Turkish Interior Minister: Restore Ancient Aramaic Toponyms

sua_letter_atalay_18052009-2-1.jpgNGO in Special Consultative Status with
the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations
Head Office: UNOG Representative: UNOV Representative: UNHQ Representative:
Syriac Universal Alliance Mr Daniel Gabriel Mr Gabriel Gabor Mr Sami Samani

sua_letter_atalay_18052009-2-2.jpgP. 0 Box 354 daniel.gabriel@sua‐ngo.org gabriel.gabor@sua‐ngo.org sami.samani@sua‐ngo.org
S‐151 24 Södertälje, Sweden
0046‐8‐550 328 10
Mr BeÅŸir Atalay

Interior Minister
sua_letter_atalay_18052009-2-3.jpgT.C. İçişleri Bakanlığı, Bakanlıklar
Çankaya, 06640
Subject: Request to reverse Turkification of ancient Aramaic (Syriac) place‐names
Stockholm, Monday 18 May, 2009
Honorable Minister Atalay,
We appeal to you on behalf of the Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA), the worldwide umbrella
organization of all the national Federations of the Aramean/Syriac people (Turk.: Süryaniler).
With great enthusiasm, we have welcomed your audacious statements in the Turkish media
relating to reverting the thousands of Turkish place‐names to their original languages. You
were quoted as saying that this issue is currently not on your agenda, to which you added:
“If there is a local demand, why not?” This demand, in fact, does exist among our people.
Ancient Aramaic place‐ and family names
Mr Minister, you may or may not be aware of the ancient history of our people in Turkey.
Aramaic inscriptions as well as external evidence, such as Biblical and Assyrian sources,
testify to the omnipresence of Semitic Aramean principalities (not to be confused with Indo‐
European Armenians) in southeastern Anatolia from the late second millennium BC onwards.
Modern Diyarbakır, for example, called Āmid since the earliest stages of Aramaic, was the
capital of the city‐state Bēth Zammāni, which included the plateau of Mardin (an Aramaic
plural form). Southeast of Āmid and currently belonging to the Mardin province, lies the
region of Tur ‘Abdin, which again is Aramaic for “the mountain of the servants [of God].”
In his book on the early history of Tur ‘Abdin, Dr. Andrew Palmer observed about this area:
“Not only are several of the village names still in use, even these types of farming and the
same skill in metalwork are characteristic of the ancient Aramaic stock of Christians who are
the hereditary inhabitants of the plateau.”
In addition to the very old tradition of Aramaic toponyms that have been preserved to date,
the way Aramaic family names/surnames are styled by means of B(Ä“) plus a personal name,
usually a prominent ancestor, demonstrates that the familial identification of the presentday
Arameans is inextricably connected with the typical Aramean society in Antiquity.
Excluded from Lausanne Treaty and subjected to onomatocide (“name‐murder”)
As you know, in 1923 Turkey signed the Peace Treaty of Lausanne. Despite the fact that
Articles 37‐45 guaranteed the (inter)national protection and rights of the non‐Muslim and
non‐Turkish nationals, the Arameans were never granted formal recognition by Turkey as a
“minority” as formulated in this Convention. Consequently, they have never enjoyed their
basic human rights, but instead had to suffer in many ways from discrimination.
For example, in theory the Arameans should have been given “an equal right to establish,
manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions,
any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use
their own language and to exercise their own religion freely therein” (Art. 40). In practice,
however, Aramean teachers were imprisoned for teaching Aramaic. In more recent times,
state officials had even attempted to permanently close down the Christian monasteries of
Kurkmo/Zafaran in Mardin (1978) and Mor Gabriel in Midyat (1997) for teaching Aramaic.
In the decades following Turkey’s ratification of the Lausanne Treaty, several state policies
and methods were implemented in order to Turkify all the ‘minorities’ in Turkey, irrespective
of their ethno‐religious and linguistic backgrounds. A case in point concerns the Turkification
of indigenous names, which had begun as early as 1915. But the most notable years are in:
1. 1934, when the “Surname Law” was adopted by the Turkish Government. This law
prohibits the use of non‐Turkish sounds, letters and full names.
2. 1957, when the “Expert Commission for Name Change” was created. In the next 21
years, the names of no less than 28,000 villages were changed. Between 1983 and
2000, this committee continued its work and renamed another 200 villages.
Turkey’s systematic efforts to destroy existing geographical and personal names have
been described as onomatocide (“name‐murder”; Prof. Jan Sanders) and as
toponymical engineering, owing to its conceptual proximity to the more familiar and
similarly destructive phenomenon of demographic engineering (Dr. Kerem Öktem).
Request of the indigenous Aramean people
Among all the Aramaic‐speaking Christians in the world, SUA is the only NGO with a Special
Consultative Status at the Economic and Social Council of the UN. As the recognized voice of
the Aramean (Syriac) people, SUA requests that your Government not neglect the Arameans,
but treats them with equality and dignity in a truly democratic Turkish Republic.
In 2009, we expect a modern and democratic Government that knows how to appreciate its
minorities as a cultural enrichment to the unique mosaic that prides the Republic of Turkey.
Thus, against the backdrop of the aforementioned facts and statements, we request you to
• officially recognize the Arameans, just like the Greeks, Armenians and Jews, as a non‐
Muslim and non‐Turkish minority according to the Lausanne Treaty and the existing
international treaties on minority rights that are guaranteed by the UN and the EU.
• revert the Turkified ancient Aramaic toponyms and to provide new constructions in
southeast Turkey’s Aramaic plateaus with native geographical names, by which the
original and indigenous identity of the landscape will be safeguarded.
• grant the Arameans the right to change their Turkish surnames into their old Aramaic
family names, which is a basic human right in the European democratic societies.
The restoration of the meaningless Turkified names to their meaningful original languages,
such as Greek, Armenian, Arabic and Aramaic, is significant for multiple reasons.
Above all, it will re‐establish Turkey’s disconnected continuity with and local memories of its
rich multi‐religious, ‐ethnic and ‐linguistic past. In so doing, it will help to preserve Turkey’s
ancient cultural heritages, which can also be regarded as world heritages, and thus improve
the tourism industry in various historical regions in its southeastern countryside.
For the Turkified names have proven to be unattractive and a major source of confusion,
whereas the indigenous names of cities, towns, villages, mountains and rivers carry meaning,
importance and appeal. This not only applies to tourists, but also to repatriates who already
have returned or can be stimulated by the state to return to their ancestral homeland.
Like the toponyms, the surnames are also an essential part of an individual or group identity.
In the case of the Arameans, who struggle against assimilation in their diasporic reality, it
helps to preserve the unity among family members who are scattered in different countries.
In the Arab world, they have not experienced such enforced name‐change and thus have
retained their old Aramaic family names. In Europe, however, many Arameans who originate
from Turkey have already made use of the liberty to change their Turkified surnames.
We believe this is the right moment for your Government to show the world that Turkey
sincerely wishes to abide by EU standards on democracy, human rights and minority rights.
One of the first steps to achieve this, is by granting the hitherto ill‐treated and neglected
Arameans official minority status, whereby they can safeguard their endangered cultural
heritage, and by reversing the Turkified Aramaic place‐names and surnames.
As stressed last week in an open letter to His Excellency, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
ErdoÄŸan, whose response we are still awaiting, we reiterate that SUA wishes to work on a
democratic basis with your Government. We look forward to receiving your reply and note
that we would be most delighted to discuss any of these matters personally with you.
Yours sincerely,
Johny Messo
Syriac Universal Alliance
+31 611 539 771