Tall Armenian Tale


The Other Side of the Falsified Genocide


  Ararat: A Movie and an Analogy  
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An essay by Nick

Followed by a news article having excerpted Clarence Ussher's book.


For contact info and more of the Brit with True Grit: click here.



Armenians have a long literary tradition relating to what they have perceived as their struggle for national liberation. This liberation literature originates from the 1830s when Armenian groups began to see their future apart from the Ottoman state which had nurtured them since the middle ages and under which they had prospered. Partly this is due to the influence of nationalist ideology from Europe (which was the antithesis of multi ethnic states such as the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires) and interference from neighbouring states principally Russia which had territorial designs on Ottoman lands and saw Christian minorities as a means to destabilise the country, permitting intervention and expansion. Western missionaries, hoping for a spiritual harvest were also to complicate the vista of Turkish-Armenian relations. One of the earliest examples of this liberation literature was the historical novel “Woes of Armenia” by Khatchatur Abovian, written in the late 1820s. Abovian is considered to be the father of modern Armenian literature. (1) His book not only starts the thread of this genre but also establishes the fictionalisation and mythologisation of Armenian history.  Atom Ergoyan’s film “Ararat” continues this genre in a cinematic context. The film is intended to engage the viewer on three different levels. First, it is clearly a statement of faith; an ideological statement that promotes Armenians as victims of genocide. Second, it purports to be an accurate representation of historical events which uses as its source and inspiration the book “An American Physician in Turkey” by the missionary Clarence Ussher. Third, the film is intended to be a powerful and thought provoking piece of drama. Predictably, Armenian commentators were impressed by the film, praising it as ambitious, powerful and accessible to audiences today. Non Armenian reviewers were less generous.

An American Physician in Turkey by Clarence Ussher

Clarence Ussher's book

The film’s importance to Armenians as an expression of their belief in the Armenian Genocide is clear enough and not terribly controversial since it is what we expect.  The gross distortion of historical events is also predictable something we shall return to later. What is more surprising, given the status of Atom Ergoyan as an internationally known film director, is the fact that this is, quite simply, a dismal film. Partly, this must be due to the fact that the nature of the film derives from a national myth that is never questioned or examined and therefore encouraged a lazy and intellectually simplistic approach to what are terrible images and painful memories. Both script and acting are wooden. Characters are grossly stereotyped and the construction of the plot is both farcical and cliché ridden. The device, intended to give context on modern relevance to the Armenian Genocide, of a film within a film, is clumsy. Simply put, there are two basic story lines: the quest of an Armenian boy, Raffi, to find some relevance for the death of his father who was killed trying to murder a Turkish diplomat and the making of a film, based on Ussher’s book on the siege of Van in 1915 and considered to be the catalyst for genocide, being made by film maker Saroyan, played by Charles Aznavour. The connecting point between these two threads is Raffi’s mother, Ani, an art historian who is researching the life of an Armenian artist, Arshile Gorky, who escaped from Van. Ani is employed by Saroyan as an advisor when the life of the artist is incorporated into the film.

These two threads, running in parallel, encapsulated what Armenians seem to perceive as both their predicament and their identity; a people searching for a place in history and a people who are members of a select community victims of genocide. Raffi’s search for meaning takes him to Turkey where he undertakes research, ostensibly for the film, into his people’s homeland. While he is there, he is conned into smuggling drugs, disguised as unexposed film, into the U.S. Meanwhile, Saroyan makes his film, of which we see segments. It is this part of Ararat that is most problematic as it contains dreadful scenes calculated to make Armenians recoil with horror and everyone else recoil with the shear gratuitousness of the violence, the inept way in which it is portrayed and the devastating historical nonsense it represents. All the violence aside, there is one pivotal scene in the film within the film. This is a scene where Jevdet Bey (Governor of Van), played by a homosexual Turkish actor, presumably for added impact, captures two Armenian boys (one of whom is the artist Gorky).  Jevdet orders one of the boys to be taken away and tortured to death (which we hear in the background) while he then tells Gorky what he has planned for the Armenian people.

Donald Pleasance as Blofeld with Solomon the white cat

Jevdet Bey?

This is done in the style of a second rate Bond villain. All that is missing is the white bejewelled Persian cat! Gorky is then released to tell his people what they can expect. This sub plot is woven into the story of the siege of Van as related by Ussher. Once the scene is shot there is a moment when three characters, the Turkish actor, Raffi and Saroyan interact the Turkish actor expressing pleasure in working for such an eminent director but questioning the accuracy of what he has been required to say as the character of Jevdet, Saroyan dismissing him contemptuously and Raffi trying to understand why Saroyan feels no need to explain himself. Saroyan then gives Raffi some money to buy a bottle of champagne for the Turkish actor in a gesture that is clearly intended as an insult to the individual and an expression of contempt for Turks in general. This little interchange is a perfect pastiche of the Armenian view of Turks and of Turkish objections to the label of genocide; no argument, no discussion, just contempt.

