When I try to imagine my grandfather, the face that appears to me is a variation of a pencil drawing that hangs in my parents’ house. The drawing captures the earliest image of him that we have in our family. He appears to be in his thirties, and he stares down from the wall with a serious countenance, a sharply groomed mustache, a tall, stiff collar, a tie pin. He seems like a self-possessed man, with an air of formality: a formidable person.
I never had the chance to meet him. I was born in the nineteen-seventies, on Long Island, and he was born in the eighteen-eighties, in the Ottoman Empire, near the Euphrates River. He died in 1959—the year that the first spacecraft reached the moon, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, and Philip Roth published “Goodbye, Columbus,” though I suspect he would have known nothing of those things. What he knew was privation, mass violence, famine, deportation—and how to survive, even flourish, amid such circumstances.
My grandfather spent most of his life in Diyarbakir, a garrison town in southeastern Turkey. Magnificent old walls surround the city; built of black volcanic rock, they were begun by the Romans and then added to by Arabs and Ottomans. In 1915, the Ottomans turned the city, the surrounding province, and much of modern-day Turkey into a killing field, in a campaign of massacres and forced expulsions that came to be known as the Armenian genocide. The plan was to eradicate the empire’s Armenians—“a deadly illness whose cure called for grim measures”—and it was largely successful. The Ottomans killed more than a million people, but, somehow, not my grandfather.
He guided his family safely through the tumult, and he remained in the city long afterward, enduring the decades of subtler persecution that followed. There was no real reckoning for the perpetrators of the genocide; many of them helped build the modern Turkish republic, founded in 1923. The violence may have been over, but its animating ideology persisted. As İsmet İnönü, the President of Turkey from 1938 to 1950, said, “Our duty is to make Turks out of all the non-Turks within the Turkish country, no matter what. We will cut out and throw away any element that will oppose Turks and Turkishness.” The state cut away Armenians from its history. At the ruins of Ani, an ancient Armenian city near the country’s northeastern border, there was no mention of who built or inhabited it. In Istanbul, no mention of who designed the Dolmabahçe Palace, once home to sultans. This policy of erasure was called “Turkification,” and its reach extended to geography: my grandfather’s birthplace, known since the days of Timur as Jabakhchour (“diffuse water”), was renamed Bingöl (“a thousand lakes”). By a law enacted in 1934, his surname, Khatchadourian (“given by the cross”), was changed to Özakdemir (“pure white iron”).
Diyarbakir became a city of wounded cosmopolitanism, its minorities—Christians, Jews, Yazidis—greatly diminished. Still, my grandfather persisted, until 1952. My father, the twelfth of his children, grew up in Diyarbakir, and I grew up listening to his stories about it. At parties, over glasses of coffee or raki, he described the place in mythic terms, as a kind of Anatolian Macondo, populated by people with names like Haji Mama, Deli Weli, Apple Popo. But my grandfather was always elusive in those stories, his path to survival a mystery. For nearly a century, the Turkish state has denied the Armenian genocide—until recently, you could be prosecuted even for referring to it—and so any inquiry into such things would have been fraught. But not long ago a curious thing happened. Diyarbakir, breaking with the state policy, began to indicate that, once again, its people wanted it to serve as a shared homeland. The centerpiece of the city’s experiment in renewal is a cathedral that once touched all the city’s Armenian inhabitants, my grandfather among them.
The Church of Sts. Cyriacus and Julietta, named for an early-Christian child martyr and his mother, is a wide, imposing structure, made of carved volcanic rock, that stands at the center of old Diyarbakir. In Italian, the child is San Quirico; in Armenian, Sourp Giragos. The largest Armenian church in the Middle East, it was built in the nineteenth century to a design of ecclesiastical minimalism, with a basilica containing seven altars, and a flat wooden roof supported by sixteen monolithic stone columns and rows of gracefully tapering arches. The church has gone through many cycles of destruction. In 1880, it burned to ashes, and was rebuilt. In 1913, lightning destroyed its bell tower. Its replacement, a semi-Gothic spire housing an expensive eight-sided clock and a bell cast in Istanbul, was destroyed during the genocide—struck down on May 28, 1915, by cannon fire, because the spire surpassed the height of the city’s minarets. Or so one account claims. I should mention a more authentic-sounding story passed down in my family: One day, the spire’s architect turned up at my grandfather’s door with his tools and treasured belongings, urging him to keep them all, relaying a plan to disappear. Days later, one of the spire’s builders turned up, too, full of conflict, explaining that officials had ordered him to dismantle the spire so that its carvings and contents could be repurposed or sold.
After the genocide, the church and the few remaining Armenians of Diyarbakir became locked in a ruinous spiral, diminishing together. For a time, Sourp Giragos served as a warehouse for a state-owned bank, and as a provisional military facility. My father remembers, as a boy, looking into the basilica and seeing recruits line up to be dipped into barrels of insecticide. By the time my grandfather emigrated, the church’s most active members could fit in one photo, which my aunt keeps, carefully annotated, in one of her albums. As could be expected, the great basilica fell into disuse, with the community instead assembling in a small chapel, which my grandfather helped finance. But even this modest chapel was not small enough. People continued to leave. By 1985, there was no longer a priest: Father Arsen suddenly absent, young Kurdish boys no longer teasing him in the stone alleyways (“a monk, a monk, a glass in his rump”). Eight years later, with snow accumulating on Sourp Giragos’s neglected roof, the whole thing collapsed. Eventually, there was just Antranik Zor, a strange old man, the guardian of the ruins, who told visitors, “Everyone is gone, they have become part of the earth, only I am left.”
My sister visited Sourp Giragos at its nadir, about fifteen years ago, and found Uncle Anto, as he was known, sitting on a rock, dishevelled: loose shirt, cardigan tucked into sweatpants. Through a friend, she spoke to him in Turkish, but he just sat there, mute, empty-sighted. Later that afternoon, she returned and spoke to him in Armenian, and he jolted into alertness: Who are you? Where did you come from? We haven’t had a priest for so long. Do you know the Lord’s Prayer? She recited it, and he wept, and then he led her into a shed behind the ruins, a cluttered place illuminated by a single light bulb. He rummaged among his things, telling my sister that he had been waiting for her so she could protect a relic he had been guarding. He emerged with a Bible, its cover torn away, and told her to take the book to where it might be safe. He spoke with desperate urgency of what they would do if it remained, if they found it. My sister took the Bible, of course, and kept it at her house. Shortly afterward, I visited Diyarbakir, too, and went looking for Uncle Anto, but people near Sourp Giragos said he had been hospitalized—in fact, he would never leave his bed again. In the church, Kurdish boys were playing soccer, their ball arcing across the vandalized basilica, passing through the shadows of columns and arches that by then held up only sky.
The news of the city’s changed atmosphere came quietly, five or six years ago, with the unlikely talk that Sourp Giragos was going to be rehabilitated as a functioning church—even though there was no congregation for it anymore. Then, in 2011, an item in the Armenian Weekly (which has arrived at my parents’ house for as long as I can remember) made clear that the talk was real. “sourp giragos opens to the faithful,” it noted, adding that the structure “stood as defiant as ever to the forces suppressing freedom in Turkey.” Several hundred people turned up for the reconsecration, nearly all of them having flown in, mostly from Istanbul, or from abroad. Diyarbakir’s mayor, Osman Baydemir, told the Armenian visitors, “You are not our guests. We are your guests.” Abdullah Demirbaş, the mayor of the city’s old district, where my family had lived, even made reference to the great taboo—the genocide—saying, “Our grandparents, incited by others, committed wrongs, but we, their grandchildren, will not repeat them.”
Hundreds of people began coming to Sourp Giragos every day, the visits minor acts of curiosity, atonement, remembrance, a reckoning with a distant Armenian identity. Some came trying to piece together family history, lost stories of survival. Last April, I packed a bag (and the old Bible) and made the journey, too—to solve the mystery of my grandfather’s survival, if possible, and to learn how the cathedral had been resurrected, how the city had so unexpectedly changed, and how a century of contested history could finally appear to be resolved.
