The Self-Delusion of "Great Calamity": What "Medz Yeghern" Actually Means Today

Vartan Matiossian
Towards the metropolis of the Medz Yeghern 
(Avetis Aharonian, 1918)1

In our previous article, we established that “Medz Yeghern” literally meant “Great Crime” for the survivors of the genocide. It becomes clear that the phrase cannot be arbitrarily translated to a completely different semantic field like “calamity,” even if the meaning of the word had fundamentally changed later at some point in the past hundred years. Here, we will see that, 1) It is not only the survivors who understood yeghern as “crime,” contemporary Eastern Armenian writers who were not victims of the genocide also understood it that way; 2) the following generations also understood it as “crime” until this day.
Avetis Aharonian: ‘the capital of the Medz Yeghern
Before World War I was over and before the survivors had even been allowed to return, famous Eastern Armenian writer and political activist Avetis Aharonian (1866-1948) led a delegation of the Republic of Armenia to Constantinople. The delegation went to protest the Treaty of Batum, which Turkey had imposed on the fledgling republic a few days after the declaration of its independence (June 4, 1918), reducing its territory to Yerevan and the surrounding area. Aharonian also met the Armenian community there, still reeling after four years of life under fear and terror from the Young Turk regime on the brink of collapse. He wrote a series of essays based on his impressions, which were included in his 1920 memoir For the Homeland. He wrote the essay “Towards the metropolis of the Medz Yeghern” on June 15, 1918, when traveling from Batum to Constantinople. A few pages later, he wrote:
“I am going to Constantinople. This is a miracle. I am going to the capital of the Medz Yeghern, tothat accursed furnace where all the infernal conspiracies, all the crimes against the Armenian world and the Armenian people were forged. After 30 years of struggle, with my invincible soul, my iron will, and my granitic faith—like that of my people—I go with my head held high to knock at the enemy’s door. And one powerful, supreme wish lashes my soul like a storm: to see the greatest criminals [vojrakordz]in the world, to look them in the eye, to shout out my unspeakable pain and wrath and then…” 2
After a four-month sojourn in the “capital of the Medz Yeghern,” where a monstrous evil was perpetrated by the “greatest criminals of the world,” he could not get away from the harshness of reality in his next essay, dated Nov. 14, 1918: “I am again on the sea; the ship cracks the blue waves of the Bosphorus. I am returning from Constantinople the same way I came, four months ago, to my Golgotha: the city of the Medz Yeghern. … And now, when I am escaping from the city of the Medz Yeghern,my soul, emptied of hope and belief, cries quietly in the darkness.”3

Avetik Isahakian: horrors and yegherns
Poet Avetik Isahakian (1875-1957), who had already used yeghern with the meaning of “crime” in his poem “Abu-Lala Mahari”in 1909, used the word again in a quite unusual pluralized form in a famous poem dedicated to Armenia, first published in 1924:
Sold off by your friends, wronged homeland of mine,
Ruined beneath your enemies’ feet, orphaned homeland of mine,
Eternalized by horrors and yegherns, ancient homeland of mine,
Sacred right in your blood, your soul the sun, my Armenia.4

Yeghishe Charents: yeghern and strife
In 1933, Yeghishe Charents (1897-1937), the foremost Soviet-Armenian poet who would later fall victim to the Stalinist purges, published his quartet “M.M.” (written in 1929) about a famous Western Armenian poet, Misak Medzarents, who had died from tuberculosis at the age of 22, in 1908:
There has been blood in the world; there has been yeghern and strife;
Colossal forces have risen like mountains to go at each other untamed;
In a village far from the world, with freshly cut reed flute,
This sickly young genius sings of sun and spring.5
At a time when the subject of the 1915 annihilation was almost taboo in Soviet Armenia, Charents used yeghern to subliminally weave its memory into his text, together with the “colossal forces” that recalled the World War. The word was used between “blood” and “strife,” and there is no doubt that “crime” fits that same context perfectly.

