Historians have not studied the 1909 sack of Kessab. However American missionaries, among them Ms. Effie M. Chambers, who acted as the secretary of the post sacking relief committee wrote extensively about the catastrophic event in her correspondence with the board of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) on whose behalf she devoted 19 years of her life doing mission work among the Armenians in the Ottomoan Empire, the last eight years being in Kessab. Stephen Van Rensselaer Trowbridge, who appears to have been in the region on behalf of a charitable organization, also wrote a detailed report on the sacking in “The American Red Cross Bulletin (1909)”, pages 29-39:. Major American newspapers also reported on the sacking of Kessab as well. The following can be ascertained from such reports.  Vahe H. Apelian

When did the attack on Kessab occur?

The attack on Kessab happened on the wee hours of Friday April 23, 1909. Miss Effie Chambers was not present in Kessab during the attack. She had gone to Adana to attend an annual meeting, presumably the same meeting Armenian Evangelical pastors were heading to when they were ambushed and killed. In her report, she mistakenly notes of “that awful Tuesday, April 23rd (1909)”. April 23, 1909 is in fact a Friday.

Where the Kessabtsis caught by surprise?

No, the Kessabtsis were not caught by surprise. The news of the Adana tragedy had reached them and they had raised their concerns for their safety to the local authorities who naturally were Turks.

Stephen Van Rensselaer Trowbridge reported the following: “On Thursday, April 22, serious alarm reached the people of Kessab. It was known that a massacre of the Armenians had taken place in Antioch, 36 miles to the north and that attacks were being planned on the Christian villages of the mountains. A parley was arranged with the Mudir (magistrate) of the Ordou, the nearest seat of government and a telegram asking for military protection was dispatched to the Governor of Aleppo. The Mudir, whose name is Hassein Hassan Agha, met the Kessab delegation halfway down the mountainside and assured them that he had already scattered the mobs that had gathered with evil intention.”

What happened on Thursday April 22,1909?

Stephen V. R. Trowbridge continued his reporting about the pledge of the Magistrate Hassein Hessan Agha and noted the following; “But his pledges soon proved to be idle tales, because that very Thursday evening he permitted  crowds of armed Moslems to come to Ordou from Jissr Shoughr, Kusayr, Antioch, and even from Idlib far to the east.” Moreover, the Mudir “detained the eleven gendarmes which were ordered by the Aleppo government to protect American and Italian interests in Kessab The Mudir instructed the gendarmes that they should remain in Ordou”.

How did the attack on Kessab commence?

Stephen V. R. Trowbridge reported that the next day, on Friday, “Early the morning, after entertaining the raiders overnight, he (the Mudir) sent them on their way to sack Kessab.” His report ascertains that the sacking of Kessab was sanctioned by the Ottoman state.Surely the maginstrate could not have given such a permission without overt approval by his superiors in Constantinople, especially that the news of the Adana massacre had by then become widely known.

The Kessabtsis meanwhile also had not remained idle relying solely on the promise the Mudir had made to them during their parley..

Stephen V. R. Trowbridge reported; “Thursday evening Kessab scouts brought word into the town that great crowds of armed Turks and Arabs had gathered in the nearest Moslem village.

It was an anxious night.

Before daylight, Friday morning, rifle shots told of the enemy’s advance. By three separate mountain trails, from the north, northeast and east, thousands of armed Moslems came pouring on the valley. Their Martini rifles sent the bullets whizzing into the Kessab house, while the shotguns of the 300 Christians who were posted on the fence could not cover the range”.

How did Kessabtsis manage to brave the attack with relatively little loss of lives?

The members and adherents of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation of Kessab were the Kessabtsi combatants who defended Kessab against the onslaught.

Stephen V. R. Trowbridge reported: “ It was a desperate struggle, and the Kessab men realized their straits. The plan, which they thereupon made is to their honor and credit. They resolved to hold out as many hours as possible, so as to furnish time for the women and children to escape into the clefts and caves of the mountains to the south. For five hours the fusillade continued with fierce determination. By mid afternoon Turks from the Antioch village had circled around Jebel Akra (mount Gassios of Kessab) so to command a position above Kessab. The Arabs had flanked the town on the southeast. Meanwhile the vanguard of the Ordou Moslems had captured and burned the adjacent villages just below Kessab, and had set fire to three of the houses at that end of the town. Their cries and frantic threats could be heard distinctly. The women and girls gathered up the little children on their backs and in their arms, hastened along the west trail over the ridge toward Kaladouran, and clambered up into the cliffs and crevices which overlook the sea at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Some in small groups, others entirely alone, hid themselves underneath the thorny underbrush or in the natural caves. Toward the evening the men had been compelled by the overwhelming odds to give up the defense. They fell back without any panic or noise. And the Turks and Arabs who rushed into the streets of the town were so seized with the lust of plunder that they did not pursue the rear guard of the Christians. Angry must have the scenes as the plunderers fought with one another over the stores of raw silk, the chief product of Kessab. Cattle, mules, copper, kettles, bedding, clothing, and rugs were carried out by the Turks in feverish hast, as one after another the houses were set on fire.”

