A Haunting Presence
Not content with the quasi-extermination of this nation between 1890 and 1990; that is, from the Kumkapı reprisals to the Baku pogroms, the policy - official or unofficial - of Turkey and Azerbaijan continues a logic of hate accompanied by obsessional impulsions to wipe the Armenian people, and the memory of their existence, off the land. A phobia that spurs the “two brothers” to join hands and celebrate their victory in the 2020 Artsakh War over a people that serves as a constant reminder that their own origins lie elsewhere is the very thing that drives an uncontrollable compulsion to annihilate once and for all any trace of Armenian identity.
Fear has created and prolonged this obsession. Fear of the Other, of the inability to overcome the invasive emotions that keep peeking over the horizon of the past. The incapacity to suppress the angst that accompanies fear, or to neutralize the gnawing phobia that sharpens it, illustrates quite clearly that the presence of this Armenian-Other has fostered a veritable mental disorder, even a policy of Statehood. This obsession with the presence of Armenians, and its reminders, has generated a neurosis among the populations of Turkey and Azerbaijan, one periodically manifesting into lynchings, massacres, pogroms and genocide.
These displays of rampant and hysterical hatred should not be interpreted as a juxtapositioning of events, but as a succession of them, forming a continuum, by which each event is interlocked with one another in Time and Space. Each episode of violence is a note in a cohesive melody; the song is the intention of conquest and elimination… of genocide.
This kind of obsession has emerged from an ontological and existential void, due to the abandonment of a fundamental ontological identity through migration. It rejects unknown or alien forms, images or actions, but this rejection widens or deepens the void because it filters the invasive phenomena in view of integrating or assimilating them. Being estranged or unknown, the individual or the nation in question cannot relate to these infringing phenomena. Hence, their own ontological void becomes more and more apparent to them, a yawning emptiness threatened by the values of the Other. Out of the reluctance to reconcile with them, suspicion, envy and jealousy will spring. Now some may argue that migrants who enter a new land will integrate (but not necessarily assimilate) the values of the people already on that land. And this is true! The Turkic peoples, having migrated from their ancestral homelands of Southern Siberia and Mongolia, had all but abandoned their Far Eastern culture, which indeed possessed its own Göktürk script, statehood represented by the empire of Bilge Khan, an aristocracy and a religion: shamanism.
Yet, this solid ancestral identity was abandoned both in Time and Space, creating thus an ontic discontinuity, a juxtaposition of identities and not a continuum of one. The migrating Turkic peoples sojourned among numerous peoples and “filled in” the ontological and existential void that this abandonment produced, attempting to accommodate the novelty of so many unknown and alien forms to which they were constantly exposed: linguistic elements, religious rituals, customs, etc.
Turks and Azerbaijanis were heavily influenced by the Byzantine and Persian culture. They were not able to swallow the culture of the Armenian-Other, with whom they have lived for centuries. The indigenous Armenian-Other who, in spite of wars and periods of religious intolerance, worked together with the Ottoman and the Persian authorities; this Armenian-Other, loyal or disloyal, came to speak the Turkic language perfectly, to understand Turkish customs perfectly, but remained anchored in its own language and traditions, which the Turks never mastered.
It is the consciousness of this identity void, aggravated by the Armenian-Other's “fullness” that transformed pent-up fear and envy into an obsession, which eventually exploded into acts of violence and extermination. Extermination and genocide became an ersatz to identity. A quasi-policy or model of governance that would efface the humiliation of a conquering nation whose honor, respectability and pride had been trampled underfoot by the conquered. Both in Turkey and Azerbaijan, the government resorted to the total effacement of the Armenian-Other with the hope of establishing an identity without the obtrusive and obstinate presence of the Armenian-Other, the ubiquity and propinquity of his or her Being.
How then must we circumscribe an identity?
Ontological and Existential Identity
Identity is both innate and acquired. However, innate identity, rooted in generational lineage and community bonds, is more penetrating because it is more affective. Acquired identity occurs if an individual, a family or a nation has moved or migrated to other environments, where the host identity rivals the innate one, provoking the ontologically affective identity to a tug-of-war with the infringing and even aggressive rival host identity. Out of this struggle, an acquired identity will be appropriated, existential in nature because it coincides - finely or coarsely - with the innate. In general terms, innate identity is ontic in nature, whereas acquired identity is existential. This categorization, however, does not rule out dual or multiple identities among individuals or families… even nations.
