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High fashion and high drama at Ani

January 25, 2011

Fashion at Ani

Alright, I was sitting here all set to write my 5-year retrospective on Turkey and how it and I have changed since I first stepped off a plane in Ankara on Jan. 22, 2006 – five years ago last weekend – but then as I was procrastinating I saw a post on Jezebel referencing Elle Turkey.

It’s fairly rare to see Turkey in the Western media in a non-political or historical-political context, so my interest was piqued, especially when I saw the post was on a fashion spread shot in the ruins of Ani, the medieval Armenian city that was conquered, destroyed, re-inhabited and later abandoned. It’s a beautiful, stark location inside Turkey’s borders (but just barely – Armenia’s within shouting distance).

I was really disappointed in the article, however – writing about issues involving Armenia and Turkey is always difficult (I don’t do it often myself), and I don’t believe the author, Jenna Sauers (a writer whose work I really admire, actually, you should check her out), was coming from an Armenian-sided viewpoint. But I felt the piece was deceptively written and at times disappointingly knee-jerk anti-Turkish. The historical context is flawed. While I do agree with Sauers in her penultimate conclusion that “a threatened heritage site is no place for a fashion spread,” I think her approach misses that point and doesn’t ultimately make that case.

I would’ve liked to see a fuller exploration of the issue of doing a fashion shoot in an at-risk historic site, but the majority of the piece is a confused mix of Turkish, Turkic, and Armenian historic polemics.

One of the biggest early issues I had with the piece was its conflation of the Seljuk Turks with modern Turkey’s Turks. As a follower of modern Turkish politics and foreign relations issues, I certainly am familiar with commentators conflating Ottomans and modern Turks – it’s an underpinning of the term “neo-Ottomanism,” which certain folks love to throw around this season. But the Seljuks? They were Turkic, for sure. And the Ottoman Empire did evolve from the Osmanli beylik, one of many splinter beyliks from the collapse of the Seljuks, leading many Turks to claim descendancy from the Seljuks. But Osman’s father was from Turkmenistan, an Oghuz Turk. This may be linguistic nit-picking, but that’s my day job and this is precisely the sort of thing where word usage makes a difference: rather than a “Turkish dynasty,” as Sauers refers to the Seljuks, their empire is more properly a “Turkic dynasty.”

While the argument over whether the actions of Ottomans should or do have bearing on Turks today is an entirely different issue, putting the actions of a medieval regional empire on the shoulders of the people of a nation who may have descended in part from that region but who did not necessarily descend from those medieval rulers is just silly. And even if there was a direct line from the Seljuk Empire to the Republic of Turkey, saying that modern Turks shouldn’t have a fashion shoot at the site of a city razed at one point by the Seljuks is about as ridiculous as saying the descendants of the Valois shouldn’t do a fashion shoot in Brittany because their ancestors took the region from the Plantagenets in the 100 Years War.

So, back to the Jezebel article: it kind of jumps back and forth between the Seljuks’ razing of Ani and the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottomans, which again I think unfairly conflates the Seljuks with the Ottomans and Ani with the Ottomans’ killings. Side note: In 1915, Ani itself and the area around it – Kars — was in the hands of the Russians. So both places/events have Turkish history and Armenian history, but those histories don’t necessarily overlap. Bringing up the massacres and killings and devoting as much space to it as Sauers does seems to make an argument that because of the events of 1915, Turks shouldn’t use anything Armenian, and especially anything with a rich Armenian history, as the backdrop of a photo shoot (That seems to be the argument made here, especially: “The siege and the destruction of the city in 1064, however, stands out in the minds of many Armenians as a particularly poignant example from the long history of Turkish attempts to suppress their culture. Just the place for photographer Senol Altun and stylist Melis Agazat to show off this season’s bag, then.”).

I think that’s an unfair position to take and I also think it’s an attitude that’s unhelpful internally here in Turkey, which has taken slow, painful, still-insufficient-but-thankfully-doing-something steps towards acknowledging and celebrating its own Armenian past and present. The opening of the Surp Hac church on Akdamar Island for a Divine Liturgy in September, for example, and the concerted solidarity shown over the past four years at a societal level (if somewhat more questionably at the official level) for the Dink family in the aftermath of the Hrant Dink assassination are both extremely positive signs of Turks beginning to rethink past antipathy to Armenians. Of course there’s a long way to go, but the willingness of large numbers of people to call out “Hepimiz Ermeniyiz” (“We are all Armenians”) is a pretty positive sign.

Sauers’ next point is one that I think I actually agree with, but it’s been wrapped with so much national and ethnic conflict with the rest of the piece that it’s ultimately obscured: She points out that “Ani is on the Global Heritage Fund’s list of world monuments most in danger of irreparable loss and destruction,” and later says “A threatened heritage site is no place for a fashion spread like this.”

Apart from my confusion over what’s meant by “like this” (from the argument that this shoot is objectionable because it was at a threatened heritage site, what kind of fashion spread at a threatened heritage site would then be unobjectionable?), this is a point I can really get behind. But this point goes so much deeper than just Ani, and just Ani being a site subject to some contention between Turkey and Armenia, which is where Sauers stops the argument.

Taking a wider look at heritage sites in Turkey, it’s clear that the problem of heritage sites being threatened is endemic. Sites across the country are threatened for a variety of reasons: neglect, development, callous disregard for historic significance, looting, insufficient security. But if that’s the argument, then many photo shoots in Turkey are at fault, from Elle Turkey’s Ani spread, to last year’s Vogue Turkey spread set at/using pieces from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, to a more recent Vogue Turkey spread set atop historic Istanbul roofs, to Kate Moss’ spread in W magazine in 2008, taken at the 18th century Çağaloğlu hamam (and even more than these, how about this set of 1960s fashion pics taken around Turkey: the stone heads at Mount Nemrut are much older than Ani and also in need of protection, and they’re a UNESCO site to boot. And if we’re talking culturally exploitative shoots, I submit this as Exhibit A:–Maryna-Linchuk-Vogue-Turkey-December-2010-8536-124740.html).

