The population of Armenians, one of the largest Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire, was approximately 1.5 million before the genocide in 1915. After the massacres and deportations of the genocide, it fell to less than 100,000. The Turkish Republic, established in 1923, never acknowledged that Armenians were decimated in 1915. More importantly, the Turkish nation-state instituted exclusionist policies towards the remaining non-Muslim communities in Turkey, while attempting to eradicate their histories. Nevertheless, numerous Armenian buildings recalled thousands of years of Armenian presence in Anatolia and Thrace, representing the Armenian cultural heritage. Armenian churches, schools, monasteries, cemeteries, and memorial crosses (khachkars) were among the concrete remnants of the destroyed community. Crucial aspects of the Turkish state’s denial policies included either doing nothing to protect these Christian properties, or confiscating them for various other purposes. Therefore, it is difficult to find undamaged Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey today. Since access to registries of properties representing the Armenian past was officially banned by the Turkish National Security Council in 2006, even the whereabouts of Armenian properties are largely unknown. Although a majority of Armenian churches were demolished, looted or abandoned, some were able to survive to this day. Most, however, are located in city centers; it is almost impossible to find any well-preserved churches in rural regions. Surp Grigos Church is the largest church in the entire Middle East, and it managed to survive as a result of efforts by Armenians (including Armenians who were forced to convert to Islam following the genocide) in Diyarbakır.
2008 — 2011
Scope and Purpose
The history of Surp Grigos Church dates back to the seventeenth century. The city of Diyarbakir was among the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East, with various Christian communities living side-by-side with Muslims and Jews. But this ethno-religious configuration could not survive World War I. When a majority of Armenians in the region were either killed or deported, the church also lost the majority of its parishioners. In the course of the war, the church was used by German soldiers as a military headquarters; after the establishment of the Turkish republic, it became a cotton warehouse. In 1960, the church was re-opened for worship.
The main purpose of renovating Surp Grigos Church is to reclaim the Armenian past and struggle against material and symbolic dispossession. The historical context in which this restoration took place cannot be understood without looking beyond the secondary purpose of restoration–that is, protecting cultural heritage.
The population of Armenians in Diyarbakir today is quite small. Therefore, the main purpose of the restoration goes beyond renovating the church to serve the religious needs of Armenians. In the changing political environment in Turkey in the last decade, Armenian communities have found a window of opportunity to fight against the material and symbolic dispossession carried out by the state over the last century. After restoration of the Akhdamar Church in the city of Van in 2005, Surp Grigos is the second attempt to reclaim the Armenian past in Turkey. For Armenian communities in Turkey and abroad, the project has led to a sense that their past is finally being recognized in Turkey. On another level, since the restoration was carried out with the support of the Diyarbakir municipality, which is administered by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, it has also had an important impact in bringing Kurdish and Armenian communities together and creating a sense of reconciliation.
One of the main challenges to this project has been the turbulent macro-political dynamic in Turkey that fuels an environment of insecurity for non-Muslim populations. Although Armenian NGOs attempted to gain the support of the Turkish state for the restoration process by appealing to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the government conditioned its financial support on the transformation of the church into a museum. In practice, this would have meant altering the basic function of the church; it was also a tacit message to Armenians not to attempt to revive the past. The total cost of the restoration was $ 3.5 million. Campaigns were held among Armenian communities in Turkey and in the diaspora from 2008 to 2011 to finance the project. However, these donations were not sufficient. In the end, the restoration could only be completed thanks to the Diyarbakir municipality, which donated 1 million Turkish Lira, or approximately $700,000, to the foundation in charge of the restoration.