As far as I could tell, only one other person spent the night in the pansiyon, so there was no competition for the facilities in the morning. I packed as many items into my bags as I could, then went downstairs for breakfast. I ordered lentil soup, which came with bread, salad, water and tea. Only two other men sat in the lokanta. One had soup but the other ordered only tea, which he drank with his first cigarettes of the day. According to the law, smoking is no longer allowed where food is served, but in simple lokantas in south-east Turkey reliant largely on local custom to make a profit, such rules are enforced erratically. The TV news updated us about the latest speeches and gaffes made by leading political figures over the weekend, then someone changed the channel so we could watch a programme about south-east Turkey, or Turkish Kurdistan. While males sang songs happy and sad about love and lust, iconic images of Mount Ararat, Dogubayazit, Isak Pasa Saray, Lake Van, Hasankeyf, Mardin, Midyat, Diyarbakir and the mountains around Hakkari filled the screen (if an Armenian instead of a Kurd had watched the same programme, he or she would have recognised some iconic images of Western Armenia instead of Turkish Kurdistan).
I paid my bill for the food and the room, collected my things and walked about 100 metres to an office from where minibuses left for Elazig, my destination for the day. I had to wait only twenty minutes before we set off. There was just time to chat briefly with a young woman wearing a headscarf.
I knew the road from Ergani to Elazig from a number of trips in the past, but, because I was now travelling along it in mid-May when everything looked so green and fertile and the visibility was crystal clear, it felt as if I was doing the run for the first time. As soon as we left Ergani the road led to hills and mountains. We passed an old stone bridge over a river, trees with bright green leaves along the valley floors, orchards, wild flowers and an army camp as the comfortable minibus sped along the fast road. For many kilometres the railway meandered in sympathy with the rivers and every so often disappeared into a short tunnel or crossed a stone bridge, some of the latter with elegantly wide arches.
Around Maden (the name means “mine” or “mineral” in Turkish), a small town with many old houses ascending a steep hillside above the river, scars and slag on the slopes confirm that mining has been popular until very recently. Mining began in Maden in the 16th century when Greeks were brought from Gumushane to exploit the area’s mineral wealth. Today little mining continues, if it continues at all, but the railway has a presence in the town with a station, a few sidings and a water crane for use by the occasional steam locomotive.
Shortly after leaving Maden the valley widens. The road emerges on the right-hand wall of a wide bowl at the far end of which is the slope holding back the waters of Hazar Golu. Because Hazar Golu is surrounded by hills and mountains, some of the latter smudged with snow the day I passed them, and because the lake is such a large and attractive resource, the towns and villages along the north-east and north side of the lake have emerged in recent decades as destinations for people to escape the summer heat on the nearby plains. A few hotels and pansiyons exist, but villas, some of which are now twenty or thirty years old although others are much more recent in construction and designed to a higher standard, are considerably more numerous. This said, development remains just short of being overwhelming, although for how much longer I wonder. This means that at present it is not the built environment that dominates your attention, but the lake, the surrounding hills and mountains, the fields, the orchards and the wild flowers. The province of Elazig is lucky to have such a destination within its borders.
From the most westerly extremity of the lake the road veers north and descends onto a wide undulating plain with ridges of hills and mountains to the south and the north. Fields and orchards dominate the run into Elazig, which, from the south, appears a relatively small city, but only because it stretches so far from east to west and has also grown significantly in recent years toward Harput in the north.
The minibus terminated at the garaj to the south-west of the city centre and a servis bus carried passengers for free to destinations around Elazig. I and two other passengers got off where Hurriyet, Istasyon and Gazi caddesis meet and I left to find a small hotel for the night. On Horasan Sokak just off Gazi Caddesi the two-star Mayd had a room with en suite facilities, a balcony and breakfast for 60TL. It was so early in the day that breakfast was still available to late-rising guests. I knew it would be a good breakfast when I saw that a woman was responsible for preparing it.