Charles Aznavour as Saroyan in ARARAT

Charles Aznavour as Saroyan

The scene also allows Saroyan (Aznavour) to deny history and to ignore context by exclaiming “Why did they hate us so much!” as if this was the simple reason behind all these events. No thought is given to the decades of civil unrest caused by outside interference and Armenian revolutionary activity or to the influx of Muslim refugees who were themselves victims of gross instances of ethnic cleansing in the Caucusus.  It all emphasises a question of accuracy raised earlier in the film when Ani, looking at the stage set of Van which included a view of Ararat, points out that Ararat can not be seen from Van. The producer says that Ararat was seen as important symbol and that poetic license permitted the inaccuracy. Ani asks where one can get poetic licenses. Where indeed?




Christopher Plummer examines Raffi in ARARAT

Christopher Plummer examines Raffi

In the other part of the film, Raffi returns from his research trip to Turkey with new found belief in his people’s martyrdom and what it means to be Armenian, video footage containing views of Armenian monuments crumbling into symbolic ruin and neglect, and drug laden canisters given to him by a Turkish camera man but which should have contained footage of the city of Ani. He is stopped by a customs officer (played by Christopher Plummer). Raffi is interrogated and the drugs are discovered. However, in the course of the interrogation, lasting most of the night, Raffi tells the story of his people, their martyrdom and of his own quest. The customs officer, convinced by the truth of Raffi’s explanation and the authenticity of his pain in confronting the truth of the genocide, releases him! All that can be said of this nonsense is that Christopher Plummer at least had the good grace to look uncomfortable. However, this scene emphasises another important aspect of the Armenian attitude to these events they may be based on shaky history but they are “authentic” and must not be questioned. We must believe, just as Plummer’s customs officer has come to believe. (2) All the way through the film Ararat is the theme of the quest for authenticity rather than veracity. Several times the mantra that this was all based on the writings of Ussher, an “eye witness,” is repeated to allay the constant feelings of disbelief and incredulity. In fact, the contrast between authenticity and veracity within the film Ararat is analogous to the whole argument surrounding the claims of genocide.  All of this, of course, begs the question: how accurate is Ussher’s story and how accurate is the context into which he has been put by Ergoyan?   

Ussher was an American doctor and missionary who worked in the Near East, mainly Ottoman Turkey from 1898 and late 1915. Based in Van at the start of the Great War he was a “witness” to the Armenian Genocide” finally departing to Tiflis with Russian troops.  Ussher was clearly writing a book that was part fund raiser and part propaganda tract. His purpose was clearly to build on well established anti-Turkish sentiment and more recent anti-German sentiment to promote both missionary work and the war effort. In this context, balance was never an issue, indeed as far as missionaries from America and Britain were concerned, it never had been. Interestingly, Ussher and other western missionaries had good contacts with German missionaries working alongside them therefore in order to support a war against Germany and her allies reference was made to “Prussians, “ rather than simply to “Germans” per se, when atrocity stories were being told:

  “That the deportations were planned by the Prussian Government cannot be doubted by anyone who has had first-hand knowledge concerning them. If Germany was to rule Turkey in the end, she would avoid trouble with the progressive and nationalistic Armenians by scattering them among the Turks……………any territory occupied by her must be rid of its original inhabitants, or they must be so scattered as to form no longer a homogenous population.” (3)  He adds that “Germany was also largely responsible for the massacres and atrocities that accompanied the deportations.”

Ussher resolutely maintains that Armenians were loyal citizens of the Ottoman Empire, supplying conscripts who fought with courage at Sarikamish, but in spite of this Enver ordered Armenian troops to be disarmed and put to menial work, later to be killed. (4) Little mention, although he must have been aware, of the mass desertions of Armenian troops led by Pastermichan who, according to Nogales,  himself both a witness and participant,  joined the Russians and returned later “burning hamlets and mercilessly putting to the knife all the peaceful Mussulman villagers that fell into their hands.” Nogales refers to these desertions as “unjustifiable” as were “the outrages they committed.” (5) These desertions were the reason why Armenian units that remained were disarmed and occurred before the orders to deport Armenians were made. Armenian fighters were able to eject from the city of Van the Turkish garrison and hold the city against a regular Turkish army equipped with artillery clearly evidence of prior planning and financing. Indeed, this preparedness is evident from a wide range of Armenian sources; Van had been a hotbed of revolutionary activity since the late 1880s.

