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Between Exposure and Erasure: The Armenian Heritage of Arapgir in Present-Day Eastern Turkey

Une excursion à Arapgir : les traces du passé arménien dans la Turquie actuelle, entre patrimonialisation et effacement
Laurent Dissard
p. 25-49

Résumés

Située en Anatolie orientale, la ville d’Arapgir a récemment engagé un projet ambitieux de rénovation destiné à attirer les touristes. Dans cette optique, la municipalité cherche à réinventer une identité locale à travers la restauration de son patrimoine architectural et la mise en avant de ses richesses naturelles. Cet article étudie la manière dont se conduit la patrimonialisation à Arapgir et s’intéresse plus particulièrement à la présence-absence du passé arménien de la ville. La restauration du cimetière arménien d’Arapgir illustre l’ambivalence de la politique suivie par la municipalité en la matière.

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Texte intégral

1The key was not hard to locate. Mikail kneeled down and found it under a large stone. He unlocked the gate and let us inside. We entered what looked like an abandoned parcel of land covered with grass. We had reached the Armenian cemetery of Arapgir.

*

  • 1 T.A. Sinclair, 1989, p. 56. D. Quataert, 1993, p. 65-66, 99. F. Yücel, 1967.

2Arapgir is a small town of less than 20,000 today located near the Upper Euphrates in the Malatya Province of Eastern Turkey. It is divided into an old city (known as the eskişehir mahallesi) and a new town situated less than 5km to its southeast. Arapgir became a busy trading town and industrial center in the 19th century. Wholesale goods such as iron, glass, soap, and olive oil transited through Arapgir from Antep, Aleppo, or Beirut to Europe, while cloth and other products from France and England made their way to the Middle East. The city expanded as early as the 1830s thanks also to its textile industry, up to 1,000 looms at the time weaving cotton goods from British yarns.1

  • 2 According to the 1913-1914 census by the Armenian Patriarchate, there were 10,880 Armenians, 9 chur (...)
  • 3 H. Al-Rustom, 2015, p. 454.

3During this period of industrial growth, Arapgir’s wealthiest families built large mansions away from the old town. As a new city emerged, Arapgir eventually became larger than Harput, the vilayet’s capital, and remained an important business center until the 20th century. At the turn of the century, Arapgir possessed a large and thriving Armenian community.2 After 1915, however, its population diminished from several thousand to a few hundred. By the 1950s, the last Armenian families had almost all migrated to Istanbul and other western cities in search of better economic opportunities.3

4Recently, Arapgir’s municipality has embarked on an ambitious project to restore its architectural heritage and promote its different cultural and natural assets. The town has reinvented its cultural identity, transitioning from a typical Anatolian, rural town into what the mayor hopes will be a tourist destination. Arapgir’s Armenian heritage has been somewhat of a burden for the municipality as it negotiates how exactly to include it in its broader tourism strategy. This article examines the manner in which cultural heritage is produced in Arapgir, and explains the presence and absence of an Armenian past within this broader push to develop tourism.

  • 4 It thus follows the footsteps of M. Girard, 2014, 2015 (and more particularly T. Ter Minassian, 201 (...)

5Towards the end of the paper, I describe in more detail this absence-presence in the renovation of Arapgir by focusing on the town’s Armenian cemetery. I use this specific example to discuss how the past of a contested “other” is included and excluded, remembered and forgotten, exposed and erased today in Turkey. As such, the paper is not a history of Arapgir per se, but rather a modest ethnographic inquiry into questions of approval and denial of the Armenian past in present-day Turkey.4 I foreground my own voice throughout the paper to illustrate the manner in which I personally came across what I call the simultaneous exposure and erasure of Armenian heritage during my visit to this small Eastern Anatolian town once constitutive of Armenia Minor.

Arapgir’s Only “Tourist”

6I had passed by Arapgir before but never stopped to visit. Over the years, I have spent much time at nearby Keban researching the construction of its dam finished in 1974. I have also travelled extensively around the Keban Dam reservoir looking for what I call the region’s “submerged stories.” Not having been directly affected by the construction of the dam, Arapgir had thus far been outside of my area of fieldwork. I arrived to the small Upper Euphrates town late one Friday afternoon. For once, I would put my notebook and pen down. Just curious to learn more about a place I had never stopped to visit, I certainly had no intention of writing an article about it.

  • 5 The Millet Hanı is an old Ottoman, wooden inn recently restored into an “authentic” butik otel by t (...)
  • 6 The tandır kebab is a specialty of Arapgir consisting of large lamb pieces baked for hours in an ov (...)
  • 7 Responsible for the observance of municipal rules and ordinances, the zabita is under the authority (...)

7It was the end of summer. My first stop was the belediye (municipality) building in the hope of meeting someone who could tell me about Arapgir’s past. On their way out for the weekend, a few members of staff told me I could stay at the recently opened Millet Hanı,5 and that someone would pick me up the next morning at 8:00. As the only tourist in town, I checked in the newly renovated, but empty hotel. I then had dinner in the one restaurant serving Arapgir’s specialty, the real tandır kebab.6 Early next morning, my host Mustafa (as I found out later, the municipality’s zabita7) was waiting for me at the reception. Our first destination that Saturday was the eskişehir mahallesi.

  • 8 T.A. Sinclair, 1989, p. 56 offers a similar description of the “old city” he visited in the early 1 (...)

