Diyarbakır was one of the important settlements of western Armenians. In 1878, nearly 150,000 Armenians lived in the province, whose administration extended to the Armenian highlands (according to data from the 1878 annual of the Armenian Patriarchate; Kevorkian & Paboudjian, 2015). Large populations of Armenians lived in areas to the north and northeast of Diyarbakir, which they called Dikranagerd, possibly after Tigrannes the Great, the Armenian king who lived in the 1st century BCE. Historians specializing in the Middle Ages also theorize Diyarbakır was named after Dikran Yervantyan, who built the fortification walls of the city. The strategic location of the city on the Persian Royal Road meant it witnessed the Roman-Persian Wars, which caused major destruction of the city. In 640 CE it was conquered by the Arabs, then fell under the rule of different authorities until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. That was when Saint Toros Church was converted into the Kurşunlu Mosque. Other churches such as Saint George (or Kevork), Yerrortutyun and Saint Hovhannes faced the same fate and were converted to mosques. Nevertheless, Diyarbakır was able to retain its multiethnic, multireligious character until the end of the 19th century.
In 1890, during the reign of Abdülhamit II, Hamidiye regiments, made up of Kurdish tribesmen, were formed with the intention of protecting eastern provinces of the empire from the Russians. Other objectives were to strengthen ties between the Kurds and the state and to contain the Armenians (Klein, 2013). The state’s centralization efforts had been met with Kurdish rebellions, pushing ties between the authorities and Kurds to the breaking point. Ottoman forces eventually put down the Kurdish uprisings. Meanwhile, Armenian political organizations were forming, such as the Armenakan Party in 1885, the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party in 1887 and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (or Tashnaktsutyun) in 1890. They began an armed struggle in response to the demands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, causing losses in the Ottoman Army and the Hamidiye regiments. The Armenians of Diyarbakır faced reprisals: in an 1895 massacre that lasted three days, thousands of Armenians were killed. By 1914, the Armenian population of Diyarbakır province had been reduced to 106,867 (according to the population census by the Armenian Patriarchate in February 1913-August 1915; Kevorkian, 2015, Kevorkian & Paboudjian, 2012). In 1914, Diyarbakır’s downtown market area (today called Çarşiya Şewitî in Kurdish and Yanık Çarşı in Turkish, which means the Scorched Market), where many Armenian-owned businesses contributed to the city's economy, was burned down with the help of local collaborators. In 1908, the Second Constitutional Era began, thanks to an alliance between the Union and Progress Party (UPP) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. As Turkish nationalists gained control of the UPP, and later the country, the loss of territory during the Italo-Turkish War, the Balkan Wars and World War One gave rise to the idea of creating a homogeneous nation state. The UPP elite exploited the chaos of the world war for their pan-Turkist ideals and mobilized and began a major ethnic cleansing across Asia Minor.
With a population of 1.5 million before the genocide, Armenians were the largest Christian community in the Ottoman Empire. Following the massacres and deportations, the Armenian population fell to fewer than 100,000 after 1915. The Turkish Republic never accepted that a genocide had taken place. They imposed exclusionary policies towards non-Muslims and attempted to remove their historical traces. Nevertheless, thousands of churches, schools, monasteries, cemeteries and other monuments remained to remind people that Armenians had lived here for thousands of years. Leaving these to degrade over time or appropriating and using them for different purposes were the pillars of the Turkish government’s denial policies. That has made it difficult to find an intact cultural legacy representing Armenians. Until 2006, it was forbidden to access documents related to Armenian property or even ask where to find them by National Security Council prohibitions. Although most Armenian churches were in ruins and had been plundered or left to deteriorate, some have survived, especially in urban areas. Saint Giragos Church, the largest Armenian Apostolic church in the Middle East, remained standing due to the efforts of Armenians, including the descendants of those who had involuntarily changed their religion to Islam.
Kevorkian, R. & Paboudjian, P. (2012). 1915 Öncesinde Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Ermeniler. (Armenians in the Ottoman Empire before 1915) Çev. Mayda Saris. Aras Yayıncılık.
Kevorkian, R. (2015). Ermeni Soykırımı. (Armenian Genocide) Çev. Ayşen Taşkent Ekmekçi. İletişim Yayınları.
