(This article was first published on August 3, 2010 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
KAYSERI, Turkey — Rows of homes that used to be part of Kayseri’s Armenian quarter and housed up to 400 families are now dilapidated and lay empty or are filled with squatters. The district is a symbol of the tragic history between Armenians and Turks during the last century, a history plagued by animosity and violence.
But in the center of that district stands a 900-year-old Armenian church, defiantly active and restored as a reminder of the better days of Armenian history in Turkey.
Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement in remembrance of the Armenian “Great Catastrophe,” calling it “one of the worst atrocities in the 20th century.” According to various estimates, 300,000 to 1.5 million Armenians died during World War I after being forced from their homes by the Ottoman Empire, now modern Turkey. The Armenian National Committee of America said the president made the “wrong choice” in not using the word “genocide.” Armenians have strongly pushed the United States to officially recognize the events in Ottoman Turkey as a genocide.
However, one group of Anatolian Armenians (from Turkey’s Asian side) prefers to look beyond the polarizing rhetoric in an attempt to preserve what remains of their history in Kayseri: their 900-year-old church.
“We try to remember the importance of religion. It’s our most important cause. Our foundation doesn’t think about politics,” said Garbis Bagdat, director of the St. Gregory Church Foundation.
Hidden behind a ten-foot stone barricade, the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is one of only seven Armenian churches still functioning in Anatolia.
“When we visit, our old Kayseri neighbors are always asking us why we left and why we don’t come back,” Bagdat says. “Most of them say they would like us to come back.”
Bagdat prefers to remain with the majority of his community now in Istanbul, but his foundation is determined to preserve the pieces of history remaining in his former home.
The Kayseri Church has added importance because the community believes St. Gregory passed through the city and established an earlier church constructed of wood in the same location. St. Gregory was the first leader of the Armenian Church and is credited for converting the pagan Armenians to Christianity during the fourth century. Kayseri served as a major Armenian center for centuries before losing prominence in the late Ottoman period.
Bagdat’s group recently completed interior restorations. They revitalized old frescoes, furnishings, and statues. The community capped off the efforts with an inaugural service last November with the Armenian Patriarchate presiding. Since then, the church has seen regular Armenian visitors from Istanbul, Armenia, Europe, and the United States, including a group of Istanbul Armenians now living in Los Angeles.
“Having this church here, the only church, is very symbolic for us,” said Sylvia Minassian whose grandfather came from Kayseri, “We would like to preserve it as much as we can, as long as we can because it shows there was a Christian life here.”
Minassian grew up in Istanbul. For her, Turkey is home. She watches Turkish television, speaks to her mother in Turkish, and feels less animosity towards Turkish people.
“Our feelings are not as strong as some of the other Armenians whose families went through certain disasters and tragedies and they ended up in other countries,” Minassian said, “We never knew about [the other] history because our parents never taught us those things.”
Bagdat believes the Kayseri Church can serve as a reminder the city’s Armenian past for future generations. Bagdat says the Turkish government has been extremely helpful and has never stood in the way of his group’s mission to restore the church to its former glory.
“We are on a good path,” says Bagdat, “Twenty years ago, the situation was much worse. Nobody would speak about Armenians, and we wouldn’t speak because of Armenian terrorism outside of Turkey. We were afraid.”
But now, he says discussion are more open and he has had visitors from the Turkish government who want to learn more about the church.
For the last few years, Turkey has worked to normalize relations with its Armenian neighbors. Some feel that one of the key provisions for normalization would be an independent examination of the historic tragedy.
Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, spoke to reporters with hope about the future.
“As Turkey, we are ready to share the pain of our Armenian neighbors,” said Davutoglu.
However, he preferred to use the word pain versus genocide in his remarks.
Turkey continues to see the deportations, what some Armenians view as death marches, as tragedies during wartime. Turkish historians often refer to Turkish losses in Gallipoli and in its eastern provinces as equivalents.
