The attorney watched as the clerk at the Los Angeles County Superior Court stamped the date on his lawsuit. June 1, 2010. He filed it under the wire, just before the statute of limitations ran out. The lawsuit accused the world’s wealthiest art institution, the J. Paul Getty Museum, of holding a sacred object vandalized and plundered during the Armenian Genocide. The plaintiff was a midsized faith group, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. The suit demanded the return of the Canon Tables, a fragment from a medieval Gospels, along with over a hundred million dollars in damages.1
The news media soon took hold of the story. The Getty Museum and its parent institution, the J. Paul Getty Trust, made well-chosen targets. Rich, powerful, and glamorous, they nevertheless carried a long and vexed history of buying looted antiquities, getting drawn into dramatic legal battles, and being forced to return artifacts to their rightful owners. The art press took note of a new kind of claimant in the crowded field of litigants seeking restitution: survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their heirs. The case recalled the better-known examples of art looted during the Holocaust, and the tenacious survivors and heroic attorneys who had fought against the odds to win back priceless objects pilfered long ago under the cover of genocide and sequestered in the pristine halls of affluent museums.
The suit avowed that the Canon Tables had been stolen, surreptitiously removed from the manuscript known as the Zeytun Gospels, as a result of the Armenian Genocide. The museum’s legal counsel responded by claiming that the Getty owned the pages as works of art, having acquired them legally, and that the suit should be dismissed without merit. The Church asserted that the Getty knew or should have known it was acquiring purloined goods. The Getty maintained that the Canon Tables had been in the United States for more than ninety years without anyone questioning its legal status.
The complaint made for absorbing reading. In a few pages it attempted to reconstruct the chain of events that had brought the Canon Tables to Los Angeles. Copied and illuminated in 1256, the manuscript had been kept in a church in Zeytun, a rugged town in the Taurus Mountains, as a revered relic and liturgical object. But the manuscript had its own agency as well, protecting the town and its people and accomplishing miracles among the congregants over the centuries. Fast-forward to the spring of 1915. As World War I engulfed the world, the Ottoman Empire initiated the exile and extermination of its own Armenian population in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide. When the inhabitants of Zeytun were cast out of their homes and set upon exile where most of them would perish, the Zeytun Gospels too was taken out of its church. It passed from hand to hand. During and after the genocide, the Zeytun Gospels intersected with the lives of individuals who venerated it, coveted it, treasured it, saved it, lost it, feared it, entrusted it to others, remembered it, and wrote about it. Decades later, when the Zeytun Gospels ended up in the Mesrob Mashtots Institute for Ancient Manuscripts (known as the Matenadaran) in the Republic of Armenia, its Canon Tables was absent. These missing pages, removed from the manuscript, had made their separate way to the United States in the possession of an Armenian family. The Getty Museum purchased the Canon Tables from the family in 1994.
At the center of the legal battle, competing arguments, and splashy news stories, the enigmatic Canon Tables stood still. Originally, the pages had appeared at the beginning of the manuscript where they functioned as index tables of sorts, listing passages that narrate the same events in different Gospels. The illuminator, Toros Roslin, turned these eight pages into visual feasts of calligraphy, abstract ornament, and dynamic images observed from nature, including birds, fish, trees, and fruit. He set them in architectural frames highlighted in gold and vivid jewel-like colors. For centuries the artist’s name was virtually unknown. Yet by the time the Canon Tables entered the Getty collection, art historians had recognized Roslin as one of the greatest artists of medieval Armenian art. The sacred relic had become a work of art of inestimable value.
