Nationhood and its Imposing Power over Time and Chronology*
December 2017, Berlin
The spine of history is said to be chronology. However, the same spine is also a very problematic aspect of it. We easily narrate and line up past events in such a structure that it forms an inevitable teleological progress of history in a certain direction. The tool to find out about the undisclosed meanings and discourse of a text is to analyse the narrative. However, in history beyond the words the construction of chronology or how we frame time is an important tool in which we imbed past events. This is especially evident in secondary school history textbooks. I will be looking at the organization of time/periodizations of nationhood that is created in an essentialist manner giving examples from currently in use high school history textbooks in Armenia and Turkey. In nationalistic narratives of history textbooks the nation imposes a great power over time with its essentialist ideas of an ever existing and lasting nation.
Certainly, a historical phenomenon is encountered and recognized through a result appearing in historical sources. Understanding the historical fact contains contextualization or sometimes decontextualization that freezes time in a scene. Real-time happenings have many synchronic elements in multiple locations, but for the sake of narrative historians put this multiple dynamic information in order. The organization of time itself fails to acknowledge that there are many ways of conceptualizing time, and there is nothing universal about it. Paul Ricoeur argues, in Time and Narrative, this narrative creates an order of thing; the storytelling puts different and synchronic elements into a fictive line of order. This chronological order set essentialisms of various kinds like ultimate progressive, nationalistic or Eurocentric readings of precursors and origins. Thus, any chronological narrative needs a more liberal navigation in terms of time and space which still is very problematic even in academic research and certainly scarce in textbook narratives.
One of the main building blocks of chronology is time. Modern understanding of the concept of time is that it is an objective measurement item. Recently there has been a number of researches on temporalities. That is time is culturally and locally bound concept, and there is an individual experience of time. Doubtless, time has always been a concept that philosophers and historians pondered upon. Sometimes the answers were resting on scripture as the church fathers’ and sometimes on scientific theories such as light and space. For the famous Islamic thinker Muhammed bin Cerîr Taberî (839–923) started his universal history with the description of time. According to him God first created light and then the universe as space came into being. Likewise, the idea that time has a specific purpose to fulfil is an idea persisting from the ancient times to the modern times. The awareness of time also pertains an awareness of a historical past, as David Carr explains, “in a naïve and pre-scientific way the historical past is there for all of us, that it figures in our ordinary view of things whether we are historians or not.” So, is the idea of chronology and periodization that we can see in Christian Church Fathers like St Paul and St Augustine as well as medieval Islamic scholars.
Nonetheless, the modern understanding of a progressive chronology emanated during the nineteenth century institutionalization of history, or when it was dignified with the title of Wissenschaft. During this process there is a systematic development of cause and effect related chronologies accompanied by emphasis on archival precision and objectivity. As a matter of fact, the development of nation-states and ensuing rise of national histories with “from nations to statehood” chronologies played a key part.
In turkey students do not study history as a separate discipline-based course until secondary education (grades 9–12). There are two different history courses. A general “History” course (of which only 1/3 is non-Turkish History) and a “Revolution History of the Republic of Turkey and Ataturkism.” Elective courses are introduced in grade 11 like History 11 or “Contemporary Turkish and World History”. However, in Armenia the courses are devised as “World History” and “National History”. In this article for the purpose of comparison I will be only looking at the Turkish History course and its equivalent “Armenian History” course.
Firstly, in many history courses around the world lessons start first with the idea of time, chronology, and what history is. The internet is a rich domain where educational aids can be found, and detailed learning outcomes are given for the “introduction to history” lessons. The way to explain chronology starts with the word chronology it is said that it is made from two Greek words—chronos meaning time and logos (discourse or reasoning/working out). The giving a logos to time is explained as giving order to time. Students do activities where they learn the linear flow of time and making chronological timelines. The aim is to amplify the understanding of chronological reasoning, causes and effects. The basic learning outcome of this lesson are:
- To understand the meaning of the historical term—Chronology.
