My Akhtamar visit was a huge pile of mixed thoughts and feelings, mainly that of despair and indignation from being in physical contact with evidence of the painful truth.
Images are engraved in my mind… Of the solemn and dignified faces of Armenians praying, some touching and caressing the age-old stones of the Sourp Khatch Church, some crying…The exquisite stonework responding to my touch like a living being at the nearby thousand-year-old cemetery, totally left to destruction by the forces of nature… A land that lost its children without a trace… The official sign informing visitors about the church without a single reference to “Armenians”… The ragged mountainous landscape, once the homeland of Armenians, now welcoming people with a gigantic crescent and star of the Turkish flag, accompanied by the words “Gendarmerie–Commando”… The Kurdish people of Van expressing an almost shy, warm hospitality and a visibly apologetic way of displaying a readiness to help… But also the treasure hunters, seeing this “historical” gathering as a good opportunity to find Armenians from abroad for help in uncovering the gold that their grandparents may have buried before being massacred or taken on their death march… And a gathering in a bookstore on one of the busiest streets of Van where Ara Sarafian, an Armenian historian and the director of the Gomidas Institute from London, and Osman Koker, the founder of Birzamanlar Yayincclik from Istanbul, are presenting the book Aghtamar: A Jewel of Medieval Armenian Architecture, which they jointly published for the Akhtamar church service on Sept. 19.
My visit to Van allowed for extraordinary encounters. I met people on my way to Van, at Van, and on my way back to Istanbul, all leaving unforgettable memories in my mind.
I met an Istanbul Armenian who had lost three quarters of his lungs at the hands of his torturers in 1979 in Adana because of his leftists activities, and who years later found an entire tribe in the southeast Turkey whose members told him they were Armenian, their ancestors having converted to Islam in 1915.
I met two friends, ordinary Turkish Sunni housewives on Akhtamar Island a day before the church service, totally unpoliticized, who had bought their plane tickets months before just to be there on Sept. 19, leaving behind their husbands whom, they said, would not even dare to object, just to share the feelings of Armenians as a personal apology for their sufferings.
I met a French Armenian journalist and photographer who showed me the thousand-year-old gravestones on the island. He said the stones carved by a real master of stonemasonry would talk to you. He said he found all that happened around him in Van “strange, very strange.” His beloved grandfather had died with his secrets; whenever he’d attempted to talk of the past, he’d start to cry, and was never able to tell what happened to his family. And for the love of his grandfather, the French Armenian had decided to come to Van, and trace his grandfather’s past in his old homeland.
I met Kurds who were ready to do anything to make their Armenian guests comfortable there. Yet, also met Kurds in charge of a restaurant who refused to serve tea to a group of elderly Armenians from Istanbul because the group’s tourism agency had arranged a lunch at another restaurant, and not theirs.
On Sept. 19, the day of the church service, I saw civil servants in charge of healthcare services, members of the press, and locals from Van, all in greater numbers than the Armenians who had come to pray. Looking at the people praying and watching the liturgy on the huge screens installed in the churchyard, I saw a visible fulfillment on their faces, a satisfaction from just being on Akhtamar Island, so close to the Holy Cross Church standing majestically as a witness of the history of the Armenians. I also saw that, instead of the privacy they needed, they were constantly surrounded by not only the press but ordinary people who were wandering around them, taking photographs, trying to capture the image of praying Armenians. The churchyard was like a carnival, in total contrast to the historical setting and the meaning of the day. There was almost an environment created of disrespect—not only because of disrespectful individuals, but because of the circumstances, because of what was going on: Nobody, after all, except a few tourists, would walk around a praying Muslim in a mosque to take his photograph. A praying Armenian, though, was “newsworthy,” an interesting scene to capture–and where? In the very heart of old Armenian land, in Van!
