AGBU Co-Sponsors International Symposium on Monuments, Memory and Ani



NEW YORK — On Friday, February 20, 2015, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) joined Columbia University, the Armenian Center at Columbia University and the World Monuments Fund in sponsoring a day-long symposium titled “Monuments and Memory: Material Culture and the Aftermath of Histories of Mass Violence.” Academics and experts from the United States and Turkey came together at Columbia University’s Morningside Campus to explore the way buildings belonging to victimized cultures have been abandoned, destroyed, disregarded and repurposed by state and non-state actors.

The multidisciplinary symposium drew on the expertise of specialists in history, comparative literature, art history, area studies, architecture and international affairs to assess whether the ethical issues concerning destroyed or appropriated material culture can have an impact on international policy surrounding restoration, restitution and social justice.

The city of Ani in eastern Turkey served as a case study for the politicization of historical monuments and preservation in a post-genocidal context. Ani-a medieval city on the Turkish-Armenian boarder-was the capital of the Bagratid Kingdom from 961 to 1045 CE and celebrated for the artistry of its churches and other structures. The city was abandoned in the seventeenth century and has since been subjected to earthquakes and destruction that have left it in ruins.

The symposium was organized by Dr. Peter Balakian, the Donald M. Constance H. Rebar Professor of Humanities at Colgate University, and Dr. Rachel Goshgarian, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College. It began with a session titled “Monuments and Memory: The Significance of Material Culture in the Aftermath of the Genocide,” which included examples from Polish and Bosnian history that put the Armenian case in comparative perspective.

Dr. Marianne Hirsch, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, illustrated how memory can be mobilized without succumbing to ethnocentric rhetoric or nationalistic sentiment. She took as her example the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews-built on the site of the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw-to demonstrate the capacity of museums as agents of transformation, performing acts of repair by inviting visitors to reanimate lost lives without forgetting their extermination. “The POLIN Museum,” Hirsch says, “accommodates different truths and challenges the revision of Polish national history, which has eliminated the Jewish presence. It shows the histories that Catholic and Jewish Poles had in common, rather than perpetuating the tired idea of a shared history, and has the capacity to shape public memory and inspire complex negotiations in visitors.” The parallel between the POLIN Museum and the city of Ani lies in its role as a contested site of memory, proposing one of many alternatives for the future of the city.

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Hirsch was followed by Dr. Andrew Herscher, associate professor in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who examined the politics of counter monuments and the ethics of genocide as counter memory. Herscher defined counter memory as suppressed narratives that challenge publically sanctioned versions of history and a counter monument as a structure that can memorialize counter memory. In his presentation, he discussed one example of this kind of counter monument and investigated its relationship to counter memories of the Bosnian War:  The “Memorial in Exile” at the 2012 Summer Olympic Park in London. Herscher explained how the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces in the 1990s have since been erased from public memory in the Republika Srpska. Consequently, the “Memorial in Exile” declared by survivors of the Omarska concentration camp marked unmarked violence and brought awareness of a genocide whose memory has been actively suppressed. He argued that the declaration of this memorial endowed survivors and their descendants with the political agency that had been stripped of them and suggested a future organized around new ways to live in common.

The final presenter of the first session was Balakian who made use of The Ruins of Ani, a travelogue by his great-uncle Grigoris Balakian, to suggest ways of viewing the city of Ani through a postcolonial lens. He used the book, which he is in the process of translating, as a resource for articulating the challenges of transcultural ethics and proposing the possibility of a shared future at the current impasse of Turkish Armenian relations. “From Grigoris Balakian’s account, it is clear that, Ani — even in the early 20th century — was understood as having a past marked by colonization, ruin and erasure. I’d like to situate this book within our contemporary understanding of the city to help inform the perception of Armenians as indigenous to the region and the disavowed colonized of the lands.” During his presentation, Balakian was careful to avoid nationalist discourse, while also asserting the connection that Armenians have to eastern Turkey and the intensification of loss that the ‘lock out syndrome’ from Turkey, coupled with the city’s history of neglect and ruin, has evoked in the Armenian Diaspora.

The second session, “The Medieval Armenian City of Ani: A Case Study in the Politicization of Art History, History, Historical Monuments and Preservation in a Post-Genocidal Context,” addressed the city’s cultural heritage and its position in contemporary Turkey.

The session began with a presentation by Dr. Christina Maranci, professor of Armenian art and architectural history at Tufts University, which offered a study of the Church of Saint Gregory in Ani and the Zvartnots Cathedral near Yerevan. The strong similarities in the structural elements of both sites demonstrate architectural imitation by Trdat, the architect of the Church of Saint Gregory. Maranci also explored the Church of Saint Gregory project as a display of specialized artisanship. By using Trdat’s talents and by reproducing the Zvartnots Cathedral, King Gagik I sought to showcase the technological capital of his Bagratid Kingdom. Maranci also considered whether King Gagik I sought actively to preserve the memory of Zvartnots by replicating its design in Ani and ended her talk with a plea to protect and re-excavate the site.

