Sarkan, the guardian

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, Italy
Aug 20 2012

Sarkan, the guardian

by Paolo Martino

When a State is founded on a myth, that myth is to be defended at all
costs. These words by an Armenian university professor come to Paolo’s
mind while walking through the cold rooms of the Turkish Genocide
Museum, in Igdir. Here, history becomes myth and the past is turned
upside down. The seventh episode of the story `From the Caucasus to

Five spears of marble and steel pierce the plateau’s sky, fading into
the dense blanket of clouds. The swords are raised over Igdir, a
Turkish-border outpost, invading the field of vision of those who look
South, from the North, from Armenia, towards the bulk of the Ararat
rock filling the horizon. At the foot of the monoliths a sign welcomes
visitors to the Turkish Genocide Museum, inaugurated in 1997 in memory
of the genocide perpetrated against the Turks by the Armenians. Even
before entering, it becomes clear that, in this remote corner of
Turkey – hanging onto the last strip of Anatolia-, memory, myth and
history fully collide.

`Starting in 1870, Turkey was the focus of international imperialistic
ambitions. The Western States and the Russian Tsardom spread
nationalistic ideas among the Armenians of Turkey, aimed at
establishing an independent Armenian State in Anatolia and abolishing
Turkey, both as a State and a Nation’.

The inscription is didactic, the rhythm assertive, the punctuation
syncopated. `The genocide perpetrated by the Armenians against the
Turks between 1870 and 1920 is compatible with the definition of
`deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to
bring about its physical destruction’, contained in the 1948 Genocide
Convention’. Abandoned at the extreme periphery of the plateau, the
rooms of the Museum are cold and deserted.

In Igdir, at the crossroads between Turkey, Iran, Armenia and
Azerbaijan, languages do not matter: they disappear in the universal
language peculiar to border lands. Like Kars, in the North, and Van,
in the South, until 1917 Igdir was part of the Russian Western
periphery, attracting flows of Armenians from the regions of Anatolia
subjected to the Ottoman Empire. Annexed to the Armenian Democratic
Republic, after three years the city came under the rule of Kemalist
Turkey, intent on expanding its dominions up to the right bank of the
river Arax. On November 13th 1920, the withdrawing Armenians set fire
to the Margara bridge, the only link left between Armenia and
Anatolia. At the time, Igdir had a mixed population of over 10,000
inhabitants and was cutting the umbilical cord with its Armenian past.

`Turkish soldiers whose stomach was burned and whose eyes were
removed. Olba, province of Igdir, 1915′. A picture of two disfigured
bodies opens the Museum’s first, gruesome photo exhibition. Men tied
up by their legs, mutilated bodies, shapeless faces. The captions
comment facts and report circumstances with absolute precision.
`Ottoman soldiers murdered by Armenian armed groups on July 23rd,
1915, while they were on sick leave in the village of Koom’. Some
pictures quote international witnesses: `Mr. Vays, German reporter,
Mr. Estryan, Austrian, and Mr. Ahmet Rayf examine the bodies of
massacred Turks’. The pictures, though, are a lot less precise than
the captions: deciphering the shapes of the weather-beaten massed
bodies is hardly possible through the black and white. The soldiers
are not wearing uniforms. There are no external clues to identify the
places: not a mosque, not a church, not a bridge, not a railway
station that can be recognised. The foreign witnesses are just
wondering shapes, with their backs to the camera, among dead people
piled under the sun.
From my journal. 9th november
Tazegol, Subata, Ilica ,Sarikamis, Hasankale, Erzinkan, Hakmehmet. I
write down the places of the massacres, the dates, the estimate of the
600,000 Turkish victims of Armenian violence. Disoriented, I try to
stay focused on the absolute and irrefutable evidence, the mass
killings documented by the pictures. By going deeper and deeper in
these silent halls, though, I am overwhelmed by the background noise
that has been with me since coming in: what story would these dead
tell? The same story this Museum wishes to document? In the room
shaped by the monolithic bases of the five swords – the heart of the
Museum – a sign shows the anthropometric measurements of eight skulls
found in the mass grave of Cavusoglu Samanligi. Cephalic indexes,
cranial morphologies and `prominent studies on race’ show that `the
history related to Armenians is to be rewritten, as the people
massacred were Turks, not Armenians. Signed, Professor Dr. Metin

In one room there are publications by Turkish research centres, signed
by university professors of history and anthropology. Using the
language of propaganda, books such as `The Eastern Question:
Imperialism and the Armenian Community’ or `Armenian Church and
Terrorism’ tell the stories of Armenian terrorists, arsenals
sequestered from Armenian bandits, of agreements between foreign
powers and Armenian traitors. Suddenly, the words of Hayk Demoyan, the
Director of the Armenian Genocide Memorial interviewed a few days
earlier in Yerevan, come to mind. `The Turkish State is not founded on
a social pact, but on a myth. And myths are to be defended at all
costs, even if it implies rewriting the past’.

The door to the room opens while I take pictures of the book covers,
even though I know it is forbidden. A young boy in a uniform raises
his voice while observing the scene. “Türkçe bilmiyorum!’. As soon as
he sees I do not speak his language, the soldier changes his
expression. Enthusiastic because a foreigner is in the Museum he is
the guardian of, he hurries to prepare tea and a meal with yoghurt. No
words are spoken, but the curiosity his eyes express is immense. When
he understands my journey started in Armenia, he grabs a bunch of
keys, closes the door to the Museum and gets on the motorcycle parked
outside. His right hand gestures to climb on.
From my journal
While the motorcycle slides into the cold air, I turn around to look
at the monument towering over the plateau. Sarkan, the guardian, rides
through fields set-aside for winter, along canals covered in ice,
crossing shepherds sitting on the curb: Armenia, indiscernible on the
horizon, unravels in perfect continuity with the surroundings. Sarkan
speaks, gesticulates, mimes, praises his new motorcycle and invites me
to ride it until I forget about the place of our encounter. At least
for a moment, States’ monumental obsession for the past succumbs faced
with the simplicity of a man. And Turkey and Armenia seem to be
shifting from rivals into mere neighbours.

The Igdir night suddenly muffles every activity, laying down the human
rhythms of a place that lives according to ancient beats. On the
border, the meta-territory where identities blend and novelty is
created, all blatantly precarious, fragile, hypocrisy-free. Muddy
roads are ploughed by solitary elders on bicycles. Reinforced concrete
mosques raise their minarets over unfinished houses. Off-road vehicles
without plates shield themselves with the dark and the silence. In the
alleys, where the banks of snow will only melt in spring, Azerbaijani,
Iranian, Turkish and Georgian travellers meet to gamble on the same
tables, get drunk from the same bottles, spend the night in the same
brothels. Outside, winter cools down all noise.

The bus to Van is ready in the otogar parking lot, in the suburbs.
There is nothing more to seek, in Igdir: here, Armenian history has
left no traces, vanishing along with the Margara bridge. The driver
suddenly switches the engine off, while the only passenger who speaks
English translates what he is saying: `This bus is too big, I can’t
drive through the ruins. The minibuses leave from the lots nearby, you
can use the same ticket’. Crowding under the bus shelter, the
passengers raise their eyes to a television. On the lower side of the
monitor, confused among incomprehensible words, two terms flow which
say it all: Magnitude 5.8, h21:23. For half-hour an hour now, Van no
longer exists.

You may also like