8This part of Arapgir, known as the “old city,” seemed at first entirely abandoned. The few houses still visible were almost all deserted, slowly turning into piles of stones rolling down to the river.8 Mustafa told me that only a few gardens and orchards were still being looked after in the summer. The municipality had recently cleared a dirt road zigzagging through this serene and green valley. Our first stop that morning was at a fish restaurant in a small cabin made of concrete hidden at the start of the road. After ordering two cups of tea, the conversation changed tone as the owner complained about the risk of losing his liquor license. A representative of the AKP-led municipality, Mustafa calmly explained to him that there were simply too many fights at night because of the alcohol.

  • 9 The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), better known by its acronym AKP, is (...)
  • 10 Alevis in Turkey follow aspects of Shi’a Islam mixed with many other religious components. They are (...)

9Restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol have been tightened recently in Turkey under AKP rule.9 Was the municipality simply following orders coming from Ankara? I wondered what the real extent of problems linked to alcoholism and violence was here. Later, I would understand that the liquor license hid a deeper divide in the town between a majority Sunni Muslim population and its Alevi minority.10 For the time being, however, we finished drinking our teas and left the restaurant without having resolved the issue. Afterwards, Mustafa wanted to clear the air and explained that foreigners (later I understood he meant Christian Armenian tourists) would still be able to drink wine during lunch or dinner in the back of the restaurant next to the waterfall. Why Mustafa needed to point this out was unclear to me at this moment of my trip.

  • 11 A. Uluçam, 1988.
  • 12 Originally, the Ulu Camii included elements of a zaviye, a monastic institution for dervishes, and (...)

10We continued our visit and passed many ancient ruins in Arapgir’s old city, connecting different points of historical interest left and right through the forest: from the recently restored 19th c. Mosque of Arapgir’s former Customs Director Osman Pasha11 to the Molla Eyüp Mescidi, a much older school and library also refurbished. We later walked up a steep path covered with shrubs to the impressive 14th century Ulu Camii, once the center of Arapgir.12 I was told how this Grand Mosque would also be renovated by the mayor very soon.

Figure 1: Mihrab with graffiti inside the soon-to-be-restored Ulu Camii (all photographs by author)

11I had quick conversations with the imams working in the empty Cafer Paşa Camii and Şakir Paşa Camii, and was told repeatedly how historic a place this was. Mustafa informed me that there were 60 historical sites in the eskişehir and 200 heritage areas, 90 of which had already been documented and listed. I was reminded to take photographs at every stop we made, including the old city’s numerous bridges, the poorly restored Meydan Köprüsü as well as the older Roman period Taş Köprüsü.

Figure 2: After restoration, the Meydan Köprüsü no longer looking like an “old” bridge

  • 13 In reality, a collection of coins, tools, paintings, and other memorabilia decorating the house of (...)
  • 14 The ethnographic museum was opened in 1996 by Mustafa Gürer in memory of his son Ali Gürer who died (...)

12I was also told repeatedly how fresh the spring water was here each time we stopped to drink it. In other words, I was being convinced that Arapgir had many tourist-worthy attributes and was indeed a special place to visit. In the afternoon, we drove out of the old town to its surrounding villages. “There are as many places to see around Arapgir than in the city itself,” Mustafa explained. “Tourists should make sure to spend time visiting both.” We made our way to a series of Roman caves, some decorated with rock art, and also stopped in a village on the way to Ağin to visit its “arts and crafts” museum.13 We also drove the long road up to Ocak Köyü, a Turkish-speaking Alevi village home of the Ali Gürer Museum.14

  • 15 Hidden Armenians are the descendants of Armenians in Turkey forced to convert to Islam after the Ar (...)

13On our way back to Arapgir, Mustafa inserted a CD he had brought with him in the car’s player. It was contemporary Armenian choir music given to him by an Armenian friend who came to visit a few years ago. I never asked about Arapgir’s Armenians to Mustafa during my visit. They nonetheless came up in our conversations incessantly. In the morning, I was surprised when he told me that Armenians would still be able to drink wine in the fish restaurant. Mustafa never probed me, but did he assume I was Armenian myself? Or, was he scared I would dissuade Christian tourists by telling them wine was forbidden here? Listening to the music in the car, I wondered if he would have played the same songs to a Turkish tourist. Was he pushing the theme on me simply because I was a foreigner? Or, was he himself perhaps a hidden Armenian?15 He never asked me, and I never asked him. Having already brought me to many Sunni mosques and Alevi villages, perhaps he was simply trying to establish a balance, genuinely interested in portraying his city’s multiple religious identities to a foreigner just passing by.

14While listening to his friend’s CD, Mustafa seized the occasion to tell me about Arapgir’s ermeni mezarlığı, the town’s Armenian cemetery. He would take me there tomorrow, he said. I agreed. Our visit that day was coming to an end. I would find out more about the city and its cemetery on Sunday. We made it back to Arapgir in the early evening. I spent one more night in the Millet Hanı, as Arapgir’s only tourist, and met Mustafa again the next morning at 8:00.

  • 16 ÇEKÜL (Çevre ve Kültür Değerlerini Koruma va Tanıtma Vakfı or Foundation for the Protection and Pro (...)

