I resumed my walk through the neglected streets of the old city before coming across a cultural centre arranged around a large courtyard. The cultural centre had once been a large house and must have been built by a wealthy family. An elderly man with a large salt and pepper moustache invited me into the courtyard.
About forty males and females sat on chairs facing six elderly men, and one of the elderly men recited from memory what I soon understood to be an epic from the distant past important to the Kurdish people. The story was told in Kurmanji, which, until a few years ago, would have been an unlawful act. It is only for the last few years that Kurds have been allowed to give public expression to their cultural identity through the use of Kurmanji.
I stayed until the end of the recital, which concluded with rhythmic clapping by everyone present. After I had thanked the man who had invited me into the courtyard and the man responsible for the recital itself – the latter was delighted that the audience had responded so positively to his admirable efforts – I chatted with four young women, at least three of whom were Kurdish. All four were university students. Three of the women, all from Diyarbakir itself, did not wear headscarves. Two wore jeans and tee-shirts and the third a long skirt and a tee-shirt. One of the three women without headscarves – she was training to be a teacher – had a tee-shirt that revealed her arms and more of her chest than is conventional in Turkey. She was the most extrovert and self-confident of the four and, when I said I was a teacher and part-time university lecturer, she interrogated me about educational matters. The fourth woman in the group was from Adiyaman and was spending a few days with her friends in Diyarbakir. She dressed as a conventionally pious young Sunni woman revealing nothing of her body except her hands and face. She may have been Turkish rather than Kurdish.
I was asked what I intended to do and I said, “I will walk to the Syriac Orthodox church to see how things are. I have not visited the church for a few years.” The young women had some spare time and, to my amazement, decided to come as well. It turned out that none of them had been to the church before. As we meandered toward the church, we chatted about the forthcoming election. The women living in Diyarbakir intended to vote for the HDP. She did not say how she would vote, but I suspected that the woman from Adiyaman would vote for the AKP.
We arrived at the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin where coin-operated barriers now lead to the entrance. The entry fee is very small, of course (however, I was not allowed to pay the 2TL), but in many respects the barriers are indicators of optimism. The Belediye is now helping to look after the church (hence the barriers and a uniformed attendant) and the church is firmly on the city’s rapidly expanding tourist trail. Inside were some tourists, Turkish and otherwise, and about thirty Syriac Christians. The Syriac Christians had stayed on following the end of mass earlier in the day. Among the milling people was Abouna (Father) Yusuf Akbulut, whom I had first met in 2009. Yusuf was very busy, but we managed to briefly chat. I was amazed that he recalled the visit I had made with Hilary one rainy day in October almost six years earlier.
Sinclair says that the church:
Originally built in the 6th century, was a large construction most of which has been lost. The main body had three lobes to n., w. and s. From the would-be lobe in the e. extended the chancel, which survives, as does the apse in which it ends. Chancel and apse have been converted into the present church. The lost part… lay on the site of the present ample courtyard to the w. of the church… The house to the n. is the former bishop’s residence…
From the portico the church is now entered beneath a gallery, and the rest of the former chancel is covered by a shallow dome. The apse is now decorated crowdedly… but if one looks high up on the e. walls to either side of the apse, two excellent wall capitals with garlanded acanthus from the original church can be made out…
The nave is now domed: the eight supporting piers, two set against each of the n. and s. walls, shoulder arches and pendentives. Beneath the original capitals in the e. wall doors lead to chambers either side of the apse, but these chambers are late. The n. door’s heavy, rectangular external frame was probably part of the original church.
At the end of our tour of the church (we were shown around by a young Syriac male studying at one of Ankara’s universities), the young woman exposing more of her flesh than is usual in Turkey said that she had Muslim parents, but she herself did not practice Islam “because religion causes so many problems.” To confirm that what she said might be true, I told her about the problems Yusuf had encountered in 2000 and 2001 when he spoke out about the massacres Syriac Orthodox Christians suffered at the hands of Turks and Kurds at the same time Armenians were subjected to genocide. She nodded her head slowly and said, “Yes, the Turks and the Kurds will have been Muslims. The Syriac Christians will have been killed because they were Christian. It is wrong. It is sad.”