Resurrecting Surp Giragos

Searching for reconciliation in south-east Turkey
guest contribution by William Gourlay

[1] Surp Giragos in its ruined state, before the restoration. 2009. Photo by Emily Neumeier.

Ethereal music emanating from a grand church is hardly something out of the ordinary. Heavenly strains may be more remarkable, however, in Turkey, a country whose population is today predominately  Muslim. All the more remarkable is music coming from a church that was, until recently, little more than an abandoned, dilapidated shell. [Fig. 1]

[2] Tara Jaff rehearsing in Surp Giragos.
June 2013. Photo by William Gourlay.
This past summer, I made my way to Diyarbakir, the largest city in south-eastern Turkey. One bright morning, in the heart of the Sur neighborhood, the city’s historical core, I wandered into the Armenian cathedral of Surp Giragos. That day, the entire church complex, which occupies a large plot of land in the center of town, rang with celestial melodies. Inside the church proper, before the central altar, sat a harpist, her fingers skipping across the strings, her music echoing amid soaring basalt arches. This was Tara Jaff, an Iraqi-born, London-based, Kurdish harpist. [Fig. 2] Raised in Baghdad, Jaff studied piano and Western classical music before immigrating in 1976 to study in the UK where she was first exposed to the harp. She has since established a loyal following as a singer and harpist, playing a repertoire of Kurdish poetry and songs. When I asked her if there are many other Kurdish harpists, she replied that she thinks she is the only one. Between rehearsing and fielding calls on her mobile phone, she kindly invited me to a recital that was scheduled for later in the week.

[3] A postcard of Diyarbakir. The belfry in the center is the original tower of Surp Giragos. It was heavily damaged by lightning in 1913, so the photograph must have been taken before this date. The inscription explains that in the summer time, the sweltering heat forced the residents of the city to sleep on the rooftops. Postcard from Osman Köker (ed), Diyarbekir Vilayetinde Ermeniler (20). 

[4] The new, Gothic-style bell tower of
Surp Giragos, replacing the old belfry in
1913. The tower also included eight clocks,
a modernizing touch in the early 20th cent.
The belfry was torn down in 1915. 

Photo from Osman Köker (ed), 
Diyarbekir Vilayetinde Ermeniler (23).
It is unclear how long Surp Giragos Church has stood on this spot, but the current structure is said to date from 1883 [Halifeoğlu; Leylegian]. The church served as the chapel for the diocese of Dikranagerd (as Diyarbakır is known in Armenian) from this time. In its heyday, Surp Giragos employed around 100 people--including clergy and lay parishioners--who worked in the cathedral and affiliated bookshop, kitchen, Sunday school and diocese offices. The church’s original belfry [Fig. 3] was damaged by a lightning strike in 1913 (a common occurrence with minarets as well), and the congregants decided to replace it with a new, taller Gothic-style tower. [Fig. 4] At the time, the new belfry was alleged to be the highest structure in all of Diyarbakır, a fact that irked some of the town’s Muslims, and shortly after its construction local officials ordered that the tower be torn down in 1915 [Leylegian]. Such a lofty construction was perhaps indicative of the confidence and status of local Armenians, but the tensions surrounding its destruction prefigured other troubling events that were brewing.

After the traumas visited upon the Armenian population of southeastern Anatolia in 1915, the church remained a focal point for the few surviving Armenians in Diyarbakır and surrounding villages. A priest was still attached to the church until 1985, but the dwindling Armenian community was not able to adequately maintain the structure. In the early 1990s, the roof collapsed, leaving the interior of the church open to the elements and to vandals. [Leylegian] [Figs. 1 & 5]

[5] One of the seven altars at Surp Giragos,
prior to reconstruction. 2009. 
Photo by Emily Neumeier.
The church was a forlorn relic hinting at a glory that seemed lost forever when I first visited Diyarbakır in 1992. Its arches still stood aloft but of the roof there was only a sprawl of shattered beams and rubble atop moldering carpets at floor level. A local youth who had brought me here looked solemnly at the debris then tut-tutted as he led me away.  At that time, any mention of ethnic diversity, or acknowledgement of the Armenian legacy in the city, was frowned upon. Turkish nationalist sentiments had been inflamed by the confrontation between the PKK and the Turkish military; hostilities were at their peak and Diyarbakır was the epicentre. State security personnel were a visible presence in the old city. The mood was tense; Diyarbakır’s multicultural history was officially overlooked and, in some quarters, flatly denied. Assertions of ethnic identity – whether Kurdish, Armenian or otherwise – were swiftly suppressed by police and other state apparatus. 