But of all these human stories and experiences during my visit to Van, there was one that summarized the whole truth. I met a woman, a Diyarbakir Armenian still living in Diyarbakir, who told the story of an old Armenian lady from Yerevan. At the hotel in Van, just before leaving for the concert organized on the occasion of the church service at Akhtamar, a decent looking Turkish gentleman had kindly asked the group whether anyone was from a certain old Armenian village in Van; he said he wanted to hear about that village. When it was understood that the elderly lady from Yerevan was the granddaughter of a woman from that village, the man told them that he was an academic and presented his identity card. The elderly lady was moved by this stranger who wanted to know more about the village and her grandmother’s story, so she said she wanted to talk. The Armenian woman from Diyarbakir accepted to act as the interpreter between them. At the cost of missing the first half of the concert, the elderly lady started to tell her grandmother’s story, which was heart-rending. So much so that at one point, the woman from Diyarbakir suggested they discontinue the conversation. The elderly lady had become lost in sad memories and the details made her ill. The last words of the man, the last thing he asked, was if she knew of any buried gold in the village; if there was any, he said he could help in recovering it, and would share what they found! The woman from Diyarbakir, didn’t translate the last question for the elderly lady who had believed the man was sincerely interested in her story and shared her feelings.
This was in paralleled to what is happening in Akthamar: One of the few Armenian monuments that had survived to date was taken away from its owners and given to the government of the state founded at the expense of their annihilation. A treasure above the ground was taken away from the people it belonged to. Meanwhile, the remains of old Armenian buildings are still being destroyed not by the government but by the members of the “governed” in search of a treasure thought to be under the ground, of valuables left by the victims.
There’s the “Old Van” beneath the towering ancient castle. The Armenian quarter where, in 1915, the siege and resistance took place. A bare land surrounded by a fence with a sign that reads: “PROTECTED AREA.” There are the remains of walls here and there, but two perfectly renovated mosques. The rest of the area feels surreal because of the strangely undulating topography, one tumulus rolling after another, like the waves of the sea, the remains of houses covered in the course of time by the ground and grass. I say surreal because in many places, the old neighborhoods are populated with new inhabitants, constructing new–and ugly–buildings. But the Old City of Van has strangely been left untouched, like a haunted place nobody could dare go to or make any use of. It is there, keeping the memory alive. And nearby, in fact side by side, there is another world, another life going on, another reality that is totally disconnected with this one. There, in the Old City, you can physically touch the existence of a lost world, side by side with a living one, and you lose your perception of reality.
So I ask myself, how can “permission”—given to Armenians to visit their ancient and sacred land in Akhtamar after nearly a century—serve as a real effort toward reconciliation if there is no mention of Armenians in the sign welcoming the guests to the island?
Yes, it is good to see the Akhtamar Sourp Khatch Church renovated and not left to dilapidation. I appreciate that. But there is still a lot to do for real change in Turkey, even for a government who finds it impossible to recognize the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide for political, strategic, social, cultural, etc., etc. reasons. For example: changing school textbooks and the official material on the Armenian historical and cultural heritage in this country; removing from office governors who use the word Armenian as an insult (recently, the governor of Batman accused Kurds of being “servants of Armenians” because they boycotted the education system by not sending their children to school at the start of the school year); dismissing members of cabinet who use hostile language to describe Armenians (again recently, the state minister and vice-premier said the dead bodies of PKK guerillas who were found to be uncircumcised were an indication of the bond between “Armenian terrorism” and the PKK); removing the foreign minister in whose office that shameful ECHR defense was drawn up; passing laws penalizing racist and discriminatory language against those other than Sunni Muslim Turks; giving back the seized properties of non-Muslim foundations; and of course many more.
But is there a collective will in the Turkish society—amongst the “governed”—strong enough to urge the government to take such steps? I don’t think so. Not yet. But there are signs that it is slowly yet erratically emerging. One sign was the two Turkish housewives on Akhtamar Island, who said they wanted to be there at all costs to share the Armenian visitors’ feelings.
A sign much more meaningful than the half-hearted, poorly designed gesture by the Turkish government.