It’s an issue that continues to agitate, and even Minassian believes this remains the biggest obstacle to more normal relations between non-Turkish Armenians and Turkey.
“What hurts them [Turkey] the most is the non-accepting of what happened,” said the visiting Minassian. “I think that if they accepted it a long time ago, nobody would have blamed the new generation because it happened in the old empire.”
Bagdat says he prefers to “close his ears” to the issue because he lives in Turkey.
For him, Turkey is his home. He chooses to stay, and lives among many Turkish friends. Politics isn’t his issue. He chooses to keep his heritage by protecting the Kayseri church.
“The church is the life of the Armenians,” Bagdat says. “Every Armenian is attached to their church.”
With one year left as foundation director, Bagdat will continue his restoration campaign. The next step is to revitalize the church’s large courtyard.
The church will continue to hold four services each year when approximately three to four hundred Armenians are anticipated to worship behind those cobblestone walls like their ancestors did for over a thousand years.
For the Kayseri foundation, the church remains a chance to keep history alive.
(This article was first published on June 25, 2010 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here. The video was taken on June 4, 2010 during the funeral of Furkan Dogan in Kayseri.)
Furkan Dogan had just scored so high on Turkey’s rigorous college entrance exams that he could have attended any college of his choosing. But before he started school, he did what a lot of high school graduates do: He joined a humanitarian mission to help people less fortunate than him.
His choice of charities was fatal.
“He was not a political activist,” said his father Ahmet Dogan. “He was just a volunteer, a humanitarian who wanted to help people. He wanted to study to be a doctor, an eye doctor.”
Furkan was killed during the Memorial Day raid by Israeli armed forces on the Turkish flotilla, Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and, according to flotilla organizers, deliver humanitarian supplies to the embattled region. When the Israelis boarded the boat from the air and by motor boat, fighting broke out, and Dogan was shot multiple times in the head and chest, according to an Anatolian news agency.
Israeli government officials claim that their soldiers were ambushed not by peace activists, but by people ready for a fight “This was not a love boat, but a hate boat,” said . Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In June 9 interview on the Colbert Report, Israel Ambassador to the US Michael Oren said, “The people on this particular boat were 70 hired thugs from a radical Islamic organization.”
But, for the Dogan family and their friends, these characterizations don’t match the man they knew. Furkan was not a paid member of the The Humanitarian Relief Foundation or IHH, the aid group which helped organize the flotilla.
Dogan was chosen by IHH after entering an online lottery to serve as a volunteer on the Mavi Marmara. Nine other residents of his hometown in Turkey, Kayseri, joined him.
Dogan attended one of Turkey’s competitive “science high schools” where students prepare for careers in medicine, engineering, and other sciences. Furkan was an honor student and recently completed college entrance exams where he placed high enough to enter any school of his choosing. Furkan took the exam as a foreigner because he was born in Troy, NY in 1991 while his father studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Furkan is a citizen of both the U.S. and Turkey.
“He was thinking he’d like to go to America for university, and was looking forward to going back to Troy to see his homeland and improve his language skills,” said his father Ahmet.
In 1993, Dogan’s father brought his family back to Kayseri, where he teaches economics as an associate professor.
Seniye Vural, an English literature professor and family friend said that Furkan’s father was often helping students, particularly a theater group in the economics faculty. Vural dismissed the idea that Furkan could have learned any radical theologies at home.
“I’ve never seen him [Ahmet Dogan] as an activist,” said Vural.
In fact, Dogan, like his son, looked positively on his time in the US.
“I had a great impression of America,” he said, “I was especially impressed with how Americans were so sensitive to issues of human rights and individual freedom.”
The family said their son went with those issues in mind, and wanted to take the opportunity to help people he saw as suffering. He joined the 600 people on the Mavi Marmara with his American passport in hand believing that it would be the best protection.
