Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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28 March 2012

Anton and Surp Giragos Church - Diyarbakir, Turkey

On May 6, 2002, I wrote:
“The Armenian church was frightening in its decaying sadness and squalor. Inside the compound where 2 Armenian families lived stood a monumental skeleton of the former church, its stone arches standing naked in regimental order.

“The old man, likely shrinking in size every day, led me through the muddy and garbage strewn courtyard to a small building. He unlocked the blue door, the only splash of color to be seen, and ushered me into a small church.

“Anton turned on the lights, but it was still dark, all the windows long since permanently boarded up. It looked like mildew, but it didn't smell like it. It was fresh and cool. Wide-cuffed tan-and-brown frocks with large metal crosses attached to the shoulders hung on one wall; near-dead crimson gantlets were piled on a small table; and, bibles in varying states of disuse were stacked in two nearby alcoves.

“Anton busied himself straightening up remnants of past lives while I tried to absorb it all. The alter area was a garage sale of Virgin Mary memorabilia. I felt that if I touched anything it would crumble into dust. But of course I did, and of course it did not.

“The future of the church's community is already past.”

March 19, 2012

I knock on the thick steel door in a back passageway of Diyarbakir's old city enclosed in its massive basaltic walls. I knew the way well having returned many times over the years. But now there are two gleaming brass door knobs circled in curvacious Armenian letters. A young man comes, and after a short introduction he welcomes me in, closing and locking the door behind us.

Although I knew that Surp (Saint) Giragos church had just undergone a complete restoration, I was unprepared.

Diyarbakir's past dominant cultures is a literal Who's Who of Anatolian/Middle Eastern empires, from the Hurrians 5,000 years ago and likely before, continuing uninterrupted through the Ottoman Empire. Overlooking the Tigris River it is now the largest city in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey.

Periods of history bore witness to vibrant Armenian populations as late as the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, and largely ending with their genocide in 1915. The remnant Armenian community essentially left the city in the 1990s due to political and economic reasons, some relocating to Istanbul, others to Europe.

Surp Giragos church, originally constructed in the 16th century, was the largest church in the region and particular in its 7 alters. It was rebuilt several times through the centuries, and following WWI it was used by the Turkish state as a military depot and other secular purposes. The church was repatriated to the Armenians in the 1960's; in the nineties its flat earth-covered roof collapsed.

Its restoration began in 2009 and was principally funded by a foundation created for this purpose, and the municipality of Diyarbakir led by its Kurdish mayor. The Armenian Patriarchate from Istanbul officiated the internationally attended consecration mass in October, 2011. There has not been another service held in the church since.

How many Armenians remain in Diyarbakir? Hasan, one of the two young Muslim Kurds caretakers, tells me, “Maybe there are 15, but I don't really know.” Later in the compound I share a tulip-shaped cup of amber tea with an Armenian man and his daughter. He is from Siverek, 90 kms to the east. “In Diyarbakir? No, there are not any here. They have all left.”

Hasan allows me to visit the small chapel I visited 10 years ago. He unlocks the blue door and light streams in. Although swept clean and empty, it smells the same.

I knew that Anton had moved to Istanbul in 2004 due to poor health. I ask about him. He is still in Istanbul but his health continues to fail, I am told. He is blind and can no longer speak.

But Surp Giragos glories in its restoration.

Postscript - The Bell Rings On

On November 4th, 2012 the new bell, the church's first since 1915, was to be rung. I visited Surp Giragos two weeks prior and admired the impressive100 kg bell that waited to be hoisted up the still-under-construction bell tower.  

I returned the day before the natal ringing of the bell.  A gathering was a foot.  I spoke with a Canadian Armenian who arrived just that morning for the celebration.  He was tired but seemed at home.  The bell hung unseen above looking down on squads of workers scurrying with intent.   

I was unable to stay on, but I am sure the Armenian Patriarchate from Istanbul got along just fine without me.


(December, 2013)  from Al-Monitor:

(January 2015) from the New Yorker:

23 March 2012

One Imam's Path

Speaking earnestly, Hasan draws a triangle in the air as we sit in a trendy sidewalk tea house. He, Ahmet and I all smile as we glance at a shapely young woman walking by. He takes a sip of tea and lights another of many cigarettes. The mass of society is the base of the triangle, he explains. The force of the “system” is pulling them further from the apex of true Islam. He draws a straight line up the middle of the triangle. He and few others in Turkey are ascending.

We are in southeastern Turkey, the historic and cultural center to the country's 15-20 million Kurds. The conversation is in Kermanji, the dominant Kurdish dialect, which Ahmet ably translates.

What made this and several other conversations somewhat remarkable is that Hasan is an imam, a local Islamic spiritual leader who leads worship services at a mosque. He is equally comfortable citing Frederick Nietzsche and other philosophers as he is the Qoran. The potential for collision between the two is evident in the practical world, but not in Hasan's beliefs. He sees enlightenment, not conflict.