Dr. Heghnar Watenpaugh, associate professor of art history at the University of California-Davis, continued the session with a talk on the politics of cultural heritage at Ani. She began with a historical overview of the city and detailed the preservation and restoration campaigns that have been initiated by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture. She compared Ani to contested cities like Jerusalem, Belfast and Mostar to illustrate the politicization of the site and its appropriation as a cultural symbol central to national consciousness. Watenpaugh also critiqued the Turkish government’s approach to characterizing the city of Ani: “Discussions of Ani often deploy the trope of multiculturalism without acknowledging the full diversity of the multiple cultures at Ani, especially its crucial Armenian layer. It seems the language of multiculturalism is instrumentalized to erase the actual history of diversity and bolster the dominant groups’ own cultural capital.”

Goshgarian added a sociological dimension to the symposium with her presentation on the interplay between the medieval Armenian ruins in the province in Kars and Turkish and Kurdish peoples who live among them. She remarked that interacting with the local population gives insight into the evolution of the structures’ function, which have largely been neglected, destroyed or repurposed. In her fieldwork, she found that a local ambivalence prevailed in the province of Kars with regard to Armenian structures. Many have been repurposed to store hay, machines and animals and provide stones for homes, but the prevailing dynamic was one characterized by an absence of a sense of ownership over the structures themselves. For Goshgarian, the relationship of the local population to the Armenian structures presents opportunities for cultivating understanding the aftermath of genocide in the successor state. “Interactions with children throughout the region made me realize that the people who have been living with these monuments do have a deep relationship with these structures and these spaces and that if, in the future, restoration and preservation of these monuments is to take place, all of this has to occur in conversation with the local people who live with these monuments every single day of their lives.”

The final presenter of the session was Yavuz Özkaya, restoration architect and founder of Promet Proje Mimarlık Restorasyon [Promet Architecture Renovation Project] in Ankara. Özkaya’s presentation highlighted the current restoration and conservation efforts underway in the city of Ani, particularly for the Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents and the Mosque of Minuchir. He detailed the reconstruction of the structures in collaboration with the World Monuments Fund and the Turkish Ministries of Culture and Tourism and presented preparations for future renovation with 3-D models. Work began in 2012 and will continue in three phases. The final phase will involve promoting public awareness and improving conditions in the archaeological zone for visitors.

The final session of the symposium focused on themes of restitution and social justice and the possibility of their achievement generations after conflict.

Dr. Leo Spitzer, professor emeritus of history at Dartmouth College, began the session with a talk on the power of attachment to an idea of an ancestral city and the notion of nostalgia after persecution. He examined of the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi in the imaginaries of the descendants of Jews who were forced to flee during World War II. He showed how trauma has been inherited and drawn descendants in the Jewish diaspora to the modern-day town to reconstitute a cultural universe that they have known only through stories and pictures. Spitzer illustrated their efforts in keeping alive, both in their physical communities and in the online community, the Hapsburg-era city of Czernowitz, which has ceased to exist as the German-speaking town their ancestors knew. Not unlike Armenian diasporans who travel to their ancestral villages in Anatolia, “Jewish diasporans returning to Chernivtsi encounter a thoroughly changed cultural landscape that prompts a renegotiation with the one preserved in family memories. Refugee emigrants carry open wounds and return to be able to visually and tangibly commemorate what, to them, has been a virtual world,” explains Spitzer.

Spitzer was followed by Osman Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kültür, a non-profit based in Istanbul that promotes the exchange of culture and art in cities across Turkey and abroad to develop mutual understanding and overcome prejudices. Kavala explained the Turkish government’s stance towards ‘indigenous foreigners’ and their cultural heritage after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. He characterized the government’s prevailing treatment of Armenian cultural heritage as “willful neglect, willful removal and a policy of full erasure of the history of the Armenians, which has been little known in Turkey until recently.” Nevertheless, he pinpointed a shift in policy, a campaign to restore certain Armenian heritage sites and an acknowledgement of the Armenian presence in Anatolia after talks began between Turkey and the European Union. “Restoring Armenian monuments in Anatolia can help put the history of humanity on the proper track, transmitting memory and enabling new generations in Turkey to remember the past,” says Kavala.

The final presenter of the symposium was Elazar Barkan, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia and director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation in The Hague. Dr. Barkan’s talk revolved around the capacity of cultural heritage to create grounds for discussion between conflicting parties. Cultural heritage, as Barkan conceptualizes it, is a proxy for overall destruction during conflict and remains fundamental to its legacy. Reconstruction has the potential to lead to reconciliation as a symbol of conflict transformation. In his talk, he offered examples of the reconstitution of cultural patrimony as a form of historical dialogue in conflict and post-conflict societies, including the renovation of repurposed churches in Cyprus and the reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

The symposium united public and academic circles and put their respective expertise in conversation to unsilence silenced histories. As Dr. Christine Philliou, associate professor of history at Columbia and the moderator of the first session, pointed out, “the comparative feature of the conference distinguishes it from the conventional treatment of Armenian history as a study in isolation.” The spectral Armenian past of the city Ani converged with contemporary efforts to restore the city both structurally and symbolically.

In the roundtable discussion that followed, the panelists were asked how they envisioned Ani in 25 years. Goshgarian proposed a museum, founded jointly by the Turkish and Armenian Ministries of Culture, that documents the city at all its historical phases and Kavala expressed his hope to see easy and secure access to Ani from Armenia.

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