AKHTAMAR ET AL: NEW HOTSPOTS FOR ARMENIAN CULTURAL TOURISM?
[ 2010/09/27 | 14:06 ]
Turkey Keen on "Exploiting" Remnants of a People Dispossessed
While I confess I don't watch much Armenian TV, the one program I do
tune into is the interview show moderated by Petros, you know the
guy who likes to wear the suspenders a la Larry King. If the guest
is interesting, then the 30 minutes or so is worth it.
The other night the topic promised to be an interesting one - the
recent spate of Armenian cultural monuments being renovated in Turkey
and Ankara's agenda in the matter. The panellists, all purported
experts in the field of history and tourism, were to discuss this
and related issues and compare the sector of "cultural tourism"
in the two neighbouring countries.
While the general theme was interesting, the panellists, on the whole,
were less than engaging.
Akhtamar, Diyarbekir, Malatya, Kayseri...
Let's frame the debate, if you will.
The Holy Cross Cathedral at Akhtamar, Van, has been renovated
with financing by the Turkish government. It is now classified as a
museum belonging to the state. On September 19, some 1,500 Armenians,
mostly from Turkey, and lesser numbers from the diaspora and Armenia,
travelled there to attend the first religious service on the island
in over 95 years.
The St. Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church in Diyarbakir is currently
being rebuilt, almost from the ground up. This huge edifice, dating
back to the 16th century, is being restored under the auspices of
the Armenian Church Patriarchate in Istanbul through the Foundation
Board of the church, made up of Armenians who formerly resided in
Diyarbakir. Only a handful remains today.
Since St. Giragos belongs to the Istanbul Patriarchate, unlike
Akhtamar, it is not available for Turkish government funding. However,
a lengthy process ensued to get all the local construction and other
In November, 2009, the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Kayseri
was reopened and re-consecrated after being renovated. At present,
renovation work is being carried out on the Armenian Church in Malatya.
So what exactly is going on in Turkey?
Sure it's part publicity stunt, to show the international community
that official attitudes have changed in Turkey vis-a-vis its religious
minorities. And of course, these and other steps have been taken to
facilitate Turkey's drive for EU ascension.
Turkey recognizes the benefits; does Armenia?
But I believe that at the core is the recognition, especially on the
part of regional and local authorities, that it just makes plain
good business sense. Local officials in Van are unambiguous about
their expectations in this regard. A renovated Akhtamar translates
into increased tourist dollars pouring into the local economy. The
same holds true for other cultural and religious sites throughout
Turkey, many located in the economically depressed eastern regions
experiencing Kurdish unrest and demands for improved living conditions.
This motivating factor was overlooked by the TV show panellists.
The tourism expert, while rightly pointing out that Armenia had a long
way to go in providing a level of services and facilities equalling
that in Turkey, couldn't explain why prices for such inadequate
services were so high in Armenia.
During my week's stay in Turkey, taking part in an "Armenian-Turkish
Dialogue Program" organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation, I saw that,
as a tourist, you get what you pay for. The one thing that remained
constant was the level of service - whether in hotels, restaurants
or local shops. People want your business and they spare no effort
to accommodate you.
In this respect, Armenia has a long road to travel. The tourist sector
in Armenia thus suffers from a double whammy - relatively high prices
coupled with inadequate levels of service.
The government in Yerevan may talk of developing the tourism sector
here, and it makes sense to do so given that there is huge potential
to tap into. But it seems that all the talk is just that.
But even the smallest of changes in attitude can make a world of
difference - a smile instead of a frown on the face of a hotel
receptionist and restaurant staff that offer solutions rather than
excuses. The list is long, but let me give one little example that
demonstrates a wider problem.
Attitudes in Armenia must change and fast
My return flight from Istanbul landed in Yerevan around two in the
morning. Grabbing my bags, I walked a good ½ mile or so through a
corridor flanked with aluminium panels before reaching the parking
lot. There were no cabs in site. I waited for about 20 minutes and
nothing. I guy walked up to me and asked where I was headed too. He
got on the phone and turned to me saying there was a taxi on the
'Great, tell him to drive down' - I said
'No, you'll have to walk up there, it isn't far - he answered.
'Why? Don't you see I'll have to carry these bags up there' -
'Hey, that's the story. You want to wait here all night? - he retorted.
This attitude just won't cut it. Imagine if it was a foreign tourist
on the short end of the stick. They'd probably turn around and get
the next plane out.
