The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

I recently read the great novel Forty days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. It contains the dramatic story of the five thousand Armenians living in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean who in 1915 fled up the mountain Musa Dagh («Moses» rock») to avoid deportation and probable death at the hands of the Ottoman authorities. The Sublime Porte (government) in Istanbul was then proceeding with what has later been called the Armenian genocide. Recognition of what happened as a genocide remains politically controversial in many countries today. So is the academic discussion over the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of the Armenians. 
The map shows the ethnic composition of the Ottoman Empire about 1911. As can be seen, most Armenians lived in the east. Musa Dagh is located on the northern side of the bay that the eastern tip of Cyprus points towards.

(This is an English rendering of an earlier post published in Norwegian.)

The story

The «forty days» of Musa Dagh is the time it took from the seven Armenian villages fled their homes until those who survived were saved. The central figure in the novel is the aristocratic academic Gabriel Bagradian. In early 1915, after many years in Paris, he returns to the family estate at the foot of Musa Dagh together with his son Stephan and his French wife, Juliette. Bagradian understands that the Ottoman government is planning new massacres of Armenians (massacres also took place in 1895-96, 1908, 1909 and 1912) and persuades the seven villages closest to his estate to flee. Thanks to his leadership and experience as an officer in the Ottoman army, the Musa Dagh Armenians manage to withstand three Turkish attacks.

The attackers sustain heavy losses, but eventually mobilise machine guns, mountain artillery and troops to the extent that the Armenians are clearly doomed. They are also starved after all supplies have been exhausted and the Turish soldiers have made away with their cattle. But at the last minute a French naval cruiser emerges on the horizon. After a few warning shots, the Turks withdraw from the attack. The approximately four thousand survivors are taken aboard the cruiser and three other French and British ships. They are then brought to safety in Port Said in Egypt.


The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which first came out in German in 1933, is based on a true story. Gabriel Bagradian’s real name was Moses Derkalousdian. In real life it took 53 days before the rescue came, but the Jewish-Austrian Franz Werfel changed that in order to recall the biblical Moses» forty days on the mountain and the forty days of deluge. Werfel’s description of the five thousand’s destiny and the Armenian genocide proved to be a prophetic warning of the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War.

But even if Werfel clearly sympathises with the Musa Dagh refugees, the novel is not a completely one-sided story. There are many psychological, political and religious nuances. The refined intellectual Gabriel Bagradian is torn between his twin identity as a European and an Armenian. He shows himself to be a man of action by taking command of his countrymen against an outside threat, but succeeds militarily because of his European rationality and planning ability (in addition to his experience from the Balkan war in 1912).

His ambiguous identity also influences his increasing alienation from his socialite, impractical French wife and ditto infatuation with the young Armenian girl Iskuhi. All three have their lives destroyed by the forty dramatic days on Musa Dagh, despite the eventual rescue. Bagradian’s son Stephan has by then succumbed. We understand that his French upbringing had made it impossible for him to survive the brutal stresses of Asian «barbarism.» In the end, Gabriel realizes he has lost everything and decides not to be rescued.

So it is finally Europe (in the shape of French and British warships) that saves the seven Armenian villages of Musa Dagh, in what was perhaps the first humanitarian intervention in world history. The story also features a representative of European «civil society», the Protestant pastor, Orientalists and humanist Johannes Lepsius (a historical figure), who appears to be the only European who really cares about the Armenians» fate. His attempt to convince the German Foreign Ministry to take action founders on great power politics, but Lepsius manages to collect large sums of funds for the Armenians. He is also rejected by the Sublime Porte, but gets help from a group of Islamic traditionalists. They condemn the regime’s Young Turkish nationalism in favour of the idea of ​​a supranational Islamic umma in which Christians and Jews can practice their religion as long as they pay taxes and otherwise adapt, just as they had in the old Ottoman Empire.

Aftermath and interpretations

Turkish authorities have stubbornly refused to accept that there was  an Armenian «genocide» in 1915-1916. Several times, they prevented Hollywood from making a movie about Werfel’s book, which had become an international bestseller.

The American historian Donald Quataert argues that only Armenians in eastern Anatolia were displaced. Armenians living in the Balkans or in western Anatolia were not. The reason may have been that the Sublime Porte thought Armenians sympathized with Russia, which crossed the border into eastern Anatolia in 1914.

Quataert also refers to numerous government documents ordering local authorities to take good care of the displaced Armenians during their eastward march. Yet he admits that Ottoman officers, troops and officials murdered a great number of Armenian civilians, including women, children and elderly people.  Approximately 600,000 individuals perished in this way, according to Quataert.

Quataert therefore rejects Turkish nationalism as the reason for the massacres. Nor does he believe that nationalism caused the Ottoman Empire’s demise in 1922. The vast majority of citizens, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, etc. as well as both Christians and Muslims, would in his opinion have preferred the old multi-national and multi-religious empire to survive.

According to Quataert, nationalist movements were mobilised by a small number of people who sought political and economic advantages they could not achieve in the setting of the traditional Ottoman Empire. Crucially, they gained support from the western powers. France and Great Britain indeed eventually took control of large, formerly Ottoman areas, especially in the Middle East. If this is right, it gives a slightly different perspective on Europe’s role during the Ottoman end game than the one Franz Werfel provides.

Quatert appears to be an impartial and respected historian. In 2006, he resigned as chairman of the American Institute of Turkish Studies after the Turkish ambassador had threatened to stop financial support because Quataert had called for continued study of the Armenian «genocide».

The revisionist Israeli historian Efraim Karsh however deplores the «politically correct» notion that every problem in the Middle East is the fault of the Western powers. He claims that the Sublime Porte’s decrees to take good care of the Armenians during the 1915-16 deportations were window-dressing. According to Karsh, many Armenians in the Balkans (Thrace) and Western Anatolia, including Istanbul, were also displaced and killed. All those who held public office or worked for the government also lost their positions. Karsh cites estimates of up to 950,000 fatalities.

Karsh moreover argues that the Ottoman government itself was responsible for the dissolution of the empire in 1922. Despite insistent requests for neutrality from the entente powers Britain, France and Russia, the Sublime Porte decided to enter the First World War on the German side. According to Karsh, the driving force was a Turkish nationalist-Islamist dream of a revitalized empire. Therefore, the British army crushed the Ottoman Empire and a new state system appeared in the Middle East.

Franz Werfel: Forty days of Musa Dagh. Norwegian edition, 1965
Donald Quataert: The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Efraim Karsh: Islamic Imperialism, A History. Yale University Press, 2006.


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