Miss Effie Chambers is more specific in reporting that the Kessabtsis mostly fleed towards Kaladouran, their coastal village.

In 1912, three years after the sack of Kessab, the battle hardened Kessab Armenian Revolutionary Federation had their gratitude embroidered in blue thread and gifted it as a memento to their beloved missionary , Miss Effie M. Chambers noting in Armenian the following: “From grateful Armenian Revolutionary Federation of Kessab”(ԵՐԱԽՏԱՊԱՐՏ ՔԵՍԱՊԻ Հ.Յ. ԴԱՇՆԱԿՑՈՒԹԻՒՆԷՆ). The embroidery in blue thread read also the follwing in English “ TO E.M. CHAMBERS, IN ABIDING GRATITUDE. WE WILL NEVER FORGET”. The Chambers family still retains this embroidery in Iowa.

How many Kessabtsis died in the carnage?

Stephen V. R. Trowbridge reports that “Some of the aged (Kessabtsi) Armenians, who had not the strength to flee, were caught in their houses and were barbarously put to death. Others, who had delayed the flight in order to gather up and rescue a few valuable, were likewise put to the sword. Axes and knives finished up what rifles had spared. But the instinct to escape had been so strong among the Christians, and the greed of plunder so absorbing among the Mohammedans, that in all the day’s fray only 153 Armenians and a handful of Turks were killed”.

Subsequent reports by Miss Effie M. Chambers who acted as the secretary of the post sack Kessab relief committee, details the human cost as follows:

Villages receiving aid 11
Number at present on relief lists 5251
Burned Houses 516
Burned Shops 62
Number killed 153
Widows 79
Orphans not over 15 years old 64

How were the fleeing Kessabtsis rescued?

Hiding in cliffs, crevices, underbrush on the surrounding mountain would have amounted to eventual death either by exposure to the elements or hunger for the more that 6000 Kessabtsis who had fled the scene of sacking and carnage with nothing other han the clothes they were wearing. Their rescue came about thanks to the determined leaders of Kessab  who were able to secure help  the very next day, on April 24, and had the people move to Latakia where they were provided shelter and sustenance..

The efforts of these Kessab leaders to save the people are for historians to study and will make for a fascinating study. Suffice to say here that the representatives of Kessabtsi leaders managed to reach Latakia, after negotiating  with the local Turkic people their passage and even securing their help to help them reach Latakia next day, some 35 miles south of Kessab where they contacted the consular offices of the European powers who provided boats and other means and had the fleeing Kessabtis transported to Latakia.

By April 26, major American newspapers, such as New York Times, along other major newspapers reported the catastrophic event. The New York Times on Monday April 26, 1909 reported the following: “Constantinople, April 25 – Dispatches reaching here from points in Asiatic Turkey bring tidings of Armenian and Turkish conflicts all over the country. Dr.JM Balph, who is in charge of the missions at Latakia, Syria, telegraphs that the refugees are arriving there from outlying parts of the district who report massacres and the burning of towns. He also reports that there are the gravest apprehensions concerning the conditions at Kessab where Miss Chambers is one of the missionaries”.
Dr. Albert Apelian in his book “The Antiochians” describes the rescue operation. He also attributes it to the serendipitous turn of events in Constantinople that facilitated the French and the British to send ship for the rescue on the Kessabtsi Armenians.  He wrote (page 114): “word came from the capital (Constantinople) that Abdul Hamid had been dethroned and Sultan Reshad had ascended the throne (April 27, 1909). The new ruler has proclaimed that none of his subjects should be molested”.

The Aftermath of the 1909 Sack of  Kessab

  A few days after the sacking and destruction of Kessab, the suriving refugees returned in mass. They attended an open air service in memory of their brethren who were killed during the mayhem. Subsequently they embarked to rebuild their lives anew. Under pressure from the foreign powers, the Ottoman authorities promised to punish the “unruly” perpetrators of the sacking. Some of the loot was returned. The Ottoman authorities, in their conning ways to placate Western powers, also allocated money towards the reconstruction. The American charitable organizations  extended much needed help.

Their next year – 1910 – proved to be that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. In the words of Charles Dickens’ in the “Tales of Two Cities”,  theirs also “ was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” because the Kessabtsis not only engaged with an inspiring single-mindedness in rebuilding their lives anew, they also founded the Kessab Education Association with the purpose of rendering Kessab a center for learning and enlightenment in the region for the remnants of the Cilician Armenians.

Of course they could not realize their dreams. The 1915 Genocide befell upon the Armenians  altering forever the course of the Armenian history. But surviving Kessabtsis toiled along and almost a century later, made Kessab a touristic destination for peoples of all faiths to enjoy its hospitality matched only by its superb weather and nature that had the crusaders call the region  “Casa Bella”, the beautiful home, after which Kessab is thought to have evolved.

Unfortunately, that also was not to last, an onslaught by another marauding and armed crowd attacked Kessab on March 21, 2014. Kessabtis for a third time hurried to their safety with nothing but their clothes on charting yet a new course in its long but determined history to overcome the odds stocked against it.

  1. H. Apelian