Finally, after months of pondering and procrastinating and writing and re-writing and deleting and starting from scratch again, today I have finished a long-read about Sur, the historical heart of Diyarbakır. It’s online, for now only in Dutch. Maybe now was the best time to publish it, because this weekend the Surp Giragos Armenian Church re-opened after it had been damaged in the city war that raged in Sur in early 2016. It’s not easy to report a story about a place where you left your heart. Even more so when it seems that place may vanish forever, and become a ghost of what it once was.
It’s been seven years now since I wandered around in Sur for the last time, before Turkey kicked me out. I used to get lost there, just turning corners randomly in the narrow streets. Until I would lose track of where I was. There would always be a child running around, some women sitting by their doors or sweeping the streets or some men gathering around glasses of tea or passing by with a hand chart, of whom I could ask the way. I’d find my way back to Gazi Street, have a coffee in nearby Suluklu Han, buy fish, fruit and vegetables and jump on a dolmuş back to my home in Batıkent.
Many of the streets where I used to get lost don’t exist anymore. They were flattened by the state after the war it waged against the Kurdish youth between December 2015 and March 2016. No, don’t blame the armed youth, who were defending the newly declared autonomy of their district after the state had refused to seriously commit to the peace process.
City archeologist Nevin Soyukaya, who knows Sur very well as both a local and an expert, told me that after the war, the state could have acted differently. They could have meticulously gathered the debris and consulted experts like her and others about how to properly restore what could have been restored. They could have made the area inhabitable again by replacing lost structures with new affordable homes that suited the historical and social heritage of Sur.
There were plans that the authorities could have checked to see if they could build on them. They were put together by the metropolitan municipality of Diyarbakır first in 2004 and then again in 2013, when Abdullah Demirbaş was the elected mayor of Sur. I talked to him too for my story – he is in exile in Switzerland now. The municipality’s idea was to renovate Sur, while keeping it affordable for the people who live there now and paying tribute to the multi-cultural and multi-religious heritage of the ancient structures.
That the state wasn’t interested in any of that, was of course to be expected. Abdullah Demirbaş told me that in 2008, the AKP [Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party] tried to force a ‘renovation’ on Sur that was only not pushed through because the people of Sur totally rejected the plans. The plan was to basically replace the old structures by expensive ones the current inhabitants couldn’t afford, so the poorer people would be pushed out. In case you don’t know: part of the population of Sur came to the city in the 1990s, when the war between the state and the PKK was at a previous peak of violence and the state burned hundreds of villages to the ground. These Kurds know the state very well and can’t be fooled.
The placement of Sur and the Hevsel Gardens, just outside the city walls, on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015 was part of the scam. While the Kurdish movement and many involved experts were genuine in their will to protect and honour the immensely rich cultural heritage of this amazing place, for the state it was just a tool. A tool to convince less-informed people that they were committed to protection. A tool to whitewash the destruction. A tool to draw tourists in large numbers to make money. A tool to turn Sur into a cheap amusement park, ready for their corrupt people to take advantage of.
The re-opening of the incredible Surp Giragos Armenian Church is part of the future Erdoğan and his gang envision for Sur’s future. The Armenian community, both in Turkey and in the diaspora, once again becomes a target of the Turkish state. Yes, the state helped enable the reconstruction, but it destroyed all the streets around the church, forever detaching it from the richness it has always been embedded in.
There is no reason to think this is not only the beginning of what the state has in store for Sur. There are literally hundreds of registered cultural heritage sites in the district, and I don’t doubt for a second that the state aims to exploit them too, instead of honouring and genuinely protecting them. The narrow streets aren’t accessible to tourist buses (or to tanks and armoured vehicles, for that matter) so they have to go, and their inhabitants with them. One of the interviewees in my story, a historian who wanted to remain anonymous, gave the part of Sur that is still alive now not much more than a decade.
Crimes against heritage: put that on the long list of crimes Erdoğan and his accomplices must one day be prosecuted anmd punished for.