Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Let's hope Akhtamar is a new beginning

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

92 years later, a Turkish government had taken a step to rekindle the memory of the greatest disaster Anatolia suffered in its recent past. It was a matter of courage to take such a risk when elections neared and nationalism is exuding all around

In the 1970s, when I used to work as a tourist guide for summer jobs, one of the most interesting monuments I came to know in the east of Turkey was the Church of Akhtamar. One would take a jerry-built raft off a pier, itself jerry-built, to cross to the islet where this magnificent church, used as shooting target by local roughnecks, stood in isolation. This unique monument which was an ancient patriarchate and one of the most sacred places of the Armenian world reopened as a museum last week with a ceremony. In this way, the temple that belongs to world's cultural heritage was saved from further destruction. The second important point is that, 92 years later, a Turkish government had taken a step to rekindle the memory of the greatest disaster Anatolia suffered in its recent past. The undisguisable truth that Armenians lived in those lands, and the massacres of Armenians erased from the public memory was inevitably brought to the agenda with this inauguration. It was a matter of courage to take such a risk when elections neared and nationalism is exuding all around.

Some members of the Diaspora were saddened:

The renovation had no influence outside regarding hot issues such as tolerance and interreligious dialogue, as assumed before and claimed afterwards. Haughty headlines such as “Akdamar lesson” hit the national news headlines, while foreign press sufficed by admitting the encouraging side of the deed done. However, it did not fail, on the occasion, to qualify the 1915 massacres as genocide. Incidentally, the shortest cut to find echo in the outside world remains the opening of the border with Armenia. Therefore, it is more significant and important to appraise the initiative as intended more for home use. In fact, if one day the Armenian problem and the Armenian-Turkish relations were to reach a satisfactory course, this will originate, not from the Europe or the United States but from Turkey and Armenia. As a matter of fact, some members of the Diaspora were saddened by the fact that the church was renovated! If the rediscovery of the cultural memory as well as bringing the Armenian fact to the agenda are the positive side of the matter, there has been sheer clumsiness before and during the ceremony that cast shadow on the foregoing positive aspects. Firstly, the issue of naming the church. It is quite common in Anatolia to derive new city names by kicking off with the similarity of sounds, which may be comprehensible though meaningless. The most striking examples may be the following: Bodrum is derived from the Latin word Petronium but the town has nothing to do with a “basement”. Denizli, which has never had a sea front was invented from Diopolis Rhoas evolving through Donguzlu, Donuzlu, Tonguzluk, Dengizli and eventually to Denizli. Balıkesir which has neither any renowned fish nor slave was also derived from the Greek appellation of Palaio Kastro. Makrohori, which meant the farther away village once, later turned to be the Greco-Turkish hybrid word Makri-köy and was finally made Bakırköy. But there was never any copperfield. The same logic applies in the case of “Akhtamar” which is converted to “Akdamar” meaning white vein and the “Ani” ruins in the province of Kars, now called “Anı”, meaning memory. However, these names were changed after 1980. In the 70s, local folks did not utter words like “akdamar” or “anı”. This obsession to convert everything to Turkish is a sign of anguish.

Two thousand Akhtamars:

Likewise, other examples of clumsiness were the omission of cross even though the international restauration rules require faithfulness to the original; no religious ceremony was performed though Armenian clerics were invited from all over the world; the word “Armenian” was not pronounced even once in the official speeches and no translation service was provided for the Armenian delegation.... And the most hilarious, as always, was the protests of some local trade-unionists who instead of minding their own business came there to “save the country”. All in all, the government felt anxious, uneasy. It used various metaphors, neologisms and furtive expressions to name the “Armenian”. It used multitudes of nationalist symbols to counterbalance the event. But at the end of the day it nonetheless made as if it broke a taboo. Although security forces could not be persuaded to reopen the border for once, the Armenian delegation entered Turkey through Georgia and arrived at an Armenian monument, Akhtamar, in eastern Turkey and attended the ceremony together with the Armenians of Turkey. Of more than 2,500 religious buildings existing on the Ottoman territory in 1913, according to the data of Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, 2,000 are still standing today, though in ruins. While not all of them can be renovated like Akhtamar, most of them can be reclaimed through archeological and cultural works to be carried out jointly with Armenia. As a result, joint historical studies that could not be performed so far can somehow be initiated. Are we for it?

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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