Sunday, March 30, 2014

Resurrecting Surp Giragos

Searching for reconciliation in south-east Turkey
guest contribution by William Gourlay

[1] Surp Giragos in its ruined state, before the restoration. 2009. Photo by Emily Neumeier.

Ethereal music emanating from a grand church is hardly something out of the ordinary. Heavenly strains may be more remarkable, however, in Turkey, a country whose population is today predominately  Muslim. All the more remarkable is music coming from a church that was, until recently, little more than an abandoned, dilapidated shell. [Fig. 1]

[2] Tara Jaff rehearsing in Surp Giragos.
June 2013. Photo by William Gourlay.
This past summer, I made my way to Diyarbakir, the largest city in south-eastern Turkey. One bright morning, in the heart of the Sur neighborhood, the city’s historical core, I wandered into the Armenian cathedral of Surp Giragos. That day, the entire church complex, which occupies a large plot of land in the center of town, rang with celestial melodies. Inside the church proper, before the central altar, sat a harpist, her fingers skipping across the strings, her music echoing amid soaring basalt arches. This was Tara Jaff, an Iraqi-born, London-based, Kurdish harpist. [Fig. 2] Raised in Baghdad, Jaff studied piano and Western classical music before immigrating in 1976 to study in the UK where she was first exposed to the harp. She has since established a loyal following as a singer and harpist, playing a repertoire of Kurdish poetry and songs. When I asked her if there are many other Kurdish harpists, she replied that she thinks she is the only one. Between rehearsing and fielding calls on her mobile phone, she kindly invited me to a recital that was scheduled for later in the week.

[3] A postcard of Diyarbakir. The belfry in the center is the original tower of Surp Giragos. It was heavily damaged by lightning in 1913, so the photograph must have been taken before this date. The inscription explains that in the summer time, the sweltering heat forced the residents of the city to sleep on the rooftops. Postcard from Osman Köker (ed), Diyarbekir Vilayetinde Ermeniler (20). 

[4] The new, Gothic-style bell tower of
Surp Giragos, replacing the old belfry in
1913. The tower also included eight clocks,
a modernizing touch in the early 20th cent.
The belfry was torn down in 1915. 

Photo from Osman Köker (ed), 
Diyarbekir Vilayetinde Ermeniler (23).
It is unclear how long Surp Giragos Church has stood on this spot, but the current structure is said to date from 1883 [Halifeoğlu; Leylegian]. The church served as the chapel for the diocese of Dikranagerd (as Diyarbakır is known in Armenian) from this time. In its heyday, Surp Giragos employed around 100 people--including clergy and lay parishioners--who worked in the cathedral and affiliated bookshop, kitchen, Sunday school and diocese offices. The church’s original belfry [Fig. 3] was damaged by a lightning strike in 1913 (a common occurrence with minarets as well), and the congregants decided to replace it with a new, taller Gothic-style tower. [Fig. 4] At the time, the new belfry was alleged to be the highest structure in all of Diyarbakır, a fact that irked some of the town’s Muslims, and shortly after its construction local officials ordered that the tower be torn down in 1915 [Leylegian]. Such a lofty construction was perhaps indicative of the confidence and status of local Armenians, but the tensions surrounding its destruction prefigured other troubling events that were brewing.

After the traumas visited upon the Armenian population of southeastern Anatolia in 1915, the church remained a focal point for the few surviving Armenians in Diyarbakır and surrounding villages. A priest was still attached to the church until 1985, but the dwindling Armenian community was not able to adequately maintain the structure. In the early 1990s, the roof collapsed, leaving the interior of the church open to the elements and to vandals. [Leylegian] [Figs. 1 & 5]

[5] One of the seven altars at Surp Giragos,
prior to reconstruction. 2009. 
Photo by Emily Neumeier.
The church was a forlorn relic hinting at a glory that seemed lost forever when I first visited Diyarbakır in 1992. Its arches still stood aloft but of the roof there was only a sprawl of shattered beams and rubble atop moldering carpets at floor level. A local youth who had brought me here looked solemnly at the debris then tut-tutted as he led me away.  At that time, any mention of ethnic diversity, or acknowledgement of the Armenian legacy in the city, was frowned upon. Turkish nationalist sentiments had been inflamed by the confrontation between the PKK and the Turkish military; hostilities were at their peak and Diyarbakır was the epicentre. State security personnel were a visible presence in the old city. The mood was tense; Diyarbakır’s multicultural history was officially overlooked and, in some quarters, flatly denied. Assertions of ethnic identity – whether Kurdish, Armenian or otherwise – were swiftly suppressed by police and other state apparatus. 