15The second day was spent in Arapgir’s new town, less than 5km away from the eskişehir. In stark contrast, this part of Arapgir consists, for the most part, of a blend of concrete buildings mushrooming around the gray and dull Atatürk Caddesi. From this main avenue, however, a few narrower, mostly pedestrian streets scatter through the town with their tall, wooden 19th century homes. Many of these houses have been abandoned, while the few still inhabited are barely standing. Here too, the municipality has recently undertaken renovation work in the hope of turning these konaks (or mansions) into restaurants, hotels, and wedding salons. Out of an astonishingly high 1,100 houses built more than 100 years ago using traditional techniques, a total of 185 have been drawn and recorded by the Istanbul-based ÇEKÜL association.16

  • 17 The Aydınlars are a wealthy Turkish family who left Arapgir decades ago to establish Acıbadem in Is (...)

16I was taken to different houses including the Metin Emiroğlu Konağı, the Bay Cemil Konağı, and the Kaşkaloğlu Konağı. I was also shown the house of the wealthy Aydınlar, an Arapgir family who has also funded the restoration of a nearby mosque.17 During our walk, Mustafa would now and then point out houses that had belonged to Armenian families in the past. We eventually made our way to the location of the once monumental Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God, first built in the 13th century but entirely destroyed in the 1950s.

17

Figure 3: Stones marking the emplacement of Arapgir’s Armenian Cathedral

  • 18 R.H. Kévorkian and P.B. Paboudjian, 1992, p. 375.
  • 19 For an account of the deportations and massacres of Armenians in Arapgir during the year 1915, plea (...)

18There was nothing left to see, only a few large stones barely rendering its emplacement visible. Mustafa informed me that much of the church had been recycled (geri dönüşüm) for a nearby school. I was only able to ask him a few more questions about the church, but he apparently did not know more about its history. I felt very privileged nonetheless that a member of Arapgir’s municipality had brought me to its ruins. After all, I had never asked him to show me what was once a colossal building that I had only seen in a photograph before.18 I did not want to seem ungrateful at that particular moment by cornering Mustafa with difficult questions. Throughout my visit, I never felt comfortable using the word soykırım (genocide) with him. In fact, I would never be able to push myself that weekend to ask anyone in Arapgir what they thought had happened here a hundred years ago.19

19

Figure 4: Remaining traces in situ of the Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Arapgir

20I had perhaps just missed my chance to interrogate Mustafa about the Armenian Genocide. If my questions might not have offended him, they would have certainly put him in an uncomfortable position. And this was the last thing I wanted for my host. He had taken the time to bring me to the ruins themselves and not tried to hide them. Instead of my posing questions, we walked around the few remaining stones on the ground in silence and picked some blackberries from the bushes growing near the ruins. After a few more minutes, we continued our visit to the ruins of a nearby hamam, also abandoned but in a much better state of preservation.

  • 20 This devasa (colossal) campus, I was told, would consist of the usual classrooms, labs, cafeteria, (...)

21After lunch, I was invited to meet Arapgir’s mayor, Haluk Cömertoğlu, in the tea garden adjacent to the restaurant. He repeated much of what Mustafa had already told me about the historic places visited. He was particularly happy about the restoration of the city’s Muslim heritage, never lingering on the region’s important Armenian or Alevi sites like Mustafa did. After enumerating Arapgir’s many heritage projects, the mayor also mentioned some of its newer constructions: Arapgir’s new Anadolu Teacher’s College, for instance, described as an important hizmet (or service), a 20 million Turkish Liras investment made by a wealthy businessman originally from Arapgir.20 It seemed clear in the mayor’s mind that building the future of Arapgir went hand-in-hand with preserving its past.

  • 21 In 2014, Turkey attracted more than 40 million tourists. The tourism industry is Turkey’s second mo (...)
  • 22 Safranbolu, a town near the Black Sea in Northwestern Turkey, possesses a large number of restored (...)

22I mentioned to the mayor how the city possessed a lot of potential to attract tourists in the future (silently wondering to myself, as the only one in town, when that would happen).21 If nearby Kemaliye had benefitted from tourism, why not Arapgir? After all, with its many wooden Ottoman homes, it was comparable to Safranbolu as I had been told several times during my visit.22 In addition, visitors could even find in the immediate vicinity of Arapgir some Peri Bacaları (or fairy chimneys) just like the ones in Cappadocia, another Turkish model of “successful” tourism development.

23During this somewhat formal conversation in the tea garden, I wanted to express my gratitude to Mustafa and the mayor for their hospitality. Feeling a debt towards them, I turned to the mayor and praised the municipality for its hard work safeguarding Arapgir’s “historic authenticity.” I told him it was wonderful that his team would be able to keep things the way they are in the future. His answer was somewhat unexpected: “No,” he replied, “we have no intention of keeping the way Arapgir is, but rather give it a direction (yön vermek).”

Giving A Direction

24What direction is being given to Arapgir more precisely? What is the municipality doing to preserve the town’s historic authenticity? And, how is the mayor planning to attract tourists in the near future? Unsurprisingly, a strong emphasis is placed on the “rich” history of this Upper Euphrates town. Haluk Cömertoğlu describes Arapgir’s past as a 10,000-year-old lifestyle that has never been abandoned. He adds how different civilizations have lived in this tarih yeri (historic place), one on top of another, for millennia. For some, the town is the nucleus of the Upper Euphrates Valley itself. For others, it belongs to the Mesopotamian “cradle of civilization,” even though technically it lies outside the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nonetheless, the municipality credits Arapgir’s unique position as a cultural crossroads for having generated this wealth of history. It is this rich past, above everything else, that is foregrounded in the effort to develop tourism.

