The Turkish-Made ‘Great Calamity’: How ‘Medz Yeghern’ Became ‘Büyük Felâket’

Vartan Matiossian

The “Metz Yeghern,” which means “Great Evil” in Armenian,
is the name we Armenians use for the genocide.
Robert Attarian (2006)1

The quote comes from a lecture in Italian by the spokesperson for the Consiglio per la comunità armena di Roma (Council of the Armenian Community of Rome) on April 28, 2006. The use of “Medz Yeghern and “genocide” in the same sentence shows it to be part of a conscious goal pursued by Italian Armenians as a way to encourage the adoption of the phrase Medz Yeghern to identify the genocide in languages other than Armenian.
As one example among many, young Italian writer Paolo Cossi in 2007 published a graphic novel titled Medz Yeghern, il grande male (Medz Yeghern: The Great Evil). It was clear that, in his mind, Medz Yeghern was not a euphemism. “I made my first book Medz Yeghern to explain and introduce the Armenian Genocide to the Italian people,” said Cossi recently. “My motivation was a very human motivation in the first place, and it was very important because it is the first genocide of the 20th century. I wanted to create something that can educate the Italian public about genocide because they know very little about it.”2 So far, this graphic novel has been translated into French, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, and Korean.

Medz Yeghern = Büyük Felâket = Great Calamity
The gradual promotion of Medz Yeghern as “Great Evil” in Italy occurred concurrently with the emergence of “Great Calamity” in the United States, which also began to be used in Turkey under the form of the recently developed equation Medz Yeghern =Büyük Felâket =Great Calamity.
The translation “Great Calamity” appears to have been facilitated by the misplaced assumption that “yeghern belongs to two semantic fields, “crime” and “calamity.” In an essay on the 60th anniversary of the genocide, a European Armenian author, Aram Terzian, wrote:
“Those mournful experiences have left a deep mark on the survivors, amongst whom there were 300,000 orphans, and the special term of medz yegherne is now part of their language as a consecrated word for recalling the inhumanity of the period. Heavy sorrow has marked the lives of the descendants of the martyrs. To the new generations, medz yegherne carries the concept of ‘great crime’ or ‘great calamity,’ and they meditate on this subject of survival with almost mystical sanctity.”3
The other misplaced assumption is that yeghern belongs to one semantic field, “calamity/catastrophe,” as German Armenian sociologist Mihran Dabag put forth in an article published in 1999: “Yegherne aradsch, yegherne verdsch, before and after the Catastrophe; thus begins today every Armenian storytelling and remembering.”4
In a study of the terminology on the genocide used in Armenian media, published in 2006, scholar Khatchig Mouradian concluded that yeghern had a double meaning, “Crime” and “Catastrophe,” whereas he translated Medz Yeghern just as “Great Crime” and Abrilian Yeghern just as “the April Crime.”5 In an expanded version published in 2009, he seemed to slightly correct himself: he repeated the two meanings of yeghern and wrote that Medz Yeghern meant “Great Crime/Catastrophe” and Abrilian Yeghern, “the April Crime/Catastrophe.”6 In 2009, German historian Annette Schaefgen hinted at the supposed dichotomy between yeghern “Calamity” and Medz Yeghern “Great Crime,” but left unexplained how “calamity” could have turned into “crime” overnight:
“The word “yeghern” has many meanings: ‘misfortune, disaster, mishap, catastrophe.’ ‘Meds Yeghern,’ ‘great crime,’ indeed designated the events of 1915-1916 in Armenian parlance, because the term ‘Tzeghaspanutium’ [sic], ‘race murder,’ however, was used for the linguistic discussion of ‘genocide.’”7
A regular contributor to The Armenian Weekly, C. K. Garabed, confessed in 2010 that he was “not familiar with the term Medz Yeghern, and subsequently consulted various dictionaries to ascertain its meaning.” He discovered that the definitions found in these Armenian-English dictionaries revolved around the semantic field of “crime”: “The older ones define it as Great Crime, misdemeanor, offense, rascality; the more modern ones as Great Crime, atrocity, murder.” But, nevertheless, he seemed inclined towards the “literary translation” suggested by historian Dennis Papazian in a personal communication: “Great Armenian Cataclysm.”8
Meanwhile, in 2009, Armenian-Turkish journalist Rober Koptaş, citing Mouradian’s 2006 study, had written that Medz Yeghern meant both Büyük Felâket (Great Calamity) and Büyük Suç (Great Crime).9 The Turkish translation of President Barack Obama’s April 2012 message, published by the Armenian Turkish weekly Agos, of which Koptaş is the current editor, followed this assumption: Medz Yeghern was awkwardly translated as Büyük Felâket in the first sentence and as Büyük Kıyım [Great Slaughter] in the last one,10 as if both words were synonyms.
Büyük Felâket, the literal Turkish translation of “Great Calamity,” has currently been shaped as the “permissible” term used to discuss the genocide. Its use can be traced back to the New Year message delivered by the Armenian patriarch of Turkey, Mesrob Mutafian, in Armenian, English, and Turkish on the eve of 2005, in which he referred to the genocide as “Medz Yeghern” in Armenian, “the Great Disaster” in English, and “Büyük Felâket” in Turkish. The first paragraph of the English version read: “One of the painful historical events…has become known in Armenian literature as Medz Yeghern (The Great Disaster).” This paragraph was quoted and endorsed by Armenian American columnist Harut Sassounian, who wrote: “For the benefit of non-Armenian speaking readers, we should point out that Medz Yeghern was used by Armenians to describe the Armenian Genocide before the word genocide existed. Medz Yeghern could be translated alternatively as ‘Great Disaster,’ ‘Great Calamity,’ or ‘Great Cataclysm.’ Armenians sometimes still refer to the Armenian Genocide as ‘Medz Yeghern,’ just as the Jews use the Hebrew word Shoah for the Holocaust.” He also praised the patriarch’s “bold statement” on the “repressive conditions” of Turkey: “We should point out that the patriarch, in his statement, uses the term ‘annihilation,’ meaning extermination or total destruction, which is another way of saying genocide.”11
