In a matter of years beginning in 1915, an entire people was wiped out from its homeland of several thousand years. But how can you wipe out the remnants—its creations, assets, traces, its very existence—from the collective memory of those who remained in that country, or, for that matter, from the collective memory of the rest of the world? This has been an immense challenge for successive Turkish governments, a mission that was mostly successful for almost four generations. And yet, here and there the lies or the hidden truths kept coming out with increasing frequency, especially in recent years.
Hiding the truth and historic facts about 1915 from its own people has been the policy since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, through indoctrination of the education system, control of the media and academia, destruction of Armenian buildings and monuments, and so on. But the facts, perhaps still secret within Turkey but widely known in the outside world, are now being revealed to the masses in Turkey, because of increased liberalization, the internet and pioneering academicians and media opinion-makers who dare to speak the truth in Turkey. As a result, the citizens of Turkey, who for four generations were hidden from the facts, are now amazed to learn that a people called Armenians lived in Anatolia for several millennia, but 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 it.
The second largest and most modern airport in Turkey is called the Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, named after the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first female pilot in Turkey, a hero 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, and are 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, who was orphaned in 1915, adopted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and given the Gokcen (azure, color of the sky in Turkish) surname by him after completing pilot training. Former Agos Editor Hrant Dink became a marked man by the “deep state” in Turkey when he first uncovered this truth after interviewing Sebilciyan’s surviving relatives in Lebanon in 2001 (*). This fact was deemed an “insult to Turkishness” by the military, the media, and the government. Another recently uncovered fact: The people being bombed in Dersim were not rebels, but mostly women and children; the leaders were already hanged the previous year, a fact acknowledged and apologized for by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mostly to score political points against the governing party at the time (the current opposition party). To add more to the sad 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/Gokcen knew that she was Armenian, or if she knew that the women and children she bombed were Armenian.
The ancient city of Ani near Kars, situated on the Armenian border separated by the Akhurian River, is known as the “city with 1,001 churches.” It is a former capital of the Armenian Bagratid Kingdom, and had a continuous Armenian presence from the 5th-17th century. It reached its glory days in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it became a central gateway on the Silk Route; 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 Sourp Prgitch Church, and the city walls are still standing, with clearly visible Armenian writings carved in the stonewalls. After years of neglect (or target practice) by the Turkish military on the remaining 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 guidebooks or historic descriptions 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, or “Anı”—which means “memory” in Turkish—so that the Armenian Ani connection to this city will disappear. The denial policy and the paranoia linked to 1915 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—wood-carved church doors, stone tombstones, carpets, and dowry chests. Descriptions explain that the ancient ones are from the Urartians, 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, here, 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 to 921 AD. It was 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 1920’s to 1950’s, and only through the intervention of renowned Kurdish author Yashar Kemal was the Holy Cross Church building spared. The current Turkish government decided to restore the church as a state museum in 2007. While there are beautiful Armenian writings carved on the church walls, both inside and outside the building, 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 was changed to “Akdamar,” meaning “white vein” in Turkish, so that the Armenian Akhtamar connection would disappear. Why this fear, this paranoia? How can these moves convince anybody in Turkey or the outside world that this is not an Armenian church?
In Istanbul, almost all of the prominent historic buildings built from the 17th-20th century—such as the 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 10 years ago, official guides 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 their historic Armenian connection. Two years ago, when the Hrant Dink Foundation published a book on Armenian architects of Istanbul, and hosted an exhibition displaying photos of the buildings, it was like a revelation, causing uproar and amazement among the media and general public.
The government policy of forced amnesia over an Armenian presence prior to 1915 extends beyond architects and builders. Armenians served as ministers in the Ottoman government from the early 1800’s until 1915, and were in charge of key ministries such as the treasury, armaments, mint, public works, customs, and post office departments. Tens of thousands of Armenians worked in the bureaucracy, army, and state hospitals. And the Turkish government has not only hidden their contributions but their very existence, as well. 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. The contributions of Armenians in the private sector, of course, are completely and forcefully hidden, because all Armenian assets and properties—such as farms, factories, mines, warehouses, businesses, orchards, and buildings—were 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 based entirely on the seized Armenian assets; therefore, this is an understandable component of the denial policy.
The positive contributions by Armenians during the Turkish Republican 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 Turkish 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 printed his obituary as Adil Acar, further Turkifying his given name. Another example of a 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 the denial of the historical facts of 1915. It is the denial of the existence of an entire people on these lands. Is it fear over the Armenian assets and properties left behind? Is it the simplistic argument: If Armenians never lived here, there could not have been a genocide? But then, if Armenians never lived here, how could they have massacred the Turks, as is claimed by the Turkish version of official history? Rather than speculate about the answers, I’ll refer instead to the remarks made by prominent Kurdish professor Ismail Besikci, the recent recipient of the Hrant Dink Foundation Peace Award:
“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 to 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 Besikci has said, it has become apparent that the experiment of trying to convert a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural Anatolian society into a monolithic, mono-ethnic, single-religion 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 state efforts. The assimilation of the Kurds did not succeed, despite state efforts.
As another Kurdish intellectual has very appropriately remarked, for many years the Turks denied that Armenians were ever killed on these lands, and also denied that Kurds ever lived on these lands. An increasingly larger number of opinion-makers in the Turkish media and academia have started to reveal the hidden truths, and sooner or later, the people of Turkey will realize that the historic facts are different than what they have been 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 truth, and how to deal with the truth vis a vis its own citizens as well as the outside world. It is hoped that this process will be carried out within the norms of dialogue, the establishment of common body of knowledge.
"The Armenian Weekly," November 23, 2012
(*) The fact had already been disclosed in Armenian publications outside Turkey in the early 1970s ("Armeniaca").