  • 23 A. Gür, 2010, p. 74.
  • 24 On the interrelationship between presence and absence, and the manner in which absences take power (...)

25This is not a surprising strategy. After all, every large enough town in Turkey makes the same claim, true or false, to possess a 10,000-year-old history and multiple layers of civilizations, as well as being a regional cultural center.23 What strikes the visitor, however, is how vague these claims are. Specific names (Ottoman, Seljuk, Byzantine) are given by the municipality, but references to anything specific about them are omitted. Likewise, Arapgir claims proudly that different religions (din) and sects (mezhep) have existed here side-by-side in the past. Again, no specific details are revealed about which ones in particular. Instead, these vague terms hide the uncomfortable absence of Armenians in the past and the disputed presence of Alevis in the present.24

26The town’s multi-cultural and multi-religious history is crucial for another reason. According to the mayor, this “rich” past has given people in Arapgir specific attributes and instilled in them good moral values. Having to coexist with their differences over time, he rationalizes, the Arapgirli (or people from Arapgir) have become more tolerant of one another. Birlik (unity) is a theme repeatedly echoed in the town. Haluk Cömertoğlu explains proudly and unabashedly how “togetherness has reached its peak here,” adding that, “the town is like a brotherhood!” I was also told by other people across town how, unlike the two largest cities of Malatya and Elazığ nearby, misafirperverlik (hospitality) is particularly strong here. Here was another trait the municipality could foreground in its push to attract visitors.

27Additional themes are echoed in tourist brochures advertising the town as a potential destination. Eski yaşam (ancient living), for example, has become another selling point as Arapgir transitions away from its former rural, Anatolian identity. What precisely does this refer to? In this otantik (authentic) town, eski yaşam has been lost and needs to be found again according to the municipality. Described to me as a “lost culture,” it is also deeply connected to üretim (production), another keyword. Üretim, which originates from people’s hands, can refer, for example, to the town’s lost architectural tradition. It includes other traditional craftsmanship as well: a shoemaker using wooden nails (tahta civili ayakkabı), a smith fashioning various metal tools “like centuries ago,” or an old-fashioned saddle maker, who have all been encouraged by the municipality to continue their crafts in the new town. Women in Arapgir are also asked to participate in reviving this lost culture by weaving carpets and tending gardens. The mayor hopes to transform üretim, this traditional craftsmanship and relic of the past, into a new type of product to attract tourists in a near future.

  • 25 I must note here that organizing hikes in a region where frequent clashes occur between the Turkish (...)

28In addition, the region of Arapgir is particularly fertile with fruits and vegetables growing abundantly. Local products like mulberries, peppers, thyme, tomatoes, etc. are grown in gardens and sent with pride across Turkey from the town’s bus station. The grape has become the town’s symbol reproduced on advertisements, and wine has started to be produced locally again. These products from the earth are also connected to Arapgir’s üretim and eski yaşam, and foregrounded like other natural assets to attract visitors, who will kayak down rivers, hike unexplored valleys, and bike through wilderness in the future.25 The region’s endemic fauna and flora (like everywhere else in Turkey) is also unique here. Several kültür ve doğa yürüyüş rotaları (cultural and natural walk routes) have been drawn around Arapgir with the help of Atlas Dergisi, the Turkish equivalent of National Geographic. Even the activity of “tending your own garden” is being developed as a potential hobby for urbanites coming to Arapgir in the near future. Not designed with local people in mind, these activities are instead geared at “foreigners” coming from Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir or abroad in search of nature and wilderness.

29I was told by the mayor that Arapgirli have learned to live in harmony with nature over the millennia. The region is more than just a fertile area where everything grows however. Its coğrafya, that is, its physical geography and not just the nature around, constitutes perhaps its best-hidden treasure. In the eskişehir, Mustafa pointed to a house where a couple from Istanbul had recently moved in order to get rid of their breathing diseases. It is well known by locals how the “right” wind blows from above the mountains directly into this valley. A few people in town still remember how in the old days its springs could cure illnesses. Mustafa added that the water here is purer than anything out of a plastic bottle. Arapgir’s rugged but healthy geography is another characteristic the municipality is transforming into a potential touristic asset.

30Shadowing the showcase of its cultural and natural assets, however, the municipality’s massive renovation project will also give Arapgir its new direction. What I witnessed during my visit was a complete overhaul of the city’s architecture. In the eskişehir, Sunni Muslim heritage has taken center stage. With its refurbished mosques set among green vegetation almost devoid of people, the old city’s religious architecture has become part of a bucolic landscape disconnected from history and politics. In the new town, building renovations follow a well-established strategy in Turkey already tested in cities like Safranbolu. Restoration efforts focus on the mansions of wealthy families, which are slowly being transformed into restaurants and hotels, or a city museum and wedding salon for another two. Here, renovation means embellishment more than anything else. The old, wooden konaks are refurbished for aesthetic rather than historical reasons, and consequently detached from their concrete siblings built more recently, but deemed less tasteful.

