Daily Archives: 31 May 2004

Kaplan’s Armenia

Armenia is the quintessential Near Eastern nation: conquered, territorially mutilated, yet existing in one form or another in the Near Eastern heartland for 2,600 years, mentioned in ancient Persian inscriptions and in the accounts of Herodotus and Strabo. Armenians trace their roots to Hayk, son of Torgom, the great-grandson of Japheth, a son of Noah himself. While their rivals the Medes and Hittites disappeared, the Armenians remained intact as an Indo-European people with their own language, akin to Persian. In the first century B.C., under Tigran the Great, Hayastan (what Armenians call Armenia) stretched from the Caspian Sea in the east to central Turkey in the west, incorporating much of the Caucasus, part of Iran, and all of Syria. In A.D. 301, Armenians became the first people to embrace Christianity as a state religion; today, Orthodox Armenia represents the southeastern edge of Christendom in Eurasia. In 405, the scholar Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet, still in use today….

Armenia soon became engulfed by the Roman and Byzantine empires. But when the Arab caliphate fell into decline in the ninth and tenth centuries, Armenia rose again as a great independent kingdom under the Bagratid dynasty, with its capital at Ani, in present-day Turkey. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turk chieftain Alp Arslan overran Ani, Kars, and the other Armenian fortresses, destroying over ten thousand illuminated manuscripts, copied and painted at Armenian monasteries. Independent Armenia survived in the form of baronies but eventually fell under the rule of Turks, Persians, and, later, the Russian czars and commissars. It is the Russian part which forms today’s independent state.

Now squeezed between Turkey to the west, Iran to the south, Azerbaijan to the east, and Georgia to the north–with its lost, far-flung territories lying in all directions–this newly independent former Soviet republic straddles the Caucasus and the Near Eastern desert to the south. Like Israel, Armenia is a small country–its population is only 3.5 million–surrounded on three sides by historical enemies (the Anatolian Turks, the Azeri Turks, and the Georgians), but it boasts a dynamic merchant tradition and a wealthy diaspora. Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Teheran, and Istanbul all have influential Armenian communities. Jews and Armenians also share the legacy of genocide. The Nazis’ World War II slaughter of the Jews was inspired partly by that of the Armenians in World War I. “Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” Hitler remarked in 1939.

… there was a crucial difference between the revolt of the Greeks and the Slavs against the Turks in the Balkans and the Armenian revolt against the Turks in eastern Anatolia. The Balkans lay within the Ottoman empire but outside Turkey itself, so only imperial control was at issue; while in eastern Anatolia, Turkish and Armenian communities fought over the same soil. That is partly why–in the shadow of Mount Ararat–traditional ethnic killing first acquired a comprehensive and bureaucratic dimension.

… I flew to Armenia. My fellow passengers cried and cheered as the plane touched down before dawn in Yerevan. They were Armenians from the diaspora visiting their ethnic homeland, many for the first time. In few countries–Israel being one–have I seen such emotion when a plane lands.

At the airport, there were no bothersome forms to fill out or bribes to pay. Travelers had told me that efficiency and honesty also prevailed at Armenia’s land frontier with Georgia. The cabdriver who took me to Yerevan was well groomed, and charged a reasonable price. The roads throughout much of Armenia, as I would see, were better than in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Nor would I encounter any slovenly militiamen demanding bribes. In these and other ways, Armenia was more of a functioning country than others in the Caucasus. In 1998, it carried out a smooth democratic succession when President Levon Ter-Petrosian was replaced by Robert Kocharian.

But behind the scenes, the election had been less than democratic. Real power rested with the prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, who controlled the military and security forces…. Armenia was very much a quasi-military security state with a wafer-thin democratic facade: a multiparty system that masked a one-party dictatorship in which the opposition was intimidated and bribed.

Still, by the standards of the region, Armenia’s political system wasn’t bad…. Armenia is the only state in the Caucasus–and one of the few I had encountered anywhere in my travels–whose cohesiveness I thought could be taken for granted. “We are united,” a local friend told me upon my arrival. “We are ruled by one mafia, not several competing ones.”

But my friend and I were insufficiently skeptical….

SOURCE: Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Vintage, 2000), pp. 312-315

Leave a comment

Filed under Turkey

Border Clans vs. Alphabet Nation

Azerbaijan had always been a marchland, conquered by Alexander the Great and fought over by Turkey and Persia for centuries. As with Georgia, Russia entered the fray here relatively late, occupying the area briefly in the 1720s and 1730s and then returning in the nineteenth century. The local Azeris, who knew little political unity until the twentieth century, speak a Turkic language much like modem Turkish, but they are Shi’ite, like most Iranians. Most Azeris live not in Azerbaijan but to the south, in northwestern Iran. Until the early twentieth century, the Azeris were considered “Tartars” by their neighbors, and responded to questions about themselves by mentioning their family, their clan, and their religion–but rarely their national group. Georgia has a 2,500-year-old alphabet all its own. Azerbaijan, by contrast, changed its alphabet three times over the course of the twentieth century: from Arabic to Latin in the 1920s; from Latin to Cyrillic in the 1930s; and back to Latin in the 1990s.

The inability of the Azeris to congeal into a defined nation may be why the Armenians could destroy them in the war over Karabakh. The Armenians, with their own language and 1,500-year-old alphabet–and with the memory of brilliant ancient and medieval kingdoms and the Turkish genocide always before them–had a fine sense of who they were. The Armenians, everyone in the Caucasus knew, were never going to give up Karabakh in negotiations. No one gives up what has been captured in battle when the area is occupied overwhelmingly by one’s own ethnic group and the rest of the population has been violently expelled, with barely a murmur from the Great Powers or the global media.

