In Anatolia, layers of religious diversity

539w2.jpgDIYARBAKIR — It was nice and shady inside the small cell, but Montana beckoned me out. “Now you can tell your friends you’ve been inside a Turkish political prison,’’ he said, laughing
Montana is not his real name. On a tour of Iraq as a contractor, Mehmet Nasip Onen picked up the nickname — and good English — from some US Marines. He returned home to Diyarbakir a few years ago to run a kilim store and give tours of the city, with a little dark humor thrown in.

Odds are slim that you have gotten a postcard from Diyarbakir in the last decade or so. It is the capital of Turkish Kurdistan, a country that does not exist, despite the most violent efforts of a separatist resistance based here. Until recently the municipal jail, a stop on our sightseeing jaunt, housed members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (commonly referred to as the PKK) who were captured fighting a bloody street war against the Turkish Army.

Following a cease-fire and the end of emergency military rule in 2002, the city is re-emerging as one of the most interesting destinations in Anatolia. By any measure it has the highest concentration of churches, mosques, mansions, and museums of any Turkish city outside Istanbul. At one time, one-third of Diyarbakir was Christian — mostly Armenian supplemented with Syriac Christians — and there was a small Jewish community. The Kurdish question still dominates talk here, but a walk around the city reveals a history of religious diversity to rival prewar Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or pre-Inquisition Toledo and Cordoba in Spain.

Onen’s carpet store is located in the 16th-century stone caravanserai-turned-hotel where I stayed with a friend as we neared the end of a trip around Eastern Turkey. This former stop for merchants traveling the Silk Road was a surprise hit in a region hardly known for its accommodations.

I was in the courtyard enjoying a breakfast of olives, cheese, and flatbread when Onen introduced himself. If I needed a tour, he said, I could find him in his store.

Our first stop was a watchtower along the basalt Byzantine walls that encircle the city. Built by the Romans to keep the Persians out, the walls were an utter failure. Since Mesopotamian times, the city has played host to over 30 civilizations: Hittites, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Seljuks, Ottomans, the list goes on. All saw fit to keep the impressive walls intact.

Just beyond the ramparts are slums that cropped up as Kurds emptied out of villages in favor of the city during the violent ’90s. Farther on is the Tigris River. Beyond that and out of sight is the border with Syria.

After stops at the walls and the now defunct city jail, we entered the labyrinth of narrow alleys that make up the old city. Onen led us to an unmarked door and knocked. A woman with the white embroidered head covering of the Kurds opened and waved us into her entryway. Her skirt rolled up, she was mopping the floor. Her son appeared with a key.

He let us into the courtyard where there was a massive, crumbling church with a gold-painted altar and curly inscriptions. It had magnificent pillars and vaults — and no ceiling. Called Surp Giragos, or St. George’s Church, the 19th-century structure served the massive Armenian population here before they were deported and massacred in 1915.

Kurdish separatism may be the touchiest subject in Turkey, but what happened in 1915 runs a close second. More than a million Armenians were killed, according to scholars. Jews and Syriac Christians were also driven out of their homes and murdered. The Turkish government refuses to label the massacre a genocide, and has a history of prosecuting individuals who do. They say those who died fell victim to the chaos of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, not systematic slaughter.

St. George’s has been abandoned since 1915 and the ceiling fell in about a decade ago. The city government has been promising to start repairs for a few years. Onen said he had hosted a group of Armenian-American tourists here recently. “They put candles around and did a service,’’ he said. “It was very emotional.’’

After we thanked the family and left a tip for the son, we visited an unusual mosque, Kasim Padisah Camii. The “four-legged minaret,’’ on foot-high stilts, is built of black and white stones stacked in stripes. This look is popular among the town’s older mosques, Onen explained, because the stones are from a local quarry. Another mosque with the same color scheme is the Nebi Camii, “mosque of the Prophet.’’

Between the big breakfast and the midday heat, I decided to skip lunch and stop off for a quick honey pastry and tea. (Turks claim baklava was invented in the neighboring city of Gaziantep. Greeks would beg to differ. Either way, Diyarbakir’s bakeries are worth a visit.)

The next sight was the biggest mosque in town: Ulu Camii, the grand mosque. Legend has it the building stands on the site of an old Byzantine church, making it the oldest mosque in Anatolia. Builders salvaged Roman columns from different periods and used them to prop up the courtyard, giving it a hodgepodge appearance.

Next to the grand mosque is the yogurt bazaar. Yogurt may be the featured product, but everything from samovars to spices to clothing is for sale here. As our group passed through, an affable man named Bozo greeted Onen and invited the group into his barbershop. Bozo, so nicknamed after his blondish hair, passed out a round of coffee.

To make conversation, I asked if Diyarbakir produced oil like its neighbors. Or maybe exported watermelon.

“Our export is politics,’’ said Bozo. He pointed out the men sitting on three-legged stools around the bazaar, absorbed in their conversations and games of dominoes.

“What they make is politics,’’ he said.

A dark-haired man, Ali, gestured at the children. “Also for export,’’ he said, “to Germany.’’ Everyone laughed.

Kurds, it seems, emigrate faster than Turks for political and familial reasons — their families are on average twice as large as those of Turks. According to the men, it can be nearly impossible to provide for a large family on the average salary in Diyarbakir.

Bozo said things in Diyarbakir had gotten “much better’’ in recent years, alluding to pressure on the Turkish government by the United States and European Union. For example, the government had recently legalized Kurdish-language television programs. Most Kurds that I met insisted that Americans were Kurds’ best friends.

The last stop on the tour was the only functioning church in the city. The location of the Meryem Ana Kilisesi, or Church of St. Mary, has been sanctified since Mesopotamian times, making it one of the oldest churches in the world.

The kindly, bearded Yusuf Akbulut, better known as Father Joseph, unlocked the church for us. He explained that Syriac Christians, like the Egyptian Copts, are monophysites. “We believe that Christ is not two people — mortal and divine,’’ he said, “rather, that he has two natures in one person.’’

Monophysites split off from the main church in the fifth century, and over the years they have suffered persecution by Muslims and by fellow Christians, who considered them heretics.

Father Joseph was arrested, tried, and imprisoned in 2000, for “incitement to religious hatred’’ after telling a Turkish newspaper that Syriac Christians were killed alongside Armenians in the 1915 genocide. (Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk and US activist Noam Chomsky were similarly tried for speaking out about the massacre and the oppression of Kurds.) After international pressure, including a letter from the US Congress, Father Joseph was released. Now he ministers to a congregation of about 100 each Sunday in the brick-domed church.

“Each year we lose some families to America and Europe,’’ he said. “But we still try to keep the old traditions alive.’’

He gives the liturgy in ancient Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. I wanted to hear what Jesus’s language had sounded like and Father Joseph obliged, opening a prayer book and tracing the red script with his finger. As he finished the guttural, sung prayer, the loudspeakers of nearby mosques took up the call to prayer.

Rachel Nolan can be reached at