Architectural Preservation and Documentation, Human Rights, Memory and Trauma

Surveying the Church of Virgin Mary / Panagia, Hançerli Village in Niğde, Turkey, (Photo credits: courtesy of KMKD)

During the last few weeks of the spring term of this most unusual year, I chatted with Banu Pekol, an AHDA (Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability) fellow at the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights about her work with architectural history and human rights, and the role of architectural preservation and documentation in working around memory, trauma, and human rights advocacy. 

Welcome, Banu. Could you please introduce yourself and your field of study and work? What human rights project are you currently working on?

I’m Banu Pekol, and I’m an architectural historian by training. More than a decade ago, I obtained a BA from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and later a PhD from the Istanbul Technical University. I then began studying and surveying historical architectural heritage sites in Turkey, focusing on sites that belonged to difficult pasts and that don’t necessarily fit neatly within a reductive or glorifying national historical narrative. 

Surveying the Church of Mor Barsaumo and Luqianos, Beth Manʿem, in Nusaybin-Mardin, Turkey (Photo credits: courtesy of KMKD)

Unfortunately, many of these cultural heritage and architectural sites are at risk. There are many reasons why a site could be at risk: natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, erosion, etc.); decay and neglect (time lapse, erosion, lack of funds, but also sometimes willful neglect). Heritage sites –given their powerful affective, symbolic and charged natures– can also be at risk for political or nationalistic reasons. They may threaten a dominant narrative or discourse, or pose a challenge to any attempt to reconstruct a reductive, unilateral and intractable view of a nation’s past. Unfortunately, this is currently true for many sites in Turkey which do not reinforce or sit squarely within a preferred historical narrative of a nation or a community’s imagined discourse. There have been many examples of such at-risk sites which are “othered”, repressed, neglected, ‘denied” or even erased and actively destroyed. This is true not only in Turkey but throughout the world, whenever a monolithic view of reality is coupled with a refusal of diversity and of the “other.” It is then that erasures and suppressions take place. 

In Turkey, these at-risk sites currently center around any proof of a narrative that complicates the diverse religious and cultural history of the country (including the sites and cultural heritage of Armenians, Syriacs, Greeks, Jews, Yazidis, Kurds and other communities, etc.). 

How do you see your work with cultural heritage preservation and documentation being linked to human rights advocacy?

Dealing with the past has a significant impact on what matters in the present. My definition of historical dialogue includes the challenges and opportunities of creating a space that considers the complex social implications of past violence, trauma and atrocities. I believe that promoting memory, truth and justice concerning past violence is essential. We must work toward innovative and inclusive dialogue for dealing with past atrocities, and also for preventing any future ones from occurring.

Surveying the Church of Saint Paraskevi /Agia Paraskevi, in Mudanya-Bursa, Turkey (Photo credits: courtesy of KMKD)

Despite some improvements, formal institutions of justice often have limited capacity, and human rights violations are not sufficiently addressed. Many societies and marginalized groups still do not have access to such institutions or to formal justice and accountability processes.

This is where alternative human rights networks such as the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability (AHDA), at which I’m currently a fellow, can help. Historical documentation contributes to a strong network and practice of dialogue based on trust, consent and deep understanding of culture. There is a need for more dialogue between academia and those working in the areas of peacebuilding and conflict prevention. Leveraging formal and informal networks is an undeniable means to influence the rule of law against human rights violations. I like to think of the possibilities that could be leveraged when regional networks are tapped into in order to foster historical dialogue and accountability. 

How important are archives to your work ? Why? Are there any existing archives in Turkey that could aid your work? 

I see archival work as very similar to fieldwork. Archival research, as fieldwork, can help us understand and uncover the physical condition of the buildings, but also the way societies relate to these heritage sites, either through positive identification or through rejection. It is during this archival fieldwork that one realizes how we all engage with the past and relate it to the present in an affective manner, not only intellectually. To give a few examples from my fieldwork regarding this affective relation to the past and to the present: an abandoned Rum (Turkish/Greek) chapel would remain standing, with the mukhtar (local mayor) locking its door to prevent vandalism. On the other hand, an Armenian chapel in the neighbouring village would be razed to the ground. In another instance, the mukhtar of a historic Syriac village (where not a single Syriac descendent remained) communicated an imagined story regarding how the Syriacs had voluntarily sold their church, when the reality was that this church was unethically (but legally) reappropriated after the Syriac inhabitants were driven out of the village. Of course it comes as no surprise that cultural heritage policies and practices are inherently political.