Elazig is a city with a very large population of conventionally pious Sunnis, both Turkish and Kurdish. I had already noted that a very large number of women wear headscarves, but some like the all-enveloping, loose-fitting black garments and cover their faces so that only their eyes and the top of their nose are visible. Large, modern mosques are not far from the hotel and in my room a sign pointed toward the kible, or the direction for prayer. A prayer mat of very recent pedigree was on the floor of the wardrobe. For most of the next twenty-four hours I was very much on the Sunni side of the street with all that this implies in terms of segregation of the sexes and infrequent chats with women. On the plus side dozens of lokantas, but all unlicensed, exist in the side streets around the hotel; the pazar is only a seven minute walk away; the minibuses to Harput depart from a car park a few blocks to the east; and, by utilising the side streets south of Gazi Caddesi, I could walk to the minibus garaj for Keban and Arapgir, the latter my destination for the following day, in about fifteen minutes.
But Harput was for later in the day because my first destination was the village of Sahinkaya, about 6 kilometres west and a little north of the city centre. Sahinkaya, until quite recently known as Hulvenk, is not far from the Armenian Monastery of St. George (the name “venk” or “vank” is Armenian for “monastery”).
I left the hotel, walked to the minibus garaj where I had arrived earlier to confirm that minibuses departed for Keban the following morning (they did depart, and on an hourly basis, but I was told minibuses from Keban to Arapgir did not exist), then I strode off in a westerly direction along the main road leading eventually to Malatya. It seemed to take a long time to reach the city’s football stadium and a new but incomplete park with water features, but eventually I arrived at the point where the roads to Malatya and Keban part company. I stood near the beginning of the road to Keban and flagged down the first minibus that came along. I said I was going to Sahinkaya and the driver confirmed that he could take me to within 3 kilometres from the village. We drove past a very large modern dental hospital and many apartment blocks that looked as if they had been built only a year or two earlier, but already some shops, cafés, lokantas and other businesses occupied ground floor premises to meet the needs of the growing population.
When the minibus reached its destination all the passengers got off, but the driver urged me to get aboard again and he very kindly drove me about a kilometre further along the road to Sahinkaya. By now I was beyond the clutches of the concrete jungle that is most of modern Elazig and surrounded by fields, pasture, orchards and houses with large gardens. I began walking toward the centre of the village, but a man stopped his tractor to offer me a lift to a tea house, where we sat in the shade as refreshments were summoned. We chatted about the village, the monastery and the local population. To my amazement the man said he was Armenian. Kurds sitting at the next table said, “Yes. And we are all friends in this village. Kurds, Zaza, Armenians: it does not matter. First we are friends.”
Inevitably, my offer to pay for the refreshments was refused and, after shaking hands with everyone, the owner of the tea house included, I left for the monastery. Sahinkaya is not a particularly pretty village, but there are enough old houses and sights characteristic of the Turkish countryside to make it worth spending some time in. Just about everyone I met, male or female, said good morning and made sure I was going in the right direction, but I took one wrong turn before being put right by a man in protective clothes checking his beehives. When he learned that, in a few days’ time, I was visiting Tunceli, he said I must try the honey from Ovacik because it was very good.
As I approached a cesme dispensing chilled water that hit the spot perfectly on a warm mid-morning, I came across a brand new taxi parked in the shade of some trees. The driver had a welcoming smile on his face and gave me a cucumber to eat. He explained that he had dropped off three people who had walked the last 200 metres to the monastery. I was intrigued that I was not the only person visiting remote and largely forgotten Armenian ruins a hundred years after the genocide against the Armenians had begun.
I passed polled trees arranged in two rows, a stone ruin that had probably been part of the monastic complex and pasture brightened by many wild flowers. To the west were the last houses of Sahinkaya and to the east the apartment blocks of Elazig most distant from the city centre. The apartment blocks were less than a kilometre away. Sahinkaya will eventually lose its separate identity and become a suburb of Elazig made up of housing far less characterful than that which currently exists.
The three people at the monastery were an Armenian American film-maker from Boston, his cameraman, also from Boston, and a younger man whom I assumed was a Turkish national taken on as a fixer. The film-maker and his cameraman had been visiting Turkey off and on for two or three years with the intention of making a documentary about the 1915 genocide and its aftermath. This would be their last year in the field, as it were, after which all effort would be directed toward putting the documentary together. The Armenian American had good reason to visit Sahinkaya because at least one of his grandparents had lived locally. He told a remarkable story about close encounters with local people who had heard of or known his grandparent, about tracking down the remains of his relative’s house and about the possibility of buying the land where the house had stood, thereby reclaiming for an Armenian a little bit of Western Armenia with close associations with his family. There was even talk of being able to identify precisely where the relative’s grave had been.
