I got off the minibus when I recognised somewhere near the city centre, returned briefly to the hotel to freshen up, then went for something to eat. Many of the lokantas in the area around the hotel have flashing electric signs informing passersby what they specialise in, and a lot of the advertised food is very tempting. However, I did not want to eat too much just in case it slowed me down that afternoon, so opted for a tavuk doner sandwich stuffed with salad and mayonnaise at a small lokanta with a dining area upstairs with only enough room for five or six tables. I also ordered water and ayran. The young married couple who own the business were from near Antakya, a favourite city of mine in southern Turkey, but a city not visited for many years, so we had a lot to talk about. “Yes, I know Harbiye. Yes, it’s a wonderful place for lunch or dinner. Yes, the old city of Antakya is very beautiful. Yes, the churches, the museum, the mosaics, the local edible specialities…” Chats like this only increase my wanderlust.
I walked to the parking lot from where minibuses depart for Harput and it was not long before the driver took a full load of passengers through the northern suburbs as we ascended to our destination. Along the way we passed an enormous army camp and a very large military hospital.
It had been a few years since my last visit to Harput and I knew that, since then, many of the monuments, but not the Christian ones, had been restored; old houses had disappeared and some new ones been built; new businesses such as cafés, lokantas and shops had opened; parks and playgrounds had been created; and general tidying up had been undertaken, all of which meant that Harput has become a very popular destination for recreational purposes. There is nothing wrong with this, I suppose, although it is now much harder than in the past to connect with the tragic events that unfolded here in 1915 (the tragic events include the murder of thousands of Ottoman soldiers of Armenian origin stationed in the town and the expulsion on foot of about 3,000 Armenian civilians, mainly women, children and elderly men. Most of the 3,000 civilians never made it to their destination, the Syrian desert, due to hunger, thirst, murder by Turks and Kurds, local tribespeople kidnapping and enslaving women and children, and women and children dying or being killed after suffering repeated rape). Harput, a place that witnessed terrible crimes against humanity, is being sanitised and all physical reminders of the victims allowed to slowly disappear.
The entrance to Harput used to be dignified by a terrace of very old timber-framed houses in a terminal state of decay, so I was not altogether surprised to see that they had disappeared. This said, the houses have been replaced by a butik hotel built with modern materials to superficially resemble what it replaces, but, as is so often the case with such reconstructions, the replacement engenders a sense of sadness mixed with anger because the original has not been not restored! Other recent developments disappointed and/or angered me in a similar manner, so much so that, for the first half hour or so, I thought I had made a mistake coming. But then Harput began to cast a spell. The spell began with the grandeur of the surrounding landscapes and the views that are a delight almost everywhere you walk. The spell continued with the fresh air, the wild flowers and the relative quiet (it was Monday and the start of the working week so not many people were paying a visit), all of which helped me to acquire an altogether deeper appreciation of the surviving monuments. In the end it was with some reluctance that I returned to the large modern city below, despite Harput being the scene of dreadful crimes against humanity only a hundred years ago.
In 1915 Harput was the area’s main centre of population. Elazig on the plain below had not been in existence for long and would only become the dominant population centre after large parts of Harput were destroyed in the first world war and then largely abandoned. What remains of Harput merely hints at its past grandeur and importance, but its magnificent hilltop castle, one of Turkey’s largest, its Ulu Camii with a crooked but patterned minaret, its three other mosques, its two hamams, and its Mansur Baba and Arap Baba turbes, both of which still attract pilgrims, are important and, in some instances, enchanting survivals from the past, although I side with those who think some of the restoration work has been over-zealous. This said, I would rather over-zealous restoration has assured the long-term future of the monuments than that the monuments should be lost to humankind. This is especially the case with the castle, the Ulu Camii, one of the hamams and the turbes.
However, although a lot of labour and financial expense have been lavished on the restoration of Muslim, Selcuk and Ottoman monuments, and on the development of facilities for visitors to enjoy recreational and shopping opportunities, Harput’s Christian monuments are in a shameful state. The large Syriac Orthodox church, known locally as the Kizil, or Red, Kilise, although in good condition externally, cannot presently be entered, which makes me think that the interior must be in very poor condition, and the two ruins attributed to the Armenians, one a church and the other a chapel, are in a dire state of preservation, just as they have been for as long as I have known of their existence first-hand.