None of that’s brought up, though, the focus is just this site. Granted, the photo shoot in question is at Ani, but by not bringing up any of the surrounding issues of holding a photo shoot at a threatened historic site in Turkey while bringing up other issues of Armenian-Turkish tension, the point that the shoot is questionable because of the site’s threatened status is lost in the much more questionable point that the shoot shouldn’t have been held because of Turkish-Armenian history.

Ultimately I think the photo shoot at Ani is fine and not terribly objectionable. If we start questioning whether to hold fashion shoots at threatened historic sites, or even historic sites in general, that’s a conversation I’d be interested in having, and I could see my mind being changed – my forte is Turkish politics, not photography and definitely not fashion photography and the ethics of the industry. But that’s overtly not the argument being made in Sauers’ piece.

I am ok with a modern fashion magazine’s local Turkish imprint printing a fashion shoot at Ani. In fact, I think it speaks very well to an increasing broader-minded perspective of modern Turks, who are willing to see remnants of ancient heritages not explicitly “Turkish” or “Turkic” and appreciate that legacy and that history. The fact that this Turkish magazine looked for beautiful, stark, historic sites in Turkey and decided to use Ani rather than, say Canakkale or another War of Independence site is to me laudable; I hope future issues of Elle Turkey feature photo shoots at the gorgeous medieval Georgian churches around Erzurum, or some of the ancient Syriac buildings around Mardin. All of these are part of modern Turkey’s history – modern Turks are much more than simply the descendants of the Ottomans, in turn the descendants of the Oghuz Turks, etc. The acknowledgment of this in Elle Turkey’s photo shoot is to me a positive thing.

Plus, if Turks aren’t “allowed” to have photo shoots at an ancient Armenian site in Turkey for ethnic reasons, then by the same argument they shouldn’t be allowed to shoot at Georgian, Byzantine, Circassian, Arab, Syriac, etc. sites. Are Turks only allowed to celebrate or recognize their Ottoman heritage? That’s both absurd and not an accurate reflection of modern Turks. The castigation of Turks (not the Turkish state, but Turkish individuals) for recognizing the importance and beauty of this major site I think ignores the long, slow progress in both Turks and Turkey’s attitudes toward Armenians, both Armenian Turkish citizens and the wider Armenian community.

And even once you bring the events of 1915 into the picture, I do not have a problem with Elle Turkey publishing a photo shoot at Ani. It is very difficult to thoughtfully consider the issue of the mass killings of Armenians in the eastern Ottoman Empire while living in Turkey; I acknowledge that and I try to maintain a very neutral ground on that issue while in this country – it’s legally an issue here. However, I don’t think it’s fair to link Ani, the medieval Armenian capital, with the events of 1915. For one, in 1915, Kars and its surroundings, including Ani, were Russian-held – during the mass killings, Ani was both not in Ottoman possession and empty, as it hadn’t been inhabited since the mid-18th century. You know what was inhabited by Armenians in 1915? Van, and Akdamar Island. You know what’s the setting of a current Turkcell campaign with a slogan that translates roughly as (from memory, sorry) “You can get service anywhere”? The Armenian church on Akdamar Island. And yet there’s no diasporan outrage on that. Not that I’m advocating outrage, I’m very anti-outrage, but there’s a much stronger case for 1915-based Armenian outrage for Turkcell’s Akdamar campaign than for Elle Turkey’s Ani fashion editorial.

I’m not going to get in to the comments on the piece so much, because I think there’s little grounds for constructive discourse once something is compared to Auschwitz.

In the end, I was disappointed by Sauers’ perspective on Elle Turkey’s Ani photo shoot, because I thought it unfairly castigated the Turkish people involved and Turks as a whole, while stretching to make historic connections that ultimately amounted to pitching ethnic sides against each other. This isn’t constructive, nor is it truly accurate. The events of 1915 certainly color Turkish-Armenian relations today – just look at the abortive Zurich accords – but they don’t define every interaction of anything Turkish with anything Armenian – it’d be impossible in Turkey today, and counterproductive to the Armenian Turkish community’s slow gains in recognizance.

The recognition of Ani as a stark, unique place of beauty is ultimately a good thing, especially if it calls Turks’ attention to this sadly neglected historic site. And at a wider level, Turkey needs to consider its commitment to its historic legacy, as so many of its historic sites slowly crumble away.

*Disclaimer: Elle Turkey and the publication I am employed by are published by the same company and from the same building. I was unaware of this until today. All views are my own and not representative of any other party.

Some links I went through in writing this:–Maryna-Linchuk-Vogue-Turkey-December-2010-8536-124740.html
Many articles at Hurriyet Daily News

One Comment leave one →
  1. Asher permalink
    January 25, 2011 12:48 pm

    There’s a fashion shoot in Afghanistan from the 1960’s floating around somewhere that has pictures taken at the Bamian Buddhas and the like, which is pretty fantastic. Also, more women should wear top hats (see: figure 1).

    That said, I agree with you 100% otherwise. It’s a celebration of Turkey’s history from all 7 regions, not some sort of fashion imperialism. And I’m less grumpy about Turkcell, myself. In their ad campaign they have the kid at Nemrut Dagi, Kurds loading watermelon on to trucks, and Laz musicians. I think it’s more of a “We’re not just Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir” then a way of claiming these lands for Turks and Turks only.

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