Musa Dagh

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mountain site of armenian resistance to 1915 deportation orders in the ottoman empire.

Of the hundreds of villages, towns, and cities across the Ottoman Empire whose Armenian population was ordered removed to the Syrian desert, Musa Dagh was one of only four sites where Armenians organized a defense of their community against the deportation edicts issued by the Young Turk regime beginning in April 1915. By the time the Armenians of the six villages at the base of Musa Dagh were instructed to evict their homes, the inhabitants had grown suspicious of the government's ultimate intentions and chose instead to retreat up the mountain and to defy the evacuation order. Musa Dagh, or the Mountain of Moses, stood on the Mediterranean Sea south of the port city of Alexandretta and west of ancient Antioch.

With a few hundred rifles and the entire store of provisions from their villages, the Armenians on Musa Dagh put up a fierce resistance against a number of attempts by the regular Turkish army to flush them out. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Armenians had little expectations of surviving the siege of the mountain when food stocks were depleted after a month. Their only hope was a chance rescue by an Allied vessel that might be roaming the coast of the Mediterranean. When two large banners hoisted by the Armenians were sighted by a passing French warship, swimmers went out to meet it. Eventually five Allied ships moved in to transport the entire population, more than four thousand in all.

The Armenians of Musa Dagh had endured for fifty-three days: from 21 July to 12 September 1915. They were disembarked at Port Saʿid in Egypt and remained in Allied refugee camps until the end of World War I when they returned to their homes. As part of the district of Alexandretta, or Hatay, Musa Dagh remained under French mandate until 1939. The Musa Dagh Armenians abandoned their villages for a second, and final, time when the area was incorporated in the Republic of Turkey.

In the face of the complete decimation of the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire, Musa Dagh became a symbol of the Armenian will to survive in the postwar years. Of the three other sites where Armenians defied the deportation orders, Shabin Karahissar, Urfa, and Van, only the Armenians of Van were rescued when the siege of their city was lifted by an advancing Russian army. The Armenians of Urfa and Shabin Karahissar were either murdered or deported to face starvation in the Syrian desert much as the rest of the Armenians of the Turkish empire. In what became known as the Armenian genocide, Musa Dagh stood as the sole instance where the Allies averted the death of an Armenian community. That story inspired the Prague-born Austrian writer, Franz Werfel, to write a novelized version of the events as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Published in 1933, the book became an instant best-seller, but with the rise of Hitler, Werfel himself fled Vienna that same year. Forty Days of Musa Dagh was eventually translated into eighteen languages, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to the book and announced plans for the production of a film version of the novel. The Turkish ambassador's protestations to the Department of State resulted in the intervention of the U.S. government in the matter. With a veiled threat to ban U.S.-made films from Turkey, MGM studios permanently shelved plans to produce the movie.


Minasian, Edward. "The Forty Years of Musa Dagh: The Film that Was Denied." Journal of Armenian Studies 2, no. 2 (1985/86): 6373.

Walker, Christopher J. Armenia: The Survival of a Nation, revised 2d edition. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.

rouben p. adalian