Sassoun and the Armenians of Sassoun after the Genocide and up to this day

Arabic-speaking Armenians in the ‘Otnag’ field on the slope of Maratoug, 2014. Picture by Stella Avakian.

By Sofia Hagopian

Translated By Goryoun Koyounian

How many Sassoun Armenians survived? How did they sustain their lives? What difficulties did they go through? Where are their descendants today? The study of these issues, which includes details about the numbers, the geography, the new migrants routes, the language, the religion, and the national self-consciousness of the Christian and Islamized Armenians of Sassoun, would help not only the numerous researchers exploring these topics, but also the descendants looking for their lost ancestors and villages.

How were the Armenians of Sassoun saved?

Naturally, the mountainous and impregnable landscape of Sassoun had a great significance for these Armenians. We should also note, though, with respect to the people of Sassoun, that the resistance they mounted against the Turkish forces played a huge role, and that despite its eventual failure, it did not go in vain. The same can be said of the Armenians of Musa Dagh, of Van, and of Shabin Karahisar, who endured primarily because they mounted armed resistance against the enemy (1). A number of Armenian orphans were also saved by some Kurdish and Arab tribes. The notion of ‘saving’ is, of course, relative, given that most of those who saved Armenians were looking out for their own interests. Many were bringing Armenian girls along to serve as maids, or to be future wives, and many even assembled a free workforce of Armenian boys, in other words, employing them as slaves. Obviously, there were also families who genuinely helped out Armenian orphans, raising them as Armenians. When these orphans grew up over the course of the 1920s, became self-sufficient and formed families, eventually choosing to separate themselves from the tribes, they often became embroiled in land-related disputes and fights with Muslim neighbors, which prompted them to change villages, trying to find a relatively peaceful environment. It is worth mentioning that, following the establishment of the Turkish Republic, when the “Aghayagan” system (the term ‘agha’ was an honorific title in the Ottoman empire) was abolished, the Armenian remnants of Sassoun nevertheless kept referring to themselves as belonging to the ‘Aghas’.

Scholars L. Rahter and M. Svazlian attend to this issue in their research on Islamized Armenians. They note that, besides the armed resistance, the fact that the feudal system in Sassoun was so strong also played a key role, and even though the Armenians were often slaves to the ‘Aghas’, they still retained a physical presence.

In this study, the authors also point out, correctly, that inter-communal marriages were a way to self-preservation (2).

As a matter of fact, tracing back the lineage of any Sassoun Armenian family from Turkey isn’t difficult at all. The reason is, as they say themselves, that “All marriages take place within our group, among close relatives”, and hence, the family links resemble a convoluted thread of sorts. Thus, following the genocide, those Armenians who still remained in the villages of Sassoun would continue only marrying other Armenians. Of course, this excludes those cases where Muslims kidnapped Armenian girls, forcing them to marry non-Armenians.

We can also find this phenomenon of inter-communal marriages among the Islamized Armenians. Even though they were aware of the fact that it is condemned by Armenian tradition, they nevertheless often preferred marrying close relatives instead of Kurds or Arabs. Besides that, the family ties among the Sassountsis are very solid, and, to this day, most of them keep the inter-communal marriage tradition alive. It is only recently, a century after the genocide, that occasional cases of mixed marriages among Sassoun Armenians began to occur.

The families of Sassoun are very large. In fact, one ‘house’ or one ‘family’ is usually made up of at least 200-300 people, and, in some cases, even 800-1000. That makes sense given that, after the genocide, the Armenians of Sassoun encouraged their heirs to have as many children as possible. They would say: “We were left all alone in this world. We have to multiply”. By the late 20th century, the average number of children for the common Armenian family of Sassoun was 8-9, and there were even some mothers who had up to 20 children. In the last 15 years, the picture was slightly different, the primary reason being a massive outflow towards the cities.

Sassoun on the map of contemporary Turkey

The first problem facing researchers in this subject-area is determining the full territory of Sassoun on the map. As we can see, the delimitation of historic Sassoun is no longer functional; the ‘Sason’ of the Batman province of Turkey is but a small portion of the historic Sassoun, and over the years, the rest of the territory was attached to the Diyarbekir, Moush, Bitlis, and Sghert provinces. Apart from Modgan, which was separated from Sassoun around 1877, all the other detached portions were administratively detached and renamed after the genocide.

These administrative decisions obviously had an impact on the living conditions of the remaining Sassoun Armenians. Accordingly, there are distinguishable groups among the Sassountsis, with some being differentiated according to their national self-consciousness, among other aspects.

Through this study, we attempt to identify the regions of historic Sassoun that were accorded Turkish names but where Armenian villages remained after the genocide, and the provinces that absorbed the now-secluded parts of Sassoun.

The religious, linguistic, and other particularities of the Sassoun Armenians of various regions and villages are also addressed.

The Armenian villages of Sassoun after the genocide

In a notable speech in Jerusalem, Armenian Patriarch Shnork Kalousdian of Constantinople, for the first time, officially addresses the issue of the secluded Armenian groups living in the mountains of Sassoun in the decades following the genocide. He reveals that he has in his possession a list of the 35 villages of Sassoun that is still populated, at least partly, by Armenians.

Clearly, Patriarch Shnork was among the few dedicated people who, ignoring the multiple threats and the persecution by the government, took it upon himself to find Islamized Armenians remaining in various areas across Western Armenia and to convert them, providing them with Armenian education in Constantinople and saving them from eventual assimilation (after the genocide, there were no operational Armenian schools left in Western Armenia). Along with some of his most trusted colleagues, the Patriarch would manage to convert nearly 8000 Armenian children and send them to Armenian schools (3).

