American Chronicle
May 23 2009

Aramaic Toponyms in Turkey ` A Demand of the Aramaean Diaspora

Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis

In this article, I republish an Open Letter to Mr. BeÅ?ir
Atalay, Interior Minister of Turkey, which was made public by
J. Messo, President of the Syriac Universal Alliance a few days
ago. In forthcoming articles, I will focus on the subject extensively.

Att. Mr. BeÅ?ir Atalay

Interior Minister

T.C. İçiÅ?leri BakanlıÄ?ı,
Bakanl&#xC4 ;±klar

ankaya, 06640 Ankara


Subject: Request to reverse Turkification of ancient Aramaic (Syriac)

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 Ämid since the
earliest stages of Aramaic, was the capital of the city?state
BÄ`th ZammÄ?ni, which included the plateau of Mardin (an
Aramaic plural form). Southeast of Ämid 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 present
day Arameans is inextricably connected with the typical Aramean
society in Antiquity.

Excluded from Lausanne Treaty and subjected to onomatocide

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

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

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

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

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 ErdoÄ?an, 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,

J. Messo
Syriac Universal Alliance
[email protected]?