Special for the Armenian Weekly
Recently, I spent a week traveling throughout the region of Dersim, now the modern Turkish province of Tunceli. Rugged mountains in the north and more fertile valleys in the south mark the region. Its remoteness has been both blessing and curse. In the 16th century, the region remained almost 75 percent Armenian. By the 19th century, Armenians had been reduced to less than 30 percent of the population through forced assimilation, emigration, and other forms of persecution. Already, many churches and monasteries were in ruins.
I recently completed a demographic study of the pre-genocide Armenian population of the Dersim region (visit www.houshamadyan.org) and wanted to explore as much of the region as I could with limited time. The destruction of Armenian culture there is near complete. With very few exceptions, it was difficult to find any substantive evidence. Mostly what I found was a pile of rocks and stones wiped clean of any inscriptions. Yet, everywhere I was met by familiar, if suspicious, faces.
In one previously Armenian village, I was offered tea and some food. As I left, a woman was tending to her garden in the house next door and we exchanged a brief acknowledgement before I continued back to the car. But she followed and called after me; she thought I was her grandson.
While she did not look exactly like my grandmother, the resemblance was close enough that I was compelled to ask about her family history. At least this time, it does not seem that I located a descendent of one of my grandmother’s sisters lost during the genocide. I keep searching…
The exact number of Armenians living today in the Dersim region cannot be determined with precision, yet the number is significant, possibly 10 percent or more of the population. Organizations have been formed to help them foster ties with their Armenian culture and one can read about those who have chosen to return to the Armenian Apostolic faith. The history is complex and those living in the region today do not always view such efforts as beneficial.
Many Armenians were either protected or used the Dersim region to escape from death during the genocide. Yet, such efforts were not always altruistic, nor were Armenians universally protected. We must always remember that our sample has a significant bias: We only have the accounts of those who survived. The stories of the tortured and murdered have been left untold. Even the discrimination felt by the survivors over the last 100 years is only now coming to light.
Nonetheless, the large number of Armenians in Dersim today attests to something atypical. In addition, the memory of the land includes more than just the trauma of 1915, but also the traumas of the 1930’s and 1990’s.
This is the paradox. On the one hand you have an Armenian population alive today, while on the other hand the destruction of Armenian culture is almost total. Maybe it is not a paradox; both are serving as silent witness to the crimes committed against the Armenian people.
In the town of Tunceli, a new museum is being built. It is a massive structure that will have exhibit halls and a conference space. In speaking with those involved in the project, it is clear that the entire history of the region will be included. Ideally, it will serve as both a place to document the complex history of the region and also a forward-looking meeting place for those living in the region today.
At a roadside restaurant, a man sits down and details the prices he charges to excavate Armenian cultural sites in search of treasure. I am disgusted, but take the opportunity to convey my message, one person at a time: The treasure is not buried underground. The treasure is the structure and the Armenian people that used to live there. The damage done from treasure seeking is actually destroying the value. If everything is completely destroyed, no one will come. After letting that sink in, I commented that honor has been brought to the Dersim community from the numerous Armenians who survived there. But by desecrating Armenian culture, they are bringing dishonor to their own culture.
Throughout this conversation, the owner of the restaurant had continued to serve us, all the while apparently listening intently. I cannot be sure if my message had any impact, but the owner soon brought out an old Armenian coin and gave it to me. He had previously been an excavator, but left the business to start the restaurant because he never found anything of value.
‘At a roadside restaurant, a man sits down and details the prices he charges to excavate Armenian cultural sites in search of treasure. I am disgusted, but take the opportunity to convey my message, one person at a time: The treasure is not buried underground. The treasure is the structure and the Armenian people that used to live there. The damage done from treasure seeking is actually destroying the value. If everything is completely destroyed, no one will come.’
I do not know anything about the coin or its history, but I chose to leave it with a local Armenian I had met along the way. His family has lived openly as Armenians since the genocide and, to me, the coin was a tangible acknowledgement of his identity, the miracle of persevering against all odds.
While there is an illegal aspect to taking antiquities from any country, that was not what stopped me. Beyond the meaning the coin would have to the person I left it with, there is also the message that I want Armenian culture to return to the land of its birth, not to remove it.
My hope is that others who travel the lands of Western Armenia are equally consistent with the messaging regarding treasure as well as retaining what remains of Armenia identity and culture, and fostering its growth—not accelerating its final demise.