Excavation site in Ankara and an example of the human bones found there (Photo Chamber of Architects Ankara Branch)

Armenian Bones Resurface in Ankara


ANKARA – A bit of an erased past has been rediscovered in Turkey when recent excavations on the site of the former İller Bankası building in Ankara uncovered bones of the city’s former Armenian population. The discovery exposes the complicated layers of Ankara’s history from the past century and is a reminder of the erased indigenous populations upon which the foundation of the modern state of Turkey was built, both figuratively and apparently literally as well.

Ankara of the early 20th century (then known as Angora) was a much smaller place than the capital city of today. By World War I, it had an Armenian population of just over twenty thousand, 70% of whom were Catholic (see Raymond H. Kevorkian and Paul B. Paboudjian, Ermeniler: 1915 Öncesinde Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda, page 212). Armenian Ankara had a Catholic cathedral which was the seat of a bishop, three Catholic churches and three Apostolic ones. It had Catholic and Apostolic schools as well as Protestant institutions.

Life as they knew it came to an abrupt end in August 1915 as a result of the genocidal actions going on throughout the Ottoman Empire, the primary predecessor state to the Republic of Turkey. In fact, according to Viscount Bryce’s account in The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the governor-general of Angora had refused to carry out the central government’s deportation order and so was dismissed and replaced by a Committee of Union and Progress party operative who would. The town was largely emptied of its Armenian population, but the erasure had just begun.

A year after the deportations, a devastating fire tore through Angora. A precursor to the much more famous 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna, the Angora fire’s exact cause is similarly disputed but is almost certainly tied to the deportations. As in Smyrna, it began with simultaneous fires in various places throughout the Armenian quarter and any alleged perpetrators who might have caused it were never brought to justice. It is unlikely a coincidence that this period saw many fires in other cities as well that, as in Angora, were centered in the Christian-inhabited quarters.

Many eyewitness accounts state that the Angora fire, which raged for days, originated in the recently emptied Armenian Catholic neighborhood, and that not only were those who tried to stop it hindered but that others were seen pouring kerosene onto buildings in order to help it spread. Seven out of the eight totally burned districts had been only populated by Christians and Jews, and every single Armenian church was destroyed. The few Armenians who had survived the deportations and attempted to continue living in their native town had their last ties to it immolated by the fire, and now having truly lost everything, it reinforced the impossibility for them to continue living in Angora. They joined the surviving Armenians who had fled to Istanbul after the deportations.

Largely forgotten now, the aims of these acts were not merely to expel the Armenians but to ensure they could never return, while erasing all trace that they had once been there. Besides the fires, erasure was enacted through land confiscations, the dynamiting of churches and monasteries throughout Turkey, and the kidnapping and Islamicizing of survivors.

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The only remaining Christian religious site for Armenians in Angora after the fire was the small early 19th-century chapel within the Armenian Catholic cemetery. However, as Angora grew into Turkey’s new capital of Ankara, the cemetery in the centrally-located Ulus district became prime real estate, something which did not escape Ataturk’s notice. According to a new Turkish-language academic paper, “The Last Armenian Catholic Chapel in Ankara and Transmission [Transferal] of Its Community to the French Chapel” by Aved Kelleci, published in the Journal of Ankara Studies, in 1935 Ataturk suggested a committee be established to determine a new location for an Armenian Catholic church and cemetery. While the article is not direct about what actually happened, it notes no such committee was ever formed and instead the church and chapel were immediately abandoned. It states, based on oral history, that at that time Armenians began using the newly opened municipal Cebeci Asri Cemetery and the Latin Rite Church of St. Tereza, which eliminated the need for their separate chapel and cemetery which were later destroyed.

