A Brief History of Largest Church in Middle East and Christianity in Diyarbakir

giragos11.jpgBy: Rev. Dr. George A. LeylegianRecently it was reported that the Armenian cathedral of Sourp Giragos in Dikranagerd, Turkey, will undergo major renovation. I thought that our readers might be interested to read a little about the history of this famous sanctuary.

 The exterior of Sourp Giragos with the new bell tower, 1914.
 Amid (alternatively, A-Mi-Da, Amida, Amith, Omid, and later Diyar-Bakir, Diyarbekir, and among the Armenian community, Dikranagerd or Dikrisagerd) is situated on the west bank of the Tigris River and is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world. Because of its strategic position, both commercially and militarily, Amid has boasted a cosmopolitan population, representing nearly every ethnic and religious group in the area.
 It is unknown when and by whom Christianity was introduced into the city of Amid. It is historically probable that early missionaries, either directly from Jerusalem (the seat of James) or by emissary from Antioch (the seat of Peter) or from Edessa (the seat of Thomas) proclaimed Christianity there. The Armenians maintain that Thaddeus and Bartholomew preached in Amid on their way north into the Armenian highlands, while the Syrians credit Thomas, Addai, and Mari with the introduction of Christianity there. No one can be certain except to say that a church was established in Amid during the first century. It is also unclear who the first bishop of Amid may have been, and what type of persecution befell the community during the first three centuries of Christian formation. What is known is that in 325 AD, a bishop named Simon of Amid attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. Whether he were ethnically Syrian, Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian remains unclear, and secondary to the importance of episcopal representation of Amid.
 Owing to its geographic location, Amid has been influenced and invaded from every direction. Not surprisingly, every theological creed and dispute has been manifested within the many churches inside the city at various points in history. For that reason, it is improbable that anyone could truly determine either the origin or the subsequent denomination of a particular parish over the course of the first 15 centuries of Christianity in Amid. Greeks, Armenians, West Syrians, East Syrians, and Arabs commingled and collided in the same buildings, and each voiced conflicting claims to ownership. Prior to the first Muslim invasion in the 7th century, it is believed that there were more than 30 churches within the city walls. Research is required to determine who built which sanctuary and which denomination claimed specific rights.
 After Amid was conquered by the Ottomans in 1517 and the millet (nationality-based) system of administration was imposed, the Christians in the city settled into a modus operandi with regard to the religious demarcation of properties and liturgical services. There was further definition (and friction) in the late 18th century when certain groups aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Uniate organizations that had recently moved into the area. In the 19th century, other groups associated themselves with various Protestant denominations. Each time a group broke away, ancient church buildings were also requisitioned for use as either Uniate or Protestant places of worship.
giragos21.jpg The main altar of the cathedral, 1987.
 By the end of the 19th century, the following denominations maintained churches and related schools in the city: Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Protestant; Syrian Orthodox (West Syrian, sometimes called Jacobite), Syrian Catholic, Syrian Protestant; Greek Orthodox (both Greek-speaking and Arabic-speaking), Greek Catholic (also called Melkites); Assyrian Orthodox (East Syrian, sometimes called Nestorian), Assyrian Catholic (also called Chaldean), Assyrian Protestant; Roman Catholic (also called Latin, serving mostly Europeans); Arab Catholic, Arab Protestant.
 In 1518, the Ottomans confiscated the largest Armenian Apostolic church in Amid, called Saint Theodore (“Sourp Toros”), and converted the sanctuary into a mosque, renaming it Kursunlu Cami. The community was devastated by the confiscation and was likewise pressured to accommodate the dislodged congregation. There was a smaller church, called Saint Sergius (“Sourp Sarkis”), which was upgraded to the position of cathedral for the Armenians. Sourp Sarkis was later renovated, and eventually contained five altars. Until 1915, Sourp Sarkis was famous because it preserved the valuable relic of the right-side nail used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This relic was brought out in solemn procession several times each year, and was venerated by all of the Christians in Amid. When Sourp Sarkis was pillaged in May 1915, the relic of the Holy Nail was either stolen or lost. During most of the 20th century, the building has been operated as a warehouse, and has consequently fallen into ruins.
 In the early 18th century (perhaps in 1722), the Ottomans decided that the city was too overcrowded; consequently, all of the cemeteries (Christian and Muslim alike) were to be exhumed and the remains re-interred in new cemeteries located outside of the city walls. On the grounds of the earlier Armenian cemetery in the middle of the city was a funeral chapel. This chapel had been donated by a grieving family in loving memory of their daughter and her infant son, both of whom passed away shortly after childbirth. Appropriately, the name of the chapel was Saints Cyriacus and Julietta.
 Briefly, toward the end of the third century, the widow Julietta was persecuted for her adherence to Christianity. She was arrested and brought before the local judge who demanded that she renounce her faith. She refused. In order to intimidate her, the judge seized hold of her three-year old son, Cyriacus. The little boy, attempting to defend his mother, also began to proclaim “I am a Christan! I am a Christian!” The judge became so infuriated that he grabbed Cyriacus by the feet and, swinging the child, dashed the little boy’s head against the stone steps, killing him. It is said that Julietta died of fright at seeing this gruesome persecution of both Christianity and her son. The solemnity of their martyrdom spread quickly throughout the area, and countless churches and shrines were built in memory of Saints Cyriacus and Julietta. They are likewise venerated by all Orthodox and Catholic Churches throughout the world. In Armenian, Cyriacus is “Giragos,” and Julietta is “Houghida” or “Oghida.”
 After the relocation of the cemetery, the city land still belonged to the Armenians, who decided to build a new church on the site. Accordingly, the new church was consecrated in the names of Saints Cyriacus and Julietta. During the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the edifice was renovated and enlarged on several occasions. Tragedy struck on June 10, 1880, when the entire sanctuary was consumed