The lawsuit struck a chord with Armenian Americans. It reminded them of the immense losses the genocide had inflicted, not only on their families but also on their culture. Now the eight glittering pages at the Getty Museum became a symbol of the uncounted manuscripts, liturgical objects, carpets, statues, paintings, and heirlooms that had been destroyed, lost, or stolen. Armenians have long mourned the destruction and theft of their art. A people almost erased from history, they still endure the denial of the crime of genocide by its perpetrators and their successors. Many despaired of ever seeing justice or restitution. The lawsuit in Los Angeles raised a tantalizing possibility. The lead attorney for the Church, Vartkes Yeghiayan, had previously prevailed in litigation with insurance companies that had sold policies to Armenians, then refused to pay out after the policyholders were murdered in the genocide. Could he prevail again? He presented the suit that demanded the return of the fragment separated from its mother manuscript as a quest to rejoin family members sundered by the genocide: “What we are doing is reuniting the orphans with their family,” he said.2 The Church spokesperson stated, “The time has come for the Armenian nation to demand the return of its historical-cultural heritage, lost during the Genocide. . . . This is about our people reclaiming their rights.”3 Something about this case and its timing resonated in the community, especially in California, even as debate swirled around its specifics.
The lawsuit also struck a chord with me. As an art historian, I have spent a good deal of my life in museums and know firsthand the positive impact on art history of a well-conserved collection, thoughtfully curated exhibitions, institutional archives, and research support. I was familiar with the Getty Museum, having visited it many times when I lived in Los Angeles. The Getty Trust had awarded me a postdoctoral fellowship in the History of Art in 2004 for an unrelated research project. Like many art historians, I was also well versed in critiques of museums, the way they turned archaeological objects and religious implements into works of art through the agency of display and the power of curation, and their long history of unscrupulous methods of acquisition. In my own research I had investigated the historiography of cultural heritage and colonial practices of preservation and destruction. Who owns, or should own, an object like the Canon Tables, and how is that determined? What would it mean for art history to be played out in the courts? The issues spoke to the art historian in me, but the story of the Zeytun Gospels also felt very personal.
Within a few weeks of the lawsuit’s filing, I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.4 The lawsuit focused on the matter of rightful ownership, of good title. But one could spot other issues between the lines of legal writing. Here was a fragment of a sacred object of great power that was now in a museum, where it was treated as a work of art. I recognized the object’s religious aura, yet as an art historian I wanted Roslin’s illuminated pages to be accessible to the largest possible public to view, learn, enjoy, and even pray to. As a rare surviving example of medieval Armenian art, the Canon Tables has tremendous artistic and historical importance. I argued that the dispute should be an opportunity for a creative solution that balanced the claims and goals of both sides, as well as the general public. Art professionals had long sought outside-the-box solutions to restitution conflicts. In the 1990s, when Byzantine frescoes looted from a church in northern Cyprus appeared on the market, American philanthropist Dominique de Menil reached an agreement with the Orthodox Church of Cyprus to purchase and restore the fragments. The church owned the wall paintings but authorized their display as the centerpiece of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston. At once reliquary, museum, and church, it was an extraordinary space where the art value and religious value of the paintings coexisted in a deeply moving and thought-provoking presentation.5
I argued that a similar approach could work for the Canon Tables in Los Angeles. The Armenian Church and the Getty Museum could cooperate in creating an innovative space where the pages could recover some of their spiritual function, yet remain available for the study and enjoyment of the largest number of museum visitors and scholars. The Canon Tables could function simultaneously as works of art and as religious objects.
The tragic story of the mutilated manuscript should not be silenced but rather incorporated into the exhibition. The Canon Tables’ continuing separation from the rest of the Zeytun Gospels mirrors the dispossession and dispersal of the Armenians themselves. Indeed, keeping the pages in this manner in Los Angeles would be particularly apt, as it is home to the second-largest Armenian community outside of Armenia—most of them descendants of survivors of the genocide.
An op-ed is not like the academic articles I normally publish. It prompts immediate reactions, both encouraging and disconcerting. Some of my art historian colleagues expressed dismay that I would intervene in a legal matter involving a museum. They seemed to think that academics should be seen and not heard when it comes to controversies surrounding art: we ought to research and interpret art yet somehow not delve into issues of the art market, provenance, theft, or atrocity that are part of the biography of many works of art. Some in the Armenian community objected that as an Armenian woman I expressed an opinion that did not align exactly with the Church’s claim. Others insinuated that I was out to curry favors from the Getty. That stung a bit. Clearly, communicating about a subject as complex and as sensitive as this was no easy feat. Yet the Canon Tables kept drawing me in.
