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LOST PLACE   MAY 2006 – NO. 6

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by Robert Bevan

Soon there will be virtually no evidence that Armenians were ever in Turkey. They will have become an historical myth.

The Holocaust was not the first genocide of the 20th century: that dishonor goes to the Turks and Kurds in present-day Turkey for the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children in a campaign that began in earnest in 1915. As under the Nazis and 1990s Serbian extremists, this was accompanied by thorough cultural cleansing. It was an attempt to destroy a people that Turkish governments deny and cover up to this day. The continued neglect and destruction of Armenian monuments in Turkey can be seen as part of this stance. Although Turkey reluctantly admits that around 300,000 Armenians died during the period, it attributes the deaths to starvation or exposure arising out of the chaos of the First World War. The reality is harsher: torture, pogroms, mutilation, rape, and sexual slavery were part of the Armenian experience as the Young Turks murdered many Armenian men across the country and sent the remaining population of ancient Armenian towns and villages on forced death-marches. Primitive gas chambers using fires lit at the mouths of caves have also been reported. Those who survived ended up in Syria or behind the Russian lines in Russian-controlled Armenia. Continued denial of the atrocities by Turkey is assisted, on the one hand, by those in the West wanting to keep Turkey, a NATO member and E.U. supplicant, and on the other by Turkey's ongoing erasure of the Armenian architectural record.

Armenians were the first Christian nation, accepting the new creed at the beginning of the 4th century A.D.  They inhabited the uplands between the Black and Caspian seas for more than 2,500 years. At times independent, the culturally and linguistically distinct Armenians were eventually absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, but their cultural patrimony under the Ottoman system of government remained largely intact for hundreds of years. As non-Muslims they were second-class citizens but also formed an important trading and business class especially, like the Jews, in areas forbidden to Muslims, such as banking. The decline of the empire in the 19th century, however, led to increasing oppression of minorities within the empire and growing nationalist feeling within its constituent parts. Between 1894 and 1896, pogroms under the leadership of Sultan Abdul-Hamidii led to the massacre of up to 200,000 Armenians across eastern Turkey — the Armenian heartland — and the exile and forced conversion of thousands more. Turkish troops led the killings and were followed by plundering Kurdish gangs and the subsequent destruction of towns and villages.

Further massacres followed in 1909, a year after the Young Turks (Ittihadists) seized power in a military coup. In some ways the junta has been seen as progressive, more secular and modern in its vision for a future Turkish state emerging out of the fragmentation of the Ottoman world. But unlike the multi-ethnicity that characterized the Ottoman Empire, however problematically, the new regime's increasingly chauvinistic "Turkism" quickly evolved into a desire to establish an exclusively Turkish nation state within Asia Minor. In the wake of the Balkan wars and the Russian threat to the East, the Armenians were also regarded as an internal threat, a view intensifying with the outbreak of the First World War. The redrawing of borders and mass resettlements creating ethnic nation-states was the emerging pattern across the region.

After a period of beatings and deaths, the genocide began on April 23, 1915 with the rounding up and murder of thousands of Armenian community leaders. Systematic mass murder followed throughout Turkey. Men and women were often separated and the men murdered immediately or sent to death camps, such as those at Ras-Ul-Ain and Deir-el-Zor. Those who survived the sadistic deportations were forced into permanent exile. Armenian churches, monuments, quarters, and towns were destroyed in the process. Some Armenians were burned alive in their places of worship. One survivor from the town of Marash later told his tale to a U.S. oral-history archive: "Some 2000 Armenians had gathered, whom the Turks surrounded and poured gasoline all around and set them on fire. I, myself, was in another church that they were trying to set on fire and my father was thinking that this was the end of the family. He just gathered us around and pulled the movable pews around us as if he were trying to protect us and said something I will never forget: 'Don't be afraid, my children, because soon we will all be in heaven together.' And, fortunately, someone discovered some secret tunnels that the French had dug from that church to another vantage point and we escaped that way."

