Evolving Armenian Realities and the Surp Giragos Dikranagerd Church
By: Raffi Bedrosyan
I would like to share my thoughts about Armenian realities—evolving ones, forgotten ones, and new ones.
Until 20 years ago, the Armenian reality was mainly Soviet Armenia and the diaspora. Then, a double miracle happened and we had a free and independent Armenia and Karabagh, creating a new reality, which became the triangle of Armenia, Karabagh, and the diaspora. And yet, throughout the past century, there’s been an often forgotten or dismissed reality—the Armenians remaining in Turkey. This is a tiny community of about 60,000, generally called Bolsahays as they live mostly in Istanbul, which was the intellectual, cultural, political, industrial, and social center for Armenians before 1915. Although they are called Bolsahays, they come mostly from the historic homeland, where they lived continuously for more than 3,000 years. These people are not exactly diasporan or Hayasdantsi. So, how do you define them? Where do we place them in the Hayasdan-Artsakh-Spyurk triangle? I suggest placing them in the middle, in the heart of the triangle. Let me explain.
For almost a century now, despite the hardships, pain, and grief caused by the Turkish state, despite the discrimination, harassment, and insults hurled at them by the general Turkish population, these Armenians have continued to preserve their identity and carry the heavy burden of protecting the legacy and heritage left behind by their ancestors, at least in Istanbul, keeping an open and active the Armenian Patriarchate, more than 30 churches, nearly 20 schools, and 2 hospitals. Until recently their efforts were all managed defensively, in a survival mode, until one Armenian, originally from Malatya, stood up in Istanbul and called upon the Turks and Turkish state to face their past, stop falsifying historical facts, and talk about the remaining Armenians. He stood up as an advocate of dialogue and a bridge between Turks and Armenians. Unfortunately, the enormous impact of Hrant Dink’s critical message and the new reality was only understood after his murder.
Around the same time, another Armenian in Istanbul, this time from Dikranagerd/Diyarbakir, stood up and declared that the historic Surp Giragos Church had to be reconstructed. This church, with its seven altars and capacity of 3,000 people—the biggest Armenian church in the Middle East—was partially destroyed by cannon fire in 1915 and left in ruins, on its last legs after its roof collapsed. Until recently, the Turkish state had not allowed even minor repairs to the Armenian schools and churches in Istanbul, let alone the full reconstruction of a historic church in Anatolia. And yet, Vartkes Ergun Ayik persevered; he hired expert architects, historians, and builders, obtained all the required permits and approvals, and even more incredibly, convinced the Diyarbakir municipal government to pay for one third of the church’s reconstruction. The construction is now underway, with two thirds completed, and more than half of the financing also secured.
This church had more than 200 deeds showing that a significant portion of the Diyarbakir city center belonged to the church prior to 1915. At present, several apartment buildings, state schools, offices, and shops are on these lands. So, the long and difficult process has begun, to reclaim these lands and properties by their rightful owner, the Surp Giragos Church.
This is the first time Armenians have begun to reconstruct a building in their ancestral homeland. It is the first time they have claimed the land and properties from their ancestral homeland, after losing them in 1915. This is a new reality.
Another new reality is how this church is helping shape public opinion in Turkey. Whoever sees the Surp Giragos Church, whether in person or through the media, keeps asking, “Where are the people that belonged to this church?” “Where are they now?” “Where did they go, and why?” The ever-changing and most recent version of the official Turkish state history claims that Armenians revolted on the eastern front during World War I to join the Russians and that, as a result, the Ottoman state temporarily deported them from only the “eastern war zones” to the south toward the Syrian desert. But Diyarbakir was not in the eastern front, nor in the war zone; nor was there any Armenian revolt. As these facts become evident, Turkish citizens—both Turks and Kurds—have started to question the falsified history. Still a tiny percentage, there is nevertheless an ever-increasing number of Turkish citizens, especially of the younger generations, who have started “seeking the truth” and demanding that the state face its past and stop its denialist policies. There are also Turkish citizens who are fully aware of the truth, and have developed a guilty conscience about their ancestor’s past evil deeds. This year, the April 24, 1915 events were commemorated in five Turkish cities, including Diyarbakir. This is another new reality.
The church, when reconstruction is completed, will become a historic destination of pilgrimage for all Armenians—a memorial and reminder of the past Armenian presence in Anatolia, and a hope for the future.
Armenians are few in number, and Bolsahays are even fewer, but by engaging in a dialogue with liberal-minded Turks and Kurds eager for the democratization of Turkey, and through cooperation with their colleagues in the media, academia, law, construction, finance, and political fields, these few Armenians remaining in Turkey are learning how to undo past wrongs much more effectively than the diaspora. No matter how often Diaspora Armenians gather together to hear their leaders give speeches demanding the return of their lands or to stop the denial, the deeds and results achieved inside Turkey are much louder than the words outside. The diaspora’s efforts surely serve a useful purpose in helping younger Armenian generations keep their identity, or even in reminding foreign politicians of the past injustices, but in terms of reversing these injustices, the Armenians remaining in Turkey are starting to play a vital role through dialogue and cooperation with their fellow Turkish citizens.
The Armenians in Turkey, therefore, deserve the maximum support of their fellow Armenians in the diaspora and Armenia. And this is the most important new Armenian reality.
If you are interested in supporting this project, you can send your tax deductible donations, payable to Toronto Holy Trinity Armenian Church, at the following address:
Surp Giragos Dikranagerd Church Reconstruction Committee c/o Raffi Bedrosyan, 40 Strathearn Blvd. Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5P 1T1