Asset 3


End of content No more pages to load

Your search did not match any articles

Hrant Gadarigian

Yerevan to Diyarbekir and Back: Reconnecting with a Fading Past

Last week I and two friends hopped in a Japanese jeep and headed off from Yerevan for the reopening of the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Kirakos in Diyarbekir, Turkey.

The only reason I mention that the jeep was of Japanese manufacture is because the wheel is located on the right side. This served to constantly amaze curious onlookers as we winded our way through the mountains and valleys of eastern Anatolia.

Even though I had travelled to Turkey before (Istanbul, Ankara, Van), it was always by plane. Now, I'd get a chance to see the people and landscape up-close and in person.

Turkey by Way of Javakhk

Given that Turkey refuses to open its border with Armenia, we had to first head to Georgia and the border crossing with Turkey at Posof.

We travelled through the Armenian region of Javakhk, stopping for some eye drops for our driver, a French-Armenian photo-journalist, in Akhalkalak.

Some locals gathered round and asked who we were and where we were headed. They noted that the western Armenian we spoke reminded them of their own dialect, given that many in the district trace their roots back to Erzeroum.

There’s a closer border crossing with Turkey at Akhalkalak but it too is closed. Local Armenians couldn’t tell us why.

We passed through the larger town of Akhaltskha and then climbed the mountains to Posof. Things went smoothly until the Turkish customs officials told us that the jeep had to be inspected. It was a very thorough search and my friend Max said it was the first inspection he had ever been subjected to in his many trips to Turkey by the same route.

Given the green light, we drove in the approaching darkness bypassing the old fortress town of Kars and the battlefield of Sarikamish, site of the WWI battle between the Ottoman and Russian armies.

Erzeroum: An Armenian Neighborhood in the Old Quarter

Tired and bleary-eyed we finally reached Erzeroum late that night and were fortunate to get a room for the three of us at the local dormitory for visiting Turkish teachers and college instructors.

At this point, I should mention that the third member of the group was Khachik, a former Istanbul-Armenian who moved to Armenia some twenty years ago. He was to serve as our resourceful translator, my Turkish being rudimentary at best.

When we awoke the next morning, the city was covered in a blanket of snow. It was still falling when we headed to the dormitory cafeteria for a breakfast of olives, cheese and tea. The latter beverage is a staple in the eastern districts of Turkey and served in small cylindrical glasses.

Luckily, Max had also brought alone a small coffee maker that proved invaluable to a morning coffee addict like myself.

Before heading off, Max took us to an old Erzeroum neighbourhood of semi-ruined stone buildings. He’d visited the place before on a prior trip. Max claimed it was a former Armenian neighbourhood.

Presently, the entire neighbourhood is slated to be razed by the Erzeroum Municipality. Those still living there are being bought out by the local government.

I and Khachik tramped around the empty streets, trying to keep warm, while the ever intrepid Max disappeared around a corner searching for his next big photo.

Heading South to Bingyol and Diyarbekir

After an hour or two, we bundled into the car and took the southerly road out of Erzeroum. Our next stop would be Bingyol. The ascending route through the mountains proved treacherous due to the snowy conditions. Periodic road construction made the passage even worse.

The snow finally let up as we approached the small town of Bingyol – inspiration for the famous melancholy song of lament and loss whose first line goes, “Dear sister, can you tell me the way to Bingyol”.

We stopped for something to eat in this overwhelmingly Kurdish populated community. Max also wanted to buy a cheap pair of shoes. The pair he had on in Erzeroum were soaked to the core due to the slushy streets. Hey, what did he expect, the soles already had holes in them.

The landscape had changed to a series of mostly treeless valleys and sloping hills. The expanses were vast and scenic. A lost paradise?

A bit of etymology regarding the name.  Following the Arab conquests in the 7th century, the Arab Bekr tribe occupied this region, which became known as became known as the Diyar-ı Bekir (landholdings of the Bekr tribe). In 1937, Atatürk had the city renamed Diyarbakır, which remains its current name.                                                       

It’s the unofficial capital of Turkey’s Kurdish regions with a population of just over 800,000.

As to why Armenians call the city “Dikranagerd” remains somewhat puzzling. I read in Wikipedia that Armenian historians once theorized that the city was the site of the ancient Armenian city of the same name and that by the 19th century Armenian residents were using the name. Maybe readers of this will have other hypotheses.

We got a room in a hotel down a narrow alleyway off the main square in the old part of town. The alleyway was so narrow that an athletic person might have been able to jump from our hotel window to that of the hotel across the way.

Amid – City on the Tigris

It was Wednesday, the 19th. We could already spot the Armenians from Istanbul and elsewhere walking around the streets of the old town. I mean, even to the untrained eye, they and we, stuck out like sore thumbs.

Max, carrying around his camera with the protruding lens, became a constant magnet for the street kids looking for a handout. These were children ranging in age from 5 to 8 or nine; tops.

“Hello”, “English, English” or “Money, please”, were just a few of the lines the kids used as they approached. They probably learned them from the older kids who were now working in the market stalls as porters or tea shops as waiters. However, I did spot some really young kids pushing around wooden trolleys to transport a variety of items through the cobblestone streets.

After checking in, we made our way to the district where St. Kirakos is located. Max was again on the lookout for some good photos and the local residents seemed to oblige his request to be captured on film. Many invited him in to their courtyards as he poked his head in this any open door.

We stumbled upon the Syrian Orthodox Church and entered the large garden. There we met some Armenian women who had travelled from the Syrian town of Khamishli on the Turkish border for the church celebrations.

