08 December 2008

2667) Hacking History: Ankara Museum Of Anatolian Civilizations & Erzurum Archaeological Museum by Ara Sarafian

Ankara Museum Of Anatolian Civilizations
Ankara, Turkey - Armenians have become a common topic of discussion in Turkey for some years now and this trend has picked up since Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan came to office in March 2003. In this new climate of more openness, liberal intellectuals have led a discussion of the Armenian Taboo of Turkey. .


Their discussions have led to a new awareness of Armenians and a gradual reinvention of Turkey's Armenian heritage, which was destroyed in large measure in 1915 and its aftermath. The new positive discussions have touched on such issues as Armenian history, art, architecture, music, and cuisine in different publications, exhibitions, and public discussions.

Fethiye Çetin's book Anne Annem (My Grandmother: A Memoir) has been reprinted in several editions. Osman Köker's exhibitions and publications have reached thousands. Orhan Pamuk's comments about the persecution of Kurds and Armenians are reported by the world media. All this suggests some tangible breaks with Turkey's more ominous past.

However, the more sympathetic treatment of Armenians has continued to take place alongside longstanding conservative, belligerent, and negative attitudes toward Armenians. These circles continue to slight, marginalise, and vilify Armenians as a matter of course.

Their attitudes, supported by stock arguments, are the product of decades of Turkish nationalist indoctrination and its underlying ideology. Even in the last week we have heard Turkey's Defense Minister Vecdhi Gönül applaud the "departure" of the native Armenian and Greek communities of Turkey, and Minister of Justice Mehmet Ali Sahin defend the utility of the infamous Article 301. He explicitly defended the prosecution of Temel Demirer under Article 301 because the latter had called Turkey a state that murdered its own citizens (with reference to Armenians and Kurds).

Within the academic domain, the Turkish Historical Association and the Turkish military continue to prepare and publish overtly anti-Armenian books and DVDs - invariably denigrating Armenians and denying the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Various "think tanks," such as the Ermeni Arastirmalar Merkezi (Armenian Studies Center) in Ankara remain actively anti-Armenian. Many small publishing houses still print the conventional Turkish nationalist position regarding Armenians.

Attempts to reinvent Turkish Armenians in a more positive light are still undermined by significant sectors of Turkish society, including government ministries. The relative strength of the opposing conservative circles has still not been gauged, especially given their positions of power and influence in Turkey. While one cannot expect the Turkish conservative-nationalist position to change overnight, one does expect it to take some note of new discussions and revelations.

Two weeks ago I decided to examine several museums in Turkey, all but one in historic Western Armenia, with one question in mind: "How are Armenia and Armenians represented in Turkish museums today?"

The museums I picked were the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (Ankara), Erzurum Archaeological Museum, Van Archaeological Museum, and Kars Archaeological Museum. All four are under the control of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Had the new debates on Armenians shaped representations of Armenians in Turkey? How did these state institutions acknowledge and contextualize Armenian history in their everyday endeavors, and what can we say about Turkey and its Armenian heritage based on these museums.

First stop: Ankara
My first stop was the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

This museum uses the term Anatolia as coterminous with the territory of Turkey-in-Asia. Of course, Turkey is not a single landmass, but formed of several distinct geographical regions, such as the Aegean littoral, the Konya plain, the Pontic mountains on the Black Sea, the Taurus Mountains of the Mediterranean, the anti-Taurus further east, and of course the Armenian highlands.

This museum is reputed to be one of the most important museums in Turkey today. It won the European Museum of the Year Award in 1997, and many tourists, schoolchildren, and academics visit it every day.

The museum exhibition extends over two floors. It is well constructed and maintained, with excellent lighting and good human resources. Starting from the prehistoric era, the visitor is led through collections of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Early Bronze Age, Assyrian, Hittite, Phrygian, Urartian and Lydian, Greek, Roman, Seljuk, and Ottoman artifacts.

The displays at the museum include statues, pottery, jewelry, and metalwork, and various panels discuss the collections in their broader historical contexts, with references to other civilizations such as the Medes, Scythians, Egyptians, and Persians.

However, there are no artifacts, discussions, or references to Armenians in the museum.

The obvious question is, therefore, why is there no mention of Armenia as a geographical entity or Armenians as a culture and civilization? After all, there was the empire of Tigran the Great in the first century B.C.E., the Armenian Kingdom of Vasbouragan on Lake Van in the 10th-11th centuries, and the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in the Middle Ages. Armenia was a distinct part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and Armenians were one of the important pillars of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians played a major role in arts, crafts, and trade throughout the ages, and they developed their own distinct identity with their own alphabet from the 5th century in this area. Armenian literature, philosophy, art, and architecture are worthy of much comment, yet they do not appear in a museum dedicated to Anatolian civilizations.

The only reference to Armenians I saw at this museum was a multilingual DVD prepared, interestingly enough, by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism called The Armenian Issue: Allegations and Facts. The other reference was a small book on Akdamar (sic, Aghtamar) Island, which made some derisory remarks about Armenians, but included more sensible discussion afterward.