 According to Ussher, at the end of the siege of Van, the Turks fled the city leaving dead and mutilated prisoners behind them and, in one of the few criticisms he makes of the Armenians, says that for two or three days Armenians burned and murdered in revenge. Shortly after, the Russians entered Van in “orderly ranks of trim, uniformed, fair-skinned Europeans” and once settled, Ussher and his workers were able to “listen with delight to their harmonious singing around the camp fire a strong contrast to the weird minor wailings which Orientals call music.” (6) Even from these short excerpts Ussher’s position is never in doubt. Regarding Muslim refugees, of whom there were many,  he says little other than where “Armenians had been self-sacrificing, generous, helpful, and cheerful….Turks were callous, indifferent to each other’s sufferings, utterly selfish….Very few could be got to do a hand’s turn of work for the common good…They were filthy beyond description.” (7) The contrast here is clear. Muslim refugees are described as being “filthy” while Armenian refugees are described as being “pitiable.” And so on. One is not required to have great fluency with the nuances of the English language to see the difference of emphasis and attitude.



Dr. Clarence Ussher

Dr. Clarence Ussher

Ussher, and other missionaries from various countries, had a clear agenda here: the saving of souls but also the establishment of influence and commerce for their respective nations.  As Ussher says at the close of his book:

    “When the war is over the future of the blighted country must be very largely in the hands of the Armenian children who have survived, for, as always hitherto, this Mohammedan country must owe its economic and intellectual development to the Christians. These children, these orphans, can be trained now for that stupendous task. Behold America’s opportunity.” (Emphasis mine) (8)   Similar sentiments are expressed by Ussher’s colleague Grace Knapp when she says that Turkey must be “civilized, Christianized, and for the sake of the future of Turkey this must be done.” (9) The question of course is whose Turkey are they referring to?

For over a hundred years missionaries from foreign countries had acted as a Trojan horse using Christian minorities to promote the interests of their respective countries spiritually, economically and territorially. Vast amounts of money had been spent according to George Horton, the American Board of Foreign Missions alone had, by 1923, invested and lost $2,880,000. (10) Investment made by other American groups, Armenian organisations and other western national and religious interests must have been truly staggering and, it must be observed, directed almost exclusively to Christian groups and, within this context, predominately Armenians. The Russians, who had major territorial as well as financial interests, were very concerned about the encroachment of western influences. They derived considerable incomes, for example, from properties willed to the Russian Armenian ecliastic authorities and were concerned first with the reluctance of Ottoman Armenian church authorities to release these incomes and later with the implications of protestant encroachment. (11) As early as 1857, Prince Bariatinsky, viceroy in the Caucusus war informing the Russian authorities that, in view of the death of the incumbent Catholicos and the election of a replacement….. “Catholic and Protestant missionaries, who are against our belief and our interests, had swiftly made conversions among Armenians in Turkey. In order to stop foreign agents from curtailing our influence in the East, we need the help of the Armenian Church and that of the patriarch Catholicos of the entire nation of Haik. The situation thus warrants that the new Catholicos be someone from among the religious hierarchy of Turkey, someone who through his influence would divert the Turkish Armenians towards Etchmiadzin…..we have to be fully prepared for the upcoming election by communicating with Turkish Armenians, especially those in Constantinople, to keep foreign agents of Western powers out of the process.” (12)

A year later, on the 15th of July, 1858, Prince Bariatinski was informed by his superiors that the patriarch of Constantinople, Matt’eos was elected to Supreme Catholicos of all Armenians. Demands were being forwarded to the Ottoman authorities that Matt’eos was to be released from his oaths of loyalty to the Ottoman state for, “as the Catholicos of the Armenian Gregorian Church, he has to swear his loyalty to”  the Tsar. (13) Once installed in his new position in Etchmiadzin, Matt’eos took his new role very seriously. By the end of June, 1859, he was proposing solutions to the problem of western missionary encroachment in the east….”One of the most effective solutions to this problem would be the establishment by His majesty’s government of Russian consulates in various cities of Turkey, and especially in Mush, Van, Diarbekir, Baghdad, Iznik, Smyrna, and Bursa. If not consulates, then at least agencies, so that merchants who are Russian subjects can seek their protection. These representatives should be secretly instructed to divert the local Armenians from the French and English consuls, who through their religious affiliations are harming Russian interests…” (14)    Clearly investments of this nature, coupled with intensely competing national and religious interests and deeply ingrained prejudice would never allow for a balanced reporting of events. Yet it is this thinking that is perpetuated into yet another century by films like Ararat and the typically representative idea, to be found on a current UK based and moderate mainstream Armenian website, that Van is only “currently in Turkey.”  Attitudes such as this can not form a sound basis for any sensible discussion or rational analysis of history to suggest otherwise is profoundly dishonest.





