I learned what "khachkar" meant some years ago in Egypt.
I had always known the word, of course. All Turkish school kids do. It is the mountain range in the northeast that we used to paint in a dark shade of brown on our hand-drawn maps of Anatolia. We would even leave a speckle of white in the middle to suggest a summit of never-melting snow and write there on the top: Kaçkar.
It was an undefined word, but in my young dreamy mind, I associated it with glimmering ski slopes — an image doubtlessly fortified by the literal meaning of the word’s two syllables, kaç (escape) and kar (snow).
That image melted away three decades later as I stood before a green marble wall inside the St. Gregory The Illuminator Church on Avenue Ramses in Cairo. There, fixed on the wall at eye level was a frame with two bird icons facing each other and a stone carving of a cross above them.
“The khachkar is beautiful” said Garen Mouradian, an Armenian-Egyptian colleague who had accompanied me to the church.
“Khachkar?” I asked, still looking at the frame.
“Come on, you must know the word,” Garen said. “Like the mountains.”
Afterward, he explained to me what khachkar meant: a cross-stone that was a typical form of sculpture in Medieval Christian art. I realized then that my snow-capped mountains, like so many of the landforms and old settlements in Anatolia, bore an Armenian name.
We Turks — at least those of us with curious minds — all have our stories of initial awakening to our country’s Armenian past and the consequent self-education trying to tear away the layers of ignorance instilled in each of us by a school system that turned a blind eye to the crimes of our ancestors.
My visit to the St. Gregory Church in Cairo was a step in that effort. Having already read my way through several memoirs of the Meds Yeghern or “the great tragedy” inflicted upon the Ottoman Armenians, I was doing a series of interviews with members of the Armenian diaspora in the region.
I went to the church specifically to see the monument that was installed to commemorate the 1.5 million Armenians killed in 1915. Garen translated for me the inscription which gave the date and the number of the victims, but did not include the word “genocide.”
He believed — as do I — that the acts against Armenians amounted to what was defined as genocide by the United Nations in 1948, but he did not envision Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt ever recognizing that. “Turkey is way too important to upset,” he said.
So, when the possibility of such a decision by Cairo — albeit by another undemocratic government — was raised recently, I wondered what had changed.
In a way, the context is obvious. On Aug. 15, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted with fervor to the brutal killings in Egypt. Criticizing the military coup in the harshest terms, he called what transpired on the streets of Cairo “a clear massacre.”
A translation of Erdogan’s words which appeared on several news sites the next day misquoted him as having described the killings as a “genocide.” Then, on Aug. 17, a statement reportedly by Egypt’s Interim President Adly Mansour surfaced and was widely interpreted as a quid pro quo.
It was a message posted by what was assumed to be Mansour’s personal account on Twitter. “Our representatives at the United Nations will sign the international document that acknowledges the Armenian genocide, which was committed by the Turkish military, leading to the deaths of 1 million,” the message stated in Arabic.
Soon, Turks, Armenians and Arabs of every stripe were frantically tweeting on the news. Egyptian and Turkish newspapers also reported the message — the latter mostly employing Ankara’s ludicrous official cliché, “the so-called genocide.”
For their part, the Armenian news sites seemed to welcome the development.
To me, the most striking denouncement of Mansour’s message came from Rober Koptas, editor-in-chief of the Armenian weekly Agos.
“Those who intend to recognize Armenian genocide because they are angry with Turkey are essentially showing a lack of respect for the victims of genocide,” Koptas wrote in consecutive Twitter messages. “This means the genocide was not recognized until today because relations with Turkey were good. Could anything be more immoral than that?”
Ruben Melkonyan, the deputy dean at the Oriental Studies Department of Yerevan State University, also took issue with Cairo’s reported intention. He told the Armenian news site Tert.am that a decision by Egypt to recognize the genocide earlier would have been more praiseworthy and honest.
“For us, it is naturally important for an Arab country like Egypt to acknowledge and condemn the Armenian genocide, given especially that the Armenians have played an essential role in the history of Egypt. But, ... the selection of timing gives ground for concern a little bit.”
Later, it all turned out to be a storm in 140 characters.
Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Levent Gumrukcu was the first to dismiss the news: “The Egyptian side reported to us that the Interim President Mansour doesn’t even have a Twitter account.” Egypt followed suit the next day with a statement from its permanent mission at the United Nations.
Was all that arguing much ado about nothing then?
Hardly. What now seems a trial balloon by Egypt, if not an outright attempt at intimidating Erdogan, clearly touched a sore spot in Ankara and revealed a certain amount of panic.
Less than 48 hours after Turkey had recalled its ambassador to Egypt, Turkish diplomats found themselves furiously working through channels in Cairo and New York to prevent a possible move by the Egyptian interim government at the United Nations. When the message was eventually disowned by Mansour, the sigh of relief in Ankara was audible around the world.
Turkey’s justifiably harsh criticism toward Egyptian authorities was already viewed in the region as reflecting a double standard in light of Erdogan’s endorsement of recent police brutality in Istanbul. The impact of the Turkish position vis-a-vis Egypt further weakened as the international community was reminded of Ankara’s inability to deal with a major crime in its own history.
Rober Koptas is right. Not much can be as immoral as treating the genocide issue as a political football.
Nonetheless, at a time when the countdown for worldwide commemorations of the genocide centennial with the motto “Remember, remind and reclaim” is about to begin, a “fake” tweet might have tempted international players to do just that.
Before the tweet was refuted, I had emailed Garen — who now lives outside Egypt — to ask if he heard of it. “Never mind the tweet,” he wrote back, “Lately, Egyptian newspapers have been busy rediscovering the genocide. The army wants to keep the Armenian minority on board, I suppose.”
Then he added: “Do you still remember what khachkar means?”
Yasemin Çongar is the author of four books in Turkish, among them Artık Sır Değil (No More A Secret), a detailed analysis of the US diplomatic cables on Turkey first made public by WikiLeaks. A former Washington bureau chief for Milliyet (1995–2007) and a founding deputy editor-in-chief of Taraf (2007–2012), Çongar is currently based in Istanbul and is a columnist for the Internet newspaper T24.