By way of explanation

After my visit to the museum, I raised what I had seen with two Turkish colleagues, both members of the Turkish Historical Society. They proceeded to explain that Armenians were not mentioned in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations because they did not constitute a state. Obviously, there have been Armenian states in the areas under discussion. Their explanation also seems to suggest that "states" and "civilizations" are the same thing.

I asked one of them why Armenians were not represented within discussions of these states, for example in the case of the Ottoman Empire. After all, the Ottoman Empire was a multicultural entity, probably with more Christians than Muslims at its height. Armenians were indistinguishable from Turks, I was told in response, so there was no need to say anything about Armenians.

I do not know if they were embarrassed by my questions and did not know what to say, or they really thought their explanation had merit. I doubt it was the latter, and I hope they will do something about the issue, if only to save Turkey further embarrassment.

While I was in Ankara, I also visited the Museum of Ethnography. Just as the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations did not mention Armenians, the Museum of Ethnography also did not see Armenians as an ethnicity. Indeed, the ethnography museum was composed of mainly 19th-century set scenes in period costume, such as marriage, circumcision, workshop, barbershop, and coffeehouse. It included various wares, Korans, and Islamic carvings from mosques (doors and pulpits), but it had nothing that was Christian or had a specific ethnicity (Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, Circassian, Arab, or other). Turkey's rich ethnic mosaic had been pressed into an insipid mush. According to these two museums, Armenians were neither a civilization nor an ethnicity.

I was there to observe and listen and I said no more. I hoped that my next stop, the Archeological Museum of Erzurum, would be different.


Erzurum Archaeological Museum, by Ara Sarafian, December 01, 2008

Erzurum, Turkey - Following my trip to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, I was curious to see how Armenians would be represented at Erzurum Archeological Museum, in eastern Turkey. I expected to see at least something, as Erzurum was the location of the ancient city of Garin (Karin) in historic Armenia.

I flew into Erzurum early in the morning and went straight to the museum. In stark contrast with the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, this provincial museum was a modest one-floor establishment. The staff at the museum seemed surprised to see a visitor as soon as they opened. They were very polite and got on with their job.

The museum has several sections, starting from the Paleolithic. The other sections are built around artifacts found at a number of excavations in the region, as well as some "emergency digs," which were forced by the building of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline across Erzurum province recently. The museum also boasts a donation of Urartian artifacts from Igdir. The excavations forming the core of the museum have yielded Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and some Ottoman artifacts that are displayed in the museum, but nothing Armenian is on display. There is also no mention of Armenians in the historical explanations printed on large panels around the various exhibits, except for a special display related to Armenians. This display occupies almost a third of the museum.
Ungrateful Armenians relocated

The special display starts by stating, "Anatolia was under the sovereignty of Umayyads from the end of the 7th century, who were followed by the Abbasids till the end of the 10th century." Then, we are told, "Byzantium dominated the whole of Anatolia starting from the end of the 10th century." The suggestion is that this region was called Anatolia at that time and not Armenia. The Byzantines, we are told, mistreated Armenians until the Seljuk Turks conquered this region. "Seljuk Turks showed tolerance to Armenians and other non-Muslim minorities." This is the first mention of Armenians in the museum.

The museum's narrative continues by stating that Armenians prospered in the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, when they began rising against the state. It says that Armenians formed revolutionary committees, provoked the 1895 and 1908 incidents [massacres], and finally organized an Armenian uprising against the Ottoman government during World War I. Because of these revolts, we are told, Ottoman authorities deported Armenians and settled them in safer places in the empire.

(According to creditable sources, most Erzurum-Armenians were killed on their way to exile in June 1915. Some caravans were killed in Erzinjan, while others were wasted away on forced marches southward. The American consul in Harput gives harrowing descriptions of the Erzurum exiles as they passed by Harput, before at least some of them were killed near Lake Goljuk. He identified such victims because their identity papers could be found among their corpses.)

Then the main point of this special section is made: During World War I Armenians committed atrocities against Turks in eastern Turkey. There are discussions of massacres at such locations as at Chavushoglu Samanligi village in Ercis (near Lake Van) or Subatan village near Kars. These sites were excavated in the 1980s and 90s. We are told that in Chavushoglu Samanligi, the victims could be identified as Turks because of forensic examinations, written data, or artifacts found with the bodies. "It is possible to identify [the] race [of victims] by measurement, index, and morphological observation of the skulls.... We calculate that the cephalic index which is the most prominent criteria in race studies. We took the measurements of the eight skulls. The indexes varied between 76 and 89. The results showed that four are mesocaphalic and the others are brachycephalic... all skeletons belonged to [the] Alpine group to which Anatolian Turks belong."

April 24, 1918

In the case of Subatan village, we are told that a massacre took place there on April 24 1918, when Armenians were evacuating the area. This assertion is made on the basis of contemporary written records, plus an examination of the mass graves at the village. Subatan was a mixed village of Turks, Armenians, and Greeks. According to the museum, 570 people were killed there. Interestingly, the Subatan village massacre in 1918 is considered to be "one of the excavations of the mass-graves which aim shedding light onto the events happened in Eastern Anatolia between 1915 and 1918." The inference is that the 1918 massacre of Turks in this village somehow explains what happened to Ottoman Armenians in 1915.