Just for the record, here is Sinclair’s description of the Syriac Orthodox church:
This is quite possibly a reconstruction of 1179, from which an over-modest repair inscription is known; if not, the church is 10th century and the inscription refers only to a repair.
The forbidding box-like form of the church is pressed against the s. side of a corner low down in the rapidly descending cliff of the citadel rock: the corner is cut into the ne. end of the rock spur projecting from the citadel rock’s e. corner. A platform still exists to the n. of the church, protected from earth slippage by a retaining wall…: at its s. end the wall distances itself gradually from the rock in order to allow for a small chamber accessible from the nave. The wall in fact conceals part of the nave…
The interior is ill-lit but spacious: the light, coming lengthways down the church from windows at the e. end only, causes shadows on the deeply pitted floor (much dug by treasure hunters, starting in 1978 or 1979)… The nave is entered by a doorway much narrowed (in the late 19th or early 20th century) by additions from the side and from above: a ramp against the wall, protected by an L-shaped wall and a roof, leads to the doorway.
The wide nave has four wall piers, upholding arcades, on each side. The shallow vaults, although sprung from the top of the walls resting on the arches, rely just as much on the ribs sprung from the arches’ spandrels: the strictly vertical height of these ribs… increases greatly towards the wall as the slant of the rib’s soffit swiftly steepens.
E. end. Since 1979 much of this has become unwalkable owing to deep pits. An internal wall cut through by the chancel arch ends the nave, but two chambers either side of the short chancel can also be reached from the nave through doors in this wall. Off these again are the genuine pastophoria (side rooms for liturgical purposes). The sanctuary is a rectangle with rounded corners: low altar. The semi-dome is of brick. The southern of the two chambers reached from the chancel extends outside the line of the nave wall, and the s. pastophorion is shifted further s. in sympathy… Off the first chamber leads another: this is extremely dark and its floor much lower, mostly because of the digging…
Not far from the Syriac Orthodox church is what is left of an Armenian church, which Sinclair thinks was the Church of the Apostles:
Only the e. wall and parts of the n. and s. walls adjacent to it remain. They stand at the end of a high artificial platform. The church no doubt belongs to the 19th century. It has three apses, the central one wider than the others. From these apses vaults or possibly rows of domes would have led westwards supported on pillars or piers. To n. and s. of the three juxtaposed aisles was a single aisle, narrower than the central three. The ends of these two narrower aisles can be seen to the n. and s. of the three apses.
From both the churches just described there are views into the bottom of a valley where the scant remains of a chapel exist. Sinclair describes the chapel as having a:
Single nave, probably with dome in front of apses. Probably Armenian. Perhaps medieval.
In “Armenia: the survival of a nation”, Christopher Walker writes that Harput was once “one of the intellectual centres for Ottoman Armenians” and that, in the late 19th century, American missionaries established “a distinguished and progressive educational institution, Euphrates College”. Ottoman census figures confirm that Harput had a large Armenian population, but, today, at best only two ruins confirm that it was once a town benefiting from such a population. Considerable time, energy and expense have been expended to preserve what remains of the Islamic, Selcuk and Ottoman heritage at Harput, and even the Syriac Orthodox church, which once served a far smaller Christian community than did the Armenian churches, is in better condition than anything that can be attributed with certainty to what was once a substantial Armenian population. Are these realities depressing? They are very depressing.
This said, I did enjoy my visit to the castle where, unlike my last visit, I could walk around at will because restoration has been completed. The views from the castle walls are remarkable and were enhanced because it was mid-May when the grass is green, the wild flowers many and varied, and the visibility far superior than during the hottest months of the year. Some parts of the fortifications have been restored to a degree that must fill archaeologists and architects with a mixture of anger and despair, but what did impress me immensely is that excavations are currently taking place in and around an Urartian cistern. The day of my visit no one was working on the site, so I entered one or two of the fenced-off enclosures through unlocked wooden gates to examine the remains more closely. This relatively recent discovery made me wonder what else will be found at this remarkable place. Moreover, will some future discoveries help us to reconnect with the Armenians who once lived here?
