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Hacking History IV: The Museum of Kars
1.       Roswitha
4132 posts
 24 Feb 2009 Tue 03:18 am

Kars - I am always amazed when I see the desolation of Kars plain with its vast expanses of emptiness dotted by a few villages here and there. And then, there is the city of Kars, built at the base of a height, shadowed by a citadel on top. Like other parts of eastern Turkey, this area nurtured Armenian civilization, along the great trade routes between east and west, with the ancient city of Ani nearby.

Today Kars is being groomed as the future gateway to Armenia, with a border crossing nearby, as well as an old railway line to Gyumri, Armenia. There is every expectation that the opening of the border will bring prosperity to this poor backwater of Turkey. Now there are shops crammed with cheap goods: plastic pails, fishing rods, bars of soap, children´s toys, plates, piles of clothes, all made in China or western Turkey. 

As one enters the city of Kars, one cannot avoid seeing a new monument that is being built opposite the old fortress above the city. This is supposed to be a peace monument, symbolizing friendship among the people of this region, notably Turks and Armenians. At the base of the monument is a pool, in the shape of an eye, with a teardrop breaking away. Is this a tear of joy or sorrow? I ask myself. Perhaps it is both. 

The Museum of Kars is within the city limits. It looks like a modest building from the outside, but inside it is quite something else: well lit, spacious, built of marble, covering two floors, I am impressed at first sight. It is not huge, but big enough and welcoming. 

In the grounds of the museum, there are some 16th-century Turkish steles; so they have been marked, but I could not miss the tombstones with Armenian writing on them. They are probably from the turn of the 20th century, and they are also inscribed in modern Armenian. 

A bullying message

Inside, once more, as in Erzurum and Van, there are exhibitions from the Urartian, Greek, and Roman periods to the Byzantine, Seljuk, Ottoman, and Turkish. There is the familiar absence of Armenians as well, though there are references to the Bagratids in Kars and Ani - without mentioning Armenians except twice, in passing, in Turkish. Yet Ani was the jewel of medieval Armenian art, architecture, and culture. 

There is an exhibit that identifies 10-12 century "Christian coins" and a glass cage of crosses from the "Christian era". It is not clear what period that is. Some of these crosses are clearly Russian, and some are clearly Armenian, though no mention is made of either. Armenians remain invisible. 

Then there is a rather bizarre exhibit, towering over onlookers. These are two huge church doors, with unmistakable Armenian crosses carved on them, plus a dedication in Armenian. The exhibit is simply identified as a church door from Kars. There is no additional explanation, such as the name or denomination of the church. Why would museum officials bother to put these doors on display, and purposefully say nothing of any substance about them? Surely the museum is aware of the message this display conveys. It is a bullying message to Armenians: your absence in this museum is on purpose.

Some of the walls also include pictures of nearby ruined churches, but there is no additional explanation, except their names in Turkish.

The upper floor of the museum has an ethnographic section, with the standard Turkish nationalist narrative of an Islamic-Turkish past, and no mention of other cultures, such as Armenians, Russians, Kurds, or Georgians - all distinct in their own right.

A paradox

As one leaves the museum, one is left with the paradox of reconciling the monument of peace towering above the town, and the silent, hostile message of the Museum of Kars. Should one simply accept Turkey as a land of contradictions that is going through a period of adjustment? Should one hope that these contradictions will be resolved for the better one day? Or are the contradictions more permanent? Perhaps they are not contradictions at all: perhaps the combined message of the museum and monument are complimentary, that the Turkish peace offered to Armenians today is contingent on Armenians accepting the dictates of Turkish power. Those dictates include accepting a Turkish narrative of history that denigrates or denies the existence of Armenians.

So, how should I summarize my visit to Turkish museums? When I planned my proposed trip to Turkish museums in October 2008, I expected an "Armenian-friendly" experience. After all, I knew that the Museum of Van had been closed down for a long time and I expected it to reopen without the "Armenian Genocide of Turks" section. I also knew that Aghtamar had been renovated. I even had an idea that a Turkish artist was building a peace monument in Kars. Because of these indicators, I expected to see complimentary changes in the content of the museums I planned to visit. Obviously I was being too optimistic. By no means has Turkey turned the corner as the museums, among many other examples, still represent some of the worst aspects of "old Turkey" in terms of intolerance, prejudice, and aggression.

Before I left Kars, I visited the construction workers at the peace monument. They were a jovial bunch of people, from different parts of Turkey. They asked me why I came to visit Kars. I told them I was Armenian and that I came to visit the museum as well as the old mosque that used to be an Armenian church (Holy Apostles Cathedral).

One of the workers, a simple man, interjected and raised his voice. "I am a Muslim! I am a Muslim! And I say as a Muslim that they should turn that mosque back into a church. It is shameful to keep it as a mosque!" As he spoke up, his fellow workers listened. I was surprised and moved by the sincerity of his words.



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