By Raffi Bedrosyan
ISTANBUL — In 1915, an entire people was physically wiped out in a couple of years from its homeland of several thousand years, but how can you wipe out the remnants of this people, its creations, its assets, its traces, its very existence from the collective memory of the rest of the citizens within the country, or for that matter, from the collective memory of the rest of the world? This has been an immense challenge for successive governments of Turkey, a mission mostly successful for almost four generations, and yet, here and there the true lies or the hidden truths keep coming out with increasing frequency, especially in recent years. Hiding the truth and historic facts about 1915 from its own people has been the government policy since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, through indoctrination of the education system, control of the media and academia, destruction of the Armenian buildings and monuments and so on. But the facts, perhaps still secret within Turkey though widely known in the outside world, are now being revealed to the masses in Turkey, thanks to increased liberalization, the Internet and pioneering academicians and media “opinion makers” daring to speak the truth in Turkey. As a result, the citizens of Turkey, who have not been exposed to these facts for four generations, are now amazed to learn that there existed a people called Armenians who lived in Anatolia for several millennia, but who somehow all suddenly disappeared in 1915. In this article, I will try to give a few paradoxical examples of the attempts in hiding the truth, versus the ones uncovering the truths.
The second largest and most modern airport in Turkey is called the Istanbul Sabiha Gokçen International Airport, named after the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first female pilot in Turkey, a heroine who helped put down the Alevi/Kurdish rebellion in Dersim in 1936-38 by bombing the rebels from her plane. Her photos and accomplishments are prominently displayed on billboards at the airport seen by millions of passengers.
And yet, there is another side to her story: Her real name is Hatun Sebilciyan, an Armenian girl from Bursa, orphaned in 1915, adopted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, given the sky related Gokçen surname by him after completing the pilot training. Agos editor Hrant Dink became a marked man by the deep state in Turkey when he
first uncovered this truth after interviewing surviving relatives of Sebilciyan from Lebanon in 2001. This fact was deemed an insult to Turkishness by the military, the media and the government. Another recently uncovered fact is that the people being bombed in Dersim were not rebels but mostly women and children as the leaders were already hanged the previous year, a fact acknowledged and apologized for by prime minister Erdogan, mostly to score political points against the governing party at the time and the current opposition party. To add more to the irony, these women and children were mostly remnants of the 25,000 Armenians who had sought refuge and found shelter with the Dersim Alevi Kurds in 1915. It is not certain whether Sebilciyan/Gokçen knew that she was Armenian, nor if she knew that the women and children that she bombed were Armenian.
The ancient city of Ani near Kars, right on the Armenian border separated by the Akhurian River, is known as the “city with 1001 churches.” It is a former capital of the Armenian Bagratid kingdom, with continuous Armenian presence from the fifth to the 17th century. It had reached its glory days in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it became a central gateway on the Silk Route and its growing population of 100,000 even exceeded Constantinople at the time. Most of the buildings and churches are now destroyed, but the main Ani cathedral, Dikran Honents Church, the Surp Prgitch Church and the city walls are still standing, with clearly visible Armenian writings carved in stone on most walls. After years of neglect and/or target practice by the Turkish military on the remaining Ani buildings, the current Turkish government has opened up Ani to tourists and has started some preliminary restoration efforts. However, there is not a single word about Armenians in the Turkish historic descriptions and guidebooks on Ani. The standing churches and buildings are referred to as belonging to the Georgians or the Seljuks. Even the name Ani is now spelled with an “I” without the dot, meaning “memory” in Turkish, so that the Armenian Ani connection to this city will disappear. The denial policy and the paranoia linked to the 1915 facts has stretched so far that even the Armenian presence in Ani is being denied.
The museum in Kars exhibits historical artifacts collected from the region. There are wood- carved church doors, stone tombstones, carpets and dowry chests. There are descriptions explaining that the ancient ones are from the Urartus, the more recent ones from the Russians or Georgians. And yet, all these artifacts have clearly visible Armenian writings carved in the wood or stone or woven into the fabric. Again the denialist paranoia has gone to extreme limits, but it can only fool a few Turks who cannot recognize the Armenian alphabet.
The Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island near Van dates back from 921 AD, built by the Armenian King Gagik, together with a palace and other buildings on the island. Armenian priests lived there continuously until 1915. All the buildings on the island were willfully destroyed by the Turkish army from the 1920s to 1950s, and only through the intervention of renowned Kurdish author Yashar Kemal, the Holy Cross Church building was spared.
The current Turkish government decided to restore the church as a state museum in 2007. There are beautiful Armenian writings carved on all the church walls, both inside and outside the building, and yet, there is not a single word in the descriptive plaques or guidebooks indicating that this is an Armenian church. Even the name of the island is changed to Akdamar, meaning ‘white vein’ in Turkish, so that the Armenian Akhtamar connection will disappear.
Why this fear, this paranoia? How can this convince anybody in Turkey or the outside world that this is not an Armenian church?
