Renovations at the Armenian St. Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church in Diyarbakir are in full swing and the grand official reopening of the massive 15th century structure is scheduled for the fall of this year.
Our group of ten Armenian and Turkish journalists was allowed to enter the site for just ten minutes. Diyarbekir Mayor Osman Baydemir assured us that the church would have a cross at the top of the dome. “It wouldn’t be a church without a cross just like a mosque must have a minaret,” said Mayor Baydemir.
Next week a delegation from the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate will arrive in Diyarbekir to discuss details regarding the opening ceremonies. Guests from Armenia as well will be on hand for the gala event.
Mayor Baydemir told us that guests from Armenia and Turkey will be invited and that the event will help spur normalization of relations between the two countries.
St. Giragos is the largest church in all the Middle East and wall inscription date its construction to 1515-1518. It has been renovated several times over the decades.
The first bell tower of the church was built in 1884 (cast by the world famous Zildjian Company), making it the tallest structure in Diyarbekir.
The complex sprawls over 3,200 square meters and includes priests’ houses, chapels and a school. The church was seized by the German army in 1913 and served as their local headquarters until 1918, when it was converted into a fabric warehouse.
In 1915, the 29 meter high dome with its gold cross was destroyed by Turkish cannon fire for being taller than the surrounding minarets.
In the 1950s, the church was reopened and returned to the Armenian community in the 1960, but lapsed into disrepair after surviving Armenians moved away in the ensuing decades. By the 1980s, there were only five Armenian families left in the province; now, however, there is just one.
St. Giragos Armenian Church Foundation Chairman Ergun Ayik noted “Churches normally have one altar but St. Giragos has seven altars. Its original roof was covered with the earth from around the region. We will do it again. The earth has been stripped of seeds to prevent the growth of plants. It should also be vented regularly, every year.”
The Istanbul Armenian Foundation coordinated the church’s restoration, drawing funds from diaspora Armenians, as well as the Diyarbekir Metropolitan Municipality, which is expected to meet one-third of the $3.5 million restoration budget. Chairman Ayik noted turn one of the chapels will be turned into a museum.
“We will display the lifestyle of Diyarbekir’s Armenians. There will also be concerts and exhibitions. In this way, the church will be able to finance itself,” he said.
St. Giragos will remain in the possession of the Armenian community after restoration is complete, unlike the Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar.