DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Hurriyet)–Resurrecting memories of the Armenian presence in what is today Southeast Turkey, workers in Diyarbakır are putting the finishing touches on a $3.5 million project to restore what was once one of the largest churches in the Middle East, St. Giragos.
Officials from Turkey, Armenia and the Armenian diaspora are expected to attend a Divine Liturgy to celebrate the church’s reopening, which is scheduled for later this year.
“After the restoration process, we are planning to draw faith tourists from around the world,” St. Giragos Armenian Church Foundation Chairman Ergün Ayık recently told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
The coming Armenian religious service marks a second for the region after Divine Liturgy was held last September at the Holy Cross Armenian Church on Van’s Akhtamar Island, drawing top Turkish officials, Turkish-Armenians and members of the Armenian diaspora.
Unlike Holy Cross, however, St. Giragos will remain in the possession of the Armenian community after restoration is complete. The Istanbul Armenian Foundation coordinated the church’s restoration, drawing funds from diaspora Armenians, as well as the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, which is expected to meet one-third of the restoration budget. The Turkish government, meanwhile, has promised to provide 25,000 Turkish Liras toward the church’s refurbishment.
The church is the first in Turkey to be restored by Armenians, Ayık said, adding that they initially had problems with the country’s Culture Ministry.
“Right before the restoration we asked for support from the ministry but we were told to hand over the ownership of the church to the ministry in return for support. If we had accepted it, St. Giragos would have opened as a museum like [Holy Cross] in Van,” the chairman said.
Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay visited Diyarbakır to examine the restoration process at the church a few months ago, Ayık said. “He said he would provide a budget of 25,000 liras for the restoration, but we have not received it yet.”
According to some art historians, the church is the largest in the Middle East. The complex sprawls over 3,200 square meters and includes priests’ houses, chapels and a school. The church was seized by the German army in 1913 and served as their local headquarters until 1918, when it was converted into a fabric warehouse.
Ayık also said St. Giragos had several unique architectural features. “Churches normally have one altar but St. Giragos has seven altars. Its original roof was covered with the earth from around the region. We will do it again. The earth has been stripped of seeds to prevent the growth of plants. It should also be vented regularly, every year.”
The chairman, whose family is originally from the southeastern province, said the church was handed over to the foundation by the General Directorate of Foundations in the 1950s and continued providing church services until 1980.
By the 1980s, there were only five Armenian families left in the province; now, however, there is just one.
“In accordance with the law of foundations, people had to live in the cities where they worked for foundations, but there was no Armenian society in the city. This is why the church was left alone, without a society, and looted by treasure hunters,” he said, adding that only the Hatay-Vakıflıköy, Kayseri and Diyarbakır churches survived today among the 2,000 churches and monasteries that once dotted the historic Armenian plateau that is now under Turkish occupation.
“These churches do not just belong to us; they are the cultural heritage of Turkey. We should preserve them,” Ayık said.
Ayık also said he had asked for help from diaspora Armenians living in different countries throughout the world.
“They ask why we are restoring a church that does not even have a society and whether it will be turned into a museum,” he said. “I have explained to them the importance of protecting these structures and have tried to persuade them that it will not become a museum [out of the control of Armenians].”
The chairman, however, said the foundation planned to turn one of the chapels into a museum.
“We will display the lifestyle of Diyarbakır’s Armenians. There will also be concerts and exhibitions. In this way, the church will be able to finance itself,” Ayık said.
Ultimately, the chairman said, conducting such a restoration would not have been possible 10 years ago. “Turkish society and Turkey is changing. People want to know about the societies that they live with.”