Diyarbakir’s walls loom from a distance as you approach, but inside them the old city feels small, almost cloistered. My father told me that during his childhood the walls were ruins infested with snakes and scorpions, and he wouldn’t have dreamed of going near them. Like Sourp Giragos, the walls are now being renovated; new parks line the fortifications, which people are free to climb. Throughout the old city, historic buildings are being restored, the urban renewal accompanied by deeper social and political changes. For more than ten years, Diyarbakir was under “emergency rule”; ethnic tensions were high, and the fears that Uncle Anto had felt—of what they would do if they came—were discernible. These days, if a stranger, a shopkeeper, a person offering directions learns that you are Armenian and of Diyarbakir ancestry, you will be ushered into a home, welcomed with tea, treated like a long-lost relative deserving honor. You will be hemşerim: a person of this place.
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When I met with Abdullah Demirbaş, the old city’s mayor, he had just completed his second term, and he was between political appointments. Demirbaş is Kurdish, and it quickly became apparent that the story of Sourp Giragos’s revival was inseparable from the interweaving narratives of political violence that bound together Armenians, Kurds, and Turks for more than a century. The municipality’s welcoming atmosphere, and its willingness to challenge orthodoxies about the genocide, is in many ways a Kurdish story.
In 1915, in Diyarbakir, Kurds were among the main executors of the genocide; members of prominent Kurdish clans helped plan the massacres for the Ottoman bureaucracy and grew rich by the seizure of property. In the countryside, Kurdish tribal chieftains carried out the killings with pitiless savagery. But then, not long after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk formed the modern Turkish republic, the Kurds themselves became the objects of Turkification, as the state initiated a process to eradicate their culture. The irony was not lost on foreign observers: “It is a curious trick of fate that the Kurds, who were the principal agent employed for the deportation of Armenians, should be in danger of suffering the same fate as the Armenians only twelve years later,” the British Ambassador in Ankara reported, in 1927.
Eventually, a pathological, contradictory view of Kurds gained currency in Ankara, a view that denied that Kurds existed as a distinct ethnicity while at the same time holding that they would be irrevocably foreign unless they renounced all that made them distinct. The state insisted that Kurds were merely “Mountain Turks,” a form of Turkish peasantry. An armed nationalist movement, led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—the P.K.K.—emerged, and with it came the “emergency rule” in the region. The state’s agents razed villages, clearing the countryside. Extrajudicial killings were rampant, and Diyarbakir’s prison became notorious for torture and disappearances. As a Kurdish politician recalled, “They hung me up by my arms, nude, and attached electric wires to my genitals and anus. When they turned on the current, my whole body would tremble; they call this ‘doing the plane.’ ”
As the villagers fled to Diyarbakir from the surrounding areas, it became a Kurdish city. In time, the Diyarbakir Kurds began to recognize that their role in the genocide was a kind of original sin in their modern political history. “I remember this one Armenian priest,” Demirbaş told me. “A Kurd was insulting him, and this priest told him, ‘We were the breakfast for them, you will be the lunch. Don’t forget.’ And that was important for me.”
Demirbaş, a big man with an easy smile, was born in 1966, in a Kurdish village called Sise; his family moved to Diyarbakir when he was one. “When I first went to primary school, I wasn’t able to speak Turkish,” he said. “The teacher asked me a question, and I didn’t understand, and the next thing I remember she was holding my ears and bashing my head against the wall. I didn’t go to school for a week.” The school he attended was Süleyman Nazif Elementary, named for an Ottoman notable. Thirty years earlier, my father had attended the same school, and I recalled similar stories from him about everyday aggression—about the insult gâvur, meaning “infidel,” the epithet carrying echoes of 1915. For my father, the atmosphere was intolerable, and he dropped out; my grandfather bought his diploma with bags of rice.
Demirbaş had the opposite reaction: inspired by Socrates, he became a teacher of philosophy. Between 1983 and 1991, the Kurdish language was illegal, but he and his wife named their daughter Berfin, the Kurdish name for a pale-colored flower—a decision that instantly triggered prosecution. The legal battle went to Turkey’s Supreme Court, and by the time Demirbaş won, his daughter was a year old. As a teacher, he confronted the bureaucracy of Turkification with similarly mild gestures, each time eliciting a severe legal reaction. The government moved Demirbaş from school to school. In 2001, he was posted to Sivas, a deeply conservative city, where he wrote a press release stating that all people in Turkey had a right to education in their native languages. He was fired. Destitute, he returned to Diyarbakir, and was elected to lead a teachers’ union. From there, he entered politics, and in 2004 he became mayor of Diyarbakir’s old city.
At the time he lost his teaching job, he had been charged in as many as a hundred cases. Some of them, owing to changes in the law, were dropped; many others were added, and now he does not know how many there are. His lawyer told him that if he lost every case his combined prison term would be four hundred and eighty-three years. It seemed strange that Demirbaş could not keep track of his legal affairs, but as he spoke about his cases, I began to understand his confusion. Shortly after he was elected, a twelve-year-old Kurdish boy was fatally shot while police were gunning down his father, in front of their house; Demirbaş erected a sculpture to mark the tragedy, with thirteen holes carved into it, representing the boy’s gunshot wounds. He was prosecuted: misuse of municipal office and resources. (Three years.) The case went to the Supreme Court, which remanded it to a terrorism court, which threw it out—though now, on appeal, it has made its way back to the Supreme Court. In 2006, at a conference in Vienna, he presented a paper, “Municipal Services and Local Governments in Light of Multilingualism.” This time, the charge against him was “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” (Five years.) When he issued a multilingual tourist brochure, in Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, and Assyrian, he was charged. He was charged for speaking Kurdish while officiating at a wedding.
In 2007, the government forced Demirbaş out of office, and so he phoned a friend who owned a house near the municipal headquarters and set himself up there as shadow mayor. Journalists, dignitaries, and assemblymen still sought his advice, as did his constituents, who came by the hundreds, with offerings of tea and sugar. Members of his former staff raised funds to cover a small budget and volunteered during off hours. Demirbaş’s teen-age children took jobs to support the family. In this way, he continued his term. And the state continued finding new ways to charge him.
In 2009, Diyarbakir Armenians—living, as many did, in Istanbul—came to Demirbaş to discuss restoring the cathedral. Demirbaş had just been reëlected, by a wide margin, and the national attitude toward the Armenian minority and toward the genocide was slowly beginning to soften. The ascendancy of Recep Erdoğan, of the Justice and Development Party, to the office of Prime Minister, in 2003, initially signalled a new willingness to confront Turkish political orthodoxies. In Istanbul, the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink founded Agos, a newspaper—and when Dink was assassinated, in 2007, a hundred thousand people protested, many holding up signs that said, “We are all Armenians!” Thirty thousand people also put their names to a statement of apology, which read, “My conscience does not accept the denial of, and the insensitivity toward, the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.” The Ministry of Culture restored an important Armenian cathedral on an island in Lake Van.
But the limits to these gestures were unmistakable. The state had renovated the Lake Van cathedral, but as a museum; for three years, it would not allow a Mass to be held there. Turkification had not fully abated. As recently as 2005, the Environment and Forestry Ministry announced plans to correct the “ill intent” of scientific nomenclature that violated “Turkish unity”: thus, the species of deer known as Capreolus capreolus armenus became Capreolus capreolus capreolus. Even as people mourned Hrant Dink, death threats poured into his former office. And when the Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, responding to the apology campaign, offered a woolly statement about the possibility of “dialogue,” a nationalist accused him of having Armenian ancestry. Gül, rushing to prove a genealogy of Turkishness “for centuries,” sued for defamation—and won. In parliament, a legislator’s motion to adopt the apology caused an uproar; the chairman cut him off, accusing him of “insulting the society in which you live.” A new campaign—“I do not apologize”—got far more signatories.
The Diyarbakir Armenians went to the Ministry of Culture, seeking financial assistance to renovate the church. The ministry agreed to pay the full cost, more than two million dollars, but only in exchange for the deed, intending to convert the structure into a museum. Vartkes Ergün Ayık, the head of the Sourp Giragos Foundation, which led the restoration effort, told me that it took no time to decline: better to let it remain in ruins than stand as an empty symbol. Instead, he brought a delegation to see Diyarbakir’s mayor, Osman Baydemir, whose jurisdiction spanned the entire city. Baydemir, whose family had sheltered Armenians a century earlier, agreed to help, but argued that a majority of the financing should come from Armenians, so that they would be invested in the project. In the end, Ayık secured most of the funding from private donors.
