Conference: Armenian Heritage in Turkey

20 November 2008

On November 13 AGBU Europe, Armenian General Benevolent Union, the largest Armenian Diaspora organization in the world, organized a conference in the European Parliament entitled “A Journey of Cultural Rediscover: Armenian Heritage in Turkey.”

This event was organized under the Aegis of Bernard Lehideux, French Member of the European Parliament with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Brussels office.

The conference aimed to highlight the efforts of some individuals in Turkey to reclaim the memory and rescue the cultural heritage of the Armenians, which had been all but destroyed in the 1915 genocide. The conference also aimed to identify prospects for restoring and preserving what remains of the considerable cultural heritage left by the Armenians in all parts of the country.

The event was attended by numerous people, including Armenians and Turks, academics and writers as well as representatives of the European Commission and Parliament, all of whom expressed unreserved support for the objectives of the conference.

The speakers at the conference presented the results of years of research and documentation, highlighting, strikingly, the considerable Armenian contribution to Turkey, which remains largely unknown in the country: from (Armenian architect) Sinan’s 16th C. mosque in Edirne at one end of the country to the Armenian school in Erzerum that hosted Ataturk’s Erzerum Congress, at the other end.

Often emphasizing the built heritage, speakers showed the extent of destruction in the 20th Century, and all called for serious restoration work to begin without delay.

Turkish author Fethiye Cetin told of her own, personal journey following her belated discovery that her grandmother was Armenian. She told of the moving and overwhelmingly sympathetic response to her book in Turkey. Her presentation expressed the importance of emotions and of empathy as a driving force in the rediscovery that is now under way.

Osman Koker, historian and journalist, author of the book “Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago” presented Turkish postcards (used also in his book), showing Armenian churches, monasteries, schools, factories, shops from the beginning of the XX century in the territories of today’s Turkey. Many churches and buildings were destroyed and nobody today knows that once they were Armenian.

To edit his book, published in 2005 in Turkey, Koker studied a private collection of 4000 postcards belonging to the collector Orlando Kalumeno Carlo. 700 postcards were showing the life style, the customs and the habits of the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia in 1895-1914.

Historian Ara Sarafian, returning from another prolonged stay in Eastern Turkey, reported on two parallel and competing currents in Turkey, one that seeks to continue to portray Armenians as alien an threatening, the other keen on rediscovery.

Having described in some detail disheartening instances of the destruction which continues to this day, intentional or through neglect, of numerous architectural masterpieces, Prof. Patrick Donabedian (France) moved on to point to some initiatives in Turkey to protect Armenian heritage – various societies have been established to research it, while Turkey’s Culture Minister recently declared that he was prepared to have a Museum built to Armenian author William Saroyan in his native Bitlis.

Prof Donabedian also claimed that the Turkish government may even hand back to the Armenian church and foundations the numerous buildings which had been confiscated from them.

Emphasizing the significance of culture and cultural heritage in EU policy, and its important role in addressing conflict, European Commission representative and Head of the EC’s Turkey Team presented a pioneering € 3 Million cultural heritage project launched in the Balkans, which may inspire similar work in Turkey; Bernard Lehideux MEP, the conference’s host, echoed his words.

Speakers generally agreed that work must continue in this direction, in a cooperative and dignified manner, in the context of the European institutions. Besides practical work, there is much research, educational work and exchange of experience to do, and much left to discover or rediscover.

This work, they emphasized, is important to the development of Turkish society; it is important for Armenians in Turkey; it is important for the Armenian Diaspora; and it can also contribute to improving relations between Turkey and Armenia. Rediscovering and rescuing Armenian heritage can make a significant contribution to Turkey’s economy, too, particularly in the country’s impoverished East, through investment and tourism.

The rediscovery, finally, is important for the EU, which needs Turkey to overcome its taboos and internal contradictions before its possible accession to the EU.