The Italians have an expression: Si non è vero, è bel trovato (Even if it is not true, it was beautifully researched). Turkish writers had a variety of sources at their disposal (the BBC, the New York Times, Mesrob Patriarch, and Harut Sassounian, for example) to find the translation of Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity” and use their own Büyük Felâket with some justification. Whatever its origin, the translation appeared in the well-known online statement of apology for the denial of the genocide issued by four Turkish intellectuals in December 2008. Its first sentence in the English version read: “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe [Büyük Felâket, in the Turkish version] that the Ottoman-Armenians were subjected to in 1915.” On Dec. 12, 2008, one of the four signatories, Baskın Oran, gave the following exegesis to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: “You see, ‘Great Catastrophe,’ in Armenian ‘Medz Yeghern,’ was the only definition, the only expression, used until the Armenian Diaspora discovered the PR value of ‘Armenian Genocide.’ Therefore, we use ‘Great Catastrophe.’”12
Another signatory, Çengiz Aktar, on Dec. 19 declared in a debate on the Turkish TV channel Kanal D that “Metz Yeghern is a word from the time of 1915. The term genocide and its basis in international law is [sic] from 1948. From 1915 until 1948, the Armenian people who were subjected to this were of course going to give a name to it. We used the name that they themselves used.”13 The assumption was that Medz Yeghern, with the purported translation “Great Catastrophe,” was a “neutral” term used before genocide and thus more palatable to those “moderates” on both sides who were willing to engage in a process of “reconciliation.” In a lecture in October 2009, Oran justified the use of Medz Yeghern by arguing that the term was used in the Republic of Armenia; that it was used in the name of the martyrs monument in Yerevan; that it was used by Pope John Paul II in 2001 and there were no protests; that it was used by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II in his address in Armenian (translated as “genocide” in the English version) in 2001; and that it was the main term used by Armenians before (and after) “genocide.”14
Sassounian commented on the inaccuracies of the text: “Armenian critics pointed out several shortcomings in the Turkish statement: First, the apology avoided the term ‘Armenian Genocide’ by referring to it as the ‘Great Catastrophe.’ Second, it alluded to the year 1915 only, rather than 1915-23. Third, the apology was issued by individual Turks rather than the Turkish state.”15 Scholar Marc Mamigonian remarked that “the expression Medz Yeghern/Great Catastrophe has been appropriated and superimposed onto the discussion as if those doing so—those who have themselves only lately discovered the term—possess either the moral or the scholarly authority to assert what terms should or should not be used.”16
The Turkish press was flooded with the newly found Armenian phrase and its “translations,” both in Turkish and in English (variously “Great Calamity,” “Great Catastrophe,” or “Great Tragedy”). Even Archbishop Aram Ateshyan, the current general vicar of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, used “Great Catastrophe” as the translation of Medz Yeghern in an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel in April 2009.17 It appears that Büyük Felaket was already available and just needed to be equalized to Medz Yeghern to become an item of mass consumption in the ongoing war of words. According to Yavuz Baydar, his great-grandfather had described the Bulgarian invasion in Western Thrace (during the Balkan War of 1912) as Büyük Felaket. The take of this Turkish columnist of Today’s Zaman was that Medz Yeghern was the Armenian equivalent, “a popular term used in many similar contexts in the storm of tragedies that, to a great extent, wiped out the soul of Asia Minor; Greek deportations, Gallipoli, the Russian Front, the Balkans and, of course, Armenians.”18
The Armenian press seems to have just gone along with the “translation” without any background check. For instance, an unsigned commentary in the Asbarez newspaper (probably written by the editor) quoted the text of the apology and added: “Then we have this ‘Great Catastrophe’ stuff. Maybe they’re just using a translation of our own, older, usage of Medz Yeghern. Regardless, it’s not ‘genocide.’ So, it’s at best sub-standard, more likely intentionally evasive for political and personal safety reasons, or possibly intentionally duplicitous.”19 Three days later, the English translation of the above-mentioned debate in Kanal D was posted on the internet. It featured several retired ambassadors, including veteran denialist M. Ŝükrü Elekdağ, a former ambassador to the United States and a parliament member at the time, who made a harsh criticism of the apology that went unnoticed by Armenian commentators: “Firstly, they are referring to Great Catastrophe; this is Metz Yeghern in Armenian. This word is a synonym for genocide. The difference between the two words is as little as the difference between mass slaughter and mass killing (kitle katliamı and kitlesel öldürme). There is no difference between them. When Metz Yeghern is used, Armenians understand genocide. When some official person goes to Armenia, visits the Monument, and wishes to condemn genocide as well as not to offend the Turkish Republic they use Metz Yeghern; and Armenians accept this. This statement is tantamount to supporting the genocide campaign of the Armenian Diaspora. It would have been alright to use terms like great tragedy or pain. The concept of Great Catastrophe is an established term; it has a loaded meaning which is very difficult to change. Therefore, it naturally causes reactions. … Today, Metz Yeghern is a totally established term. And it is synonymous with genocide. It is not possible to understand this statement any differently.”20
Indeed, Elekdağ ignored, intentionally or not, that there is a literal Armenian translation of “genocide” and that Medz Yeghern does not mean “Great Catastrophe.” But, otherwise, he seemed to have learned his lessons remarkably well. He knew that whenever Medz Yeghern is used, Armenians understand genocide.

