Surp Giragos Armenian Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos was very busy, as you might expect because it was Sunday, but, because the morning service had concluded an hour or two before my arrival, it was primarily busy with people eating large meals in the courtyard (although every now and again small groups of Armenians or Kurds entered the still-open church to look around). Most of those eating appeared to be Kurds, but in a smaller courtyard to the north of the church about forty Armenians (foreign-born? A bus group from Istanbul?) were finishing a meal with two or three priests of the Apostolic Church. The joyful atmosphere was enhanced because the adults had consumed at least a dozen bottles of red wine made by the Syriac Orthodox Christians of Tur Abdin.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

I chatted with a few Armenians who had finished their meal, and with a young Armenian woman responsible for some of the informative displays that enlighten visitors about the church in particular and Diyarbakir’s once-substantial Armenian population in general. It was wonderful to be back and to see the church so popular with Armenians and local Kurds.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

The church that has been so carefully restored (it was badly damaged in the 1915 genocide, but restored in the 1960s when about a thousand Armenians still lived in the city and its immediate surroundings. However, as Armenians left the city in the years that followed, the church had to close. It was a ruin once again by the mid-1980s) dates from the first half of the 19th century, but Armenian sources suggest an Armenian church has been on the site of Surp Giragos since the 15th century. The complex is unusual in that it has no fewer than seven altars (five are in the church alone). Around the church itself are buildings that once included a school, chapels, storage space and accommodation for priests. Sinclair refers to a baptistery and says that the raised gallery at the west end of the nave is where women used to worship separately from men, but nowadays men and women worship together in the nave among the columns supporting the roof.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

One of the altars is in a room separate from the church itself and is dominated by a picture of Mary with the infant Jesus. An attractive rug covers the stone floor in front of the altar. Nearby is an ornately carved wooden chair painted gold; the upholstery is ruby-coloured. The chair looks very much like a throne for a bishop or the Patriarch of Constantinople/ Istanbul himself.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

One of the most notable features of the church is the slim bell tower that rises above the entrance. Pictures of the church dating from the 19th century suggest that the church once had a bell tower taller than the one that exists today, and the taller bell tower appears to be what existed at the time of the genocide itself.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church from the roof of the pansiyon.

View of the bell tower, Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Next, I walked east of the church to part of the old city where some of Diyarbakir’s poorest families live. Most men were at work, despite it being a Sunday, or with friends in tea houses or barber’s shops, so the residential streets were dominated by women and children. In many parts of the old city buildings private, religious or civil have been constructed with the same dark-coloured stone found in the walls and gates that encircle the district, but along the streets which I walked most old structures have been replaced by houses and small apartment blocks made with breeze blocks covered with plaster. As a consequence, the walls are painted many eye-catching colours that look their best in the late afternoon sunshine. It proved a wonderful time to be walking around.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

Diyarbakir.

There were two nearly new single beds in my room, an electric fire on one of the walls, a rail with a few hangers for clothes and a mirror with a frame painted gold. Two windows overlooked the street outside and another window the courtyard below. The walls were bare brick from which plaster had been removed. A rather cheap rectangle of carpet imperfectly covered the floor. The door led to a small enclosed area with a sofa shared by the next bedroom along. I was in the room closest to the toilet, wash basin and shower, and hot water seemed to exist all the time. A double door led from the courtyard to the street outside and stone steps led from one floor to the next and onto the flat roof itself.

The first thing I did after washing and dressing was to ascend the steps to the roof from where I could see the surrounding buildings, Surp Giragos Church and its restored bell tower included. Most of the surrounding buildings, whether old or new, were in a shabby state, but small patches of garden had somehow survived and a few women engaged in chores on nearby roofs. The roofs were convenient places on which to hang lines to dry clothes. I was in Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant on Seftali Sokak and enjoying every moment of my visit.

Two members of staff at the Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

Two members of staff, Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

By about 7.45am there were a few people in and around the courtyard getting things ready for the day (in the mornings, most customers visit the Aslihan to enjoy a notably generous breakfast), but I was advised that breakfast would not be served until just before 9.00am. This did not worry me because my next destination was not far from Diyarbakir and, before moving on, I wanted to walk the short distance though the narrow streets to Surp Giragos Church. This I did, with a few short detours to remind me of this fascinating part of the old city (I passed the nearby Chaldean Church, Seyh Mutahhar Camii, Dortayakli Minare and some old but rundown houses, all of which are located along narrow cobbled streets where businesses were opening for what their owners hoped would be a busy Saturday). When I pointed my camera to take a few photos of the buildings, Sunni women averted their eyes or hid their faces with a headscarf, even if they were aged over fifty, but men spoke a few words by way of extending a welcome.

