The Rebirth of Surp Giragos
From ruins to ‘Pari Yegak Tser Duni’!
By Roni Alasor / Ararat News Publishing
Diyarbekir / Dikranegert - 25 October 2011 - Last weekend one of the largest, historical and architecturally unique Armenian Churches in the Middle East, Surp Giragos, opened its doors once more for Divine Liturgy in Diyarbekir. A new page has been written in Diyarbekir’s history, a city which during many thousands years has been in the hands of nearly 30 different ‘civilisations’ or ‘barbarians’. The Assyrian-Syriacs called the city Amid, the Romans-Byzantines called it Amida, Armenians - Dikranegert and Kurds – Amed. And now, the Kurdish local authorities are preparing to rename the city “Tigran Amed”, if Ankara will let them.
The 1850 km long Tigris River which gives life to millions of people through the north and south Mesopotamia is passing just outside Diyarbekir. The city was rich with its Christian Armenian and Assyrian-Syriac- Chaldean communities for many thousands of years, has been occupied and destroyed by Arabs and Islamic armies, then controlled by Turkish-Ottomans over the course of 500 years. The Kurds, who have always lived in the area with Christians neighbours, had power over the city and the region during the Marwanid period – a Kurdish Dynasty which ruled from 990 to 1085 AC. Today the city and its region are inhabited by nearly 2 million Kurdish civilians and more than 100.000 Turkish security forces.
The history of Diyarbekir, like many ancient cities in the world, is steeped in blood, a sad reality that continues up to the present day. During the 1990s several hundred Kurdish activists, students, journalists, teachers, lawyers and writers were killed in Diyarbekir’s streets by “unknown” killers, though most agree this to have been the work of the Turkish Hizbullah and paramilitary forces. Between forty to fifty thousand Kurds and Turks have been killed in the war during the last 30 years alone. The present day struggle between Kurds and the Turkish state is the twenty ninth Kurdish uprisings since the Armenian genocide in 1915.
It is a bright sunny day and we are walking in the historical part of Diyarbekir to witness the opening of the Surp Giragos, one of the most unique Armenian Churches in the Middle East. The ancient city is surrounded by a wall 3-5 meters wide, 10-12 meters high and 5.5 km long, which makes it the second longest wall in the world after China wall. Diyarbekir’s wall is now in the list of UNESCO world heritage.
Kurdish Sofi was calm with the Christian Armenian Hripsime Erniasyan and with her cross. - “The Armenian genocide took some years, but our genocide is continuing already 100 years”, says one old Kurdish man, Merwan.
This capital city of the Kurdish Region is, for now at least, peaceful during our visit. The streets are full of Armenians from Istanbul, Europe, Middle East, Armenia and North America. It is not difficult to see the mixture of hope and worries in some of the Armenians eyes: “How we will be welcomed by Kurds, by Muslims and by the Turkish state?” But the warm and friendly atmosphere generated by the Kurds and Armenian songs in Diyarbekir’s streets creates a feeling of calm.
Hesen Pasha Palace : The songs of the legendary Armenian-Kurdish singer Aram Tigran are particularly strong and resonant the Armenian population. In the huge historical Palace of Hesen Pasha, the coffee house and restaurant are peaceful and relaxed places to be. Everyone feels at home.
Over a thousand Armenians had come to Diyarbekir to attend the opening ceremony of the Surp Giragos and attend Holy Mass on 22 and 23rd October. But Kurds and Syriacs – Chaldeans did not let their Armenian neighbours go alone. Many Kurdish high level politicians, together with hundreds of Kurdish men and women, most of them Islamised Kurds, also attended the ceremony to show their support and sympathy to their Armenian neighbours. Kurdish youth were also involved organising the event. As a further indication of the close ties and solidarity between the Armenian and Kurdish communities, many Kurds hosted their former Armenian neighbours in their own homes and remembered with nostalgia how they used to play in the streets of Khanchepeck, the Christian part of the city, just before the last several thousand Armenians left Diyarbekir city from 1960s until beginning of 1980s.
During the two days of celebration the capital city of the Kurdish Region Diyarbekir / Dikranegert, had become more colourful and beautiful with its Christian Armenians and Syriacs-Chaldeans. The courtyard of Surp Giragos was full of Armenian and Kurdish neighbours, warmly greeting each other, hugging and kissing. “I am so happy to see you again! But please, next time never stay in a hotel. You are always welcome in our home!”.
