Turkey’s last Armenian village opens cultural museum

Descendants of genocide survivors who returned home to Turkey’s last Armenian village have opened a museum to celebrate and preserve their culture, the Guardian reported on Saturday. 

Vakıflı, a village in the southern Turkish province of Hatay bordering Syria, is home to just 100 people, but every summer thousands of visitors arrive in search of a connection to their Armenian past.

Lora Baytar, a journalist and art historian, told the Guardian that she decided a few years ago to create a dedicated exhibition space to celebrate the local Armenian culture.

“Visitors to Vakıflı just come for the day, they take a picture of the church, and they leave again,” she told the Guardian. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to really understand and preserve our heritage.”

After five years of work, Vakıflıköy Museum has just opened its doors.

The Turkish government still refuses to recognise the events of 1915, in which up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed, as a genocide, in spite of the overwhelming historical evidence to suggest otherwise. 

Vakıflı’s community is descended from Armenians who successfully resisted the Ottoman army’s attacks. The area’s 4,200 residents retreated to the nearby Mount Musa, and held out for 53 days before being rescued and evacuated by allied warships to Egypt. Many returned again after the end of World War One.

Baytar applied for funding for the museum in 2015, with the help of the Hrant Dink Foundation, but was unsuccessful. However, a second attempt in 2018, with support from the Hatay Archaeology Museum and the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, gained a government grant.

Vakıflı’s residents have recorded oral history interviews and donated objects including clothes, jewellery and photographs to create what Baytar calls a “story-driven” experience for visitors to the museum.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has delayed the official opening until the end of the year, or possible eve until next summer, but Baytar is still keen to welcome visitors in the meantime.

“Vakıflıköy Museum shows the visitor how villagers speak, our beliefs, how we celebrate holidays, what we eat, how we succeed in agriculture and architecture, marriage traditions, music, photos, human and migration stories,” Baytar told the Guardian.

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