Yenikapı Street Project

The city of Diyarbakir was one of the most culturally diverse in the Middle East before World War I. People from different ethnic and religious backgrounds–Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Chaldeans, Arabs and Turks–lived side-by-side until the last century. The centuries-old “millet system” in the Ottoman Empire, which defined a hierarchical, contractual relationship between the state and non-Muslim communities, collapsed during the rule of the Young Turks (1908-1918), and the process of homogenizing Anatolia began. In this respect, the Armenian Genocide in 1915 marked a turning point, but the Ottoman state’s policies towards the ethnic and religious homogenization of Anatolia targeted the other ethnic populations as well. The city of Diyarbakir experienced this historical transformation quite sharply, losing a majority of its non-Muslim populations.

Social, economic and cultural co-existence in the city of Diyarbakir among different ethnic and religious communities was destroyed in the course of WW I, and the new Turkish nation-state established in 1923 continued the policies of its predecessor.  Although the Turkish state acknowledged the collective rights of non-Muslim populations in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the recognition of equality in theory, involving an inclusive concept of citizenship, was not reflected in the practice of an ethno-racially hierarchical regime. The Turkish state’s continuing policies of discrimination against non-Muslims resulted in the migration of non-Muslim communities from Diyarbakir to Turkish metropolises such as Istanbul or European countries. The outcome of this political process was the loss of Diyarbakir’s ancient ethnic and religious communities and its lively and culturally diverse social life. Nevertheless, various historical buildings, monuments and sanctuaries remain, symbolizing the ethnic and religious diversity of old Diyarbakir. However, until very recently, the state policy was to abandon most of these buildings and simply allow them to disappear. This project is a step towards reversing this historical trend.

Scope and Purpose

The main purpose of the project is to restore and renovate all the buildings on Diyarbakir’s ancient Yenikapi Street and make the necessary arrangements to protect the historical environment. Taking a multicultural perspective, the project is renovating a street on which a mosque, churches and a synagogue are located (Sheikh Matar Mosque, Saint Grigos Armenian Church, Mor Petyum Chaldean Church and an unnamed synagogue). Any modern symbols and buildings that interfere with the historicity of the street will be removed or renovated according to their original appearance. Saint Grigos Armenian Church, built in the 16th century, was renovated and opened in 2011; it now serves as both a house of worship and a museum. The ancient synagogue, which is partially ruined, is also being renovated without harm to its historical configuration. The project also aims to renovate the site of a former bathhouse on the street—the Pasha Hamam—to be used for cultural purposes. Because handicrafts was one of the most important aspects of socio-economic life in ancient Diyarbakir, one of the buildings to be renovated will be transformed into a handicrafts workshop. The street itself and the lighting will also be restored to represent old Diyarbakir. Overall, the project aims in part to create a version of ancient Diyarbakir designed to serve touristic purposes, rather than taking a political position.

Impact

The only completed part of the project at present is the Armenian Church, which has had considerable positive impact both locally and in the media. Since at the time of this writing, the project is still in progress and only partially completed, it would be premature to draw any major conclusions about its cultural and political impact. However, the planning and design process of the project have both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, since the Turkish state has attempted to deny or hide the presence of any historical monuments and buildings representing a non-Muslim presence in Anatolia and Kurdistan, it is quite significant that a state institution is directly involved in this renovation project. Moreover, it is unusual for pro-Kurdish municipalities and Turkish state institutions to collaborate on any kind of project. But the project also invites some criticism. The multiculturalist framing of this memorialization effort is unlikely to have a significant political impact, since the Turkish state is still in denial about past human rights violations against non-Muslims.