SAYFO: The Genocide that Never Ended

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress. For the article in Turkish ‘Bitmeyen Soykirim’, see Gazete Sabro

By Yawsef Beth Turo, Journalist, moderator at Suroyo TV, and Sayfo activist

@gazetesabro – Has Turkey lost something from its history? Does it feel or realize that it has lost something? When I view the current political mentality and social order, it does not come across like that to me at all. I believe it is the opposite; Turkey considers it to be rid of us Syriacs. Through its educational system, its schools and media, Turkey has for more than a century instilled in the minds of its citizens the perception that it has got rid of the “gayrimüslim”, i.e., non-Muslims such as the Armenians, Greeks and Syriacs. It even takes this train of thought a step further. The thinking then goes like this; “if we had not punished or deported the non-Muslims, and if we had not killed them, we would not today speak of a country called Turkey.”

Even within movements like the so-called “Turkish left”, “Turkish democrats”, and “Turkish progressives”, the general tendency is one that speaks, acts, and flows in the manner ascribed above. And although we see some bolder approaches and position-taking within the Kurdish front, unfortunately they too do not, or are not able, to really act on that. In conversations with Kurdish acquaintances, fellow city dwellers, and good friends I hear from time to time: “Since you Syriacs left, the wonderful flavor of this land has gone, the soil has lost its blessing, fertility has been lost with you, and the atmosphere in the region has deteriorated.” However, these words are not enough to convince me and will not satisfy Syriacs. We expect honest and real concrete steps in the right direction. We really need to get the sense that these words and attitudes are sincere.

For the Syriacs today still suffer from the gloomy and tragic events of the SAYFO Genocide of 1915. Whether in the Tur Abdin and Hakkari regions of southeastern Turkey, whether in Nohadra (Duhok) in northern Iraq, or in Derik and other places in the Gozarto Region in Syria, the issues continue. They mainly concern issues of land and property. Take for example the cases of land seizures of the Mor Augin Monastery and the Syriac villages of Harbtho, Derqube and Boqusyone. The list is long. Because of the SAYFO, we as Christian peoples have not only lost our men, women, children, clergy, family, and friends but also all of our material possessions and spiritual valuables. Lands, whole villages, monasteries, churches, and schools were appropriated.

Inventory of seized Syriac, Armenian, and Greek properties in Turkey. Table by Agos

I want to delve deeper on this subject through a study published in the Armenian newspaper Agos. The study project was realized with the support of the Hrant Dink Foundation. Project coordinator Merve Kurt and her team of researchers meticulously inventoried (former) places of worship, schools, hospitals, and cemeteries belonging to the non-Muslim Armenian, Greek, Syriac, and Jewish peoples of Anatolia and Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia). Their study covered all of Turkey and the team meticulously drew up an interactive map, city by city and village by village. The picture from this impressive study is deeply saddening: 5,300 churches, 2,600 schools, 650 monasteries, 570 chapels and shrines, 180 synagogues, 50 orphanages and 25 hospitals… a shocking total of 9,375 properties were seized, destroyed, or transformed. And we should keep in mind that the study did not include the hundreds of thousands of seized homes, shops, and businesses.

As the project is the first of its kind, research on mapping the lost cultural heritage in Anatolia and Mesopotamia will continue. If we look at the results per individual people, the following picture emerges: 4,600 Armenian properties, 4,100 Greek properties, 650 Syriac properties and 300 Jewish properties have been seized, destroyed, or transformed. The number of Syriac properties identified in this study strikes me as very low. And Syriacs themselves are responsible for this. The reason is that we Syriacs really need to make more of an effort here and expand the study by detailing our lost properties. In my estimate, we ‘lost’ around 1,300-1,500 cultural and social properties, mostly churches. Unfortunately, more than half of them have not yet been identified and registered.