“Furkan thought that his American citizenship, his American passport, would protect him,” said his
The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffery reportedly spoke to Ahmet by phone in early June, promising Furkan’s father he would find out what went on in the Mavi Marmara. The U.S. State Department has not asked for an independent investigation.
On June 1, U.S. President Barack Obama said he supports “a credible, impartial and transparent investigation of the facts.”
Meanwhile, the Dogan family continues to mourn the loss of their youngest son. Ahmet says his son died a martyr doing God’s work, and at the funeral on June 4, thousands of residents in Kayseri came out waving signs supporting that idea.
“We want to show the world that he was innocent, that he lived a life of dignity,” repeated his father, “We also want his life to be dedicated to humanity’s
The city plans to name a street after him, and his high school is dedicating a gymnasium to him. A creative writing professor plans to write a book, play, or movie about Furkan, while another group hopes to establish a cultural center named after him.
Jim Buie,a freelance journalist living in Kayseri, contributed to this report. View his blog and coverage of the story.
Over the last week, there has been a lot of news about the Israel blockade and storming of an international aid flotilla. 16 of the passengers were killed in the incident, nine of which were Turks. Since then, demonstrators have been out in force. The Turkish government condemned the raid and has demanded not only an apology from Israel, but also an independent investigation over the incident. Turkey has been the longest Muslim ally to Israel, and the incident has added more tension to an already strained relationship.
Interestingly enough, the situation developed last Friday to where Kayseri was the center of focus. Furkan Dogan, a 19 year-old high school student, was flown in to be buried. Dogan was not only the youngest passenger to be killed, but he was also an American citizen (as well as Turkish). Below is a video clip I took from the funeral day as well as my commentary published today on NPR’s Here and Now. A more detailed report with interviews is also coming soon.
Kayseri is a fairly quiet, middle-sized city in Turkey. Last Friday however, the place where I’ve served as a Fulbright teaching fellow was turned upside down when the body of Furkan Dogan, a 19 year-old high school student, was buried after being reportedly shot multiple times at close range during the Flotilla raid last Monday. Dogan was also an American citizen, who moved back to Turkey when he was 2 after being born in Troy, N.Y.
A sea of hands carried the casket out of Dogan’s apartment building at 11 a.m., while mourners chanted prayers and looked on in shock. After a short procession to the city’s main mosque in the center square, the casket was prayed over for another two hours during the weekly Friday services. Furkan’s father, Ahmet Dogan, stayed very quiet as he stood by his son’s casket and made his way through the grim process of burying his youngest son.
After the Imam concluded the prayers, the crowd of more than 2,000 people became enlivened. The casket was again carried by hand out into Kayseri’s main street, as the flood of residents followed chanting slogans from, “God is Great,” to “Israel: Terrorist.” In the march to the cemetery, the anger and grief over the loss of an honor student who had plans to attend medical school in the fall was aimed straight at the actions of the Israeli government.
At the end of the march, city buses waited to take anyone who wished up to the burial site on the top of one of the mountains overlooking the city. At the burial, family members including Ahmet Dogan picked up a shovel to bury their fallen son while the rest crowded together in the dusty cemetery and prayed.
The news of Dogan’s death last week rocked the city of Kayseri where I live. Although Kayseri is a city known to have a religiously conservative bent, I would hesitate to say it is a hub for any sort of extremism or fundamentalism. Many women not only abstain from veiling themselves, but also wear stylish, designer threads. The students I teach are hungry to learn and find a successful career in Turkey as engineers, doctors, or in business. For most residents, the situation is far from desperate. Many have large families whose members live close together, sometimes even in the same apartment buildings, while taking jobs at local factories, hospitals, or schools.
Ahmet Dogan and his family were just one of those families. He is an associate professor in Erciyes University’s economics department, where I also teach English. Although I don’t know him personally, he seemed to me like any faculty at my university, someone working hard in their career in order to provide a better education for their children.