Ayık’s family had left Diyarbakir the same year that mine had, in 1952, and I learned that my grandparents had arranged for my father to work a few summers in his father’s haberdashery, near the Great Mosque. By the standards of the city, this practically made us family. In the nineteen-fifties, Ayık’s father had campaigned to have Sourp Giragos returned to Armenians from the state-owned bank, and Ayık was in many ways following in his footsteps. One night at his home, he showed me binders of notes that his father had made: survival testimonies typed up on onionskin paper, folk poems, Ottoman deeds, lists of Armenian villages, their old and new names—the basis of a lost manuscript that he was trying to find. Although Ayık acknowledged the Kurds’ regret, he seemed unwilling to relinquish his caution. Already, academics had coined a new term, “Kurdification,” to describe the Kurds’ effort to claim their place in the region’s culture. He recalled one day asking Demirbaş, “If Kurdish autonomy were granted, then would your embrace of minority rights remain?” Demirbaş laughed and said yes.
In truth, the benevolent conspiracy to rebuild Sourp Giragos—Armenians and Kurds working in an unlikely partnership—was fragile. Just as reconstruction began, in 2009, both Diyarbakir mayors were indicted in a dragnet, apparently designed to crush the region’s Kurdish political leadership. Demirbaş’s home was raided at 5:30 a.m. Police detained him at gunpoint, and, at the station, he found himself being handcuffed by a former student—with the student, eyes full, hesitating, and Demirbaş assuring him that there was no point in delay. The charge was grave—membership in an illegal affiliate of the P.K.K.—and Demirbaş denied it. He stayed in the Diyarbakir prison until 2010, when he was released for medical reasons. The case is ongoing.
Still, he kept at it. He set out to rename three streets for local writers: a Kurd, an Armenian, and an Assyrian. He used municipal funds to run Armenian-language courses and erected a signboard in Armenian welcoming visitors. Within his jurisdiction, seventeen parcels of land that had been taken from the church were returned. He told the Armenian Weekly, “We want the people living in the city to realize that, historically, Diyarbakir has always been a multicultural city.” When the Weekly asked, “What is your message to the Armenians who were uprooted from their ancestral lands?” Demirbaş said, “Return!”
My grandfather arrived in the city as a young child in dire circumstances. His story begins in Jabakhchour, about a hundred miles north of Diyarbakir, where his father, Khatchadour, was a prominent landowner. Khatchadour had two stepsons, and, in the eighteen-eighties, one of them shoved a Kurdish man in a fight, and the man fell to his death. The stepson was imprisoned and sentenced to death by hanging, but Khatchadour paid to have his life spared. Outraged, the Kurdish man’s family burned his fields, stole his livestock, and threatened murder. Khatchadour took his family—including my grandfather, who was probably no more than two years old—and fled toward Diyarbakir, where Sourp Giragos had established itself as a haven for pilgrims. Along the way, they met an Armenian tailor—a terzi, in Turkish—who lived in the city, and he invited them to stay with him. Not long after, another disaster struck: a cholera epidemic swept through Diyarbakir, killing Khatchadour and two of his children. My grandfather and his mother were spared, though, and the tailor looked after them.
Diyarbakir was in a state of upheaval. The empire was declining precipitously, and Ottoman leaders, hoping to maintain a dominion that extended from Tunis to Basra, had imposed reforms, meant to unify peoples of different faiths and languages around an Ottoman identity. The new measures augmented individual rights, upending an old theocratic order that placed the empire’s Christians beneath its Muslims, and they promised greater equality for Armenians. But the reforms were fitfully enacted, and for the most part they only made life worse. Many Kurds, feeling that their divinely ordained status was threatened, lashed out violently at their neighbors.
The sense of popular resentment was compounded after Ottomans lost territory in the Russo-Turkish War. In the Treaty of Berlin, the Great Powers sought to dictate the fate of the empire, committing the sultan to implementing reforms “in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds.” The sultan, Abdülhamid II, saw the Armenians’ strengthening ties to the West as evidence of treason. He formed a Kurdish militia, to bring fiefs under tighter state control, and he used it to exact punishment, massacring a hundred thousand Armenians.
In Diyarbakir, fears that the reforms would grant Armenians too much autonomy erupted into a pogrom. (Süleyman Nazif wrote, “Like our grandfathers before us, our principal task is to work for the glory of the Caliphate and to augment its population. This is the road upon which we will travel, to death.”) For three days in November, 1895, the city was engulfed in ethnic violence. Gunfire broke out near the Great Mosque, and Muslims pillaged Armenian shops and homes, going door to door, killing hundreds. The market was set aflame, and the smoke was visible for thirty-five miles.
No one in my family knows how my grandfather survived, but it is clear that he was finding a place for himself. When he was about ten, the tailor decided to teach him his trade. “What is your family name?” the tailor asked. My grandfather didn’t know, nor did his mother. So the tailor said, “Well, what was your father’s name?” My grandfather said it was Khatchadour. “Then your name will be Khatchadourian.”
My grandfather’s given name was Hagop—Armenian for Jacob—but at some point he also adopted a Muslim street name, Sait, and among non-Armenians became known as Terzi Sait—Sait the tailor. Eventually, he opened a store near the Great Mosque, in the center of the city, and on Easter morning I went looking for the old storefront. Nothing of it remained, but the area was still filled with tiny shops, lining an avenue that bisects old Diyarbakir.
It was a short walk from there to Sourp Giragos, past tea stalls, produce venders, and a five-hundred-year-old minaret precariously balanced atop four small columns. Closer to the church, the shops and street clutter fell away; the narrow stone alleys became more uniform, the turns easier to confuse. In places, the reconstructed bell tower loomed into view. The effect of entering the large church courtyard—with its garden, its sycamore maples, and its wooden tea tables—was similar to driving out of a tunnel and emerging into the clear. Nothing of Sourp Giragos’s dilapidation remained. The church had been built from “female basalt,” volcanic rock so porous that it breathed. Because female basalt had been mined to depletion, the porosity in many of the reconstructed stone blocks was ersatz; still, one had the sense of entering a living structure.
That Sunday was the first Easter to be celebrated at the cathedral since its reconstruction, and a gruff priest named Father Kevork had flown in from Istanbul to conduct Mass. Although the church was open every day, the patriarchy was slow to assign it a permanent priest. Likewise, Armenians living overseas seemed hesitant about supporting the church, in a place where there was no obvious community for it. Ayık was still struggling to raise four hundred thousand dollars to pay outstanding bills. His daughter asked me if I knew how to reach Kim Kardashian.
Part of the apathy was surely rooted in a general suspicion about investing in a country where “Armenian” is a form of slander. But Ayık thought there might also be a deeper cultural pathology at work. To get behind a functioning church would mean shedding the posture of enraged victim, he argued. There was also a more obvious question: What was the building’s purpose? Demirbaş said that the reconstruction was an act of self-criticism, an apology, a symbol of harmony. Ayık said the church served as a monument to those who had once been there. Yet these things it could do just fine as a semi-dormant religious structure, with Father Kevork now and again flying in.
It did not, however, take long, sitting in that courtyard on Easter morning, to understand that the new Sourp Giragos needed to function as a church to fulfill its particular purpose in the climate of residual Turkification. Uncle Anto had said, “Only I am left,” but it turned out that all around the ruins of Sourp Giragos there were people of mixed Armenian heritage, people whose fathers or mothers or grandmothers had been taken in by Turks or Kurds in 1915, married into Muslim families, and assumed new names and identities. In villages, where no one’s ancestry was ever very secret, they were often recognized, and became known by the epithet “remnants of the sword.” No one knows the true size of this hidden population across Turkey, and estimates range from thirty thousand to three million; the secret identities are only now starting to emerge. A few years ago, a group of these people had come to Sourp Giragos to be baptized, their names kept quiet for security reasons. But that they had stepped forward was significant, and I could see how a working church would signal, in ways a token one could not, that being Armenian in Turkey was becoming acceptable.
On Easter morning, the two church caretakers, Aram Khatchigian and Armen Demirjian, were rushing around with preparations, but they took a few minutes to have tea with me in the courtyard. “If you really dig deep, sixty per cent of the people in the city have some Armenian background,” Khatchigian told me. “I’m basing this on the people who come to the church. From my family, seven people survived 1915. Actually, there were seven orphans who had come together and supported each other—my grandfather was one of them—and by supporting each other they ended up becoming a family. If you look at their descendants, these people do accept that they are Armenian, but nearly all of them are Muslims. From the day I was born, I have known myself to be Armenian—unlike Armen, who did not learn about it until he was twenty-five years old.” Both men, given Muslim names at birth, renamed themselves in honor of Armenian ancestors.
