Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181
After twenty-three years spent in Paris, Gabriel Bagradian returns with his wife and child to his ancestral village of Yoghonoluk. He goes back to Turkey to settle the affairs of his dying brother, and after his brother’s death, he stays on in the village to await the end of European hostilities.
One Sunday, his son’s tutor tells him that officials came through the village collecting all passports. To learn what happened, Bagradian saddles a horse and starts for Antioch. There the kaimakam, or governor, gives only evasive answers about the passport incident. In a Turkish bath, Bagradian hears that the Turkish war minister ordered all Armenians disarmed and given menial work. From his Muslim friend Agha Rifaat Bereket, Bagradian learns that rich and prominent Armenians will soon be persecuted.
Bagradian is worried. On his return to Yoghonoluk, he begins to collect data on the number of men of fighting age in the vicinity. Ter Haigasun, the Gregorian priest, tells him one day that there was a mass arrest in Antioch. Bagradian begins a survey of Musa Dagh, a mountain that lies between the Armenian villages and the Mediterranean Sea. After having maps drawn of the terrain, Bagradian knows that the plateau with its natural fortifications offer a refuge for his people.
One day, a friendly Turkish policeman confides to Bagradian that in three days the village will be ordered to prepare for its trip into exile. Bagradian calls a meeting of the people. The Protestant pastor, Nokhudian, and his congregation vote to accept banishment, the rest of the population to defend Musa Dagh. Ter Haigasun is elected leader. The next morning, the young men under Bagradian’s direction begin the construction of trenches and other defenses on Musa Dagh, and at night the people carry provisions up the mountain. Unfortunately there are not enough rifles to go around and very little ammunition, but the men of the village are augmented by army deserters who drift in from the desert. Eventually, there are sixty armed men in the community. On the third day, the convoy escort arrives. The village pretends to busy itself with preparations for the trip, but that night everyone but Pastor Nokhudian’s flock secretly departs for Musa Dagh.
It takes five days for the Turks to discover Bagradian’s mountain retreat, for the woods are so thick and the trenches dug so cleverly that the encampment is not visible from below. During that time the trenches are completed, posts assigned, and patterns for daily living established. Everyone is given a task, and the food of the community is held in common so that all might be treated fairly.
The first sortie ends in a victory for the holders of Musa Dagh. The four hundred regulars and gendarmes who attack without even seeking cover are quickly routed, and substantial booty of badly needed ammunition, boots, and uniforms is recovered. The second attack comes several days later. Turkish howitzers manage to do considerable damage, wounding six noncombatants in the town enclosure and setting the grain depot on fire. Sarkis Kilikian, commander of the south bastion, rigs up a catapult to hurl stones at the attackers. These cause a landslide, which kills or maims half the Turkish force. Young Stephan Bagradian and his friend Haik raid the Turkish gun emplacements. Sixteen of the defenders are killed.
Three days later, there are again signs of activity in the valley. The kaimakam imports families of Arabs to take over the Armenian houses and farms. On Musa Dagh, a Greek American adventurer, Gonzague Maris, who fled with the Armenians and who has since seduced Juliette Bagradian, tries to persuade her to flee with him under the protection his passport affords. She is undecided. She and her husband, Gabriel Bagradian, have grown apart in those troubled times; he is burdened with military duties, and she seems indifferent to his fate. Bagradian finds his only companionship in Iskuhi, with a refugee from Zeitun.
The next attack is carried out by two thousand trained Turkish soldiers. In fierce fighting, they capture the first line of trenches below the southern bastion. That night Bagradian orders his troops to counterattack, and the trenches are retaken. The defenders also set a fire that races down the mountain, driving the Turks into the valley. Musa Dagh is saved again.
Gonzague Maris begs Juliette several times to go away with him, but she does not have the courage to tell her husband that she is leaving him. Then Bagradian discovers the lovers together and takes his wife, half unconscious with a fever, back to her tent. Gonzague Maris disappears.
That same night, Stephan leaves Musa Dagh without permission to accompany his friend Haik, who is being sent to the American consul in Aleppo to ask for intervention on behalf of his people. Haik makes his way safely to Aleppo, but Stephan develops a fever and starts back to the mountain. On the way, the Turks capture and kill him. His body is thrown into the cemetery yard in Yoghonoluk where it is found by some old women who take it to his father. The last of the Bagradians is buried on Musa Dagh.
The next day, flocks grazing beyond the fortifications are captured by the Turks. There is now only enough food to last three or four more days. On the fortieth day on Musa Dagh, the people are suffering. It is their third day of famine. Gabriel plans one last desperate attack for that night, an attempt to reach the valley with his men, capture some high officials as hostages, and return to the mountain. That afternoon, however, as Ter Haigasun holds a service to petition God for help, Sarkis Kilikian and his deserters break into the town enclosure to steal ammunition and food. As they flee, they set fire to the buildings to cover their escape. The Turks take advantage of their desertion to capture the south bastion. Kilikian is brought back by deserters who feel it would be better to die with their own people than to be captured by the Turks. He is put to death.
As the Turks prepare to advance at dawn, a French cruiser drops its first shell into the valley. Its commander saw the fire in the town enclosure the day before. Approaching to investigate, he sees the enormous flag the Armenians are using as a distress signal. The Turks retreat into the valley. Bagradian leads the weary defenders to the coast and sees them safely aboard a cruiser and a troopship. Then he starts back up the mountain for a last view of his son’s grave. Exhausted by his ordeal, he falls asleep halfway up the mountainside. When he awakens, the ships are already standing out at sea. He starts to signal them but changes his mind. He feels that his life is now complete. Up he climbs until he reaches his son’s grave. There a bullet from a Turkish scout catches him in the temple. He falls on his son’s grave, Stephan’s cross on his heart.