As far as I could tell, the only foreigner at Harput the same time as me was a German national of Turkish origin who was visiting the area where his father and mother had come from before migrating to Germany for work purposes in the 1960s. Quite a lot of high school and university students had come to engage in self-conscious courtship rituals with someone they fancied in the opposite sex, and small groups of young males and females walked around hoping someone in the opposite sex might take an interest in them. Most of the young women wore headscarves and, being Turkish and Sunni, were reluctant to engage in conversation with an unknown male such as myself. Conversation with such a male would be shameful for a female, although if a male engages in chat with an unknown female no shame attaches to him. Hypocrisy? How else can it be described? And, if pious Sunni women are meant to cover their hair and ears at all times and dress modestly from head to toe, why do exactly the same rules not apply to Sunni males? Hypocrisy? What else?
I caught a minibus to the centre of Elazig to walk around the pazar and the surrounding streets as people bought food to take home for their evening meal and the following morning’s breakfast. For most people the working day was over. I noticed that, although many women were dressed in ways that would reassure the conventionally pious, some had the courage to dress just as they wished, even though, in so doing, they no doubt upset or shocked many of the Sunni majority in the city. Some high school students had paired off to test just how far they could go with public expressions of affection in a heterosexual relationship without older people with strong religious convictions berating them. But some things are resistant to change in Turkey, despite trends such as globalisation and most people being economically much better off than ever before. On all the minibus rides so far undertaken, males and females rearranged themselves on the seats so no males sat with unknown females. Also, as nightfall approached, girls and women made their way home thereby rendering the city centre streets almost completely male preserves. A few women remained in open business premises or begged on the streets, but that was about it. By 9.00pm there was no one to chat with but men and boys.
In cities such as Elazig where Turks and Sunnis seem to dominate, segregation of the sexes is often more apparent than in villages, even though in cities women can move around relatively freely, especially if they are employed, and women in villages can never go too far from home unless they are themselves involved in work such as caring for animals or toiling in the fields.
I have always liked Elazig’s pazar. It does not occupy pretty premises – the covered section is quite rundown and the surrounding streets are largely devoid of interesting architectural features – but the outlets for food (fresh fruit, dried fruit, vegetables, honey, jam, olives, cheese, nuts, lokum, baklava, pestil, kome, etc.) are excellent. Many shops beyond the covered sections sell clothes, shoes, hardware, kitchen utensils, fabric, knives and furniture; a large shed stocks flour, dried beans and bars of bittim sabunu; and lots of shops specialise in very expensive clothes for devout Sunni women who want to make an impression even though they must cover all the body except their face and hands. Moreover, some shops selling clothes for weddings are outrageously over the top, so much so that I thought I had strayed into a documentary about how Gypsy and Traveller families in the UK like to spend big on matrimonial clothes, especially for women. Supermarkets, shopping malls and out-of-town retail opportunities are taking their toll on pazars in many parts of Turkey, but Elazig’s is surviving better than most. It had been my intention to spend the last night of the trip in Diyarbakir, but I was wondering whether it might be better to stay in Elazig instead because in Elazig I could buy most of what I wanted for home more conveniently than in Diyarbakir. I would see how things worked out as the last two days approached. I also fantasised about getting home some large wooden cooking utensils, cooking pots made with metal and an unglazed red clay pot for the oven, to say nothing of seeds to grow vegetables the following year! The only downside to the pazar is where men keep live fish in large tanks. Some fish had died through lack of oxygen and others were close to death.
Just to the east of the covered section of the pazar is a large square dominated on the far side by a substantial modern mosque. A large hemisphere of steel and glass or Perspex covers an entrance to an underground extension of the pazar and, next to the hemisphere, more stalls exist where most people sell fruit, vegetables and herbs. I peered into the window of a shop selling everything required to ensure that a young male never forgot the day he was circumcised.
For my evening meal I returned to where I had eaten lunch and ordered exactly the same food and drink again. It proved exactly what my body craved, so much so that I went for a walk to help digest the meal. At one point I passed one of those slightly suspect modern places, in this case partly in the open air, pretending to be an antik nargile café, even though it looked as if it had been set up only a few weeks’ earlier. It had suffered a fire earlier in the day, perhaps due to some faulty electrical wiring running along wooden columns supporting a flat wooden roof of cheap and hasty construction. Staff were trying to salvage things from the wreckage.