[6] Niches with muqarnas hoods
stand between the seven altars of Surp
Giragos. 2009. Photo by Emily Neumeier.
The design of Surp Giragos Church is distinctive. It is constructed in the locally sourced black basalt that characterizes historic Diyarbakır, from mosques and churches, to houses and the city walls.  Armenian church architecture from the medieval period in eastern Anatolia conforms to one of two conventions, either a centralised space surrounded by apses, as is the case with the 10th-century Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, or a rectangular space capped by a dome, as in the 11th-century Cathedral of Ani [Sagona 158-61]. The 19th-century Surp Giragos Church does neither. Sixteen cylindrical columns crested with pointed arches support a flat roof of wooden beams topped with earth (a local construction technique). The columns divide the rectangular floor space into five arcades, which proceed to five recessed altars on the ground floor and a further two on a second-floor gallery [Leylegian]. A traveler who visited an earlier church on this site in the 1840s noted that it, too, had ‘no less than seven altars’ [Badger, 42]. The altars themselves are decorated in the fashion of the time with a Baroque confection of painted stucco and wood; while muqarnas adorn niches between the altars. [Fig. 6] With its rectangular prayer-hall, the church recalls other monumental buildings in Diyarbakır (Sagona 197-8), in particular the Ulu Cami (Great Mosque), which in turn is said to be modeled on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. 

In 2009, local Kurdish politicians Abdullah Demirbaş, mayor of Sur neighbourhood, and Osman Baydemir, mayor of the Greater Diyarbakır municipality, instigated the project that would see Surp Giragos Church restored to its former glory. While other monuments in Turkey have been restored under the auspices of the Turkish Ministry of Cutlure, most notably the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdmara Island in Lake Van, this was the first time that a municipal council had undertaken such a project.

[7] Main facade of Surp Giragos after
restoration. The new bell tower above the
central portal is closely modeled on the
original, pre-1913 belfry. 2013.
Photo by William Gourlay.
The district city council contributed 1 million Turkish lira (around one-third of the cost of the restoration), with the newly formed Surp Giragos Foundation contributing the balance while also overseeing and managing the building and refurbishment work [Jones, Zaman]. Extant walls and arches were consolidated, cleaned and re-grouted where mortar had flaked away. The roof was replaced, and extraneous additions that were not part of the original plan were removed. The floor was resurfaced, and conservators were brought in to refurbish plaster adornments around the altars and other architectural detailing [Halifeoğlu]. Perhaps to avoid controversy, a reconstructed bell tower was not built to the dimensions of the pre-1915 tower, although given the plethora of multi-story buildings, it would no longer be the highest construction in the city. [Fig. 7] The church was reopened in October 2011, and has since become a place of active worship, a centre of arts and cultural activities and a focal point for those Armenians remaining in Turkey. While the Armenian church on Akdamar Island was reopened in 2007 as a museum, Surp Giragos firmly belongs to the Armenian community. (Photos and a video of the cathedral's restoration can be found here.)

Indeed, the refurbishment and reopening of the church is seen as evidence of the renewed confidence of Turkey’s Armenian community [Jones]. Beyond that, it reflects a maturing of discourse and debates in Turkey about national identity; it is evidence of an increasing willingness to acknowledge, and perhaps eventually embrace, a multicultural past that has been largely denied until recently. In earlier decades, particularly as the war against the PKK raged through the 1990s, nationalist discourse held that in ethnic terms the nation was homogenously Turkish and evidence of or manifestations of diversity were either ignored or smothered.