Every April 23, Turkey’s children take control of their nation.
Turkey’s Children’s Day (April 23) is a national holiday where children attend festivals across the country, and some students are even selected to serve as the honorary President, Prime Minister, and as members of Parliament for the day.
Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish state, declared the holiday while in the middle of the country’s war for independence. On the 23 of April, the Turkish Republic’s first Parliament convened. Ataturk entrusted the day to children to emphasize their importance in contributing to the growth and protection of the fledgling republic.
The thousands of parents and families in attendance today agreed about the day’s importance.
“Our motto is peace at home, peace in the world,” said parent Murat Dogan, “Children are like young trees. This celebration gives us the chance to inject peace into their minds. We need to bring our children up with peace. If we do this, the future will be bright.”
Fatma Akkas, a grandmother added, “This is a holy day for us because Atatuk gave our children this gift. I always take my children.”
“When I was bringing my children this morning,” said Ebru Turksanli, a mother of two, “I thought about how hard our ancestors fought for this holiday. It wasn’t easy for them to give it to us.”
Parades, dedications, and festivals fully run by children marked the event. Government officials and Turkey’s omnipresent military took in the show from the sidelines. One student was eager to share in the national themes.
“We are very thankful for Ataturk! On this day, the Turkish Parliament was formed and Ataturk declared this day, Children’s Day. This was the first and only children’s day in the world. Thank you Ataturk!”
Children’s Day celebrations are not new. They are found in at least 50 countries, although Turkey is among the few who make it a national holiday. For the participants, the day represented the culmination of months of hard work.
“I thought it was very good,” said one young performer, “We worked very hard. We practiced for nearly four months. Last month, we were dancing more than we were going to school.”
As the final flags and images were unfurled, the crowd erupted to thunderous applause. For a few hours at least, the issues of Turkey were put on hold as the eyes of a nation turned to their children.
Special thanks to Abdulfettah Açikel and Hüseyin Yılmaz for translations.
It’s late afternoon. My bus pulls into the Gaziantep Otogar (“bus terminal”) for a 15 minute stop before moving deeper into Turkey’s “wild southeast.” Before the bus door opens, I can hear drumming and singing through my window, it sounds like a holiday parade. I get out and see a gathering of 20 people dancing and singing in a circle, while three men play traditional instruments in the center. A young man sits in an adjacent bus, waving to the celebrating crowd below before his bus pulls away.
This celebration isn’t marking a holiday, anniversary, or wedding. No, instead it marks another longstanding tradition in Turkey, the departure of another “Little Mehmet” into military service.
Turkey, a nation founded by military officers, considers mandatory military service to be every Turkish man’s ultimate responsibility to the state. The constitution says clearly, “National service is the right and duty of every Turk.” Most Turkish men will do 18 months of service, and nearly all will do some service of at least one month.
It’s no wonder why Turkey’s leads the second largest military in NATO, only behind the United States. But around 500,000 of Turkey’s 600,000+ army are conscripts like the young man from Gaziantep.
The military has always played a prominent role in Turkey and still ranks in surveys as one of the more respected institutions. For years, it’s been seen (and sees itself) as the defender of Turkish democracy and from “destabilizing” forces.
Turkey’s military has taken over four times since 1960, removing the current party in power and remaining in control until a new constitution is drafted that suits them. Unlike many states where military coups have occurred, Turkish history remains an anomaly where the military has always ultimately returned power to the people after a time.
However, the image of this “caretaker military” has come into question over the last few years as the current government investigates possible coup plots allegedly crafted by retired generals. The ruling party continues to challenge the military, claiming that it’s simply trying to bring the military under tighter control of civilian government, per European Union standards. The opposition fears this is just an excuse to weaken the one institution that has stood up to would-be authoritarian regimes. (For a detailed analysis of the current situation, view this article from the BBC)
Politics aside, the tradition of sending young men to the military remains an
important last step for many into the journey of manhood. Some parents refuse to let their daughters marry a Turk who hasn’t completed his service. In several otogars, I’ve seen Turkish twenty-somethings carried on their shouting friends’ shoulders with a Turkish flag hanging on them like a cape. The “Bon Voyage moment” is always a family affair with parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and any one else around to say good bye.