The op-ed also opened up new horizons. I heard from anthropologists, historians, and attorneys who educated me and challenged me. I began to see a broader picture about art in the contemporary court of law. I attended conferences about art restitution and cultural heritage litigation; I listened to cultural activists and critics. Closer to home, family members and friends, the very ones who considered my usual research arcane, took an interest in the case and offered strong opinions.
Most of all, I kept thinking about the Canon Tables. I pictured the Zeytun Gospels as a complete manuscript. Priests and congregants, hymns and prayers, and the gentle smoke of incense burners encircled the holy object in its special relic box, far above the ravine in the mountain stronghold of Zeytun. I returned to Los Angeles to look at the Canon Tables. I scrutinized archival photographs, zooming in on details. I reexamined everything I knew about Zeytun, Roslin, medieval art, the Armenian Genocide, the destruction of cultural heritage, the liturgy of the Armenian Church, and art-related litigation. The court filings in the Canon Tables case offered a tantalizing look into the life of an Armenian manuscript caught in the vagaries of war, genocide, exile, and the art market. This was the kind of history of art that art history rarely addressed head-on. Yet it also prompted questions. What functions did the manuscript fulfill in the religious life of Zeytun? Was it possible to reconstruct each and every step of the journey the mother manuscript and the Canon Tables had embarked on? Which individuals had come into contact with the holy pages, and how had the pages changed them? Who exactly was Roslin, and how did he rise from obscurity to become the acclaimed master of medieval Armenian art? How does the saga of the Canon Tables shed light on Armenian cultural heritage and the genocide? The Zeytun Gospels was exerting the same strong pull on me as it had on so many others before.
. . .
As the lawsuit was winding its way through legal procedures and court filings in Los Angeles, I decided to go on a pilgrimage, a quest, to retrace the steps of the Zeytun Gospels, from the site where it was created through all the known stations on the journey that eventually took the mother manuscript to Yerevan, Armenia, and the Canon Tables to Los Angeles. I hoped to gain a fuller understanding, not only of the manuscript itself and of its history but also of the places, landscapes, and even ruins where the Gospels had spent time during its itinerary. I hoped to learn something of how the Gospels and its communities had interacted in specific places, and how the genocide and its long-term effects had transformed these sites.
I first went to see the mother manuscript in the Republic of Armenia. The Matenadaran kept it safe alongside other manuscripts and fragments salvaged from destroyed Armenian Ottoman communities. The mother manuscript in Armenia, like the Canon Tables in Los Angeles, had been reinvented as an art masterpiece, far away from the dark churches of Zeytun.
Next I headed to Turkey. In Istanbul, where almost all the remaining Armenians in Turkey live today, Armenian and Turkish friends and colleagues listened to my travel plans, offered advice, put me in touch with friends of friends, and shared their own research on places and communities that don’t exist anymore. The southeast is a different world, they warned. I was leaving cosmopolitan Istanbul and heading to the conservative provinces. There the heirs of those who had driven Armenians out still hacked away at vestiges of the Armenian past. I would search for traces that remained.
Toros Roslin illuminated the Zeytun Gospels in the scriptorium of the castle at Hromkla, a fortress of military and religious significance on the Euphrates River. Today it is a ruin called Rumkale near the hamlet of Halfeti, a short drive from Urfa. Halfeti lies on the shore of an artificial lake, the result of a series of dams on the Euphrates completed around 2000. As part of this grand public works project, the Turkish state had moved the populations of nearby villages to Halfeti, then submerged their homes and fields. Today Rumkale is reachable by boat from Halfeti. The young boatman, Salih, was born in Old Halfeti.6 The dam was good for us, he pointed out. It created jobs. Groups of young Turkish men and women were cruising around the lake, not toward any particular destination but just to glide on the water, play music, dance, and enjoy each other’s company. Visitors rarely ask to stop at the Rumkale ruins, remarked Salih, even though the state had recently improved the boat access. Enterprising Salih recognized the potential of local heritage sites to drum up business for his family. He first motored over to a submerged village across from Rumkale. An old minaret from a village mosque arose from the water. From the boat I looked down into the cool, clear water and saw the shimmering building underneath, now called the Sunken Mosque.