31Here, the interrelated issue of class and race in historical preservation figure in subtle and interesting ways. The restorations favor the upper class families that once made Arapgir wealthy, urban, and cosmopolitan during its economic height in the 19th century. While emphasizing one particular type of past, sidelining poorer and rural Arapgir, the renovations also omit the building’s ethnic and religious affiliations. During my visit, Mustafa did mention which houses were Armenian, but never divulged more details. The fact that nothing architecturally makes them “Armenian” renders it easier today to hide the town’s former ethnic and religious differences behind the recent repairs. Once restored, in other words, the mansions are further removed from their past identity and from the politics of the place.

32After its architectural renovation is complete, Arapgir will have something for everyone to visit. From the point of view of the municipality, its heritage production will not exclude nor favor anyone: history fanatics, nature enthusiasts, devout Muslims, and more secular-minded guests will all have something to do in the city. During my tour, I was taken to ancient ruins, green valleys, restored mosques, soon-to-be-opened museums, and a ruined cathedral. Supposedly, even Armenian tourists will find something to see in Arapgir, even if just traces of it. As such, the town’s revamping follows a kind of unwritten heritage checklist: tarih yeri (historic place), birlik (unity), misafirperverlik (hospitality), eski yaşam (ancient living), üretim (production), coğrafya (geography), etc.

  • 26 See p. 36.

33Arapgir seems to have it all. It replicates a formula already proven effective in order to become a regional center attracting both Turkish and foreign visitors. The future tourist will indeed find the town attractive and recognize its architecture as historic, but will probably never acquire a real understanding of its past. In Arapgir, a visitor only experiences a superficial feeling of its history. Very little information was provided to me during my visit, for example, and especially nothing controversial. The restorations, which are not meant to give a better idea of the town’s history, have ironically disconnected the buildings from their past. I was indeed visiting a tarih yeri26, but only because the mayor claimed it was so. In the end, Arapgir’s past remained somewhat elusive. History here only seemed to have been revived to satisfy the pecuniary demands of tourism development, houses restored into products that will “sell” the city to the many.

34In sum, the recent efforts by the municipality to restore Arapgir’s past have produced several effects: First, they embellish the town without explaining its history. Second, they give a sense of authenticity while simultaneously keeping the past as a-political as possible. Third, they focus on the history of upper class, merchant families leaving behind stories of the region’s poorer and more rural population. Fourth, they emphasize Sunni Muslim heritage in the old town, concealing contributions made to Arapgir’s urban landscape by other religious groups. Fifth, and related to the preceding point, the restoration efforts in the new city do not specify anything about the families that once lived there. Here again, the involvement of Arapgir’s Armenians is particularly demoted by the current restoration efforts. Last but not least, key themes developed by the municipality to attract visitors –togetherness, unity, hospitality and others– seem conveniently to expunge more disputed versions of the present and contested visions of the past.

Arapgir’s Armenian Cemetery

35It was getting late in the afternoon. My stay in Arapgir was ending but Mustafa had promised earlier to take me to the ermeni mezarlığı, Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery. We drove off and picked up his friend Mikail near the city center. Mustafa told me that he was the only one who knew where the cemetery’s key was hidden. After a 10-minute drive away from the center, we arrived in front of the cemetery and parked the car. The key was not hard to locate. Mikail kneeled down and found it under a large stone. He unlocked the gate and let us inside. We entered what looked like an abandoned parcel of land covered with grass. We had reached the Armenian cemetery of Arapgir.

36

Figure 5: Plaque indicating the entrance of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery

  • 27 See J.-F. Pérouse, 2015 for a more developed and critical perspective on TOKI (Toplu Konut Idaresi) (...)

37“In the winter,” Mikail told me, “it is hidden under a meter of snow.” I noticed the gray, TOKI-style apartment buildings surrounding what seemed like an empty plot.27 There was nothing conspicuous here at first. No visible tombstones, no Armenian inscriptions, just a small sign by the gate written in Turkish, Armenian, and English indicating its presence. Walking a bit further, I began to spot, here and there, a few rectangular blocks made of cement. This dozen or so regularly laid-down tombs formed three or four lines. On top of each one, the names of the deceased were clearly legible.

Figure 6: The newly “restored” tombs of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery

38A second type of tomb made out of stone was harder to discern, some half-buried under the earth. Dispersed sporadically with no apparent logic, these older graves were in a poor state of preservation. Unlike the first set, I could not distinguish any dates or decorations on them, and the names of the deceased engraved in Turkish were barely noticeable.

Figure 7: The older stone tombs of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery

39I stopped in front of one and started talking to Mikail: “I work as a carpenter in the city center,” he said, “Every morning, I walk here to look after the cemetery.” With the help of his brother, he keeps the parcel clean, plants flowers, and cares for the trees. Over the years, the two brothers have also learned to know every stone by heart. I asked Mustafa later why the municipality had appointed them the cemetery’s bekçi (or custodians). He told me that they were Arapgir’s last two Armenians. In their 40s now, I also understood that their parents had not been rich enough to give them an education and that they never had the chance to leave the city and find a vocation elsewhere.

40

Figure 8: General view of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery

41The two siblings do their work in the cemetery well. They have located the old tombs, which Mikail said were “abandoned” by the families. After finding them and washing them, as well as identifying them when possible, the municipality contacts the relatives of the deceased, for the most part living in Istanbul. If the family agrees, the old stone tombs are then “restored,” that is replaced by a new grave made of concrete. Approximately twenty of these “restorations” have been completed so far.