(Kars was not part of the Ottoman Empire when World War I broke out. After the Russian revolution Armenians controlled the city. In April 1918 Turkish armies advanced against Armenians in Kars and there was intercommunal violence in the surrounding villages. It is possible that there was a massacre at the village of Subatan around April 24, 1918, though there has not been an independent assessment of either evidence or circumstances.)

The museum also claims, more problematically, a massacre at Zeve (in Van province). We are told that this massacre took place in 1915 (no month is given), when 2,500-3,000 Turks-Muslims were brought to Zeve from eight other surrounding villages. These people were tortured and shot. "The most important findings of the excavations were daggers, cartridges, pieces of silk clothes, necklaces with beads displaying Sultan Reshad's monogram, amulets covered with wax, copper coins and glass buttons." Information about this claimed incident comes from an oral source (Ibrahim Sargin), but there is little further evidence offered about the claimed massacre, such as a more precise date of the incident and how the number and ethnicity of the victims was established. It is also not clear who the informant was, where the oral testimony might be found today, or who excavated the mass grave. If such a massacre took place after Russian occupation of this region (Spring 1915), we could investigate what Russian military units (with various Armenian, Muslim, and other soldiers) operated in this region.

The displays cabinets in this section present only artifacts related to massacres. These include personal effects, pieces of Muslim religious texts, spent Russian cartridges, as well as human remains and bullets. These exhibits are mainly from the villages of Timar (Erzurum-Pasinler), Alaca Koy (Erzurum), and Obakoy (Igdir).
A surreal cameo role

Erzurum city had around 2,500 Armenian households in 1915, as well as 40 Armenian-inhabited villages around it. Yet the museum says nothing about Armenians in this area. There is no mention of Armenian settlements in the plain, churches, monasteries, and schools, nor anything about an Armenian contribution to the social and economic life of the province. The "Armenian atrocities" display appears rather surreal, where Armenians simply appear as murderers.

The typical experience for Armenian civilians during this period was to be "deported" and killed in June 1915. If one took a sample of Armenian clergymen, such as those of the Armenian Apostolic church of Erzurum, one would find that they were all murdered after being arrested and sent into exile by the government in June 1915. (The Armenian clergymen from Erzurum who were killed in 1915 were Archbishop Smpad Saadetian, Hmayag Kahana Mouradkhanian, Nerses Kahana Vahanian, Zareh Kahana Shisheian, and Zarmayr Kahana Kevorkian.)

Had the museum acknowledged the presence of Armenian civilization in this region, or that Armenians were deported en masse and suffered a great deal during 1915, one might have taken the "Armenian atrocities" section more seriously. In no way could the mass murder of Armenians in 1915 serve to justify the murder of Turks, Kurds, or others represented in the "Armenian atrocities section." However, the destruction of Armenians in June 1915 took place under the auspices of the state, as part of a genocidal campaign. One cannot say the same for the actions of those Armenians (or others) who may have committed atrocities after Russians occupied these regions. What one sees in the museum is disturbing because it manipulates the suffering of Turks and Kurds for the vilification of ordinary Armenians and the denial of Armenian history - including the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
The goddess Anahit

After seeing the exhibitions I approached some museum officials and asked them why they found the use of the "E" word so difficult to mention in the museum. ("E" is for Ermeni or Ermenistan, that is Armenian or Armenia, in Turkish.) I was told that there was no such difficulty. It was just that they could not present Armenian artifacts in the museum if no such artifacts were found in the excavations they had undertaken. They also said that they did not have any artifacts on display less than 200 years old. Presumably this assertion did not include the Armenian atrocities section.

I did not ask why there was no mention or discussion of Armenia or Armenians in any of the discussion panels.

I asked how the British Museum had obtained a bust of the Armenian Goddess Anahit (circa 2nd century B.C.E.), from Erzinjan, near Erzurum, in the 1870s, while Erzurum Archeological Museum had not found anything comparable in all these years in the whole province. I was told that they knew of the Goddess Anahit exhibited in London, but they could not answer why they had not made similar finds in the area.

There was no point arguing about the "Armenian atrocities" section of the museum. I don't think they were comfortable with their position. Both the museum and the "Armenian atrocities" section were built over a decade ago, when the denigration and denial of Armenian history was a more brazen state policy.

The museum authorities were polite, even kind, and this atmosphere remains a big plus. But the intellectual weakness of the position these public officials find themselves in remains untenable. The question that occupied my mind was how one could come out of this impasse, with minimal embarrassment for such museum staff, even Turkish authorities themselves. After all, our common purpose remains a sensible solution to such problems.
Ara Sarafian / © 2008 Gomidas Institute
"These articles were commissioned by the Armenian Reporter and appeared in the Nov. 22, 2008, and Dec. 6, 2008, editions of the newspaper and on its website, www.reporter.am " Vincent Lima

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