We talked for a while about the events that began in 1915, about the film-maker’s family associations with the area, about the places he and I had visited because of our mutual interest in the genocide, and about the Turkish Republic’s shameful neglect of most surviving Armenian monuments other than a handful that large numbers of tourists, foreign and indigenous, visit and are therefore kept in good condition. The fact that a few Armenian monuments such as the astounding church on the island of Akhdamar in Lake Van are looked after properly lulls the gullible into thinking that all Armenian monuments in Turkey are cared for, but the ruined, vandalised and graffiti-smeared monastery church near Sahinkaya typifies the dire condition of most such treasures of the past.
I left the three in peace because they planned to hang from the damaged dome of the monastery church a makeshift Armenian flag that they were attaching to a pole they would lower into the nave with a rope. I asked permission to witness what promised to be a very moving event and was encouraged to stay, on the understanding I did not get in the way of the cameraman and his desire the film the event devoid of human distraction. I loitered in the background and, as the flag was lowered from the dome to flap gently in the badly vandalised nave, felt much more than a mere lump in my throat. An Armenian flag was, albeit briefly, hanging in an Armenian monastery church in eastern Turkey not far from Harput where some of the most thoroughly documented massacres and deportations, the latter themselves resulting in immense loss of life, took place in 1915.
It would not surprise me if what the film-maker did with the flag constitutes a criminal act in Turkey, but I regard the act as a small moral victory on behalf of a people who simply want the Turkish Republic to admit that what happened in 1915 and immediately thereafter constitutes genocide. Geoffrey Robertson’s “An Inconvenient Genocide: who now remembers the Armenians?” provides, in my eyes at least, conclusive proof that it was a genocide, and even the Turkish Republic now concedes that 600,000 Armenians lost their lives during world war one. However, the Turkish Republic insists that genocide did not take place because not all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were murdered and because “no authentic evidence exists” for “a pre-meditated plan to kill off Armenians”.
Genocide involves “the extinction of a race or any part of a race”. In other words, total extinction of a people is NOT required for genocide to have occurred. The Turkish Republic significantly underestimates how many Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 by putting the figure at 1.1 million. However, even if “only” 600,000 Armenians were murdered in 1915 and thereafter, this constitutes over 50% of all Armenians said by the Turkish Republic to have been alive in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which amounts to a very substantial “part” of the Armenian “race” in the eyes of anyone, surely. It was established a few years ago that genocide took place in Srebrinica in 1995 when just over 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered by Serbs, Ukrainians and Russians. If genocide can take place when “only” 8,000 are murdered, how can it not be the case that genocide takes place when at least 600,000 are murdered?
What of the argument that “no authentic evidence exists” for “a pre-meditated plan to kill off Armenians”? Robertson is unequivocal in his conclusion about the matter. Although it is difficult to pinpoint documentary evidence that extermination of the Armenians was planned:
Criminal law works authentically by inference from all the evidence: quite apart from the confessions by Turkish leaders (who, after world war one, said that the extermination of the Armenians was intended) and the verdicts of the Constantinople trails (of 1919, which led to convictions for “crimes against humanity and civilisation”), the deportations were certainly pre-planned, as were the laws providing for asset and home seizure by the state. Sending Armenians (and only Armenians) on long marches in the knowledge that most would be killed en route, by brigands and local vengeful Muslims, or by disease and starvation, necessarily entails pre-meditation, and government responsibility for the foreseeable consequences.
But what of the monastery church itself near Sahinkaya? What condition is it in? As I have indicated above, the ruin has been vandalised and suffers from the hands of graffiti “artists”. Because lots of mortar is crumbling away, further damage will be done to the remaining stonework, especially with the freezing and thawing of water that takes place during winter and spring. Blackened internal walls confirm that some disrespectful idiots have tried to burn the ruin down, and some of the soot suggests the fires are quite recent. Most of the floor has been dug over by treasure hunters convinced that Armenians buried gold, silver or other valuables in 1915 just before being murdered or, if women, children or elderly men, just before being sent elsewhere, the latter ostensibly to be relocated to a settlement less militarily sensitive in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. In other words, the monastery church is a most forlorn sight and confirms that such buildings are subject to intolerable official neglect. This said, most of the roof remains intact despite a hole in the dome and I have seen Armenian churches, whether once part of a monastic complex or not, in even worse condition than this. In fact, it would not take much money or labour to ensure that the ruin survive, more or less as it currently is, for many generations to come. But will such an investment in money and labour be made? Not, I fear, if the AKP secures a parliamentary majority in June 2015. Such an investment might be made if, by some miracle, a coalition is formed without either the AKP or the uncompromisingly Turkish nationalist MHP.
