Palimpsests of Violence: History, Memory, and the Ruins of Anatolia

By Anoush Suni
Submitted to Session P5015 (Negotiating Memories and Legacies of Communal Violence in WWI Anatolia, 2017 Annual Meeting
Armenia; Kurdistan; Turkey;
Armenian Studies; Kurdish Studies; Ottoman Studies; Turkish Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Before the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the province of Van in the eastern Ottoman Empire was one of the most important centers of Armenian religious and cultural life. In my paper I explore the remnants of the Armenian community of Van, now in eastern Turkey, one hundred years after its destruction. I detail the afterlives of the ruins of Armenian churches and monasteries that have survived to the present day, and explore the meanings of both the built and destroyed manifestations of these remains on the landscape. I also explore how contemporary Kurdish and Turkish residents of Van interact with, remember, and narrate the Armenian past of the city, and how the legacy of the Armenian community remains a present factor in the local political and historical consciousness. I highlight how this continued relevance of the Armenians’ past presence and present absence has been shaped by the prevalent material remains of the departed community and the efforts of the Kurdish movement to change the discourse about politics, peoples, and places. Finally, following Walter Benjamin, I suggest that the ruins of the Armenian community may serve as a site of resistance against denialist historiography.

To many people who live in contemporary Van, the history of the Van Armenians has become invisible and mute, while for others, the Armenian past represents future possibilities, as they hope to discover the fabled riches that they believe were left behind as the Armenians fled. Still for others, especially those sympathetic of the leftist Kurdish movement, the Armenian past represents both a shameful history requiring recognition and atonement, as well as a site through which to confront and deconstruct the nationalist, denialist, and exclusionary official narrative of the state. Thus, in Van, the history of the Armenian community represents palimpsests of violence, in which the century old tragedy of the genocide becomes overlaid by more recent stories of suffering. In this paper I will outline two examples of historic Armenian villages, both now Kurdish villages, that each represent possible afterlives of ruins, and exemplify the ways in which locals imagine the village history, as well as how the state and the Kurdish movement approach the local Armenian past. This paper is based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted in the city and province of Van between 2015 and 2017.