The occupation of the Ottoman Bank (Bank-ı Osmanî-i Şahane) is regarded as the first recorded act of urban terrorism and was one of the most important elements that sparked the chain of events now known as the ‘Armenian Question’. Among all the Armenian attempts to catch attention the takeover of the bank was a true catalyst as it involved British, French and Ottoman capital. The Armenian revolutionaries aimed to create chaos in the Ottoman capital in a hope that the riots would be reported in the international press. In this way they could demand attention for the “Armenaian Question”. Furthermore, they expected the British and French armada to approach Constantinople for military intervention. The operation was masterminded by the Armenian Dashnak Party as they saw such an action as a chance to move ahead of the Armenian Hunchak Party which was responsible for almost all the other actions at that time.
Since the mid-1800s Germany and Czarist Russia were on the opposite sides of the balance of power in Europe. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire was regarded as “the sick man of Europe”as it was in decline due to nationalistic movements. It lost almost all of its territories in Balkans, and Sultan Abdül Hamid II was taken with fear that nationalistic movements poisoned the Armenians on the east. As a matter of fact his fear seemed to be too late… The Armenian intellectuals and youth were already hoping for independence or autonomy. This was to be realized by the Armenian comittee which attended the Treaty of Berlin negotiations in 1878. Yet, they had to content themselves with the promise by the sultan that reforms would be carried out to improve the situation.
Neither the promise nor the May 1895 plan, the reform plan that was presented by European powers, and to which Sultan Abdül Hamid II agreed, were executed. Instead, he turned up the pressure on the Armenians. The Sultan strongly believed that if he had carried out the reforms, it would have resulted in independence. However, due to the delay of the reforms, the displeasure increased which resulted in the foundation of the revolutionist organizations. Frankly, the majority of Armenian peasants gave no support to such revolutionary movements in the beginning. However, Sultan Abdul Hamid II formed Kurdish Hamidiye troops on the east side of the empire and thus fuled the unrest instead of carrying out the reforms which were aimed at decreasing the displeasure. Kurdish persecution and a rise in taxes deflected the Armenians into revolutionarist movements which led to a violent periof of two years.
1894 the Sassoun uprising was the first stance aganist Sultan Abdul Hamid II and a year later Zeitun rebellion broke out of which two uprisings were brutally suppressed by Hamidiye troops. The following incident in the chain of events was the 1895 Bab-ı Ali Demonstration that was organized by Hunchak Party in Istanbul on 30 September 1895. The marching started from the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate in Kumkapı towards Bab-I Ali, where the government quarters were located. Several of the protester were well armed, walking with the expectation of trouble, to make the day worth to remember. What they expected was that they found them as an organized mob which was supported by the security officers. However, the demonstration brought nothing to the Armenians because neither the Sultan carried out the reforms nor the great powers occupied the Ottoman capital as the Armenians had expected. It was proven that as long as the action didn’t touch those great powers, they wouldn’t respond. What they then decided was to take an extraordinary action and they turned their eyes to Ottoman Bank, the most prominent building in the city.
The plan to occupy the Ottoman Bank was masterminded by Papken Siuni, who would lead the operation along with his head assistant, Hrach Tiryakian. When Armen Garo accepted to take part in the act in February 1896, the arrangments to raid the bank started. As the action was requiring courage, the preparations needed to be carried out rigorously. The revolutionaries frequently gathered together at the house of an Armenian woman, İskouhi, the fiancé of Hrach Tiryakian. In addition to this place, locations in Üsküdar, Samatya, Hasköy and Beyoğlu were used as locations where the attack was prepared. Rooms were rented in Beyoğlu in order to create a distraction from the actual attack; on the day the plan was carried out an uproar was created in Beyoğlu through the throwing of bombs from these apartments. This resulted in a concentration of attention on Beyoğlu, leaving the Ottoman Bank a vulnerable target. The bombs were produced by two brothers namely Serkis and Mikayel in Uskudar and then transported to Kabataş. The tests on the bombs were carried out in Kâğıthane region. As the relocating of the bombs was very risky due to presence of intelliegence service, they decided to carry a gun to commit suicide if they would get caught.
Abdulhamid II was most known for his paranoia about his security therefore he provided a wide network of secret intelligence agents and informants who directly kept in touch with him. They obtained information about almost everybody even his nearest and dearest. Under the circumstances how it was possible for the preparations to remain unknown is still the a huge questionmark. In the memories of Armen Garo it’s written that while he and Ishuki were carrying some bombs to the British school in Galata, they were being followed by five undercover security officers until they arrived at the school. Hence, it was clear that Sultan Abdülhamid II knew the Armenian revolutionaries were preparing something. The real question that needs to be asked is whether they knew the target was the Ottoman Bank or not. It’s generally accepted that Sultan Abdulhamid II was in expectation of an attack from the Armenian revolutionaries but not such a valourous act. Yet still there’s always conspiracy theories when it comes to such a historical and political event. For the occupation of Ottoman Bank such a theory came from Dr. George Washburn, a famous missionary, who wrote something on the issue in his book “Fifty Years in Consantinople and Recollections of Robert College”
THE OCCUPATION OF THE OTTOMAN BANK
The revolutionary comrades gathered at the British school in Galata in the early morning of the wednesday. The first surprise of the day was only a few of the revolutionaries showed up at the time of the meeting. Papken and Hrach left the school immediately to check other meeting points where the comrades was supposed to meet. When they came back to school, they even considered changing their target due to an insufficent number of people involved. It was said by Armen Garo that there were less than 20 comrades when the time was coming close to 11am. Soon afterwards, one of the comrades came with good news; several others just showed up. Thus, the target became the Ottoman Bank once again. In memories of Armen Garo it was said that there were 31 people before they left the school although the number of comrades was supposed to be 75.