The massive outcrop from which the castle of Hromkla had once dominated the valley was now an island, still water encircling it. From the modest boat slip I went up stone steps and passed through a broken gate. The trail went past decaying nineteenth-century buildings, perhaps barracks, and up toward remains of medieval structures. Salih gave a tour. This is the Church of Aziz Nerses (Saint Nerses), in the Christian religion, he said; it is not Turkish because it is Christian.
I told Salih the reason for my visit. Centuries ago priests lived here and created beautiful books, painted them in gold and many colors. I showed him a picture of the Zeytun Gospels on my phone. He raised an eyebrow: Does your religion allow books with pictures? Brought up as he was in the Islamic tradition, he must have expected religious books to eschew figural imagery, in contrast to the medieval Gospels’ proclivity for narrative paintings. I said, A few pages from this book are in Los Angeles in a great museum. Thousands of people go to see them. He seemed incredulous. Did he find it hard to believe that the medieval people here—Christian Armenians—created beautiful books that museums in America valued and collected? If he had any views as to why Rumkale and its surroundings were now bereft of Armenians, they remained unspoken.
Further up, at the highest point of the hill, was the King’s Throne, as Salih called it. It was a monumental tower, supported precariously by scaffolding as if held up by toothpicks. Vertical cracks threatened to split it apart. An official plaque said this was a monastery built in the twelfth century. It made no reference to Christianity, Armenians, Toros Roslin, or the Catholicos of Cilicia. Rather than provide information, it appeared to be there to insist on the Turkish state’s control over the ruins.
I looked up the tower’s smooth, polished façade. It bore two carved stelae decorated with what appeared to be animal figures, or writing. I aimed my telephoto lens at the stelae, which I could not see well.
It was only later, after I downloaded the photos on my laptop, when I zoomed in to look at the details, that I could examine the castle’s carvings properly. The writing was fragmentary but clearly Armenian. The letters spelled an abbreviation for Jesus Christ. There were beautifully carved animals: a pair of chained lions and an eagle with its wings outstretched. Between the letters and above the animals there had once been an Armenian cross. It was scraped out. Someone, more than one—they—had climbed high on the ruined tower and had taken the time and effort to chisel out the cross, meticulously, methodically, intentionally. It was not an accident, oversight, or the result of the ravages of time, or lightning, or earthquake. They had scraped out the cross but had taken care to leave intact the animals, even part of the letters. They did not intend to erase all the signs. They only erased that which recalled Christian Armenians. The eagle, the felines, could stay. Even the letters could stay once they had been partially erased, converted from alphabet and sacred words to mere illegible decorative pattern. Those persons, the mutilators of Hromkla, I felt I could hear them say: By the time we are done, no Armenian will ever have lived in this place. No Armenian will ever have created art in this place. Yet the shadow of the cross still remained, or perhaps I thought I could discern it.
. . .
Centuries ago the manuscript was taken to Zeytun, a rugged town in the Taurus Mountains, and was kept there in a church as a revered relic and liturgical object. Following the Gospels’ journey, I traveled from Hromkla to Zeytun, present-day Süleymanlı. To reach it today one takes the new highway up the mountain from Marash, the nearest town. The mountain has certainly changed since World War I. The old road between Marash and Zeytun, where the famous Zeytun muleteers, guides, and brigands had once plied their trade, is now underwater, another result of the great dam projects on the Euphrates and its tributaries. Fish farms have sprung up along the reservoirs and offer grilled alabalık fish, salad, and turnip juice. People have settled in the villages where Armenians once lived. The hot springs near Zeytun, once part of the mountain’s sacred landscape, now form the main attraction of the new spa town of Ilıca. It caters to middle-class Turks, who observe rules of Islamic modesty in impeccably clean and unpretentious resorts with separate thermal baths for men and women. There are no foreign tourists.
Zeytun came into view as the road wound its way up the mountain. It was raining. Under a heavy gray cloud, the town appeared like a perfect triangle set between two peaks, overlooking a lush alpine meadow.