42I asked Mikail: “Who had come up with the idea of restoring the cemetery in the first place?” In 2010, a group of friends from Istanbul, Armenians whose families were originally from Arapgir, came to visit their hometown. They stopped by the cemetery but could barely see the tombs. Their graveyard was not being looked after. The plot of land itself had begun to erode and split into two. They left Arapgir that year with the feeling that no one was taking care of their ancestors. Upon their return to Istanbul, the friends formed what they called the Arapgir Mezarlığı Onarım Heyeti (Arapgir’s Cemetery Repair Mission).

  • 28 Arapgir Mezarliği Onarim Heyeti, “Arapgir Ermeni Mezarlığı onarımı için el ele”, Agos, 15 July, 20 (...)

43In July 2011, the group published a piece in the Turkish-Armenian weekly AGOS, “our newspaper” as they call it, seeking support from anyone in the Armenian community interested in the restoration of the cemetery.28 Here, restoring serves a different purpose for the group of friends, who perceive their mission as empowering Turkish-Armenians around their heritage. By reaching out to the entire Armenian community through AGOS, the repair mission saw their efforts as having wider implications for all Turkish-Armenians with roots in Anatolia and ancestors buried in other abandoned graveyards. The restoration would strengthen their community’s bonds, allowing friends and relatives to come together. It would enable Armenians living in Turkey to connect with their past while paying homage to their ancestors. Perhaps, the project might also help a few hemşehri (fellow citizens) return to their homeland and come to terms with their own memories. In other words, reviving the tombs through prayers and ceremonies was a way to repossess a past forgotten and reclaim a lost intangible heritage.

44In the end, with the assistance of Mayor Haluk Cömertoğlu, the District Governor of Arapgir, and the President of Arapgir’s Cultural Association, the mission finalized plans to rescue and retrofit the graveyard according to Armenian religious customs. The cemetery’s opening ceremony took place in October 2011, a relatively sizeable event with more than 40 Armenian Arapgirli from Istanbul in attendance. Local newspapers covered the religious service, which brought together key figures in the town’s social and political life. Alongside the usual local government representatives and Arapgir’s müftü (mufti), some of the religious leaders of Turkey’s Armenian community also joined the event.

  • 29 “Arapgir Ermeni Mezarlığı Onarıldı”, 9 October, 2011, last accessed on 25 October, 2016, http://ha (...)

45Müran Ayvazian, the Bishop of Uç Horan Armenian Church in Beyoğlu, came all the way from Istanbul that day for the opening ceremony and offered the following words: “Armenians and Muslims are brothers, they are friends… Here, as in different parts of Turkey, Armenians and Muslims lived together in peace.” He then added: “May our Lord never bring decadence to our state, and may he keep it always victorious. May he never deprive us, Armenians, who lived in this land for centuries, and who benefited from its water and its air, of our homeland. God bless you all.” Ayvazian then ended his speech with prayers for then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mother, who had just passed away a few days earlier.29 During other events held at the cemetery, Mayor Haluk Cömertoğlu also echoed similar themes already developed to promote tourism in his city: “Religions unite people,” “We are here like brothers,” etc.

  • 30 Another similar Armenian cemetery recently “restored” by the HAYCAR Association of Architects and E (...)

46As the quotes above illustrate, the priests’ sermons and politicians’ speeches ensure the ceremonies and prayers are held within contours acceptable in the Turkish Republic. Under no circumstances does anyone ever refer directly to the Armenian Genocide. The “restored” tombs belong to Armenians who passed away after 1915 and the graveyard itself is not perceived by anyone as a memorial of atrocities committed in the past. I understood instead how the place might serve a different purpose for the municipality when Mikail told me: “Sometimes, the families and children cannot be joined or refuse to travel back to Arapgir… this is hayırsız (unfaithful), but they live abroad so we have to look after their dead.” According to Mikail, it was the villagers in Arapgir, and not the families in Istanbul, who buried and looked after their dead. By taking care of these Armenian ancestors in the newly restored graveyard, Arapgir’s municipality could also portray itself as guardian of an Armenian heritage.30

Between Exposure and Erasure

47The town of Arapgir does indeed possess the potential to attract visitors. Ancient houses are restored, new hotels and restaurants are open, brochures and advertisements are printed in Turkish and English with that specific goal in mind. As I have explained here, the municipality foregrounds specific attributes in an effort to entice tourists: the town’s togetherness and ancient lifestyle, its geography and products, as well as its natural and historical wealth among other characteristics. Again, the goal here is not to keep Arapgir the way it once was, but rather give it a direction: Reviving the past through heritage preservation and architectural restoration in order to attract tourism money in a near future.

48Within this broad redefinition of Arapgir’s heritage, displaying the town’s Armenian identity too boldly would be frowned upon. If the municipality portrays the city as multi-cultural and multi-religious, it refutes any contributions made by Armenians to its history. In that sense, the local AKP municipality aligns itself with Ankara’s denial of wrongdoings to Armenians in the past. As a result, I was left wondering by the end of my trip, how many restored houses actually belonged to Armenian families? How many more abandoned churches were there for the one ruined cathedral? And, how many other cemeteries, older with perhaps the remains of victims killed in April 1915, had been left abandoned?

