The Three Pashas


The Ottoman Empire is founded during the 14th Century. From a small geographical base the empire quickly expands. At its height it incorporates Anatolia, the Balkan states, Bulgaria, Greece, the Middle East, Hungary, North Africa up to the Moroccan frontier, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Fortune turns against the empire at the end of the 17th Century when control over Hungary is lost. The empire's long slide to oblivion has begun. By the middle of the 19th Century it has become the "sick man of Europe". Attempts to reform the administration of the empire come to a head on 24 July 1908 when the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), popularly known as the Young Turks, force Sultan Abdül Hamid II to reinstate parliamentary rule. More background.

Mini biography

Ahmet Cemal Pasha: Born on 6 May 1872 in Istanbul, the capital of Ottoman Empire. He is the son of military pharmacist. A trained military officer, Cemal joins the CUP while in military service. By the time of the Young Turk revolution of 1908 he is a leader of the CUP.

Ismail Enver Pasha: Born on 22 November 1881 in Istanbul. A trained military officer, he is a leader of the Young Turk revolution.

Mehmet Talat Pasha: Born in 1874 in Edirne, in Eastern Thrace (the European portion of Turkey bordering Bulgaria and Greece). He is not a Turk but of Pomak (Bulgarian) descent. His father is a minor Ottoman official. As a senior telegraphist and member of the CUP, Talat plays a key role in the planning of the Young Turk revolution.

1894-1896 - Ottoman repression of the empire's Armenian population results in the deaths of up to 300,000 Armenians and is condemned around the world. (Lower estimates place the number of Armenians killed during this period at between 20,000 and 30,000.)

1908 - Political instability in the empire following the election of a Young Turk government gives foreign powers the opportunity to seize Ottoman territory. Austria annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bulgaria proclaims its complete independence. Italy invades Libya in 1911, taking the capital Tripoli and other port towns. In 1912 the empire loses all its European territory except Eastern Thrace.

1909 - Between 20,000 and 30,000 Armenians are massacred in the Adana (Cilicia) region of southern Turkey. The CUP government denies responsibility, blaming the sultan, who is subsequently deposed.

1910 - At its annual congress held in Thessalonike in late September and early October the CUP begins to set the groundwork for what comes to be known as the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust.

According to a report published in 'The Times' on 3 October the congress president tells the gathering that Turkey is "essentially a Muslim country, and Muslim ideas and influence must preponderate".

"All other religious propaganda must be suppressed, as no reliance could be placed on Christians, who were always working for the downfall of the new regime," the congress president is reported to say.

"Sooner or later the complete Ottomanisation of all Turkish subjects must be effected, but it was becoming clear that this could never be achieved by persuasion, and recourse must be had to force of arms."

1912 - The CUP wins an overwhelming majority in an election held in April but military losses to Italy see its support quickly dwindle. In July it is forced to yield office to a political coalition called the Liberal Union.

1913 - The Liberal Union government is overthrown on 23 January in a coup d'état engineered by Enver Pasha and Cemal Pasha. The CUP takes control of the empire, introducing a military dictatorship headed by the Three Pashas - Cemal, Enver and Talat.

Cemal is military governor of Istanbul, minister of public works, and a key architect of the government's foreign and domestic policies. In 1914 he is appointed minister of the marine. Enver is minister of war. Talat is minister of the interior, minister of posts, and secretary-general of the CUP.

Between them they hold the key ministries of the empire, using their position to promote Turkish nationalism and the replacement of the multicultural Ottoman Empire with a homogeneous pan-Turkish state encompassing Turkish-speaking regions extending into Iran, Russia and Central Asia.

The Armenian minority, who are Christians and whose homeland stands in the path, are seen as an obstacle to the realisation of this goal.

Other Christian minorities living in the empire, including ethnic Greeks and Assyrians, also become targets for the coming persecution.

1914 - The deportation of Greeks living in Eastern Thrace begins in January. On 14 May Talat sends a telegram to the governor of Smyrna directing that all Greeks living on the coast of Asia Minor be "compelled to abandon their homes and be transported to the provinces of Erzerum, Erzincan and elsewhere".

"If they refuse to evacuate their districts, give instructions to our Muslim brothers to force them using, toward this end, every means and every kind of deviation," the telegram says. "The Hellenes (Greeks) must also be compelled to sign declarations, in which they state that they leave and abandon their homes of their own will and initiative. These declarations are necessary so as political issues will not be created."

The countdown to the First World War begins on 28 June with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In its ensuing dispute with Serbia, Austria-Hungary refuses to be placated. Germany backs Austria-Hungary when the situation deteriorates.

On 3 August Germany declares war on France. Britain in turn declares war on Germany on 14 August. The First World War has begun.

The Ottomans side with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) but suffer a disastrous defeat almost immediately. Most of the 3rd Army is lost in eastern Anatolia in December during an abortive offensive led by Enver against Russia.

The Russians receive assistance from some Armenians, and the Russian Army includes Armenian units.

