The destruction of an Armenian church in Kütahya revives a history of erasure

Kütahya is a town with an interesting history. In 1915, when the Ottoman military junta ordered the liquidation of Armenian communities across Turkey, governor Faik Bey refused to follow orders, which helped to save the town’s Armenian community. 

Ara Sarafian, a historian whose work I made a film about in 2016, told me that “The Armenians in all of Kütahya province were saved in 1915. They numbered around 4,000 people according to official Ottoman statistics. In neighbouring Bursa and Eskişehir around 75 per cent of Armenians disappeared between 1915 and 1916 according to Talaat Pasha's report on the Armenian Genocide.”

Unfortunately, Kütahya’s Armenians did not survive the formation of the Republic, and in 1922, they were forced to leave by the National Army, “as a result of their complaints to their spiritual leaders in Kütahya”, according to an author on this discussion forum about the city’s Armenian past. The forum lists three Armenian churches which were said to have been in the city before 1915:

Սուրբ Աստուածածին/Surp Asdvadzadzin/Holy Mother of God

Սուրբ Թորոս/Surp Toros/Saint Toros

Սուրբ Սարգիս/Surp Sarkis/Saint Sarkis

I think that one of these churches must be one of the church towers you can see in this old image of the town I found online. The other one is probably the tower of a Greek Orthodox church which is still standing, though in very bad repair.

Kütahya at the start of the 20th century

On January 26, reports began to circulate on Twitter that the second of these churches, Surp Toros, had been bulldozed by its owner, despite being the subject of a cultural heritage protection order in 2019. Aris Nalci, writing for ArtiGercek, included an image of the protection order, which doesn’t name the church, but says that it is in the Gazi neighbourhood of Kütahya.

Finding out more about this church interested me, because I’m doing a project to record all the cultural heritage and archaeological sites in Turkey - which includes the Armenian churches, schools and monasteries that existed before 1915 - using Wikidata, the Open Data sister site of Wikipedia. Creating Open Data about the historical locations of Armenian sites is important because that data can be read by computers and be used to create interactive maps and other visual materials. There are thousands of these sites, and no publicly available list of them all currently exists.

I found out that the church which had been destroyed was probably on a street called Sinema Sokak, because the church had been used as a cinema after the Armenian community left. You can travel down this street on GoogleMaps, and this is what you can see.

I also contacted Aris Nalci, who showed me some other photos of the church taken by a friend of his, and reprinted here with permission.

The outside wall certainly looks like the same place. Of the other two Armenian churches that were in Kütahya, the other two have probably already been destroyed. Through Ara Sarafian's contacts, we discovered that one of the other churches had been demolished to make way for a PTT post office. I’ve marked the location of the PTT office and Sinema Sokak on this Google map of the city.

While it is important to highlight examples of the destruction of cultural heritage sites, it should be pointed out that there are examples of successful heritage preservation in Turkey. An Armenian church in Kayseri was repurposed as a library in 2018, even if Hürriyet managed to avoid using the word ‘Armenian’ in its article about the building.

When I visited South Eastern Turkey in 2015, I also saw that many Kurdish communities are taking care of Armenian sites, including the restored Surp Giragos church in Diyarbekir, which was restored after work by Kurds and Kurdish Armenians in the city. Likewise, in the village of Por, local Kurds had agreed to prevent the Armenian monastery there from destruction by gold diggers.

But still, much Armenian and other minority heritage is being erased from Turkey’s geography, so it’s more important than ever to record it digitally before it is lost. That’s why I have recently scanned an Armenian encyclopaedia from 1903 which Sarafian lent to me, with the intention of using it as a source to create Open Data about every Armenian school, church and monastery which existed in Turkey before the 1915 genocide. There is now only one dilapidated Greek Orthodox church left in Kütahya, which you can see in the video below. It also looks like it is in serious danger of collapse if it is not protected.

With digital preservation, we can create interactive maps that show the location, as well as hopefully photographs and other media about every single Armenian site in Turkey. This should help in cases like that of Surp Toros, which was destroyed despite being registered as a protected site on 27 August 2019 by the Ministry of Culture Regional Protection Board. According to Nalci’s article, the owner, Hakan Değirmencioğlu, said of the destruction, “As a result of the struggle I have been fighting for years, it was demolished in January 2021. Saray cinema took its place in Kütahya’s history. It will live in memories."

It seems highly unlikely that Değirmencioğlu did not know that the building was an important historical structure, not just a cinema, but we cannot just blame this man for his ignorance or lack of care for history. The institutional neglect of Armenian sites across Turkey and lack of commitment to protecting heritage created the opportunity for destruction. While authorities point to specific buildings like Akhtamar Church on Lake Van island as examples of protection, these examples are rare, and minority communities often do not have enough money to pay for expensive restoration work on their own. A good example of this is the Greek Orthodox Orphanage on Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands. 

There are hundreds more churches across Turkey like Surp Toros, but most are unrecorded, and without good records, it will be hard to protect them. The Turkish Culture Ministry has no publicly available list of heritage sites which others can use. This is why I am trying to make my own, and I know that other organisations are doing similar work. But why should it be left up to volunteers to spend time and effort to protect Turkish cultural heritage? Turkey’s government seems to care more about limiting academic freedom than working with academics to preserve cultural heritage. 

Its rich cultural history could help Turkey generate more tourism, as well as contributing to a better academic understanding of the past. The Turkish Culture Ministry needs to do more to record and preserve heritage sites in danger of destruction, because this is unlikely to be the last time an old church is bulldozed in Turkey.