In the genocide, whole cities lost their Armenian populations, including the historic Armenian city of Van. More than 50,000 Armenians were killed and the city itself was almost entirely flattened (apart from two mosques) and the new Kurdish city of Van rebuilt nearby. Armenian property not destroyed during the massacres was transferred to the ownership of the Turkish state in September 1915.

In the late 19th century and the years that followed the First World War, Greeks and Turks also died in the thousands in forced population exchanges. Monuments and towns were razed. The entire northern part of the ancient and once beautiful coastal city of Smyrna (now Izmir), which included the Greek and Armenian quarters, was burned in September 1922: every remaining mosque in Athens that had not been destroyed in previous anti-Muslim attacks was later demolished. The Armenian genocide and the destruction accompanying the mutual expulsions were a devastating cultural as well as human loss. The early Christian tradition of Armenia had produced a unique architecture characterized by worked tufa stone rising in domes and spires. The essential verticality of forms and the use of pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and clustered piers prefigured the ecclesiastic architecture of European Gothic. Medieval Armenian kingdoms built on their tradition, creating spectacular churches and monasteries. Its craftsmen exported their stone-working skills to other religious and ethnic groups throughout the region.

A survey, not in itself comprehensive, prepared in 1914 by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, listed 2,549 religious sites under its control, including more than 200 monasteries and 1,600 churches. Many were destroyed in the process of the genocide but many more have since been vandalized, flattened, or converted to mosques or barns. In contrast to Kristallnacht, where the destruction of architecture offered a warning of worse to come, the Turks have continued to remove, stone by stone, the evidence of millennia of Armenian architectural and art history following the mass murder and exile of the Armenian people. It was only in the 1960s that Armenian and other architectural scholars began the politically and physically dangerous task of recording and rescuing what remains of 1,800 years of Armenian ecclesiastical heritage. A 1974 survey identified 913 remaining churches and monastic sites in Turkey in various conditions. At half of these sites the buildings had vanished utterly. Of the remainder, 252 were ruined. Just 197 survived in anything like a usable state.

In the late 1980s and early '90s the travel writer William Dalrymple found evidence of the continuing destruction of Armenian historic sites. Although many sites had fallen into decay through not-so-benign neglect, earthquakes, or peasants searching for Armenian gold supposedly hidden beneath churches, there are clear instances of deliberate destruction. He argues that the destruction accelerated in the 1970s and '80s in response to the emergence of a terrorist group, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, which had carried out attacks against the Turkish establishment. Censorship increased. In one 1986 incident, the editor of the Turkish edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was arrested and charged regarding a footnote that made mention of the historic Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. The book was banned. Ten years earlier, French historian J. M. Thierry was sentenced, in his absence, to three months' hard labor after being arrested for drawing a plan of an Armenian church near Van. He escaped before being sentenced. Thierry also reported that the government had sought to demolish an Armenian church in Osk Vank in 1985 but the villagers resisted, valuing it for various utilitarian uses — a granary and a stable among them. Although Dalrymple notes the difficulties of finding unequivocally clear evidence of deliberate destruction after the fact, a number of telling examples have been discovered. A collection of five important churches at Khitzkonk (now Bes Kilise), near Kars, had been officially off-limits to visitors since the genocide until the 1960s. Only the cupola of the 11th-century St. Sergius chapel remained by the time of Dalrymple's visit; its four walls had been blown out (no earthquake could cause such damage). The remaining churches had all but vanished. Locals said the buildings had been dynamited by the army. Other shattered religious sites include Surb Karapet, partially destroyed in the 1915 massacres and then reduced to rubble by military target practice in the 1960s.