Today, Turkey is working toward a more professional military. Reforms have made military careers more financially attractive while many conscripts can now defer their service for several years while attending university or living abroad. Men are supposed to serve between the age of 20 and 40. New rules allow some to pay in order to serve shortened periods of service ranging from one month to one yer.
Still, the act of each man serving is important, and seen as a unifying factor between the republic and its citizens.
(Normally, I reserve most content in this blog to be about Turkish culture. However, some of you have asked me about what non-Muslims or Christians do in Turkey. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to film my neighbor Maria Iskenderoglu’s Easter celebration this weekend. I was one of TWO camera crews.)
This weekend, Maria and her husband, Orhan, celebrated another Easter in Turkey with their 5-year old daughter, Sophia Irem. Although it’s usually just the three of them, Maria makes sure Sophia has the chance to enjoy the same traditions she had as a child.
“I like being able to give my daughter American culture, and this is a little bit of American culture,” said Maria, “It’s really hard to teach her American culture [here], but I think it’s a lot easier to teach her American culture in turkey than it is Turkish culture in America.”
This Easter, a Turkish film crew joined the Iskenderoglu’s Easter celebration to learn about the holiday.
“Easter is interesting to me because I don’t know anything about it,” said the 23-year old Merve Ozkoroglu, “It may be normal to Maria’s family, but these traditions are fascinating, especially painting eggs.”
Gulsah Dogan, another student-filmmaker added, “Our friends are documenting other parts of Turkish culture around the country. But we wanted to show our class something from a different culture.”
Today, Turkey’s 98 percent Muslim population means that few Turks know about Christian holidays like Easter. Orhan said he knew very little when he married Maria seven years ago. But he says living with Maria and travelling to the U.S. has opened his perspective on the two faiths.
“The way is same, where they want to go is same. And only some different rituals, something different, that’s all, mostly same. And I was really happy when I hear those kind of things,” said Orhan about his visit to a Kansas church.
Rather than scoffing at the silliness, the students found meaning in the egg-stravaganza.
“It’s a nice celebration. Painting and looking for eggs gets everyone involved, and brings the family closer,” said Gulsah.
For Maria, she hopes that her daughter will be as open minded as the visiting students.
“I also hope that she grows up with a belief in things that her father and I both find important.”
To do that, Maria and Orhan will keep on teaching their traditions every day, together.
(Special thanks to Orhan Iskenderoglu for translations.)
Come, come whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
-Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273 A.D.)
During one week in December, thousands of pilgrims made their way to see the Sema, a ritual that is over 1,000 years old. Performed by the Mevlevi, also known as the Whirling Dervishes, the Sema is a dance signifying the mystical properties of life. The white shrouds symbolize burial cloaks and flat hats symbolize tombs while the dance commemorates the soul’s ascension into heaven. or “marriage with God.”
But, it’s the message of its creator, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, that has grasped the world’s attention.
“It doesn’t matter are you Jew, Christian, or Hindu. It doesn’t matter. Just come,” says Pennti Koskinen, a Finnish artist who has been visiting Konya during the Mevlana festival for the last few years.
Over 500,000 visitors descended on Mevlana’s home of Konya, Turkey during the ten-day festival remembering his death. And a single book of Rumi’s poetry has sold over half a million copies and is the best-selling book of poetry in the United States.
“My wife and I met and in our first meetings we were pen pals and we would send each other Rumi poems,” said Michael Farris who currently teaches English in Konya, “So for us to be able to come here, it’s wonderful because the atmosphere he generated just through the translation is here in the town.”
Konya residents pride themselves on following the poet’s ideals.