We talked to an Armenian man in his 50’s who was born in Diyarbekir but now lives in Istanbul. In fact, most people we talked to said that there were at most just a handful of Armenians, mostly elderly, left in the city. Two were serving as caretakers at the Chaldean Church.

It was then off to St. Kirakos where we met Aram the local caretaker. Aram says that he is Armenian on one side of the family. I can’t remember which. An energetic, affable man in his 40’s, Aram was supervising the preparation for Saturday’s re-consecreation of the church and Sunday’s religious service.

And there was a lot still to be done. Construction material was scattered all about the church courtyard. Aram assured us that local workers would be hired to clear it all away in time.

Lice – Islamicised Armenians and a Ruined Church

Before leaving him to it, Max asked Aram if he could direct us to any nearby villages where Islamicized Armenians were known to reside. He said there were plenty and promised to provide us with details and some contacts.

True to his word, the next day we were met by a relative of Aram’s who offered to take us to a cluster of villages near the town of Lice, midway along the Diyarbekir to Bingyol highway.

There we met with several “Kurdicized” Armenians who told us that their grandparents or great-grandparents, mostly on the maternal side, were indeed Armenian. These local residents were the offspring of young Armenian girls taken during the massacres and winding up as brides.

That was the extent of their Armenian identity – little else was passed down through the generations. It wasn’t exactly prudent to identify yourself as Armenian during a period when the young Turkish republic was embarking on a state policy of Turkish national consolidation.

These “Armenians” that we met along the way appeared uncomfortable talking to us regarding such issues in the presence of their Kurdish neighbors. It was only when we split away from the larger group that they opened up to us.

One could sense that something was different in their manner as well. They were animated and expressive, even the woman, in the presence of three male foreigners who had entered their closeted rural world.

When we told them we had come from Armenia they asked questions and even wanted to know what “Jerevan” was like.

Aram’s relative escorted us to a ruined structure that closely resembled an Armenian church atop a hill. Its name and history was a mystery even to him. All he could tell us was that the area once boasted a large Armenian presence. Few traces, if any, remain today.

We returned to Diyarbekir, leaving our newly found compatriots behind but not forgotten.

Mardin: A Mountain Fortress

The next day we decided to head south, to the ancient city of Mardin, perched high on a rocky mountain overlooking the plains on northern Syria.

 During 1915-1916, Arab, Assyrian/Syriac and Armenian Christians of all denominations were massacred or driven away. No Armenians are said to live in Mardin today.

The city is a series of ascending terraces and narrow streets with passageways leading up to the next level. Scattered about in the narrow alleys are craftsmen plying their trades in small shops – woodworkers, tinsmiths, jewelers, blacksmiths... The entire old city is a jumbled mosaic of homes, shops, mosques and churches – the latter mainly Syrian Orthodox.

There is however the St. George (Sourp Kevork) Armenian Church in Derik, a western district of Mardin Province, that still stands. In 2006, Archbishop Mesrop Mutafyan, Patriarch of Istanbul, visited the church in Derik and spoke with the last three remaining Armenians - Kevork, Naif, and his wife, Srpuhi, Demirci. Are they still there? Never making it to Derik, we cannot say.

St. Kirakos: What Future Awaits the Church?

On Saturday, the day of the re-consecration of the restored 16th century St. Kirakos Church, it was standing room only. There were local dignitaries, top ranking clergy and other invited guests including former foreign minister of Armenia and the leader of Armenia’s Heritage Party, Raffi Hovhannisian, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardione, Dositheos Anagnostopulos, spokesperson for the Istanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Yusuf Çetin, patriarchal vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Istanbul, Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir and Sur Mayor Abdullah Demirbaş.

Walking around the side of St. Kirakos, event organizers had installed a series of pictorial panels displaying the former presence of Armenians in Diyarbekir. The pictures and text reminded visitors that Armenians played a leading role in the arts and trades and other sectors.

I picked up a leaflet entitled “What sort of place was Diyarbakir in 1869?” The population of the city was broken down according to religion. Out of a total population of 21,372 souls, 6,853 were adherents of the Armenian Apostolic Church and 831 were Armenian Catholics. Thus, 1/3 of residents were Armenian. 9,814 were listed as Muslim, not specifying nationality. The remainder was an assortment of Assyrians, Assyrian Catholics, Keldani, Greeks, Protestants and Jews.

The leaflet notes that there were four Armenian schools and four Christian cemeteries. No traces exist today. If memory serves me correctly, one of the posters noted that Dicle University, on the eastern outskirts of Diyarbekir, was built on the site of a former Armenian village.

On Sunday, the Divine Liturgy was offered at St. Kirakos for the first time in over thirty years.

During WWI, the church was “appropriated” by the German military as a command center. It was the used as an apparel depot by the state-owned Sümerbank until 1950. The church was then handed back to the Armenian community, following a long legal battle.

The church went into disuse and disrepair in the enduing decades as the Armenian community dwindled in numbers. Many moved to Istanbul or further afield. Some made the return trip to their hometown just to be present for the church’s reopening.

And it is a massive structure covering 3,200 square meters that can accommodate 3,000 people. Who will use it (there are no Armenians left in Diyarbekir) and how it will be used remains an open question.

(To be continued)

Comments (2)

Thanks CK - what was I thinking of?
Thank you for sharing your trip with us.

Write a comment

Hetq does not publish comments containing offensive language or personal attacks. Please criticize content, not people. And please use "real" names, not monikers. Thanks again for following Hetq.
If you found a typo you can notify us by selecting the text area and pressing CTRL+Enter