Treasure hunters are destroying Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey

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Alin Ozinian

One century after the Armenian genocide, the Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey is still being destroyed, not only because of the desire to demolish the past but also due to an obsession with gold. The eastern parts of Turkey, inhabited by the Armenian people from ancient times until the beginning of the 20th century, are the main targets of the treasure hunters.

The Armenian genocide was the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. In 1915, during World War I, leaders of the Young Turk government set in motion a plan to expel and massacre Armenians. By the early 1920s, when the massacres and deportations finally ended, nearly 1.5 million Armenians were dead, with many more forcibly removed from the country. Today, most historians call this a genocide: a premeditated and systematic campaign to exterminate an entire people. However, the Turkish government still does not acknowledge the scope of the events.

Along with the massacres and deportations, the Young Turk government also implemented the premeditated destruction of the material testament to the Armenian culture. Realizing the role of the church and Christian faith for the Armenians, the first nation in the world to make Christianity its official religion, they massacred Armenian clergymen and destroyed churches, monasteries, medieval manuscripts and other church property.

Due to the mass deportations and massacres, the Armenian population suddenly vanished from their historic homeland. Armenians left their valuables and ancient cultural monuments to the mercy of the new owners. According to the Turks, “The Armenians hoped to return at a future date, and that’s why some of them buried the treasures they couldn’t carry with them.” As a result, treasure hunters are still seeking their fortune as of the present day.

In recent years countless reports have emerged on sacked ancient churches and cemeteries in Turkey and houses that have collapsed due to digging for contraband treasure. Looters dig into and destroy Armenian churches in the hope of finding treasure; however, what they sometimes find are ancient coins, bibles and crosses to be sold in illegal black-market auctions.

Aris Nalcı, an Istanbul-Armenian journalist based in Brussels, thinks a part of the local population in eastern Turkey that continues to dig for treasure and destroys cultural sites poses a threat to the Armenian heritage.

“A few years ago a friend and I visited the Armenian villages of Kantsa and Hin Gyugh in Van as well as the Church of Saint Thomas. The Armenian churches were still there at the time, but when I visited the villages six months later, they were all ruined. After our first visit, they started talking about “two Armenians looking for something,” so they thought there must be a reason – there must have been something valuable in there — and they started to destroy the churches,” Nalcı told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

According to Nalcı, not only Turks and Kurds but also Armenians who have converted to Islam are looking for gold. “Some of them ask their grandparents about their roots and about valuables left behind by their ancestors. So even they continue to destroy their heritage. Sometimes they speak with Armenian tourists and want to hear the stories of their families, but in the end they ask where the gold is.”

Numerous myths about the wealth of the Armenians still circulate among Turkish treasure hunters, making the search for Armenian treasures particularly attractive. They believe Armenians hid their valuables in great quantities under churches or in cemeteries. Treasure hunters often gather in teahouses and share their experiences. The best-known “treasure hunters’ teahouse” is the Ömür in Gaziosmanpaşa, İstanbul.

Raffi Bedrosyan, an Armenian writer living in Toronto, underlines the importance of websites and social media for treasure hunting. “If you Google in Turkish ‘treasure hunting in Armenian houses,’ you get more than 800,000 hits. If you Google 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.’ Some of the ‘professional hunters’ of treasures 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 and gold behind a brick or concrete wall, while the television hostess looks at him in admiration.”

Countless Turkish websites, blogs and YouTube channels provide instructions on where and how to find treasure. These sources are also dedicated to explaining the “meaning” behind various “signs” and clues Armenians supposedly left as to the whereabouts of their hidden treasures.

The Turkish state does not officially encourage these activities but does not deter them, either, as the subject of treasure hunting in Armenian houses is openly discussed in print and social media and as well as on TV talk shows. With the tacit approval of local municipalities, permission is given to dig in abandoned Armenian churches and cemeteries, not only by hand but with construction equipment such as backhoes and drills and even with the use of dynamite.

According to Nalcı the Turkish state encourages treasure hunters with the law. “The treasure hunter receives 50 percent of the treasure if it is found on state-owned land. If it is found on privately held land, then the private owner receives 10 percent while the treasure hunter receives 40 percent, with the remainder going to the state. If structures such as the ruins of a historic building are also unearthed, then the treasure hunter receives nothing.”

The current regulation governing treasure hunting, as defined in the Cultural and Natural Heritage Protection Act, was published in 1984. This regulation sets out the conditions under which individuals may legally engage in treasure hunting in Turkey. Under the regulation, anyone who is qualified may obtain a treasure-hunting license that allows them to search for treasure, but only at a specific location and for a limited time.

The Turkish civil code defines the word “treasure” in very general terms as “any valuable thing that was buried or hidden long before it was found and, according to circumstances, whose owner can no longer be definitively ascertained.” According to the definition given by the civil code, possible “buried things” that have historic or scientific importance should also qualify as treasure. However, the treasure-hunting regulation states that treasure-hunting licenses can only be issued to search in places that don’t qualify as “cultural or natural heritage that must be protected.”

Treasure hunters in Turkey have organized in the Anatolia Treasure Hunters Training and Research Association, which was established in 2018. The organization claims that it was founded to educate, train and gather people who are interested in treasure hunting while raising awareness.

Archaeologists, however, doubt the true intentions of the association. Turkish Archaeologists Association chair Dr. Soner Ateşoğulları thinks their actual goal is to sell metal detectors, tools that have damaged cultural heritage. According to Ateşoğulları the state should limit its use or ban them. “We find it strange that such an association could be established with the approval of the state, despite the fact that it would work to damage the cultural heritage of Anatolia with illegal excavations.”

Uğur Kulaç, head of the Anatolia Treasure Hunters Training and Research Association, disagrees with the scientific experts. As a producer and seller of metal detectors, Kulaç claimed illegal excavations and treasure hunting are two separate endeavors. “We are gold hunters. We get permits to excavate. But when we find a historic structure during the excavation, the state cancels the permit. Hence, many people do unlicensed digging,” he said.

In August 2020 Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP Garo Paylan had submitted a parliamentary question to Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy about photos showing damage to an Armenian cemetery in Ankara’s Sincan district. Photographs of human bones in places excavated by treasure hunters in the cemetery have frequently appeared on social media.

Paylan noted that the Stanoz Armenian Cemetery was declared a protected area in the 1990s and added, “This area’s looting by treasure hunters and building contractors deeply upset the Armenian community in Turkey as well as our conscientious citizens.” He asked if the ministry had a plan to protect the numerous Armenian cemeteries in the country and to catch the treasure hunters who looted the Stanoz Armenian Cemetery. Paylan’s questions remain unanswered.

The ancient Armenian regions of Turkey continue to be the center of attention for treasure hunters. “People do not appreciate the value of these places. We have called on authorities numerous times to take measures to protect these places,” Nalcı said.

A report by International Christian Concern titled “Turkey: Challenges Facing Christians 2016-2020” stated: “Treasure hunting is a common pursuit in Turkey. They target areas known to have once housed large populations of Christians, thanks to a cultural belief that Christians are wealthy. Today, these areas are largely empty of Christians because of the genocide and subsequently forced population exchange with Greece. The churches whose congregations have disappeared are frequently plundered by treasure hunters, and neglected by the state. There are mechanisms in place allowing the state to prosecute these treasure hunters. However, such prosecutions rarely happen and rhetoric used by political figures appears to validate social perceptions about Christians that lead to treasure hunting and other types of challenges.”

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