The city of Diyarbakir was one of the most culturally diverse in the Middle East before World War I. People from different ethnic and religious backgrounds--Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Chaldeans, Arabs and Turks--lived side-by-side until the last century. The centuries-old “millet system” in the Ottoman Empire, which defined a hierarchical, contractual relationship between the state and non-Muslim communities, collapsed during the rule of the Young Turks (1908-1918), and the process of homogenizing Anatolia began. In this respect, the Armenian Genocide in 1915 marked a turning point, but the Ottoman state’s policies towards the ethnic and religious homogenization of Anatolia targeted the other ethnic populations as well. The city of Diyarbakir experienced this historical transformation quite sharply, losing a majority of its non-Muslim populations.
Social, economic and cultural co-existence in the city of Diyarbakir among different ethnic and religious communities was destroyed in the course of WW I, and the new Turkish nation-state established in 1923 continued the policies of its predecessor. Although the Turkish state acknowledged the collective rights of non-Muslim populations in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the recognition of equality in theory, involving an inclusive concept of citizenship, was not reflected in the practice of an ethno-religiously hierarchical regime. The Turkish state’s continuing policies of discrimination against non-Muslims resulted in the migration of non-Muslim communities from Diyarbakir to Turkish metropolises such as Istanbul or European countries. The outcome of this political process was the loss of Diyarbakir’s ancient ethnic and religious communities and its lively and culturally diverse social life. Nevertheless, various historical buildings, monuments and sanctuaries remain, symbolizing the ethnic and religious diversity of old Diyarbakir. However, until very recently, the state policy was to abandon most of these buildings and simply allow them to disappear. This project is a step towards reversing this historical trend.
The main purpose of the project is to restore and renovate all the buildings on Diyarbakir’s ancient Yenikapi Street and make the necessary arrangements to protect the historic environment. Taking a multicultural perspective, the project is renovating a street on which a mosque, churches and a synagogue are located (Sheikh Matar Mosque, Saint Grigos Armenian Church, Mor Petyum Chaldean Church and an unnamed synagogue). Any modern symbols and buildings that interfere with the historicity of the street will be removed or renovated according to their original appearance. Saint Grigos Armenian Church, built in the 16th century, was renovated and opened in 2011; it now serves as both a house of worship and a museum. The ancient synagogue, which is partially ruined, is also being renovated without harm to its historical configuration. The project also aims to renovate the site of a former bathhouse on the street—the Pasha Hamam—to be used for cultural purposes. Because handicrafts were one of the most important aspects of socio-economic life in ancient Diyarbakir, one of the buildings to be renovated will be transformed into a handicraft workshop. The street itself and the lighting will also be restored to represent old Diyarbakir. Overall, the project aims in part to create a version of ancient Diyarbakir designed to serve touristic purposes, rather than taking a political position.
The only completed part of the project is the Armenian Church, which was reopened for worship in May 2022. Since this project is still in progress and partially completed, it is difficult to assess its cultural and political impacts of the project. However, the planning and design processes included both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, since the Turkish state has tended to obliterate historical monuments and buildings attesting the non-Muslim presence in Anatolia and Kurdistan, the direct involvement of the state institutions in such a renovation project is significant. The project was also one of the few collaborations between the pro-Kurdish municipalities and Turkish state institutions in the early 2010s. However, the multiculturalist framework of these memorialization efforts may have only a limited political impact as long as the state refuses to acknowledge past gross human rights violation against non-Muslim communities. In other words, if the multiculturalist perspective does not address the historical process that led to removal of non-Muslims from Anatolia, the mere recognition of the non-Muslim historical legacy in Diyarbakir will remain insufficient to trigger a sound process of confronting the past. In addition, the role of tourism in the design process of the project is problematic, as increasing the value of the city in touristic and historical terms from a neoliberal perspective seems to be one of the main objectives. Within the tourism package, a boutique hotel and small shops selling souvenirs are also planned. If increasing the number of tourists visiting Diyarbakir becomes the main purpose of this project, this may lead to instrumentalize the past of Diyarbakir, while ignoring the denied past of gross human rights violations. The de-politicization of collective memory might be one of the impacts of the project when it is completed.
The Yenikapı project was planned by the metropolitan municipality of Diyarbakır at the time. The project was part of the transformation of the Gazi Caddesi, the central avenue of the intra-muros area of Diyarbakır, called Sur, into a touristic and commercial center. Yenikapı Street was particularly significant as an area where different cultures and religions meet. At the end of restoration which was part of the memorialization work, Surp Giragos Armenian Church was reopened in 2011. Between 2013 and 2015, during the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement, Yenikapı became one of the important spaces of Diyarbakır. The willingness of the Kurdish politicians to confront the Armenian Genocide was an important factor in the process. However, the planning and design of the project must be evaluated in a nuanced way. The direct support of the state institutions to the project was in itself a remarkable development, as the monuments attesting the historical presence of non-Muslims in this geography are most often ignored or left in disarray by the Turkish state. However, the armed clashes that started after the collapse of the peace project directly affected the Sur district of Diyarbakır, and therefore the Yenikapı Street project. On August 14th, 2015, the DBP and People’s Assembly of Sur declared autonomy. The Turkish state reacted with an operation and a curfew was imposed on the area. During the armed clashes, civil society organizations asked for the protection of the Four-legged Minaret in the area of the Yenikapı Street. On November 28th, 2015, the president of Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi, organized a press conference with a group of activists to demand the end of the clashes. However, a clash between the police and two militants from the YPS movement occurred during the press conference. Tahir Elçi was hit by a bullet and lost his life. The day Tahir Elçi was killed a new curfew was imposed on Sur. The clashes became more violent and the state forces used all kinds of military tactics until they retook control of Sur on March 10th, 2016. After more than 100 days of conflict, Sur was heavily destroyed. The buildings of the area were rapidly nationalized just after the end of the clashes and destruction began. People living in Sur were directly impacted by the destruction. Not only houses were demolished, but the urban transformation started by the state in Sur has created an important change in the social structure of the area. While the neighborhood used to be inhabited mostly by poor people, villas, shops and shopping centers were built. The spiral of violence which affected Sur after a period of relative calm has thus deeply changed its historical fabric and its demographic structure. The Armenian Church Surp Giragos and the Mor Petyum Chaldean Church of Mor Petyum, which were part of the Yenikapı project, were affected. The damage caused to church buildings during the clashes contrasted with the special attention paid to the mosques and showed the lack of concern for the non-Muslim legacy. In addition, with the state-appointed trustees who replaced the elected municipalities, democratic local powers were suppressed and the restoration process lost legitimacy. In 2019, the state authorities started the restoration of the churches. Surp Giragos Church was reopened for worship on May 8th, 2022.