Hasan is anxious to tell his story. I said I would try.

For example, he continues, the Qoran says that a woman divorced by her husband must wait 4 months and 10 days before she can remarry. Why? Because 1,300 years ago this was the amount of time needed to determine whether or not a woman was pregnant. But now? The technology has changed and the same information can be determined in one month. The Qoran provides for such evolution of thought, Hasan insists. Other imams reject such thinking as the Qoran is considered by Muslims to be the immutable words directly from God.

How did this come to be? Hasan is a handsome 36-year old Kurd with an easy smile that begins in his soft eyes. Aways impeccably dressed, he carries himself with ease and confidence, far from the stereotypical views of imams we have in the West. I expected a dramatic tale of family and politics, but found instead a man's searching.

Earlier in the afternoon we visited his parents' home in a tall modern apartment building near the city center. His mother has been ill for a year. “My mother is my life,” he said slowly in English. The two share the same open and soft eyes. Family had gathered, as they often do. Hasan's wife and one of his three children, his only sister (he has five brothers as well), an aunt with her husband, mother-in-law … all relaxed and comfortable with me joining the assembly in reception room.

The mood changed 45 minutes later, after we had coffee, and then tea with “zabet,” a pastry filled with fried curds. Hasan's father had entered the room. The women left and the men stood, kissing the 78-year old father's hand. We left shortly thereafter.

“I do not feel feel for my father as I do for my mother,” Hasan said later. His father is also an imam, as was his grandfather, and beyond. “Although my father is a renown expert in the Arabic language, my father thinks like a villager,” he continued. All of his brothers had left the city because of his father, and his mother's illness is indirectly his fault as well, Hasan believes.

Hasan was the only son to be sent to a madressa (a school that stresses Islamic teachings), a decision that he did not object to as a 12-year old, and still does not regret. He completed 6 years in the madressa, and then began his university-level studies. It was then his father suggested he become an imam. Hasan warmed to the idea. He passed the standard State-administered exam, much like an engineer and other professionals must, became “licensed,” and subsequently a State-employed imam.

The next day I visited him in the small mosque in the basement of the public hospital where he was assigned. It is a narrow room with thread worn green carpet, looking more so in the flourescent lighting. A few men were leaving after the afternoon prayer. We in turn went to a simple tea house in the old part of the city to continue our conversation.

“To be an imam is just a job (Ewîya jî karekê.)” Hasan said. He thinks that in Turkey perhaps only 10 percent of imams are committed to their spiritual role. But he continues to return to the “system” in Turkey. Since its founding in 1923 and with intent the State has insidiously eroded Muslims the ability to think. They now are religious serfs who reject all logical thinking. The triangle and Neitzcshe.

Although he deeply believes in Islam, Hasan is frustrated. Nobody listens to his ideas. He wants to stop being an imam, which is entirely possible in the Turkish system. But the State salary affords him the means to support his family.

“Do you think your knowledge of Islam has made you a better man?,” I ask. “True Islam,” he qualifies, “Yes.”

“Do you think your knowledge of Nietzcshe has made you a better man?” “Yes,” he says with equal conviction.

“Are you sure you want me to write this story?” “Yes. It will be your gift to me.”

19 March 2012

Newroz Celebration - Diyarbakir 18 March 2012

"Newroz Piroz Be!" Happy New Year. The first day of spring, March 21st, has long been celebrated by Persian and Persian-influenced cultures, as the demarkation of a new year. The calendars in Iran and Afghanistan still so reflect. The Kurds are also of Indo-European ethnicity originating in this same region. They have incorporated this new year into their culture and mythology, the latter including fire for Newroz festivities. Since the mid-20th century the Kurds have increasingly used Newroz as an occasion to celebrate their identity, and closely related, their cultural and political frustrations being minorities in four modern nation-states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

In Turkey, because of the increase in violence these past 3 years after almost 10 years of relative peace, the government banned Newroz celebrations on all days but March 21st, presumably hoping to limit participation. The reaction by the Kurds was predictable as they defied the ban on Sunday, March 18th, and gathered outside of Diyarbakir. Although earlier in the day there was a heavy police presence in the city, and some confrontations, the violence did not approach levels feared. The the police ultimately did not interfere with the celebration.

The crowd was variously estimated at 100,000 to one million. By the time I arrived in the early after, the number seemed to be somewhere in the middle. But in any event there were still a lot of people. Several communication vans were burned, but on the periphery of the main gathering. Interest was essentially limited to clutches of older boys throwing rocks at the burning hulks.

The Newroz celebration seemed more like a ... celebration. Families gathered, tradional Kurdish clothing and the outlawed colors of yellow-red-green were worn with defiant pride, political speeches blared from atop the two busses in the middle of the crowd, and young and old alike chanted politically incorrect protestations while waving the universal victory sign of two splayed fingers.

What will happen on March 21st remains to be seen. (Postscript: As it turns out there was an isolated incident of violence where a policeman was wounded. There were no mass demonstrations.)