At nine or so in the morning, Khatchigian walked to the entrance of the church and rang the bell. Inside, pews were slowly filling, the air thickening with incense. In my father’s childhood, Armenians gathered for Easter at the Chaldean Catholic Church; they stayed past midnight on Holy Thursday, and at the ceremony’s climax the lights were extinguished and hymns resounded in the dark. Here the ceremony was informal, almost formless, with people dropping in and out of attentiveness. Wandering among the eight hundred people at Sourp Giragos—many of them Muslim—I could see that what they were celebrating was not Easter but the idea that Easter had been resurrected. As the crowd dispersed, I introduced myself to an elderly man in the front pew.
“Who’s your grandfather?” he asked.
“I don’t know anyone by that name. Who’s your father?”
“I don’t know him, either.” The old man gazed past me. “I did know a Puzant, once,” he said. “A long time ago—Terzi Sait’s son.”
“But Terzi Sait was my grandfather,” I said.
“Yes, yes, Terzi Sait,” the man said. “I remember. A good man.”
My grandfather’s assumed name means “happy” in Arabic, and I thought about this the next day, on my way to a part of the old city called the Citadel. Built upon an embankment overlooking the Tigris, the Citadel once contained a prison, official buildings, gardens, a church, and a mosque. A later addition was an office for the special-intelligence branch of the gendarmerie. Many Kurds, taken there in the nineties, never returned. In recent years, more than forty-five Kurdish mass graves had been identified in the region, and in 2012 a cache of bones was discovered at the Citadel. They were delivered to the Forensic Medicine Institute, in Istanbul, which concluded that “the bones were lying in the earth for at least one hundred years.” A century ago, the Citadel was a departure point for the deportations of Armenians: forced marches, the vast majority ending in death. Mass violence was buried in the city like strata of rock. My grandfather used to say that in 1915 he heard screams from the Citadel; the dead, he had recalled, were dumped onto blood-soaked earth below.
Acentury after the Armenian genocide, many details of its origins remain obscure. The pervasive state denial has corrupted access to official archives—with some closed, and others open in limited ways—and forced upon the research the distortions of politics. Key Ottoman records are missing or have been destroyed. Still, it is clear that the violence of the genocide flowed from deep streams of political insecurity. Hitler spoke of Germany being “broken and defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world.” His Ottoman counterparts felt a similar civilizational crisis.
In 1908, a group of reformers called the Young Turks emerged from the empire’s periphery and began to wrest control from the sultan. Pragmatic, fractious, and ideologically malleable, they came to power promising greater freedoms and imperial unity; they named their political party the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.). But the empire that they sought to unify was inexorably unravelling. Within several years, they settled on a principle called Turkism, which envisioned an ethnically unified state. The idea was to create “an ideal homeland that gathers in all the Turks and excludes foreigners.”
A C.U.P. office was opened in Diyarbakir by one of the movement’s central ideologues. There is this story in our family: Near my grandfather’s shop, by the Great Mosque, there was a khan where a mufti named Haji İbrahim—who belonged to the prominent Pirinççizade clan—drank tea. My grandfather began joining him, and they grew close. One day, as they sat together, a young man approached: the mufti’s son, Şeref—handsome, full of revolutionary fervor, the author of an article arguing that Armenians were “treacherous.” Şeref spoke of joining the C.U.P., but his father expressed uneasiness with the movement. “It smells of blood,” he said. Gesturing toward my grandfather, he added, “No harm will come to him.”
In 1914, my grandfather was about thirty—a bachelor, still, unusually for his age. By then, he had established a reputation for making Western clothing, and he took trips to Lebanon and Syria to buy sewing equipment and luxurious fabric. He bought a house by Diyarbakir’s Gâvur Mahallesi, the Infidel District—a gracious building with a large courtyard, a well, and an old tree.
One day, he met a coppersmith who shared his surname. Kevork Khatchadourian had a thin face, a long nose, big eyes. He, too, had survived the pogrom of 1895. When the violence began, and Armenian shopkeepers debated what to do, Kevork made his way to Sourp Giragos, brought his children home from the school, and fortified the door with a stone. His shop was destroyed. For a time, to escape cholera, the family fled to a village. After they returned to Diyarbakir, his financial situation remained dire, and he was forced to sell his house.
Kevork and his family became tenants in my grandfather’s home. For my grandfather’s mother, their arrival was fortuitous. She wanted her aging son to marry—she said it, and said it, and said it, enough to engrave it into time itself—and Kevork had a daughter, Zevart, an intelligent, strong-willed girl with dark hair and dark eyes. Kevork’s wife was protective of her: she was a schoolgirl, and my grandfather was twice her age. But my grandfather’s mother was driven, and on Zevart’s sixteenth birthday—February 14, 1914—they married. The First World War had not yet begun, and perhaps the two had reason for optimism.
Still, the empire was falling to pieces. Ethnic tensions were growing. In the Balkan Wars, a series of mostly Christian rebel groups, abetted by foreign allies, stripped the Ottomans of nearly all their European territories. One military officer wrote, “Our anger is strengthening: revenge, revenge, revenge.” A few months later, he became the Minister of War. During the Armistice, the Great Powers again imposed reforms to improve treatment of the Armenians, but they were never enacted. As imperial unity became paramount, the C.U.P. began to enforce Turkism through deportation. A system of quotas took shape, in which no Ottoman territory should be more than ten per cent Armenian.
In January, 1915, the empire suffered another catastrophic loss, this time on the Russian front: tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers lay dead, and a deep Russian incursion seemed imminent. The loss was a result of the First World War, but the crisis of war also offered an opportunity for even more drastic measures. In March, a member of the C.U.P. noted, “It has been decided to wash our hands of responsibility for this stain that has been smeared across Ottoman history.” An élite security apparatus, the Special Organization, insured that deportation meant annihilation; it helped mobilize bands of irregulars, most prominent among them Kurds who knew the landscape in detail. A new governor was dispatched to Diyarbakir. He had vowed to take the “most decisive measures.”
On April 24th, in Istanbul, more than two hundred Armenian intellectuals—poets, doctors, writers, members of parliament—were arrested and, with a few exceptions, killed. The date marks the official shackling of the empire’s salvation to genocide. Convoys were directed into Diyarbakir Province or on into the Syrian Desert, to camps where people were massacred or allowed to die from privation. Eventually, the genocide became its own rationale. When the U.S. Ambassador implored the Interior Minister to reverse course, he was told, “The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have got to finish with them. If we don’t, they will plan their revenge.”
Like many Armenians outside Turkey, I grew up in an atmosphere where the desire for revenge was not always easy to separate from the desire for justice. In community centers, it was often possible to find posters of Armenians who had murdered Turkish officials during a spate of political assassinations in the seventies and eighties. They were heroes—fedayeen—and children were encouraged to honor them, to write to them if they were in prison. The idea of reconciliation was unimaginable. Any distinction between Kurds and Turks was immaterial; they were the same, worthy of the same suspicion, mockery, and hatred.
There was an attendee at Sourp Giragos on Easter who knew this sense of vengeance as well as anyone: Ara Sarafian, an independent historian, activist, and combatant in the war over Anatolian history. Sarafian’s family had mostly survived the genocide and afterward had moved to Cyprus, where he spent his childhood. But, in 1974, while he and his parents were in London on a family vacation, the Turkish Army invaded Cyprus, and they were suddenly refugees. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would come to hate Turks, with a deep teen-age hatred. As a graduate student, he vowed to learn Turkish to confront the state’s official denials as a scholar. “I wanted to hurt Turks,” he told me. He applied for a fellowship in Ankara, and when he was turned down (his Armenian surname the deciding factor, he was certain) he went anyway, paying his tuition by teaching English. Coming to Turkey transformed him, in an unexpected way. The combined effect of getting to know Turkish citizens, of higher education, of maturity, and of changing Turkish politics eroded the teen-age hatred until he began to seek out opportunities for reconciliation. In London, he founded a small press, called the Gomidas Institute, with a straightforward mission: unearthing and publishing firsthand accounts of 1915. But in the past few years he has widened his portfolio, making trips to Turkey to investigate how the genocide remains a part of lived experience there, and how official denials are at odds with local memory. Sarafian regards his new work as ambassadorial, engaging in a cautious handshake with politicians like Abdullah Demirbaş.