Here, for the record, is how Sinclair described the monastery in 1982:
A Syrian monastery was founded here in the early 6th century, but the present buildings are Armenian and the earliest part of the present church belongs to the 15th century, though this work was probably an extensive restoration of a church built in 1300/01. The rest, including the westerly addition to the church, is much later. The church now stands at the s. side of the enclosure, with two single buildings not far to the n.
Church. This is now a rectangle with a dome, now fallen, in front of the apse. The church was extended to the w. in an addition of 1882, and the nave now consists of two rows of four pillars upholding barrel-vaults above the narrow side aisles and a variety of vaults, beside the dome, above the central aisle. Low arches are sprung from the pillars to the n. and s. walls. To the e. the line of the arcades is continued by the walls separating the apse from its side chambers. The church’s earlier part (to the e.) is higher, and the drop in the height of the vaults is reflected outside in the height of the roof… E. end. Deep sanctuary, ending in semi-circle. S. side chamber reflects its shape in its n. wall; n. chamber has been enlarged… E. half of nave. Note polychrome masonry of pendatives, different patterns formed by the blocks in the pendatives. Simple painting (cavalier saint and dragon) on n. wall, second bay…
Monastic buildings, which probably date from 1882. E. wall of enclosure adjoins corner of church’s ne. chamber. The w. wall no doubt joined the church’s nw. corner, but is broken off at a good distance from it. Large room against n. wall… All walls in this enclosure are of mudbrick; the arches of the main room and the jambs of its n. door are stone.
Sadly, a lot of the fine detail that Sinclair describes in relation to the church is now lost and, perhaps even more alarmingly, none of the structures mentioned after “Monastic buildings” remain. Compare my photos of the monastery near Sahinkaya with Sinclair’s photo in volume III of his monumental study and be shocked by what has disappeared in such a relatively short time. Anyone who values the products of human endeavour as the very things that have helped to shape us today, and that provide us with a glimpse of humankind’s amazing capacity for invention and creativity, cannot visit the monastery near Sahinkaya without feeling a profound sense of loss. Moreover, I feel compelled to ask the following. Is not such neglect and its consequences almost as unforgivable as the destruction by the Taliban in 2001 of the great Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, and is it not almost as unforgivable as the destruction currently being undertaken by the Islamic State at world heritage sites in Syria and Iraq? Furthermore, is there something in the nature of Islam that makes such destruction of non-Muslims’ cultural artefacts, religious buildings included, more likely than when other belief systems dominate a region of the globe, either temporarily or permanently? Of course, it is possible that this is a problem with Sunnis alone in so far as such Muslims have, in recent years, also engaged in the destruction of many Shia and Sufi cultural artefacts, religious buildings included, in countries as far apart as Mali and Iraq. Moreover, Ahmaddiya Muslim mosques have been attacked by Sunnis in almost every nation state where they have a statistically significant presence.
I could tell that more work had to be done before just the right shots were taken for the documentary, so we exchanged contact details and I began the walk back to Sahinkaya, chatting briefly with the taxi driver as I passed him. I also filled my bottle at the cesme wondering whether this was a source of water for the monks who once inhabited the monastery. The stonework gracing the cesme looked old enough to have been around at least as early as the late 19th century, despite the fact that a tablet of stone set into structure has a date of 1938. This said, the inscribed tablet of stone could easily have been a later addition.
I arrived at a house where a family were sitting in the garden enjoying the sunshine. We chatted briefly before one of the women said that, if I was quick, a minibus would leave for Elazig in five minutes from outside the modern mosque. I would have liked to look around the village a little longer (for many years now my favourite settlements in Turkey have been villages rather than towns or cities) but, if I missed the minibus, it would mean a much longer journey time to the city centre and less time at Harput, so I dashed off and caught the minibus with two minutes to spare. There were only seven other passengers and half were female. Only one woman wore a headscarf so the conversation flowed easily with females as well as males.