By Raffi Bedrosyan
The word ‘talan’ has the same meaning in both Turkish and Armenian languages – meaning plunder, pillage or looting. It is a historic fact that the rise and success of the Ottoman Empire was directly linked to the ‘talan’ of the newly conquered territories until the 16th century, and when the Empire could not conquer any more territories the decline started. By the beginning of the 20th century, when almost all of the conquered territories were lost and the Empire was about to fall, the ‘talan’ became internal, going after the possessions and wealth of the two main minorities, the Armenians and the Greeks. In this article, I will try to highlight the still ongoing ‘talan’, today, of the houses and churches left behind by the Armenians, more than one hundred years after the Armenian Genocide. In fact, the ‘talan’ has now become a real industry, equipped with tools of science, technology and social media.
If you google in Turkish ‘treasure hunting in Armenian houses’, you get more than 800,000 hits. If you google in Turkish more specifically ‘what to look for when treasure hunting in Armenian houses,’ you get more than 400,000 hits. Similarly, searching for ‘treasure hunting in Armenian churches’ in Turkish would result in over 700,000 hits, with another 200,000 for ‘treasure signs in Armenian churches’. There are hundreds of instructional youtube videos or articles which demonstrate what to look for, where to look for in Armenian houses and churches, as well as the significance of Armenian symbols, signs, letters and words which would be clues for hidden treasures left behind by the Armenians. These videos have hits of tens of thousands each. The instructors in the videos have various titles, ranging from professor to archeologist to professional treasure hunter. They invariably state that the treasures are left behind by the Armenians who decided to leave the country during the First World War or shortly thereafter, but some hoped to return at a future date, and that is why they buried their treasures which they could not carry with them. This statement is always uttered in a very normal, matter of fact manner, as if it happens all the time ordinarily, naturally, like the changing of the seasons.
Some of these professional hunters of treasures in Armenian homes and churches appear as guests on talk shows on national television stations. The ‘expert’ shows up with metal detectors to demonstrate how he can locate coins, silver or gold behind a brick or concrete wall, while the television hostess admires him in amazement. The professional hunters sometime give further advice to the viewers not to trust fake treasure hunters who would only swindle and charge exorbitant fees for their services without delivering the goods. Another piece of advice is how to deal with Armenians from Diaspora who come back to Turkey, pretending to be tourists but in fact who have come to retrace their ancestors’ homes and take away the buried treasures. One piece of advice is to bring these Armenians in search of their family treasures to a professional treasure hunter who would facilitate a treasure sharing agreement between the Armenian, the present owner of the house and the treasure hunter himself.
There are hundreds of blogs and forums dedicated to treasure hunting in Armenian homes and churches, where amateur treasure hunters seek advice from so-called experts about a particular Armenian sign, symbol or word. Some of the blogs are in real time with statements like: “I am digging beside the tree in the garden shown on the treasure map, but how deep do I dig before giving up and going to the other tree?”
Years ago, these amateur treasure hunters would come to Istanbul from villages of eastern and southeastern Turkish provinces of Van, Mush, Bitlis, Erzurum, Diyarbakir, Urfa, Antep, Adana, Kayseri or Kars with a piece of paper in their hand. The late Hrant Dink would be the only Armenian name they had heard and they would go find him and ask him to interpret the maps or Armenian symbols on the piece of paper. Hrant used to tell us these people arrived almost daily, in hopes of making a quick buck by finding an Armenian treasure, either buried in their own home, or in an abandoned Armenian church or cemetery nearby. There was even a market for treasure maps, with people buying and selling these maps. Hrant would tell these people: “The real treasure is not buried underground, but it was the people who worked and produced this wealth.” Nowadays, people chat on hundreds of blogs, Facebook or twitter in search of advice or interpretation of clues.