In Istanbul, almost all prominent historic buildings dating from the 17th to 20th century such as Ottoman imperial palaces, mosques, military barracks, universities, schools or fountains were built by Armenians. Led by the renowned Balyan family, royal architects for several generations, teams of Armenian tradesmen and craftsmen were involved in all aspects of the royal construction projects, including stone masonry, tile and mosaic manufacturing and setting, plumbing, foundations, glassworks and metal works. And yet, until ten years ago, official guides in the palaces would tell tourists that Italian contractors named Balianis were involved in the construction of these buildings. Similarly, at least a quarter of the buildings in the historic Pera district along the main thoroughfare called Istiklal Caddesi, were either built by Armenian architects or owned by Armenians. Millions of Istanbul citizens and tourists live, work and play in these buildings, without realizing the historic Armenian connection. Two years ago, when a book on Armenian architects of Istanbul was published by the Hrant Dink Foundation followed by an exhibition displaying photos of the Armenian created buildings, it was like a revelation, causing uproar and amazement in the media and the general public.
The government policy of forced amnesia of the Armenian presence prior to 1915 extends beyond architects and builders. There were Armenians posted as ministers in the Ottoman government from the early 1800s until 1915, in charge of key ministries such as treasury, armaments, mint, public works, customs and post office departments, as well as tens of thousands of Armenians working in the bureaucracy, army and state hospitals. Not only their positive contributions, but their very existence have been hidden by the government and as a result, the general Turkish population has only recently started to realize the important role played by the Armenians in the Ottoman public sector. Obviously, the contributions of the Armenians in the private sector are completely and forcefully hidden, because all Armenian assets and properties such as farms, factories, mines, warehouses, businesses, orchards, buildings had been plundered and taken over by the Turkish/Kurdish leaders and the general public in 1915. In fact, the very foundation of the Turkish private and public sector economy and industry, the start-up of wealthy individuals and corporations is entirely based on the seized Armenian assets; therefore, this is an understandable aspect of the denial policy.
The positive contributions of Armenians during the Turkish republic era are also kept hidden. The introduction of the Latin alphabet and conversion from Ottoman Turkish to modern Turkish was implemented by an Armenian linguistics expert, Prof. Agop Martayan. In gratitude, Kemal Ataturk gave him the surname of Dilacar, meaning “the one who unlocks the language.” In all textbooks, he is referred to as A. Dilacar, with his first name Agop never spelled out. When he passed away in 1978, the Turkish media gave his obituary as Adil Acar, further Turkifying his given name.
Another example of hidden truth is the case of Armenian musician Edgar Manas, the composer of the Turkish national anthem, a fact only known by a few Armenians and completely covered up by the Turks.
Why this fear, this paranoia resulting in total denial? It goes beyond denial of the historical facts of 1915. It is denial of existence of an entire people in these lands. Is it fear about the Armenian assets and properties left behind? Is it the simplistic argument that if Armenians never lived here, there could not have been a genocide? But then, if Armenians never lived here, how come the Armenians massacred the Turkish population, as claimed by the Turkish version of official history? Rather than speculate about answers to these questions, I would like to refer to the remarks made by the recent recipient of the Hrant Dink Foundation Peace Award, prominent Kurdish professor, Ismail Besikçi, who said the following:
“The Ittihadists [Committee of Union and Progress] had devised a plan to reorganize the Ottoman Empire on the basis of Turkish ethnic identity. The nationalization of the Ottoman economy was a further significant target. But Greeks, Armenians and other Christian people, as well as Islamic but non-Turkish people such as Kurds, non-Muslim Turkish and Kurdish people such as Alevis, presented significant obstacles for the execution of this Turkification project. They would get rid of the Greeks by forcing them into exile to Greece. The Armenian population would be eliminated under the guise of forced deportation into the desert. Then, the Kurds would be assimilated into Turkishness, and the Alevis into Islam. The wealth and immovable properties of the Greeks forced into exile and the Armenians perished through genocide, would be confiscated by Muslim Turkish notables. A huge, widespread looting operation took place of the assets left behind by the Armenians and Greeks, helping the Ottoman economy, and then the Turkish economy to be nationalized. Today, the source of the wealth of the haute bourgeoisie is the Armenian and Greek assets. In Kurdish areas of Turkey, the source of wealth of the Kurdish tribe leaders is again the Armenian and Syriac assets.”
As Besikçi has said, it has now become apparent that the experiment of trying to convert a multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural Anatolian society into a monolithic, mono-ethnic, single religious, Turkish nation, and then denying this fact, has failed. The hidden truths about the fate of the Armenian and Greek people and their assets, can no longer be denied within and outside Turkey, despite all Turkish state efforts. The assimilation of the Kurds did not succeed, despite all Turkish state efforts. As another Kurdish intellectual has very appropriately remarked, for many years the Turks denied that Armenians were ever killed in these lands and also denied that Kurds ever lived in these lands. If not the Turkish government, increasingly larger number of opinion makers in the Turkish media and the academia have start- ed to reveal the hidden truths, and sooner or later, the people of Turkey will also start realizing that historic facts are different than what they are told by the state. As it becomes apparent that the hidden truths cannot be hidden any longer, the challenge for the Turkish government will be how to revise its stance from denial to acceptance of the truths, and how to deal with these truths, vis-a-vis its own citizens as well as the outside world. It is hoped that this process will proceed within the norms of dialogue, the establishment of a common body of knowledge and the mutual understanding of all parties involved.
(Raffi Bedrosyan is a resident of Toronto. He returned recently from a visit to Turkey, where he performed in the newly-renovated
Sourp Giragos Church in Diyarbekir.)