- To understand that the word Chronology derives from the Greek words chronos and logos.
- To be able to put times and dates into chronological order.
- To see that a timeline is a chronology of dates and events.
- To understand that a timeline is useful to give an overview of an historical period.
However, such a lesson on chronology does not exist in the textbooks in Armenia and Turkey. There is only one graph at the end of the 6th grade World History textbook in Armenia that shows a general chronology of civilizations which could be seen as relevant to the concepts of time and chronology. When asked, however, history teachers both from Armenia and Turkey said that although there is no specific lesson allocated for chronology they spend some time in class talking about it similarly to the above learning outcomes. They emphasised that this is needed since “the students do not have a sense of chronology.”
There is one mention of chronology, in the 9th grade introductory section in the Turkish textbooks. This is a general section on history as a science. It talks about historical narratives, historical thinking skills (cause and effect, time-space, chronology are mentioned here) objectivity and related sciences. According to the definition here “Chronology is also called as the science of time, sorts out the historical events correctly (aligns) and thus helps history.” It continues with stressing that “The most important aspect of science of history is the investigation of cause and effect relationship within a certain time and place, since this reveals continuity.” And furthermore, it points at a historicist approach saying that you need to deal with every historical fact within its own period. “The unfolding of history is related to the stage a society is positioned in—that is its progress and the environmental factors.” It repeats the “words scientific analyses” a couple of times. And concludes with saying that the unchanging elements of history are time and space, cause and effect and human beings. This reminds the learned reader of the geometry of forces of Hyppolyte Taine (1828–1893) and his description history as a science. His scientific inspiration was from physics and engineering, devising a system (complete with diagrams) of three forces shaping history which he called “a geometry of forces”—race, milieu, and moment. This scientifically put fact in fact makes and unmakes all our perception and claims of objective history (see the geometry of forces).
There are two main points relating to chronology and time in the description of “science of history” in the 9th grade textbook. We see that there is no problematization of chronology, periodization and history—except that it is bad to be subjective—and it simply confirms that any chronological sequencing should be accepted as default. The second point is that “In order to understand the concept of time we have to know the meaning of the words “before”, “after” and “now” and use it correctly within a sentence.” This, refers certainly to the logos of cause and effect as well as a linearity of historical narrative that evolves in a sequence.
Actually, these textbooks are great examples of how through method of emplotment the ‘simple’ chronological factual display of events turn into a highly opinionated—nationalist discourses. There is a strong dramatic arc within the narrative: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The presentation of an objective history under the semi-scientific outlook of a chronological order deploys a tale with the basics of plot: character development (show people and their institutions learning over time and the rise of some hero characters); and tension and release (or dialectic) (build up escalating problems, recount their resolution, and show how that resolution builds to new problems).
Let’s look in more detail to this unfolding history. Firstly, the textbooks are single line chronologies where we do not see any input relating to other groups, nations, ethnos. This in turn creates a single-voiced narrative, where other groups (than the main character/nation) are either excluded or silenced. For instance, in the Turkish textbooks peoples living in Anatolia before the Turks arrive are not mentioned (described generally as Byzantines) and there are no mention of Kurds or Alevis. Non-Muslims of the Ottoman Empire are described as living happily ever after within the just system of tolerance of the Ottomans until they start to stir things up and collaborate with enemies against the state. Other people’s voices are either barely heard or they are instrumentalized.
In the Turkish example non-Turkic people are mentioned as those who have either lost against the Turks, or as the enemies of the state. For instance, there is not much talk about other people/tribes, like the Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Georgians, Jews, or Alevis in the shared living space unless it is relevant to the state or cultural superiority of the Turks.
The founder of the Safavids, Shah Ismail, was very careful to get along with the Ottoman State at first. However, as he increased his power, he began to follow a propagation policy towards Anatolia. To fulfil his purpose, Shah Ismail sent propagandist and tried to spread Shiism in Anatolia, which he accepted as an official sect.