in a devastating fire.
 The Armenian community decided to rebuild and even enlarge the structure, which was completed in 1883. At the time, the new church of “Sourp Giragos yev Houghida” was purported to be the largest Armenian basilica in Anatolia. The external dimensions are 31 meters in length by 35 meters in width. The basilica is renowned for having seven altars, constructed with mosaic tiles and overlaid with gold: five on the ground floor and two on the second story. From the northeast to the southeast: Saint Gregory the Illuminator (“Sourp Krikor Lousavoritch”), Saints Cyriacus and Julietta, the main altar in the center dedicated to the Holy Birthgiver-of-God Mary (“Sourp Asdvadzadzin”), Saint John the Baptist (“Sourp Garabed”), and Saint Stephen the Protomartyr (“Sourp Sdepannos”). Upstairs: Saints Peter and Paul (“Sourp Bedros yev Sourp Boghos”) and the Holy Archangels (“Sourp Hreshdagabedk”).
 Church services were held every morning and every evening. Holy Badarak was offered every Sunday as well as other days during the week, often at one of the various altars in commemoration of a particular saint’s day. The Dikranagerdtsis were fond of entering the cathedral throughout the day, and especially as they would pass by to and from their daily tasks.
 The basilica was built with 16 monolith columns forming 20 arches that supported a flat roof; there was no dome surmounting the structure, though the sanctuary was constructed with giant windows all across the northern and southern walls to allow plenty of sunshine. Around the interior was a second story gallery that extended across the western, northern, and southern walls. It is said that more than 3,000 faithful could be comfortably accommodated on both floors during services.
 It was decided that the headquarters of the diocese of Dikranagerd would be relocated from Sourp Sarkis to Sourp Giragos, making the new church the cathedral for the diocese. Surrounding the cathedral were a series of buildings: chapels, rectories for the priests, classrooms for the Sunday School, bookstore, kitchen for preparing food daily for the poor and elderly, and the offices for the prelature. At its peak, there were more than 100 clergy and laity on the staff of the cathedral. For a brief time, there was also a parochial school for boys and girls located within the compound.
 Over the course of several centuries, Sourp Giragos accumulated a substantial financial endowment. Either through bequests or by purchase, the church came to own numerous residential and commercial properties within the city walls, as well as livestock and numerous acres of farmland in the surrounding villages. The properties produced rental income to the church, and the farms provided both food and work for the people. The bank investments produced annual returns for the salaries and maintenance of the staff and charitable foundations. Medical services, daily meals (both served and delivered), orphan care, and elder support were all part of the services ministered by the church and out of the endowment. The church also owned and maintained critical water wells and fountains inside and outside the city. In addition to the cemeteries, the church was also responsible for several chapels and shrines that were visited regularly during pilgrimages.
 The first bell tower of the cathedral, which was built in 1884, was struck by lightning on Holy Saturday morning, 1913. It was rebuilt that same year, and when it was completed, it was the tallest structure in the city. The bell was cast by the famous Zildjian Company. The spire would become a point of contention with the Muslims, since the Armenian bell tower was taller than any of their minarets.
 On May 28, 1915, as the Ottomans were dragging the Armenian prelate, Mgrditch Vartabed Chulghadian, off to be tortured and eventually martyred, the artillery cannon from across the city took aim at the bell tower and shot it to pieces as the prelate was forced to watch. Even though the church continued to operate during the 20th century, the bell tower was never rebuilt.
 Most of the Armenians living inside the city were trapped, and neighborhood by neighborhood, the Ottomans pillaged property and killed the helpless Dikranagerdtsis with nearly full-proof entrapment. The gendarmes sealed off each street and then raided the houses without reproach.
 After 1918, the few Armenians still residing both in the city and surrounding villages congregated around the large complex of Sourp Giragos, and attempted to revitalize the community. Until 1985, there was a permanent priest living inside the compound, and services were continued daily for the remaining 100 or so families.
 In the early 1990’s, during a series of severe snowstorms, sections of the roof of the cathedral collapsed, eventually leaving the basilica with just four walls and no protection from the elements. Vandals caused serious damage to the altars as they chipped away the mosaics and tore out the artwork and gold overlay. The floor of the basilica was mired in mud and debris for many years, and most of the metalwork has corroded in the interim.
 Within the compound was a small chapel dedicated to Saint James (“Sourp Hagop”). The Armenians would utilize this chapel for their occasional services when a priest would visit from Istanbul.
 The deteriorating economic and political conditions in Diyarbakir forced most of the Armenians to leave, either to Istanbul or to Europe. Today, there are just a handful of Armenians living in the city. It should be noted that the other Christians living in the city were also persecuted by the Ottomans in 1915. Many were massacred and others were forced to leave. Today, only the Syrian Orthodox and the Chaldean Catholics have been able to keep their ancient churches in the city.