Memorial to the masterminds of the Armenian genocide

Fourteen years ago I traveled in Turkey and worked on a documentary project photographing the legacy of Armenia’s culture in modern-day Turkey and historic locations associated with Armenians’ long history in Anatolia. I also photographed locations linked to the genocide of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1922. About 1.5 million civilians were slaughtered in the first documented case of genocide in the 20th century. This fact is still disputed today by the Republic of Turkey, and I outright discount that argument because of the overwhelming evidence, from documents, first-person accounts, and mountains of evidence.

The Talaat Pasha Memorial in Instanbul proved to be the hardest place for me to find and photograph. There was no guidebook showing me the way, and no map called it out. Even its name was in dispute. I called it the Talaat Pasha memorial, and that is what some Turks I met called it when I finally tracked it down in the Caglayan neighborhood of Istanbul. It was gated, not well-marked, and overgrown with weeds. It was not the safest place to go, and photographing the monuments in the square likely would have caused me problems. So, I made a fast job of it, snapped some photos, and left quickly.

Currently web sites are now publishing pictures of the site, more than a decade later.  Here are photos by a Turkish photographer from 2011. Web sites I found, including the Wikipedia entry (whose facts may not be fully accurate), also show contemporary photos of the location. I have found the plaza square to be dubbed the Monument of Liberty Cemetery and Hürriyet Şehitleri Abidesi, or “Freedom Martyrs Monument.” There is apparent agreement of online sources that the site was originally built before World War I to honor reformers, who died or were killed.

It is perhaps famous or infamous today becuase it has the graves of the remains of two of the three leaders of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha and Talaat Pasha, who organized the genocide against civilian Armenians. (You can read my detailed story here about the genocide and my trip to Turkey; note the file is large, so please allow time for it to download.)

Current photographs of those memorials honoring these leaders is even published by the official Government of Turkey web site. That site clearly shows the memorials of these two leaders and notes, almost ironically, the massive Palace of Justice of Istanbul that has been built behind the memorial plaza: “Hailed as the biggest courthouse in Europe by the government, it overlooks the park and the Monument. It almost seems like the justice system is entrusted to the watch of the Committee whose members used to pledge alliance to it with a rifle and Quran. Whether this has any connection with justice let alone liberty is of course another question.”

Symbolism and language matter, as do monuments. Enver Pasha’s remains were returned here in 1996, and Talaat Pasha’s remains in 1943, during World War II. When Enver Pasha’s remains were feted in a ceremony in 1998, one news account noted that thousands attended, including President Suleyman Demirel, ministers, deputies, and Turkey’s top generals, and the former war minister. Enver Pasha was proclaimed a martyr. “Enver Pasha, with his faults and merits, is an important symbol of our recent history,” Demirel said. “We have no doubt that history will reach the proper judgments through evaluating past events.”

The photo evidence published online today and the Government of Turkey’s web site that shows a spruced up memorial  clearly signal that the current government of Turkey shows no interest in backing away from its denial that the last leaders of the former Ottoman Empire were masterminds of a massive human rights violation, which still causes controversy today.

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Kurdish men, in Kars, Turkey

When I was in Turkey in 2001, I travelled widely in Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey. It was tense then, and remains tense now. The Kurds are one of the victims of the Versailles Peace Treaty that ended World War I, and they were left without a homeland after the colonial powers carved up nation states in the Mideast. Kurds found themselves residents of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and to this day, issues associated with these decisions impact current events daily, if not hourly. This week, more than a 130,000 Kurds fled from Islamic extremists in Syria into Turkey, which has nearly 1 million Syrian refugees. The Kurds, who have fought a civil war against Turkey for years, now may find themselves to be Turkey’s best ally in the latest realignment of interests in this volatile region. What is true one day, may not be true the next day. The Kurds’ old saying remains, the Kurds’ only friends are the mountains. (Click on the photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

The ruins of the Sumela Monastery

The Sumela Monastery is among the most magnificent Christian monasteries I have visited in the Near East, and there is a lot of competition for magnificence in this great category of monastic facilities. The monastery is located in beautiful mountain foothills, a short bus ride from the major Black Sea Turkish port Trabzon. Two Athenian monks during in the fourth century had visions and founded the monastery on the cliff’s face. It was run by Greek Orthodox clergy until 1923, having received special dispensation from Ottoman rulers because of the place’s sacred status.

During the violent period of ethnic cleansing following the war between Greece and Turkey after World War I, which saw up to 2 million Turks and Greeks change borders, the monastery was abandoned. I could not find an accurate account upon first look of who actually was responsible for the defacing of what should be a World Heritage site, but the ancient facility provides a good example of cultural devastation, particularly along religious lines. (For details on what happened to many Christian sites in Turkey following the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey, I would recommend reading William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, in which he talks about the upheavals in Turkey during this time and later.) I strongly recommend anyone in Turkey take time to visit this very special place. You cannot help but feel something other-worldly here. I did, despite the obvious damage done to the ancient art and buildings.

Recently, Turkey’s government has allowed a few Greek Orthodox services at the monastery. That is a great sign of reconciliation and progress, I believe, between Christians and Moslems in this great country, Turkey.

Turkish laborers near Antalya

Hothouses growing crops for local and international markets were common sights on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean Coast. During my trip in 2001, I travelled the entirety of that coast by bus (loved it!), and had a chance to visit a hothouse by a bus stop. The workers reminded me a lot of the male laborers I saw in my home state of Washington. They were friendly, their clothes revealed the dirt and sweat of their hard labor, and they had pride in who they were. It is a reminder to always stop and just look around the corner and see what you may find. More pictures of my travels in Turkey can be found on my Turkey photo gallery. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Süleymaniye Mosque ritual washing

At one the the greatest mosques in the world and certainly in continental Europe, the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, men perform the wudu, or ritual wash, before prayer. I dug this one out from the digital archive vaults recently. This is a must-see place. It was actually designed by an Armenian architect (Sinan Aga), whose grave is located not far from this spot. More of my pictures from Turkey can be found on my Turkey photo gallery.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

The discovery of a nearly 2,000-year-old wooden toilet seat by Hadrian’s Wall in England brought to my mind just how expansive the Roman Empire was, stretching from the highlands of Scotland to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the Upper Nile in Egypt to the deserts of Iraq. They were creative, violent, organized, and pragmatic, and they left a lasting legacy in every land they conquered and administered. The toilet seat also reminded me of the famous Monty Python skit from the film The Life of Brian. One of the rebels named Reg, who is plotting to overthrow the Romans, summarizes the local grievances against their masters: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Modern-day Turkey, long at the heart of the Hellenic world, was ruled for centuries by Rome and then into the Middle Ages by the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. You can see the Roman footprint everywhere in Turkey–Istanbul, Antakya (brilliant mosaics and ruins everywhere), Adana, Myra, Ankara, Ephesus, and countless other historic sites and ancient cities. Here are just a few of some of the pictures I took. I have never published these before until now. Thanks Python crew for reminding me of all the things the Romans never did for us. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

More pictures of my trip to Turkey can be found on my Turkey photo gallery. Skit from Monty Python below.