Medz Yeghern = Büyük Felâket?
If not a non-Turkish source, it might be assumed that the source of the Turkish translation as “Great Calamity” or “Great Catastrophe” could have been an Armenian-Turkish dictionary or wordlist. Our investigation into an array of available bibliography yielded the following results:21

Haigazian Dictionary  (1769)
Arm. yeghern = Turk. zean, fesad, bela
Arm. aghed = Turk. derd. bela, fesad
Chakhchakhian (1829)
It. crimine = Arm. hantsank, vnas = Turk. suč, kabahet; It. crimenlése (“a crime against majesty”) = Arm. kreagan hantsank, yeghern = Turkish fesad; It. male = Arm. vojir, charakordzutiun, charik, hantsank, meghk = kabahet, edramarlık, ginah
It. calamità = Arm. tshvarutiun, aghed, charik = Turk. bela, müsibet
New Haigazian Dictionary (1836)
Arm. yeghern = Turk. bela, ölet, fesad
Arm. aghed = Turk. zarar, fesad.
Somalian (1843)
Arm. yeghern = Eng. rascality, wickedness, crime, sin = Turk. fesad, kemlik, çürm; Arm. charik = Eng. evils, misfortune; loss = Turk. fenalık, kemlik
Arm. aghedk = Eng. misfortune, misery, evils = Turk. derd, bela, müsibet; Arm. charik = Eng. damages, disaster = Turk. melakkat
Somalian (1843)
Eng. evil = Arm. charik, hantsank, yeghern = Turk. fenalık, kemlik.
Eng. calamity = Arm.  tshvarutiun = Turk. sefillik

