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14 December 2008

2674) Hacking History: Archaeological Museum of Van by Ara Sarafian

Van, Turkey - The Archaeological Museum of Van is a small, two-story provincial museum. It became notorious in the 1980s when its upper floor housed an overtly anti-Armenian . . exhibition of human remains, bullets, and spent cartridges, all of which, the museum explained, was evidence of a genocide committed by Armenians against Turks during the First World War.

This exhibition was the only reference to Armenians in the entire museum. As far as the museum was concerned, Armenians had no other presence in this area and there certainly was no genocide of Armenians in 1915.

Many local Kurds mocked the museum, and some guidebooks to Turkey even ridiculed it for its anti-Armenian exhibition.

When the Turkish government announced the renovation of Holy Cross Cathedral on Aghtamar Island near Van in 2005, I was interested to see how Turkish authorities were going to explain the presence of the 10th-century Armenian church without making any reference to Armenia or Armenian history in the museum of Van. This renovation was a high-profile event and was packaged as a peace offering for better relations with Armenians at a time when Turkey was making renewed efforts to join the European Union.

If hundreds of foreign dignitaries and journalists were going to come to the opening ceremonies in 2007, how would the Turkish authorities avoid the embarrassment of this museum?

When I visited Van in June 2006, the museum was closed. The word on the street was that the government objected to the anti-Armenian exhibit and wanted to remove it, while the military insisted that it stay. Given this impasse, the government simply closed down the museum "for renovations" until earlier this year.

The museum thus remained closed when Holy Cross Cathedral was officially opened as a museum in 2007. Turkish and foreign dignitaries were thus saved the embarrassment of observing the discrepancy between the denial of Armenian history in the museum of Van and the praise Turkish authorities elicited from commentators for their work at Aghtamar Island.
After the renovation

Now that the museum is open, we can make our own assessment of the renovation it underwent between 2006 and 2008.

The ground floor remains very much the same, with wonderful Urartian artifacts that include pottery, metalwork, jewelry, and furniture. There isn't a great deal, but what one can see is both fascinating and beautiful.

The "Armenian atrocities" section on the upper floor is removed. It is replaced with more Urartian artifacts, as well as ethnographic materials, such as kilims, period costumes, Ottoman swords, rifles, and revolvers, as well as household items and Korans.

Considering all the effort that has gone into the removal of the "Armenian atrocities" section of the museum, and all the thought that must have gone into the content of the newly designed upper floor, one is disappointed to see that Armenians have been made invisible in this new museum: there is nothing that refers to Armenia or Armenians anywhere. Although there is a map of the region showing a number of churches and monasteries, they are not identified as Armenian churches or monasteries, nor is there any explanation anywhere in the museum that mentions either Armenia or Armenians in a historical context.

The state has the power

How might one interpret these apparent contradictions about the official Turkish attitude to Armenians? While Turkish authorities maintain their wish for better Turkish-Armenian relations and insist on their positive sentiments behind the renovation of Holy Cross Cathedral, the museum of Van reflects a more sinister attitude that is not lost on Armenian visitors: the Turkish state has the power to do whatever it wants, including writing people in or out of history. This sinister message is in evidence even within 20 miles of Aghtamar, where more than a dozen Armenian churches and monasteries have been devastated.

After my visit, I introduced myself to some museum officials. Once again they were courteous, even pleasant. They were also quite knowledgeable and perhaps a little embarrassed. They were quite cognizant of Armenian history. When talking about Armenian artifacts, they made reference to beautiful Armenian khachkars in the province and the need to preserve them "in situ," in their natural environment. "One should not drag them to museums" was a comment, though they were aware that these khachkars were almost always smashed or desecrated.

"Some of this damage is done by Armenians, from Armenia" I was told.

"You have to understand that we can not protect everything. There is so much of it" was another comment. "Even mosques are damaged by people." Indeed, I have personally seen some abandoned mosques in the old city of Van, surrounded by beer bottles and covered with graffiti (in Turkish). I have also seen the example of the Seljuk cemetery in Gevash, on the way to Aghtamar, which is well protected and preserved behind walls. It has a beautiful kumbet-mausoleum that has been renovated. But no such care has been taken of anything Armenian, except for the recent renovation of Holy Cross Cathedral on Aghtamar Island. The fact remains that everything Armenian has been damaged, and most of it completely destroyed.

Buried gold

"Part of the problem is that people are ignorant and think Armenians buried gold everywhere, so it is quite common to go grave-robbing." Indeed, grave robbing is a major problem, but the government has allowed it to continue for decades. It complements the destruction of the churches and monasteries in the province, such as the monasteries around Gevash (within minutes of the Seljuk cemetery), or the complete demolition of the entire monastic complex at Nareg.

"Is there nothing else Armenian that could be placed in the museum?" I asked. The answer was no, nothing that we're aware of. Did they not find other artifacts related to Armenians? The answer was no.

"How about putting some Bibles alongside the Korans in the ethnographic section? After all, Armenians were Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire." That was an interesting idea, they said.

I then asked the obvious question, "Whose decision is it to include or not to include such materials?"

One person pointed a finger upward, and said, "The Ministry" of Culture and Tourism.