Diyarbakir's old city.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

Diyarbakir's old city.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

Dortayakli Minare

Dortayakli Minare.

Chaldean Church.

The Chaldean Church.

The doors leading to the compound around Surp Giragos Church were open and, inside, two Armenians were preparing the café and lokanta to welcome lots of visitors later in the day. Some visitors would be Armenians from western Turkey or abroad, but there would also be many Islamicised Armenians and Muslims of Kurdish origin from in and around Diyarbakir, all of whom wanted to engage with the church and its grounds so attractively restored a few years ago. Things looked very encouraging. The church has become a valued addition to Diyarbakir’s many tourist attractions, but, so far, has been subjected to vandalism no more serious than some fading graffiti on the wall enclosing the compound.

The courtyard of Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

The courtyard, Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

I returned to the pansiyon, was given a freshly fried borek to nibble before breakfast proper, chatted with some of the staff, and quickly became aware that the driving force behind the business was a young Kurdish woman with hair dyed a fetching shade of red with a hint of blonde. I sat at a table in the shade and breakfast was brought on two wooden platters with a basket with two types of bread. One platter had borek, fried potatoes in their skins, tomatoes, cucumber and different salad leaves, and the other had four types of cheese, three types of olive, more tomatoes and salad leaves, and no fewer than eleven small dishes containing butter, kaymak, pekmek, honey, hazelnut spread, a spread I could not identify (but it tasted very good) and no fewer than five excellent jams. The food was so good that I needed three large glasses of tea to do it justice. Just as I was thanking staff for providing perhaps the best breakfast I have ever had in Turkey, two men walked into the pansiyon to order the same meal for themselves. My meal had been made all the more pleasurable because, instead of one or two members of staff joining me to ensure everything was okay, they prepared things for customers coming later in the day or devoted their spare time to their mobile phones.

Four members of staff at the Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

Four members of staff, Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

Breakfast at the Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

Breakfast, Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

I gathered up my belongings, thanked staff for making my stay so enjoyable and settled the bill, then walked through part of the increasingly lively pazar before entering the courtyard of the Ulu Camii for old time’s sake. The exit was closed that leads from the courtyard to the Ziya Gokalp Museum, gutted by an arson attack in late 2014 when Kurds in the city found Turkish government inaction in relation to the Islamic State’s seizure of Kobani in Syrian Kurdistan inexplicable (Ziya Gokalp is a highly contentious figure among Turkey’s Kurds because, although Kurdish himself, he declared himself committed to Turkish nationalism), which meant I could not see what damage had been done without a detour. I called at an information office near the Ulu Camii for a map of Diyarbakir, then walked to Urfa Kapi from where I caught a minibus to the garaj from where minibuses leave for destinations north and north-west of Diyarbakir. I was spending the night in Cermik, the birthplace of Ziya Gokalp, because Cermik and the nearby town of Cungus have some important monuments I wanted to see for the first time. Within fifteen minutes of arriving at the minibus garaj I was on my way, but the first half hour was spent trawling the suburbs of north-west and north Diyarbakir until almost all the seats were occupied. One place where we picked up passengers was outside the Ninovar Park shopping centre, which was in far better condition than Ninevah itself, so recently the subject of as-yet unquantified destruction by the Islamic State.

Diyarbakir's old city.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

Manchester (the United Kingdom) to Diyarbakir (the Turkish Republic).

Demand for seats on planes to Turkey in mid-May must have been quite low because I secured return flights with highly regarded THY from Manchester to Diyarbakir via Istanbul Ataturk Airport for only £214. Moreover, I got to my destination on the evening of 15th May generously fed and watered and only twenty minutes late.

The flight from Manchester carried plenty of British people, some quite elderly and of diverse ethnic origin, destined for a city break of a few nights in Istanbul. I wondered what they would make of the now-vast city on the Bosphorus that spreads like a virus every which way into the surrounding undulating countryside, and in a manner rendering the once distinctive city increasingly like any other, particularly in the suburbs where houses and apartment blocks of similar design, and shopping malls, office blocks, hospitals, schools and industrial estates, could be deposited in a hundred other nation states and not look out of place. I have heard worrying stories about how, in recent years, much effort has been devoted to smartening up even the imperial heart of Istanbul so that the hordes of tourists that now descend on the city will feel more at home. It really was time I returned to the city for a few days to see for myself what remained of the things that first sparked my love affair with Turkey. Would I be reassured or repelled by what I found? A bit of both, in all likelihood.

The view from gate 105, the domestic terminal, Istanbul Ataturk Airport.