Recently, Sarafian went to Bitlis, the ancestral home of William Saroyan, to encourage its mayor to name a street after the writer. A friend there took him into the countryside. “We went to this one village,” he told me. “And we met this Kurdish man who owned a fish farm, and there was an old church, a very small church, and this guy made us tea and said, ‘You know, I own this church.’ And I could have said nothing, I could have let it go, but I asked him, ‘How can you own a church?’ And he said, ‘It’s quite simple, really. In 1915, an order came down to kill all the Armenians, and afterward we divided up the property, and that is how our family got this church.’ As I was leaving, he came to me and said, ‘You tell me what you want me to do with this church, and I will do it.’ Now, how can I hate this guy? I have to embrace him.”
Last year, Sarafian obtained permission from Diyarbakir’s leadership to commemorate the genocide there—the first time such a thing had been achieved. He organized a ceremony on a bridge spanning the Tigris, from which mourners tossed rose petals into the river. A few months later, Demirbaş urged the Turkish government to follow the city’s example: “We Kurds, in the name of our ancestors, apologize for the massacres and deportations of the Armenians and Assyrians in 1915. We will continue our struggle to secure atonement and compensation for them.”
During his stay in Diyarbakir, Sarafian had ventured into the countryside, to conduct interviews with villagers. In his research, he stumbled on the descendants of a Kurdish tribe that had gone to war in 1915 to protect Armenians. Since that visit, Sarafian had wanted to plant rosebushes at the tribal leader’s grave. The gesture was necessary, he said, to show reciprocity, to underscore that the common Armenian biases against Kurds—as bloodthirsty savages—could also be relinquished. “Kurds are very apologetic,” he told me. “They know massacres took place, they know Kurds were involved. It is up to us to say, ‘I appreciate your sincerity and the manner in which you are dealing with this, that you are feeling guilty—but we are in no way accusing Kurds as a nation of being somehow predisposed to commit genocide.’ My criticism of Armenians is that we shouldn’t just wallow in victimhood. It doesn’t help us, either.”
The day after Easter, I met Sarafian at his hotel to accompany him on the trip. He has cropped graying hair and a perpetually furrowed brow. In a rented car, we drove for about an hour and a half, and stopped near a cluster of modest homes in isolated rock-strewn pastures. Several men—gray suits, white shirts, open collars—approached. Sarafian embraced one of them. The tribal leader in 1915 was Haji Mehmet Mishte, and this was one of his grandsons, Recep Karabulut. Before long, Sarafian was saying that Karabulut was like a brother, and Karabulut was saying that Sarafian was kin. There were handshakes, callused grips. Sarafian conversed quickly with the others:
“I brought two roses, so we can plant them.”
“Let us go, let us go together.”
“We must pray.”
“Of course we will pray.”
The village cemetery was just up the hill, one of the men said. We climbed back into our car. “We have a common culture here,” Sarafian said as he drove. “You can’t separate Armenians from Kurds.” When we reached the graveyard, Sarafian took the rosebushes from the car and, giving one to Karabulut, told him, “We have been separated by a hundred years.” Karabulut said, “History has unified us now.” Then the men walked to an Ottoman-era grave. The headstone had weathered, rounded edges, and Arabic script carved on its face. A village cleric read the inscription, a line of poetry about the impermanence of life, and then read the date that concluded Mishte’s impermanence—which, it was determined after much debate about the Ottoman calendar, was probably 1917. Sarafian tied a strip of cloth to a nearby bush, an ancient ritual marking a pilgrimage, and said a few words honoring Mishte. At the foot of the grave, he began to dig. The shovel broke. But he continued, knees in the soil, until the roses were firmly anchored. Everyone prayed.
The tribe had slaughtered a lamb, and we headed to a house on a hill, where it was served. While everyone ate, my eyes drifted to a muted TV, to a news item about April 24th, the Armenian Day of Remembrance. For the past several years, commemorations have been held in Istanbul. April 24th was just days away, and the story included file footage of a previous year’s event: people sitting on pavement, holding photos of the Armenian intellectuals who had been rounded up in the capital and murdered. No calls for justice, no demands, just sitting, holding pictures—each portrait, from a century ago, capturing its subject in a hopeful act, innocent of what was to come.
For Diyarbakir, the genocide came in the form of the newly assigned vali, or regional governor, Dr. Mehmet Reşid—an Ottoman middle manager of startling effectiveness, responsible for the deaths of more than a hundred thousand people. Reşid was a Muslim Circassian from the Russian-controlled Caucasus, where his family had survived an earlier violent purge. Beginning in 1860, the Tsar forced hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the region, pursuing them to the shores of the Black Sea, from which they were delivered to the Ottoman Empire on ships that became known as “floating graveyards.” Reşid was born in 1873, and his family moved to Istanbul a year later. He enrolled in the Military School of Medicine and, preoccupied with the sultan’s despotism, helped found the C.U.P. “I always desired law and justice,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I always had the friendship and confidence of all my companions; I never took part in certain villainous behavior.”
With the Ottoman state collapsing around him, Reşid’s outlook began to harden. He served in various official posts—the Aegean, Mosul, Baghdad—growing increasingly concerned that the empire’s Christians posed a grave internal threat. Ottoman Greeks, one C.U.P. member had declared, “needed to be broken and destroyed,” and Reşid came to agree. On the Aegean, he aggressively deported them, hoping to replace them with Turkish refugees. By the time he arrived in Baghdad, he was a changed man. As Süleyman Nazif recalled, “Instead of the old poised character and calm, there was an appalling arrogance and anger.”
In Diyarbakir, Reşid confronted crumbling state authority. Corruption was entrenched, and soldiers were deserting. Many deserters were Armenian, and when they took to the city’s flattened rooftops they became known as the Roof Battalion. Reşid saw in them an élite unit to massacre Muslims; he arrested them and tried to extract information by torture, but he discovered no plot. He imposed censorship, and proclaimed the confiscation of all weapons. The Diyarbakir Armenians gathered to discuss what to do; my grandfather later spoke of a meeting where a man announced that he had stockpiled guns beyond the city walls. But the community decided that militancy was too risky and surrendered their weapons. Reşid, believing that Sourp Giragos had become a makeshift armory, had it searched, its prelate murdered. He found nothing. In time, the cathedral was looted. “Some poured out of the church clutching thuribles, chalices, and other sacred vessels,” one observer recalled. “They roamed streets sounding the cymbals and fly-flaps and treading on the pages torn from the Bible.”
Quickly, Reşid created a strike force, designed to conduct “special measures” and acts of “punishment” throughout the province. The unit became known as the Butcher’s Battalion. Seeking to assemble Kurdish irregulars, he pardoned exiled members of a tribe known for banditry. He reached out to the tribe’s leaders and described a plan to put Armenians onto rafts called keleks (branches piled atop inflated goat skins) and send them down the Tigris. “I will give you convoy after convoy of Armenians,” he said, according to an account by the grandson of one tribal leader. “You will bring them by kelek across the Tigris. When you arrive at a place where no one can see or hear, you will kill them all.” Reşid recommended that the bodies be filled with rocks, in order to sink them. “Of the gold, money, and jewels, half of it is yours, the other half you will bring to me to give to the Red Crescent. But no one can hear or know about this secret.”
In Diyarbakir, Reşid had imprisoned nearly two thousand prominent Christians, mostly Armenians, and in May, 1915, they were called into the prison courtyard, where mufti İbrahim read a document explaining that they had been pardoned but would be deported to Mosul: “You may return to your homes once the war is terminated. You are delivered from a great responsibility.” Late that month, more than six hundred Armenians were sent down the river and killed. Reşid had notified his counterpart in Mosul to expect the rafts, but they arrived empty, followed by bloated corpses and decomposed body parts.
That summer, Fa’iz el-Ghusein, an Arab lawyer and a former Ottoman official from Syria, travelled to Diyarbakir. In a book titled “Martyred Armenia,” he wrote about the surrounding desolation. A hundred miles north of Damascus, he encountered men and women huddled under tents made from sheets and rugs. He picked up stories of the death marches heading south. Then he began to witness convoys—from a distance they looked like troops marching to battle, but up close he could see that they were devastated crowds, mostly women, barefoot, exhausted. “Whenever one of them lagged behind, a gendarme would beat her with the butt of his rifle, throwing her on her face, till she rose terrified and rejoined her companions,” he wrote. “If one lagged from sickness, she was either abandoned, alone in the wilderness, without help or comfort, to be a prey to wild beasts, or a gendarme ended her life by a bullet.” At the city of Urfa, there were Ottoman soldiers from Aleppo—an officer with a cannon had “turned the Armenian quarters into a waste place.”