Tourism pumps over $1 billion into the Turkish economy every year
and the numbers of foreign tourist keeps rising; 20 million this
Hundreds, if not thousands of Armenians from the RoA, already spend
their hard earned AMD in Turkish resorts like Antalya.
Will Armenians from the rest of the world now join their ranks,
preferring to visit Aghtamar and other sites in western Armenia over
Small groups of the descendants of Genocide survivors having
been making such "pilgrimages" to the towns and villages of their
forefathers in what was once the Ottoman Empire for years. Their
numbers may actually increase now that Turkey has understood it makes
for good publicity and business.
It remains to be seen if tourism in Armenia will suffer as a result.
It would make sense both in terms of price and service. They would
get a bigger bang for their buck in Turkey. And the attraction of
visiting the "lost homeland", a dream for many for so long, cannot
be discounted either.
Reclaiming the national patrimony: step by step
Petros asked the panellists on his show what the sense was to restore
a church, however magnificent, if only a handful of Armenians remain
They talked about how it might spur "concealed" Armenians to re-enter
the national fold, but failed to mention a very important point.
The St. Giragos Church Committee has uncovered a huge number of
property deeds that the church once held. Some of the real estate has
already been returned to the church and is generating an income flow.
The return of former church properties is a slow and arduous process
but an important one. The Istanbul Armenian community is doing the
same with a number of properties seized by the Turkish state.
Maybe some of those Armenian lobbying groups should allocate a
percentage of their operating budgets to such efforts. It may not be
as glamorous as sitting in Washington DC making speeches and rubbing
shoulders with politicos but such efforts need to be expanded wherever
As I said before in another article, let's start to finally reclaim
that which is possible in Turkey. Boycotting events like in Akhtamar
is easy and leads nowhere. We have to engage ourselves in the process
now unfolding in Turkey, no matter how small the window is.
A day or two after the Akhtamar ceremony, a well known ARF official
in Yerevan went on TV and declared that the "process to reclaim the
church had just begun". This boast struck me as more than odd and
just more hollow rhetoric. Why weren't he and the rest of the party
faithful on the island on September 19 doing just that with their
presence? The "process" as he describes it started without them and
most likely will continue without them as well.
Armenia need to re-examine what's at stake
We all know what is at stake and what Turkey's agenda is. 95 years
after the Genocide and experiencing ultimate assimilation, we have
nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The question we must ask ourselves, in the end, isn't what Turkey's
agenda might be in tapping into the cultural and historical inheritance
of other peoples, some who passed through as conquerors and others,
like the Armenians, who called the land their native home, only to
be dispossessed through genocide and eviction.
Rather, we must ask ourselves here in Armenia, just how effectively
and correctly we are presenting our national inheritance, that which
remains in Armenian hands, to the world at large.
Rather than finding fault with our neighbour to the West for
"exploiting" the remnants of Armenian civilization now in their hands,
we should be looking inward and asking tough questions of ourselves.
We have a wealth of untapped cultural and historical resources at
our disposal. But look at the reality facing us.
Let's clean up our own act first
The Sevan shore is an eyesore and a national disgrace. It seems that
every square inch of tourist shoreline has been taken over and turned
into an unappealing mish-mash of campgrounds, food stalls and parking
lots. Go to Garni and hike down into the gorge and you'll encounter
mounds of garbage. I already described the scene at the airport. Do
the Turks know something we just can't fathom?
Armenia can have hundreds of medieval churches and ruins; it can
have natural wonders like the Garni "symphony of stones" or the
blue waters of Sevan, but it all means nothing if the government and
people continue to treat such wealth in the most cavalier of fashion,
not comprehending the intrinsic value of what they have inherited.
Rather than regarding the natural and man-made wonders in Armenia as
garbage dumps or sites to be exploited for a fast buck, the government
and the private sector must forge a long-term vision of how to present
the wonders of Armenia to the rest of the world in an ecologically
sustainable and economically rational manner. Finally, the people
of Armenia must be involved in the process; they must understand the
benefits to be reaped.
Perhaps this is the biggest difference of all between here and there.
On that side of the border, people understand what it takes to
attract and keep the tourists coming, and their money - a smile,
a helping hand, picking up the trash; all the small gestures that
leave lasting impressions on a foreign visitor. Good management and
a government committed to such success also play a vital role.
Yes, attitudes and mind-sets are slowing changing here in Armenia
for the better. The government professes that the development of the
tourism sector is vital to the long-term economic sustainability of
the country as a whole.
The problem is that in this day and age "slowly" just isn't fast