DIYARBAKIR — Leaning against a basalt pillar, young Muhammad Enes calls out in his reedy voice to anybody who approaches, advertising a closer look at the historical site here in the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. “Do you want to visit?" the boy asks. "The Surp Giragos is the oldest Armenian church in the entire Middle East. It sheltered 3,000 worshippers and a cannon destroyed its bell tower in 1915.”

Muhammad is too young to have played in the ruins of Surp Giragos, restored and reopened to worshipers in 2011. He is also too young to fully understand the massacres and deportations that these walls, this town, this part of the Turkish region of Anatolia witnessed, almost a century before he was born.

Still the children of Diyarbakir who hear the bells toll at recess time already know more than what their school history books will ever tell them about the Armenian genocide, which began 100 years ago this week.

Too often, too soon, when it’s about Turkey and the Armenian genocide, the Turkish state’s denial is understood as the denial of the society as a whole. That would be forgetting that the memory of the Armenian people is inscribed in the land where they lived for so long, and in the minds of the peoples they long lived alongside, including another population with a history of conflict with the Turkish state: the Kurds.

“The people of this region know there was a genocide and they don’t deny it,” says Aram Hacikyan, the Surp Giragos church’s guardian. 

Aram talks about his grandfather, who was an orphan of 1915, taken in by a Kurd who converted to Islam, but “never hid that he was Armenian. In our family, unlike what happened in other families, this was never a secret.”

In 1914, some 60,000 Armenians were living in Diyarbakir, notes Adnan Celik, a researcher at the Parisian School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. “It’s a symbolic location of the genocide because there used to be a mixed population here — of Armenians, Kurds, Syriacs, Turkmens," Celik says.

In Diyarbakir — Photo: sunriseOdyssey

This is also the province, whose governor, Mehmed Reshid, dubbed the "butcher of Diyarbakir" infamously sent a telegram in 1915 congratulating himself for having doomed as many as 160,000 Armenians to deportation and death.

Adnan Celik, whose grandmother was also a bavfilleh (a Kurdish word used to refer to Armenians who converted to Islam), recently published a book about the memory of the genocide among the Kurdish people of Diyarbakir. “The absence of Armenians, here, is an infinite loss. People recount stories of an unbelievable violence with such details, as if it had happened yesterday,” he says.

The young anthropologist stops a moment to talk about the role played by the Kurdish political movement, which “from the start has been questioning the official version of the story, talking about the genocide and the part the Kurds played in this genocide.”

Heaven by sword

As enthusiastic and zealous as he might have been, Reshid probably couldn’t have led 160,000 Armenians to death without the active help of several of Diyarbakir’s important families and Kurdish tribe leaders. These men were promised and often obtained a certain plot of land or home after the Armenian owner was executed. Muslims who were promised heaven for every seven Christians they put to the sword.

“Careful to avoid any anachronism here,” warns Adnan Celik. “In 1915, nationalist claims from the Kurds of this region didn’t exist yet. Those who took part in the genocide often did so as Muslims against non-Muslim infidels.”

Abdullah Demirbas’s face looks chastened when he talks about these “Kurds misled by the state to slaughter Armenians,” despite having lived alongside them for centuries.

“My grandfather would tell me the story of a priest who, to convince one Kurd not to kill him, supposedly told him, ‘We are the breakfast, you’ll be the lunch.’ And that’s what happened,” he sighs.

Like many in Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas, a local political leader, sees a continuity between the genocide of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire and the killings, a decade later of Kurds at the outset of the Turkish Republic until the end of the 20th century.

Street scene in Diyarbarkir — Photo: sunriseOdyssey

“It’s important that we, the grandchildren of those who helped in the genocide, face this past, not only to settle our debt but also to build a future together,” he insists.

For the former mayor of Sur, an ancient neighborhood in Diyarbakir where many Armenians used to live, "a future together" is more than just a slogan. In 2009, Abdullah Demirbas played a key role in the restoration of the Armenian church, with the support of the Diyarbakir city council and the Surp Giragos Foundation.

Demirbas, a brawny and imposing figure, admits he “almost cried” when it was inaugurated. “I feel I’ve repaid part of my debt,” he says.

Aram Hacikyan says the site is more than a church: "It’s becoming a gathering point for all Armenians,” he notes, citing visitors from Europe, Armenia and the United States. “Some people in the diaspora are less scared of coming to Turkey, where the genocide took place, since they know that the church is back.”

Abdullah Demirbas, the former mayor, believes they have to go further and encourage the Armenians of Diyarbakir to come back. He mentions a school, and even offers to build a “genocide museum.”

“We can’t wait for the Turkish authorities to do something on their own, so we must force them to do it,” he says.

Adnan Celik is more skeptical. “Many Kurdish recognize the genocide, they apologize, and then what? Are they the only guilty?" he asks. "The real question is what the state, which has been denying it for 100 years, is going to do about it.”

In the church’s yard, still wet after the last rain shower, Armen Demirdjian nods. He found out about his Armenian origins at the age of 30. His grandparents were killed during the genocide. His father, aged 4 in 1915, never talked about it and Armen never asked. But now he wants to know, and wants the world to know too. “We can’t keep sweeping the dirt under the rug forever,” he says. “Sooner or later, we will have to lift it up and shake it, and let all the dirt come out for everyone to see.”