It is easy enough to find accounts that detail the long history of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Anatolia. The great Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi remarked upon the heterogeneity of the population of Diyarbakır when he visited in 1655. He recorded hearing locals speaking Arabic, Kurdish, Persian and Turkish as well as Armenian [Van Bruinessen, 29].  An earlier Polish traveler to Diyarbakır noted the important role that Armenians played in the city: all of the butchers, bakers, customs officers and merchants were Armenian [Van Bruinessen, 30]. Until the catastrophes visited up them in the early years of the 20th century, Armenians remained central to the life of the city. In 1914, it was noted that the deputy mayor of Diyarbakır was always an Armenian, while of the city’s jewellers, cotton merchants, silk traders, lawyers, physicians and pharmacists the majority were Christian, and most Armenian [Köker, 6-7].

It was for this reason that the Diyarbakır’s Sur district was sometimes known as the ‘neighbourhood of the infidels’ [Zaman]. While Turkish nationalist discourse may have refused to countenance such a reality, the Sur municipality has worked in recent years to highlight it. As well as the refurbishment of Surp Giragos, the municipality has also contributed to restoration work on a local Chaldean church and a synagogue, and while signage in the city was once solely in Turkish, it is now possible to find street signs in Turkish, Kurdish, Syriac and Armenian. (The restored Sülüklü Han, now reopened as a café, welcomes visitors in six languages and four scripts.) Mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbaş told The New York Times that in losing the multicultural fabric of the city, its diverse constituents stood to make enemies of themselves [Toumani]. The municipality has aimed to redress this, re-acknowledging and celebrating ethnic diversity, highlighting to all the citizens of Diyarbakır what they share and have in common, whether they be Armenian or Kurdish, Turkish or otherwise. A Kurdish politician, Demirbaş sees his work as being not just on behalf of the Kurds, but for all the people of his constituency [Toumani]. Demirbaş is also willing to acknowledge the role that many Kurds played in the massacres of the Armenians a century ago [Zaman]. His support and encouragement of the restoration of Surp Giragos is perhaps a measure of atonement for those terrible events. 

[8] Tara Jaff, Pervin Çakar and Azad Ziya Eren performing in the Church of Surp Giragos. June 2013. Photo by William Gourlay.

If the enthusiastic masses at Tara Jaff’s evening recital in June 2013 at the Surp Giragos Church are any indication, it would seem that there are many in Diyarbakır who are willing to embrace the notion of multiculturalism. Locals gathered, taking up position in rows of pews arrayed around the performance area; it quickly became a case of standing room only. [Fig. 8] Clearly an outsider, I was welcomed by attendees in Turkish and English. When I asked about the make up of the audience, I was told that they were all locals, both Kurdish and Turkish.

Jaff and her fellow performers, Mardin-born, Kurdish soprano Pervin Çakar and Diyarbakır poet Azad Ziya Eren, held the audience transfixed with a repertoire of Kurdish and Armenian music and Turkish poetry. Seated before the main altar, in an auditorium ablaze with light, the three artists took it in turns to perform. Jaff’s intricate harp flourishes and rich singing voice rang in the grand interior of the church. She then accompanied Pervin Çakar, who sang Armenian folk songs in her resonant soprano. With crisp diction lending weight and solemnity to his delivery, Azad Ziya Eren recited his original poetry. At performance’s end the crowd surged forward, amid hearty applause, to greet and congratulate the three artists.

Hearing the cadence of languages other than Turkish in a public performance in Diyarbakır would have been inconceivable in years past, but here a crowd of around 1000 people embraced this diverse offering. In recent weeks, in the run up to the 2014 council elections, the Turkish political sphere has become increasingly polarised and rhetoric increasingly divisive; some commentators fear that with societal cleavages widening, sectarian violence is a distinct possibility. In such a situation, the Surp Giragos Church stands as a beacon of hope. This holy place for a community that disappeared in tragic circumstances has been refurbished by politicians determined to acknowledge past wrongs and has now become a site where heavenly music might bring together diverse peoples once again.

**A music video featuring Tara Jaff:

**And a video of Tara Jaff and Pervin Çakar performing live together:

WILLIAM GOURLAY blogs and is a PhD candidate researching ethnic identity and citizenship among the Kurds of modern Turkey, at Monash University, Australia.

