How will you save your neck from my clutches?”
There was silence. Then a man said in Turkish, “Gevorg Chavush (corporal), is that you?” From that moment on, Gevorg was known as “Gevorg Chavush.”
On November 22 at noon, both sides stopped fighting. Escorted by Hovhannes Vardapet, 37 the dean, the same woman who delivered the first note to the fedayeen brought another letter. It read, “Sultan Hamid has ordered that the mayor of Mush, the priest Khosrov Behrikian, Mughdad Effendi [a common title], and Muhammed Effendi [an Armenian converted to Islam] will come to the monastery to hear the complaints and demands of the Armenians and submit their report to the government in Constantinople.”
Andranik accepted the offer. He prepared the monastery’s Prelacy Hall for the negotiations. To create the appearance of having plenty of cartridges, he stacked forty empty candle boxes along the wall. Actually, only the top row contained cartridges, which the fedayeen had filled the night before. He also scattered cartridge-filling devices and bags of British and local gunpowder around the room to impress the Turkish delegates.
The next day Andranik selected nine strong, good-looking, and relatively well-dressed fedayeen to serve as bodyguards, the poorly clothed fighters were sent to less conspicuous positions. When the Turkish delegates arrived, Andranik took his seat in front of the cartridge boxes. On his right was seated Gevorg Chavush and, on his left, Hadji Hakob Kotoian.
With trembling hands Mughdad effendi recorded the terms Andranik dictated:
1)Political prisoners must be freed.
2)The Armenians themselves must collect the ten percent taxes with a Turkish official accompanying them.
3)The Kurds must be disarmed and the wrongdoers punished.
4)All Armenian villages and lands confiscated by the Kurds must be returned.
5)All Kurdish chieftains who collect taxes from the Armenian peasants must stop doing so. A state cannot exist within a state.
6)You call us, the Armenian revolutionaries, bandits. The government must seek the bandits within its own ranks. I have been here with my soldiers for many years. We’ve never done banditry. We have never harmed peaceful people, but we have punished those like Bishara Khalil who perpetrated atrocities against our people. Whatever that man did was with the full support of the government. Those monsters, instead of being punished, are given medals and gifts by the government.
7)For the assassination of the Mekunk village sheriff, you imprisoned fifteen innocent Armenians and forced them to drink poison; they suffered a torturous death. Then you rounded up another 170 innocent: Armenians and took them to jail. And now you ask us: “Why are you here and what do you want?”
8)You had the dean of St. Aghperik Monastery killed by two Kurds. Later I took care of those two Kurds myself.
9)From Diarbekir [a city in southeastern Turkey] to the Persian border, there are 150,000 armed Kurds. Why are they armed and against whom? They are armed only to become the scourge of the Armenians. If there is justice, where is it? Why do you imprison innocent Armenians? Why don’t you imprison Kurdish murderers? Why are they allowed to carry arms freely?
10)What kind of government officials are you to commit all sorts of outrageous acts on peaceful and innocent Armenians, under the pretext of collecting taxes, snatching the last portion of their bread and the honor of their family with it? You cruelly oppress and persecute subject peoples.
11)You hanged Margar Varzhapet, you imprisoned Damadian and Hambardzum Boyadjian, and now it’s me who is here. If you don’t attend to my conditions, I have enough ammunition to resist for six months.
Andranik emphasized his ultimatum by pointing to the empty boxes.
The discussions lasted a total of three and a half hours. Finally, Mughdad Effendi suggested a cease-fire until an answer could be received from Constantinople. Then the Turks left.
In spite of the cease-fire, the Turks unleashed a violent attack the next day, November 24. That night was very cold. The Turkish soldiers were infected with a disease that attacked the nervous system and killed hundreds of them, before they could be treated by doctors from Erzinjan’s Fourth Army.
“The Fedayeen Fled! The Fedayeen Fled!”
By this time the Turks, Kurds, and Armenians throughout the country thought that this was Andranik’s and his fedayeen’s last stand. While all of Turkey was convinced that Andranik would never be able to get out of the monastery alive, Andranik was considering various plans for escaping undetected. When Andranik decided on his strategy, he called together Gevorg Chavush, Vagharshak, and Hadji Hakob. He told them that it was time to get out, because not much ammunition or provisions were left.
“Can we get out alive?” they asked.
“I am 99 percent sure we will all get out alive, provided the soldiers follow my instructions. Put three soldiers on each of the three main positions; then have the rest come down to the monastery courtyard.” The soldiers assembled in a semicircle facing Andranik and listened to his instructions:
“Tomorrow, November 27, at ten o’clock at night, we’ll get out of this place. (...) Everyone must be wrapped up in white sheets or white church robes, in order not to be noticed in the snow. (...) After we are all out of the monastery and my group has advanced about sixty steps, we’ll kneel down and stay immobile; In that quietness, we’ll listen for any movement. We’ll be heading towards the Eagles’ Rocks, where Arabo used to stay. We’ll go down to the valley and then cross to the other side towards Mirko’s stable. Since the winds might be strong enough to wipe out footprints in the snow, we’ll have some sticks to plant in the snow to keep track of each other.”
According to this plan, Andranik’s group of five combat ready and vigilant fedayeen would strike at any Turkish soldiers who crossed their path. To be sure that everybody had understood his instructions, the leader repeated them. He rehearsed the plan again the next day and then told the fedayeen that everyone had to carry enough bread to suffice for two days.
On the afternoon of November 27, Andranik selected three groups of three soldiers each to take up positions in the corner of the stable, at the spring of the Apostle Thaddeus, and behind some huge trees. Before sending them out, the chief told them: “Until ten o’clock tonight if any Turks approach your positions, kill them and keep their guns. When the men leave the monastery at ten o’clock, leave your positions immediately to join them.”
