IGP Stories

What do Imaginations of Haunted Landscapes Tell us about Everyday Politics?

Dr Erol Saglam

16 September 2022

In summer 2022, while interviewing treasure hunters as part of my ongoing research project on alternative modalities of remembrance in northern Turkey, I came across Hasan, a well-spoken and witty farmer in his early seventies. A self-professed Turkish nationalist and a devout Muslim residing in Unye, a small town on the Black Sea littoral, Hasan was adamant to uphold the well-rehearsed nationalist line around the region’s long-debated history and recounted how minorities, namely Greeks and Armenians, had rebelled against the Turkish-Ottoman rule in collaboration with the foes of the Empire, British and Russian Empires being the primary culprits. He went on extra lengths to deny any collective violence, orchestrated or tolerated by then state agencies, targeting the region’s non-Muslim communities in the early 20th century. It was a matter of the past, anyway. He did not dwell much on the matter.

It was fortunate to listen to Hasan who seemed to enjoy indulging his friends and family with stories of hunts for treasures (definecilik in Turkish). These quests involved the collection of various signs and marks (presumably) indicating the location of the troves left behind by Armenian or Greek (and sometimes more mythical communities as well) as well as the formation of search parties to retrieve them. Hasan recounted how his involvement in treasure hunts has taken him across the region: He excavated huge rocks on top of the steep mountain range in Trabzon in the east and strived to find the gold in the ruins of a castle by the Kızılırmak river across the fertile plains of Bafra in the west as well as many villages and towns in between. To elucidate, Hasan started giving examples from his endevaours across his own village near Unye: Multiple search parties he personally attended sought after troves that had (presumed to have) been buried by Armenians across hills, meadows, woods, or their hazelnut estates. When I inquired what sort of signs that they pursued to locate the troves, Hasan recounted the rather discreet history of the village: That the village had originally been an Armenian one (with a characteristically Armenian suffix of -yan) and the local Armenian community had been destroyed. After a few decades of desolation, the area had been re-populated and the hazelnut plantations most of the community came to rely on had eventually been cleared of the trees overgrown. I had the chance to talk to others in Hasan’s village where many were convinced of Armenian riches buried left and right across their estates, incessantly digging seemingly natural spaces with no readily visible man-made signs or remnants. Both Hasan’s accounts as well as many others I collected over the summer revealed how local communities incessantly looked for troves left behind by past Armenian communities. And yet, despite the conviction of their existence, most of my interlocutors indicated that the troves were ever-elusive because of their haunted nature. Hauntings, nevertheless, further fuelled the seemingly communal desire to unearth what has been scattered across the local landscapes.

How should we then make sense of this two-dimensional engagement with the past, that is one denying the historicity of the societal violence and its destructive aftermath and the other reminiscing it discreetly and in transfigured ways? I could not help but ask whether, alongside the destruction, they generate for the material and “natural” remnants across the country, treasure hunts may tell us more about the ways in which past societal violence is remembered across generations. Can they, in this sense, be another modality of remembrance through which overwhelming memories of violence, displacement, and destruction are embedded in topographies and recounted through metonymic strategies? May the imagination of those haunted treasures, then, be intricately linked to the suffocating omnipresence of nationalist ideology and its inability to account for the affective reverberations of violence?

Pursuing that spectral eruption of “sudden disappearances” of autochthonous Armenian communities further, my interviews with local communities revealed how the societal violence of the early 20th century was engaged through such mythicized, fantasmatic, fragmented, topographical, and ever-incoherent narratives. While publicly denying the violent destruction and expulsion of non-Muslim communities from the region in the early 20th century, almost all my interlocutors circulated narratives of (haunted) treasures which were presumably left behind by long-gone Armenian or Greek communities. The stories underpinning these narratives, I came to note, also hinted at reconsiderations around acknowledgment and reconciliation-justice. The acknowledgment bit drew on locally-circulated stories around the “abrupt” disappearance, destruction, or displacement of autochthonous communities in the last century. In one village, for instance, my interlocutors used the word kırım (epidemic) to account for the “collective death” the local Armenian community suffered but also supplemented this storyline with local wells where the bodies of dead Armenian were thrown into. The societal violence hinted across these accounts accompanied locals’ conviction of treasures, which explained why there were Armenian troves across their Turkish-Muslim village and continued to generate dreams across generations.

The second aspect revealed through narratives of treasures, I underline, pertains to the ethical reflections invoked by the haunted treasures. In most of my interviews, as I hinted above, the search for treasures did not yield any results. Despite this fruitlessness, however, the hunters were convinced of the very existence of the troves but pinpointed jinss to account for their inability to retrieve them. Almost all underlined that the troves were haunted and eluded hunters. One way to retrieve troves was to unlock the spell, which often involved the collaboration of hunters with Armenians/Greeks who were to recite supplications in their own languages. Another hunter underlined the fairness of definecilik: Only those who had a legitimate right to the trove could retrieve them! Regardless of their age, political orientation, or socio-economic status, all were convinced that something supernatural was involved in the process and did not readily present the riches of the presumed trove without an engagement with the spectres of the past.

There is no doubt, that treasure hunts also pose a grave danger to the material heritage across the country. My questions and insights here do not attempt to underestimate this harm but invite us to rethink how the peculiar forms they take in each local setting (whether they target remnants of old structures or natural interfaces, for instance) might be productive threads to think of their social functions. I underline how imaginations of treasures across seemingly natural interfaces, in this sense, may invoke memories of past societal violence even in contexts where recognition/reconciliation efforts are foreclosed by the intensity of nationalist discourses. Attending to how societal violence is remembered in different modalities through imaginations, hauntings, and narratives, I argue, may actually be one of the first steps of reconciliation attempts.

This research has benefited from funding by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The views contained are the author's own.

Dr Saglam is Affiliate Researcher in Takhayyul Project and Assistant Professor in Medeniyet University, İstanbul.

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