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Survivor Objects: Cultural Heritage in and out of the Middle East

  • Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh (a1)

Artifacts that have experienced atrocities, even genocide, and survived, acquire the power to recall the horrors of the past, and to recollect the absent persons, things, and places that were lost. They symbolize violence, but also survival and resilience. Material objects that have endured looting, mutilation, displacement, and separation from the communities where they functioned as sacred relics, liturgical aids, or prized artworks form a special category. They are survivor objects.

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1 Many of these artifacts were later recovered. Bogdanos, Matthew, “The Casualties of War: The Truth about the Iraq Museum,” American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005): 477526 .

2 The Islamic State's depredations in Palmyra took place in 2015. Watenpaugh, Heghnar, “Cultural Heritage and the Arab Spring: War over Culture, Culture of War, and Culture War,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 5 (2016): 245–63, with further references.

3 Scott Reyburn, “What the Panama Papers Reveal about the Art Market,” The New York Times, 11 April 2016, accessed 6 June 2017,

4 The 2016 report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, highlights the international legal frameworks regarding the intentional destruction of culture: UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights,” 3 February 2016, A/HRC/31/59, accessed 8 June 2017,

5 Karima Bennoune highlighted the plight of defenders of cultural heritage who have been targeted, and argued that “defenders of cultural heritage should be recognized as cultural rights defenders and therefore as human rights defenders and that they should be afforded the rights and protections that status entails.” Ibid., p. 17, section 75.

6 Bahrani, Zainab, Çelik, Zeynep, and Eldem, Edhem, eds., Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914 (Istanbul: SALT, 2011).

7 I refer here to the current art historical focus on the materiality of the object, known as the “pictorial” or “iconic” turn. See, among others, Moxey, Keith, “Visual Studies and the Iconic Turn,” Journal of Visual Culture 7 (2008): 131–46; Mitchell, W. J. T., What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Osborne, Robin and Tanner, Jeremy, eds., Art's Agency and Art History (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

8 Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian, The Missing Pages: Art, Heritage and the Armenian Genocide (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, forthcoming).

9 See, among others, Der Nersessian, Sirarpie, Miniature Painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century, ed. Agémian, Sylvia (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1993), 1:51–76; Evans, Helen C., “Armenian Art Looks West: Toros Ṛoslin's Zeytun Gospels,” in Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Art, Religion, and Society, ed. Matthews, Thomas F. and Wieck, Roger S. (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1998), 103–14.

10 Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America v. The J. Paul Getty Museum, No. BC 438824 (Cal. Super. Ct. 2011).

11 J. Paul Getty Museum and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America (21 September 2015), J. Paul Getty Museum and the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America Announce Agreement in Armenian Art Restitution Case [press release].

12 Harutiwn Ter Ghazarian is describing the night of 10 February 1920, known later as “the Battle of Marash,” in his “Letter to Archbishop A. Siwrmeian, 1 August 1936,” in Siwrmeian, Artawazd, Mayr Tsutsak hayeren tseragrats S. Karasun Mankunk ekeghetsvoy Halepi, vol. 2, Mayr Tsutsak hayeren tseragrats Halepi ew Antiliasi u masnaworats (Aleppo: Tparan A. Der-Sahakian, 1936), 137 .

13 The quote is excerpted from a colophon, dated 28 February 1923, which then-Bishop Babken Kiwleserian (1868–1936) added to a medieval manuscript in the Church of the Forty Martyrs in Aleppo. Published in Siwrmeian, Artawazd, Nkaragir Oshin tagavori dzeragir zhamagrkin, 1319 (Antilias: Tparan Tprevanuts katoghikosutean Kilikioy, 1933), 102 .

14 Hovsepian, Garegin, Niwter ew usumnasirutiwnner hay aruesti ew mshakoyti patmutean, vol. 2 (New York: n.p., 1943), i.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
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