Who was Ali Paşa?
Ali Pasha translates as “General Ali” – akin to saying ‘General John’. Wikipedia says “Ali Pasha [Ali Paşa] was the name of numerous Ottoman pashas named Ali. [it then lists 23 different Ali Paşa’s, spanning 550 years of Ottoman history.] It is most commonly used to refer to Ali Pasha of Ioannina.” Indeed, Ali Paşa of Ioannina is the most famous and notorious of the Ali Paşa’s. Recreational folk dancers have a dance, taught by Bora Özkök, called Ali Pasha, accompanied by a song we call Ali Paşa (though Turks call it by the first line of the song – Arpa Ektim Biçemedim). It has been commonly assumed among recreational folk dancers that the Ali Paşa referred to in the song was the Ali Paşa (1744-1822) of Ioannina, in what was then Ottoman Albania (now Greece).
However there’s a line in the song that has always puzzled me. In Turkish it reads “Ali Paşayı vurdular, harab oldu Van’ın nurdu (mülkü?)” I have several translations of that line. Ron Houston’s 1987 Folk Dance Problem Solver translates it (using for the last word nurdu, not mülkü) as “General Ali has been hit, the wonder of Van is gone.” Van is a town in far east Anatolia, (a Turkish euphemism for the region and city formerly occupied by Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds – now majority Kurdish, as well as the relatively late-arriving Turks).
A little reading into the life of Ali Paşa of Ioannina indicates that he likely was never in Van, and he most certainly wasn’t shot there. I started looking for Turkish YouTubes of the song Arpa Ektim Biçemedim (Ali Paşa), and easily found some, which tells me it’s a popular folk song with meaning for today’s Turks. All of the lyrics associated with these Turkish YouTubes, including the one by the Modern Folk Trio (above) use the line Ali Paşayı vurdular, harab oldu Van’ın mülkü (not nurdu), which translates as “They shot Ali Pasha. Van’s buildings were ruined.“
After much digging around, I came upon this Turkish site: https://ermeniasala.blogspot.com/2014/11/ermeni-komitacilarinin-katlettigi-van.html. I only have a Google translation, which is very rough, but gives me the general idea. In 1896 Armenians in the area revolted against Ottoman rule (enforced by Kurdish chieftans). The Armenians were divided among themselves between those who wanted to keep the oppressive status quo (don’t make waves) and revolutionaries who felt their only hope for independence lay with armed struggle (backed by Russian guns) that would draw Western press attention to Turkish atrocities, which would create Western government pressure on the fragile Ottoman government to hive off an Armenian state.
The 1896 revolt failed, due to lack of outside support, so the rebels went undergound to regroup, while continuing guerilla tactics throughout Eastern Anatolia. Turkish response was scattered, inefficient, and often brutal, though not as brutal as the Kurds. The Turks sometimes had to keep Kurds from even more severe slaughter, in order not to arouse the Western press. Some Turks began to conclude the only long-term solution to the Armenian situation was elimination of the irritant.
By 1906, the situation in the city of Van was a powder keg waiting to explode. In 1907 the Ottoman administration appointed a general, Ali Riza Pasha (of which little is known, other than he was NOT one of the 23 Ali Pasha’s mentioned in Wikipedia) to become Governor of the Van region. He was effective in putting a lid on the situation, partly by enlisting the co-operation of moderate Armenians, partly by finding funds (Armenian back taxes) to pay starving and rebellious Turkish troups, but mostly by rooting out hidden cells of Armenian rebels and uncovering caches of Russian-supplied arms.
Ali Riza Pasha‘s success was his undoing. His suppression of Armenian resistance drew condemnation from the Western press and governments, which had French and British consulates in Van. He was recalled and, knowing his life was in danger, took an indirect route home, but was assassinated in Batumi, Georgia by Armenians while boarding the boat to Istanbul. During the long journey his body began to decay, so he was disembarked and buried in Sinop, where this memorial stone was erected. Upon news of his murder, authorities in Van unleashed more destruction on Van, both its buildings and people.
To the Turks, Ali Riza Pasha is a martyr, a peacemaker, destroyed by ungrateful Armenians inflamed by foreign powers who wanted to break up the Ottoman Empire. Hence the song – a lament. Of course most Armenians would have a different opinion of him.
Ali Paşa the song.
For sheet music, see: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/music/ali-pasha-sheet-music/ For lyrics, translations, and YouTubes of performances, see: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/music/ali-pasha-or-arpa-ektim-bicemedim-english-lyrics/
Ali Paşa the dance.
According to the 1987 Folk Dance Problem Solver: “Bora Özkök, a Turk, choreographed this dance and presented it to us in 1971…A true folk dancers dance Ali Pasha has figures also found in Serbian, Mexican, Greek, and Israeli folk dances.”