Popularized over the last few decades, cultural heritage is a charged term often deployed as a preservation mechanism against time, destruction, displacement, and/or political violence, among other things. UNESCO has spearheaded such efforts and played a pivotal role in the systematization of a “heritage regime” since the second half of the twentieth century. In 1959, when the Aswan High Dam was developed in a way that would cover ancient Nubian archaeological sites in Egypt and Sudan in water, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments contacted UNESCO to ask help saving these sites. UNESCO mobilized fifty countries and collected about forty million dollars to help rescue these archaeological sites before they were swallowed by water. This campaign inspired UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention in 1972, instrumental in developing UNESCO’s World Heritage List—an inventory of national cultural property.
In this process, UNESCO not only registered tangible and intangible heritage in different nation-states, but also attributed them unambiguous national origins. In the event that some practices were geographically shared, different cultural property registries recorded them as separately national, rather than shared and exchanged. Meanwhile, not all forms of recognition brought safeguarding, as UNESCO’s protection of heritage came with serious shortcomings and limitations, especially in those sites disproportionately affected by political violence or facing attempts at erasure altogether.
Cultural heritage registry as national property also contributed to their co-optation and capitalization for tourism or generating national and cultural property for different material sites, goods, practices, or performances, including but not confined to culinary practices or music. From the World Economic Forum-sponsored country branding initiatives to advertising (and selling) patented national products or performances are reconfigured for consumption. In this context, UNESCO’s cultural heritage regime has also informed liberal humanist cultural policies. Liberal humanism promotes peaceful co-existence and solidarity via a shared essence of humanity, rather than a solidarity informed by social and environmental justice.
On the other hand, heritage existed as a category of practice for at least centuries. Humanists, beyond the modern liberal forms of cultural politics or even nationalism, have long traced their “origins” to ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt, among others, and anchored their civilizational identification via claiming direct heritage to these sites and histories. Simultaneously racializing heritage, this other form of humanism offers a historicist approach that mobilizes inheritance and heredity to identify cultural works and material sites. While these practices may not have named heritage explicitly, they have informed UNESCO’s post-World War II liberal humanist approaches that consider historicist humanist configurations of cultural heritage as a tool for identification, recognition, and a shared aspect of all humanity.
This combination of a liberal politics of recognition—relegating recognition to the fields of culture, simultaneously domesticating demands for justice—with advanced capitalist co-optation of cultural assets as part of a property regime, necessitates a thoughtful reconsideration of what engagements with heritage entail in the contemporary world context. What does it mean to rescue, preserve, and to render visible heritage beyond such configurations of the contemporary heritage regime? How do we address the importance of preservation in the face of political violence?
We are very fortunate to have the expertise of four distinguished scholars participating in our roundtable on heritage: Melissa Bilal, Zerrin Özlem Biner, Zozan Pehlivan, and Nazan Bedirhanoğlu, all of whom collectively shaped the roundtable.
From different angles, you all address political violence and dispossession. What is the relationship between destruction, dispossession, and heritage—beyond the contemporary heritage regimes?
Based on my personal experience as an Armenian from Turkey and on my ethnographic and archival research, I can say that Turkey’s official heritage regime operates on a definition of heritage crafted to reproduce an epistemology of denial. The genocide was a massive campaign of annihilation of an entire population and the marks of its historic presence in the land subsequently territorialized by the nation-state. Consequently, throughout the republican era, while Armenians were erased from local and national historiography or ascribed roles suitable to the state’s desired versions of historical narrative, state institutions or entitled actors did not shy away from looting Armenians’ ritual or everyday material culture and destroying or expropriating the infrastructures of education and culture they built across the Ottoman Empire with tremendous efforts of fundraising and activism.
My research reveals that the tiny Armenian communities who survived outside Istanbul throughout the republican era were forced to lead an everyday life alongside the ruins. Due to substantial dispossession and lack of safety, throughout decades, many Armenians were forced to migrate to Istanbul, forbidding themselves and their children from ever going back to their hometowns. During that short bracket of time in the past decade when it was possible for Armenians of Istanbul to organize “heritage” tours, I myself as a descendant of genocide survivors from the northern, western, and central parts of the country had the first-hand experience of this uneasy encounter with the bare evidence of the desire to wipe Armenians off the land.