The yeghern of 1933 and the ‘Turkish genocidal yeghern’ of 1965
We believe that the point has been proved beyond and above any objections, and that there is no need to extend our survey of Armenian publications to the period of 1930-65. We will content ourselves with two intriguing cases from that period: One of them, in particular, may interest Armenian-Americans; it is a book published in 1935 by an ad-hoc committee formed in the aftermath of the assassination of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian in New York in 1933. Its title, Azkatav yegherne yev tadabardutiune, may have exploited the echoes of 1915 for political purposes and used the word yeghern to describe Tourian’s killing, which was defined and tried in American courts as a crime. Therefore, the literal translation of the book is “The Nation-Betraying Crime and the Condemnation.”
The other case is the mammoth volume edited by Kersam Aharonian and published by the daily Zartonk in Beirut on the 50th anniversary of the genocide (1965), called Hushamadian Medz Yegherni (“Memorial Book of the Medz Yeghern”). By its sheer size and scope, the 1,140-page book was perhaps the richest collection of material on the issue to date. The dedication of the volume reads:
“We dedicate this book
to the eternally immortal and sacred memory
of the million and half Armenian martyrs
who fell during the First World War
as victims of the Turkish genocidal [tseghasban] yeghern…”6
The word “Turkish” refers to an active agent, the executor of the yeghern, which makes implausible any argument that “genocidal yeghern” could have meant “genocidal calamity” (“genocidal calamity,” in any case, would be another way of saying “genocide”).
As a matter of fact, a survey of the titles in the volume reveals five uses of Medz Yeghern, two of Yeghern (both related to the massacres in Kharpert), one of Abrilian Yeghern (“April Yeghern”), one of Medz Aghed (“Great Catastrophe”), and two of Aghed (“Catastrophe,” one on Marash 1920 and one on Smyrna 1922). The word tseghasbanutiun (“genocide”) was used twice, and hayasbanutiun (“armenocide”) once. Incidentally, one of the sections was called “The Kemalist Yeghern…and the Evacuation of Cilicia.” Therefore, not only the events of 1915, but also the massacres of Armenians by the Kemalist forces in Cilicia (1920-1921) are considered a Crime, in capital letters.

Modern Armenian dictionaries
To conclude with this terminological discussion, we will analyze a sample of Armenian monolingual dictionaries published after the genocide. These dictionaries may be used by anyone who wishes to understand and/or translate Medz Yeghern into another language as a reference source. As it has happened with dictionaries introduced in our previous articles, we have only studied sources available to us; we cannot claim to have exhausted the bibliography.
Several dictionaries have agreed on the modern sense of the word yeghern by essentially establishing it around “crime” and “killing” in both the individual (sbanutiun “murder”) and the collective sense (sbant “slaughter”; chart “massacre”; godoradz “massacre”). Incidentally, the dictionaries authored by Stepanos Malkhasiants, the language team of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia, and Eduard Aghayan are the most authoritative sources for the modern language:7

Dictionary Yeghern
Kayayan (1938) ոճիր [vojir, “crime”], սպանութիւն [sbanutiun, “murder”], չարագործութիւն [charakordzutiun, “wrongdoing”], քրէական յանցանք [kreagan hantsank, “criminal offense”]
Malkhasiants (1944) (antiquated) չարիք [charik, “calamity”], աղէտ [aghed, “catastrophe”], փորձանք [portzank, “calamity”]; (current) See ոճիր [vojir]
Der Khachadurian, Kankruni and Doniguian (1968) ոճիր [vojir], սպանդ [sbant, “slaughter”], չարագործութիւն [charakordzutiun,], քրէական յանցանք [kreagan hantsank}, ջարդ [chart, “massacre”]
Academy of Sciences of Armenia (1969) ոճիր [vojir], ոճրագործութիւն [vojrakordzutiun, “commission of a crime”], չարագործութիւն [charakordzutiun]
Aghayan (1976) ոճիր [vojir], չարագործութիւն [charakordzutiun], չարիք [charik]; կոտորած [godoradz, “massacre”]
Granian (1982) ոճիր [vojir], քրէական յանցանք [kreagan hantsank}; ջարդ [chart, “massacre”], սպանդ [sbant, “slaughter”]