On the final approach to Diyarbakir, the landscape grew bleaker still. “We went on amid the mangled forms of the slain,” Ghusein recalled. “The same sight met our view on every side; a man lying, his breast pierced by a bullet; a woman torn open by lead; a child sleeping his last sleep beside his mother; a girl in the flower of her age, in a posture which told its own story. Such was our journey until we arrived at a canal, called Kara Pounâr, near Diyarbakir, and here we found a change in the method of murder and savagery. We saw here bodies burned to ashes. God, from whom no secrets are hid, knows how many young men and fair girls, who should have led happy lives together, had been consumed by fire in this ill-omened place. We had expected not to find corpses of the killed near to the walls of Diyarbakir, but we were mistaken, for we journeyed among the bodies until we entered the city gate.”
Others had similar stories. Süleyman Nazif found that the “smell of rotting corpses permeated the atmosphere.” Responding to a complaint from an Ottoman official in Syria that the rivers were clogged with the dead, Reşid noted, “Those who were killed here are either being thrown into deep deserted caves or, as has been the case for the most part, are being burnt.” Eventually, the Interior Minister wrote with an order: “Bury the deceased lying on the roads, throw their corpses into brooks, lakes, and rivers, and burn their property left behind on the roads.”
Within the city walls, my grandfather’s shop was destroyed, so he worked from home, and people often turned up. There was an Armenian photographer who had been engaged by the Turks to take propaganda pictures; he came to share news, until one day he said he thought that he had seen too much, and soon after he disappeared. There were relatives from Jabakhchour, among them my grandfather’s remaining sister, ill with tuberculosis, who left him a two-year-old girl. There was a woman whose husband had been murdered, and an underfed Armenian soldier—“a man, very nice, and pathetic, if you need him,” a priest from Sourp Giragos said, my aunt, who knew the story, recalled. More and more people came, perhaps as many as thirty, and hid in a charcoal pit, behind piles of wood, in an underground tunnel.
The mufti’s son, Şeref, also came; people were bringing him orphaned boys, my aunt recalled, and he told my grandfather, “Let me give one or two to you.” He brought a teen-ager from Bitlis named Kapriel. “My father began asking around, trying to find his father, looking in the newspaper, even contacting the Armenian cathedral in Istanbul,” my aunt said. “There was news of someone who met Kapriel’s father’s description. Kapriel wanted to go, and my father arranged for his travel. By the time Kapriel got there, his father was dead for two days.”
My grandfather had created a sanctuary, but it was not invulnerable. Once, my father told me, a high-ranking police officer came to visit my grandfather. My grandmother brought food, and my grandfather, who had a habit of quietly nudging plates in the direction of guests, sat waiting. The officer ate and, when he was done, began to speak. He had been walking on the riverbank when he saw an Armenian woman my grandfather knew, who was about to be raped; to spare her from misery, he had shot her. My grandfather, unable to control his anger, kicked the officer out, and the officer vowed that by morning the family would be put on the caravans: a death sentence. (In my uncle’s version, the source of the argument differs, but not the outcome.) My grandmother’s father, Kevork, said that he would bolt the door, douse the house with gasoline, and destroy the family rather than surrender. A sleepless night followed; at dawn, the muezzin at the mosque called out. The streets were quiet. My grandfather turned to one of the people in his house, an Armenian man who passed as a Kurd in public. “Go to the mosque,” he said, “and tell us what is happening.” The scout went, and found a funeral in progress. The police officer had died shortly after leaving, of a heart attack. On the way back, the scout broke cover, calling out in Armenian, “The man is dead!” My grandfather went to see for himself, mixing among the mourners, nodding, saying, “A good man.”
After planting the roses, Ara Sarafian wanted to travel south, to the banks of the Tigris, where Reşid had conspired with Kurds to attack the keleks. In an old diplomatic report, he had found references to the location, and on a previous visit he had gone looking for it. The report was off by several miles, it turned out, but villagers corrected him. “Kurds have an everyday memory of Armenians, whether it is a particular house or a building or a field,” he said in the car. “The memory is still there.”
Sarafian didn’t know the way, but at a courthouse we found someone who could guide us: İkram Sevim, a law clerk, tall and thin, in a checkered blazer. As we drove past a village built on an Armenian graveyard, Sevim spoke of 1915: “The Armenians taken away were saying, ‘We have animals up on the mountain, and if you don’t milk them then the animals will suffer.’ We didn’t say anything. They were looking after their animals, and we were not looking after them.”
Ten minutes later, we were in empty hills, the grass vibrant. A sign marked a military outpost: “Special Security Zone—Entrance Forbidden.” Sevim drove briskly past, turning right, then left, until the paved road gave way to a network of rutted tracks. Stones on the road grew larger and sharper. Fearing that they would puncture his tires, Sevim did not want to proceed. But we went on in Sarafian’s car, driving no faster than a stroll, while a few of us, in front of the vehicle, chucked large rocks out of the way. Still, it was evident that we wouldn’t reach the ravine before nightfall.
The sky faded to the color of slate. Looking at a jagged hilltop before us—a scrim blocking the river—I thought of a moment in the Armenian liturgy when the priests step behind a curtain to prepare the Eucharist. On the other side, churchgoers can hear chants and singing, but the ritual is obscured, in a symbol of faith. Had we made it to the other side of the outcropping, what would we have seen? The Tigris flowing, as always, with no hint of the violent history attached to that spot.
As we carefully turned around, I decided that where we stood was as good as anywhere. Then someone made a joke about the military outpost and what we might say if we were stopped—the truth would raise too many suspicions—and I realized that I was only concocting a justification for failing to reach a place of real importance. There is, perhaps, an element of contrivance in any pilgrimage—the idea that arriving at a far-off destination will be personally transformative. But we were not attempting a pilgrimage in the conventional sense. We were hoping to transform our destination, to employ our presence as witnesses, even if a century too late, to raise it out of officially imposed obscurity.
In the car, Sarafian mentioned that he was planning an event in Diyarbakir the following day, and then he had to rush to Paris for an academic conference. But he intended to return. A dam was being built downstream, he said, and by the time it was finished the site would be flooded, its erasure complete. Local memory of the event was also vanishing. During his earlier trip, he had met an eighty-three-year-old village leader named Hussein Karakuş, whose uncle had participated in the slaughter at the ravine. The story of the keleks had been told and retold in his family, and Sarafian, with his phone, recorded Karakuş as he relayed what he knew: the Armenians had been sent down the river from Diyarbakir by keleks on the vali’s order, and they “were all killed and burned.” When Sarafian asked if there had been any Armenians in the area, the man began to list dozens of villages—Keferzo, Bazboot, Deri, Tmiz, Baraso—that had been emptied of inhabitants. “They were all massacred,” he said, and added, “It was a sin.” Sarafian promised to return, but Karakuş died shortly after their meeting, taking with him whatever else he knew.
On the road back to Diyarbakir, I dozed, then awoke. Rain hit the window in diagonals. My thoughts turned to my grandfather. The more I learned about his survival, the more precarious it seemed. Most of the survivor stories I had heard from Armenians in Diyarbakir were of children—orphaned, or spared with their mothers—who were taken in by Turks or Kurds. My grandfather had survived as an adult, relatively openly, sheltering other Armenians in a way that doesn’t seem to have been completely disguised.
Perhaps he was not prominent enough to be put on the keleks and robbed, as the city’s wealthiest Armenians were. But he had not been deported and killed on a roadside, either. Certainly, he had useful skills. In a telegram, Reşid reported that two hundred Armenian craftsmen had been allowed to remain in the province, because they were valuable to the military. My grandfather, as far as I was able to learn, never made things for the Army. But my father and his siblings say that he provided Western garments to members of the city’s Kurdish and Turkish élite, even as they were planning the massacres. In essence, he was bartering for his life.
There is a story that all my grandfather’s living children recall: as the killings and deportations were winding down, he received an unwanted invitation from the vali himself. He was brought before him, and the vali asked, Why are you still alive? When my grandfather explained that he was a master tailor, someone produced a bolt of fabric. Make me a coat, the vali said. My grandfather saw that there was not enough fabric, but, realizing that he could not refuse, he took it home and proclaimed that the family would live or die by this coat. He worked desperately. When the coat was finished, he brought it to the vali, who tried it on and said that it was good—but then, just as my grandfather was leaving, the vali called out, “Wait! I would like these buttons to be covered in fabric, too.” My grandparents struggled to cover the buttons, using whatever scraps were left. Then my grandfather returned with the coat, and he was spared.