Despite its shortcomings, the study of identifying and mapping lost properties is very important. It is invaluable to have the property seizures recorded, or at least brought to light. The shortcoming I pointed out above should actually be seen as a criticism of ourselves, because we Syriacs have still not been able to make the necessary inventory of all our seized cultural and religious properties and valuables in Tur Abdin, Garzan, Botan, Hakkari, Gozarto and other regions. Moreover, there is so much more to research about what we Syriacs have lost in the SAYFO Genocide. One doesn’t even know where to start. And everything is calculated in the hundreds of thousands. Just think of the total number of deportees in the SAYFO Genocide of 1915 mentioned in Talat Pasha’s memoires: 924,158 people! 924,158 human beings! And what about their houses, (work)shops, goods, and other possessions? What about those who were murdered in their homes? What about those who were executed and those who died in forced labor… they are all not in this number.

The resulting inventory from Merve Kurt’s study is a unique resource for understanding what civilization was destroyed and what we as human beings have lost. For more detail and the bigger picture, I highly recommend visiting their study at Turkiye Kultur Varliklari.

The policy of confiscating the properties of the Christian and Jewish peoples, which started in 1915, continued with various measures in the Republican period. The long list of seizures of properties of non-Muslim foundations by the Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü (General Directorate of Foundations) under the pretext of the Declaration of 1936, the imposition of the Wealth Tax in 1941, the 6-7 September Pogroms in 1955, and the attacks and suppressive policies against non-Muslims during the occupation of Cyprus in 1964 and 1974, are all clear measures of the continuation of the SAYFO Syriac Genocide of 1915. I think it would be beneficial for all to read the excellent article on this subject by my dear colleague Nurcan Kaya.

Distribution of Armenian, Syriac, and Greek place names changes by Turkish authorities. Map: Harun Tunçel

And as if all this weren’t enough, the names of our settlements, mountains, plains, and geographic regions were also changed. A conscious effort to erase all traces of our Syriac people. A study conducted by esteemed scholar Harun Tunçel of the Department of Social Sciences of the Fırat University in Harput (Elazığ), which I read some years ago and benefited from, proves that the number of villages whose names have been changed in Turkey numbers more than 12,000 (see Table 1). From this study, we roughly estimate the number of villages in our country of which the village names were changed to be 35%. It goes without saying that when we also add the changed names of mountains, plains, valleys, and other territories whose name was changed, the number is much higher: 28,000.

The process of changing Syriac, Armenian, and Greek place names to Turkish started from the very foundation of the Republic of Turkey. The only reason, and none other than this reason, was to cut off the roots of these places from our cultural and religious heritage and to remove the relationship of the land with history. It is a conscious attempt of erasing peoples and rewriting history. The step of changing names into Turkish is clearly the defining step in the SAYFO Genocide. In his study, Harun Tunçel points out that the policies and procedures of changing placenames in Turkey came into force with Circular No. 8589 issued by the Ministry of the Interior at the end of 1940.

Number of villages of which the name was changed to Turkish by city. Table by Harun Tunçel

In my final remarks, I want to compare Turkey with Egypt. Most Egyptians are not originally Arab. Only in the centuries after the Arab-Islamic invasion of Egypt led by Uqba Bin Nafi in the seventh century, were most of the indigenous people Islamized and later Arabized. Although 15% of the Egyptian population is Coptic Christian, the vast majority of the Egypt today considers itself Muslim-Arab. My point is that Egypt never tried to erase its roots in history. The original names of cities and villages were not changed. Today, the Egyptian state and the Egyptian people are proud of their pyramids and pharaohs. How different is this in contemporary Turkey…

Now consider Spartacus from the ancient city of Thrace. He was a native of our country and geography. Consider then the Greek poet Homer from Anatolia, the famous Greek historian and geographer Herodotus from Bodrum, the Armenians Komitas and Saroyan, Saint Aphrem “The Sun of the Syriacs” from Nusaybin, Bardaisan from Urfa, Hanna Dölabani from Mardin, Naum Faik from Diyarbakir, and Ashur Yusuf from Harput. And now consider all those others who originated from this geography but are not known to the people of contemporary Turkey. The fact that they originated from us and from these lands is forgotten. They are no longer remembered. Can you now imagine the magnitude and level of our loss!

Yawsef Beth Turo is a journalist, moderator at Suroyo TV and Sayfo activist. You can follow him @bethturo