There are no events included to show the parallel developments of a Shia and Sunni Muslim world. Ottomans are assumed to be Sunni power from the very beginning. One major leitmotif throughout the ages is the concept of tolerance. Examples are given about tolerance with setting a contrast of European colonialism. The unchanging nature of the category of Turkish culture and state is tolerance.
Secondly, the books both in Turkey and Armenia follow a chronology of the ever-existing nation. It envisions events as part of a single temporal continuum with causal connections and history as a development through a unified and logical process. It is an essentialist and historicist narrative that links the ancient past to the present. It offers a line on which we see the ancient and perpetual Turkish or Armenian nation unchanged in time—the only changing elements here are the institutions in which these nations exist. In The section on Science of History, as mentioned before, the students learn that history is a continuum of events. The continuity drawn here as a chronological line gives in fact the idea of an unchanging, homogenous, state-oriented nation. This continuum starts with the ethno-genesis of the Turkic and Armenian nations in Asia and the Armenian highlands of Anatolia respectively and continues till Turkish and Armenian Republic as nation states. For example: “Armenians are the only indigenous Indo-European people who are formed in their pre-patria, never left it and have survived till nowadays.” Or “The absolute understanding of the freedom of the nation that was established in times immemorial is perpetual among our ancestors and reaches out days transmitted through blood.” In the Armenian textbook we see a chronology of dates of wars, and ongoing strive for national liberation. So modern concept like the nation travels on this chronological line in all directions. Another example of one chronological shifts and continuity of narrative in modern history of Armenia is “the short-lived national local authority in Van” (Resistance of Van/self-defense of Van against the Ottoman State in 1915) as the “precursor of the restored Armenian independence 3 years later” in 1918. We have to see that there is no territorial connection or there is also no distinction between nationalist/political movements between these two locations. In a sense chronology is used as a “prophesizing” instrument. In fact, geography has a similar function as Maria Karpetian points out. Although conquests of other people are referred to in the textbook the shape of Armenia, which is usually a borderless area spanning across the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands, remains intact.
Another striking issue of the chronologies both in the Turkish and Armenian textbooks is that they offer a great deal of examples such as uprisings and wars highlighting the perpetual existence of a national consciousness and a strong sense of freedom/the struggle for national liberation. In the Turkish textbooks we see that the Turkic tribes quickly evolve into a state building people.
The nation is presented in a chronology drawn from the whole story of the predecessor states of modern-day nation states of Turkey and Armenia. Chronological evolution leads teleologically from tribe to states and finally to the desired end: the nation state. The narrative always evolves around the plot of state building. Even at times where a state does not exist we have to understand that this is a preparatory state evolving into the natural state of statehood.
As a result, the important historical data chosen in the textbooks are generally political history such as wars. In the Turkish example, where there is no geographical continuity the shift from one geography to the other is explained within a heroic war/conquest story. The chronology simply follows the Turks, i.e. Turkic states on various geographies. We follow them from Central Asia to Anatolia. Thus, the whole story starts with the nation/tribe, they grow, form states, enemies or uprisings emerge, they subvert these, or are subverted and the story starts anew until the formation of the independent nation-state. And interestingly, all the different regions they inhabit are told as a father/motherland.
History provides nationalism with a certain notion of us, that textbook projects exploit freely. Whether constructed with a Marxist theory of the stages of history or linear progressive interpretations, the main actor of history, us/nation—as in its modern shape and definition—is represented as an eternal entity. It penetrates all epochs, even where statehood did not exist and at times reduces an Empire into a single nation. The organization of time in a reductionist manner serves an essentialism stigmatised in students’ memories omitting that these past social formations had different historical grounds of identity formation, for example sometimes based on religion and at other times based on different patrimonial ties. Certainly, “our only real connection to the historical past is the result of historical inquiry” whether it is ours or by others. Understanding the historical fact contains contextualization or sometimes decontextualization that freezes time in a scene. Whereas real-time happenings have many synchronic elements in multiple locations, but for the sake of narrative historians put this multiple dynamic information in order. The organization of time itself fails to acknowledge that there are many ways of conceptualizing time, and there is nothing universal about it.
