Monday, September 20, 2010

Mass Politics

I have an article and photo essay up on the Eurasianet website about yesterday's historic mass at the Akdamar island Armenian church in eastern Turkey's Lake Van. It was the first time a mass had been held in the church in 95 years and the event saw the largest number of Armenians in the Van area since 1915, when they were either driven or wiped out by the Ottoman authorities.

Although the event was seen by some as an elaborate public relations effort on behalf of the Turkish government and there was some controversy over the Turkish authorities failure to place a cross on the church's roof (its name in Armenian is, after all, "Church of the Holy Cross"), I still think the event was a significant one, in terms of getting Turks to come to terms with the fact that their country actually has an Armenian history and that Armenians can stake a claim (in historical and cultural terms) to parts of Turkey.

From my article:
As an Armenian growing up in Basra, Iraq, Vanuhi Ohannesian was always hearing about eastern Turkey’s Lake Van region, her grandparents’ birthplace and the place after which she is named.

Ohannesian’s grandparents were forced to leave the lakeside city of Van in 1915, when the Ottoman authorities drove out the region’s ethnic Armenians; her father was born during the family’s trek from Van to safety in Iraq.

“My father died two years ago and was always telling me to come to Van. He said this was our motherland,” said 68-year-old Ohannesian, who today lives in Los Angeles.

Some 95 years after her grandparents’ flight from Turkey, Ohannesian finds herself standing beside one of the Armenians’ most sacred sites, the 1,089-year-old church on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island. Closed since 1915, the island church was restored by the Turkish authorities between 2005 and 2007 and reopened as a museum.

On September 19, the authorities allowed a historic mass to be held on Akdamar, an event that drew several thousand visitors to the island throughout the day, including many Armenians from abroad, such as Ohannesian, who had never been to Turkey before.

“I never believed I would be coming here,” said Ohannesian, standing on a small hill that overlooks the church and holding a small bottle filled with lake water which she plans to bring back to Los Angeles and place at her father’s grave. “We believed people didn’t change, that if they did something once, they would do it again....”

....Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, says the event may have been symbolic, but it also represents a deeper, more encouraging dynamic.

“It’s part of a slow but steady process of normalization regarding the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and the glorious past of coexistence of religions in this land that was shattered by the emergence of the nation state,” said Aktar, who is active in civil society Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts.

“At the end of the day, there is a reality that is unearthed,” he continued. “This is what should prevail. At the end of the day, we are rediscovering the Armenian past in this region.”
You can find the full article here, and the accompanying photoessay here.

(photo: view of the Akdamar church in Lake Van, Turkey, taken in 2006. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

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