Shortly after noon well-dressed Armen Garo started the active part of the operation. He walked into the bank and asked for the exchange rate for gold. He left the bank to kill time outside. When he saw that his comrades arrived, he made his way to the bank together with four hamals who were carrying bombs and ammunition in their bag. Just then the sound of a gunshot was heard and the suprise attack to force the entrance of the bank started. With the sound of guns and bombs, the street became a state of turmoil immediately. They rushed inside with a great exciment and barricaded themselves by shutting the entrance door of the bank. They threw bombs from windows on the passers-by below to defend themselves at the same time the Ottoman security staff took their position outside and the barrage continued for a few hours at a stretch. During the time they understood that some of their followers including Papken Siuni, the leader of operation, were killed as well as wounded. Armen Garo took over the command of the operation and organized the revolutionaries inside. He collected the bank employees together in a room upstairs and held them as prisoners. With the help of a few prisoners they sent letters including their demands to the European embassies and the Yildiz Palace, where the sultan resided.
1) To stop the massacre of innocent Armenians in Istanbul
2) To stop the attack aganist the bank, otherwise the building would be blown up
3) To give written guarantees about the reforms to be carried out in the Armenian provinces
4) To liberate those who had participated in the operations
After hearing about the events, Maximoff, the head Dragoman in the Russian Embassy, persuaded Yıldız Palace in no time. After convincing sultan not to use dynamite on the bank, he headed towards the Ottoman Bank to convince the revolutionaries to leave. After extensive negotiations between Armen Garo and Maximoff, the Armenian revolutionaries agreed to leave the bank, receiving guarentees that their demands would be met. After 14 hours of occupation, the seventeen surviving revolutionaries came out of the bank, passed through the Turkish troops, and were taken to the private yacht of Sir Edgar Vincent. Maximoff introduced them to the captain and left the yacht, saying that he would come the following day.
The following day together with his British and French colleagues Maximoff was at a yacht on the Moda coast around 4 p.m. The conversation between the ambassadors and Armen Garo didn’t go as the Armenian revolutionaries expected. There was not letter as it was promised to them by Maximoff and what’s worse was that they learnt that the massacre was still going on. Armen Garo understood that they were deceived, however, it was too late to do something except boarding the French warship La Gironde, which a day later took them to Marseille where they were held in prison for 17 days. Afterwards, Armen Garo and Hrach Tiryakian were sent to Switzerland, while the others were sent to Buenos Aires without a cent although the French goverment promised to send them to New York.
MOB IN CONSTANTINOPLE
As soon as the news of the occupation of Ottoman Bank was heard, a crowd of softas carrying bludgeons and iron staves in their hands quickly gathered in various places in the city. From then on Armenian blood flowed like water on the streets of Constantinople for at least for 30 hours. Due to reports from eyewitnesses, the perpetrators of massacre were the lower class Muslims of Constantinople, majority of them Kurdish and Laz labourers, meanwhile the victims were overwhelmingly Armenian labourers. Very few of the victims were women or children as well as there was not a single Jew or European killed. Yet, the Jews and Greeks of Constantinople helped the angry softas in various places in the city. Another interesting fact was that there was no terror in the districts where wealthy Armenian families lived. All those hints point to economic competetion which was the result of the increasing migration from rural areas to Constantinople in the 1850s.
Where the bloodiest revenges took place were Samatya, Pera, Tahtakale, Balat, Karagürmrük, Eyüp, Sleymaniye, Fındıklı and Hasköy meanwhile the smaller occurrents took place in the districts such as Bebek or Çengelköy which were located along the Bosphorus. Due to European observers Yildiz Palace was the main organizer of the massacre. They were very convinced because of the attitute of the security forces. Their reports spoke with a single voice that there was no actual killing of Armenians by the security forces, however, there was no single security guard that intervened in the massacre. There was also idle rumour that almost 500 Hamidian militia were brought to the city on the day of the massacre.
What is not to be questioned is that a great number of innocent people were killed during the riots, but there’s really no way to know the exact number of people from both sides who were killed due to partisan reports of Armenians and the manipulation of Turkish authorities. According to report of the Military Investigation Committee, 624 Armenian were killed on the northern bank of the Golden Horn including Kasımpaşa, Hasköy and Beyoğlu, 362 were killed in the city of Istanbul, 22 were killed in Beşiktaş and Bebek, and 4 were killed in Uskudar district. From the Muslim side, there were 30 deaths. The western observers estimated the number of deaths like 5000-6000 Armenian victims.
Salt, J. (2013). Imperialism, Evangelism and the Ottoman Armenians, 1878-1896. New York: Routletge
Bloxham D. (2005). The great game of genocide: imperialism, nationalism, and the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Washburn G. (2012). Fifty years in Constantinople and recollections of Robert College. Istanbul: Bogazici Universitesi Yayın Evi
Eldem E. (1999). Osmanlı bankası tarihi. İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları
Tuygan A. (2015). Osmanlı bankası Armen Garo’nun anıları. Istanbul: Belge Yayınları
To Aid the Armenians. The New York Times. (November 10, 1896)
Ilker Yaman is a story teller, story writer, and a relentless researcher, with great interest to be a turnsole test for booksy pimps
Photo Credits: SaltOnline