Mush: Haunted by Treasures of the Past

In light of the ongoing destruction of Armenian houses located on the historical Kale Street of Mush, it would be beneficial to have an overview of this ancient Armenian city. The archeological excavations and what remains of the architecture of Mush attest to the cultural, social, and economic importance the city once had. Its cultural and material wealth before 1915 is the primary reason locals are destroying the houses there—in hopes of finding treasures of the past.

Activist campaigns were recently initiated to halt the demolition of the houses. Two Grand National Assembly delegates from Mush, Demir Chelik and Siriri Sakik, expressed their concerns on the issue. Ragıp Zarakolu, a well-known publisher and human rights activist in Turkey, took an active role in the “cease the destruction” petition campaign by urging people to sign. Fortunately, the destruction has been halted, likely as a result of these campaigns—but it came late, since 80 percent of the houses have already been demolished. In the last 2 months 44 Armenian houses were destroyed, and the remaining 28 are on the verge of destruction.

The demolition continues...
The demolition continues…

The demolition process serves the aims of the state on one level, and caters to the greed of the local population, on another. The government’s aim is to remove the Kurdish habitants from these houses and enhance the area with new shopping centers and hotels. However, the complete demolition of the houses is tacitly connected to the 21st century’s cultural genocide—the sbidag tseghasbanoutiun or White Genocide—which aims to eradicate the last Armenian traces in what was known as the six Armenian vilayets (provinces).1 This obliteration of a culture is a consistent policy of the Turkish government; it uses it as a tool of counter-propaganda against any Armenians claims that assert the pre-1915 existence of Armenians on these lands. Although this policy does not include any actual massacres or deportations, it is a continuation of the same policy adopted in 1915. The genocidal process that began in 1915 aimed to annihilate the Armenian millet on two levels: physical and cultural. Today, when no actual massacres are occurring, the destruction or appropriation of Armenians’ cultural wealth is also a deliberate expression of how the Turkish authorities latch on to the genocidal legacy they inherited from their forefathers, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

The destruction also provides the local Kurds with the perfect opportunity to go treasure hunting. Driven by fantasies of Armenian treasure buried beneath their houses, many Kurds began to frantically destroy with their own hands the Armenian houses they lived in. Many even used homemade construction tools and ladders, ignoring the municipality’s suggestions to wait for the arrival of proper tools. This scenario is reminiscent of 1915, when the material wealth of the Armenians motivated the large-scale plunder committed by the locals (Turks and Kurds).2 It is possible that these people were recently encouraged by government officials, as a way to accelerate the destruction with fewer expenses. Unfortunately for them, so far nothing has been found.

A hole dug in the floor of an old house, with the hope of finding hidden treasures.
A hole dug in the floor of an old house, with the hope of finding hidden treasures.

Mush was indeed an important town-center and possessed a significant number of cultural, educational, religious, and commercial centers. The city boasted a large number of religious institutions from various denominations. It is reported that before 1915, the district of Mush had 299 churches, 94 monasteries, and 53 sanctuaries. Among this fascinating amount of religious and holy places, the most well known of the Armenian churches were Sourp Avedaranots, Sourp Krikor Lousavoritch, Sourp Giragos, Sourp Haroutioun, Sourp Marineh, Sourp Sarkis, Sourp Sdepanos, and Sourp Prgitch. These were all functioning churches until 1915. Of these, Sourp Marineh is the most magnificent, and Sourp Prgitch is the oldest, dating back to the 9th century. Many of these churches and monasteries likely contained libraries, printing machines, and relics, and were considered to be cultural and educational centers for 19th-century Mush Armenians. The ruins of the city are live examples of its glorious, and would likely compel the average Kurdish dweller to look for hidden treasures.

What remains of Sourp Marineh
What remains of Sourp Marineh

Throughout Armenian history of Armenian people, the construction of churches was often carried out with that of schools, as the latter was always seen as a complementary part of religious instruction. Thus, it is not surprising that Mush had as many schools and learning centers as it had churches. Before 1915, 135 schools reportedly existed in the Mush district, with an estimated of 5,669 Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish, and other students. The following schools played a pivotal role in the educational and cultural upbringing of its young Armenian pupils: the Mourad Mkhitaryan Varjaran (located on the same street as Sourp Marineh); Srpots Tarkmanchats tbrots (founded in 1850 through generous grants by Mgrditch Agha Der Hovhannesyan); a private girl’s school (name unknown); and five other parish schools (names also unknown). In addition, the two orphanages in Mush, provided for and funded by the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople, also had a great impact on the cultural, national, and educational formation of Armenian orphans.3 The estimated number of Armenian students in 1899 attending the aforementioned schools was 750, which is a remarkable number given illiteracy at the time and the overall number of existing schools.4 The overall Armenian population in Mush at this time was 8,500; it would be reasonable to assume that the overall number of Armenian students probably exceeded 750, if we are to take into account the ones who attended the French, English, Italian, German, or other missionary or even Turkish schools, which were considered better and provided an education based on a foreign educational system. Furthermore, most Armenian schools at the time did not grant a high school diploma, and only operated as elementary or secondary schools. Thus, 750 would be the number of Armenian students attending only the Armenian schools in Mush.