Peshdimaldjian (1844)
Arm. yeghern = Turk. zarar; bela
Arm. aghed = Turk. kala, bela, derd, melakkat
Chamchian (1846)
It. male = Fr. crime = Arm. yeghern, vojir, abiradutiun = Turk. kabahat, töhmet, günah
It. calamità = Fr.  calamité = Arm. aghedk, vishdk, tshvarutiunk, tsakhoghank = Turk. müsibet, bela, sefillik; It. catastrofe = Fr. catastrophe = Arm.  tzakhoghank, charik = Turk. felâket
Eminian (1851)
Fr. crime = Arm. hantsank, meghk = Turk. suč, günah; Fr. mal = Arm. vojir, yeghern, meghk = kabahat, günah
Fr. catastrophe = Arm. aghioghorm vakhjan; yeghern; aghedk; charik = Turk. felâket
Aramian (1860)
Arm. yeghern = Turk. müfsidi = Fr. scéleratesse
Arm. aghed = Turk. sefillik = Fr. misère
Minassian (1908)
Eng. crime = Arm. hantsank, yeghern, vojir = Turk. kabahat, çürm, çinayet
Eng. calamity = Arm. aghed, vishd, darabank  = Turk. felâket, bela
Kerovpyan (1962)
Arm. yeghern  [no meaning in Turkish]
Arm. aghed = Turk. felâket, afet
Bohjalian (1969)
Turk. çinayet = Arm. vojir, martasbanutiun; Turk. suč = Arm. hantsank; meghk
Turk. felâket = Arm. aghed, tzhpakhdutiun

Bohjalian (1974)
Arm. yeghern = Turk. çinayet; Arm. yeghernakordz = Turk. çinayet isleyen
Arm. aghed = Turk. felâket, afet, bela
Baghramyan and Khalilov (1978)
Arm. yeghern = Azerb. Turkish çanilik, çinayetkarlıg; Arm. yeghernakordzutiun = Azerb. Turkish çinayetkar
Arm. aghed = Azerb. Turkish felâket, reza, bedbekhtlik
Kondakjian (2003)
Turk. çinayet = Arm. hantsakordzutiun, vojrakordzutiun; Turk. suč = Arm. hantsank; meghk; terutiun; portzank, tzakhoghank, anhachoghutiun
Turk. felâket = Arm. aghed; tzhpakhdutiun, anpakhdutiun

Ghazaryan (2003)
Turk. çinayet = Arm. hantsank, hantsakordzutiun, vojrakordzutiun, vojir;
Turk. suč = Arm. meghk, hantsank, zantsank.
Turk. felâket = Arm. aghed, baduhas, portzank, tzhpakhdutiun, tzhpakhd tebk, badahar
Karaça (2007)
Arm. yeghern = Turk. katliam, kotuluk

