Colombian Town of Armenia Confused by Turkish-Funded Ottoman Mural

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AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

Armenia, the capital city of Quindío, Colombia, is boasting a new mural of a man wearing Ottoman-era garb on the side of its city council building, an image with no historical correlation to the city that is confusing, and angering, many residents, Colombian media reported Tuesday.

The mural, by artist Hollman Henao Díaz, is the product of the city’s mayor opening cultural bonds with the state of Turkey after the administration of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited him and several council members to Ankara this year for a summit to tell the municipal officials “the other side” of the story of the Armenian genocide, according to the Colombian magazine Semana. While the debate lives on regarding any concrete ties linking Armenia the city to Armenia the country, in honor of its namesake, the Colombian city has formally recognized the genocide as such, something neither the federal governments of Colombia or Turkey have done.

Erdogan has expressed a personal belief that Muslims explorers reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus and thus the Muslim world should get the credit for expanding the Eurasian map of the world. To that end, he has attempted to invest in Turkish cultural centers in friendly countries in the region. After years of attempting to build a mosque in communist Cuba, where he once claimed Columbus had seen a mosque upon landing, he shifted gears to Venezuela, where he found the impoverished socialist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro more willing to allow the construction of a new religious center than the Castro regime.

The Turkish government has not explicitly connected its newfound relationship with the government of the city of Armenia to Erdogan’s belief in Muslims discovering America.

The regional newspaper La Crónica de Quindío reported Wednesday that locals appear baffled, and some outraged, by the expensive mural, which they find irrelevant to their heritage.

“I don’t really understand what Armenia [the Colombian city] has to do with Turkey. I think that what they need is to pay back favors for that little trip they took,” a woman named Maricela Montes told the newspaper, referring to the trip to Turkey the mayor and some council members made in February. “It is not logical that something like this would be painted on such a pretty department.”
The newspaper quotes another resident who says he is not angry, merely “confused.”

“We Quindianos are confused because we don’t understand what a sultan has to do with Armenia [the city],” Jorge Jaramillo said. “What is happening to us? Please, serious statesmen have to take the reins of this city. This is truly horrible for our capital.”

The president of the city council, Diego Torres Vizcaino, said in a statement that the mural is part of a cultural exchange with Turkey that will go both ways, according to Colombia’s El Tiempo.

“It was agreed with the administration of Armenia that we would structure commercial and tourism projects to be evaluated by the public and private sector of Turkey,” Torres said. “Just like that, [we also approved] cultural support initiatives with efforts for the municipal game room and the Armenia School of Music, which are already in development.” The cultural exchange plan, he also claimed, would include postage stamps in both countries featuring the heritage of the other.

El Tiempo notes that the council is not only considering cultural favors to Turkey. They are now openly debating amending the 2014 declaration the city passed recognizing the Armenian genocide.

The genocide saw the extermination of 1.5 million Armenian Christians, along with Assyrians, Greeks, and other Christian ethnic minorities, by Turkish forces in 1915. Despite decades of pleas by the government of Armenia for the world to recognize what experts consider the first modern genocide, many states have not weighed in, including Colombia. The Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, claiming that many Armenians died in World War I as a result of ongoing conflict. During his remarks this April on the anniversary of the beginning of the genocide, Erdogan called it “the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period.”

Local media reported at the time that the original trip by the Colombian politicians to Turkey in February was prompted by the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, even though the anniversary is typically observed in April and known to have begun in 1915. One councilman returning from the trip said of the Turks, “truly, we were surprised, we didn’t think they would know so much about us,” beaming that the Turkish officials referred to the city as a “hidden treasure.”

At least one councilman  Luis Guillermo Agudelo, expressed outrage about the trip, describing it in an interview with Colombia’s Noticias Uno at the time as “not important” and “of little benefit to the city.”

“Whether the genocide of the Armenian people by the Turkish government existed or was really a product of war in 1915, that [debate] doesn’t benefit us,” Agudelo argued.

Speaking to El Tiempo this week, he called the mural “an absurdity.”

“This is a public building that has a very important connotation,” he said. “This is where our gallery was, and now they are totally changing its identity.”

The Turkish cultural push appears to have expanded to Colombia from Venezuela, where in 2017 Erdogan announced he would invest in a major mosque and Turkish cultural center in Caracas. The project seemed similar to one that he attempted to sell to Havana for years. The Cuban communist regime, wary of the expansion of religion, rejected the idea.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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