Diyarbakir, Turkey — I went to visit the newly renovated church of Surp Giragos inside the historic walls of Diyarbakir on a hot summer Sunday. A small crowd was gathered. I met new people, but also new identities.
Remzi Demir, a construction material merchant with a strong Kurdish identity was a Muslim, but very aware of his Armenian origins. Çetin Yilmaz, a Turk from Gallipoli, who was sent to the southeast as a Turkish language teacher “to make good Turks out of Kurds”, told that instead he converted to Christianity. Nesrin and Hebun, with a group of young people, had decided to visit the church after discovering their Armenian ancestry. And Armen Demirjian, the deacon of Surp Giragos, had been called Abdulrahim Zoraslan before converting “back”. He received me with a wide, joyful smile and a greeting, parev aghparig (“hello little brother”), in Armenian.
Demirjian is in his mid fifties. He was born in Lice, a town north of Diyarbakir. His grandfather’s family was annihilated during the 1915 massacres, save for a five-year-old boy, Hovsep, who was saved by the powerful Kurdish agha (tribal leader) of the region, Haji Zubayr. When Hovsep grew up his name was changed to Abdullah, his religion to Islam, and eventually he married the daughter of Haji Zubayr. He became known as a baker in Lice, and everyone remembered him as a good Muslim — but also as an Armenian.
Demirjian took me round the church. The seventh-century edifice has been renovated with care, creating a place of beauty in an impoverished neighbourhood. In one hall, there was an exhibition of photographs showing the life of Armenians from Diyarbakir before the calamity that befell them: there was a photo of the two Armenian schools, where boys and girls were educated together; a reproduction of Angakh Dikris (Independent Tigris) newspaper; pictures of craftsmen such as copper-workers, jewellers, carpet wavers, and even a brass-band. An old postcard in French of “Diarbékir-Amida” depicts the Armenian neighbourhood with the church’s tall bell tower. The black-and-white pictures have an air of melancholy, a remembrance of time past and lost, and of how a whole way of life was suddenly erased.
Diyarbakir had a large Armenian community, mostly craftsmen, artisans and merchants. In 1915, the 120,000 Armenians of the province were rounded up, taken outside the city walls and killed. The few survivors, mostly women and orphans, ended up in camps in the Syrian desert. In the 1920s and 1930s, Armenians who had survived in provincial towns and villages, moved to Diyarbakir to form a new, small community. They too left the city as the southeast became a terrain of war — this time between the guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish army. Now, the grandchildren of the survivors are forming a new Armenian community.
Demirjian’s son Hasan Zoraslan, 21, has just finished teachers training college and wants to be a teacher. He is fluent in English, Turkish and his mother tongue, Kurdish. When coffee was served Hasan passed: it was Ramadan and he was fasting. While his father was engaged by force in rediscovering his Armenian past, with its deep roots in Christianity, Hasan was discovering morality through Islam. “We are Muslims,” Hasan told me, “but we also know that we are Armenian.”
In 2006, when Diyarbakir held student protests against Turkish police and army presence, Hasan was sent to an uncle in Bursa, in western Turkey, to continue his studies away from trouble. “I went through an identity crisis. And I decided I should become a pious Muslim.” He also decided to become a teacher. What does he think about his father converting to the Armenian Apostolic Church? “I was happy to see my father returning to his Armenian identity, only I was afraid for him — not just because of the authorities, but also radical groups.”
Gafur Türkay is behind the church restoration. His story is like many others. His grandfather, Ohanian, was from Sasun, a mountainous region to the northeast of Diyarbekir. During the genocide, the large clan was decimated. Only three children survived: a daughter who became a refugee in Syria and from there migrated to Armenia, and two sons who remained in Turkey and converted to Islam. Türkay says proudly: “From those two boys the family grew to five hundred!” They speak Kurdish at home, but were forbidden to speak Kurdish at school — and naturally not Armenian — only Turkish. Criticizing Turkish nationalizing policies, he said: “After forcibly becoming Kurdish, then they had still to learn how to become Turkish!”
Religion and language have always been two essential markers of Armenian identity. For long centuries the definition of Armenian was closely associated with the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the religious communities (millet in Turkish) of the Ottoman Empire. Following the start of anti-Armenian persecution under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, which grew into mass murder under the Young Turks in the First World War, large numbers of Armenians converted to Islam to survive. In the last decade, with the rise of Kurdish national identity, the grandchildren of converts are re-claiming the right to claim their Armenianness, regardless of their religious belonging.
Türkay remembers the first time he visited the Church of Surp Giragos in the 1980s. At the time, there were thirty Armenian families living around the church, in the Sur neighbourhood of Diyarbakir known as Gavur Mahallesi (“infidel neighbourhood”). (It is also the title of a novel by Megerdich Margosian describing the life of the Armenian community.) It was here that Türkay met his wife and her family. He considers the most important step was the renovation of the church, which had been left in ruins after the departure of the last remaining families. The church was renovated through the efforts of a handful of people who made huge efforts to collect funds. Diyarbakir municipality, which is under the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), paid a third of the renovation costs. It was re-opened in October 2011, with thousands of Armenians coming from all over the world.
With the financial support of the Diyarbakir municipality, Armenian language courses started to be given. In 2012 there were 35 students; in the following year their number increased to 65. According to Türkay, 80% of the students are Muslim Armenians, a minority being either Christian Armenians or Kurds.
Türkay remembers how, when he grew up, their neighbours knew they were Armenians, and looked down at them as dönme or converts. Families of Armenian ancestry tried to match their children for marriage. Türkay said: “We are the third generation after the genocide. The second generation did not know anything (about their Armenian heritage), they were afraid. If we do not act to revive Armenian identity here, it will be lost.” His wish is that young people of Armenian origin re-discover their original identity, the Armenian culture, without questioning their religious — or Muslim — identity.
Türkay took me to the Surp Sarkis Church. In the entrance a Kurdish family inhabits the few surviving rooms. The architecture style reminds you of that of Surp Giragos, with beautiful vaults, though in ruins. There are projects to renovate this church as well. At the place of the altar there is a newly dug hole. “They are looking for gold again!” said Türkay in anger. “I was here two weeks ago and the hole was not here.” One sees similar holes in and around Armenian churches all over eastern Turkey: 98 years later local inhabitants are still searching for legendary Armenian gold.
We went to the Armenian cemetery. Some years back, when the famous musician Aram Dikran died, he wanted to be buried here. The Turkish state did not authorise it. Now, two stones stand in the cemetery as a simple marker of Dikran’s grave.