A Farewell to the Birds

After Utopia: The Birds, at Sadberk Hanim Museum, 2022. Photo: Ivan Erofeev

During the pandemic lockdowns back in 2020, Turkish artist Felekșan Onar and myself got together to conspire over what would seem like a simple project: To present in Istanbul an earlier project of hers, “Perched”, which I chronicled in a post on Sententiae Antiquae almost three years ago, a series of wingless glass-blown swallows, referencing the plight of Syrian migrants in the streets of Istanbul during the previous decades, and inspired by a 2004 novel of Louis de Bernières, “Birds Without Wings”, set in a fictional village on the southwestern Aegean at the turn of the century and chronicling the population exchange between Turkey and Greece, and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, therefore seamlessly weaving together two waves of refugees, separated by generations. 

But the birds of “Perched” were not just any wingless creatures. They had traveled far and wide: From an atelier in Berlin to the Aleppo Room in the Pergamon Museum and the Damascus Room at the Dresden Museum for Ethnology, two of the most exquisite preserved oriental interiors, highlighting the tension between cultural heritage that can easily travel travel through extraction and the lives of peoples perched behind borders. The search for a suitable location included Byzantine palaces, churches, abandoned houses and cultural institutions–it had to be at least as loaded as those encyclopedic museums where the birds had been, now that they would be returning home. My first intuition, as a curator, was to turn to the Classics for inspiration, as I had been invested in reading Homer against the background of contemporary art narratives.

Aristophanes’ comedy Birds would register immediately as a possible context, not necessarily because I was thinking about the birds as such, but because it dealt with themes such as democratic order, utopia and the foundations of politics, something that felt almost redemptive in a time of great uncertainty. But new, stricter pandemic restrictions meant that the project would be halted indefinitely. So we went back home and began a research project, on the longue dureé of Anatolia’s Hellenic past, without knowing where it would land us. The discovery of literature in Karamanlidika, a dialect of Ottoman Turkish but written in the Greek alphabet, would open a window into a present, haunted by different time arrows, coming from the most remote depths of archaeology, but also from very palpable yet opaque moments in political memory.

Composed in Karamanlidika, the Ballad of Kostas Tzekmezoglou, printed in the 1930s, and the songs of Jean Haralamboglou, known as Omiros, discovered in Euboea during expeditions to the refugee camps, would tell us a little known story from the era of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey: The exile of the Karamanlides, a Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox people native to the Karaman and Cappadocia regions of Central Anatolia.  During the negotiations leading up to the exchanges, the Turkish government considered exempting Turkish-speaking Christians, but in the end it was decided that religion would be the only factor. The tale of their arrival in a hostile Greece –they didn’t share the same linguistic and cultural affinities as the Greek Orthodox from the Western Aegean, are recounted in detail in these poems. 

Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the Aleppo Room, Pergamon Museum, 2018, photo: David von Becker.

The humorous shadow plays (Hacivat & Karagoz in Turkish or Karagiozis in Greek) published in the Karamanli refugee newspaper “Muhacir Sevdası”, highlighting their plight, drove us to seek an element of performance in a then still formless artistic project, and brought us back to Aristophanes’ Birds: My reception play “After Utopia: The Birds”, is a short drama that takes place after the end of the ancient comedy, weaving Karamanlidika poetry into the ancient context, but retaining the undefined Aristophanic temporality. After the play was completed, Onar set out to create new birds for the characters, and the Sadberk Hanım Museum in Istanbul, home to an archaeological collection spanning eight millennia of Anatolian antiquities opened its doors to our idea. 

We had the opportunity of working on its archaeological collection, selecting a number of artifacts that could help us tell this particular story of displacement, on a variety of timescales: A 3rd millennium Kilia idol that has a complicated relationship to Cycladic art, a pair of terracotta birds from the Greek classical period, or an inscribed clay nail from a temple in Mesopotamia of the 2nd millennium, among others. “After Utopia: The Birds” opened in September 2022, as an exhibition, play, film, monograph and archaeological display, and in the intervening ten months, this conversation on the longue dureé between art and archaeology, has witnessed the final stages in the steep transformation of a country that resembles the destroyed bird city–autarchy, economic collapse, a devastating earthquake that displaced hundreds of thousands.