The Patriarch’s colleagues, having wandered in the many districts of Western Armenia for months, also came to the mountains of Sassoun. There, they faced difficulties not just in terms of the mountainous, impregnable nature of the region, nor simply because, after the genocide, the Armenians had populated some of the most inaccessible and highest-altitude villages of Sassoun. According to various testimony, they met resistance from Armenian villagers as many of them were staunchly opposed to the idea of sending their children to Constantinople and leaving the village. And although the enterprise of the Patriarch’s colleagues did not succeed in the Armenian villages of Sassoun as it did in other areas, nevertheless, it is because of their work and study that the Patriarch came into the possession of the first and only list of all these Armenian villages.

Only the Modgan region, comprising a total of 5 Armenian villages, of historic Sassoun was absent from the list, given that it was already attached to the Bitlis province prior to the genocide. Also absent from the list were the Rapat, Zilan, Dere, and Hazzo villages, all of which lost their Armenian population in the 1930s. If we add up to the list these above-mentioned villages as well, we find that there was a total of 44 villages across Sassoun with an Armenian population following the genocide.

Today, the number of villages with a remnant Armenian population has fallen to 15-20 (the numbers are fluctuating given that, in some cases, Armenians stay in the village during summer, but live in Istanbul during winter).

It should also be noted, however, that this concerns those villages where we can find Armenians that are aware of their Armenian identity, though there are probably assimilated, ‘lost’ Armenians in most if not all of the villages in Sassoun.

The numbers and peculiarities of the Christian and Islamized people of Sassoun

To many, perhaps the most gripping issue concerning the Islamized or covert Armenians is their number. If, from a total of about a million, we extract those who are associated with Armenians purely on a biological basis and nothing else, and if we try to focus solely on those descendants of Armenians who, a century later, are aware of and continue to maintain their national identity, then we might arrive at a more modest figure.

Concerning those who have Armenian grandparents, one thing is clear: for many of those who claim “My grandmother was Armenian”, there are two possible explanations. For one, it could be that his grandfather participated in the genocide and took Armenian women as slaves, or alternatively, his grandfather was Armenian, but the given person does not have the courage, the awareness, or the desire to fully assert his Armenian identity.

Returning to the Jerusalem speech of Shnork Kalousdian, the Patriarch also distinguishes four different kinds of Armenians living in various districts across Western Armenia.

  1. Those Armenians who knowingly and voluntarily converted to Islam, broke off from other Armenians and now live among Turks.


  1. Those Armenians who had been converted three generations ago and who follow the way of life of the Kurdish tribes. They know they’re Armenians and they wish they can return to their old faith, if conditions allow.


  1. Those Armenians who, voluntarily or involuntarily, converted to Islam, who have retained their Armenian identity and who are prepared to go to Istanbul and change the personal information on their passport from “Muslim” to “Armenian”.


  1. Those original kaza Armenians who, despite all the difficulties, remained Armenians and today comprise the majority of the Armenian population of Istanbul.


The Armenians left in Sassoun fall under the final three categories outlined by the Patriarch (4).

In addition to these four, we can also include another category of Armenians, those who converted to Islam later during the repression of the 1970s and 1980s. They speak a fluent Armenian and do not hide their Armenian identity, but they have no intention to convert back to Christianity.

Concerning the number of Sassoun Armenians, note that only about a third of the Armenian community of Istanbul (which amounts to 20 000 people) comes from Sassoun. Many of those began migrating to Istanbul in the 1970s and 1980s. Within the community, they are referred to as the ‘newcomers’, because they were the last Sassountsis to leave Western Armenia to settle in Istanbul.

The number of Christian Sassountis in the Armenian community of Istanbul is unambiguous, because they’ve all registered themselves as Christians following the exact legal procedures. However, ascertaining the exact number of Islamized Sassoun Armenians is much more complex; we might have to use the information we already have in conjunction with other related data.

The number of Islamized Armenians in the Batman and Bitlis provinces surpasses 15 000 (excluding those relatives who settled in Istanbul).

There are close to 6000-7000 Islamized Armenians in the western region of historic Sassoun, Khoulp, which now comprises the modern-province of Diyarbekir.

According to various data, about 15-20 000 Islamized Armenians, originating from the mountainous villages of Sassoun, now live in Moush.

Similarly, there are Islamized Armenians of Sassoun in the Kourtoulan region of the Sghert province (in the Kharzan region of historic Sassoun), though their numbers are unknown. As a result of their small numbers coupled with the dispersion between tribes, these Armenians never had the opportunity to form an enduring community and eventually assimilated.

(First part)


1. Haygazoun Alvertsian, “The issues surrounding the converted Armenians in the Turkish Republic” [the ‘The rescued’ section] (the work is in Armenian).

2. Max Sivaslian, Laurence Ritter, Kılıç Artıkları, Hrant Dink Vakfı Yayınları, 2013 – “Hayatta kalma strajedisi olarak” endogamy” evlilik.

3. Max Sivaslian, Laurence Ritter, Kılıç Artıkları, Hrant Dink Vakfı Yayınları, 2013 – 1/Bir Misyoner gibi Patrik Kalustyan.

4. Citation from Garen H. Khanlari, in his book entitled “The ethno-religious transformations of the Armenian population in the Republic of Turkey (1923-2005)” (the work is in Armenian).


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.