SOURCE: Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Vintage, 2000), p. 260

Leave a comment

Filed under Turkey

From Trebizond to Trabzon

Robert D. Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Vintage, 2000) is full of wonderful vignettes of places that were once out-of-the-way, and are now taking on new significance. Here’s a glance at a former outpost of Byzantium on the Black Sea.

The bus pulled into Trabzon during a golden sunset: exactly what this city had constituted in world history.

Trabzon is the Turkish-language corruption of the Greek Trebizona, which comes from the Greek word for “table”–trapeza–a reference to the flat promontory on which the city sits. In 1204, Alexius and David Comnenus, scions of the Byzantine Greek royal family, escaped the Crusader conquest and looting of Constantinople and, with the help of an army provided by the Georgian queen Tamara, created a sovereign outpost of Byzantium here in eastern Anatolia. The new city-state of Trebizond got a boost in the mid-thirteenth century when the Mongol invasion of the Near East forced a diversion of trade routes north from Persia to Anatolia. Just as Dubrovnik’s noble families were to play Ottomans off against Habsburgs to preserve the independence of their Adriatic city-state, the nobles and diplomats of Trebizond played Turkomans off against Mongols to survive, keeping this city and its sylvan environs as a cosmopolitan outpost amid the monochrome Turkic nomadism–for the goods that amassed at the docks here were transported to Europe by Genoese boats, bringing Latin civilization to this eastern port. And because the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror did not subjugate Trebizond until 1461, eight years after Constantinople had fallen, history has conferred upon this place the aura of a last bastion of Greek Byzantium. In fact, a substantial Greek and Armenian population survived here through the centuries of Ottoman rule, until Atatürk’s revolution took root; so here, too, modernity meant ethnic cleansing, though of a relatively benign and gradual kind.

My first night in Trabzon I was awakened by the blast of the Moslem call to prayer–louder, I recalled, than a few years earlier, when I had last visited. In the morning I noticed the ubiquity of head scarves. Trabzon had become a bastion of Fazilet, the Islamic Virtue party, whose vitality here was a backlash against the “Natashas”–Russian and Ukrainian prostitutes who had arrived in the 1990s from the nearby former Soviet states, threatening the stability of local family life. Reportedly, it was Turkish housewives–angered by what their husbands were doing at night–who brought Fazilet victory at the polls.

Trabzon represented historical discontinuity. The various artistic monuments of the Byzantine past notwithstanding, what I saw was a drab and dynamic, utilitarian parade of bustling kebab stands, cheap cafeteria-style restaurants, and shops selling crockery, auto parts, vacuum cleaners, kitchen and bathroom tiles, and so on, lining narrow, serpentine streets noisy and polluted with trucks and automobiles. The industrial uniformity wiped out any specific cultural trait or connection to the past….

The next day I found what remained of the Armenian monastery of Kaymakli, up a nearly impassable dirt road a few miles from the city center, amid a squatters’ slum loud with children and roosters. A small boy led me into a destroyed building with a makeshift tin roof. The dirt floor, foul with excrement, was cluttered with hay, firewood, scraps of corrugated iron, and a set of barbells, which the boy proudly lifted to his waist. I looked at the stone walls, decorated with a turquoise-and-rosy-pink pageantry of Hell and the Apocalypse amid saints’ portraits, all faded, defaced, and framed by fabulous filigree work, recalling the beauty of this fifteenth-century Armenian church. As the unknowing boy jumped up and down on the corrugated-iron pile, each rumble of the iron reminded me of another human displacement. I thought of the brutal ethnic expulsions that have pockmarked the history of the Near East, of which that of Kosovar Albanians taking place that same spring was merely the latest. The smell of earth, the reek of feces, and the artistic fragments of a past Armenian civilization conjured up for me yet another great crime. A monoethnic Turkish nation blanketing Anatolia with its cartographic imprint had not occurred naturally or peacefully, and was not therefore necessarily permanent.

For geography holds the key not only to the past but the future, too. The Black Sea, with its diverse civilizations, may transform this part of Turkey now that the Soviet Union and its formerly impenetrable borders are gone. The Natashas were only a part of what was happening here. Along Trabzon’s harbor, there was now an endless market for goods from the former Soviet Union: fabrics, silverware, old war medals, cheap jewelry, tea services, and just about everything else, from socks to cell phones, was on sale. This was a working-class bazaar, like the Chinese market I had seen in Budapest. Trabzon was becoming more of a multiethnic Black Sea capital and less of a purely Turkish one. The kingdom of Trebizond could be reborn, I thought, in dreary, working-class hues.

My last day in eastern Turkey was like my last day in eastern Hungary [on the way to Romania]. In both places I was conscious of being near a great fault line, beyond which lay a starkly different world. Few people in eastern Turkey had any idea what was happening next door in Georgia. The large tourist office beside my hotel in Trabzon had no information about Batumi, the Georgian city on the other side of the border–not the names of hotels, the prices, not even the name of the Georgian currency. Batumi and Gürcistan (the Turkish name for Georgia) were terra incognita, and this heightened my sense of adventure.

The New America Foundation, where Kaplan is a senior fellow, has posted on its site a prescient review of this prescient book by Richard Bernstein in The New York Times on 15 December 2000.

Leave a comment

Filed under Turkey