The Great Crime that Was Brewing: The Meaning of ‘Medz Yeghern’ before 1915

Vartan Matiossian

We want to believe in the victory of Freedom and of tomorrow’s brotherhood,
we want to enjoy smiles, we want to strengthen our faith
that famine is not eternal, blood is not eternal, yeghern is not eternal.
E. Aknuni (1910)1

The meaning of yeghern in Classical Armenian (“evil,” “crime,” and “calamity”) may seem to give some credence to claims that Medz Yeghern does indeed mean “Great Calamity.” However, before we accept these claims, we must first verify whether those three meanings have survived in Modern Armenian. Their survival is contingent not only on their presence in dictionaries, but also on their actual usagein literature. As translators know firsthand, dictionaries may give definitions, but the key to using them effectively depends on one’s ability to place a given literal definition within its proper context.
In this study, we will first overview the definitions of yeghern in Modern Armenian dictionaries, both monolingual and multilingual, published before and after 1915, to validate the accuracy of the “Great Calamity” translation.

The meaning of "yeghern" in Modern Armenian until 1915
A primary meaning of yeghern as a breach of law or a crime was already present in Modern Armenian before 1769. Proof is offered by the second tome of the Haigazian Dictionary by Mekhitar of Sebastia and his disciples, published that year. This dictionary contained three wordlists: a Classical Armenian dictionary, “where the words of the Haigazian [Classical] language are interpreted only with vernacular [ashkharhabar] or Turkish words”; a Modern Armenian dictionary with translations into Classical Armenian; and a dictionary of proper names. In the second volume, the word yeghern appeared interpreted in the “vernacular language” as մեծ անօրէնութիւն [medz anorenutiun, “great lawlessness”], անիրաւութիւն [aniravutiun, “evil”].2 This suggests thatatsome time between the 5th century and 1769, yeghern was no longer defined as “calamity.”
This development was reflected in the 1821 English-Armenian dictionary of Rev. Paschal Aucher and John Brand, which introduced yeghern as one of the translations for the English words “crime”and “evil”: crime = յանցանք [hantsank], մեղք [meghk], վնաս [vnas], չարիք [charik], եղեռն [yeghern], ոճիր [vojir]; evil = չարիք [charik], յանցանք [hantsank], եղեռն [yeghern], վնաս [vnas], անիրաւութիւն [aniravutiun], զրկանք [zrgank], չարութիւն [charutiun], ապականութիւն [abaganutiun], վատթարութիւն [vadtarutiun], աղէտք [aghedk], թշուառութիւն [tshvarutiun], դառնութիւն [tarnutiun], ախտ [akhd], հիւանդութիւն [hivantutiun]. The word was not listed as translation for calamity, catastrophe, or disaster: calamity = թշուառութիւն [tshvarutiun], աղէտք [aghedk], վիշտ [vishd], չարիք [charik]; catastrophe = յեղափոխութիւն [heghapokhutiun], ելք աղէտալի [yelk aghedali], կատարած ողբալի [gadaradz voghpali]; disaster = դժբախտութիւն [tzhpakhdutiun], աղէտք [aghedk], չարիք [charik], վիշտք [vishdk], տառապանք [darabank], ձախորդութիւն [tzhakhortutiun].3
The Armenian-English dictionary of 1825 by the same pair repeated the trend. The meanings for yeghern reflected “crime” and “evil”: եղեռն = rascality, offence, misdeed, malice, crime, wickedness.4
Interestingly, the revision of this dictionary, undertaken by Rev. Matthias Bedrossian and published in 1879, added “catastrophe” as a secondary meaning for yeghern.5 It goes without saying that he wished to accommodate the classical meaning of yeghern, just as Rev. Srabion Eminian had done in his 1851 French-Armenian-Turkish dictionary, where he translated yeghern into French as mal (“evil”) and calamité (“calamity”). Incidentally, this was the reason the dictionary also contained the only available translation of yeghern into Turkish as felâket.6 However, it is interesting to note that in 1893, Gomidas Voskian’s French-Armenian dictionary wrote: “yeghern = see vojir,” and “vojir = crime, attentat [attack], méfait [wrongdoing], forfeit [crime].”7The fact that yeghern did not appear as translation of “catastrophe,” “calamity,” or “disaster” in late 19th-century and early 20th-century English-Armenian dictionaries shows that the meaning was completely outdated by that point in time: crime = եղեռն [yeghern], ոճիր [vojir] (V. H. Hagopian, 1907); crime = յանցանք [hantsank], եղեռն [yeghern], ոճիր [vojir] (M. K. Minassian, 1907); crime = ոճիր [vojir], եղեռնագործութիւն [yeghernakordzutiun], մեծ անիրաւութիւն [medz aniravutiun] (Z. D. S. Papazian, 1910).8