The Kurdish Letif Osmanoglu (1932) and Armenian Hayik, Aydin Koroglu (1936) were friends who were playing together in the Diyarbekir streets. They were also classmates in the primary school. Although later Hayik left for USA, the two friends kept contact. When Hayik came in Diyarbekir for the opening of the church, he stayed in the home of his Kurdish friend Letif. Hayik was happy to see Letif and stay in his home: “Like many thousand Armenians, my father was also saved by Kurds. Here is like my second home. We were good friends with Latif, we have always been like two brothers in 60-70 years, we had very nice and beautiful childhood together. We will keep that until we die.”
Habibe Cakmaz, 75-years old, was born and grew up in Diyarbekir, but left the city 35 years ago: “We were living here with the Kurds as brothers and sisters. We had very good relations. Personally, I don’t have any negative experience, but generally positive things. We left the city to go to Istanbul to have better work and better living conditions.”
Dr. Vahe Aleksanyan, 87-years old, famous doctor in Istanbul: “|I served my military service in Surp Giragos church in 1949, when it was under Turkish army’s occupation. Fortunately, today the church is restored in its originality and I am very happy to see it rebuilt. The Kurds today are very friendly and helpful to us. Not only people from Anatolia or Armenians from all over the world, but Europeans should also visit this church.”
Mayrig Zarug and Antranik Kudjanian, 80-years old, living today in Lebanon: “I was born in Hidirbeg village in Sandjak. My family was saved by Kurds during the Genocide. I was 7-years old when we left the village to Syria and then to Lebanon. I remember that we had Kurdish neighbours and we were in good relations with them. I am happy to come back to the land of my ancestors.”
, 78-years old: “I was born in Lebanon, but my grand-father from mother side was from Diyarbekir. His name was Stefan Manuk. He was saved by Kurds. They helped them to go first to Urfa and afterwards to Syria and Lebanon. My grand-father was always very thankful that the Kurds saved their lives. He said to my mother that Kurds and Armenians are like “emoglu”, cousins.”
The Armenian artist Armen Dikmen Papucyan (left), originally from Dikranegert, here with her Kurdish friend Birsel Bayer, had an art exhibition in the courtyard of Surp Giragos.
PARI YEGAK TSER DUNI !
The Kurdish Metropolitan and the ancient municipalities in Diyarbekir hung banners in many places in the city and over the building of Surp Giragos: “Pari yegak tser duni – Welcome back to your home” was written in four languages: Armenian, Kurdish, English and Turkish. There were no Turkish flags to be seen.
Many high level representatives of the Armenian, Kurdish and Syriac religious communities from around the world were present to take part in the ceremony. Deputy Patriarch Archbishop of the Armenians in Turkey Aram Ateşyan, New York Archbishop Khajag Barsamyan, Washington Archbishop Viken Aykazyan, Halepo Archbishop Şahan Sarkisyan and Archbishop Sahak Maşalyan were just some of those present. The Christian Syriac Metropolitan Mor Melki Ürek and Mardin Metropolitian Saliba Özmen also attended the event. From Kurdish side there were many high level politicians; among them the Mayor of Diyarbekir Osman Baydemir and the Mayor of the ancient city of Diyarbekir Abdullah Demirbas along with the Kurdish members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Leyla Zana and Altan Tan.
The Armenian singer Udi Yervant from US, born in Diyarbekir, well-known Armenian writer from Diyarbekir Migirdic Margosyan and the Kurdish writer Seyhmus Diken, who has written many books about Diyarbekir and its Christian ethnical and religious groups made the opening ceremony more colourful. The presence of these religious, artistic and intellectual personalities underlined the solidarity and commitment between the communities in their work to strengthen the common Armenian and Kurdish cultural heritage in the region.
In an interview with Ararat News, the Armenian Patriarch Archbishop in Turkey, Aram Atesyan, described the event as an historical day: “We have written a new page in the history,” he enthused. The Kurdish Mayors of Diyarbekir, Osman Baydemir and Abdullah Demirbas, stated that: “It’s our duty and we have to do more to bring back our neighbours to their own land. We welcome them to the land of their ancestors, and we hope that this land will continue to bear the signs of the Armenian culture”.
“The reconstruction and the opening of Surp Giragos represent an important new page in the history of the church and the Diyarbekir city. After so many years for the first time more than 1500 Armenians and their Kurdish-Syriac-Chaldean neighbours from around the world could pray in the church. In this church were baptised many of the parents and grand-parents of the Armenians who came to the opening,” said Atesyan to Ararat News.
The Mayor of Diyarbekir and the Chairmen of the United Municipalities of South East Anatolia Osman Baydemir welcomed the Armenians in four languages: “Today I am witnessing the most magnificent unification meeting in my life. When we began the rebuilding of the church some years ago with our holy Patriarch Archbishop, I prayed to God to let me witness this historical day of the opening of this fantastic church. Thanks to God, today I am witnessing this great day when the Islamic Ethan voice is meeting the voice of the church bell”.