Aydınoğlu, E. (2022). Barış Süreci - Söylem Pratik Çöküş. (The Peace Process: Discourse, Practice, Collapse) Versus Kitap Yayınları.
Saint Giragos Church dates to the 16th century. After the Ottoman conquest of Diyarbakır, Saint Toros Church was converted into a mosque, and in its stead, Saint Giragos Church was built next to the diocese, giving the church an important position in the administration of the community’s churches, schools and other property in the Diyarbakir Sanjak. A cosmopolitan city, Christians, Muslims and Jews all lived in Diyarbakır. However, the pluralistic co-existence could not continue after World War One. Since most of the of the Armenians were dead or deported, Saint Giragos lost most of its congregation. The church’s iconic onion-domed bell tower with 10 clocks was destroyed by cannon fire in 1914 because it was taller than the Sheik Muhtar Mosque's minaret located next to it. Used by German forces during the war, the Church later became a cotton granary for a period. In 1960 it was returned to the tiny community of Armenians but remained derelict. In 2011, it was restored and held its first official service in nearly a century. The main purpose of this restoration was to redress some of what Armenians lost, a quest for both the symbolic and actual re-appropriation of Armenian cultural heritage. Without an understanding of the history of the restoration, it is unlikely that the secondary aim behind protecting the cultural heritage of the Armenians can be understood.
Since the population of Armenians in Diyarbakır today is very small, it is clear that Saint Giragos’ restoration is not solely to serve the religious needs of Armenians. Changes in the political atmosphere in Turkey in the first decade of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) tenure created an opportunity for Armenians to reappropriate previously lost property. As Turkey sought to meet political criteria for membership in the European Union, reclaiming cultural heritage became a possibility. Following the restoration of Aghtamar Church in Van province in 2005, rebuilding Saint Giragos appeared to be a second step in this direction. The opening raised hopes, though guarded, among Armenians living outside of Turkey that the government might recognize the Armenian legacy in these lands. The restoration project was supported by the Diyarbakır municipality, which was run by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), fostering a reconciliation between Kurds and Armenians. Saint Giragos opened in 2011 to hold its first church service. A reproduction of the bell tower that was destroyed in 1915 was made in Moscow and brought to Diyarbakır.
The primary difficulty in realizing this project were macro-level political developments that perpetuated non-Muslim’s insecure conditions. Although Armenian civil society organizations sought the support of the Turkish government for the project, the Culture Ministry said it would provide financial support only on the condition that the church be opened with the status of a museum. Acquiescing to this condition would mean eliminating the true function of the church and accepting the government’s implicit message that it was uneasy protecting the building’s essence and history. The total cost of the project was $3.5 million. Fundraising was held in and outside of Turkey, and a donation of $700,000 (nearly 1 million lira at the time) from the Diyarbakır municipality helped organizers reach their goal.
The AKP, which came to power in 2002, initially embraced neoliberal policies and took steps toward democratization and protecting human rights to advance its EU bid. Such of its reforms also pertained to marginalized communities living in Turkey. Diplomatic relations with Armenia softened when then-president Serzh Sargsyan was invited to attend a soccer match between Armenia and Turkey, a gesture dubbed “football diplomacy.” At the same time, the government was seeking dialog with Kurdish groups, raising hopes it was ready to confront human rights violations. The most important outreach was a peace process between the state and the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) between 2013 and 2015. During this time, civic groups working for peace and democracy gained strength and made their presence felt (Aydınoğlu, 2022). At a time of relative peace, Diyarbakır began to draw tourists, and Saint Giragos became a “must-see” site. However, this disappeared into the thin air when the peace process broke down and fighting began. During clashes in 2015 and 2016, the Sur neighborhood of Diyarbakır including Saint Giragos was badly damaged. On March 21, 2016, cabinet announced the “urgent expropriation” of Sur township. The Foundation of the Saint Giragos Church, opened a court case against the decision at the Council of State, which cancelled the expropriation measure. In 2019, the Environment and Urbanization Ministry announced that Saint Giragos Church would be rehabilitated by the state. On May, 8, 2022, the church reopened for worship.