Armenian Life Returns to Diyarbakir

St. Giragos Church, located within the historic walls of the city of Diyarbakir, has been renovated. (photo by armradio.am)


St. Giragos Church, located within the historic walls of the city of Diyarbakir, has been renovated. (photo by armradio.am)

17/10/13

It was on a hot Sunday in the summer when I visited St. Giragos Church, located  within the historic walls of the city of Diyarbakir. A small crowd gathered  inside the building, which had recently been renovated. That morning, I not only got the chance to meet new people, but  was also acquainted with new ways of self-identifying.

I met Ramzi Demir, a construction-equipment vendor and Kurdish Muslim who is  well aware of his Armenian roots. I also met Chetin Yilmaz, an ethnic Turk  from the city of Gallipoli. Yilmaz was sent to the southeast of the country to  teach Turkish “to help Kurds be good Turkish citizens. However, they opted for  the Christian religion instead,” as he put it.

A group of young people visiting the church included Nisreen and Habon, who  decided to come after they discovered their Armenian origins. I also met Armin  Demerjian, the deacon of the Church of St. Giragos. He was once called Abdur  Rahim Zorusselan, before he returned to his original religion. Armin welcomed me  with a joyful grin and told me in Armenian, “Welcome, my little brother!”

Demerjian is in his mid 50s. He was born in the town of Liga, north of  Diyarbakir, from where his ancestors hail. His family was exterminated during  the massacres of 1915, but a five-year-old child named Hocep survived, saved by influential Turkish tribal leader in the region, Haji Zubair.

When Hocep grew up, his name was changed to Abdullah. He converted to Islam  and married the daughter of Haji Zubair. He became a famous baker in the town of  Liga. Everyone saw him as a good Armenian man.

I walked with Armin around the church. The building, which was meticulously  built seven centuries ago, has been renovated, adding a touch of beauty to the  impoverished neighborhood. We went to a hall where the walls were decorated with  photographs of the Armenian way of life in Diyarbakir before the great massacre.  There hung a photo of two Armenian schools, one for boys and one for girls, and  a photo of the newspaper Independent Tigris with pictures of craftsmen,  coppersmiths, jewelry makers, weavers and a brass band. There was also an old  postcard in French portraying the Armenian neighborhood and the high church bell  towers. The black-and-white photographs created a sad memorial, not only because  they brought back memories of the past, but because they remind us that an entire way of life has  been wiped away.

There was once a large Armenian community in Diyarbakir. Most of its members  were craftsmen and traders. In 1915, when the Committee of Union and Progress,  the powerful party that pushed the Ottoman Empire to fight in the First World  War, decided to get rid of the Armenians living in the empire. Approximately  120,000 Armenians in the province were sent outside the city walls and  massacred. The survivors, mostly women and orphans, went to camps in the Syrian  desert. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Armenians living in villages and towns in  the province moved to Diyarbakir to form a new, small community. More left the villages after the war broke out in the  southeast of the country between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish  army. Today, a descendant of the survivors is forming a new Armenian community  in this historic city.

When I started to take pictures, Armin grabbed an Armenian-language  instruction book and held it to his chest in front of the camera.

Armin’s son, Hassan Zor Aslan, recently finished his university education  and wants to become a teacher. He is fluent in English and Turkish, and his  mother tongue is Kurdish. When coffee was served, Hassan did not take a cup. It  was Ramadan, and Hassan was fasting. While his father was forced to rediscover  his Armenian past and deep Christian roots, Hassan, 21, found  his path through Islam.

“We are Muslims, but we know that we are Armenians,” he told me. In 2006,  when the students of Diyarbakir revolted against the Turkish police and the army  there, Hassan was sent to his uncle’s house in the town of Bursa in western  Turkey to continue his education away from the trouble.

Hassan continued, “I faced an identity crisis there. There, I decided to be  a Muslim.” It was there that he also decided to become a professor. When asked  how he sees his father, who returned to the Armenian Apostolic Church, he said,  “I am happy to see my father getting back in touch with his Armenian identity.  However, I am afraid not only of the state but also of militant  groups.”

Gafur Torqay is the one who pushed for the renovation of the church. His  story is no different from those of the others. His father is called Ba Ohanian,  and he hails from the mountainous area of Sason, northeast of Diyarbakir. During  the genocide, everyone there was killed, and only three children survived: a  girl and two boys. The girl became a refugee in Syria and emigrated from there  to Armenia, while the boys remained in Turkey and converted to Islam.

He proudly stated, “Thanks to the two boys, the number of our family members  reached 500. These boys spoke Kurdish at home, but when they were sent to school  they were prohibited from speaking the Kurdish and Armenian languages and forced  to communicate in Turkish.” Gafur criticized Turkish naturalization policies,  saying, “After being forced to become a Kurd, we were taught how to become  Turks.”

Furthermore, with the emergence of the Kurdish national identity in the past  decade, Armenian descendants who had changed their religion claimed their right  to the Armenian identity regardless of religious affiliation.

Gafur recalls the first time he visited St. Giragos Church in the 1980s.  Back then, there were 30 families living in the vicinity of the Armenian church  in the Sur District of Diyarbakir, known as the Infidels District. This is also  the title of a novel written by Mgrdich Margossian, who wrote about the life of  the Armenian community.

In this city, Gafur met his wife and his family. He believes that the  renovation of the church — which was destroyed after the departure of the last  Armenian family — is the most important step yet. The church has been renovated  thanks to the efforts of a small group of people who exerted tremendous efforts  to collect the necessary funds. The municipality of Diyarbakir, controlled by  the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, paid a third of the renovation costs. The  church was reopened in October 2011, with thousands of Armenians coming from all  over the world to participate in the event.

Today, the Diyarbakir municipality has begun organizing classes to teach the  Armenian language. In 2012, 35 students were registered in language classes and  in the following year this number rose to 65. Gafur pointed out that 80% of the  students are Muslim Armenians, while there is a Christian or Kurdish Armenian minority.

Gafur recalled how his neighbors found out he was of Armenian descent and  how they thought that he and his family had converted to another religion.  Families with Armenian roots try to arrange marriages among themselves, he  added, stressing, “We are the third generation after the genocide. The second  generation knew nothing about Armenian heritage. They were afraid. If we do not  act to revive the Armenian identity here, we will lose it.” He hopes that the  young people of Armenian descent rediscover their original identity and Armenian  culture without questioning their Islamic religious identity.

From there, Gafur took me to St. Sarkis Church. At the entrance, we could  see that a Kurdish family had taken residence in the few rooms that remained  undestroyed. The architectural style is reminiscent of St. Giragos with its  beautiful domes, though wrecked. Projects are in the works for the renovation of  this church, too.

At the altar, Gafur pointed to a hole and angrily said, “They are trying to  find gold. I was here two weeks ago; this hole was not there.” Similar holes can  be found in Armenian churches across eastern Turkey as residents still search  for old Armenian gold after 98 years.

Then we headed to the Armenian cemetery. Years ago, the famous musician Aram  Dikran wanted to be buried there after his death, but the Turkish state did not  allow it. Today, two stones are placed as a sign for the chosen cemetery of Aram  Dikran

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