A few minutes before 10:00 p.m., Andranik told his assistants to follow him. They went and kissed the graves of their fallen comrades. They also kissed the ancient ebonite door of the monastery after uttering some prayers.
The advance guard had hardly left the monastery when the guards stationed at the three outdoor positions came and joined the rest. Andranik asked one of the inexperienced soldiers, “Did you see any Turks?”
“Pasha, I think that there was a man there.”
“Seito Boghos, did you see anybody?”
“No, Pasha, that was the whistling of the wind...” answered Seito Boghos, the more experienced fedayee.
After advancing about fifty steps, Andranik and his group knelt down to listen for sounds of any movement around them. Then the mastermind of the escape turned to see if the others had done the same thing. They were all of their knees, listening. Discipline seemed good.
The wind was whistling and the snowflakes were hitting their face as the first group advanced another thirty steps. Just then a Turkish guard on the night watch approached them.
“Who are you?” he asked with a trembling voice. Immediately five guns were pointed at his chest. Andranik answered the guard in Turkish:
“I’m Captain Mehmed Effendi. I'm making a round, and you are all sleeping.”
While Andranik questioned the trembling Turkish guard (“What’s your name? Where are you from? Whose son are you?” etc.), the main group bypassed the guard and advanced considerably.
The Turk, frightened to death by the men all in white, cried out in a trembling voice:
“Allah! Allah! I don’t know what kind of men you are.”
“If you make one move, you are a dead man,” said Andranik. Keeping their guns trained on the Turk, they advanced forward.
When they arrived at the Eagles’ Rocks, the Turk started shouting: “The fedayeen fled! The fedayeen fled!” With that, Turkish soldiers poured out of their bunkers and tents and unleashed a barrage of gunfire.
“Let’s take up positions behind the rocks and fire back,” suggested some soldiers.
“No!” said Andranik. “If we do that, they’ll know where we are. Keep on moving.”
After leaving the Eagles’ Rocks, some of the fedayeen lost their way in the dark and went astray. Unfortunately, the snow had covered the lane leading to Mirko’s stable. Nevertheless, the majority of Andranik’s men forged ahead making the two-hour journey in eight hours. At sunrise, they noticed the stables of Havatorik, an Armenian village. The owner opened the door and took them in. They dried their clothes around the fireplace and ate barley bread for breakfast.
From Havatorik they went to Sheikhnist village where they were generously treated. There Andranik called six of the village youngsters, divided them into groups of two, and sent them in different directions to look for the fedayeen who had lost their way. Later the young people brought news that the missing fedayeen had already passed through the valley.
Andranik wanted to move immediately towards Kop to join the rest of the group, but his men, exhausted from a sleepless night of tension and travels, were all ere all soundly sleeping floor of their host’s house. With great difficulty Andranik them and led them forward. Before leaving Sheikhnist, he told the villagers “Bring a flock of sheep to follow us for some time, to wipe out our footsteps in the snow.”
Finally, in the Zeinektsik stable of Kop, Andranik’s group joined the rest of the fedayeen. “It’s impossible to describe with words the hearty hugs, kisses, and expressions of joy that took place near the farmhouses, on the white snow, and under the blue sky.”
Before the clever escape was executed, the villagers of Kop had vowed to make a sacrifice to God if the fedayeen ever came out of the monastery alive. Keeping their promise, they slaughtered seven sheep, ate, and rejoiced with the fedayeen that day.
When Andranik and his thirty fedayeen were still in the Holy Apostles’ Monastery fighting some units of the Turkish army, two inmates of Mush prison, who were on friendly terms, made a bet. One was an Armenian named Sako from Sev Kar (Black Stone) village, and the other was a Kurd from Jibran.
The Kurd told the Armenian, “Sako, I think that Andranik Pasha will be saved from the monastery.”
Sako was skeptical. “How can he come out of the monastery alive when six thousand Turkish soldiers encircled the place?”
“Sako,” said the Kurd, “if Andranik doesn’t come out alive, I will give you one of my horses. If he does come out alive, what will you give me?”
“I have nothing here except my saz [a musical instrument],” said the Armenian. “But when I am released and go to Russia, I’ll send you a good present.”
When the news that Andranik and the fedayeen had escaped alive from the monastery spread among the Mush prison inmates, the Kurd rushed to Sako and said, “Sako! Sako! Didn’t I tell you that Andranik would come out alive?”
“Agha [a title of respect], how did you know that?”
“Sako, Andranik Pasha has been around for many years. Have you ever heard that he did some injustice, or bloodied somebody’s nose unjustly? If God won’t save such a man, whom will He save?”
According to rumors, 1800 Turkish soldiers died from the epidemic that struck their forces at the monastery during the twenty-four-day siege. According to official Turkish government reports only 33 soldiers died, but according to Armenians who supplied meat, bread, and shoes to the army, 553 soldiers either died from disease or were killed in action.
The battle of the Holy Apostles’ Monastery is one of the most heroic and incredibly courageous exploits of Andranik’s revolutionary career. In that battle the meaning of heroism was manifested in its deepest and widest sense of the word. With that remarkable and extremely daring feat, Andranik wanted to reflect a glimmer of hope on the hopelessly depressed Armenian people, showing that everything is not lost after all; that the Armenians can still fight. With his example of personal courage and self-sacrifice, the hero wanted to shock the consciousness of the Armenian masses to valiantly bear its cross and, with a supernatural effort, struggle for survival.
Source: Antranig Chalabian, General Andranik and the Armenian Revolutionary Movement.
Edited by Eleonora Sagsyan.