The Armenian Massacres in 1894-1896 were the first near-genocidal series of atrocities committed against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. They were carried out during the reign of Abdul Hamid (Abdulhamit) II (1876-1909), the last sultan effectively to rule over the Turkish state. The massacres broke out in the summer of 1894 in the remote region of Sasun in southern Armenia, where the government relied on the excuse of Armenian resistance to Kurdish encroachment into the last recesses of the mountains to order the sacking of the alpine hamlets. The incident resulted in strong Armenian protests against the sultan's brutal policies and European interventions to quell further disturbances by persuading the Ottoman government to adopt reforms for the Armenian-populated provinces. The police responded to a demonstration held in Constantinople in September 1895 by Armenian political organizations which sought to pressure the government and the European Powers to implement the promised administrative reforms by letting loose a massacre in the capital city. Thereupon, beginning without provocation in the city of Trebizond on the Black Sea, and in a pattern indicating a premeditated plan, a series of massacres spread south through nearly every major Armenian-inhabited town of the empire. It culminated in the single worst atrocity in those months with the burning of the Armenian cathedral of Urfa (ancient Edessa) within whose walls some 3,000 Armenians had taken refuge during the siege of their neighborhood. To a last desperate attempt by Armenian revolutionaries to draw the attention of the world by seizing in Constantinople the European-owned Ottoman Bank in August 1896, the government responded by unleashing wholesale reprisals during which five to six thousand Armenians were killed in the space of three days within sight of the European embassies.
The massacres marked a new threshold of violence in the Ottoman Empire, especially because they occurred in peacetime with none of the exigencies of war invoked as justification for summary action. Their ferocity reflected the sultan's determination to dissuade the Armenians from entertaining any notions of seeing reforms introduced under Western pressure. They were also designed to strike a severe blow to Armenian efforts to organize politically by undermining their expectations and the sense of self-reliance they hoped to develop in order to cope with the aggravated disorder and misrule in the eastern provinces of the empire. Estimates of the dead run from 100,000 to 300,000. Tens of thousands fled the country. Thousands of others were forcibly converted to Islam. The associated plunder of homes and businesses economically ruined countless families, and the destitute counted in the hundreds of thousands. The conflicting interests of the European states, the steady support of the sultan by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the reactionary policies of Tsar Alexander III in Russia, all adduced to neutralize the capacity of the Great Powers to hold in check the brutal autocracy of Abdul Hamid. Labeled infidels by their Turkish overlords and Muslim neighbors, the Armenians remained second class citizens expressly denied equal protection of the law. The impunity with which the entire episode of systematic massacres were carried out exposed the serious vulnerability of the Armenian population as the Ottoman Empire went into further decline. It also revealed the absence of resolve among the Western states for any kind of humanitarian intervention sufficient to remedy the problems described at the time as the Armenian Question.
Recalled by the Armenians as the "Great Massacres" and described in the literature of the time as the "Armenian Massacres," the atrocities of the 1890s are now often called the Hamidian Massacres to distinguish them from the greater atrocities associated with the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The Hamidian Massacres verified the capacity of the Turkish state to carry out a systematic policy of murder and plunder against a minority population and to provide immunity to all parties associated with the crimes in the face of international protest. In retrospect, it had set a precedent all of whose elements, short of organized deportation, would be reproduced during the Armenian Genocide.
—Rouben Paul Adalian