So, from what I understood, for all the professionalism of the museum staff, the decision as to what museums can include or exclude in Turkey, or what museums can say or not say, rests on the government in Ankara. It is significantly a political or ideological question, not a professional one left to specialists. This should not have been a surprising answer, given what I had already seen in Ankara and Erzurum, but it was still a disappointment. This is an official attitude that can only be described as arrogant, chauvinistic, and literally offensive toward Armenians and other minorities - not the image the Turkish state wants to project abroad.

I was told that there would be a new museum in Van sometime soon. I hope by the time the new museum is built, there is also a new and more enlightened attitude from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.


Ara Sarafian / © 2008 Gomidas Institute
" This article was commissioned by the Armenian Reporter and appeared in the Dec. 11, 2008 edition of the newspaper and on its website, www.reporter.am " Vincent Lima



# 2674 Commentary for Mr. Sarafian

I have read the article by Ara Sarafian with interest, since I have been through the places he refers to.

Ara Sarafian, as head of the Gomidas Institute, has a job and mission to accomplish for which he is paid, and normalization of relations or dropping of the “G” screams, is not within his goals. Actually, every time Sarafian wanted to “communicate at civilized levels with Turkish counterparts”, he was instantly intercepted by ANCA and the ruling governments in Erivan.

I want to believe that Ara Sarafian, is one of the “reasonable persons” to “discover truths” instead of pushing dogmas. I attended the Conference this spring in Istanbul where Sarafian made a presentation about the 235 Armenian leaders who were arrested on April 24th, 1915. Actually, I and my two friends of same ages were the only three Turks within the hall of about 150 guests, listening to fiery speeches against Turks, favoring Kurds and Armenians only! I gave Ara Sarafian my signed book, had a short conversation. My short commentary and reaction to antagonist comments and need of “humane pacification” could not be wooed but was neither applauded. I estimate Sarafian’s feelings, his solitude and the paradoxes between “what he learned based on documents, and what he is expected to say to remain in business”!

Since I am no scholar, I am not employed or paid by any party, I have the “liberty of being selective in what I use as a source or give a presentation”. Scholars do not have such rights or comfort and I may say that compared to many biased and ignorant Turkish scholars, Sarafian is more lenient, polite and balanced. This attitude also appears in his article, to which I want to bring the following clarifications and counter comments:

a. I had visited the Van Museum with some Turkish Armenian friends about five years ago. I did not feel the need to go up and see photos of butcheries, competing with so many others in Armenian genocide museums or publications. I already have more than enough which only tells me “humans are beastly equivalent”. I am also pleased to learn that Van Museum removed these pictures and proofs of savagery. Yet, I would have expected Sarafian to make a similar suggestion for “Armenian museums” in reciprocation.

b. Despite many other priorities for a country with plenty monuments but shortage of cash, and after having seen the unique stone arts of the Akhtamar Church, I am glad that at least one among many hundreds was saved from future damage. Yet, Sarafian did not mention that the rock quarry on the other side of the Arax river is only 1-2 kilometers from the damaged buildings in Ani, and every time (so many in a day) the dynamite blows in the quarry, everything on the opposite side shakes because of resonance and shock! Armenia is full of nothing but rocks and at least as a goodwill gesture to protect their own ancient city, they could move this quarry elsewhere!

c. Other than the very rightful “search of buried gold damaging many places”, I am somewhat amazed at the suggestion of Sarafian to have Armenian artifacts displayed in the Van Museum! What Turkish artifact is on display in any Armenian exhibit or genocide museums spreading everywhere? In 1850, half of the people of present Armenia were Muslims! Is there any mosque or Moslem cemetery left (but one Iranian mosque without mass as showpiece)? I do not think that the present minorities (Armenians, Jews or whatever Greeks are left) have any serious reason to complaint for any discrimination. Their schools, churches, newspapers, social activities are in full progress in harmony which the “outsiders try to disrupt” and murk the clear waters.

Speaking of Armenians of Van, let me refresh some memories with below excerpts. One dominant feature of the Hunchakist-Dashnakist Armenians is to “demand more and more every time” and seldom to be content.

* Turkey governed very well, as governments went, in the first centuries of her rule, and the Armenians were not unhappy. They were not admitted to the Army but paid a head tax instead; but many of their man cleverer than the Turk in finance, became advisers to royalty. The Armenians formed the body of industrious farmers in Asia Minor and were useful business men in the coast cities, where they won respect and envy. [1]

* There is little, if any racial antagonism between Armenians and Turks. Had religion and politics never come to antagonize them, they could live together in essential harmony. [2]

* (Photos) Part of the Boyish Company of Volunteers who tramped from Artemid to Van : Armenia. The oldest of these boys was twelve….Two privates in the Artemid Army of Small Boys. [3]

* Armenian Children in Military Training. Soldiery Game or a Killer’s Fame (Photo and article) [4]

* For photos of Armenian soldiers posing next to Turkish guns in April 1915 at Van, please see “Why Armenia Should be Free” by Garekin Pastirmadjian.


Last word and Question: Which one of the above references, would you have liked to see in the Van Museum as a memory of Armenians of Van, Mr. Sarafian?

Sukru Server Aya – Istanbul

[1] & [2] National Geographic, October 1915, pages 347 – 348

[3] National Geographic, August 1919, pages 182-183

[4] Armenians-1915.blogspot.com/2007/04/1637-media-scanner-readers-letters-to.html



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