1)      Nalbandian, Louise. “The Armenian Revolutionary Movement” University of California Press, Berkley & Los Angeles, 1963. pp 38-39

2)       “Ararat” Serendipity Point Films/ Ego Film Arts. 2002

3)       Ussher, Clarence D. “An American Physician in Turkey” Taderon Press, Reading, England (Sterndale Classics) p.112 ………Curiously, identical sentiments were expressed by Ambassador Morgenthau in his book “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story” but he used the word “Yunker” rather than “Prussian” as used by Ussher.

4)      Ibid. p117

5)      De Nogales, Rafael. “Four Years Beneath the Crescent” Charles Schribner’s Sons, London, 1926. p45

6)      Ussher, pp147-155.

7)       Ibid, p 157

8)       Ibid, p 178

9)       Knapp, Grace H. “The Tragedy of Bitlis” Taderon Press, Reading, England- Sterndale Classics, 2002 (originally published 1919)  p. 105

10)  Horton, George “The Blight of Asia” Taderon Press, Reading, England Sterndale Classics 2003 (originally published 1926). p, 155

11)  Bournoutian, George A. “Russia and the Armenians of Transcaucasia, 1787-1889; A Documentary Record. Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, California, USA. P. 373

12)   Ibid. pp. 413-114.

13)  Ibid. pp417-418.

14)  Ibid. p. 419


A Newspaper Article Featuring Excerpt by Ussher

The Dallas Morning News, April 5, 1918


If any doubt is still lingering as to Germany’s part in the massacres of the Armenians by the Turks, a reading of a book called “An American Physician in Turkey” will effectually dispel such doubt. The author, a Dr. Clarence Ussher of Auburndale, Mass, was a medical missionary who was caught in Turkey at the outbreak of the war. What he has to say, then, is not based on hearsay, but on the actual evidence of his own eyes and ears. Here is an extract from the book:

That the deportations (of the Armenians) were planned by the Prussian Government cannot be doubted by anyone who has had first hand knowledge concerning them. If Germany was to rule Turkey in the end, she would avoid trouble with the progressive nationalistic Armenians by scattering them among the Turks. She followed the policy she had followed in France in the early days of the war and which she has since followed in Belgium - any territory occupied by her must be rid of its original inhabitants, or they must be so scattered as to form no longer a homogenous population.

Germany was so largely responsible for the massacres and atrocities that accompanied the deportations. At Surp Garabed Monastery, near Mush, a German officer was in command of the artillery which overcame the Armenians who were defending their women and children. When they were disarmed and huddled into the courtyard of the monastery this officer mounted the wall and harangued them upbraiding them for their lack of loyalty to Turkey and her allies; then, by firing a pistol, he gave the signal to the Turks to slaughter the three thousand men, women and children gathered there.

A Turkish officer once protested to me against the phrase, “The unspeakable Turk.” “The Christians are more cruel than the Turks” said he: “the German Government is a Christian Government, is it not?”

“No” I replied, “there is no Christian Government in the world, there are Christians in all Governments, but no Christian Government.”

He insisted that the Germans were Christians, but that the orders given by German officers surpassed in barbarity anything even thought of by the Turk. The general order given to Turkish officers by their Prussian superiors, he said was “Spare nothing to injure and horrify your enemy.” And the detailed instructions were such as to fill even a Turk with loathing.

By orders of the German Ambassador in Constantinople, German missionaries were instructed to turn the Armenian orphans under their care out into the streets. The head of one such orphanage tried to save from this fate her Armenian teachers, who were college graduates, refined and attractive. She received this telegram from the German Consul: “I hear you have hidden some Armenian girls in your house. You have no right to do such a thing. Give them up at once.” She undertook a difficult and dangerous journey to plead personally with the Ambassador, but had to wait a week for an audience with him; and then his only reply was a gruff “Mind your own business!” She was obliged to turn those beautiful young women over to the Turkish soldiers.

Because German missionaries in Turkey have tried to save the lives of Armenian women and children, both they and the officers of their boards in Germany have been prosecuted by their own Government.

Four fine young Germans in charge of a high school in Aleppo sent to their Government a letter of protest against what was being done in the name of Germany under their very eyes and throughout Turkey. It was also sent to a religious periodical. When copied by a secular paper it was seen by the censor and the whole issue of that paper confiscated by him, with the exception of a few copies that had got out of the country. This letter and the reports of some of their missionaries so aroused German people at home that the Ambassador at Constantinople was removed and a “sympathetic refined Christian gentleman” was sent to take his place. Nevertheless, for writing this noble protest, one of these young men now languishes in a German prison; another barely escaped with his life to a neutral country, with a price put on his head.

This evidence against the Germans we have from a man who was actually at the scene of the outrages. It is, therefore, convincing. But even if we had no such first-hand evidence, we could be sure that it was Germany that directed the deportations and the massacres of the Armenians; for the “system” employed in Turkey has all the earmarks of that refined brand of kultur displayed by the German militarists in Poland, in Northern France, and in Belgium. Wherever he crawls, the serpent leaves the same slimy track.






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