Musa Dagh (Musa Ler in Armenian) was the site of the famed resistance during the Armenian Genocide. Of the hundreds of villages, towns, and cities across the Ottoman Empire whose Armenian population was ordered removed to the Syrian desert, Musa Dagh was one of only four sites where Armenians organized a defense of their community against the deportation edicts issued by the Young Turk regime beginning in April 1915. By the time the Armenians of the six villages at the base of Musa Dagh were instructed to evict their homes, the inhabitants had grown suspicious of the government's ultimate intentions and chose instead to retreat up the mountain and to defy the evacuation order. Musa Dagh, or the Mountain of Moses, stood on the Mediterranean Sea south of the coastal town of Alexandretta (modern-day Iskenderun) and west of ancient Antioch.
With a few hundred rifles and the entire store of provisions from their villages, the Armenians on Musa Dagh put up a fierce resistance against a number of attempts by the regular Turkish army to flush them out. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Armenians had little expectations of surviving the siege of the mountain when food stocks were depleted after a month. Their only hope was a chance rescue by an Allied vessel that might be patrolling the Mediterranean coast. When two large banners hoisted by the Armenians were sighted by a passing French warship, swimmers went out to meet it. Eventually five Allied ships moved in to transport the entire population of men, women, and children, more than four thousand in all. The Armenians of Musa Dagh had endured for fifty three days from July 21 to September 12, 1915. They were disembarked at Port Said in Egypt and remained in Allied refugee camps until the end of World War I when they returned to their homes. As part of the district of Alexandretta, or Hatay, Musa Dagh remained under French Mandate until 1939. The Musa Dagh Armenians abandoned their villages for a second, and final, time when the area was annexed by Turkey.
In the face of the complete decimation of the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire, Musa Dagh became a symbol of the Armenian will to survive. Of the three other sites where Armenians defied the deportation orders, Shabin Karahissar, Urfa, and Van, only the Armenians of Van were rescued when the siege of their city was lifted by an advancing Russian army. The Armenians of Urfa and Shabin Karahissar were either massacred or deported. Musa Dagh stood as the sole instance where the Western Allies at war with the Ottomans averted the death of a community during the Armenian Genocide.
That story inspired the Prague-born Austrian writer, Franz Werfel, to write a novelized version of the events as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Published in 1933, the book became an instant bestseller, but with the rise of Hitler, Werfel, himself a Jew, fled Vienna that same year. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was eventually translated into eighteen languages, while Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Hollywood film company, announced plans for the production of a movie version of the novel. The Turkish ambassador's protestations to the Department of State resulted in the intervention of the United States government in the matter. In response to a veiled threat to ban American-made films from Turkey, MGM studios permanently shelved plans to produce the movie.
In Eastern Europe many Jews read Werfel's The Forty Days of Musa Dagh as a warning about their fate. During the Holocaust years, copies of the novel are reported to have been circulated as a source of inspiration and a call to arms in some of the ghettos to which the Nazis confined the Jews.
—Rouben Paul Adalian