49Armenian heritage in the Upper Euphrates town of Arapgir has not entirely disappeared. I grasped very quickly during my visit that the town still possessed many traces of it. My host Mustafa had hinted at these several times. He played Armenian music in the car and did not consider the topic such a taboo. He showed sensitivity to the issue when he assured me that Armenians would still be able to drink wine at the restaurant. Mustafa had also brought me to the town’s former cathedral even though there was supposedly “nothing” to see. The few stones, whose presence indicated nothing else but the monument’s absence, were still deemed important enough to show me. Not least, he introduced me to Mikail who let me enter the cemetery, showing me at the same time how the municipality was doing “something” to preserve its Armenian past.

50Arapgir’s Armenian past is therefore not completely absent, even though it remains tightly trapped between inclusion and exclusion, approval and denial, exposure and erasure. By “restoring” the cemetery, the municipality has found a convenient way to acknowledge the presence of Armenians in the town’s history. But, is this at all subversive given the national context of denial? Does it challenge any prejudices or break any taboos in Turkey? The project was started by a small group of Armenians living outside of Arapgir and was later handed down to the last Armenians in town, two brothers, innocuous and grateful for the opportunity. The cemetery is also located far enough from the city center, barely visible and difficult to find, so as to not attract any unwelcome attention to the city. It is not insignificant of course. But, within the larger Turkish context, it will not create any unwanted political waves anytime soon.

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Bibliographie

Al-Rustom Hakem, “Rethinking the ‘Post-Ottoman’: Anatolian Armenians as an Ethnographic Perspective”, in Soraya Altorki (ed.), A Companion to the Anthropology of the Middle East, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, p. 452-479.

Altinay Ayşe Gül and ÇETIN Fethiye, The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of “Lost” Armenians in Turkey, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2014.

Arat Yeşim, “Religion, Politics and Gender Equality in Turkey: Implications of a Democratic Paradox?”, Third World Quarterly, vol. 31 (6), 2010, p. 869-884.

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Mallet Laurent, “Le tourisme en Turquie : de la manne financière aux changements de mentalités”, Hérodote, vol. 127 (4), 2007, p. 89-102.

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Sinclair Thomas Alan, Eastern Turkey: An Architectural and Archaeological Survey, Vol. 3, London: The Pindar Press, 1989.

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Uluçam Abdüsselam, “Arapgir Gümrükçü Osman Paşa Camii Hakkında”, Vakıflar Dergisi, vol. 20, 1988, p. 119-130.

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Note de fin

1 T.A. Sinclair, 1989, p. 56. D. Quataert, 1993, p. 65-66, 99. F. Yücel, 1967.

2 According to the 1913-1914 census by the Armenian Patriarchate, there were 10,880 Armenians, 9 churches, and 14 schools in Arapgir at that time. R.H. Kévorkian and P.B. Paboudjian, 1992, p. 59, 375-376.

3 H. Al-Rustom, 2015, p. 454.

4 It thus follows the footsteps of M. Girard, 2014, 2015 (and more particularly T. Ter Minassian, 2015 for Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey), as well as L. Marchand and G. Perrier, 2013.

5 The Millet Hanı is an old Ottoman, wooden inn recently restored into an “authentic” butik otel by the municipality. According to locals, the two-storied building with a central courtyard and fountain was built in the 1850s. For years, the han was used as a ticaret merkezi or trading center, with 12 shops upstairs and 13 downstairs. The roof was renewed in 1980 and covered with metal plates, while the structure’s complete restoration was finished in 2010. It was opened as a hotel shortly after.

6 The tandır kebab is a specialty of Arapgir consisting of large lamb pieces baked for hours in an oven.

7 Responsible for the observance of municipal rules and ordinances, the zabita is under the authority of the local municipality and its mayor unlike the police under the jurisdiction of Turkey’s Ministry of Interior.

8 T.A. Sinclair, 1989, p. 56 offers a similar description of the “old city” he visited in the early 1980s.

9 The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), better known by its acronym AKP, is Turkey’s largest political party. Led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s current president, it has been in power since 2002. For more on the AKP’s alcohol restrictions, see Y. Arat, 2010, p. 876.

10 Alevis in Turkey follow aspects of Shi’a Islam mixed with many other religious components. They are Turkey’s largest religious minority constituting more than 15 % of its population. In Arapgir and its surrounding villages, Alevis constitute almost a third of the population. Unlike many religious Sunnis in Turkey, Alevis do not ban the consumption of alcohol.

11 A. Uluçam, 1988.

12 Originally, the Ulu Camii included elements of a zaviye, a monastic institution for dervishes, and became a mosque perhaps only in the 16th century. See T.A. Sinclair, 1989, p. 60.

13 In reality, a collection of coins, tools, paintings, and other memorabilia decorating the house of a local man who has lived for the most part of his life in Istanbul.

14 The ethnographic museum was opened in 1996 by Mustafa Gürer in memory of his son Ali Gürer who died in a car accident. Another rift exists in the region between, put broadly, Turkish-speaking and Kurdish-speaking Alevis living across the Euphrates River in the Dersim. Alevis in Ocak Köyü might differentiate themselves from their neighbors in the Dersim they consider “terrorists” helping the PKK in its fight against the Turkish army and state. According to one Alevi man I talked to after visiting the museum, they are “barbarians… who kill human lives,” which is “forbidden in our religion.”

