Lesson 2 of 8
One 50-minute class period

We and They, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

In this lesson students will: 

  • Understand background information about the Armenian people such as the following: They are an ancient people that have lived in the area that is now Turkey for approximately 2,000 years. They are mostly Christian. They were the first people to formally adopt Christianity as their national religion, even before Rome. They have their own language and culture. Beginning in the 15th century, the Armenians were ruled by the Ottoman Empire. As subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had some rights, but did not enjoy equal rights. In the late 19th century, many Armenians began demanding greater rights.
  • Identify how religion, history, and national identity are used to create distinctions between "we" and "they."
  • Learn about the challenges minorities faced when demanding equality in a traditional society through an examination of Armenian demands for civil rights in the Ottoman Empire.
  • Paraphrase the main idea of a text.


This lesson explores the challenges facing Armenians during the second half of the 19th century as they advocated for equal rights within the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the 19th century, Armenians and other minorities struggled to obtain equal rights. At the same time, nationalism swept through the Ottoman Empire, convincing Greeks and other nationalities to demand independence. Most Armenians rejected calls for separation and instead pushed for reform of the Ottoman government. They looked for allies both inside and outside of the empire, including leaders of what would become the Young Turk movement. During this period, many European and Russian diplomats became increasingly concerned about the treatment of minority groups within the Ottoman Empire. Their arguments and efforts to protect those minorities would set important precedents for the international movement for human rights. However, in the absence of adequate protection, Armenians found themselves facing increasing discrimination and violence. In this lesson, students will consider the consequences of choices made by the Ottoman Government, the international community, and Ottoman Armenian leaders.

The lesson addresses these essential questions:

  • Who are the Armenians? What is the Ottoman Empire?
  • What rights did Armenians have in the Ottoman Empire?
  • What choices were available to Armenians as they sought equal rights in the Ottoman Empire?
  • How did the Ottoman government respond to Armenian political demands?
  • What happened when Armenians began demanding more rights?
  • How did officials in the Ottoman Empire respond?
  • What challenges do minorities face when they demand for more rights?
  • How is religion and nationality used to create distinctions of "we" and "they"?




Warm up: [Note: If this lesson follows Lesson One, you can integrate students' questions about Gorky into the flow of this lesson.]

Ask students to identify a time when they were in the minority and a time when they were in the majority. Have them write about the differences between these experiences. Students can share their responses and you can record them on the board. Later, you can compare their ideas about what it means to be in the minority and in the majority to the experiences of the Ottomans and Armenians.

Main activity:

  1. Introduce the lesson by having students locate the Ottoman Empire on a map. Have students compare this map with a Current Political Map of Turkey and Armenia. Highlight the country of Armenia on the current map. Identity for students some of the countries have been formed from former Ottoman Republics. Explain that this lesson will focus on the story of the Armenians, a minority group living in the Ottoman Empire, of which Ottoman Turks were the majority.

  2. In order to establish an historical context for this lesson, have students view a brief segment from the film The Armenian Genocide (minutes 2:35 -7:45). Before they begin watching, write guiding questions on the board such as the following:

    • Who are the Armenian people?
    • What is the Ottoman Empire? Who are the Turks?
    • What rights did Armenians have when they lived as subjects of the Ottoman Empire?
    • What happened when Armenians began demanding more rights?
    • Ask students to take notes on any ideas related to these questions.

    You could also provide students these questions on a note-taking template.

  3. At the conclusion of this segment, have each student share one key idea about the Armenians that they learned from the film. Then ask them to share one key idea they learned about the Ottoman Empire from this film. Discuss what they learned about life for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. [Prompt: How is religion, history and national identity used to create a distinction between "we" and "they"?] Option: Ask students to make identity charts for the Ottoman Empire and another for the Ottoman Armenians based on what they learned in the film. Or, you can have them do this for homework.

  4. To help students examine the challenges facing Armenians as they sought equal rights within the Ottoman Empire, break the students into five groups. In these groups they will read and discuss selected readings from Chapter Two, of Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization:

    • Reading 4: Humanity on Trial, pp. 35-37
    • Reading 5: The Sultan Responds, pp. 39-40
    • Reading 6: Seeking Civil Rights, pp. 42-43
    • Reading 7: Humanitarian Intervention, pp. 45-46
    • Reading 8: Showdown at Bank Ottoman, pp. 48-49

    As students read, ask them to highlight or underline the most important ideas in the text.

  5. Ask students to imagine that they are journalists writing for a local newspaper about the events described in their assigned primary document. Have each group come up with a headline and a lead paragraph.

  6. Each group will share their newspaper headline and paragraph. Have students take notes by recording the headlines and key ideas from the group presentations.

    Follow through:

    As a large group, discuss some of the key questions that emerge from a study of this period, such as:

    • Who is responsible for protecting minorities when they are mistreated?
    • What options did Armenians have in their quest for equal rights? What strategies did they use?
    • Why do you think they weren't successful in bringing about meaningful change?
    • Often efforts to draw attention to the plight of Armenians reinforced cultural stereotypes about Muslims. Is it possible to call attention to injustice without further reinforcing attitudes of "we" and "they"? How can advocates for victims distinguish between the perpetrators, their supporters, and cultural attitudes about the victims, without depicting the conflict as a clash between civilizations?
    • At the end of the video, we learned that the Young Turks, a new political group, had removed (ousted) the Sultan. Why you think many Armenians joined Turks and other minorities in celebrating the Sultan's removal? What challenges remained in their quest for equal treatment in the Ottoman Empire?
    • During the late 19th century, many countries thought that the best protection for minority groups was to gain their independence. What do you think? Should all minority groups live within their own nation? Why do you think most Armenians rejected that strategy? Would you have advised the Armenians to push for their own country rather than try to change the policies of the Ottoman government?


Students can write an editorial for the newspaper the class just created. First, students should choose a perspective from one of the readings (i.e. Armenian farmer, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Ottoman soldiers, U.S. Senator Wilkinson Call, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Christian missionaries, Armen Garo, European ambassadors, etc.). Drawing from the information they learned during this lessons, students should consider what argument someone would make from this perspective.


Lesson 1 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Identity and Belonging

Students are introduced to the Armenian Genocide and the concept of identity through the artwork of Arshile Gorsky, an Armenian American artist and refugee.

Lesson 2 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

We and They, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

Students learn about the Armenian people and the challenges they faced as they advocate for certain rights within the Ottoman Empire.

Lesson 3 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Analyzing Historical Evidence

Students explore the ways in which historical evidence has been used to construct a narrative of the Armenian Genocide

Lesson 4 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

The Range of Choices

By studying the dilemmas facing individuals, groups, and nations in response to genocide, students deepen their understanding of the range of choices made during the Armenian Genocide.

Lesson 5 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

American Responses to the Armenian Genocide

Students study two US responses, one diplomatic and one humanitarian, to the human rights violations that occurred during the Armenian Genocide.

Lesson 6 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

What is Justice after Genocide?

While learning about the post-war trials that occurred in Turkey, students study the challenges of seeking justice in the aftermath of genocide.

Lesson 7 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Nation Building

Through a debating activity, students contemplate the United States' participation in nation building abroad. They will focus on the case study of Armenia after World War I.

Lesson 8 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Denial and Free Speech

Students examine why and how some government officials have refused to acknowledge the crimes against the Armenians as acts of genocide.

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