Notwithstanding successful or unsuccessful attempts at recovery, the structure of the genocide continues to determine our present. Armenians in Turkey continue to resist against the confiscation of their collective rights which assure their survival as a community today. Their daily existence in Istanbul, or in Vakefkiugh/Vakıflıköy (the last surviving Armenian village on the Turkey side of today’s Turkey-Syria border), or elsewhere in Turkey where a few Armenians still endure, in and of itself is a struggle that necessitates inventing strategies to protect what has been left to them. They feel responsible to allocate their already scarce financial resources to save their cemeteries from confiscation and dishonoring; to prevent further destruction of the physical evidences of their past and the present in the country; or to be recognized as actors who played an essential part in the making of Turkey’s cultural and intellectual heritage but remain unacknowledged (from the most ancient touristic sites such as the ruins of the medieval Armenian city of Ani in Kars to the architectural landmarks of Istanbul, from countless pieces of Ottoman classical music to the orchestral arrangement of the Turkish national anthem). That is to say, we cannot tackle any question pertaining to Turkey’s heritage regime or its definition of “culture” without taking the unacknowledged historical injustice it is built upon; the epistemic injustice it reproduces; the further destruction it legitimizes; and consequently, the dire conditions it imposes on those who try to preserve their heritage and keep their culture alive today.
Zerrin Özlem Biner:
Denialism and complicity have also been at the core of my research on heritage regimes in the city of Mardin in the Southeast of Turkey. Based on my fifteen years of ethnographic fieldwork in this border province, I contextualized Mardin as a violent space produced through massacres, displacements, confiscations, appropriations, and unequal distributions of resources in compliance. I insisted on asking: What made a city that has been subjected to the genocidal and colonial violence of the imperial and republican regimes, and that has been built upon on the traces of decades of dispossession and ruination, a site of cultural heritage?
The loss of life, property, and livelihood lies at the core of histories of dispossession. As Melissa also pointed out, histories of dispossession are confined neither solely to the past nor to the domain of political struggle. The logic of dispossession persists through present expressions of structural, political, and everyday violence. In my work, States of Dispossession (2020), I seek to understand everyday violence through forms of (dis)possession and ownership that manifest themselves through diverse actions that range from registration of property as a cultural asset and restoration to destruction and treasure hunting. My long-term ethnographic research reveals that dispossession, in effect, has persisted through the collective practices of multiple local actors that involve lawyers, treasure hunters, property owners, heritage experts, returnees, monastery foundations, tribal leaders, and village guards. All played their part in the organization and transformation of the places where dispossession takes place
If we return to heritage-making as a form of dispossession, and zoom in on the details of the present history, in 2000, due to its ancient stone architecture and multicultural legacy based on the long-standing co-existence of Kurds, Arabs, and Syriacs, the city of Mardin was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the next ten years, heritage talk in Mardin was kept alive through state-sponsored projects that sought to preserve the stone houses as a cultural asset, providing financial aid for their restoration and demolishing concrete extensions or buildings, changing the façade of the old city. In this context, locals perceived ownership of a stone house as a source of prestige as well as potential wealth. Some restored their houses and others began excavating them in hopes of finding buried treasure left behind by previous owners that would increase the value of the house.
While the heritage-related project allowed for the development of new relationships between the locals, the urban landscape, and the state, its implementation concealed memories and traces of exceptions. There was no explicit acknowledgement of the Armenians as the disappeared original owners of the houses and no reference to the history of the Armenian genocide and confiscation, appropriation, and unequal distribution of their property in its aftermath. There was no reference to the forced displacement of the Kurds from the villages and the destruction of the Kurdish villages and towns that transformed the life in the old city. Neither was there an acknowledgement of the presence of recently arrived Syrian refugees who settled in the rooms of the ruined stone houses of the old city. Heritage as a category thus engendered new silences and new forms of complicity as the stone houses were transformed into objects of commodification, orientalism, and heritage. The locals, regardless of their ethnicity, religion and class backgrounds, and political positions, felt privileged and integrated into the value systems of the national and global market, as the owners and occupiers of one of these stone houses. In other words, appropriation of the ruined heritage has become the persistent and current form of dispossession in the violent environment of Mardin.