[6] Niches with muqarnas hoods
stand between the seven altars of Surp
Giragos. 2009. Photo by Emily Neumeier.
The design of Surp Giragos Church is distinctive. It is constructed in the locally sourced black basalt that characterizes historic Diyarbakır, from mosques and churches, to houses and the city walls.  Armenian church architecture from the medieval period in eastern Anatolia conforms to one of two conventions, either a centralised space surrounded by apses, as is the case with the 10th-century Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, or a rectangular space capped by a dome, as in the 11th-century Cathedral of Ani [Sagona 158-61]. The 19th-century Surp Giragos Church does neither. Sixteen cylindrical columns crested with pointed arches support a flat roof of wooden beams topped with earth (a local construction technique). The columns divide the rectangular floor space into five arcades, which proceed to five recessed altars on the ground floor and a further two on a second-floor gallery [Leylegian]. A traveler who visited an earlier church on this site in the 1840s noted that it, too, had ‘no less than seven altars’ [Badger, 42]. The altars themselves are decorated in the fashion of the time with a Baroque confection of painted stucco and wood; while muqarnas adorn niches between the altars. [Fig. 6] With its rectangular prayer-hall, the church recalls other monumental buildings in Diyarbakır (Sagona 197-8), in particular the Ulu Cami (Great Mosque), which in turn is said to be modeled on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. 

In 2009, local Kurdish politicians Abdullah Demirbaş, mayor of Sur neighbourhood, and Osman Baydemir, mayor of the Greater Diyarbakır municipality, instigated the project that would see Surp Giragos Church restored to its former glory. While other monuments in Turkey have been restored under the auspices of the Turkish Ministry of Cutlure, most notably the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdmara Island in Lake Van, this was the first time that a municipal council had undertaken such a project.

[7] Main facade of Surp Giragos after
restoration. The new bell tower above the
central portal is closely modeled on the
original, pre-1913 belfry. 2013.
Photo by William Gourlay.
The district city council contributed 1 million Turkish lira (around one-third of the cost of the restoration), with the newly formed Surp Giragos Foundation contributing the balance while also overseeing and managing the building and refurbishment work [Jones, Zaman]. Extant walls and arches were consolidated, cleaned and re-grouted where mortar had flaked away. The roof was replaced, and extraneous additions that were not part of the original plan were removed. The floor was resurfaced, and conservators were brought in to refurbish plaster adornments around the altars and other architectural detailing [Halifeoğlu]. Perhaps to avoid controversy, a reconstructed bell tower was not built to the dimensions of the pre-1915 tower, although given the plethora of multi-story buildings, it would no longer be the highest construction in the city. [Fig. 7] The church was reopened in October 2011, and has since become a place of active worship, a centre of arts and cultural activities and a focal point for those Armenians remaining in Turkey. While the Armenian church on Akdamar Island was reopened in 2007 as a museum, Surp Giragos firmly belongs to the Armenian community. (Photos and a video of the cathedral's restoration can be found here.)

Indeed, the refurbishment and reopening of the church is seen as evidence of the renewed confidence of Turkey’s Armenian community [Jones]. Beyond that, it reflects a maturing of discourse and debates in Turkey about national identity; it is evidence of an increasing willingness to acknowledge, and perhaps eventually embrace, a multicultural past that has been largely denied until recently. In earlier decades, particularly as the war against the PKK raged through the 1990s, nationalist discourse held that in ethnic terms the nation was homogenously Turkish and evidence of or manifestations of diversity were either ignored or smothered.

It is easy enough to find accounts that detail the long history of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Anatolia. The great Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi remarked upon the heterogeneity of the population of Diyarbakır when he visited in 1655. He recorded hearing locals speaking Arabic, Kurdish, Persian and Turkish as well as Armenian [Van Bruinessen, 29].  An earlier Polish traveler to Diyarbakır noted the important role that Armenians played in the city: all of the butchers, bakers, customs officers and merchants were Armenian [Van Bruinessen, 30]. Until the catastrophes visited up them in the early years of the 20th century, Armenians remained central to the life of the city. In 1914, it was noted that the deputy mayor of Diyarbakır was always an Armenian, while of the city’s jewellers, cotton merchants, silk traders, lawyers, physicians and pharmacists the majority were Christian, and most Armenian [Köker, 6-7].