Believing that Russian sympathisers within the Armenian community are planning a revolt, Enver orders that the Armenian recruits in the Ottoman forces be disarmed and reassigned to labour camps, where they are summarily executed.

The outlook for Christians in the empire becomes even more dire on 12 November when the sultan decrees a jihad, or holy struggle.

Meanwhile, Cemal is stationed in Syria at the start of the First World War, acting as commander of the Fourth Army and military governor. He leads unsuccessful campaigns against British forces in Egypt in 1915 and 1916.

In an attempt to prevent supplies from reaching the enemy, Cemal orders a blockade of the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, an action that causes thousands of civilian deaths from the resulting famine and plagues.

1915 - Fears mount in the CUP Government that the Armenians are planning a general insurrection. On 23-24 April over 200 Armenian political, religious and intellectual leaders are rounded up in Istanbul, deported to Anatolia and put to death, a scene that is replicated around the empire.

In May, as the Ottoman Army retreats from the Russian front, Talat orders the forced deportation of Armenians from the war zones to relocation centres in the deserts of Mesopotamia and Syria.

Under Talat's guidance the scope of the operation expands to include Armenians from around the empire. The process degenerates into a death march.

Deportees are either massacred by chetas (bands of Turkish refugees from Thrace, violent criminals released from prison, and Kurds) recruited specially for the purpose by the Teshkilati Mahsusa (Special Organisation), a covert arm of Enver's Ministry of War, or succumb to starvation, exposure to the elements, and disease. The deprivations continue on arrival at camps in Syria, where Cemal remains as military governor.

"You have already been informed that the government ... has decided to destroy all the indicated persons (Armenians) living in Turkey," Talat cables his prefect in Aleppo in the north of Syria on 15 September. "Their existence must be terminated, however tragic the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex, or to any scruples of conscience."

The estimates for the total number of dead vary considerably depending on the source. Talat tells the CUP that 300,000 Armenians have perished. Armenian sources say that about 1.5 million were killed. The 1918 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts the figure at 600,000. By 1968 the encyclopaedia has raised the number to 1.5 million. In later editions the estimate returns to 600,000.

Similarly, the figures for the total number of Armenians living in the empire prior to the deportation also vary, with most sources placing the number over one million and below two million.

Talat's own records state that between 1915 and 1917 the number of Armenians living in the empire fell from 1,256,000 to 284,157.

By 1923, following further campaigns against the remnant populations, the Armenian presence inside Turkey has been halved again.

Henry Morgenthau Sr, the United States' ambassador to the Ottoman Empire later reports, "When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. ... I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915."

Morgenthau asks Enver about the CUP Government's responsibility for the massacres. He quotes Enver as replying "We have this country absolutely under our control. I have no desire to shift the blame on to our underlings and I am entirely willing to accept the responsibility myself for everything that has taken place. The Cabinet itself has ordered the deportations. I am convinced that we are completely justified in doing this owing to the hostile attitude of the Armenians toward the Ottoman Government, but we are the real rulers of Turkey, and no underling would dare proceed in a matter of this kind without our orders."

Meanwhile, ethnic Greeks living in empire are also targeted by the government. The Greeks, like the Armenians, are Christians and are considered to present a potential threat to the stability of a pan-Turkish state.

At the start of December 1922 the then British foreign minister, Lord Curzon, estimates that before 1914 there were 1.6 million Greeks in Anatolia. Between 1914 and 1918 300,000 die, leave the region or otherwise disappear, Lord Curzon says. Between 1919 and 1922 another 200,000 leave or disappear. In September and October of 1922 500,000 more are forced to flee.

"In other words," Lord Curzon says, "a million Greeks have been killed, deported or have died."

On 30 January 1923 Greece and Turkey sign an agreement for the exchange of the remaining ethnic populations within their respective territories. Under the agreement over one million ethnically Greek Turks will be forced to leave regions they have occupied for generations and return to their homeland.

Christian Assyrians, the descendants of the ancient Assyrian civilisation that emerged in Mesopotamia around 2500 BCE, also face death and deportation, a fate that becomes more likely when they form an alliance with Britain during the war.

The persecution of the Assyrians begins as early as December 1914. By the middle of 1915 the deportations and killings are in full swing.

About 100,000 Assyrians are killed during The Year of the (Islamic) Sword, also known as the Great Massacres. (One source puts the number killed at 750,000, or two thirds of the entire Assyrian population.) Many of those who survive are driven out of their ancestral homelands in the borderlands of Turkey's southeast.

At the turn of the century the Christian population of Turkey had numbered about five million. When the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust finally ends in 1923 only about 200,000 Greeks, 100,000 Armenians, and 200,000 Assyrians remain.

1916 - On the western front, the First World War turns the empire's way after the Triple Entente, including the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) beachhead at Gallipoli, is forced to withdraw from the Dardanelles in the autumn of 1915. However, to the south, the Arab Revolt spells the end of Ottoman influence in the Middle East.

