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Susam-Sokak in English

Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

Three Moments of Stupefaction

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 13 Novembre 2020, 12:38pm

Catégories : #Turkish nationalism, #Turkey today, #Religion and Society

Stupefaction: “The state of being strongly impressed by something unexpected or unusual” (“Stupefaction.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/stupefaction. Accessed 2 Nov. 2020.)

[This article was initially published in French on susam-sokak.fr on July 28, 2017: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/2017/07/trois-moments-de-stupefaction-dans-ma-carriere.html

Translated in English in November 2020

The Monument to Victory, Afyon

The Monument to Victory, Afyon

The state of stupefaction is not always in proportion to the seriousness of the event or act which provokes it. We all have knowledge of the most serious events which occurred in Turkey, or were provoked by the Turkish state, in the course of the past century: the genocide, the 1923 mass expulsions, the 1955 pogroms in Istanbul, mass murders, coups d'état. More recently, we were shocked and enraged when whole quarters of Kurdish cities in Turkey were besieged and razed to the ground, and when the power began to inflict severe repression on the country in July 2016. But these events are somehow logical followings of a process of radicalization.

By “stupefaction”, I mean a very personal reaction in the face of unexpected facts – unexpected for me. In the following developments, the state of my own reception is therefore as important as the observed “objects” - I have no other word than "objects" to designate, as a whole, what stirred up my stupefaction. For the first is a monument; the second is a narrative; and the third one, an act. The discomfort I experienced comes from my personal reception, and perhaps even more from a feeling of loneliness afterwards. For these “objects”, the causes of my trouble, had then hardly been studied – or not at all - or were considered negligible and unimportant. So, if I felt discomfort with such insignificance, my own reception was to be questioned. Was I the victim of an error in judgment?

These feelings of stupefaction are spread from 1981 to 1995. And twenty years later I have felt necessary to link together those “objects”, three peripheral points whose center is state violence.

The monument to the victory in Afyon: a celebration of violence


Our first contact with Turkey dates back to 1981. By the time, this country had a bad press with the release, three years earlier, of Alan Carter's movie Midnight Express, and, one year before, with the third and most violent coup d'état in Turkey's contemporary history (September 12, 1980). When we enter Turkey, the country still lays in the repression phase, under a strict curfew. We had traveled from France by bus and had arrived in the dead of night at the Topkapı coach station, and, of course, it was forbidden getting out before dawn. Therefore, we lie on the ground in order to have some rest and sleep awhile. So, a man approaches, takes off his jacket, and covers my wife with it.

This protective gesture is our very first image of Turkey. But our trip carries on, then, in a military and police atmosphere. In addition, the murders and attacks perpetrated in Europe by the clandestine Armenian organization ASALA sometimes earn us unpleasant remarks, as France, supposedly, supports this organization. We have to cope with the memory of the genocide.

Rather accidentally, we stop at Afyon. The picturesque old city center, with its old wooden houses, and its incredible citadel, built on a vertiginous rocky peak dominating the town, matches well with our expectation of “Orient” and exoticism.

Just below the fortress hill, amidst a public garden, a strange monument causes our first moment of stupefaction. On a cubic pedestal decorated with bas-reliefs, stands a bronze statue of a nude, athletic man, with a face looking like Mustafa Kemal's. He raises both arms, ready to strike; the left fist is clenched, the right one open, with the fingers hooked as if gripping prey. He looks, threatening, at another nude man laying down on the ground, with protruding veins on his suffering face. It is a monument to victory (Utku Anıtı) deeply differing from the countless war memorials we daily pass along with in France.

Tne monument to Victory in Afyon. Pictures from the website isteataturk.com (click to enlarge)Tne monument to Victory in Afyon. Pictures from the website isteataturk.com (click to enlarge)Tne monument to Victory in Afyon. Pictures from the website isteataturk.com (click to enlarge)

Tne monument to Victory in Afyon. Pictures from the website isteataturk.com (click to enlarge)

What is amazing is the representation of an overwhelmed enemy and even more of the act of crushing down an enemy on the ground; more again, the winner's hateful face, and, above all, the anatomical precision which reminds us of “the terrible beauty of Nazi aesthetics” (Young, Spotts, 2003). In fact, the author is the Austrian sculptor Heinrich Kippel, who was called up for service in Turkey (1925-1938). He is known for his monuments to Atatürk, at Sarayburnu promontory (Istanbul, 1926) and in Ankara's central district of Ulus (1927); besides, he participated in the Republic Monument in Taksim Square, Istanbul (1928).