A sound identity is a well-balanced, coincided, ontic and existential one in those circumstances described above, or among families of mixed ancestry through marriage or by adoption. A problematic identity supervenes when the exiled, the refugee, the migrant cannot identify themselves to the new environment, cannot or will not adapt to novel customs so unlike their own, refuse to adhere to new values which they deny as essential for their ontic identity. They may even discard these values as nefarious, and secretly or openly repudiate them.
There is no question that Armenian ontic identity lies in the unshakeable bond of ancestral forebearers, whose roots had grown (and are still growing) steadily out of today's Republic of Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Artsakh (Karabakh) and Nakhichevan. The Armenian communities, wherever they be, possess innate values which allow them ontological security even outside the lands of their ancestors: first and foremost, their alphabet, and I would even go as far as to say, their invented ecclesiastical forms.
By forms, I am referring to the letters of the alphabet devised by Mesrop Mashtots in 406 AD. These forms are not mere “signs”; they are symbols of ontic safeguard, and hence represent existential resistance. Resistance to what? To cultural destruction by way of ontic annihilation. There can be no doubt that an effective relationship has developed over the centuries between Armenians and the letters of their alphabet and the forms of their ecclesiastical edifices, an affective affinity that has never experienced discontinuity.
By forms, too, I am referring to the ogival forms [սրբակամար] of their churches and monasteries, the drums [գմբեթ] or conic copulas, the vicarage [ժամատուն] and to the singular, artistic forms of cross-stones (խաչքար). These architectural forms, like their scripture, are ones to which the Armenian nation identifies itself because they have been carved out in Time and in Space; and this Time and Space has fashioned their identity.
Forms that persevere throughout a nation's history not only become symbols of resistance to programmed destruction, but renew ontological and existential energy every time a letter is written, a prayer, a poem or a novel is recited, read, written, a cross-stone is carved and erected, the drum, vicarage or ogive of a church or monastery is contemplated.
Conscious of these 1,500-year-old anchors, the Armenian nation, in spite of pogroms, massacres, wars and genocide, adhere to this identity, and because of this ontic support and existential traces, their identity is secure.
The unwavering ontological identity is all the more corroborated and substantiated by an existential narratological identity which has its origins in the lands that the Haykyans (Ayrarat Kingdom) of the sixth century B.C. settled upon, and whose steady growth flourished into Armenian statehood long before the arrival of the Turkish invaders. A land tilled and fertilized with a myriad of churches, monasteries, fortresses, palaces and cross-stones bear witness to an Armenian civilization. This land is a sacred land for the Armenian nation.
Even after a nation conquers and resettles the land with its own people, it does not cease to be sacred in the eyes of the conquered! That deep-rooted ontological bond nourishes the existential life-thread, sustaining and nurturing both the ontic identity (ancestral) and existential (the land). As long as the slightest trace or presence of Armenian existence remains on those lands, this coincided ontological and existential identity to them remains indivisible.
Because the ontic and existential identities have been diachronically melded into one, the Armenian nation has survived the hysteria of Turkish destruction. It is this balanced blend, this essential coalescence, that the conquering Turkic peoples had forsaken and, as if out of frustrated rancour (revenge?), have done their best to make disappear in the territories that they conquered from the Armenian people. For, contrary to the Armenians, the Turks suffer from an identity void which, because of their long migratory period and conquests against a civilizing nation, have made them fully conscious of the rupture with theirs. Multiple shifts in the alphabets used in Turkey and Azerbaijan during the 20th century are one manifestation of the lack of that anchoring identity. The consequences of this ontological rupture and existential discontinuity are either reflected in fantasies of some nostalgic desire to return to their ontic origins (as evidenced by Pan-Turkic statements and the establishment of the Turkic Council), or in megalomaniac dreams of refounding the glory and prestige of a stripped Ottoman Empire.