1917 - Talat is appointed grand vizier (chief minister) in February, earning him the honorific Pasha.

British forces drive the Ottomans out of Mesopotamia and take Palestine and Syria. Cemal resigns his post as commander of the Fourth Army and returns to Istanbul.

Russian troops press in on the Ottomans from the east but when Russia leaves the war following the Bolshevik Revolution the empire regains its eastern provinces.

1918 - The First World War is drawing to a close. Talat resigns on 14 October. The Ottoman Empire capitulates on 30 October. The CUP Cabinet resigns en mass on 1-2 November. Cemal, Enver and Talat flee into exile in Germany on 1 November. Cemal travels on to Afghanistan where he attempts to marshal the Afghan Army to continue the fight against the British.

The First World War ends on 11 November with the signing of a general armistice. British, French, Italian and Greek forces occupy Istanbul and other regions of the empire. Sultan Mehmet VI is taken into custody to ensure the cooperation of what remains of the Ottoman government.

1919 - Nearly 400 CUP officials implicated in the genocide of the Armenians are arrested, although most avoid justice. Cemal, Enver and Talat are tried in absentia by a Turkish military tribunal, found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death. The tribunal substantiates the key charge of premeditated mass murder organised by the Central Committee of the CUP and carried out by the Special Organisation. A clandestine group is formed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) to hunt down and assassinate the exiles.

Meanwhile, a new nationalist Turkish movement begins to coalesce around Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who recruits an army to drive Greek and occupational forces from Anatolia and ensure that all Ottoman territory inhabited by a Turkish Muslim majority is held together in an independent Turkish state.

At the same time, both the Atatürk nationalists and the Russian Bolshevik government target the newly proclaimed Armenian republic on Turkey's eastern border. By the middle of 1921 the Armenian resistance has been broken and the Kars region occupied by the Turks. What remains of Armenia is absorbed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

In southern Turkey, Armenian refugees who had returned to the Adana (Cilicia) region are again expelled in 1921.

The most controversial campaign of the Turkish War of Independence occurs in September 1922 when the nationalists move into Izmir (Smyrna) during their final push against the Greeks.

Much of the city, which is home to the last intact Armenian community in Anatolia, is burnt to the ground in fires variously reported to have been lit by either the retreating Greeks and Armenians or by the advancing Turks. Thousands of Greeks and Armenians die and thousands more flee into permanent exile.

1920 - Enver travels to Moscow where he unsuccessfully attempts to gain support for a plan to overthrow Atatürk. He is, however, allowed to travel to Turkistan to help organise the Central Asian republics. When the Basmachi in Bukhara revolt against the Soviet regime in 1921 Enver joins the rebels.

1921 - Talat is shot dead in Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian, a member of the ARF, on 15 March. Tehlirian is arrested, tried in a German court and acquitted. Talat's remains are not returned to Turkey until 1943.

1922 - Cemal is assassinated on 21 July in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia, by Stepan Dzaghikian, Bedros Der Boghosian and Ardashes Kevorkian, all members of the ARF. His body is returned to Turkey for burial at Erzurum in eastern Anatolia.

Enver is killed in action against the Red Army on 4 August near Baldzhuan in Turkistan (present-day Tajikistan).

In November the nationalist's governing council effectively abolishes the Ottoman Empire, opening the way for the final negotiations on the shape of the new Turkish state.

1923 - Turkey is declared a republic on 29 October. Atatürk is named president and Ankara the capital. The new republic quickly forgets the plight of the Christian minorities and begins to deny that a deliberate policy of genocide against them was ever planned by the government.


There is considerable debate surrounding the scale and circumstances of the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust. Those who were affected - the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians - believe that the deportations and massacres were centrally planned as part of a grand scheme to ensure the ethnic purity of the Ottoman Empire.

Those who are accused - the Turks - argue that while killings and deportations took place they were not part of a Nazi-style Final Solution but rather the unfortunate outcomes of the social and political upheaval that shook the crumbling Ottoman Empire as it came under attack from all sides. They point to the high number of Turkish deaths that also occurred during this time and deny there was a genocide.

Whatever the ultimate truth, we can be certain that what occurred in Turkey during the period 1909-1923 would these days be described as "ethnic cleansing" and would be condemned around the world.

Those deported Armenians who did survive were never allowed to return to their homeland. Today they are a diaspora numbering about four million, with the largest community living in the US.

The three million Armenians who do remain in the old Soviet-controlled sector are squeezed into an area that is only one-tenth the size of their original territory and which has been under a Turkish blockade since 1993 following Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a part of Azerbaijan and allay of Turkey. There are no formal diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia.

The Assyrians were never allowed an independent homeland. They too are a diaspora. While many of the Assyrian refugees from Turkey joined existing Assyrian communities in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon, others migrated to centres around the world, with the US again being the most popular destination.

Overall, the number of Christians now living Turkey is estimated to have fallen to less than 200,000. And the discrimination goes on.