Journalist // Brussels
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Notebook/Blog

Searching for traces of Armenian heritage in Anatolia

Last weekend, I visited Tunceli - a mountainous, sparsely populated province in eastern Anatolia that's home to many of Turkey's minorities: Kurds, Zazas, Alevis... but also Armenians, the descendants of those who survived the genocide whose centenary will be commemorated on April 24. 

The acting patriarch of Istanbul, Aram Atesyan, said that up to 90 per cent of Tunceli's population had Armenian roots, although many did not know or were still afraid to say.

These "hidden" Armenians, sometimes called crypto-Armenians, are now coming forward - learning their language, taking Armenian names, reverting to Christianity and demanding that their destroyed churches be rebuilt. You can read more about the Anatolian Armenians reclaiming their heritage in my article for The Sunday Times this weekend

While in Tunceli, my fixer and two Armenians - Serkan and Miran, who founded an Armenian culture centre - took me on a road trip through the province, following the traces of Armenians who lived in this region for centuries. 

Driving from village to village, we briefly stopped at a free-standing rock. From the roadside, that's all it looked like: a big, rust-coloured rock. 

An outcrop of rock in Tunceli's mountainous countryside: at first glance, nothing special 

An outcrop of rock in Tunceli's mountainous countryside: at first glance, nothing special 

On the roadside, water from a small spring dripped into a stone trough. A sign next to it read "ziyarat: do not use water to wash your car". Ziyarat, Arabic for "visit", is often used to describe a holy place (most commonly sites of Muslim pilgrimage, like shrines or tombs). 

This rock turned out to be a secret Armenian temple. Hollowed out inside, it had an entrance on its side that could only be reached via a precarious-looking ladder. 

Serkan climbing into the rock-temple. 

Serkan climbing into the rock-temple. 

The Armenians I was with described the site as a church. Research I found suggests, however, that this place - and similar temples found throughout Anatolia - predate Christianity. Such rock-cut chambers are relics of the Kingdom of Urartu (860 - 590 BC), the predecessor of successive Armenian kingdoms. [Side note: I was unable to find a lot of research on these places. If I'm wrong/if there's more, please let me know!]

Nonetheless, it is a holy place for Tunceli's Armenians, past and present. Serkan and Miran said that it was a hiding place for persecuted Armenians both before and during the genocide. 

Inside the rock temple. 

Inside the rock temple. 

Inside the temple, a small altar is carved into the rock. A window looks onto the road, but from the roadside you can only see it if you know where to look. 

This window allowed worshippers to spy on possible intruders. 

This window allowed worshippers to spy on possible intruders. 

Later in the day, we visited Mazgirt, a town that used to be home to 400 Armenian families. Now, there are far less, but no one knows their number: some still hide their identity. Although the town's population is half Alevi, half Christian, there is no church. The Christians light their candles in the Alevis' cemevi. 

There used to be churches in Mazgirt, but none remain. This church, below, was destroyed as recently as 1970-80: resident Armenians blame the military. An almond tree blooms in its ruins. 

One of many destroyed churches in Tunceli province. 

One of many destroyed churches in Tunceli province. 

The municipality has recently decided to rebuild this church, but others, such as this one below, cannot be restored. It took me a long time to even see these ruins - Miran kept pointing at a hill saying there was a church, but I only recognised the arches and crushed walls when I stood in front of them. 

A barely-recognisable church in Mazgirt. A beekeeper has set up shop here. 

A barely-recognisable church in Mazgirt. A beekeeper has set up shop here. 

When their churches were destroyed, Mazgirt's Armenian residents collected the stones and reused them in walls and the foundations of their homes, rather than leaving them for others to reuse. "This is our heritage and it belongs to us," one man told me. The big square bricks can be spotted all across town. 

These perfectly square bricks once belonged to Mazgirt's Armenian church. 

These perfectly square bricks once belonged to Mazgirt's Armenian church. 

The stones of one church, however, the Armenians could not rescue. Below is the only mosque of Mazgirt, which Armenians say was built from the stones of a destroyed Armenian church that once stood in its place. 

There are almost no Muslims in Mazgirt, besides the Alevis, a Turkish-Muslim sect whose members pray in cemevis, not mosques. The mosque's young imam said that for Friday prayers, 70 worshippers visit on average - but only five of them are from Mazgirt. The rest are soldiers stationed in the area. 

Mazgirt's only mosque. Look at the ground floor windows - the stones do not fit onto each other, leaving gaps. 

Mazgirt's only mosque. Look at the ground floor windows - the stones do not fit onto each other, leaving gaps. 

One of my Armenian guides, Miran, got into an argument with the imam, who said the stones had come from an old mosque, not a church. In the end, they agreed to disagree and the imam shook Miran's hand upon our departure: "Anyway, I love you, brother." 

Unused stones in the mosque's backyard. 

Unused stones in the mosque's backyard. 

In Tunceli, tens of thousands of Armenians found shelter during the genocide, and many I met told me that the province was still different from the rest of Turkey. As one man put it: "The people of Dersim [Tunceli's pre-1938 name] never let us forget our heritage."