At the end of this journey, one looks back at the form of the initial question regarding the obscurity of the past, and the relation between different waves of migration and displacement through Anatolia across the generations: What is exactly the accumulated knowledge of the past and what can be done with it? This afterthought is an opportunity to reconsider what archaeology can mean in a context such as this, so loaded with a violent history and with the ghost of European colonial archaeology–the global plunder of the 19th century still forms the core of museum collections anywhere. Is there then a relationship between archaeology and displacement that can help us make sense of the colonial present? A simple answer would be that archaeological artifacts are themselves displaced and convey unto us a sense of the disruption that characterizes our time.

But that answer requires some further categorization: Archaeological violence can be classified into two different types: The violence of accumulation and the violence of temporality. The grand century of Western archaeological excavations might have come to an end with the Princeton Committee for the Excavation of Antioch-on-the-Orontes that abruptly ended in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II and never resumed, but the excavation fever had already become a default of archaeological practice, bringing us to the problem of the relationship between memory and archives. In multiyear excavations, the publication of results is very slow, while material remains are confined to storage for decades, where they can be easily misplaced, damaged or lost beyond repair, before they can even be studied. The same is true of storage in museums. 

After Utopia: The Birds, at Sadberk Hanim Museum, 2022. Photo:Ivan Erofeev.

The problem is not that we don’t have enough remains of the past, and therefore, a physical record of memory, but that the archives overwhelm us and we can’t or don’t know how to read them. The never ending, purposeless accumulation of material, is the first manifestation of archaeological violence. Extractive archaeology is informed by the idea of infinity–of sources, of truth, of deposits. With this accumulation of materials, comes the destruction of contexts (particularly prior to WWII but far beyond in the illicit market), so that most artifacts in museums are already homeless, and their pasts cannot be reconstructed except comparatively or through relative dating. But because the arrow of time in the archaeological record is not unilinear, our chronologies are arbitrary and indifferent to the polychronic ensembles that make up the past.

The bias of the archaeologist goes in hand with the destruction: Archaeologists find (or not) what they think they’re looking for, while blasting their way to materials that they’re either indifferent to or unaware of. This endless accumulation is also reflected in the archaeological violence of collections: Museum collections worldwide have been formed at the whim of collectors, often without much regard for provenance. But the birth of Turkish archaeology is indeed intimately connected to colonialism: The Ottoman Imperial Museum was born in the same generation as the Louvre and the British Museum; an institution presenting the Western-looking face of a nervous state, and focused on collecting Classical and Near Eastern art. 

It was also a museum of plunder: The magnificent sarcophagi of Sidon were extracted out of Lebanon by Osman Hamdi Bey, who’s reputed for regarding local labor in the Levant with the same condescendence as Western archaeologists. Europeans were permitted to excavate in the empire, as long as most of the finds went directly to the imperial museum, but this rule of course was violated more often than not. Later, republican archaeology is beset with even more paradoxes: On the one hand, the emphasis on Hittite archaeology would create a mythical story for the prehistoric presence of Turks in Anatolia, obviously fabricated but still popular today. Advances in Near Eastern archaeology today in Turkey, however, still rival the most important centers of learning in the world while local scholarship is often disregarded or ignored. 

Yet the history of local classical archaeology is a double-bind riddled with gaps, conspiracies, and inaccuracies. A level of rejection or partially wrong interpretation of the classical past has to do with the hostility towards the Greek past in the early republic and was translated into academic Hellenophobia (being right in their critique of the Greek miracle, for the wrong reasons and arguments), while on the other hand, the Roman heritage was reappropriated from a different angle in order to claim legitimacy among the democratic nations of the West, and their shared classical heritage. This resulted in the neglect and destruction of many sites and artifacts, particularly through botched restorations. This tension never completely disappeared until the rise of Islamism and its focus on Islamic heritage. Heritage is never a stable concept. 