The use of ‘yeghern’ at the time of the Massacre of Adana
The word appeared in literary usage, indeed. For instance, it showed up twice in Avetik Isahakian’s famous philosophical narrative poem, “Abu-Lala Mahari,” written in 1909 and published in 1911. Its protagonist, the homonymous Arab poet, expresses his contempt and pessimism for humanity. The two relevant stanzas follow:
And woman I hate. She’s the fertile cause of unbridled crime [yeghern], of passion the seed;
A well never failing, whose copiousness steams earth’s growing wickedness water and feed.
For nothing but gain. To the claw of crime [yeghern]divinity men will ascribe;
Such ever is man, the image of God—whom abort of the devil would best describe.9
Isahakian’s poem was written in the same year of the forerunner to the Armenian Genocide: the 1909 massacres of Adana. E. Aknuni, one of the leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in the early 20th century, was nevertheless hopeful that better times were to come. In September 1910, when touring the United States, he wrote an essay titled “To the Exiled Armenians of America,” in which he inscribed the words of the epigraph: “… [W]e want to strengthen our faith that famine is not eternal, bloodletting is not eternal, yeghern is not eternal.”
Logical thinking in the process of writing would have placed one reference to a natural cause of death (“calamity”) along the other (“famine”). The order of Aknuni’s references indicates that yeghern did not mean “calamity,” but “crime,” which is why he placed it after a violent cause of death (“bloodletting”).
Around the same time, Armenian writer Tlgadintsi (Hovhannes Harutiunian, 1860-1915) published a chronicle called “Take My Sun, Send Me My Death,” where his interlocutor, Rev. Aslanian, a priest who had been to Adana, was quoted as saying: “Babikian too, that poor man but also a select and true Armenian, was melting like a candle against the fire when he saw things and heard the stories of the unprecedented extremes of the yeghern committed by the Turkish mob with a kind of official treason.”10
The reader would have readily understood yeghern to mean something committed by man (a crime), rather than by nature (a calamity), supported by Simon Kapamajian’s 1910 modern Armenian dictionary, which defined yeghern as “քաղաքական կամ բարոյական օրէնքի դրժում [breach of political or moral law]; չարիք [evil]; վնաս [harm]; ոճիր [crime].”11
Hagop Babikian (1856-1909), an Ittihad Party deputy in the Ottoman Parliament, had been sent to Adana as part of an investigative commission. He died under suspicious circumstances only two days after having shown a draft of his damning report to some parliament members. His report was surreptitiously published in Ottoman Turkish in Constantinople in 1913. It is likely that it was translated into Armenian at the time, but only published six years later due to political turmoil and the genocide years. Hagop Sarkisian’s translation was titled “The Yeghern of Adana.” In his preface, dated Feb. 1, 1919, he made clear that “[Babikian] was poisoned by the Young Turks as repayment for this report about the yeghern of Adana, which he prepared for the Chamber of Deputies and for which he died on July 20, 1909.” The preface began with the following statement:
“It was in the spring of 1909 when the black Mongolian claw painted the whole Cilician plain red and turned it into one vast cemetery; the rivers Sihoun [Seyhan] and Jihoun [Ceyhan] received floods of Armenian blood. The Young Turks, openly or secretly, rubbed their hands together with devilish smiles on their faces and with an insolence worthy of hyenas at having accomplished some supreme duty spat in the face of Civilization and of the Allah they worshipped. This was the result of the old and new Turkish mentality, one which never wanted to understand that the owners of this country, of yesterday and of tomorrow, might have the right to live too. The days of awakening came, nevertheless; it was necessary to sow ashes over the Medz Yeghern and conduct the burial of Justice crucified.”12
While Babikian’s use of yeghern by itself may not have shed a great deal of light on its meaning, the context surrounding the words Medz Yeghern—from the “black Mongolian claw” to “Justice crucified”—make it quite clear that there was no question of “calamity,” or natural disaster, here. The massacres of Adana had turned yeghern from “crime” into “pogrom.”