After the destruction of all the graves in Ankara’s Armenian Orthodox Cemetery in 1926, an Armenian Catholic priest collected the stones of the Catholic cemetery and hid them in an attempt to keep them safe from a similar fate. However after his death they were “misplaced” and mostly vanished. A surviving few can now be found amidst thousands of years of monuments on display amidst the ruins of Ankara’s Roman Bath. (Photo courtesy Cavid Aga)

The situation as described in Kelleci’s article leaves many questions which perhaps can be answered by reading between the lines. Even if the remaining Armenians in Ankara decided on their own to stop using their cemetery, the idea that they gave up their last remaining Armenian chapel for the Latin Rite St. Tereza does not quite add up. Armenian Catholics are not part of the Latin Rite, so it seems strange at best for them to abandon their own chapel to use that of another denomination. It seems more than coincidental that Armenians would just happen to stop using the site at the same time Ataturk announced his desire to resolve the issue of its location through a committee which was never formed. As a tiny marginalized group of survivors, the Armenians of Ankara would have no way to resist such a design on their property and place of worship, and it would seem the shift to using the Latin Rite church was one of necessity rather than preference. Already in 1935, ground was broken on the outskirts of the cemetery to construct the unique modernist İller Bankası building, completed in 1937 by architect Seyfi Arkan for the recently established state-owned investment and development bank.

For a clearer picture of what was really going on, one can also look to the more infamous case of the St. Hagop Armenian Catholic Cemetery in Istanbul, which garnered attention during the Gezi Park protest of 2013. The centuries-old cemetery was located in the Beyoğlu area, which became an elite district during the early Republican period and its land extremely valuable. After decades of attempts to confiscate it, finally in 1931 the municipality of Istanbul claimed that the land belonged to a Turkish foundation and invalidated the Armenian foundation’s ownership of it.

After multiple failed court cases attempting to save the cemetery, it was completely expropriated in 1939 and many of the marble tombstones were repurposed in the restoration of the new Eminönü Square and the stairs of Gezi Park. This context of what was happening elsewhere to Armenian properties throughout Turkey shows that the Ankara events fall in line with the state policy of confiscation of Armenian properties, which had been ongoing in Turkey for decades. Built on top of St. Hagop Cemetery were the TRT Istanbul Radio Building and some of the city’s earliest and most prominent international hotels such as the Hyatt Regency and Hilton. Similarly, directly over the site of the Ankara Armenian Cemetery are multiple governmental institutions, including the Ankara Vakıf Museum, the Ankara Anatolian Vocational and Technical High School, and the Museum of the Turkish Republic’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

In fact, the entire Ulus district of Ankara, the former Armenian Catholic area which would have had many confiscated Armenian properties besides this cemetery, is now full of important state institutions as ministries, universities, and hospitals. Armenian properties were often turned into state institutions, as unlike with Armenian property, this would prevent anyone from being able to make claims on them.

This destructive history repeated itself in 2017 when, despite its architectural value, the bank building found itself in front of the wrecking ball. In its place was built the Melike Hatun Mosque, part of a wave of Erdoganist “mega-mosques” being built complete with shopping facilities throughout Turkey. One can’t help but cynically note that the demolished Armenian cemetery site is located at the intersection of what are now called Ataturk and Talat Paşa Boulevards, the names of the two figures most responsible for its eradication.

The mosque was built to the north of the cemetery, and now an area being excavated to build shops presumably overlaps the cemetery site, resulting in the discovery of the bones. As Agos reported, the Ankara Branch of the Chamber of Architects has stated that the construction at the site is against the law, and that the human bones found there were taken to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations for examination. The Chamber notes the chapel had once existed there, how construction on the site shows “great disrespect for multiculturalism in Anatolian lands” and that “it is a violation of human rights and barbarism.” It points to the “unscrupulousness of building a shop in a cemetery” and that it will take legal action to protect the site.

The voicing of this kind of sentiment in Turkey is a promising demonstration that the long history of numerous non-Turkish peoples in Ankara has not been totally forgotten, though the issue itself is very disturbing. Garo Paylan has raised the matter in the Turkish Parliament as well.

On a personal note, the author is a descendant of the Catholic Armenians of Ankara and believes his great-great-grandfather and numerous other ancestors were buried at the site. Inquiries should be made to the museum and Ankara municipality about the current location of the bones and how they are being handled.

We can use as a guide Turkey’s own standard for how these bones should be treated, as demonstrated by another ongoing case of a newly rediscovered Ottoman era Muslim burial ground in Greece. The Turkish government has demanded a stop to the construction, for the bones to collected and reburied according to Muslim tradition, and for a plaque to be placed at the site describing its history.

Surely Turkey should practice what it preaches when it comes to the bones of its Ottoman subjects at home as well as abroad. As a potential next of kin, I demand similar treatment for my ancestors’ bones and that the cemetery site will not be disrespected and defiled any more than it

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