The Linguistic Society of Turkey had published an Armenian-Turkish/Turkish-Armenian dictionary in 2010, which we were unable to consult. It is highly unlikely, however, that this dictionary has uncovered the meaning yeghern = felâket that 17 dictionaries published between 1769 and 2007 (including one Armenian-Azerbaijani Turkish dictionary) were unable to record, and only one trilingual dictionary mentioned in 1851 by chance, as we will see. It is equally unlikely that Turkish linguists have found consistent evidence that yeghern was translated and/or interpreted in Turkish as felâket, say, in the first 20 years after the genocide.
The evidence from the dictionaries yields the conclusions that before and after 1915:
1)      Yeghern meant çinayet, suč or kabahat;
2)      Aghed meant felâket or bela
Therefore, the translation of Medz Yeghern as Büyük Felâket, which would imply the meaning Great Calamity/Great Catastrophe/Great Disaster, is unwarranted.
1 See www.gliscritti.it/approf/2006/conferenze/attarian01.htm.
2 The Armenian Weekly, May 17, 2012 (emphasis added).
3 Aram Terzian, “1915: The Darkest Year,” Armenian Review, Summer 1975, p. 158.
4 Mihran Dabag, “Feien des Gedenkens,” in Bernhard Scheneider and Richard Jochum (eds.), Erinnerungen an das Töten: Genozid reflexiv, Vienna, Cologne and Weimar: Böhlau, 1999, p. 49.
5 The Armenian Weekly, Sept. 23, 2006.
6 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. 128.
7 Annette Schaefgen, “Von der treuen millet zum Sündenbock oder Die Legende vom armenische Dolschtoß,” in Wolfgang Benz (ed.), Vorurteil und Genozid: Ideologische Prämische der Völkermords, Vienna, Cologne and Weimar: Böhlau, 2010, p. 59.
8 The Armenian Weekly, June 3, 2010.
9 Radikal, May 3, 2009.
10 Agos, April 25, 2012.
11 California Courier, Jan. 5, 2005.
12 Quoted in Marc Mamigonian, “Commentary on the Turkish Apology Campaign,” Armenian Weekly/Hairenik Weekly magazine, April 2009, p. 19, 21.
13 See http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com/2008/12/2680-tv-debate-transcript-32nd-day-on.html
14 Baskın Oran, “Denialism and Civil Society in Turkey,” Clark University, Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (baskinoran.com/konferans/ClarkUniversity.pdf).
15 The Huffington Post, Dec. 18, 2008.
16 Mamigonian, “Commentary,” p. 22.
17 The Armenian Weekly, May 7, 2009.
18 Today’s Zaman, April 27, 2009.
19 Asbarez, Dec. 24, 2008 (emphasis added).
20 http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com/2008/12/2680-tv-debate-transcript-32nd-day-on.html (emphasis added).
21 Bargirk haykazian lezvi (Dictionary of the Classical Armenian Language), vol. 2, Venice: Antoni Bortoli, 1769, p. 9, 113; Rev. Emmanuele Ciakciak, Nuovo dizionario italiano-armeno-turco, Venecia: Tipografia Armena di San Lazzaro, 1829, p. 83, 174, 436; Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi (New Dictionary of the Classical Armenian Language), vol. 1, Venice: S. Lazarus Press, 1836, p. 654; [Rev. Sukias Somalian], A Pocket Dictionary of the Armenian, English and Turkish languages, Venice: Press of the Armenian College of St. Lazarus, 1843, p. 20, 127, 316; [Idem], A Pocket Dictionary of the English, Armenian and Turkish languages, Venice: Press of the Armenian College of St. Lazarus, 1843, p. 76, 145; Krikor Peshdimaldjian, Bargirk haykazian lezvi (Dictionary of the Classical Armenian Language), Constantinople: Boghos Arabian, 1844, p. 17, 325; [Rev. Pilibbos Chamchian], Nuovo dizionario Italiano-Francese-Armeno-Turco, Vienna: PP. Mechitaristi, 1856, p. 143, 166, 581; Djanig Aram, Dictionnaire abrégé Arménien-Turc-Français, Paris: Typographie Arménienne, 1860, p. 2, 17; Rev. Srabion Eminian, Baragirk gagghieren-hayeren-tajkeren (Dictionary French-Armenian-Turkish), Vienna: Mekhitarist Press, 1871, p. 155, 254, 743 (first edition, 1851); M. K. Minassian, A Dictionary, English, Armenian and Armeno-Turkish, Constantinople: V. and H. Der Nersessian, 1908, p. 155, 246; Bedros Zeki Garabedian, Metz bararan osmanerene hayeren (Great Dictionary Ottoman-Armenian), Constantinople: Arshag Garoyan, 1912, p. 270, 594; Rev. Aristakes Bohjalian, Trkerene hayeren ardzern bararan (Turkish-Armenian Practical Dictionary), Istanbul: Armenian Turkish Teachers’ Organization, 1981, p. (first edition, 1974), p. 60, 138, 432; R. H. Baghramyan and I. H. Khalilov, Hay-adrbejaneren bararan (Armenian-Azerbaijani Dictionary), Yerevan: Luys, 1978, p. 16, 124; Rev. Aristakes Bohjalian, Hayerene hayeren batsadrakan ardzern bararan (Armenian-Armenian Practical Explanatory Dictionary), Istanbul: Armenian Turkish Teachers’ Organization, 1991, p. 12, 142 (first edition, 1974); Katarine Kondakjian, Turkeren-hayeren bararan (Turkish-Armenian Dictionary), Yerevan: Antares, 2003, p. 109, 137, 292; R. S. Ghazaryan, Turkeren-hayeren bararan, Yerevan: Mitk, 2003, p. 82, 164, 432; Birsen Karaça, Doğu Ermeniçe-Turkçe sözluk, second edition, Ankara: Ankara University, 2007, p. 76.

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