The word ‘talan’ has the same meaning in both Turkish and Armenian. It means plunder, pillage or looting. It is a historic fact that the rise and success of the Ottoman Empire was directly linked to the ‘talan’ of the newly conquered territories until the 16th century. When the Empire could not conquer any more territories, the decline started. By the beginning of the 20th century, when almost all of the conquered territories were lost and the Empire was about to fall, the ‘talan’ became internal, going after the possessions and wealth of the two main minorities, the Armenians and the Greeks. In this article, I will try to highlight the still ongoing ‘talan’, today, of the houses and churches left behind by the Armenians, more than 100 years after the Armenian Genocide. In fact, the ‘talan’ has now become a real industry, equipped with tools of science, technology and social media.
If you Google in Turkish ‘treasure hunting in Armenian houses,’ you get more than 800,000 hits. If you Google in Turkish more specifically ‘what to look for when treasure hunting in Armenian houses,’ you get more than 400,000 hits. Similarly, searching for ‘treasure hunting in Armenian churches’ in Turkish would result in over 700,000 hits, with another 200,000 for ‘treasure signs in Armenian churches.’ There are hundreds of instructional YouTube videos or articles which demonstrate what to look for, where to look in Armenian houses and churches, as well as the significance of Armenian symbols, signs, letters and words which would be clues for hidden treasures left behind by the Armenians. These videos have hits of tens of thousands each. The instructors in the videos have various titles, ranging from professor to archaeologist to professional treasure hunter. They invariably state that the treasures are left behind by the Armenians who decided to leave the country during the First World War or shortly thereafter, but some hoped to return at a future date, and that is why they buried their treasures which they could not carry with them. This statement is always uttered in a very normal, matter of fact manner, as if it happens all the time ordinarily, naturally, like the changing of the seasons.
Some of these professional hunters of treasures in Armenian homes and churches appear as guests on talk shows on national television stations. The ‘expert’ shows up with metal detectors to demonstrate how he can locate coins, silver or gold behind a brick or concrete wall, while the television hostess admires him in amazement. The professional hunters sometimes give further advice to viewers not to trust fake treasure hunters who would only swindle and charge exorbitant fees for their services without delivering the goods. Another piece of advice is how to deal with Diasporan Armenians who come back to Turkey, pretending to be tourists but in fact who have come to retrace their ancestors’ homes and take away the buried treasures. One piece of advice is to bring these Armenians in search of their family treasures to a professional treasure hunter who would facilitate a treasure sharing agreement between the Armenian, the present owner of the house and the treasure hunter himself.
There are hundreds of blogs and forums dedicated to treasure hunting in Armenian homes and churches, where amateur treasure hunters seek advice from so-called experts about a particular Armenian sign, symbol or word. Some of the blogs are in real time with statements like: “I am digging beside the tree in the garden shown on the treasure map, but how deep do I dig before giving up and going to the other tree?”
Years ago, these amateur treasure hunters would come to Istanbul from villages of eastern and southeastern Turkish provinces of Van, Mush, Bitlis, Erzurum, Diyarbakir, Urfa, Antep, Adana, Kayseri or Kars with a piece of paper in their hand. The late Hrant Dink would be the only Armenian name they had heard, and they would go find him and ask him to interpret the maps or Armenian symbols on the piece of paper. Hrant used to tell us these people arrived almost daily, in hopes of making a quick buck by finding an Armenian treasure, either buried in their own home, or in an abandoned Armenian church or cemetery nearby. There was even a market for treasure maps, with people buying and selling these maps. Hrant would tell these people, ‘The real treasure is not buried underground, but it was the people who worked and produced this wealth.’ Nowadays, people chat on hundreds of blogs, Facebook or Twitter in search of advice or interpretation of clues.
There were indeed thousands of Armenian homes in eastern Turkey (western Armenia) which were abandoned in haste when the deportation orders came in 1915. Many families did hope to return to their homes after the war and did bury some of their wealth that they couldn’t carry with them. There were many Turks and Kurds who seized these houses, who would suddenly become wealthy after finding some buried gold and would immediately start buying large tracts of land, houses or shops. Stories of this kind, real or imagined, would circulate in many villages, driving people to a frenzy to dig into the walls and floors of their own houses, or in abandoned Armenian houses, churches and cemeteries. Most of the churches left standing after 1915 fell victim to the attacks of the treasure hunters who dug under the foundations, hastening the collapse of the churches, as there is widespread belief that the clergy get buried under the church floors along with valuable golden crosses.
These ‘instructional’ videos explain the most likely locations in an Armenian or Greek house, as well as in an Armenian church.
Even if you don’t understand Turkish, the videos are pretty self-explanatory. The most probable locations are listed as under the hearth, oven or fireplace, under the first or third steps of a staircase, under the door entrance, beside the oldest tree in the garden, in a secret compartment in the ceiling of the living room, in the thick walls under a window, in the stables under the hay storage, in the chimney, in the well or cistern. The second video gives clues on treasure hunting in and around Armenian churches and the significance of Armenian cross signs.
The Turkish state does not officially encourage these activities, but obviously does not deter them either, as the subject of treasure hunting of Armenian homes is openly and freely discussed in printed media, social media and in talk shows. In fact, when the government decided to demolish a row of 500 historic Armenian houses in Mush to build hundreds of public housing units, it allowed the owners of the Armenian houses, as well as other eager applicants to demolish the houses themselves in order to search and find whatever Armenian treasures are hidden in the walls and floors. With tacit approval of local municipalities, permission is given to dig in abandoned Armenian churches and cemeteries, not only by hand, but with construction equipment such as backhoes, drills and even by the use of dynamite.
Genetic science has proven that acquired characteristics eventually result in changes in DNA. After centuries of practicing ‘talan,’ it is safe to say that the urge to continue ‘talan’ is in the DNA of people living in Turkey.