15 Hidden Armenians are the descendants of Armenians in Turkey forced to convert to Islam after the Armenian Genocide and hide their family’s identity. Fethiye Çetin, author of the book My Grandmother: A Memoir (first published in 2004 in Turkish as Anneannem), was one of the first to reveal publicly her identity as a hidden Armenian. F. Çetin, 2008. See also A.G. Altınay and F. Çetin, 2014, p. 136-149 for a similar story in the Arapgir region.

16 ÇEKÜL (Çevre ve Kültür Değerlerini Koruma va Tanıtma Vakfı or Foundation for the Protection and Promotion of the Environment and Cultural Heritage) is a non-governmental organization based in Istanbul specializing in the promotion and preservation of Turkey’s cultural and environmental heritage. Its president, Metin Sözen, born in nearby Harput, has a keen interest in the region’s cultural heritage. After taking four years to document Arapgir’s architecture, ÇEKÜL published its inventory Arapgir Tarih, Mimari ve Yaşam: Taşınmaz Kültür Varlıkları Envanteri. See K.K. Eyüpgiller, 2014.

17 The Aydınlars are a wealthy Turkish family who left Arapgir decades ago to establish Acıbadem in Istanbul, the city’s largest chain of private hospitals. They have helped to refurbish a mosque, a hamam, and a fountain near their family home adding to the city’s restoration fever.

18 R.H. Kévorkian and P.B. Paboudjian, 1992, p. 375.

19 For an account of the deportations and massacres of Armenians in Arapgir during the year 1915, please refer to R.H. Kévorkian, 2011, p. 402-406.

20 This devasa (colossal) campus, I was told, would consist of the usual classrooms, labs, cafeteria, and sport center, as well as a “5-star” lojman, an overstatement probably for a regular student dorm with narrow rooms and even narrower bunk beds.

21 In 2014, Turkey attracted more than 40 million tourists. The tourism industry is Turkey’s second most important economic sector and accounts for 5 % of its GNP and at least 15 % of its job. L. Mallet, 2007.

22 Safranbolu, a town near the Black Sea in Northwestern Turkey, possesses a large number of restored wooden Ottoman houses in its center and other neighborhoods. Its different historic districts represent the typical urban layout and architecture of a prosperous Ottoman town. Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1994, Safranbolu is often perceived as Turkey’s success story in terms of urban renovation and tourism development. Without reaching the numbers of archaeological sites like Ephesos or seaside resorts like Bodrum in Western Turkey, Safranbolu has nonetheless attracted a relatively high number of visitors over the years.

23 A. Gür, 2010, p. 74.

24 On the interrelationship between presence and absence, and the manner in which absences take power to bear on people’s emotional and social lives, see M. Bille, F. Hastrup and T.F. Sørensen, 2010.

25 I must note here that organizing hikes in a region where frequent clashes occur between the Turkish army helped by local village guards (korucu) and Kurdish guerilla groups in the mountains seems somewhat unrealistic.

26 See p. 36.

27 See J.-F. Pérouse, 2015 for a more developed and critical perspective on TOKI (Toplu Konut Idaresi), Turkey’s Mass Housing Administration.

28 Arapgir Mezarliği Onarim Heyeti, “Arapgir Ermeni Mezarlığı onarımı için el ele”, Agos, 15 July, 2011.

29 “Arapgir Ermeni Mezarlığı Onarıldı”, 9 October, 2011, last accessed on 25 October, 2016, http://haberler.com/arapgir-deki-ermeni-mezarligi-onarildi-3047830-haberi/

30 Another similar Armenian cemetery recently “restored” by the HAYCAR Association of Architects and Engineers is located in Zara, a town approximately 70 km east of Sivas. See Zakarya Mildanoğlu, “Zara’daki kemikler haykırıyor: Böyle mi helalleşeceğiz?”, Agos, 12 July, 2013, last accessed on 25 October 2016, http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/5267/zaradaki-kemikler-haykiriyor-boyle-mi-helallesecegiz

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Mihrab with graffiti inside the soon-to-be-restored Ulu Camii (all photographs by author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Légende Figure 2: After restoration, the Meydan Köprüsü no longer looking like an “old” bridge
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,7M
Légende Figure 3: Stones marking the emplacement of Arapgir’s Armenian Cathedral
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,4M
Légende Figure 4: Remaining traces in situ of the Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Arapgir
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,7M
Légende Figure 5: Plaque indicating the entrance of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
Légende Figure 6: The newly “restored” tombs of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
Légende Figure 7: The older stone tombs of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-7.jpg
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Légende Figure 8: General view of Arapgir’s Armenian cemetery
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eac/docannexe/image/1157/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Laurent Dissard, « Between Exposure and Erasure: The Armenian Heritage of Arapgir in Present-Day Eastern Turkey », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 8 | 2016, 25-49.

Référence électronique

Laurent Dissard, « Between Exposure and Erasure: The Armenian Heritage of Arapgir in Present-Day Eastern Turkey », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 8 | 2016, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2017, consulté le 12 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eac/1157 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/eac.1157

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Auteur

Laurent Dissard

Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

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Bibliothèque Nubar de l’UGAB

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