A narrow bridge over a gorge connects Zeytun town to the main road. Near it is the famous fountain of Zeytun. A great stone arch shelters three smaller arches. Ice-cold water pours out from channels under each arch and into a stone trough. The cornice above the arches features a band of carving in the honeycomb-like muqarnas pattern. At its center a roundel still bears the traces of a cross that has been scraped out. Underneath, at eye level, the central arch features carvings of cypress trees, a roundel with a rose, another with a five-pointed star. Above it is a frame, now empty, in which you can still discern the shadow of an inscription of multiple lines that has been carefully erased. Again, they had come with their chisels to remove that which was Armenian, and only that, from the fountain. The decorative border could stay. The cypress and the rose could stay. By the time we are done, no Armenian will have ever lived in this place. No Armenian will have ever created art in this place.
The sounds of the torrents down in the ravine pervade Zeytun. The town is perched on a steep mountain slope. Little remains of the old Armenian town. Fires, decay, and intentional destruction have removed most vestiges. A large Turkish flag looms over the few stones that remain on the site of the citadel. The Church of the Holy Mother of God, where the Zeytun Gospels was kept, must have once stood there. The citadel affords spectacular sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. On the precipitous slopes animals graze and little goats jump on piles of rocks. At the foot of the citadel a modern mosque nestles, with an Ottoman-style dome and pencil-shaped minaret. The torrents are deafening there.
When a heavy rain started to pour, a woman called out from her balcony on a house nearby: Come in, drink tea! Soaked as we were, our small party accepted gratefully. We went up one story to a wooden home. After removing our shoes we shufled into a sitting room dominated by a wood-burning stove and a TV, blaring loudly even though no one paid attention to it. After the introductions the men adjourned to the balcony to drink tea, while the women remained with the lady of the house and her daughter-in-law. Latife Hanım welcomed us with the treats in her pantry: the local raisins, deep black with large pits, called kabarcık; bread baked in the tan-door oven a few meters away; home-churned butter; warm glasses of just-milked milk. Her sheer joy at hosting perfect strangers who on a rainy day happened upon her street was contagious. Family stories poured out. Of Latife’s four children, all had left in search of work, leaving only the youngest son’s new bride to help her with her chores. She bemoaned, Young people don’t stick around here. I asked her where her family was from. She sketched out her grandparents’ vague provenance in an eastern European village whose name she did not know. It was not among the issues that mattered.
The rain cleared. We strolled around Zeytun. On the steep edges of the torrent, any available small patch of flat land had been carefully cleared of rocks and cultivated. That is where Latife started her seeds. Chore followed chore as the day wore on. From the forest up the slope she gathered firewood and loaded it on her donkey to bring back home, slowly and carefully on the inclined streets. She showed us the old road at the town’s edge that climbed up Berid Mountain and toward Albistan. Made up of large, rough rocks, the ancient road was terraced at regular intervals, making the tilt easier to navigate. Latife’s husband said, Those who built this road long ago, they were hardworking. Today people are lazy.7 A neighbor, Hasan Bey, wanted to show us something. He had built his home above an old hammam. He used it as a stable and for hay storage now. I could see that under all the dirt the floor was laid with alternating white and black stones. Stone arches supported the high ceiling. The donkey drank from a heavy marble basin. Hasan Bey insisted on gifting us the warm eggs just hatched by his chickens that roosted in the old hammam. Nearby was another of the old bath’s rooms, deserted, its roof vaults gaping open, overgrown with trees.
Throughout our visit Latife Hanım did not ask what had brought us to Zeytun. Just as I was leaving, she pointed out, unprompted, a place far away on the mountain. That is where the Armenian cemeteries were, she said. Nothing was visible there now but prancing goats.