The Victory Monument in Afyon was inaugurated in March 1936. Atatürk himself, when paying a visit to Afyon in 1937, has admired the monument and described it as “a perfect representation of triumph”.

There is no sign or symbol allowing to identify the enemy. The defeated man, however, obviously represents the Greek army, which occupied Afyon in 1921. But “the Greek” is to be seen as a metonymy of the Western powers, all pushed back out from Anatolia in 1921-1922.

As it stands in a remote provincial town, the monument drew little attention, unlike the monuments of Istanbul and Ankara. There, in Afyon, we became aware of the positive value of violence in this country. The monument, however, has aroused a double scandal, but in the religious conservative circles only, because it has been erected in place of a mosque, and because of the triumphant man' too visible sex: by the way, it has been mutilated in 1950.

The sight of the Afyon monument made us shudder, all the more our first sojourn in Turkey took place in a military atmosphere and at the time of the Armenian's “awakening memory”. As much as the Victory and the Strength of the Turk, it seemed to us to represent Violence and Hate.

Were these feelings in contradiction with the warm welcoming gesture at Topkapı station? Certainly not, all the more so numerous other friendly acts or words punctuated our stay, at the point that we very often wondered how the Turks could have gained such dark fame out of Turkey. Unfortunately, the resolution of the paradox might lie, perhaps, in a widely shared need for being forgiven for something...

History teaching, the dissimulation


The second moment of stupefaction happened at the very beginning of my researches when preparing a Ph.D. about history teaching in Turkey. Of course, I had read the “classics” of Turcology, and most of the handbooks dealing with the reforms implemented by Mustafa Kemal. As often, the authors had been rather complacent towards the Kemalist “revolution”, supposed to be “secularist”, “republican” and “occidental”. Above all, they tended to focus on topics easy to circumscribe in the frame of classical history studies or political science. These studies were mostly lacking any anthropological perspective allowing to apprehend the deeper and long-term consequences of the reforms of Atatürk. In addition, the “reform in history” often lacked in the studies, or it was rapidly evoked, without comments. The way the past of the country – or, better, the past of “the Turks” - had to be taught (or not), then, was considered by the scholars as an unimportant topic, not worthy of in-depth research.

So when I began reading the chapters dealing with "the ancient history of the Turks" in the textbooks published in 1931, I had to question my language skills. I could not believe that the government, at the instigation of Atatürk himself, had made its citizens learn such nonsense: According to the narrative, the Turks would have founded the first human civilization, in Central Asia. They would have migrated during the seventh millennium B.C. to all peripheries of the Eurasian continent, allowing civilization to flourish in China, India, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece... It was asserted, in particular, that the Hittites were Turks, and therefore the Turks were said to be the first civilized people of Anatolia. Mustafa Kemal, with the help of obedient "scholars", settled, for the forthcoming decades, the Armenian problem and that of the non-Muslim minorities, while altogether ignoring the existence of the heterodox Alevis and of the Kurds.

The alleged migration of the Turks towards the peripheries of Eurasia during the VIIth millenium BC. Excerpt from the history texbook of the Turkish History Society, 1931

The alleged migration of the Turks towards the peripheries of Eurasia during the VIIth millenium BC. Excerpt from the history texbook of the Turkish History Society, 1931

The “problem” had been previously resolved by the way of genocide in 1915, and mass expulsions in 1914 and 1923. As it is stated in a geography textbook authored by Sabri Duran, published by the state in 1929, “Turkey is a country where only Turks live in. Those who are not Turks are strangers, and they have been displaced out of our fatherland” (Duran 1929: 177-178). Similarly, Eugène Pittard, a prominent Swiss academic - who professed eugenics - and personal friend of Atatürk, wrote in his Visage nouveau de la Turquie (1931): “Turkey has now gotten rid of its foreign (allogènes) elements”. It was felt as necessary, then, to erase the traces of the crime; this was done by the way of the “reform in history”, an Orwellian reform avant la lettre.