Elsewhere some remains cling on, including the 10th-century chapel frescos at Varak Vank, now a barn. The 9th-century basilica at Dergimen Koyu, near Erzinja, is a warehouse with a huge hole smashed in the side to allow vehicles entry. The Armenian cathedral at Edessa (now Urfa), converted into a fire station in 1915, was converted again to a mosque as recently as 1994 with the remains of its ecclesiastical fittings destroyed in the process. The town is, traditionally, the first outside the Holy Land to have accepted Christianity. There are no churches in use today. By contrast, ancient Armenian churches in Iran and Georgia have been restored using state funds. The Georgian restorations came with independence from the Soviet Union, long after Stalin destroyed more than 80 churches in the state.

In areas hostile to the post-Soviet Union state of Armenia, monuments have not been so lucky. The Azeri campaign against the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, which began in 1988, was accompanied by cultural cleansing that destroyed the Egheazar monastery and 21 other churches. Among the remains of one Armenian town in the enclave, half a millennium of history was reactivated. Jugha was first flattened in 1605 and its inhabitants deported to Persia (forced exile had long been a feature of Ottoman punishment). Its cemetery, although much damaged, remained and featured thousands of khachkars (medieval stone crosses) until 1998, when it was reported that Azeris had bulldozed a third of the monuments, trucking away the rubble before UNESCO intervention stopped the destruction. Greek heritage in Turkey has also continued to suffer. In 1955, in an echo of Kristallnacht, thousands of Greek shop windows in Istanbul were smashed during an anti-Greek riot. More than 1,000 houses, 26 schools, and 73 Greek Orthodox churches were attacked and many destroyed, including the two main Greek cemeteries and the Greek Orthodox Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city. The riot was fuelled by inter-communal violence in Cyprus and faked photographs in the Turkish newspapers of a Greek bomb attack destroying Kemal Atatürk's birthplace in the city of Thessaloniki. (It had been only very slightly damaged by a blast outside the Turkish consulate next door.) Even in contemporary Istanbul, historic Armenian churches and graveyards continue to be neglected and vandalized. In recent years there have been reports of surviving khachkars being smashed and their rubble removed.

In 1987 the European Parliament called on Turkey to "improve the conditions of protection of architectural monuments" and stated that Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide was an "insurmountable obstacle" to Turkish membership of the E.U. Little action has resulted and the question of Turkish membership of the E.U. looks likely to be settled without this "insurmountable obstacle" being addressed by either party. The World Monuments Fund has also attempted to take on the issue with limited success.

Only the celebrated Armenian church on the island of Aght'amar in Lake Van looks set to be restored (after international pressure and with Armenian, not Turkish, money). As George Hintlian, the curator of the Armenian Museum in Jerusalem, says: "The churches are all we have left. Soon there will be virtually no evidence that Armenians were ever in Turkey. We will have become an historical myth."

If the writing of history is the privilege of the victor, so is the successful rewriting of it. In Turkey the desire has been to deny the past, to continue to cover its tracks. The continued demolitions and deliberate neglect of Armenian monuments demonstrates a state that remains ill at ease with itself and its minority groups. Guilty reminders must be removed. The repression of the Kurds and the remaining Armenians and Greeks within Turkey is still with us and Kurdish heritage too is disregarded or drowned in enormous dam projects. Destruction here is both a denial of a victor's deeds and a mark of the incomplete nature of that victory. The architectural legacy of Ottoman multiculturalism was a witness to the security and strength of the Pax Ottomanica. The careful and partial promotion by the Turks of only favored elements of that heritage is, by contrast, evidence of modern Turkey's insecurity and weakness.

Reprinted from The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, by Robert Bevan © Robert Bevan. Published by arrangement with Reaktion Books Ltd.

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Articles in this Issue

Tabula Rasa, by John Falk
Hole in the World, by Liz Dolan
Claude Garamond, by Simon Loxley
Smyrna, by Robert Bevan
El Presidente, by Wayne Curtis
Infectious Disease, by Charles L. Mee
Guidance Counseling, by Gabrielle Moss
Haberdashery, by Charles Roderick
Art History, by Rebecca Solnit
April 2006


Robert Bevan is former editor of Building Design and writes regularly on architectural, design, and housing issues for national newspapers. He lives in Australia.

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