I tried to find remains of the trails, holy places, and villages that once dotted the surrounding landscape. The village of Kıshla lies between Zeytun and the spa town of Ilıca. The name means “garrison,” and indeed the village had sprung from the remains of the old Ottoman barracks, constructed in the nineteenth century to tame the rebellious Armenians of Zeytun. One could still see the military-grade strong walls with vertical slit windows, and reinforced corners. Now they supported newer upper stories, where balconies were overhung with grapevines, and grandmothers hung laundry on plastic lines. Latife’s beautiful daughter-in-law was from Kıshla. An old lady interrupted her work in her vegetable patch to chat with us. To our question of where her family came from, she vaguely said Ayvalık. She had lived here since she was five. The topic seemed to interest her only minimally. The past seemed irrelevant.
Most men wore work clothes and the billowy black pants typical of southern Turkey. A young man stood out in a shiny blue suit. He was the mayor of Zeytun and the only person who used the town’s official name, Süleymanlı, in his conversation. His cell phone constantly ringing, he was working to usher the opportunities and comforts of the Turkish business middle class to the mountain.
Near Kıshla, on a promontory with a clear view toward Zeytun, stood an official monument. Grave markers sheltered the remains of those killed as they put down the Armenian rebellions of 1895 and 1915: Colonel Tahsin of the Ottoman army and Major Süleyman of the gendarmerie, in addition to twenty-five unnamed martyred soldiers. A spent cannon ball, which presumably saw action during the pacification of the Armenians, was also enshrined. A plaque certified this as an official monument erected in 2004.8 Inscriptions quoted speeches by Kemal Atatürk, while a sign clarified that Zeytun’s name was changed to Süleymanlı by the sultan’s decree to honor the fallen Major Süleyman in 1915. The monument did not narrate the events it commemorated in any detail. But it starkly opposed the Ottoman state, with all the weight of legitimacy, to the Zeytun Armenians, depicted as murderous rebels. This official monument was the only place in or near Zeytun where the word Armenian appeared and where the presence of Armenians in this place was acknowledged. The Armenians were nameless, while the Turkish leaders had names. The Armenians were isyancılar—rebels. The officials were martyrs who upheld the social order. Armenian violence was illegitimate; Turkish violence was legitimate. The sign did not explain why there were no longer any Armenians remaining here. They rebelled, they were put down, and then voluntarily faded into history. The rebels had no graves. It was a monument that glorified the violence of the state and excoriated the Armenians, cast them as murderous rebels, and thereby ousted them from the legitimate social order.
The scratched-out cross and inscriptions at Zeytun, the monument at Kıshla, spoke of an enshrined hate, of a past barely remembered except through the vilification of an enemy whose traces have been erased many times over. Yet the Armenian ghosts of Zeytun were still somehow present. The warmth, genuine kindness, and generosity of Latife’s household was difficult to reconcile with the violence the fountain had endured and the monument still professed.
. . .
In the spring of 1915, when the Ottoman state initiated the genocide of its Armenian subjects, Asadur, of the noble house of Surenian, took the Gospels with him from Zeytun on the road to exile. He spent time in Marash, where the Gospels passed to Dr. Artin Der Ghazarian, a surgeon and amateur historian.
From the citadel of Marash I viewed the city spread out on the foothills of Ahır Mountain, from its tranquil old core stacked on a gentle slope all the way to the new highway and suburbs full of modern apartment buildings. The Kanlı Dere (Bloody Valley River) runs through it. Dr. Der Ghazarian lost the Gospels during the Battle of Marash of 1920, when he very nearly lost his life. The Liberation Museum on the citadel depicts this same battle, one of the first confrontations in what official memory calls the Turkish War for Independence, in a series of dioramas complete with miniature buildings and Lego-sized costumed dolls.9 In the diorama the occupying French forces, allied with the treacherous and cowardly Armenians, oppress the Muslims of Marash, provoke them, and set fire to the city before fleeing on toy horses. Heroic çetes (irregulars, militia) from Marash then pursue the occupiers all the way to Aintab, Urfa, and Aleppo. Tiny graves of the righteous fill a martyr’s cemetery. All the Armenian figures then vanish.