One should, nevertheless, think of these textbooks within the confines of the aims of history described in the Armenian State Standard for history that actually can account for both Turkey and Armenia (both have definitions): to encourage a vision of “unity between the personal, societal, and national interests” (Government of Armenia 2010). In the high school level, this gets reinforced; students are supposed to graduate from high school “realizing the importance of harmony between personal, group, national, and state interests”, “having a state thinking and way of acting”, “patriotic and ready to defend the fatherland” (Government of Armenia 2010). The Turkish secondary school similarly describes in “The teaching Program” that the “General Objectives of Turkish National Education” should focus on educating students in “in love always seek to exalt their families, country and nation.”
These definitions themselves should be adequate to questions the whole idea of history teaching again. As Toynbee had said even though we present history of civilization or a nation on a linear time line, it is important to remind ourselves and the students that history is a constant movement where the direction or the texture of it cannot be confined within these limits. The multiplicity of time/historical layers disappear in such simplified chronological formations as in these textbooks. We need to think about how the chronologies in textbooks can be altered so that they actually do reflect some aspects of historical development, make students ask questions rather than have monolithic answers. The horizontal drawing of chronology needs to be replaced. We need to begin to think of vertical systems where we can place time layers, but this is the topics of another paper.
* I am indebted to colleagues both from Armenia (especially for translations from Armenian) and Turkey I have worked with in the project “Politics of Memory and Forgetting: Network and Capacity-Building for Historians Committed to Combatting Hate Speech in the Field of Education in the Context of Armenia-Turkey Relations”. Funded by Hrant Dink Foundation the Programme Support to the Armenia-Turkey Normalisation Process: Stage Two, financed by the European Union.
 Cartton: Ken Durr, A Beginning, a Middle, and an End: The Difference between Chronology and History, last modified June 24, 2005, https://www.historyassociates.com/resources/blog/a-beginning-a-middle-and-an-end-the-difference-between-chronology-and-history/.
 Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. I (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990), 3, 14, 65.
 Taberi, Tarik Al-Rusul Wa-l Muluk Al Taberi, The History of Al-Taberi: An Annotated Translation, vol. I (New York: State University of New York), 172–187.
 David Carr, Time Narrative and History (Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1981), 3.
 Information on these have been taken from workshop booklet.
 “Chronology – Lesson Plan,” last modified November 2000, accessed November 8, 2017, https://www.historyonthenet.com/chronology-lesson-plan/.
 Babken Harutyunyan, Vladimir Barkhudaryan, Igit Gharibyan, and Petros Hovhannisyan, Armenian History. Ancient and Old Period. Grade 6 Textbook (Yerevan: Manmar, 2013). http://books.dshh.am/books/lavz/#p=2 (in Armenian), 152–53.
 Maria Karapetyan and Lilit Mkrtchyan, “Chronology,” email, November 9, 2017.
 Behçet Önder, History, Grade 9 (Ankara: Birkay, 2016), 13, 20.
 Önder, History, Grade 9 (see note 8), 20.
 Sami Tüysüz, History, Grade 10, trans. Firat Güllü (Ankara: Tuna, 2016), 68.
 Tüysüz, History (see note 11), 27.
 Ashot Melkonyan, Vladimir Barkhudaryan, Gagik Harutyunyan, Pavel Chbanyan, Aram Simonyan, and Aram Nazaryan, Armenian History. Grade 11. (Yerevan: Zangak, 2015), Report 51.
 Carr, Time Narrative (see note 4), 2.
Arnold J. Toynbee, “Introduction: The Geneses of Civilizations,” A Study of History, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951).
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