The real cost of a destroyed civilization

The theme of the conference included Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Arameans (Syriacs) during both the Ottoman and republican eras. The time span goes from the Armenian massacres of 1894-96 that occurred during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II all the way through the republican era until now. All told, we are now looking at more than a century of disrupted order, as well as the violence and injustice that spring from this disorder. The pogroms against Aegean Greeks, the deportation and genocide of Armenians and Syriacs in 1915-16, the Orthodox-Muslim population exchange of 1923 and then the deportation of Greeks in 1964 are all peak points of the century-long violence and duress endured by non-Muslims.

A rough list of the reasons for this disrupted order reads as such: Muslims who took refuge in Anatolia throughout the 19th century from the Caucasus and the Balkans, hoping naturally to share the pie; the forced settlement of nomads that began to become more widespread from the middle of the 19th century; the religious cleansing that took place as a part of the religion-based nation-building; and the Muslim-non-Muslim equality that resulted from the Tanzimat reforms of the 19th century.

The human dimensions to this destroyed civilization is overwhelming. We are talking about some 1.5 million Armenians and 1.5 million Greeks gone from a general population of 13 million in 1923.

The conference focused largely on the economic, political, social and cultural aspects of the destroyed civilization. As for the economic dimension: The demise of non-Muslims from industry and agriculture, the loss and spoliation of their financial and physical capital as well as the destruction of human capital meant enormous losses and collapse for Anatolia. Not only did many branches of production — like textiles, silk-making and winery — get fatally derailed but a vast wealth of ancient agricultural knowledge also evaporated. Severely damaged too was the seasonal migration of artisans between Anatolia and İstanbul, a tradition that had stretched back in history all the way to Byzantine times. Likewise destroyed were the economic relations with Europe that had been built up and nourished for years between non-Muslim industrialists and merchants in Anatolia and İstanbul.

Spoliation, plunder and forced seizures benefitted mainly the state and some local notables. Nevertheless, the disappearance of human capital became a major impediment facing the continuation of business as usual. Since you cannot just create a national bourgeoisie by pressing some magical button, the whole economy just collapsed. In this sense, the forced expulsion of non-Muslims from these lands points to absolute irrationality in thinking.

In the meantime, the illegal confiscation and seizure of non-Muslim holdings that we saw from the 1850s onwards has a dimension of compensation that has remained without results thus far. As for the cultural annihilation, the most concrete and tangible examples are given in the systematic and willful destruction of thousands of buildings, monasteries, churches, schools, mansions, gardens and farmhouses belonging to non-Muslims following their annihilation and/or forced departure.

All the 27 reports presented at the conference were very instructive for participants. And the presence of so many young researchers at the meeting was also cause for hope. At the same time, though, the conference reminded us all once more just how little we really know about our painful past.

The final words are from the late writer Yasar Kemal in his book “Yagmurcuk Kusu”: “Son, if you go back to this village, don’t take possession of the houses abandoned by Armenians; an abandoned nestle couldn’t bring life and prosperity to the bird which takes it over; on the field of cruelty grows only cruelty.”


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