Heritage should not be understood as only relating to the past. Of course, there is an important story of the past to tell, but what makes a heritage valuable is its relationship to everyday life in the present. This broadened lens brings into focus the environment as also part of the global human heritage that needs to be taken care of and protected. The environment itself is an actor that shapes or even determines material culture, economy, and language, impacting individuals and the relationship between individuals and society. So the environment cannot be isolated from a society and all sorts of products of that society. The destruction of any given environment—including a forest, a valley, a river/stream, or just a tree—is not only a physical annihilation but also the disruption of the entire social, economic, cultural, historical, and emotional attachments of human beings to that environment.
My own work as an environmental historian is replete with examples of the violence of dispossession pointing to these connections between heritage and the environment. For example, how should we understand Turkey’s destruction of the Kurdish environment, including through episodes of forest fires, as well as state projects of mining, massive dam-building, and the construction of geothermal and hydro-electric power plants, from the 1950s onward?
In contemporary scholarship, Turkey’s destruction of historical sites in the Kurdish provinces has been understood as an attack against the historical monuments and archeological heritage of the world in general and in Turkey in particular. However, the consequences of these policies are much more complicated and destructive than has been told.
In Hasankeyf, a 12,000-year-old city in the southeast of Turkey swallowed in 2020 by the construction of the Ilısu Dam, the outcome was not only the destruction of an old stone bridge and caves and cliff dwellings carved by humans thousands of years ago, but also dispossession of local communities both materially and culturally. In Hasankeyf, water not only swallowed houses, farms, orchards, grasslands, and graveyards, but also historical knowledge and understanding of Hasankeyf. While constructing the dam, the state claimed that preservation of heritage was taken care of as part of the project, pointing to plans for the movement of key monuments to new locations. But the construction of the Ilısu Dam is a form of violence that led to communal annihilation. Monuments identified as heritage by the state were preserved. But the large-scale environmental context was not considered part of this heritage. This failure to acknowledge the importance of the environment and the consequence of environmental destruction that took place dismantled memory, demolished a sense of belonging, and destroyed the transfer of knowledge between past, present, and future. The disappearance of this eco-system not only ahistoricized the communities in Hasankeyf, but also rendered them rootless. Here, the conventional understanding of heritage regime determines what deserves to be preserved and what does not while unconsciously showing the problematic aspects of this approach overtly.
The inherent connection between destruction and heritage is formed through the state’s foundational role in heritage creation. The modern state is central to cultural heritage, both as a perpetrator and enabler of violence and dispossession, and also as a designated protector. This dual role of the state in heritage-making becomes even more conflicted when confronted with emerging market-based protection mechanisms. I argue that contemporary heritage preservation mechanisms rest on a tension between two logics of dispossession: the continuity in the state's territorial forms of appropriation, coupled with the emerging forms of commodification of cultural heritage through market mechanisms.
The Sur District in Diyarbakir was recently razed to the ground by the Turkish government, despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a striking example of the contradictory role of the state in the creation of cultural heritage. The eventual fate of Sur reflects related tensions between territorial mechanisms of forcible expropriation and market mechanisms of commodification.
In this case, "Diyarbakir Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape" was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the adjacent districts of Sur were designated as buffer zones for protection in 2015. Shortly after, Sur became one of the main scenes of urban warfare between Kurdish militias and government forces ensuing from the failure of the peace process. Turkish military operations followed, combined with around-the-clock curfews that resulted in the deaths of 1,200 residents in all conflict areas and an estimated 355,000 forcibly displaced persons, 24,000 of whom resided in the districts of Sur. It later emerged that most of this heritage and properties in the buffer zone were systematically demolished by the government as soon as military operations ended to prevent the return of the displaced population.
As of 2022, the demolished neighborhoods are already gentrified. This place, erased from its most recent inhabitants, is now ready to serve as an official heritage site that silences the past and perpetuates original dispossessions. Because the Kurdish movement and the Kurdish people as politicized subjects continue to pose an imminent threat to national unity (of cultural heritage), the forcible depopulation of the site has prevailed over multiculturalist narratives. Although the territorial logic of dispossession has supplanted the international framework for heritage preservation, the process of commercialization has not ceased but has entered a new phase with a new narrative about heritage.