The story has the contours of a parable; some details may have been burnished in the retelling. But on the whole it appears to match the historical record. As a young revolutionary, Reşid was arrested by the sultan’s men, and in his memoirs he gave special attention to the treatment of his clothes, bemoaning their confiscation and mocking their replacements: “a fez on my head that was rather narrow and too long” and “a pair of pants that still sagged even though I had folded the waist three times (they must have been tailored for one of the palace eunuchs).” Reşid understood from experience how small indignities could be used as an instrument of persecution.
A historian who spent years studying the extirpation of Diyarbakir’s Armenians told me, “It is highly unlikely that anybody not entirely reliable was ever allowed to get close to Reşid and take his measurements.” Ghusein, the author of “Martyred Armenia,” recalled that Reşid retained a few Armenian craftsmen in Diyarbakir, but he suggested that there were other forms of patronage, too. “The last family deported from Diyarbakir was that of Dunjian, about November, 1915,” he wrote. “This family was protected by certain Notables.” Our family, it seems, was the same.
My grandfather knew mufti İbrahim and the members of his clan, prominent local Kurds who belonged to Reşid’s inner circle. In particular, he associated with the mufti’s son, Şeref—a man one diplomat listed as No. 12 under “Persons Responsible for the Armenian Massacres in the Vilayet of Diyarbakir.” From conversations with my father, I came to regard their relationship as a matter of cold convenience. After the war, Şeref often visited the family home, and my father told me that pleasantries were exchanged, that children were expected to kiss his hand, and that my grandfather often muttered a mild curse after he left. But not long ago my mother found an old tape of my father’s eldest living sister, Ani, interviewed by my parents, and she talked with my father about Şeref:
Ani: He was a kind man.
Puzant: He was not that kind.
Ani: Yes, Father did say that from appearances he seemed kind, but if the opportunity arose he was still a Turk.
Puzant: He wasn’t that good. He was a very bad man, but among bad men he was good.
Ani: He didn’t do anything bad to my father.
My aunt was the second daughter in the family to be named Ani. In 1915, at the height of the genocide, my grandmother gave birth to her first child, and named her Ani, but she died young. The next child, born in 1916, inherited her name. “I asked my father, ‘How did I get my name?’ ” my aunt said on the tape. “And he told me it was given by Şeref bey, who said, ‘You know, your people are fighting at the front, and it’s possible that you might get the Kars-Ardahan provinces back, and also the ancient city of Ani, so you should call your daughter Ani.’ And so when Ani died the name was left for me.”
This is not cold convenience. Perhaps it is impossible to fully grasp the mixture of friendship and animosity, suspicion and mistrust between my grandfather and the mufti’s son—the complexities of a relationship that transcended not only communal and religious differences but also the rift of genocide. In 1915, Şeref had a secret knock for my grandfather’s door, and on at least one occasion warned him that the house was under suspicion as a sanctuary. My grandfather sent away the people who were hiding there, some of the men disguised in women’s veils. Searchers came with dogs, but found nothing. Why Şeref decided to help, risking his own life, is hard to know. Just before leaving Diyarbakir, my grandfather asked him. Şeref said, “The Russians were advancing. They had reached as far as Erzerum. Had they made it to Diyarbakir, then I would have been like you. In that case, you would have protected me.”
As it turned out, Şeref’s fears were misplaced. In Diyarbakir, many people involved in the genocide remained prominent in local life. Şeref became mayor. Another member of his clan, who had been key to the genocidal program, entered parliament. And the vali? He was unrepentant. The C.U.P. party secretary recalled saying to him later, “You are a doctor. And, being a doctor, you are charged with saving lives, so how is it that you let so many innocent people go to their death?” Reşid described a condition of existential threat: “I saw that my country was going to be lost. So, eyes closed, I pushed on ahead without fear, convinced it was for the good of my nation.” A bit later, he added, “You asked me how, being a doctor, I could have taken a life. Well, here is my answer: Those Armenian bandits were a bunch of harmful microbes pestering the body of this nation. A doctor’s duty is to kill microbes, isn’t it?”
Reşid was ready to be judged, he boasted: “If, because of my actions, my own country’s history holds me responsible, then so be it.” At the war’s end, in 1918, he was arrested, and prosecuted by an Ottoman tribunal, which operated briefly under foreign pressure. But he fled detention, and while the authorities tried to hunt him down he wrote a rambling letter to his wife. “The Armenian hounds have joined them,” he said. Friends advised him to turn himself in, but he chastised them. “I feel the result will be dark. I am thinking of committing suicide.” He armed himself with a revolver, and in February, 1919, he killed himself. His family was granted a state stipend—for “services to the fatherland”—and, in time, Turkish society came to honor him: a street in central Ankara still bears his name.
After the war, my grandfather strove to navigate a city that remained in turmoil. In 1925, a Kurdish rebellion was crushed, its leaders executed by hanging in the city center. Four years later, my grandfather said, of his eldest daughters, “These girls have to leave.” He smuggled them and one of his sons to Aleppo. He, too, was desperate to go. At one point, he sold his house and all his belongings, and moved the family into a small apartment, waiting for permits that would allow them to leave. But the permits never came. There were other attempts, also unsuccessful. My aunt told me that a friend of his, a Turkish official, looked up his records and told him that he would never get permission: “You are supposed to stay here and work.” The city’s entrepreneurial class had been wiped out.
My grandfather went into business with one of the “notables,” a prominent member of the clan that had helped protect him. He also opened a sesame-oil factory, and he did well. In his quiet way, he continued to help people; my Aunt Ani said he was an “anonymous philanthropist,” adding, “Everyone called him dayi”—uncle. But, outside his family, I sense, he kept himself at some remove. In his home, he permitted only Armenian to be spoken, and yet he forbade himself and his family to speak it on the streets. Though he liked to wear expensive clothes, he always had his children trample on them before he went out. Conspicuousness was still a risk. When he learned that another of his sons was secretly planning to go, he helped him. One of his daughters visited from Aleppo; he brought her a Ramadan sweet wrapped in paper and told her that if she could guess what it was he would give her anything. When she guessed correctly, she asked to take one of her brothers with her, and he obliged.
Even as his family emigrated in waves, my grandfather prospered, moving closer to the Great Mosque (and farther from the Infidel District). By the time my father was born, in 1936, he had built a grand house, with a stable facing the avenue, a courtyard, and a flat roof in the Diyarbakir style. In those years, during the intense Anatolian summer heat, just about the entire city would retreat to the rooftops at night, to wooden daybeds open to the night sky. My grandfather’s house had them, too. But my family’s stories of life in that house give the sense that a century of modernity moved there at an accelerated pace. My father recalls going from meals on a carpet, in the Near Eastern style, to Western dining, with table, chairs, and china; my grandmother returning from Aleppo with nylons. There was a new camera, and a small darkroom to go with it.
In an old suitcase crammed with pictures, I found a photo taken in that house; on the back, my mother had written, “circa 1950.” My grandfather, near seventy, is at the center: hair short, neatly combed, pure white; tie in a crisp knot. He is surrounded by thirty people, pressed tightly together. Looking at that picture, it is possible to see that the house was intended to accommodate generations, and yet, only a year or two later, my grandfather would abandon it: a train for Syria, forged papers, a ship for Beirut.
In exile, he succumbed to a medley of ailments: prostate surgery, a leg lost to gangrene, gathering isolation. He lived to see one son die in a car accident and another shot while standing on the balcony—a stray bullet from one of Beirut’s warring factions proving fatal. My grandfather spent his final years bedridden in his Beirut apartment. The family’s money was nearly gone; his last words to my father, who left for America in 1958, were a request for a wooden leg. Death arrived before the request could be fulfilled. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
My father had told me his childhood address, 2 Çiçek Street, and before leaving Diyarbakir I went to search for it. In a narrow cobblestoned alley, I found the number sloppily painted on an apartment building made of brick, crumbling mortar, and rebar. The street was about the width of a man standing with arms stretched apart, and the buildings were covered in graffiti honoring the P.K.K. Kurdish children played unattended. Since 1990, countless villages had been razed, and the villagers who came to Diyarbakir had put up buildings rapidly to exploit legal loopholes. The buildings were called gecekondu, Demirbaş told me, meaning “built in the night.” The structure at 2 Çiçek Street looked to me like a variant of gecekondu, and I imagined that in ten years it, too, would be torn down and replaced. The only discernible remnant of our family house was a heavy stone that once served as a threshold.