BADGER, George Percy. The Nestorians and Their Rituals: with the Narrative of a Mission to Mesopotamia and Coordistan. Volume I. London: Joseph Masters, 1852.
HALİFEOĞLU, F. Meral. “Restoration of Diyarbakir Surp Giragos Armenian Church,” Future for Religious Heritage (31 January 2012). 
JONES, Dorian. “Armenian Church Catalyst for Change in Kurdish Region,” EurasiaNet 17 (December 2013).
KÖKER, Osman (Ed). Diyarbekir Vilayetinde Ermeniler/Armenians in Diyarbekir Province. Istanbul: Bir Zamanlar Yayıncılık, 2011.
LEYLEGIAN, George A. “A Brief History of Largest Church in Middle East and Christianity in Diyarbakir,” The Armenian Weekly (25 November 2010).
SAGONA, Antonio. The Heritage of Eastern Turkey, from Earliest Settlements to Islam. South Yarra: MacMillan Art Publishing, 2006.
TOUMANI, Meline. “Minority Rules,” The New York Times Magazine (17 February 2008). 
VAN BRUINESSEN, Martin and Hendrik Boeschoten. Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir: the Relevant Section of the Seyahatname. Leiden: Brill, 1988.
ZAMAN, Amberin. “Turkey’s Kurds Seek Forgiveness for 1915 Armenian Tragedy,” Al Monitor (3 September 2013).

Citation: "Resurrecting Surp Giragos," William Gourlay, Stambouline (March 30, 2014).

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Broken Silhouette

Istanbul's new Metro Bridge and the political battle over the city's historic panorama

[1] Different profiles of the new Metro Bridge across Istanbul's Golden Horn, showing 
how the bridge would affect the different silhouettes of the surrounding site. 
Adapted from a graphic by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, 2009. 

[2] Map Showing the new metro extension from
Taksim to Yenikapı. Drawn in Google Earth.
One month ago, on February 15th, Istanbul's new metro line officially went into service. The project, initiated by the Greater Istanbul Municipality in 2005, unites the city's various metro lines, extending trains in Taksim Square directly into the old city, with connections to Atatürk Airport and the opposite Anatolian shore. [Fig. 2] While the majority of this new extension runs unseen underground, the most visibly prominent feature of the line is a bridge extending across the waters of the Golden Horn 
(Trk. Haliç). This past autumn, residents watched as the two 65-meter-tall pylons, supporting the bridge in a cable-stay system, slowly rose into the sky. At the opening ceremony last month, Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan was quoted saying "for this metro line, we constructed a bridge on the Haliç that will enhance Istanbul's beauty." The Prime Minister was also careful throughout his speech to stress that every precaution was taken so as not to harm any of the monuments "in an area harboring a history spanning thousands of years." These platitudes about the importance of protecting Istanbul's cultural patrimony were no doubt crafted in direct response to the backlash of scathing criticism that the bridge design faced from not only the local press and academic community, but also a UNESCO mission whose findings threatened to land Istanbul on the list of "World Heritage Monuments at Risk." The main concern lodged against the new Metro Bridge is that certain features (particularly the tall pylons, suspension cables, and rail station in the center of the bridge) block the view from the north towards the historic peninsula of the old city, especially the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque Complex. [Fig. 3] Erdoğan would call this addition to the old city's skyline an enhancement; others, an obstruction. As the deadline for the March 30 municipal elections approaches and the city's top-brass ensure that major projects are rushed to completion, the Haliç Metro Bridge and Istanbul's historic skyline are a case study in how the current government's massive infrastructure projects have become a tense political battleground.

[3] The Haliç Metro Bridge, March 2014. Looking from the shore of Beyoğlu onto the historic peninsula, the bridge partially obstructs the view to the Süleymaniyye Mosque. Photo by Emily Neumeier. 