Surveying the Genoese Fortress, Kaletepe-Marmara Island, Turkey (Photo courtesy of KMKD)

To go back to your question about archives: yes, there are many archives which would provide extremely valuable information about these sites, such as missionary archives (like the Archive of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) or archives of 19th-century travellers. For example the archive of the NGO called “Research on Armenian Architecture”, which I visited while I was a Hrant Dink Fellow in Yerevan in 2017 was very useful. The Houshamadyan Project is also one which deserves to be mentioned and is a great source of information. However, these archives exist outside Turkey, and without research grants it is not possible for any of us to reach these archives. The national archives are selective in what they allow access to. Private and academic archives are not as widespread as in Europe or the US. Only in the last two decades have such archives (such as the SALT archive or the Bogazici University archives) been recognized as worth establishing or funding. These archives, which are generally open to the public, have been of limited use for our research, but with further acquisitions in the future they may become of interest.

In my line of work, you discover data and archives in unexpected places. Once, while documenting a historic Greek house on an island in Turkey, we saw an old framed photo on the wall. It showed the shoreline of that island, including many old buildings such as the main church that were now demolished. In another instance, while conducting research about a historically Greek neighborhood of Istanbul, I went to Athens as most of its residents had fled there. Not only was the Athens Municipality Archive useful, but one of these former residents (born in the late 1920s) had established a library in Athens. This 2-story library was his own private initiative, and it contained books in multiple languages on Greeks of Turkey. It also housed multiple historic documents, which he had collected from second-hand/antique bookshops on the trips he made each year, even while in his 80s, with his car from Athens to Istanbul– a 13+ hour drive!

Have you used the human rights archives at Columbia, and if so can you tell us about your experience? 

Due to the pandemic, our access to library resources and to the Human Rights archives at the Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research at Columbia was more limited than usual, but the librarians were amazing in their support and efforts to make the materials available digitally. They were also great in providing personal advice. For example, the Libraries held a workshop on Human Rights Archives and Historical Dialogue Research. Also, our Media Design Workshop with Alex Gil was eye-opening as he works in digital humanities and spoke about the advantages and disadvantages of using the web and websites as a vehicle for historical dialogue projects. In general, having access to CLIO was indispensable throughout my fellowship.  Since I am not associated with an academic institution, I am envious of friends who have this affiliation and this access to amazing library resources (laughs). These last 7 months were a real treat in that sense, where I browsed through multiple databases from academic journals to funding directories like CANDID whenever I wanted. It’s a pity NGOs are unable to access such databases, due to funding limitations.

What are some of the challenges you encounter when working with trauma and memory?  

A building has a presence, as well as a weight, a mass. It stands in space as a tangible proof of history, as a witness. By allowing the total annihilation or significant disfigurement of these buildings, a message of erasure and of devaluation to the community is sent out. Naturally, descendants of the communities these buildings belonged to regard them as a bleeding wound, which is impossible to cure. The damage these buildings suffer is a reflection of the sufferings inflicted on the communities, and so it is sometimes easier for them to turn away and move towards a fresh beginning as a diaspora, away from this geography.

Working on such sites, I have realized that a lot of past conflicts have many unspoken sides to them. For example, older generations have refused to bring up their children with stories of the massacre of their families. Why raise them with such a trauma, why not give them an equal clean slate, just like the other children?

Surveying the Mor Abay Monastery, Savur-Mardin, Turkey (Photo credits: courtesy of KMKD)

However, in a conflict, what matters and what must be resolved is the unspoken. Even the blunt, strong people don’t talk about this “unspoken”, so this work can be very challenging and can take a long time. I also have learned never to assume that what I see as the obvious is seen and/or heard by everyone else. So I work to find what is obvious, the unspoken that nobody talks about. In this case, it can be a ruin of a Christian monastery in a devoutly Muslim village–or vice versa. Only 3 elderly inhabitants may know of its real function and past, and the rest may just know of it as “the ruin”. In this case, where does one start the dialogue with the past?