All of this cultural prosperity required financial support that Mush did not lack. The main market was located in the town’s center, where there were 800 firms, shops, and commercial kiosks, 500 of which belonged to Armenians. The economy was largely in the hands of the Armenians. The example of Mgrditch Agha, the benefactor who founded the Mkhitaryan Varjaran, is an example of the type of affluence and prosperity some of the Armenians enjoyed in the city. The majority of the 9,000 Armenians who populated Mush by 1909 were merchants or skillful craftsmen, including potters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, tailors, and carpet-weavers. Their products were often sent to neighboring districts and towns. The success of Armenian businesses and shops there is both an indication of the quality of the products, and the affluent status these merchants and craftsmen enjoyed. It is this material wealth that continues to drive the present-day Kurdish dwellers of Mush to accelerate the demolition of the old Armenian houses, in hopes of discovering this “unattended” wealth, supposedly buried and left behind by the deported Armenians.

As for the intellectual prosperity that existed along with the cultural blossoming of the city, it would be helpful to cite a few names of public figures, to demonstrate the intellectual prestige Armenians enjoyed in the Turkish milieu. From 1863-65, the journal “Lradar Ardzvig Darono” was published, under the editorship of Karekin Srvantsdyan. It was printed once every two weeks.5 Among many others, who took part in the cultural and intellectual blossoming of the region, it is worth mentioning the public speaker, editor, and pedagogue K. S. Antreasian (1869-1906); the folk musician Armenak Shahumratian (1878-1939); the professor of agricultural sciences, Dr. N. A. Malatian (1898-1977); and the public speaker Mkhitar Aproyan, who was killed 1915. Although Mush also became a nest for Armenian revolutionaries and fedayees, it is outside the scope of this article, and bears no relevance to the current demolition process.

The history of Mush and what might remain still fuels the frantic drive to plunder. The recent demolition is an example of the large-scale plunder that is ongoing in Western Armenia in the remaining churches, sanctuaries, monasteries, and even towns. Although the purpose of the demolition may differ—from treasure hunting to cultural eradication—the final result is the same. The continued infatuation with tales or myths about Armenian treasure engenders waves of demolition and vandalism in Western Armenia. Ironically, what the locals have not realized is that they are haunted by the treasures they are hunting for.

 

Notes

(1) Mush was located in the vilayet of Bitlis.

(2) For more information on the motivations of the local population during the genocide and their appropriation of Armenian property, see Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property by Ugur Ungor and Mehmet Polatel.

(3) Bear in mind that during the Hamidian period, a large-scale massacre of Armenians occurred from 1894-96. The establishment of two orphanages might have been a direct result of these massacres, as many children lost their parents.

(4) “Armenia and the adjacent provinces’ names’ dictionary” (five volumes), from 1986-2001, Yerevan University Press

(5) See www.ysu.am/oldpress/pdf/mamul/ARCVIKTARONOJ.PDF

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Varak Ketsemanian

Varak Ketsemanian is a graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (2014-2016). His master’s thesis titled “Communities in Conflict: the Hunchakian Revolutionary Party 1890-1894” examines the socio-economic role of violence in shaping inter-communal and ethnic relations by doing a local history of the Armenian Revolutionary Movement in the Ottoman Empire. Ketsemanian’s work tackles problems such as the development and polarization of mainstream historiographies, inter-communal stratifications, nationalism, and the relationship of the Ottoman State with some of its Anatolian provinces. He is currently completing a PhD at Princeton University, where his doctoral dissertation will focus on the social history of the National Constitution of Ottoman Armenians in 1863, and the communal dynamics/mechanisms that it created on imperial, communal, and provincial levels. Ketsemanian’s research relates to the development of different forms of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary violence, and constitutional movements.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you ,Varak, for exposing the ongoing plunder in this well-researched and written article. Unfortunately, you last sentence is a perfect summing up.

  2. Think you for for your article? While shooting the film “The Call Me Mother” in Mush in fall 2006 we visited the only remaining Armenian cemetery and saw several graves newly opened. Demolished grave stones was all over the area, but still many intact. Locals asked us directly if we were in Mush “looking for gold” and told they could assist and tell us where to look for a share. Two schools was founded and run by Scandinavian missionaries from the KMA, a girl school and a boy school.

  3. Thank you Varak for a very insightful article. You are right, the cultural and economic annihilation of Armenians continued immediately after the Genocide into the Republican era till today.

    I am a bit confused about the figure of 9,000 you give for the Armenian population of Mush. I thought the population of Mush immediately prior to the Genocide was around 150,000. Was 9,000 for the city of Mush proper? Would appreciate any clarifications on this.

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