The Washington Post: On eve of anniversary, Turkey’s ‘cultural genocide’ of Armenian history is ongoing
YUKARI BAKRACLI, Turkey — This tiny Kurdish village outside the city of Van in Turkey’s southeast is home to the ruins of a once-famous 11th-century Armenian Christian monastery.
Known to Armenians as Varagavank, it thrived as a place of worship until Turkish forces looted it and murdered parishioners in the mass killing sprees of 1915.
Today, the roof is collapsing. Toppled stone columns lie nearby. And with no signage, there is no acknowledgment it was once a celebrated church for Armenians.
Varagavank is one of hundreds of disappearing physical reminders of a community whose history in present-day Turkey goes back more than 2,000 years. Over the past century, the Turkish government, in writing its own narrative of what Armenians call genocide, has destroyed many Armenian churches, homes, schools and cemeteries or allowed them to fall into ruins. They are sites other countries might consider valuable antiquities.
“The term we use for this is ‘cultural genocide,’” said Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, a historian at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. “We consider what is happening to many churches a continuation of the genocide which started at the beginning of the 20th century. It is painful, utterly painful.”
Hermine Sayan, an Armenian who lives in Istanbul, said her heart was broken when she visited what remained of a destroyed church in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey, a few years ago.
“We stood together saying our prayers, and we were crying,” said Sayan, whose grandparents survived the genocide.
On Friday (April 24), Armenians worldwide will commemorate 100 years since almost 1.5 million of their ancestors died in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, in massacres, by starvation or during forced death marches into the Syrian desert.
The date marks a century of fierce disagreement between Armenia and Turkey over what happened that spring. Armenians and their supporters — including many historians, Pope Francis and the European Parliament — say the murders constitute a systemic elimination of their population from eastern Anatolia in present-day Turkey.
Preservation and respect of Armenian history, culture and monuments in Turkey is a critical step toward Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, said George Aghjayan, an Armenian-American from Westminster, Mass., who studies Armenian demographics in Turkey and its environs.
Van, located on Lake Van’s picturesque shores, was once the capital of Vaspurakan, the first and biggest kingdom of greater Armenia. Van was also where, in 1915, Armenians saved thousands of their own when they held back the Ottoman army from city walls for a month. Resistance leaders who survived the siege founded the Armenian republic.
The Van Museum, however, offers a different take on regional history. One exhibit shows the “massacre (of Turks) undertaken by the Armenians during the occupation of Van in 1915 by the Russian troops,” according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s website. (The museum was damaged in a 2011 earthquake and is being rebuilt.)
Present-day Van is part of unofficial Turkish Kurdistan. No Armenians are left; Turkey’s 60,000 remaining Armenians mainly live in Istanbul. But Van and nearby villages contain what are known as Turkey’s “hidden Armenians,” descendants of women and children who converted to Islam after they were adopted by sympathetic neighbors or forced into marriage. Some are upfront about their origins, said Ferzan Demirtas, a tour guide in Van. But others stay silent, still fearful after a century of living as Kurds or Turks.