My own stupefaction was not only due to this coarse lie but to the specialists' silence as well. Dozens of books dealing with Atatürk's reforms remained almost mute about this reform, the most important to my eyes. Or, they expressed some excuse for inadvertent "clumsiness" of the great man. This most stupefying complacency actually characterized the Turcology of those decades. I found only two exceptions, by the time: one was due to the Turkish sociologist Ismail Besikçi (who did pay a high price for his criticism), the other to the Greek historian Speros Vryonis.

Bernard Lewis, one of the then most prominent specialists of Turkey, though briefly qualifying the reform in history as fanciful theories, avoided the question by asking for a “benevolent forgiveness” (Lewis, 1989, 380). As for Jean-Paul Roux, who authored an Histoire des Turcs, he absolved Atatürk in this way: “There were unavoidable abuses […]. One would be tempted to poke fun at it, but there was wisdom in it. Anyway, it was a complete success” (Roux, 1982, 14). In 1983, Europe, a French literary journal, published a text of Sebahattin Eyuboglu (1908-1973), “Notre Anatolie”, in which the author stated: “While saying that the Greek is a Turk, [Atatürk] intended to say that we were the masters of these lands before the Greeks” (Eyuboglu, 1983, 23).

It was a complete success”: would any scholar have had the nerve to say that the genocide was a complete success? The negationism expressed even discreetly, even unwillingly, by the Turcologists of that time, appears here in this blindness: the reform in history, far from being a marginal topic as it was claimed, actually was the core of the problem, as the new historical narrative, by erasing the existence of the so-called “foreigners”, was the genocide's very completion. The new narrative could even be considered as a kind of alibi, conceived by a criminal gang to mask their deeds. But the alibi should have drawn attention since its clumsiness itself betrays the existence of culpability.

The cemeteries of Northern Cyprus: undertaking the negation of the Other


The third moment of stupefaction comes out in 1995, during our first stay in the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC). Until then little informed about the past of the island, we become aware of the ethnic cleansing implemented just after the Turkish landing in the isle in 1974, when 200,000 Orthodox people suddenly were expelled by force. For most of the villages of the North, now exclusively inhabited by Muslim “Turks”, have monumental churches and, conversely, very modest mosques (until the churches themselves were turned into mosques). The inadequacy between the architectural landscape and the population living there clearly is a testimony of the forced displacements.

We are always curious about cemeteries, these open books telling the past of a place. So, quite naturally, as soon as this first stay, we did visit the ancient Orthodox cemeteries of these villages which suddenly became Muslim in 1974. And stupefaction erupted: we very quickly observe that most of the funerary monuments of all the Orthodox cemeteries have been destroyed with sledgehammers, and the graves often desecrated. Throughout our ten-years lasting investigation in the isle, all over the territory of the RTCN, we never observed any exception.

The accomplishment of this misdeed obviously required a large troop, and its systematic character proves in itself a centralized organization. More than the TRNC's authorities, the actual master of the territory was the mighty Turkish army, which - at least - did nothing to prevent the destruction. What is worse is that neither the Cypriot nor the Turkish authorities did nothing, throughout the following decades, to restore the state of the Orthodox cemeteries.

This is no less than a post mortem anthropological violence, a way of inflicting genocide on the dead. What was devastated was not only the funeral monuments but the lineage and the personal story of the dead. It was – it is - in addition, violence and insult to their religion. What was done was killing the dead.

Moreover, it is an act of monstration, offered to the sight of any person having the goodwill of seeing. The authors, the authorities, could have destroyed every cemetery by the means of bulldozers and, therefore, altogether erase any trace, any remains, as it was done in 1939 in Istanbul in the case of the Surp Agop Armenian cemetery near Taksim square. It would have been easier, as the method which was used actually required much more “work” and “workers”, which denotes a determination to set an example, such as a public execution.

Now, and this did and still does increase our stupefaction, this foolish act, perhaps without equivalent on a whole territory, this total and totalitarian act did not arouse any scandal elsewhere than among the Greek Cypriot population. As far as we know, no scholar, no researcher, no journalist has sought to account for the odious.

Between two stays in Northern Cyprus, we often got the impression we had a bad dream – but we took photographs of the devastated cemeteries by the hundreds. As the northern territory is accessible to the southern population since 2003, we witnessed, after this date, plenty of maladroit restorations and modest and moving acts of piety. But, very often, these traces were later vanished and destroyed again, at least until our most recent visit in 2014. Thus, the destructions do not stem from a wave of sudden anger; as a whole, it is the question of a cold act, thought out, planned, and thoroughly followed up, on space and duration.