“They separate you, you are Muslim, you are Christian, you are Buddhist, you are blah blah blah, you are black, you are white,” said Mustafa Uslu from Konya, “But Mevlana, he is telling, “Come, whoever you are come. So everybody feel comfortable here, I think.”
Visitors found Konya’s residents very conscious of the Sufi mystic’s teachings.
“Even in something as simple as a cup of tea, they say “Oh come and sit!” and they mean just coming and sitting, and sharing in moments,” the American Farris said.
With so many visiting, some residents feel that touristic fanfare and merchandising shroud the message.
“There’s some you can here the telephone cameras, “Kchhzzz, Kchzzz,” and I don’t want it to feel touristy,” Farris said, “I want people to experiences the reverence for the process.”
Others say the chotskies and showmanship come with the territory of being a top world destination. Banu Uslu, who served as an emcee for the festival performances, made her case concerning the festivals “reverence.”
“Ofcourse, for them, it has to be the business way. But the people who are coming here for this are just sharing this sacred moments,” Uslu said.
And so amidst the flashes and crowds, the Dervishes continue to whirl and revolve around each other just like the Earth, the planets, and stars.
One of the most common sounds heard throughout Turkey is the Islamic “Call to Prayer.” The video here is from an apartment window in Ankara. The sound is played along with the time relapsed video of the rising moon.
Although Turkey is a secular nation that separates religion and government, it’s population is still 95-98% Muslim according to recent statistics. For this reason, mosques are found everywhere in Turkey with at least one in every village, town, and city. The mosques are strictly regulated by the state in a number of ways including payment for the Imams.
In July, I wrote about a type of minibus in Turkey called a Dolmuş /Dole-Moosh/. (See: Stuffed Cars, Pt 1)These special buses run specific routes like a regular bus, but can pick people up and drop people off anywhere like a taxi. The ride can sometimes be very cramped, and the Turkish penchant for aggressive driving makes the ride an adventure.
In any case, a friend sent me a short film made by Turks (evident by the English captions) about the Dolmuş. I thought I’d post it since there aren’t many films on the site as of yet. My camera is having some technical problems that will hopefully be fixed in the next few weeks. You can expect to see many TurkFilm videos soon after.
The city is Antalya, one of Turkey’s most popular summer destinations. You can find photos from my visit to Antalya in the photo gallery.
After two months, this blog can finally begin to live up to its name, the Turk FILM Project. Below is the first of what I hope will be many videos to come. I’m still getting adjusted to filming in Turkey and getting comfortable with the language, so this video is very simple with no interviews or voice over. However, I believe the images coupled with the sound of a live Turkish street band provide a perfect little introduction about life on this side of the world. The video is a very tiny peek at Turkey’s largest and most visited city, Istanbul.
For over 3000 years, Istanbul remains one of the most important cities on Earth. As Byzantium and Constantinople, the city served as the capital for two of the world’s most influential empires, the Byzantines and Romans. The city continues to play a major role in world and was recently named the cultural capital of Europe. This is a very small glimpse of the incredible city known as Istanbul.
I want to thank all of you who are already regular readers; I’ve gotten some great emails and feedback about the site. If you are reading, please feel free to make any comments public. You do not need a user name to comment on any of the articles, just simply type in your comments with a valid email addres. I hope that this site can be a malleable tool where visitors can help steer content by asking questions and posting their curiosities about Turkey.
And now, please enjoy Turk Film’s inaugural video: A Glimpse of Istanbul.
This video was filmed during my past two visits in Istanbul. The images are primarily from some of Istanbul’s most visited sites including the Hagia Sofia, the Sultan Ahmet Cami (the Blue Mosque), the Spice Bazaar, Galata Tower, Topkapi Palace, and from various locations on the Bosphorus. The band’s name is unknown, but are playing on one of Istanbul’s most vibrant avenues, Istiklal Caddesi.