Relatively little survives intact from old Marash apart from restored historic mosques. I visit some newly refurbished traditional mansions in the old city core. Some of them once belonged to well-to-do Armenians. Sheltered behind walls and on one side of a courtyard, their multistory living quarters stand in stone with wooden stairs and roofs, and with large balconies that afford sweeping views. On what was once the town’s northern edge is a compound of stone buildings erected for the American missionaries. These structures are now part of a military installation. Some visitors say a church bell from the American Protestant Chapel remains inside, bearing an English inscription. The German hospital where Dr. Artin practiced medicine must have been nearby. Local lore holds that the ghost of a German nun haunts this neighborhood at night.
Near the city center, in one of the main arteries close to the entrance of the covered market, groups of statues reenact scenes from the French occupation. French soldiers insult a veiled lady; a Marash citizen defends her honor; local hero Sütçü Imam and his followers raise their fists. They stand frozen in cast metal while daily life unfolds around them. Scruffy Syrian children beg on the street in broken Turkish. In the covered bazaar, craftsmen make saddles, tin copper pots, and sell textiles and foodstuffs like the famous flat, paper-thin tarhana of Marash (a dried mixture of grain and yoghurt) or its luscious goat-milk ice cream. Merchants tell of “friends” from Brazil or Aleppo or New York, Marash Armenians who visit, never staying long. Do you know Nazar from Uruguay? They invoke stories heard from elders, told hurriedly in the Marash dialect of Turkish. The stories always involve Armenians and Turks from Marash looking out for each other in far-away places, taking care of each other, helping each other return home. They know the names of the old Armenian families of Marash. I take out pictures of the Zeytun Gospels; again, the question: Your religion permits books with such images, then? I tell them how the Gospels had come to Marash from Zeytun, and Dr. Artin of the German hospital had saved, then lost them. They are familiar with Dr. Artin, and the map he drew of his hometown, from memory, years later in exile: Well, I think there are a couple of tiny errors in his map of Marash! How many people do I know that have studied Dr. Artin’s map as closely as I have? It is heartwarming. Still, no one gets into why no Armenians remain.
Marash is a modest place. It figures neither in Turkey’s cultural heritage nor on beach tourism circuits. It is bereft of any major industry, state institutions, or a university, and no major highway goes through it. Few have reason to come here, and many of the young men leave to seek work in the big cities. It occurs to me that for these middling Marashlıs, the descendants of Armenians their grandfathers dispossessed and evicted have become their one link to the wider world, the only people who share their affection for the city beneath Ahır Mountain, and their firm belief that the Marashlı can never stir too far from it: We cannot bear not seeing Ahır Mountain.10
The Armenians and the Turks always got along well in Marash, my hosts insist. In Marash, there were always only Turks, Armenians, and some Jews. There were never any Kurds here. The Jews left at an unspecified time for unspecified reasons. As for the good Marash Armenians, they were gentle and compliant. They fell victim to the Zeytuntsis, those troublesome, contrarian, and stubborn Armenians of the highlands.11 That is what they say, my host concludes, I myself do not know. A junk-store owner hawks an antique rifle with a six-faceted barrel, assuring me it was forged in Zeytun and no doubt used by rebels. Official memory around Marash, statues and museums, vilifies Armenians as a whole. Popular memory distinguishes between good and bad Armenians, excoriates the bad Armenians and blames them not only for their own demise, but also for the demise of the good Armenians of Marash. The good Armenians, at a remove of a century, appear in a rosy fog of nostalgia. They symbolize local pride. They rise from the dead to absolve the Turks of Marash from any sense of responsibility.
The Marash Armenians were hardworking, many were very wealthy, my host said. Some still dig among the ruins looking for treasure, the hidden gold Armenians left behind. But this is never a good idea. Several people he knew of who had found gold faced all kinds of misfortune and suffered illness, reversals. He concluded with the proverb, Ağlayanın malı gülene hayir etmez. “The riches of those who have wept will not benefit those who laugh.” I took him to mean that the wealth of those who have been wronged brings bad luck to those who usurp it. I took him to imply that he held fast to ethical and moral standards, regardless of the atrocities in his hometown’s past.