The Haigazian Dictionary and the New Haigazian Dictionary already contained several adjectives and compound words found in Classical Armenian derived from the word yeghern, which they defined on the basis of “crime” (vojir) and “evil” (charik).All of the monolingual dictionaries of Modern Armenian that we have seen include up to a dozen synonyms each for yeghern that are closely associated with the ideas of “crime” and “evil.” This indicates that both the classical and modern language shared the primary meaning of yeghern as “evil/crime” and “crime/evil,” respectively.
Advocates of the “calamity” translation of Medz Yeghern may use as evidence one dictionary of Modern Armenian that gives it as a primary meaning. The dictionary of Archbishop Knel Jerejian and Paramaz Doniguian, published in 1992, offers three meanings for yeghern: “1. charik, aghed, portzank; 2. vojir, sbant, chart; 3. kreagan hantsank.” Several caveats about this puzzling set are in order:
a) The first meaning repeats the Malkhasiants dictionary (which is the standard source for anyone writing a dictionary of Modern Armenian) without the crucial warning that those meanings are antiquated.
b) The second repeats three of the definitions from the dictionary by Der Khachadourian, Kankruni, and Doniguian; and the third includes a fourth definition from the latter.
c)  The definitions corresponding to charik, aghed,and portzank completely omit yeghern.
While we cannot be sure whether the three meanings given by the dictionary follow any order of importance, the sentence given as example of word usage points to the meaning the authors considered primary and renders moot any argument about the practical use of the word in a non-legal, non-judicial sense: “The April Yeghern is a genocide [tseghasbanutiun] executed in 1915 against the peaceful Armenian nation by the Young Turks.”8 The Young Turks could not execute a calamity or a catastrophe—only a crime.
The same advocates may also cite two dictionaries that mention “calamity” as a secondary meaning—those by Kegham Kerovpyan (portzank, 1962) and Rev. Aristakes Bokhjalian (charik, aghed, portzank, 1974).9 Incidentally, both were published in Istanbul. Between them, Ashot Sukiasyan’s thesaurus (1967) included three semantic groups: The first had 6 words that ranged in meaning from vojir to charakordzutiun;; the second, 13 words that denoted “killing”; while the third consisted of 3 words: charik, portzank, and aghed.Bohjalian, who translated yeghern into Turkish as cinayet (“crime”), may have just followed Sukiasyan, who omitted yeghern in the definitions of charik, portzank, and aghed.10
The evidence from dictionaries and literary sources brings us to the following:
1) The primary meaning of yeghern in Modern Armenian is “crime.”
2) The word vojir (“crime”), its closest synonym of yeghern, despite having been used to denote the genocide, does not necessarily include the nuance of “evil.” Yeghern involves a greater level of abstraction than vojir; thus, Medz Yeghern symbolically stresses the singular character of the event.
3) Medz Yeghern has literally meant “Great Crime” for almost a hundred years. “Great Evil Crime” would be its most accurate, even if translation to encompass both crime and evil, but too cumbersome for practical use; the shortened version, “Great Crime,”conveys the best option, even if there is something lost in translation on the way from yeghern to “crime.”
4) Yeghern has not been used in the 20th century to mean “calamity, catastrophe, disaster,” even though some Armenian monolingual dictionaries may have included it.
5) The notion that Medz Yeghern also means “Great Calamity” completely flies in the face of the evidence of dictionaries and literary sources written in the wake of the genocide.

1 Avetis Aharonian, Hayrenikis Hamar (For My Homeland), Boston: Hairenik Press, 1920, p. 67.
2 idem, p. 70.
3 idem, p. 76, 102.
4 Avetik Isahakian, “Hayastanin” (To Armenia), Hairenik Amsakir, May 1924, p. 1.
5 Yeghishe Charents, Girk chanaparhi (Book of the Road), Yerevan: State Publishing House, 1933, p. 281.
6 Kersam Aharonian (ed.), Hushamatian Metz Yegherni (Memorial Book of the Medz Yeghern), Beirut: Zartonk, 1965, p. IV.
7 H. T. Kayayan, Bararan-gandzaran hayeren lezvi (Dictionary-Thesaurus of the Armenian Language), Cairo: Kalfa, 1938, p. 112; Stepanos Malkhasiants, Hayeren batsatrakan bararan (Armenian Explanatory Dictionary), vol. I, Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1944, p. 559; Ardashes Der Khachadurian, Hrant Kankruni and Paramaz G. Doniguian, Hayots lezvi nor bararan (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language), vol. I, Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1968, p. 129; Zhamanakakits hayeren lezvi batsadrakan bararan (Explanatory Dictionary of Contemporary Armenian Language), vol. 1, Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1969, p. 549; Eduard Aghayan, Ardi hayereni batsadrakan bararan (Explanatory Dictionary of Modern Armenian), vol. 1, Yerevan: Hayastan, 1976, p. 323; Rev. Antranig Granian, Bargirk hayeren lezvi (Dictionary of the Armenian Language), Beirut: Shirag, 1982, p. 143.
8 Archbishop Knel Jerejian and Paramaz Doniguian, Hayots lezvi nor bararan (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language), vol 1, Beirut: G. Doniguan and Sons, 1992, p. 27, 533; Ardashes Der Khachadurian, idem, vol. II , p. 615, 1057-1058.
9 Kegham Kerovpyan (Işkol), Hayeren bargirk ashkharhabar lezvi (Dictionary of the Modern Armenian Language) Istanbul: Ghalatio Bouket, 1962, p. 167; Rev. Aristakes Bohjalian, Hayerene hayeren batsatrakan ardzern bararan (Armenian-Armenian Pocket Explanatory Dictionary), Istanbul: Armenian Turkish Teachers’ Organization, 1991, p. 142 (first edition, 1974).
10 Ashot Sukiasyan, Hayots lezvi homanishneri bararan (Dictionary of Synonyms of the Armenian Language), Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1967, p. 25, 179, 526, 625.

"The Armenian Weekly," January 12, 2013

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