About a third of the passengers on the flight from Manchester were Turkish nationals, or Turks and Kurds of British nationality, travelling to destinations in the republic further south or east. After getting through passport control and having my visa confirmed (visas for the Turkish Republic can now be downloaded electronically in advance of arrival), I collected my large bag from one of the many luggage carousels and followed them to the domestic terminal. Once I arrived at gate 105 from where the Diyarbakir flight was due to leave in about an hour’s time I was the only person, other than two or three women married to Turks or Kurds, who was not a Turk, a Kurd or an Arab. Although some of the women around me dressed in a manner that Erdogan, the economically liberal but socially conservative Sunni president, would have approved of (they wore headscarves, loose-fitting lightweight coats that reached to the ground, two or three layers of clothing under their coats, socks or dark tights and flat shoes of simple design but shabby appearance), most women wore what might be called conventional European or American clothes (trousers such as jeans, tee-shirts or blouses, and trainers or leather shoes with heels) and definitely no headscarves.

Matters associated with the second flight were so informal that it almost felt as if we were catching a bus rather than a plane. At Diyarbakir itself, and in contrast with a visit I had made a few years ago, I was not taken to one side so the contents of my luggage could be checked by uniformed representatives of the state.

One of the best things about Diyarbakir is that the airport is relatively close to the city centre, so much so that I could walk about 500 metres to a busy intersection, where I had a chat with a woman aged about thirty in trousers and a tee-shirt who had flown from Istanbul on the same plane as me. We chatted as if in a European city where it is normal for people of the opposite sex to talk with one another. The Muslim Middle East, which so frequently requires rigid segregation of the sexes, seemed far away. I asked if she was a writer – she had been reading a diary of her own composition on the plane – and she said, “Sort of.”

I waited beside the road for a minibus to take me to the edge of the old city. I stood beside an elderly couple also destined for the same area and we began to talk. They said they knew of a recently opened pansiyon in which I would like to stay. Because it was not yet 10.00pm, if the pansiyon turned out to be no good I could easily identify somewhere else to stay, so I let the couple lead the way.

As the minibus drove into the old city via Mardin Kapisi, we passed a lot of police vehicles, some armoured, parked at important intersections. We also passed large, heavily fortified compounds in which army personnel were installed. Diyarbakir felt and looked like an occupied city where unrest might break out at any moment.

We got off the minibus almost as soon as we crossed the point at which the two main roads in the old city, the ones running north to south and east to west that subdivide the area into four sections of almost equal size, meet and, facing north, took a turn to the right away from the Ulu Camii and the main section of the pazar. We nonetheless remained in a section of the pazar itself, although most businesses had shut for the night (a bakery, a tea house and two shops selling food other than bread remained open and, it being Friday and the start of the weekend, a few people were walking around). About 100 metres down the road we turned right onto an even narrower road, one wide enough only for a donkey or motorbike, and, about 40 metres along, arrived at the entrance to the pansiyon. I met four young people, male and female Kurds, who, collectively, ran the place and, after shaking hands with them and having a short chat, was ushered into the courtyard around which the pansiyon is arranged.

Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

The flat-roofed pansiyon, an old stone house that spreads over two floors, was described to me as a one-time Armenian home. If it had once been Armenian I could detect nothing that obviously rendered it such, but it was a delightful place not far from Surp Giragos Church, the only Armenian Apostolic church that still functions in Diyarbakir. I was told that a room for the night cost 60TL, but it came with a breakfast that I was told I would enjoy very much. I had to share washing and toilet facilities with others, but the room I was allocated was next door to what Americans would call the bathroom. Moreover, the large room was simple but spacious and windows overlooked the courtyard and the street outside.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church from the roof of the pansiyon.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church from the roof of the pansiyon.

I had glasses of tea with the man in charge of the pansiyon for the night and the couple who had led me to it, then the couple left for home, which was nearby because they said they could see from their house the bell tower of Surp Giragos Church. After the couple had gone I was offered a glass of red wine made by Syriac Christians in the vineyards around Mardin or Midyat. It had been my intention before leaving the UK not to have any alcohol when away, but when offered such wine by someone so grateful that I was staying the night, I succumbed to temptation immediately. The glass was a generous one and the wine very good. I was having a delightful start to the trip.

The courtyard of the pansiyon.

The courtyard, the pansiyon.

I had a brief chat with a Turkish couple from the west of the country who had just finished a meal with wine in the large dining room overlooking the courtyard from the side furthest from the door leading to the street, then I prepared for bed. I had a very good night’s sleep. From midnight, the only sounds I heard until about 5.30am were the occasional raised voice, the bark of a dog and the day’s first adhan, or call to prayer.

The courtyard of the pansiyon.

The courtyard, the pansiyon.