How do archives support, complement, expand on the work of human rights activists in general? What are some of the challenges you encounter when trying to incorporate,or build a human rights archive in your own work? 

In the case of some lost communities, towns and villages, archives can provide exceptionally valuable information when trying to prove what used to be there.  This is especially useful when so many buildings and their furnishings are lost because of disrepair and abandonment. Strategies of destruction against such architectural heritage range from willful demolition to willful neglect, encouragement of trespassing, adaptive reuse, destruction of public works, neutralization and erasures or cultural appropriation by effacing inscriptions and attribution to other cultures. From a 21st century perspective, all these are active agents in manipulating the past to serve a nationalistic discourse.

Can you comment on the social life of human rights archives: What does the way a society uses human rights archives tell us about various aspects of that society? 

Even establishing such an archive says a lot about societies, and unfortunately, we must make sure to distinguish between nationalistic, single-sided archives and those that include all existing documentation, leaving the analysis to the researcher.In countries that have not come to terms with their past, we see that access to archives is strictly controlled, as is the nature of documents released. Archival research involves government archives; many lack certain crucial documents and others selectively share their archives. Archival research on property in Turkey has never been a straightforward process as it naturally involves the need for access to deeds. There are two circulars from 1983 and 2011, published by the General Directorate of Land Registry and Cadastre that regulate these documents. In short, they state that strictly no answer should be given to queries about properties of ‘lost’ people, or communities who are no more  (especially Armenians). It was also written that all instances of any such queries relating to records predating 1924 should be conveyed to the General Directorate. A copy of this circular was also submitted to the National Security Council’s General Secretary, the State Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2006, the National Security Council denied a suggestion to share all digitized deeds with archives and make them available to researchers. Many scholars researching “sensitive subjects” (such as the Turkish state treatment of Kurds or the Armenian genocide) face challenges and it is not surprising that most of them work from outside Turkey.

Can you comment on the importance and difficulties of the work performed by human rights archivists? 

Maybe I can provide one example for what can count as a challenge. Since its inception, the NGO I represent (the Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage KMKD) has been documenting heritage sites in Turkey that are abandoned and at risk of destruction. We prepare detailed technical reports about these buildings including their history, architectural analysis and description, structural condition as well as risk assessment and recommendations for preservation. However, with the alarming prevalence of looting in these sites, we are faced with the dilemma of providing this data to the public, in case it is used maliciously. We are afraid that looters will use the GPS coordinates as well as our measured drawings to cause irreparable damage to these already fragile sites. Thus, providing this information in a secure and ethical way, while also raising awareness to encourage their preservation is one of our greatest challenges. At the moment there are too many sites, too few of us who document and archive the data from these sites, and too many people who are after a myth of treasure.

Further, we must pair the data we have with the social data from other archives that can be correlated with these sites. These would include social history such as literature, material culture, traditions, etc. 

Photographing for condition documentation and assessment during a site visit in Tur Abdin, Turkey (Photo credits: courtesy of KMKD)

The other challenge we have is time – especially considering that most of Turkey lies on the East Anatolian fault line. Any day we may wake up to the news that tens of the buildings we have not yet surveyed have collapsed with an earthquake.

 In conclusion would you like to add anything?

Being a Historical Dialogue and Accountability fellow at the ISHR at Columbia is what got me through the pandemic, so far. It has truly opened my mind and sustained me during this difficult year. I took two graduate classes from the International Conflict Resolution track within SIPA, and it was extremely refreshing to be exposed to academic expertise at such a high caliber, 11 years after completing my PhD. Also, the practical workshops and seminars were eye-opening in showing us the opportunities as well as practices in the field. One of the surprises for me was the meetings with the scholars at Columbia and how generous they were with their time as well as knowledge. Most were people whose work I’d been following and admiring for a while, and here they were sincerely offering advice and help! One book I’ve edited that had been delayed due to  a long-lasting intercultural conflict is now able to be published through this support.

Thank you, Banu! I wish you the best of luck with your work, and we hope you will return to the Columbia University Libraries, to  develop your work further.

Kaoukab Chebaro, Head of Global Studies, Columbia University Libraries,

For further inquiries about the human rights collections at the Columbia University Libraries, and the Center of Human rights Research and Documentation, please check this page:


To contact Pamela Graham, Director, Humanities & Global Studies Director, Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research Columbia University Libraries:

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