Understanding the importance of a shared history

Armenians and Turks lived together peacefully in the Ottoman Empire for centuries; a common history that needs to be acknowledged for the differences to be overcome.
Christopher Sisserian
7 February 2011

The separation of Armenians and Turks in 1915 is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Both communities often choose to ignore their shared history, to the detriment of efforts at reestablishing ties, the most recent of which appear to have failed. Although the issue has received much attention following the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and the failure of the protocols aimed at normalizing the relations between the two states, it still remains misunderstood. Both outside observers and Armenians and Turks themselves are often unaware of the shared history between the two peoples, whose grievances cannot be understood without a greater knowledge of the past. 

On Saturday, 20th of November 2010 the Times featured a DVD and an article on the life and works of the famous Ottoman architect Sinan. Unfortunately there was no mention of Sinan being Armenian, neither on the DVD nor in the accompanying article. In failing to mention this an opportunity was missed. Rather than neglecting or avoiding Sinan’s Armenian heritage, such facts should be emphasized in order to reflect the truly diverse nature of the Ottoman Empire. In this empire of many languages, religions, cultures and ethnicities, Armenians were often referred to as the millet-i sadıka, or the loyal millet, reflecting their loyalty and commitment to the Ottoman state. Armenians participated in all aspects of Ottoman life and as faithful supporters of the state occupied positions across the social spectrum.

Celebrating such interaction and the inseparable history between Armenians and Turks would do great service to the recent attempts of re-establishing relations between the two states through ‘football diplomacy.’ This necessary endeavor faces many obstacles, of which history is not only the most crucial but also the most difficult to overcome. In order for an understanding to be reached between the two nations regarding the genocide of 1915, it is first necessary to re-discover the history of two peoples living side by side harmoniously for hundreds of years. Sinan’s contributions to the empire must be viewed as a part of this shared history.

An understanding of this is the first step in re-humanising the relations between the two nations and promoting reconciliation. Armenians and Turks have dehumanized each other, often understandably, in the process of maintaining their separate cultural identities. Armenians learning about the genocide are led to believe all Turks were (and by extension still are) inherently evil, ignoring the many Turks that endeavored to save Armenian lives. Correspondingly, Turks alive today who bear no responsibility for the events of 1915 are incensed by accusations that they are guilty of a crime not committed by them. This ‘othering’ is a somewhat natural process in the formation of a national identity. However, it is also a major obstacle to progress.

Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran’s recent work collecting stories about identity, history and memory from various Armenian communities has been a welcome effort in re-humanizing and depoliticizing an issue that is too emotional to be dealt with in purely rational terms within the political arena. Though needless to say it is this political dimension that opened the latest round of attempted reconciliation. For the Republic of Armenia the closed border with Turkey is economically suffocating, for Turkey the “Armenian Issue” poses a threat to one of its greatest foreign policy goals, integration into the European Union.

For both peoples any possible solution must be dignifying and honourable, characteristics of extreme importance to both cultures. In virtually any dealings between Turks and Armenians the issue of the genocide is brought to the fore, as is only natural for an unresolved problem of such gravity. However it is a mistake to allow the shared history to be distorted by this. The double suffering of a genocide followed by denial experienced by the Armenians must be properly acknowledged without Turks living today being blamed for a crime not committed by them. The first step towards reconciliation is to accept and understand how the two peoples lived alongside each other; celebrating the work of common cultural figures such as Sinan is crucial to beginning this process. Only once it has been remembered that Armenians and Turks used to live together in Anatolia peacefully can the next question be asked: why is it that this is no longer the case?

The recent statement by Turkish prime minister Erdogan expressing his desire to demolish a sculpture representing peace between the two peoples is another step back in the process of reestablishing relations. The two parts of the statue represent a single divided body, a fitting visual reference to the painful split between the two peoples. Once completed the statue would depict one of the figures extending its hand to the other, a symbol of reconciliation that transcends borders. The sculpture is located in the Turkish border city of Kars, a suitable location for such a monument. Kars, a former capital of the medieval Armenian kingdom, had a sizeable Armenian community until the genocide in 1915. The internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk alluded to this in his novel Snow by referring to the now empty Armenian buildings. As in many towns all over Turkey these empty houses stand as a testament to this forgotten and unspoken history and its abrupt end in 1915. As a border town Kars would stand to benefit from the reopening of the border, reversing the decline it has experienced since its closing.

It is a result of this shared history that Armenians and Turks that encounter each other outside of Anatolia are often surprised at the level of understanding they have for each other. A shared Anatolian history, similar foods, words of common origin, shared cultural values and even the small particulars of coffee making unite the two peoples. This phenomenon often surprises young Armenians and Turks who dare to take a step forward. Occurring often on university campuses, it can be a highly rewarding experience for both sides. A common expression heard in Anatolia, in many of its languages, is that you cannot clap with one hand.  

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey leading to the lifting of the Turkish blockade seem to have faltered, with any prospect for renewed momentum unlikely until after the upcoming elections in Turkey. At the same time, renewed attempts will be prone to failure until progress is made from the bottom. Until the grassroots, ordinary Turkish and Armenian people are able to come together and discuss their past and talk about the future, there is little chance for their representatives to make progress.

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