[4] Original design proposed for the Haliç Bridge, 2007.
 Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.
In 2007, the original designs for the bridge by Hakan Kiran Architecture were revealed. [Fig. 4] The plans proposed two gilded 82-meter-tall pylons, which curved at the top into "horns" (Get it? Because the bridge is crossing the Golden Horn). Unfortunately for the Greater Istanbul Municipality, UNESCO does not seem to have a similar sense of humor when it comes to visual puns. The city's historic peninsula, which is clearly defined by the old land and sea walls, was inscribed on the register of UNESCO's "World Heritage Sites" in 1985. Because the new bridge would impact the view to the peninsula from the north, and construction would require the demolition of several historic buildings within the core area, the organization decided to step in. UNESCO made it clear that if significant changes were not made in the proposed bridge design, this project could demote Istanbul to the similarly-named but decidedly less-fun list of "World Heritage Sites in Danger," joining the illustrious company of Bamiyan and Damascus. So, the architects on the project scaled down the plans, most notably lowering the height of the bridge's pylons by about 20 meters, and changing their color from a golden yellow to a grey-white tone. With a few other minor alterations, this is basically what we see built on the ground today. The report from a joint UNESCO/ICOMOS monitoring mission to Istanbul in 2009 gives a sense of the farcical proceedings. When the investigators inquired after the cable-stay design, curious if any other options had been considered:
The mission was informed that 11 alternative designs [for the bridge] had been presented to the Conservation Council, but the alternatives were produced 10 years ago and were not studied proposals – they were only suggestions. Some of the suggestions were just copied and pasted from books on bridges. It seems clear that no alternative design has so far been seriously considered and, with regard to the design of the current proposal for a cable-stay bridge, during the meeting it was stated that the intention was to 'introduce a new work of art – a new contemporary element in the area.' [34]
In 2011, UNESCO finally approved the construction of the Metro Bridge, lending legitimacy to the project's backers. (Congratulating themselves on a job well done, the organization proceeded to be completely out to lunch on the destruction of the Yedikule gardens and the lightning-fast construction of a 270,000 square meter platform protruding into the Marmara Sea, slated to be inaugurated with an 1.5 million-person rally on March 23.) Many local critics, however, still felt that the changes in the design did not adequately address the primary concern of blocking the northern view to Istanbul's peninsula [Fig. 5], again summed up in the 2009 report: 
The overall design of the bridge, with pylons and cable stays and the thickening of the deck through the incorporation of a station, will have a significant visual impact on key attributes of the property such as the silhouette of the Historic Peninsula...the design of the bridge is inappropriate for this position, both because it will impede irreversibly on many important views of the World Heritage Site and because the bridge, presented as a 'work of art,' will compete with the Süleymaniye Mosque, identified at the time of inscription as a work of human genius, designed by Sinan. [34-35]
[5] View of Istanbul's historic peninsula, looking from Galata.
Abdullah Fréres, ca. 1880-93, Library of Congress.

[6] View of the Inner Courtyard of the Süleymaniye
Mosque. Photo by Michael Polczynsky, 2014.
The Turkish press and local academics expressed outrage about the bridge's potential to impede on the visual integrity of the peninsula's skyline. There has been no shortage of colorful metaphors; according to various critics, the bridge threatens to "break", "stab", and "violate" the silhouette of the old city. In the eyes of many, the pointed tops of the pylons are not horns, but daggers, slicing the panorama into two. This visceral imagery characterizing the landscape as a prone body vulnerable to violent attack is a familiar leitmotif, especially in the wake of modern warfare and the large-scale urban planning projects of the 20th century. In her article on the "ideology of preservation" in Istanbul, Nur Altınyıldız traces how in the 19th century the large mosque complexes dotting the hills of the peninsula [Fig. 6], which originally were service-oriented institutions and themselves agents of urban growth and renewal, were increasingly divorced from this service context and re-classified as "historic" monuments whose preservation stood at odds with the modern signifiers of progress such as opening new roads (or new metro bridges). [234] 

[7] View from the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex to the Golden Horn. Photo by Michael Polczynsky, 2014.