Historically, the Turkic nations abandoned their ontological scriptural identity in Mongolia. There are still carved stone monuments (stelae) there, commissioned by Bilge Khan (735) and Kül Tigin (732), upon one side of whose surface is engraved the history of the Turkic peoples in their Göktürk alphabet, and on the other side the Chinese translation of this existential narrative. These two stelae account for the original Turkic ontological and existential identity, one which rooted them in lands where they had lived and thrived between Lake Baïkal and the Orkhon Valley. However, unable to read them, Turks today would have trouble identifying with them, would see them as foreign, leaving a void where one is searching for their roots.
Thus the Turkic peoples who conquered Armenia in the eleventh century found themselves confronted by a nation whose profound cultural forces, molded by a combined centuries old ontological and existential identity. The physical space around them, palaces, fortresses and churches left their conquest incomplete.
The Armenians’ Christian religion made them a conduit for relations with Europe and the ideas generated there. This reliance on the services of the conquered, for the most part due to the flow of European values into the Ottoman Empire, became an intolerable humiliation for the Turks, as it challenged the stratified the conquered Armenian-Other into a lower social class. It called into question whether the Armenians had been conquered after all.
It is this inexhaustible ontic flow that the Turkic nations have attempted to dyke up by having recourse to forced assimilation (conversions), massacres, pogroms and genocide. A labored, manufactured, almost hysterical attempt to besmirch the Armenian nation through the most mendacious commentaries and calumny as recorded in school textbooks and propagated within their high institutions of learning. Armenophobia is a malady, and has long been a State policy in both Turkey and Azerbaijan. It is founded on racial, and to a certain extent religious, hate that solidifies and rallies the majority.
One anchor of Turkish identity is the bozkurtlar (grey wolves), whose fount and flow are situated in the mountains and on the plains of Mongolia. This theory is based on the legend of the grey wolf - böri - who saved the Nine Oghuz clans (Tökuz Oğuz) from Chinese invaders and led them through the mountains to the soil upon which the Turkic peoples have founded their present-day nations. The grey wolf, thus, is a revered animal, the savior of the Turkic nation, and whose emblematic figure became their totem. The bozkurt movement adheres to the type of values that were compounded by the Italian Fascists and Nazis of Europe, and has many members in Europe today.
The rhetoric they expounded was central to the 2020 Artsakh War, in which both Turkey and Azerbaijan continued their policy against Armenians that they held throughout the 20th century.
It is quite disingenuous to listen to Turks ranting on or singing about their “Azerbaijani brothers.” In fact, besides the ethnic and linguistic ties (though Azerbaijani is its own distinct language and not a “dialect” of Turkish), their bond is one of seigniory and vassality, as it was in Ottoman times when the Shia-Sunni divide between them carried more weight. And so once again, the 2020 Artsakh War saw the senior elite of the Turkish army come to command their Azerbaijani subjects in order to continue the unfinished work of exterminating their ontological nemesis.
Nagorno-Karabakh poses an existential and ontological problem to the Azerbaijanis in the same way that the Armenian Highland posed an existential and ontological problem to the Turks. History does appear to have repeated itself, complete with inaction by the West and intervention by Russia, on the condition that Armenia remain subjugated to it.
If we take a succinct look at the medieval history of the Armenian and Azerbaijani relationship in Nagorno-Karabakh, there is no doubt that this diachronic narrative has an uncanny similarity to that of the Turkish-Armenian one: similar reactions (suspicion, envy and hate) to the Armenian intelligentsia. There were similar strategies of ancestral resplendence and nobleness to portray to the Turkic populations as the rightful title-bearers to the land and representing the “local foreigners,” the Armenian-Other, as “guests,” as “dhimmi,” as “vassals” to them.
But in fact, a glance at the demographic and cultural historical patterns of the region proves these reactions to be quite unfounded. Indeed, the Armenian presence in the Caucasus region dates as far back as 600 B.C. Statehood emerges in the sixth century and strengthens with the rule of the Princes of Artsakh who reigned over Nagorno-Karabakh since the ninth century, having revolted against the Arabic yoke. And although invaded by Mongols in the 13th century, and by the Qara Qoyunlu and Aq Qoyunlu (Turkomen tribes) in the 14th century, the Armenian dynastic lineage remained unbroken in Artsakh until the 19th century.
