The Churches May Have Crumbled

This article will appear in an upcoming special edition of Gazete Sabro on the Sayfo Genocide. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Fréderike Geerdink

We sneaked  away from a conference, a group of some seven or eight people, to squeeze ourselves into a couple of cars and head to the mountains of Hakkari province. The conference was about the diverse history of this part of Mesopotamia and it was highly interesting and inspiring, but this small group of ours thought that checking out the history of the region with our own eyes would contribute to our understanding of what once was. It did.

I am not sure anymore in which year it was but most likely 2014. The so-called peace process between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and the state was ongoing and one member of our group was planning a trip to the southeast of Turkey for diaspora Armenians. A diaspora Assyrian was also part of our spontaneous excursion group. Our main aim was to find churches. One of the group members had some detailed knowledge about where we could find these ancient houses of worship and villagers and shepherds helped us to find the exact spots.

Anyone who has gone high up into the mountains of Hakkari knows how immensely overwhelming and beautiful the landscape is. I must admit I didn’t always detect the churches the others were pointing out in the landscape. I don’t know what I expected exactly. Erect walls maybe, stairs leading to entrances, an arch, remains of a church cemetery. What we found were mostly crumbled walls that couldn’t be recognized as walls anymore, let alone as houses of God. There were a few exceptions. A place confined by three walls and steps leading downstairs, a crumbled ceiling with some vague remnants of paint.

I remember a village. It was hard to define for how long it had been deserted and left to dilapidate. I suggested it may have been a Kurdish village, burned to the ground by the Turkish army in the 1990s. Somebody else in the group said that it looked so old that it was more likely a former Assyrian village, uninhabited since the genocide almost a century ago. The wisest of us said: “It’s probably both. The Assyrians chased away and murdered, then taken over by Kurds, who were themselves again chased away by Turkey decades later.”

A bit more than year after this memorable trip, in September 2015, Turkey expelled me because of my work about the Kurdish issue. I haven’t seen Hakkari since. I have lived in Sulaymanya for some time, but due to the coronavirus crisis I had to return to my home country of the Netherlands, where I now live. In the Netherlands, we also have reminders of communities that were once of considerable size. The synagogues and houses of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam may have been better preserved than the Assyrian churches in what is now southeast Turkey, but the invisibility of the communities that inhabited these places is comparable.

What I find staggeringly painful is how quickly the vanishing of whole communities becomes the new normal. The Assyrian community still exists in its historical lands and it is proudly preserving what remains and keeping its culture alive, but it has become a minority under pressure. Just like the Jews of Amsterdam are under pressure by the anti-semitism that is so ingrained in European culture and that enabled the Holocaust. Whoever is interested enough in these histories, sees the cultural and religious remnants and recognizes the members of the communities, but who can still imagine what it was really like when the communities that once thrived were populating the streets as a natural part of the fabric of the lands and cities?

As if it is normal that in time, communities vanish. But it is not normal at all. Civilizations may collapse due to all kinds of reasons, but when a community vanishes, it is often not because of natural reasons but due to genocide. The Armenians and Assyrians of Mesapotamia are an example, the Jews of Amsterdam too, but there are communities all around the world whose presence ended because of unimaginable violence.

It helps me to picture thriving communities to feel the pain of what was lost, which again strengthens my commitment as a journalist to pay attention to what happened, to draw readers to what remains, and to celebrate and vehemently defend the diversity that we still do have. The diversity that is the core of our humanity.

One hundred and five years ago, most of the Assyrian presence was eradicated from its homeland. The community that is left may be small, their churches in the remote mountains may have crumbled, but they remain one of the great shapers of the region. Their legacy will live on.

Fréderike Geerdink has been working in journalism for thirty years, ten as a freelancer. After being expelled from Turkey in 2015 for her work on the Kurdish issue, she spent a year embedded with the Kurdish armed PKK to write a book about the organization. Follow her work here.