State-sponsored denial is not a void, a simple absence of truth; it is a wounding instrument. And, after a hundred years of it, it is hard to feel Armenian in a meaningful way without defining oneself in opposition to it. But the centenary of the genocide, in 2015, may be more than just an occasion for reflection. Some anniversaries offer the promise of release, and the historical distance, combined with the changes unfolding in liberal Turkish society, may be significant. “This government has an unusual aspect to it,” Demirbaş told me, sitting in Sourp Giragos’s courtyard. “It punishes us, but it also implements our projects. I was dismissed as mayor for providing multilingual municipal services, but then the state started multilingual TV programming.” As we spoke, a reporter rushed over to ask if anyone had heard about Erdoğan’s “apology” for 1915. As it turned out, Erdoğan did not apologize. He offered a perplexing statement—sympathetic in tone but in its substance still consistent with the official denial. He said, “It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering of that period, just like every other citizen of the Ottoman empire.” A week later, he argued in an interview that the genocide never happened, echoing a sentiment that he expressed before the reconstruction of the cathedral: “If there is a crime, then those who committed it can offer an apology. My nation, my country, has no such issue.”
On April 24th, the Day of Remembrance, I went to Sourp Giragos early in the morning to see who would turn up. The church door was padlocked, but a few people arrived and sat down for tea. There was a man from Istanbul who spoke about his grandfather, who had owned three-quarters of a village nearby. The man asked if the church had kept land registers; it had, but most of them had long since disappeared. Five or six years ago, he said, he had told a lawyer friend that he wanted to sue the state to reclaim his family’s land, but the lawyer advised against it: two families who sued had disappeared. “Things are changing,” someone said. “Yes,” the man said. “But if you have a hundred years’ worth of fear in you, it’s hard to change from one day to the next.”
While he was talking, another man arrived and sat down, a man in his forties or fifties, with dark hair, a thick mustache, a sad and uncertain bearing. Later, someone told me that his name was Abbas Ercan. In a deep voice, he poured out a flood of loosely consecutive memories. His grandfather had survived the massacres, he began to say, but just as he began to speak he had to stop, and, after a small gasp, he wept. A woman at the table comforted him: Yes, yes, she said, we have all cried over things like this. Ercan resumed his story, about how his grandfather and great-aunt had been orphaned, how they were taken in by neighbors, how they earned money cleaning wool, working a loom, dyeing cloth. But, as he continued, it became clear that the source of all that emotion was not so much the difficulty of surviving 1915 but the difficulty of surviving the denial. Decades later, he said, during the Second World War, his grandfather—a Muslim convert named Ahmet—was bathing alone in a river when some people stumbled upon him and asked, “What are you doing?” Ahmet explained that he was performing Muslim ablutions, but the visitors took one look at him and said, “No, no, we know who you are”—by which they meant that they knew he was Armenian. Ahmet was overcome with terror, thinking, Oh, God, they’re going to eliminate me right now.
Ercan began to choke up again, but he continued, explaining that the people who had found Ahmet understood his fear. They told him, “We are like you,” meaning they were also Armenian, and they all promised to stay in touch, but they never did.
Ercan emphasized that he held no grudge against anyone, that he simply had come that morning to do something he could not do for most of his life: to speak about who he was and about his family’s experience. I could see that for this man April 24th was not so much about commemorating the past as it was about finding some release from the present. He was likely Muslim, but for him Sourp Giragos was an enclave beyond the denial. “Every morning, my grandfather, without exception, would go and pray at the mosque, even if he was the only person there,” Ercan said. “What he was probably doing was saying to himself, ‘If something like this ever happens again, I want the community to say, “No, no, no, Ahmet was a good Muslim—even if he is a convert, he is a good Muslim, anyway.” ’ So they wouldn’t hurt him. I am not exactly sure how much he believed.” Someone said that this was a common trait among converts, that they become zealous to demonstrate their faith. “They figure something would happen to them if they talked,” Ercan added. “But we don’t hold a grudge,” he said again. “We only want one thing: when we meet someone who has been through all this, we want to console one another.”
That evening, Ara Sarafian wanted to visit the ruins of another, far older church, called Sourp Sarkis. It was a short walk, but we got lost, taking one turn, then another, through narrow alleys where old women sat on doorsteps.
“Do you know where the old church is?”
“No, the church. It’s a ruin.”
Eventually, we found the church compound. The gate was locked, so I followed Sarafian through a hole in the outer wall. Inside, a family had improvised a simple house beside the ruin. Across the entrance, they had strung up a nylon rope for laundry. The scene reminded me of what Sourp Giragos had looked like years ago. The roof had collapsed, but a network of stone arches supported by pillars remained. Because the church had been used to store rice, a third of it had been walled off in cinder block. Dirt and grass filled the basilica, pretty much wall to wall. The floor appeared to undulate like sea swells, with the fallen basalt rocks floating among them. As we fanned out, a freckled Kurdish woman emerged from the house with her children. Sarafian spoke with her. She was in her twenties. Her husband was in prison.
Like Sourp Giragos, this church had endured cycles of collapse and rebirth: in 1915, a treasured relic—a fragment of a nail, supposedly among those hammered into Jesus’ Cross—went missing. “This is the reality of the Armenian genocide,” Sarafian said. “Sourp Giragos represents a future wish.” He studied the fallen architecture, and then left, making his way back through the hole in the wall. I decided to linger. Four generations ago—decades before my grandfather was born—a member of my grandmother’s family, Sarkis Kazanjian, had been at that church, helping to renovate it. He is the earliest identifiable person in our family tree; beyond him, our ties to Diyarbakir vanish into black earth.
As I walked across the ruins, it occurred to me that, though Kazanjian had not lived to see 1915, he had been touched by it, too. This is one of the strange features of genocide denial and of Turkification: erasure, by design, works both forward and backward in time. My grandfather had preserved the future for his family. But his past, our past, whatever contributions we had made to Ottoman society, had been effectively eradicated. I had been travelling with family photos, showing them to people, and the photo of Kazanjian always evoked the strongest reaction. The picture is of a broad-shouldered man with intense eyes, wearing a fez, vest, coat, and embroidered caftan. Kazanjian was a merchant, apparently also with a role in officialdom. A Kurdish intellectual, a good friend of Hrant Dink, wept when she saw it, and when I asked her why, she didn’t answer. I could speculate. There was no way to look at such a man and believe that he belonged to any other part of the world, and yet it was also obvious that in Turkey, whatever progress had been made in the past century, this man, and many others like him, could not be offered acceptance without painful complications.
As a boy working to restore the church, Kazanjian had caught his hand between two stones and lost a finger. If you knew the right piece of basalt, you could reach out and touch it, but there was no way to know. My aunt said the finger had been buried beneath one of the altars: he had lost it in an act of piety, and it was given a pious resting place. The story had its uncertainties, but memory—kept alive now by only a few—was all that was left.
I went farther into the church, making a list of the things that the people of Diyarbakir had left there. Dried scraps of bread. Automotive carpeting. An old shoe. A fragment of a transistor radio. Corrugated plastic, some of it burned. Where the main altar had been, there was a fire pit; among the ashes, a wrapper for a candy called Coco Fino and empty cans of Efes beer. A rusted wire. Coils of shit. In the inset of a wall, someone had arranged several stones in a neat line. Hundreds of daisies reached upward. And as the sun descended behind the high city walls the smell of grilled meat drifted over from nearby homes, and the sound of children playing began to fill the streets. A ball was kicked and it hit the side of a building and bounced. Some boys clambered over the wall that surrounded the church. Women left their kitchens, and climbed to their roofs to collect carpets that had been put out to air. TVs wired to satellite dishes came on, filling spare rooms with their ethereal glow. All of Diyarbakir, it seemed, except the church, drifted forward in time. Overhead, a flock of common swifts darted and circled among the old stone arches. Their black wings arced like boomerangs as they swooped through the ruins—above the piles of earth, the weeds and the wildflowers, all the trash—and their movements were ceaseless, careless, as if unweighted by anything. ♦Published in the print edition of the January 5, 2015, issue.
Raffi Khatchadourian became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2008.