Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago

Following the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) gradually began to dominate Ottoman politics, gaining full power by 1913. Pursuing Turkification policies was one of the main paths followed by the CUP, accompanied by a move toward absolute centralism to prevent further collapse of the empire. Toward this end, ethnic and religious homogenization of its remaining territories became one of the CUP’s most urgent tasks. This led to the Armenian genocide in 1915, in which more than one million Armenians were massacred. However, after leading the Ottoman Empire to total defeat in World War I, the CUP was unable to retain power. In the following years, Turkish nationalist forces united around the leadership of Mustafa Kemal and were able to mobilize the remaining Muslim communities in the struggle to defend the country. The success of this struggle was recognized by the international powers in Lausanne in 1923. It was followed by the reign of Kemalism, whose exclusionist Turkish nationalism pursued objectives similar to those of the CUP. A regime of denial and historical amnesia was consolidated in Turkey after the 1920s. The regime maintained that the genocide was actually a mutual slaughter (mukatele) in which all sides were culpable. The state-sponsored discourse of Turkish nationalism also claimed that Anatolia has been a Turkish homeland for thousands of years; as a result, attempts to establish the actual history of the previous inhabitants of Anatolia were interpreted as threats aiming to destroy the “indivisible unity” of the Turkish nation. This view also legitimized cultural genocide targeting the Armenian community, as well as the tacit approval of vandalism aimed at the Armenian cultural heritage. Over the decades, the Armenian past in Anatolia was gradually erased from the collective memory of Turkish society, as the nationalist project achieved success. Taking all these historical developments into account, the memorialization project “Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago” emerged in 2005 as an attempt to break through the discourse of denial and remind Turks of the significant role played by Armenians in economic and cultural life of the Empire for 500 years.

Status

Completed

Date

2005 — 2008

Scope and Purpose

The main purpose of this memorialization project has been to remind Turks of the presence of Armenians in Turkey. The project relies on postcards from the private collection of businessman Orlando Carlo Calumeno, which includes approximately 4,000 postcards with pictures taken during the late Ottoman period. It began as a dynamic memorialization effort, with postcard exhibitions in various cities; in 2005, 750 of the postcards were reproduced in a book. The postcards are real photographs that serve as primary documentation of the social, cultural and economic history of Armenians in Turkey. The postcards include images of Armenian churches, schools, hotels, monasteries, neighborhoods, shops and companies photographed during the 1910-1914 period. The coordinator of the project is Osman Köker, a well-known Turkish publisher. In addition to the exhibitions, a series of explanatory workshops was organized around them. Considerable attention was paid to this project by both Turks wishing to rediscover the Armenian past and members of the Armenian community. Because the so-called Armenian question is among the most highly politicized issues in Turkey, the project endeavored to confront the discourse of denial by simply illuminating the historical presence of Armenians in Turkey, while avoiding any overt statements. Other projects by Osman Köker and the book’s publisher concern the historical heritage of non-Muslim communities in Turkey.

Impact

This memorialization project was one of the first to address the Armenian past in Turkey, and it helped to begin a process of “awakening” towards that past. The exhibit “Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago” visited more than 20 cities in Turkey, as well as Armenia and Germany, and thus reached a substantial audience. It was thus not confined to the larger Turkish cities; it also went to various cities in Anatolia. In Istanbul, more than 7,000 people visited the exhibition. The photographs made a significant impression on both Armenians and Turks. An elderly Armenian wrote, “I am so happy I could die” in the guestbook after viewing the exhibition. Osman Köker, who initiated the project, personally witnessed the perplexed faces of people visiting the exhibition, a clear indication of their surprise at learning about the Armenian past in Turkey. In Turkish nationalist discourse, Armenians have been depicted as enemies and potential betrayers of the Turkish nation. The historical evidence of the Armenian contribution to the social and economic life of the Ottoman Empire made it clear—for many people, for the first time—that living together was an option. A Turkish visitor to the exhibition in Istanbul wrote in the guestbook, “It is impossible not to be moved. But more importantly, we learn… I hope that we, as Turks, will learn to see more with our hearts. Then everything would be very different.”

Challenges

The Armenian question is one of the most highly politicized issues in Turkey. Any discussion of the Armenians can quickly turn into a debate about whether what happened in 1915 was or was not genocide, or the ASALA murders of Turkish diplomats. Tensions surrounding the Armenian question escalated in 2005, after this memorialization project was created. A conference on the Ottoman Armenians initiated by NGOs and intellectuals that was to be held at Boğaziçi University, in collaboration with Sabancı and Bilgi Universities, had to be postponed due to state policies and the fact that Boğaziçi University was a state university. Its location was changed to Bilgi University after Cemil Çiçek, then Minister of Justice, accused the organizers of “stabbing the Turkish nation in the back.” The issue then became one of the most hotly debated topics in Turkey. Because of these discussions, plans to show the exhibition in various Anatolian cities were postponed, some news agencies refused to publicize the exhibition, and difficulties emerged in finding venues and local partners in a majority of Turkish cities outside of Istanbul.