Matthew Ghazarian

Area and Cultural StudiesColumbia University

Award Information

2016 IDRF Program

Area and Cultural StudiesColumbia University

Famine in a Time of Uncertainty: Food Aid and Sectarianism in Turkey, 1856-1893

What historical conditions drive, and in some cases sustain, a culture of sectarianism? My dissertation addresses this question during the period 1856-93 in the Ottoman provinces of Anatolia, by studying the relationship between famine and sectarianism. Other historians have described sectarian divides developing out of Ottoman state, European colonial, and Protestant missionary activities in the region. My project acknowledges and builds on the discursive and intellectual explanations these accounts offer, but I assert that in order to understand how new conceptions of religious difference circulated and came into practice, we must account for the local material conditions in which they spread. To address this issue, I study the ways that these new discourses on religious difference were put into practice through famine aid distribution during two famines that struck Anatolia between 1873 and 1883. These disasters killed as many as 250,000 people and provoked one of the largest foreign aid efforts in the Middle East. Sources from my preliminary archival research also indicate that in many areas, aid allocations depended on whether recipients were Muslim or Christian. Thus, in 1880, in the border town of Beyazit near Russia, Armenians complained that officials were withholding aid from Christians. During the same year, in the eastern city of Van, it was Muslim Kurds who could not obtain aid; of the 10,000 reported deaths there, 98% were Kurdish. This dissertation argues that unequal aid allocations led to the uneven distribution of lasting economic and emotional hardships, spreading collective trauma – or even collective vengeance – along communal lines in ways that crystallized the boundaries between religious communities and set the stage for later sectarian violence.