The period of independence of the First Republic of Armenia between 1918 and 1920 also meant independence for Artaskh, whose population was 94% Armenian. This independence was rendered invalid with the invasion of Soviet Russia until the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. In 1991, a referendum organized by the population of Nagorno-Karabakh legally confirmed their desire for independence. At that time, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) counted 145,000 Armenians and 41,000 Azeris.
The animosity and wars between Armenians and Azerbaijanis pose a dilemma: Armenians are fighting for legal rights over territories that have always belonged to them, for they are the indigenous people of the region, whereas the Azerbaijanis are fighting for territories that were arbitrarily handed over to them by incompetent Russian bureaucrats who deigned to waste time on any research into the historical reality of those territories, be it demographic or cultural.
In 1918, the Turkish Army massacred 3,000 Armenians in Baku as a part of the ongoing Armenian Genocide. In 1919, the army of the Republic of Azerbaijan massacred 700 in Khalbalikend. In 1920, 20,000 Armenians living in Shushi were wiped out. Mob pogroms and lynchings took place in Sumgait, Kirovabad (now called Ganja) and Baku as the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Historic denial coincides with demographic and cultural cleansing in such a way that the denial becomes a historical reality in the eyes of the Turkic populations, especially the youth who are educated with school textbooks regulated by the government.
That is the same government that was quoted as saying:
Armenia as a country is of no value. It is actually a colony, an outpost run from abroad, a territory artificially created on ancient Azerbaijani lands.
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has spoken out against the “Armenian defeat on the battlefield” which proved to be “a humiliation in front of the whole world.” He said the Armenians “will have to live with this mark, with the mark of a ‘defeated country.’” He finishes with this flourish: “They lived in Baku, Ganja in all our cities and districts. Did they have any problems? No, they lost that.”
This discourse resembles that of Adolf Hitler, who declared his triumph over a defeated France, effacing thus the “humiliation” of the Treaty of Versailles. The invocation of Baku and Ganja, whose Armenian populations were subjected to pogroms, is a haunting but unfortunately consistent suggestion that Aliyev feels Armenians can be killed whenever Azerbaijanis wish to inflict their wrath on them.
On several points, the Turkic-Nazi correlation is not gratuitous. In 2005, the Mayor of Baku, Hajibala Abutalybov actually said the following to a Germany delegation from Bavaria:
“Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, right? You should be able to understand us.”
When it comes to genocidal practices, Turkey, too, had much to be indebted to Germany, already quite competent in that exercise.
In this context, one begins to understand the total destruction of 89 medieval churches and 5,840 cross-stones in Nakhichevan. The destruction sought to entomb an extraordinary cultural existence of a people who are indigenous to that land, so that its expropriation could be completed. What will become of other Armenian cultural emblems after the conquest of Shushi? Will they too be entombed within the furrowed layers of oblivion? Hardly. For contrary to what Hitler supposed: nations do not forget, and to suppress in view of substitution only enforces more the traces of that suppression.
Again, I ask the question: Is it necessary to assimilate or exterminate a people to affirm one's identity? Has an Azerbaijani identity been founded upon the genocide of a people, who, like in Turkey, lived side by side with the Turkic populations until the rise of nationalism? Are the Azerbaijanis, like the Turks, victims of European nationalism, of which racial discrimination was (and still is!) a chief parameter? Or have the Azerbaijanis, since many believe themselves to be Turks, taken up where the Turks had left off, and continue the Turkish extermination of the Armenian populations upon their politically-bounded territories, and by doing so, perpetrate a genocide by proxy?
The aftermath of the 44-day war in Artsakh has brought forth many essential questions of an existential, ontological and political nature.
by the same author
For his PhD thesis at Oxford, Hrag Papazian looked into the understanding of Armenian identity and Armenianness in Turkey, namely the Christian Armenians, the migrant community from the Republic of Armenia and the Muslim and Alevi Armenians. Papazian says the constructs of identity between these three Armenian communities do not coincide and can often be contradictory.