I REMEMBER being told at a Syriac Orthodox Children’s Camp in south-east Turkey that among them was an Armenian child. I realised then that the genocide of 1915 had not been total. Avedis Hadjian discovered the same, that there were still Armenians in their ancient homeland. How many, who, and where is the subject of this huge book. Much of it is a travel narrative: whom the author met, how that person saw one’s Armenian heritage, where it happened in the spectacular landscape and often hard weather and complex cultural mix, and, although the reader might get lost in the many strange names, the complexity leaves a simple message.
The author is thorough. Visiting hundreds of villages and towns, often several times, interviewing the descendants of those who survived, he reflects on how confused their identity has sometimes become. In the generations after the genocide, most survivors self-identified as Muslims, as Kurds, Alevis, Zaza, anything but Armenian, but, after the assassination of the heroic journalist Hrant Dink, in some places Armenian descendants reasserted their Armenian heritage.
Genocide is not just the destruction of a people, but of the heritage, language, and culture. The slow disappearance of the Armenian language and the deliberate destruction of Armenian buildings are a constant theme.
author’s collectionBaydzar Teyzé with her husband Sarkis Bogosyan at home in the grounds of Maryam Ana Assyrian Church in Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), in December 2013. “They were the last Christian Armenians,” says the caption to this plate in the book under review. She died in June 2014, he in January 2016
Often beautifully written, this book is intelligent, with many asides on a wide range of topics. The grim stories of the murders of the innocent are told not to shock but often prosaically. Reading it leads to a sense of the enormity of the Ottoman violence. Nationalism spawns lies, and genocide breeds deceit with its bloodshed. The destruction of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 in the invention of a pure Turkish and Muslim nation still has its echoes. Running through contemporary Turkey and, in particular, President Erdogan’s rough rhetoric is a dishonesty about its imperial history and an encouragement towards xenophobia, racism, and especially the hatred of Christians. It is not so far from the romantic imperialist history-writing of some of our own right wing in the UK.
Secret Nation is not everyone’s book. It is for those interested in Armenian history, post-imperialism, or genocide studies, and for any serious traveller in Asian Turkey. It also has a few errors: for instance, consistently referring to Syriac Orthodox Christians as Assyrians (i.e. of the Church of the East), and failing to refer significantly to the genocides of those two Christian communities.
Nevertheless, this is a significant contribution to the grim tale of the end of a Christian presence in its ancient homeland, and a warning to how we ourselves, with our own attitudes to racial and cultural minorities, answer the question “Why are you doing this? Are not we Armenians humans?”
The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired Anglican priest. He specialises in Syria and the Syriac community in Turabdin.
Secret Nation: The hidden Armenians of Turkey
I. B. Tauris £25
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