Poussin, The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land, 1664
"And behind all ethnic diversities there is somehow naturally the notion of the ‘chosen people,’ which is merely a counterpart of status differentiation translated into the plane of horizontal co-existence."
The Turkish Province of Igdir is located in a strategic point at the foot of Mount Ararat. It is part of the Armenian Highland and it also borders Nakhchivan and Iran. However, two unused boundaries and the morphology itself cause a significant isolation, even from the rest of Turkey. Also the past of this land is complex. In less than two centuries it has been part of Ottoman Empire, Persian territories, Russian Empire and Armenia. My aim is to show the repercussions of repeated changes, migrations and conflicts on this context, using both historical and first-hand ethnographic data. I will discuss the relations between built environment and population increase. Then I will present some ethnographic case concerning mistrust, national and ethnic identities, and racism. Finally, I will describe this society as one society that has not developed a collective identity and it is suffering from a kind of Promised Land Syndrome.
"At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the province of Igdir in eastern Turkey seemed to be permanently divided between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire, after being repeatedly invaded and disputed for 50 years. However, by 1827–8 the expansion of the Russian Empire caused another redrawing of Igdir’s borders. Following the Aras River, which crosses the plateau of Igdir and Yerevan, the Russian Empire annexed the northern area of the province, at Persia’s expense (Hunter 2006: 112).
Thirty years later, the Italian captain and Ottoman officer Alessandro De Bianchi traversed Igdir province heading for Bayazit (near the present-day Dogubeyazit) in order to deliver a dispatch from the imperial offices of Istanbul to the regional authority (De Bianchi 1865). Besides listing the dangers and surprises he encountered during that journey, De Bianchi’s gaze describes a heterogeneous Ottoman society, a society based on the coexistence of strong identities that would later be regarded as ‘multiethnic’ and then ‘multicultural’.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Sir Mark Sykes crossed the same area (Sykes 1900). Unlike De Bianchi, Sykes reached Mount Ararat and the Russian border from Damascus. In his egocentric late-romantic account of his travels the young Cambridge student describes the crossing of the Russian border at Igdir. The town is merely described as a frontier post, a place of no interest, and both the plateau and the border area are described as dangerous regions in which Russian control is minimal if not non-existent (Sykes 1900: 111–15).
Some years later, an Italian historian and diplomat called Luigi Villari reached the plateau of Igdir and Yerevan using the opposite route, from the north of the Russian Empire (Villari 1906). His primary objective was to undertake an analysis of the political situation in the Caucasian Russian region, nowadays known as the Turkish province of Kars. During his journey, Villari gathered opinions of people from various ethnic and social origins and he does not record the dangers depicted by Sykes. However, shortly after his return to Europe, Villari published his journal entitled Fire and Sword in the Caucasus. In it, he highlights the devastation, the social precariousness and the political instability brought about by international wars and local infighting: the phenomena that have dominated and will continue to dominate the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire for some time to come.
In fact, the first 20 years of the twentieth century were the bloodiest in the history of the South Caucasus. Initially a Russian refuge for Armenians who escaped the Turkish slaughter, the Igdir area in 1917 was still devastated by death, famines and epidemics (Chater November 1919: 417–18). Over the decades, the wars and the violent retaliations were to determine the region’s political and administrative divisions up to the fall of the Soviet Union. This experience was to leave an indelible mark on both the local population and world history.
In 1921, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and the Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia ratified the Kars Treaty (Cornwall 1923). With this act the regions of Kars and Igdir passed under Turkish rule, creating the Turkish–Caucasian borders as we know them today and soon blocking the frontiers up to the collapse of the USSR. Some years after Armenia became an independent republic, in 1993, Turkey again closed the Armenian frontier.
Conversely, since the 1990s the Nakhchivan border remained open with much commercial traffic passing through it. This border keeps alive many relationships and family connections between the inhabitants of the two countries. Near the Nakhchivan boundary, the province of Igdir also borders on Iran, but this frontier has never been used due to the lack of infrastructure. Lastly, to the north of Igdir lies the province of Kars. Although Kars is Turkish and is historically involved in the events of the plateau, today its province is only linked to Igdir by an uneven road and the transhumant routes. The social, cultural and commercial practices of the two provinces do not seem closely related."
The book is available online as in many libraries. The foreword has been written by Filippo Grandi, actually the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
«Uncertain Past, Uncertain Future, Uncertain Present: Social Cohesion and Conflicts in Igdir Province» in “Turkey and Human Security: Challenges for the 21st Century” Eds. A. Özerdem and F. Özerdem. London & N.Y., 2013: Routledge.
Maps, pictures and videos from Igdir Province