As in Zeytun, there was a jarring rift between the warmth of my hosts, their genuine pride in their town and their desire to share its every stone and every story, and the official vilification of Armenians and the erasure of the past. The lacunae in my hosts’ stories glared at me especially later, when I learned about the Kurdish and Alevi communities who lived in and around the town. Marash had been the scene of the 1978 massacre, when the Grey Wolves, the militant arm of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (known as MHP after its Turkish initials), attacked left-wing individuals and their families, many of whom were Alevis. Intercommunal violence had persisted here long after the genocide. Yet my hosts’ stories left these events out and painted a flattened, guilt-free picture of the town and its past.
In Marash my hosts surrounded me with the kind of hospitality I knew so well from my own extended family. It was attentive, it was warm; it also felt overwhelming, even oppressive. One is their guest, but one is also something of a prisoner. When my visit came to an end, my hosts insisted on accompanying me to the airport, all the way to the stairs leading up to the plane. I was thankful and grateful. Perhaps I also felt they needed to make sure I indeed left. The last Armenian in Marash got on the plane and took off.
. . .
Retracing the steps of the Gospels showed me that the genocide, the expulsion of Armenians from their homeland, and the relentless erasure of Armenian traces in Turkey ever since had very nearly severed the connection between the Zeytun Gospels and the places where it was created, worshipped, and treasured for centuries. The Armenian traces of Hromkla, Zeytun, and Marash had been expunged many times over. The manuscript had fallen victim to the genocide along with its people. It had survived, and it had followed the fate of the Armenians—cast out of its homeland, cleaved into two, and dispersed.
Back in Los Angeles, after five years of litigation and mediation, the Western Prelacy and the Getty Museum reached a settlement. The Canon Tables would remain at the Getty, and the museum acknowledged their connection to the Church. The settlement, welcomed by the parties, nonetheless did little to clarify the puzzles the manuscript presented. My quest continued—to understand the holy book and its people, to reconstruct its biography, to examine what the manuscript meant to those who had come into contact with it, and how the manuscript itself had changed. The saga of the Zeytun Gospels, of a sacred relic and an art object, of the fragment and the whole, of its perilous journey through time and space, mirrors the stories of survivors and refugees and their paths toward remaking their lives and creating new futures. The story of a trafficked object and of its people reveals much about the nature of survival and how art and cultural heritage are central to it. This book tells the story of the Zeytun Gospels, the paths it crossed and the places it encountered along with the Armenian people, as well as the gaps and mysteries that still shroud its journey, and likely always will.
1. Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America v. The J. Paul Getty Museum, No. BC 438824 (Cal. Super. Ct. 2011).
2. Vartkes Yeghiayan interview (in Armenian) on “Hertapokh” [The relay], host Armen Dilanyan, AABC TV, Channel 384 Charter cable network, November 17, 2011; “The Eight Orphan Pages.”
3. Attorney Levon Kirakosian speaking for the Western Prelacy, quoted in Marianna Grigoryan, “Armenia: Church Sues Getty Museum to ‘Reclaim’ Armenian Cultural Heritage,” Eurasianet.org, June 15, 2010.
4. Heghnar Watenpaugh, “When Art and Religion Collide,” Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2010, National Edition, A17.
5. Two years after the Zeytun Gospels lawsuit was filed, the Church of Cyprus and the Menil Foundation deinstalled the frescoes and returned them to Cyprus in accordance with their agreement. See www.byzantinefrescochapel.org/news/ (accessedMay 5, 2017). See also Annemarie Weyl Carr and Laurence J. Morrocco, A Byzantine Masterpiece Recovered: The Thirteenth-Century Murals of Lysi, Cyprus (Austin: University of Texas Press; Houston: Menil Foundation, 1991).
6. Individuals’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.
7. Hardworking: calışkan; lazy: tembel.
8. The monument was made possible through the cooperation of the Kahramanmaraş governorate and the provincial gendarmerie command.
9. The “1920 Kurtuluş Müzesi,” located on the citadel, is run by the Kahramanmaraş Belediyesi Kültür ve Sosyal İşler Müdürlüğü.
10. Ahır dağ görmeden duramayız biz.
11. Gentle and compliant: mülayim, yumuşak başlı; contrarian: aksi; stubborn: inat.