What are the shortcomings of the contemporary heritage regimes, and what Nazan calls the synthetic difference attributed to tangible and intangible heritage?
The state-centered structure of contemporary heritage regimes is based on systematic exclusions by design. During my ethnographic research at the global forums of traditional knowledge and intellectual property, I had a profound sense of who and what is missing from these frameworks. In particular, the expansion of the concept of cultural heritage and the emergence of intangible cultural heritage as a separate object of protection appear as an inclusive turn, but in fact, it reinforces selective mechanisms of exclusion.
The first type of exclusion stems from how indigenous peoples are placed at the center of discussions about intangible cultural heritage. Longstanding advocacy for indigenous peoples' rights as human rights eventually led to indigenous peoples being represented in several UN organizations concerned with the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. However, the definition of indigeneity is quite fuzzy. Generally, it is First Nations and indigenous peoples of settler colonies that are selectively perceived in international forums. Ethnic minorities and internal colonies of the Middle East are not considered in this framework and therefore Armenians, Kurds, Syriacs, Yezidis, and other contemporary ethnic and religious minorities from the region are not represented in these forums.
A related way of exclusion concerns the state-mandated nature of these intergovernmental organizations. In my interviews, officials from these organizations emphasized the right of member states to deny participation in these meetings to groups within their territories. In Turkey's current political climate, it is not likely for ethnic and religious minorities to find representation at intergovernmental organizations to advocate for their cultural heritage, whether tangible or intangible. Turkey’s incorporation into the global heritage regime results in an affirmation of national ownership of cultural heritage regardless of its local origins, which is hard to determine to begin with.
The synthetic distinction between tangible and intangible heritage is itself another method of exclusion by exacerbating the intertwined problems of ownership and commodification. Not only did UNESCO pioneer the delineation of intangible heritage from tangible heritage with the 2003 Convention, but the World Intellectual Property Organization included traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, and genetic resources in its intellectual property protection mechanisms. Both developments led to a reification of intangible heritage, which is ubiquitous because it encompasses everything related to intangible culture. However, this protection mechanism through datafication of heritage provides only a commercial safeguard against appropriation. This means that local cultural elements are protected as long as they can be commercially exploited, and those who claim and prove ownership can receive commercial benefits. Although some indigenous groups in the New World are able to reap financial benefits through licensing agreements with private corporations, even this very limited commodification is not a venue for minorities in Turkey and in the Middle East.
Zerrin Özlem Biner:
The logic used by heritage regimes, through which heritage becomes an exception that generates amnesia, also underlies the distinction between tangible and intangible heritage. In my work, I argue that heritage generates oblivion to its emergence and removes knowledge from its historical context. In Turkey, these categories produced by the contemporary heritage regime were used by the AKP government to redefine the discursive limits of official multiculturalism and legitimize its neoliberal and cultural policies. Furthermore, these differences shaped the heritage consciousness of local communities. They helped promote a vision of the cultural as existing apart from the political, although the Kurdish struggle to recognize their tangible and intangible heritage has ironically been the main avenue of political contestation in the region. In Mardin, all actors' cultural and economic initiatives, regardless of ethnicity, were encouraged as long as they did not transgress the limits of the official discourse of multiculturalism. In this slippery space, the connections between cultural geographies, the historically embedded relationships between local communities, and local knowledge of livelihoods transmitted and transformed have become invisible. In the absence of the "well-preserved" tangible heritage, the intangible heritage has been employed as evidence to support the official claims of "preservation" of cultures and knowledge of local livelihoods. The differences are repeatedly employed by the Turkish state to dehistoricize and depoliticize the presence and co-existence of the communities in this geography and erase their subjectivity as if they were not subjected to the histories of violence as victims, witnesses, and perpetrators.
