Monday, June 18, 2012

Unsettled history

On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman state "sent notice to the provinces... with the aim of stopping the activities of the Armenian gangs who had killed innocent people, rebelled against the state, and made cooperation with the enemy." Of course, that's not quite how Armenians see it.

It is, however, how history is told in the "Belgelerle Ermeni Sorunu Salonu" (Armenian Problem with Documents Room) at the Istanbul Military Museum in Harbiye.

That small chamber on the museum's upper level, part of its WWI display, does indeed contain a few documents -- on the "circumstances necessitating the relocation" of the empire's Armenians -- as well as the bloody shirt of a pasha killed by an Armenian assassin in Berlin. The bulk of its holdings, though, are photographs: of bombs and weapons captured from Armenians, of members of "Armenian gangs," of mosques burned to the ground by Armenians, and gory image after gory image of Turks (including children) set on fire, hacked apart, bound and left to die, even fetuses pulled from their mother's wombs.

The imagery was deeply disturbing on at least two levels -- because of its content, most certainly, but also for the single-minded determination to depict a country as made up of only heroes and martyrs that it represents. Let me be clear: I am well aware that many Turks contest this formulation, and that my own country is no stranger to erasing (or manipulating) inconvenient historical facts. I also have no illusions that the presentation at a counterpart museum in, say, Yerevan would be any more nuanced.

But looking at such official portrayals of history, it seems unfortunately easy to understand how people's beliefs about the "other" can be formed and reinforced, and how this can contribute to creating intractable tensions between two parties. Somber thoughts for a museum best known for its colorful but mind-numbingly repetitive mehter band performance.

With such ideas on my mind as I continued exploring the museum's collection, one artifact stood out in the nearby area devoted to the Korean and Cyprus conflicts: a "Bloody cleaver used by the Greeks against the Turks in Cyprus."


Senior Dogs Abroad said...

Thanks for the very interesting and thought-provoking description of this display. Actually, I think that these types of displays are very provocative and really serve to keep the hate alive. I've been to like displays in Armenian churches in other countries. And diaspora efforts to make the world recognized the "genocide" are thus perceived as one-sided and unfair. It would be great if we could bury that bloody hatchet after almost 100 years.

The Turkish Life said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Unfortunately I'm not very optimistic about reconciliation happening anytime soon, especially after reading this...

Controversial text book about Armenians sparks stir in Turkey

Although, I suppose the fact that they're being taken to task for this is a positive sign.

Unknown said...

such display sites are relatively new in Turkey, and far less than Armenian sites. And they are generally a weak reaction to Armenian propaganda. I don't intend to discuss what is a mere propaganda and what is a fact on this issue, and i agree that people should stop spreading hatred, however it needs both parties to stop the hatred.