It is curious that the translator, writing in 1919, used the concept of Medz Yeghern, but did not make any explicit reference to the events of 1915-18. He was in fact echoing an expression already used by Sahag II Khabayan, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, in a letter of appreciation written on Dec. 4, 1912 and printed in “The Catastrophe [Aghed] of Cilicia,” by Hagop Terzian, a witness to the massacre of Adana. The letter stated the following in its penultimate sentence:
“It [the book] is the living image of the Medz Yeghern, extracted from beneath the ruins and the ashes by the dedicated and inquisitive effort of an authentic child of Cilicia, which will be the eternal affront of the much-touted civilization and the inexistent humanism of the 20th century.” 13
The horror of Cilicia, where Armenians young and old had been indiscriminately slaughtered, surpassed the massacres of 1895-96 in both scope and brutality: “… [T]he most painful and hellish episodes of the events of ’95, in comparison with what actually happened in Kozluk, were not even the beatings sparked by the ballgames of schoolboys…”14 The Catholicos bore witness to the annihilation of his flock three years later in a much bigger “eternal affront” that also took the lives of Aknuni and Tlgadintsi, and was condemned by the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia), as early as May 24, 1915, as the “new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization,” as reported by the U.S. State Department.15
Guy de Lusignan’s and K. J. Basmadjian’s Armenian-French abridged dictionary, ironically published in 1915, defined yeghern as “crime, forfait [crime], attentat [attack], délit [wrongdoing]; malheur [misfortune], fatalité [fatality], catastrophe.”16 A single dictionary that has the secondary meaning of yeghern defined as “catastrophe” cannot prove that such an understanding was so widespread that Armenians named the darkest page of their history to imply that meaning.
The reason for this intriguing double meaning was that Karapet Basmadjian had posthumously abridged Lusignan’s voluminous dictionary, which revised his 1861 Armenian-French dictionary. The definition of two groups (“crime” and “misfortune”) repeated the latter; Lusignan had followed the inaccurate classification of the New Haigazian Dictionary and put together yeghern (եղեռն) and yegher (եղեր) as synonymous words. Thus, he defined yeghern as “crime, forfait [crime], attentat [attack], délit [wrongdoing]; malheur [misfortune], fatalité [fatality], catastrophe.”17
Interestingly, Lusignan’s voluminous French-Armenian dictionary, published in 1900, defined crime as follows: ոճիր [vojir], եղեռն [yeghern], ոճրագործութիւն [vojrakordzutiun], եղեռնագործութիւն [yeghernakordzutiun], ժանտագործութիւն [zhandakordzutiun], վրիժագործութիւն [vrizhakordzutiun], անօրէնութիւն [anorenutiun], ապիրատութիւն [abiradutiun],” with the phrase commettre un crime (“to commit a crime”) translated as ոճիր, եղեռն գործել [vojir, yeghern kordzel]. The sixth meaning of the word mal (“evil”) was “չար [char], անպատեհութիւն [anbadehutiun], եղեռն [yeghern], մեղ [megh], վնաս [vnas], ապիրատութիւն [abiradutiun].”But the Armenian equivalents for calamité (“աղէտք [aghedk]; տառապանք [darabank], խարուանք [kharvank], փորձանք [portzank]”), catastrophe (“արկած [argadz], աղէտք [aghedk], չարաղէտ դէպք [charaghed tebk], մեծ չարիք [medz charik]”) and désastre (“աղէտք [aghedk], թշուառութիւն [tshvarutiun]”) did not contain any trace of yeghern.18
Before 1915, then, yeghern was solidly established, both in dictionaries and in literary texts, with the meaning of “crime.” The genocide would bring the use of the word to a higher level.