Orthodox cemeteries of Northern Cyprus. On the left: Gialousa (Yeni Erenköy, Northern Cyprus) in 2004. On the right: Askeia (Pashaköy), 1998 © E.C.Orthodox cemeteries of Northern Cyprus. On the left: Gialousa (Yeni Erenköy, Northern Cyprus) in 2004. On the right: Askeia (Pashaköy), 1998 © E.C.

Orthodox cemeteries of Northern Cyprus. On the left: Gialousa (Yeni Erenköy, Northern Cyprus) in 2004. On the right: Askeia (Pashaköy), 1998 © E.C.

Exhibited or masked: the common denominator is state violence

I have tried to share what I have - we have – experienced as a personal, subjective feeling; some will say or have already said, that it is a very exaggerated view of superficial, unimportant, uninteresting phenomena, and, with regard to the cemeteries, that our reaction results of an excess of sentimentality.

But these three "objects" that shocked us have state violence in common.

First, the violence that characterized the period of the republic's gestation, legitimized by victory in the mind of the victors, but whose representation in Afyon, in its totalitarian aesthetics, embodies a living hatred of any “enemy”, past or present. This interpretation is corroborated by the present political discourse, and even by the official historical discourse: the Treaty of Sèvres, which divided Anatolia, prepared by the “Western” and “Christian” imperialism, are still vigorously denounced. Since the beginning of the Republic, school textbooks enjoin children to remain aware of the ever-present danger. In fact, the monument in Afyon epitomizes this discourse.

Then, the violence of the genocide and of the various phases of ethnic cleansing, including the war against the Kurds and the recurrent violence against heterodox Alevis, was altogether masked by an extravagant historical account in 1931, which remains influent even if it was later watered down in order to be more credible. History is the first mask of violence, and it strengthens the second mask, nationalism, which legitimizes, reassures, comforts. The whole is placed under a third mask, the charismatic figure of the Father, Atatürk.

At last, the demonstrative violence of the desecrations in Cyprus (but it regularly occurs over the Anatolian soil as well) is a substantiation of the religious, Muslim character of Turkish nationalism, since its victory is concluded in the slaughter of the crosses.


Besikçi, Ismail (1977). “Türk Tarih Tezi”, “Günes-Dil Teorisi” ve Kürt sorunu, Ankara: Caglar Matbaası. [Ankara: Yurt Kitap-Yayın, 1991].

Bozdoğan, S. (2001). Modernism and National Building. Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic. Seattle, London: University of Washington Press.

Copeaux, Etienne (1997). Espaces et temps de la nation turque. Analyse d'une historiographie nationaliste, 1931-1993. Paris: CNRS-Editions.

Copeaux, Etienne, and Mauss-Copeaux, Claire (2005). Taksim ! Chypre divisée. Lyon: Aedelsa. The chapter dealing with the cemeteries is online: https://www.academia.edu/10833056/_Tuer_les_morts_.

Duran, Faik Sabri (1929), Türkiye Cografyası, Lise Kitapları III. Sınıf, Istanbul, Devlet Matbaası.

Eyuboglu, Sabahattin (1983). “Notre Anatolie”. Europe, “Littérature de Turquie”, 655-656, 1983, 19-22.

Kadijevic, Aleksandar (2014). “The Cult of Atatürk's Personality in the Works of Heinrich Krippel”. Novi Sad: Matica Srpska - Journal for fine arts, 42, 291-308.

Lewis, Bernard, (1988). Islam et Laicité. Naissance de la Turquie Moderne. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

Pittard, Eugène (1931). Le Visage nouveau de la Turquie. Paris: Société d’Editions Géographiques, Maritimes et Coloniales.

Roux, Jean-Paul (1984). Histoire des Turcs. Deux mille ans du Pacifique à la Méditerranée. Paris: Fayard.

Tekiner, Aylin (2010). Atatürk Heykelleri: Kült, Estetik, Siyaset. İstanbul: İletişim.

Young, James (2003). “The Terrible Beauty of Nazi Aesthetics”. Book review of Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Frederic Spotts: Forward, April 25, 2003. Online: https://forward.com/articles/8694/the-terrible-beauty-of-nazi-aesthetics/.

Vryonis, Speros (1991). The Turkish State and History. Clio Meets the Grey Wolf. Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies.












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