Baydemir said: “We know that you suffered too much when you left here. But it’s not only you who lost, we also lost a lot. Diyarbekir was more beautiful with you. When you left us, all the roses of this city faded, went away. The colourful voices of the city became monotone and weak, the poorness took the place of the richness and we lost the peace. I hope together with you we will rebuild the peace and we will never leave the brotherhood again. We will never separate again. We need it you to come back here to your own home, you are once again welcome!”
Abdullah Demirbas, Mayor of the Sur (ancient city) said: “It was justified from historical point and important to restore and re-open Surp Giragos. All the religious and ethnical minorities have to live in peace and harmony on this soil. It was not just a restoration of a church, but it was restoration of the human mentality. As a cultural heritage projects, in addition to the existing mosques and Syriac and Armenian churches, we will also build and rebuild worship places for the Jewish, Alavits and Kurdish Yezidis”.
The Kurdish Member of the Parliament from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Altan Tan, a well-known patriotic Kurdish politician with Islamic roots, was surrounded and hugged by Kurds and Armenians. We asked his reaction: “I am very glad that Surp Giragos which was in ruins is again brought to life as an important cultural heritage. It is also important for the brothership and peace between these two people.”
Seymus Diken, writer and Representative of International PEN writers in Diyarbekir, told us that: “The Armenian genocide is not like a simple word, just to say “sorry”. This common rebuilding project of Surp Giragos between Diyarbekir Municipality and the Armenian Patriarch to restore and open this place of worship is a significant effort to face the new century. Kurds are paying back the part of their excuse for what had happened under the name of “religious brotherhood” 96 years ago. Today we, as Kurds, are fighting hard to build again our brothership with the Armenians and the peace”.
THE TRAGIC HISTORY OF SURP GIRAGOS
The tragic history of Surp Giragos is spread out over several hundred dramatic centuries. The destiny of this church, built originally with seven alters, is strongly influenced by the Armenian tragedy and the genocide. Surp Giragos has also received its share of that tragedy. Many centuries ago, the 1376 dated church with a complex of over 3000 square meters, had chapels, priests’ houses and school in its yard; it was like that just before the Armenian tragedy in 1915. The thirty meter high and unique church tower has been destroyed by the Turkish cannon artillery during 1st World War when the Turkish-Ottoman Emperium’s Enver and Talat Pashas declared “Armenian ferman” (mass killing and deportation of Armenian). Already during the war, the church has been occupied by the Turkish army and the Turkish state until 1950s. In the middle of the 1950s the church was given back to the Armenian community and it continued providing church services until 1980. But when the rest of some thousand Armenians left Diyarbekir city and the region, Surp Giragos was in the way to collapse to ruins. These some thousand last Armenians were children and grand-children of the Armenians who had been saved by their Kurdish neighbours during the Genocide.
Surp Giragos has been totally in ruins for the last 30 years, but it has been rebuilt again by the Armenian and the Kurdish communities. The Istanbul Armenians’ Foundation and the Diyarbekir Kurdish Metropolitan Municipality together with Diyarbekir ancient city Municipality are still playing an important historical role to protect this historical heritage for the humanity.
If we don’t count the Armenian churches in Istanbul, Surp Giragos has now become only the third saved Armenian church in all Anatolia together with Vakıflıköy in Hatay (Syrian borders) and a church in Kayseri. The rest, around 2000 Armenian churches and monasteries, are still in ruins. Turkey is criticized for not saving these cultural heritages and UNESCO has long been silent. Now these cultural heritages are waving hands to save them for humanity.
According Patriarch Archbishop Aram Atesyan, more than three million US dollars have been spent on restoration projects. Six hundred thousand US dollars have been spent by the Kurdish Municipality in Diyarbekir alone. The Armenian Diaspora, mainly from USA and Canada, also supported the restoration works with fund raising events. But the Armenian Church community in Turkey still needs around one million more dollars to pay for further reconstruction and fully complete the restoration.
The Armenian community contacted the Turkish authorities, but the response was negative: “If we finance the reconstruction, then we will use the building for our own purpose” was the answer from the state, Vakiflar Genel Mudurlugu in Ankara. An eventual financial participation of the Turkish state in the rebuilding of Surp Giragos would limit the power of the Armenian community over the church and its original function.
As Kurdish writer Seyhmus Diken said : Pari yegak tser kağaki, Pari yegak tser duni !
Hûn bi xêr hatin mala xwe û bajarê xwe !
© Copyright: Roni Alasor / Ararat News Publishing, 2011