1 E. Aknuni, Depi Yerkir (Towards the Country), Boston: Hairenik Press, 1911, p. 15.
2 Bargirk haykazian lezvi (Dictionary of the Armenian Language), vol. 2, Venice: Antoni Bortoli, 1769, p. 113.
3 Father Paschal Aucher and John Brand, A Dictionary English and Armenian, Venice: Armenian Academy of S. Lazarus, 1821p. 116, 128, 213, 258, 318.
4 John Brand and Father Paschal Aucher, A Dictionary Armenian and English, Venice: Armenian Academy of S. Lazarus, 1825, p. 180.
5 Rev. Matthias Bedrossian, New Dictionary Armenian-English, Venice: St. Lazarus, 1875-1879, p. 155.
6 Rev. Srabion Eminian, Baragirk gagghieren-hayeren-tajkeren (French-Armenian-Turkish Dictionary), Vienna: Mekhitarist Press, 1871, p. 155, 743 (first edition, 1851).
7 Gomidas A. Voskian, Ardzern baragirk hayeren gagghieren (Armenian-French Pocket Dictionary), Constantinople: H. Matteosian, 1893, p. 195, 641.
8 V. H. Hagopian, A Dictionary English-Armenian, Constantinople: H. Matteosian, 1907, p. 159; M. K. Minassian, A Dictionary, English, Armemian and Armeno-Turkish, Constantinople: V. and H. Der Nersessian, 1908, p. 246; Z. D. S. Papazian, Illustrated Practical Dictionary English-Armenian, Constantinople: H. Matteosian, 1910, p. 252.
9 See the original Armenian in Avetik Isahakian, Yerker (Works), Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1987, p. 237, 250. The first stanza is a literal reproduction of Zabelle C. Boyajian’s 1948 translation, while the second revises the translation, where the word yeghern had not been translated (“For nothing but gain. To the grabbing claw honour and sanctity men will ascribe;/ Such ever is man, ‘the Image of God’—whom ‘Sons of the Devil’ would best describe”). For the two stanzas in Boyajian’s translation, see Avetik Isakakian: Great Armenian Poet, Armenian Program, 35th Annual Women’s International Exposition, November 3-9, 1958, 71st Regiment Armory, Park Ave. at 34th St., New York City, p. 11 and 18.
10 Tlgadintsin yev ir gortze (Tlgadintsi and His Work), Boston: Tulgadintzi Alumni Union, 1927, p. 230.
11 Simon Kapamajian, Nor baragirk hayeren lezvi (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language), Constantinople: R. Sakayan Press, 1910, p. 407.
12 Hagop Babikian, Atanayi yegherne (The Yeghern of Adana), translated by Hagop Sarkisian, Aleppo: Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo, 2009, p. 15-16 (second edition).
13 Hishatakaran Atanayi agheti (Memorial of the Catastrophe of Cilicia), vol. II, Antelias: Collection of the 100th Anniversary of the Massacre of Adana, 2010, p. 14 (third edition of Terzian’s book).
14 Tlgadintsin yev ir gortze, p. 229.
15 Annette Höss, “The Trial of Perpetrators by the Turkish Military Tribunals: The Case of Yozgat,” in Richard Hovannisian (ed.), The Armenian Genocide: History, Politics, Ethics, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, p. 209.
16 Guy de Lusignan-K. J. Basmadjian, Dictionnaire portatif armenien moderne français, Constantinople: Librairie B. Balentz – Imprimerie O. Arzouman, 1915, p. 199.
17 G. A. Nar-Bey de Lusignan, Dictionnaire arménien- français and français-arménien, third edition, Paris: L. Hachette and Co., 1881, p. 239.
18 Guy de Lusignan, Nouveau dictionnaire illustré français-arménien, vol. I, Constantinople: H. Matteosian, 1910, p. 358, 408, 626, 710; vol. II, p. 138.

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