As the UNESCO report alludes, and commentators frequently point out, the silhouette under question is an Ottoman contribution to the city. When Sultan Süleyman commissioned the Süleymaniye (c. 1550-1558) on the top of Istanbul's third hill, he was following the precedent established by his predecessors Sultan Mehmed II and Bayezid II, who had constructed their own mosque complexes along the ridges of the peninsula in the 15th century. Significantly, the Süleymaniye complex was originally designed so that the auxiliary buildings flanking the mosque on its northern side, towards the Golden Horn, were constructed on a lower terrace so that the monument would have an unobstructed view of Galata, Üsküdar, and the Bosphorus [Necipoğlu, 106]. [Fig. 7] In this unmistakable declaration of power, the mosque, as a stand-in for its sultanic patron, commanded a wide gaze and likewise demanded to be seen. It is certainly no coincidence that the "audience" on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn was largely composed of foreigners and non-Muslim communities, who from their perch in Galata were always to some extent on the outside looking in to the city proper. Throughout the centuries, European cartographers and artists endlessly recorded this view, the Golden Horn panorama becoming its own veritable genre in the imagery of Istanbul. Now that the heart of the modern city has shifted to the area around Taksim Square, it could be argued that what was once the purview of foreigners, and Ottoman elites in the 19th century, has now been democratized (or, more cynically, commodified), becoming a monument deserving preservation in its own right. 

[8] An sign advertising the opening of
the Haliç Metro Bridge. The slogan
reads "The Metro Everywhere, the Metro
to Every Place." Under the slogan is the
name and signature of the Istanbul Mayor,
Kadir Topbaş. Photo by Emily Neumeier.
Some people are wondering what the fuss is all about. The Mayor of the Greater Istanbul Municipality Kadir Topbaş points out that, in truth, the view of the Süleymaniye is only obstructed from specific vantages, primarily the Beyoğlu neighborhoods just west of the new bridge. (read: tourists don't go there, so why is everyone getting upset?) On the other hand, Edhem Eldem wonders at the public outcry when the Süleymaniye or the starchitect Sinan's genius is threatened, but the relative silence to the arguably much more egregious destruction of Byzantine-era material. The controversy is reminiscent of the frequent criticism lobbed at Santiago Calatrava's distinctive bridge designs, which are often cited for not taking the local context or geography into account, and, on top of that, being needlessly expensive and poorly-built. Almost a full month after the official opening, the Vezneciler stop on Istanbul's new metro line was still being completed. Passengers traveling from Taksim over the Haliç Bridge are currently treated to a creepy view of the unfinished station, complete with flickering lights and tubes hanging from the ceiling. 

[9] A view approaching the station on the
bridge. Photo by Emily Neumeier. 
A 2013 petition signed by faculty members of Istanbul's Boğaziçi University lists the Haliç Bridge as only one of many recent infrastructure projects that, the faculty argues, are being completed at such a fast rate and with so little public participation or accountability that the damage being done will be "irreversible." And that is precisely the point. It is the sincere wish of the bridge's designers (including Topbaş himself, trained as an architect) that this project will endure the test of time. Aiming to create a work of art that could rival the Süleymaniye, the current municipal government has done its best to insert their own contribution to the historic skyline, evidently full-aware of the site's significance to the public imagination of Istanbul. In hopes of finding some kind of press release on the opening of the bridge, I looked on the official website promoting the new bridge project. The website, unlike the bridge itself, was still under construction.

EMILY NEUMEIER is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

**The report of the joint UNESCO/ICOMOS 2009 visit to Istanbul can be found here.

ALTINYILDIZ, Nur. "The Architectural Heritage of Istanbul and the Ideology of Preservation." Muqarnas 24 (2007), pp. 281-305.
GUIDONI, Enrico. "Sinan's Construction of the Urban Panorama." Environmental Design: Journal of the Islamic Environmental Design Research Centre 1-2 (1987): pp. 20-41.
KORKUT, Sevgi. "Istanbul's silhouette to change as metro line comes into view." Today's Zaman, 12 November 2012.
NECİPOĞLU, Gülrü. "The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: ِAn Interpretation." Muqarnas 3 (1985), pp. 92-117.
VARDAR, Nilay. "Tüm İtirazların Ardından Haliç Köprüsü." Bianet, 24 January 2014.

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