After Utopia: The Birds at Sadberk Hanim Museum, photograph: Ivan Erofeev

But returning to the political present, and the relationship between archaeology and displacement surrounding “After Utopia: The Birds”, we confront yet the most aggressive form of archaeological violence which is not quantitative (extraction and accumulation) but qualitative–the violence of time. When artifacts do not conform to a synchronous, coherent account of history, and for example, they might located too far off in the past, or too remote geographically, and cannot be assimilated into one of the grand narratives (Greece and Rome, the Bible, Empires, city-states, etc), they’re not immediately discarded, but placed in a time different than our time, causally connected to the past. This allochrony is a time of otherness, which is either a-historical, or takes place before or besides history. 

This isn’t however the prehistory of art, where historiography sees moments of genesis in the Venus of Willendorf, the waterbird of Hohle Fels, or the Spedos culture of the Cycladic islands (these phylogenies are entirely fabricated), but a different outside-of-history that can happen in any period. The Kilia idol is a fascinating example because of its vague relation to Cycladic art (I have suggested elsewhere the thesis that the Cycladization of Kilia idols is partly responsible for their plunder), it stands neither in the outside-of-history nor in the prehistory of art–it lives on as a ghost, without occupying any specific time. Archaeologists Dan Hicks and Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal coined terms for this atemporality: the Chronocene and Chronocidal practices. Once an object has been expelled from historical time, physical destruction already took place.

Because objects, without regard for their artistic value, are part of the lives of communities, the excision from time is not just something that happens to things, but a gesture that provides archaeological templates for conquest and domination that will follow on peoples and landscapes. Those who control time, control history, and the bodies within. In that sense, Hicks establishes a relationship between the museum and the refugee camp: They’re both a function of temporality–they decide who is in and out of time, and therefore, of causality, and by extension, of a place in the discourse of the past and the present. Objects, however, do not speak to us, they might contain time but they do not have a past once they’ve been exiled from the landscape, so that all the chronologies are in fact anthropocentric narratives around modern concepts. 

The conventions that regulate admittance into this club of historical time are arbitrary and porous. The absence of the Karamanlides and their body of literature from history has to do with de-temporalization: Although some 500 works of literature had been published in Karamanlidika by the end of the Ottoman Empire, including bilingual translations of Aristotle, and the newspaper Anatoli than ran for over seventy years, there are only few vestiges left of their presence in Anatolia: The many tombstones that they left behind are now in the courtyard of the Zoödochos Pege monastery and a few inscriptions in abandoned houses. I had first been exposed to Karamanlidika almost a decade ago, in a project by Turkish artist Dilek Winchester, where she looks back at the polyglottic and polygraphic nature of Turkey in the early 20th century.

Dilek Winchester, As If Nothing Has Ever Been Said Before Us, 2007-2015. Courtesy of SALT and the artist. Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

Her investigation looks into Karamanlidika and other varieties of Turkish in different scripts, such as Armenian and Hebrew, in which the first novels in modern Turkish were written by minority authors, using their own alphabets but never registered in the official history. Their contributions were forgotten after the aggressive process of homogenization that followed from the language and alphabet reforms in the 1920s and 1930s. But the disappearance of Karamanlidika doesn’t begin with the pressure against minorities in the early Turkish republic; it actually starts with the history of colonial scholarship on Cappadocia: Western travelers arrived in the region in the 18th and 19th centuries, and as they became fascinated with the religious paintings inside cave churches, they showed little interest in anything but the region’s Greek past. 

Their monumental studies of Cappadocian Greek, contemporaneous with the birth of Greek nationalism, went on to prove that Greeks from the region descended from Late Antiquity and overlooked the syncretism of communities where Muslims and Christians spoke both Turkish and Greek. Using the figure of the Karamanlides in exile, the central question in “After Utopia: The Birds”, about whether utopias are possible, remains unanswered, for what it deals with in its subject matter is the destruction of a city that had once been considered one of such utopias, but that now lies buried in the past. A few months after the destroyed bird utopia with its ancient time travelers asked this question, the city of Antioch was actually destroyed by one of the largest earthquakes in the history of the region (perhaps only the earthquake in 526 CE was stronger).

We wondered then, stupefied as we were, and equally displaced as the birds, whether there was something from the deep time of archaeology that we could learn about the resilience with which the city always rebuilt itself and adapted to change and reinserted its history into the flow of time. But the truth is that persistence in archaeology is unexplained. However, as entropy increases and time becomes more and more chaotic and disjointed, while the tendency is for information to be lost over time, there’s always a measure of complexity that is retained even against this general decay, and leaves physical traces in the present. While none of the grand reconstruction projects of Caligula and Justinian, following deadly earthquakes, have been set in motion this time, Antiochians continue to imagine what a new life in their city might look like. 