Drawing from my ethnographic work on songs’ and stories’ role in the formation of situated knowledges and the transmission of affective orientations towards the past and the present, my entry point to this question will be pointing to the ways in which expressive culture mediates how we relate to the world around us. Memory of the senses and narratives of the past evoked by testimonial objects or food or an inscription on a building, for example, is one way I can think of deconstructing the dichotomy of tangible versus intangible. Similarly, in my archival work, I use letters, handcrafts, personal items, etc. as sources of social and intellectual history, both in my research on Ottoman and post-Ottoman Armenian feminists and on the nineteenth-century beginnings of Armenian ethnography and musicology. Referring to the latter, I can say that the initial motivation behind collecting samples of oral lore from the Ottoman Armenian provincial communities was to document them as organic proof of people’s connectedness to the landscape of their lived environments (and the belief that songs, fairy tales, riddles, etc. resisted ruination). It is quite striking when we think of it today, as we see that songs have the capacity to disrupt any attempt at turning the ruins into dead and amusing spectacles. Songs not only tell stories, express opinions and emotions, or carry linguistic and stylistic pluralities on their bodies, but also convey the historic presence of certain contexts that are absent today. For example, songs keep the memory of the former Armenian names of cities and villages or geographic places which were relentlessly Turkified. On the other hand, and perhaps just because of this powerful potential of music, in Turkey music has been severely censored (and self-censored) as in the case of old Armenian revolutionary or patriotic songs and laments that refer to the massacres.
Music has been one of the main sites of erasure of non-Turkish elements from public representations and collective memory and a significant space of controlling public opinion and sentiments. Finally, in countries like Turkey where musical appropriation is used as a tool for colonization and as a mechanism of exclusion and disempowerment, musical proprietary rights are directly linked to the struggle for cultural rights. Orally transmitted repertoires (including repertoires written in languages other than Turkish) have still been manipulated from belonging to collectivities to belonging to no one (or to the Turkish nation), hence the histories and meanings attached to them by communities become unimportant and unnecessary to respect, as in a relatively recent case of an Armenian lament for Cilician massacres of 1909 turning into a Turkish pop song. Briefly, what I would like to point out here is that, since the very mechanisms of dispossession rely on this synthetic differentiation of tangible and intangible, a critical perspective requires us to rethink these definitions.
The human-centric and past-centric understanding of contemporary heritage regimes require a reevaluation. In my view, such limited approaches cause two entangled issues in our understanding of heritage. First and foremost, they prevent us from identifying the importance and centrality of non-human actors in the making of everyday life throughout human history and in the present. Second, viewing heritage primarily through historical lenses does not allow us to protect the non-historic sites or agents. Aztec monuments in Mexico or Egyptian pyramids have been evaluated as heritage sites and thus received protection while the rain forests of the Amazon or Indonesia continue to be the victim of logging and agricultural clearance. Understandings of heritage as tied to the material remains of the human past determines which sites of heritage can be visible and which one cannot be visible.
In the case of Turkey, there is a third component that makes the tangibility and intangibility of heritage more complex. Turkish nationalism, state-centrism, and neo-liberal developmentalism operate in tandem to label certain areas as sites of heritage, while simultaneously destroying other areas or forms that have not been labelled as heritage. Not surprisingly, the logic of heritage in this context is tied to the identification of geographies, histories, and communities identified as a threat to the state and thus requiring dismantling rather than preservation
 For further readings on of the ruination of the urban landscape and environment in the Kurdish region, I would like to invite the reader to see the work of Alice von Bierberstein (2017), “Treasure/Fetish/Gift: Hunting for ‘Armenian Gold’ in Post-Genocide Turkish Kurdistan.” Subjectivity 10 (2): 170-89; Anoush Tamar Suni (2019) “Palimpsests of Violence: Ruination and the Politics of Memory in Anatolia”UCLA, Unpublished PhD Dissertation; Eray Cayli (2021), “The Aesthetics of Extractivism: Violence, Ecology, and Sensibility in Turkey’s Kurdistan,” Antipode 53 (5): 1377-99; Umut Yildirim (2022) “Breathing under Blockade”, Current Anthropology, FC.
 See Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Report on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey, July 2015 to December 2016 (published in February 2017).
 For further reading on ongoing issues pertaining to the preservation of Armenian material cultural heritage, I would like to direct the reader to Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, Christina Maranci, Lori Khatchadourian, and Anoush Tamar Suni’s works.