It was for this reason that the Diyarbakır’s Sur district was sometimes known as the ‘neighbourhood of the infidels’ [Zaman]. While Turkish nationalist discourse may have refused to countenance such a reality, the Sur municipality has worked in recent years to highlight it. As well as the refurbishment of Surp Giragos, the municipality has also contributed to restoration work on a local Chaldean church and a synagogue, and while signage in the city was once solely in Turkish, it is now possible to find street signs in Turkish, Kurdish, Syriac and Armenian. (The restored Sülüklü Han, now reopened as a café, welcomes visitors in six languages and four scripts.) Mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbaş told The New York Times that in losing the multicultural fabric of the city, its diverse constituents stood to make enemies of themselves [Toumani]. The municipality has aimed to redress this, re-acknowledging and celebrating ethnic diversity, highlighting to all the citizens of Diyarbakır what they share and have in common, whether they be Armenian or Kurdish, Turkish or otherwise. A Kurdish politician, Demirbaş sees his work as being not just on behalf of the Kurds, but for all the people of his constituency [Toumani]. Demirbaş is also willing to acknowledge the role that many Kurds played in the massacres of the Armenians a century ago [Zaman]. His support and encouragement of the restoration of Surp Giragos is perhaps a measure of atonement for those terrible events. 

[8] Tara Jaff, Pervin Çakar and Azad Ziya Eren performing in the Church of Surp Giragos. June 2013. Photo by William Gourlay.

If the enthusiastic masses at Tara Jaff’s evening recital in June 2013 at the Surp Giragos Church are any indication, it would seem that there are many in Diyarbakır who are willing to embrace the notion of multiculturalism. Locals gathered, taking up position in rows of pews arrayed around the performance area; it quickly became a case of standing room only. [Fig. 8] Clearly an outsider, I was welcomed by attendees in Turkish and English. When I asked about the make up of the audience, I was told that they were all locals, both Kurdish and Turkish.

Jaff and her fellow performers, Mardin-born, Kurdish soprano Pervin Çakar and Diyarbakır poet Azad Ziya Eren, held the audience transfixed with a repertoire of Kurdish and Armenian music and Turkish poetry. Seated before the main altar, in an auditorium ablaze with light, the three artists took it in turns to perform. Jaff’s intricate harp flourishes and rich singing voice rang in the grand interior of the church. She then accompanied Pervin Çakar, who sang Armenian folk songs in her resonant soprano. With crisp diction lending weight and solemnity to his delivery, Azad Ziya Eren recited his original poetry. At performance’s end the crowd surged forward, amid hearty applause, to greet and congratulate the three artists.

Hearing the cadence of languages other than Turkish in a public performance in Diyarbakır would have been inconceivable in years past, but here a crowd of around 1000 people embraced this diverse offering. In recent weeks, in the run up to the 2014 council elections, the Turkish political sphere has become increasingly polarised and rhetoric increasingly divisive; some commentators fear that with societal cleavages widening, sectarian violence is a distinct possibility. In such a situation, the Surp Giragos Church stands as a beacon of hope. This holy place for a community that disappeared in tragic circumstances has been refurbished by politicians determined to acknowledge past wrongs and has now become a site where heavenly music might bring together diverse peoples once again.

**A music video featuring Tara Jaff:

**And a video of Tara Jaff and Pervin Çakar performing live together:

WILLIAM GOURLAY blogs and is a PhD candidate researching ethnic identity and citizenship among the Kurds of modern Turkey, at Monash University, Australia.

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JONES, Dorian. “Armenian Church Catalyst for Change in Kurdish Region,” EurasiaNet 17 (December 2013).
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LEYLEGIAN, George A. “A Brief History of Largest Church in Middle East and Christianity in Diyarbakir,” The Armenian Weekly (25 November 2010).
SAGONA, Antonio. The Heritage of Eastern Turkey, from Earliest Settlements to Islam. South Yarra: MacMillan Art Publishing, 2006.
TOUMANI, Meline. “Minority Rules,” The New York Times Magazine (17 February 2008). 
VAN BRUINESSEN, Martin and Hendrik Boeschoten. Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir: the Relevant Section of the Seyahatname. Leiden: Brill, 1988.
ZAMAN, Amberin. “Turkey’s Kurds Seek Forgiveness for 1915 Armenian Tragedy,” Al Monitor (3 September 2013).

Citation: "Resurrecting Surp Giragos," William Gourlay, Stambouline (March 30, 2014).

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