Deep time is a strange object which is not created from nothing, but emerges from the lives of people and things in their interactions, so that the future still remains open, even in times of tyranny. We don’t want to overestimate the value of what contemporary art and culture can do in a museum of antiquities, the latter always being more powerful in their patina, but if anything, interventions like “After Utopia: The Birds” function like a subtle indication that archaeology doesn’t have to be always invasive or cumulative. Many types of chronologies and narratives can be formed from existing archaeological collections, and the study of the past shouldn’t be limited to the classification and publication of objects. A plurality of relations outside historical context is possible simply because those objects already don’t have a context to begin with. 

Kilia idol returned from the White/Levy collection, 2023 (photo: Ministry of Culture)

The narratives that we associate with these artifacts can change as much as the stories we tell about ourselves change across generations. There are objects in the collection, which although centered on Anatolian antiquities, are decidedly not Anatolian, such as the clay nail from the temple of Gudea in Lagash (Mesopotamia) or the colored terracotta ladies from Tanagra and Myrina (mainland Greece) found at Sagalassos. It means that these objects traveled already in antiquity, in the same way that Kilia idols traveled from the southwestern Aegean to places as distant as Karain near Antalya or Lesbos. Their stories traveled as well, in the same way that Tzekmezoglou and Omiros did, and with these displacements, the objects themselves changed as well. 

In the three years since the journey of the birds began, two Kilia idols have returned to Turkey after lengthy battles in American courts (until then, Sadberk Hanım had the only complete idol left in Turkey), including one of the most important known ones, exhibited for years at the Met on loan from the White and Levy collection, surface surveys of the site of Kulaksızlar has further strengthened the idea of a single point of origin, a thesis which should merit a thorough critical review, and a few unpublished unprovenanced fragments have been located in European museums. Their past is always changing, just like ours. Every gesture of counterfactuality against erasure makes the archaeological present deeper, for it enlarges its surface. For the time being, the birds, as the end of the play suggests, are getting ready to fly away once again.

Their destination is unknown as is uncertain the future of the lands that inspired their ancient-modern story. But I would like to think of these birds as ghosts, for the position of the ghost–neither in prehistory nor on the outside-of-history, neither alive nor dead, can be advantageous for those who seek that persistence which comes exactly at the moment when history is being lost to chaos, for the ghost is always a guest. As Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige remarked over a decade ago: “Being here, today, is accepting to live with our ghosts, to long for them, to feed them.” In their ghostly existence, these archaeological objects, situations and narratives outmaneuver the guard at the border of time: They resist museography by occupying multiple positions, redrawing the borders, hiding their secrets and changing their own stories. 

Although both art and archaeology reside mostly in the past, they contain elements of futurity that do not appear as miracle, do not promise salvation or certainty and do not come through divination but in the form of what Gonzalez-Ruibal articulates as the possibility of an archaeology that is not solely about digging our way down into the abyss, and that he calls the archaeological time of hope:  “Archaeologists, like Jews, are prohibited from investigating the future. We are both, instead, instructed in remembrance. While this, says Benjamin, strips the future of the magic promised by soothsayers, it does not turn into a homogenous empty time. For in the material remnants of the past, we find an interrupted promise: a hope that things could have been different; that there’s still room to make History.”

Our reality might be collapsing, our cities might be destroyed and we might at the mercy of King Pisthetaerus, as in the play, but we know it’s not the only possibility, others before us came out and saw the stars.

Gravestones in Karamanlidika dialect, Zoödochos Pege monastery, Istanbul, 2021. Photo: the author.


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Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Izmir. He’s also tweeting about classics, archaeology, heritage, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece. Follow Arie on twitter (@byzantinologue) for updates and new articles as they come out. He was the curator of “After Utopia: The Birds”, at Sadberk Hanim Museum, on view September 10, 2022 – July 30, 2023. A screening of the film is available online, as a part of a conversation hosted by the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard

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