"Almost the only Armenian left in Diyarbakır"
Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, was once home to a diverse range of religious and ethnic communities, but decades of violence has driven almost all the minorities away.
An ancient city dating back to Roman times beside the River Tigris, Diyarbakır was home to many thousands of Armenians and other Christians in the 19th century. But after massacres by Muslim Kurds and Turks in 1895 and 1915, those who were not killed either fled abroad or converted to Islam and were assimilated.
Only a few hundred Armenians remained in the city, concentrated in the ancient Sur district of narrow labyrinthine streets and surrounded by black basalt medieval city walls. Most of them left in the 1970s, leaving only a handful behind.
Yervant Bostancı is a player of the oud – a lute-like instrument – of world renown, singing in Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian. Born in Diyarbakır in 1955, he left the city in 1976, but returned nearly 40 years later to settle in his hometown after a successful career in Istanbul and the United States. Bostancı is almost the only Armenian left in Diyarbakır now.
"Your love never left me in my days of hunger and thirst," said Bostancı, reading a line from a poem, as he gazed at the basalt walls of an old Diyarbakır house. Sitting near the pool in the courtyard "I came for the infidels neighbourhood in Sur, but there is nothing left of it," he said as his eyes filled with tears.
Bostancı’s father was a maker of pushis, the traditional headgear of the region, known in Arabic as keffiyeh.
Bostancı used the silk thread from the fabric in his own instruments.
“I would take them and use them to make strings for my musical instruments. I would take the piece of wood and sing local songs the whole day,” he said.
His first local instrument was the darbuka, a percussion instrument common in Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Armenia, which he started playing at the age of four. As early as 10, Bostancı began to play at weddings. "I opened my eyes in Surp Giragos church and joined the choir which helped my musical career immensely," he said.
In 1976, Bostancı moved to Istanbul, but, facing threats for singing in Armenian, moved to the United States in 1992.
"The last members of the Armenian community left Diyarbakır in 1976. Only a handful of people remained,” he said. “I spent so much time meeting with old generation Armenians in Los Angeles to make compositions. There is a rich oral history there, but here nothing remained."
Bostancı returned to Diyarbakır in 2013 after more than 20 years in the United States. At the time, a ceasefire between the Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists had ended nearly 30 years of bloodshed in the southeast that had killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted millions more.
It was a time of hope in Diyarbakır and Bostancı helped organise social gatherings in newly restored Surp Giragos, one of the largest Armenian churches in the Middle East.
"In the first days, 15 to 20 people turned up, then, including the descendents of those who converted to Islam, 100 or so ethnic Armenians joined us. I was listening to their stories,” he said.
But the peace process broke down in 2015 and fighting resumed soon after. The youth wing of the PKK, following orders from their leaders safe in the mountains of northern Iraq, declared autonomy in cities across the southeast later that year, including the Sur district of Diyarbakır.
The PKK fighters dug trenches and set up barricades around Sur to keep security forces out. The army bombarded the area with artillery and tanks and sent in special forces to defeat the rebels. But after three months of fighting, much of the area had been destroyed.
Surp Giragos, reopened with much fanfare after restoration in 2011, was heavily damaged.
"I made more than 50 compositions in the United States, but since I settled back here I struggle to be productive. I haven't written even a single poem here," Bostancı said.
During the fighting, Bostancı said he spent most of the time at home.
"We can cleanse our souls with music but during those difficult days we were trapped indoors," he said.
Bostancı admits to missing the United States, but says he will stay in Diyarbakir as he has put down roots, married and has a son named “Dikran” – Dikranagerd is the Armenian name of Diyarbakir. It was the first time the name Dikran was registered in the city in 41 years.
"A man should die in the place where he was born."