“Are they looking for treasure?” one of the Kurdish men asks our driver, while the others curiously scan the interior of our car. We are in the village of Kabi (now Bagivar), which had 19 Armenian households before the genocide.
I can hardly see George in the backseat. He is holding up his old and new maps of Turkey, trying to determine which village to visit next.
Our driver Umit (Turkish for “hope”) explains to the locals that we are Armenians from the U.S. looking for the cultural and religious landmarks of our ancestors in the region.
“Was there an Armenian church in this village?” we ask. George is certain there was one—we merely want to determine its location. An actuary who has for years studied Ottoman population records, George has a list of churches and monasteries that once existed in the entire Diyarbakir province, village by village.
A heated discussion ensues in Kurdish between our driver and the others, who are having tea in front of the house where we pulled over. An elderly man is at the center of attention; he is explaining something with great enthusiasm. “You think the old man knows where the treasure is hidden?” I make a meager attempt at humor. George smiles and dives right back into his maps.
Another local, armed with the information passed on to him by the old man, jumps into our car and off we go. After a series of lefts and rights on rugged streets, we arrive at our destination. The local man ceremoniously points to a structure and says: “This is where the Armenian church used to be.”
We photograph the uninspiring building that has replaced the Armenian church with the zeal of paparazzi expecting a celebrity but only seeing her distant cousin. You can tell from our faces that we can’t continue documenting churches that have been razed to the ground.
“Is there an Armenian church that is still standing in this area?” I ask the first passerby in Turkish. She is an old woman and I figure she’d know. Turns out she doesn’t; she came to the Diyarbakir region only 20 years ago, but—my consolation prize—she loves Armenians “like they were my parents and children,” she says.
I don’t give up. A few conversations later, we have a new destination: Satikoy. George, whose grandmother is from Diyarbakir, points out that all 70 households of Satikoy were populated by Armenians before the genocide.
Satikoy has one mosque. Its imposing structure in the middle of unassuming houses is hard to miss. And our church is right there.
A local tells me the church roof collapsed “after the Armenians left.” Another intervenes to correct him: “He means after the katliam, the soykirim” (Turkish for “massacre” and “genocide,” respectively).
The roof was later rebuilt and the monastic compound converted to a mosque.
The interior of what was once the vank of Toukh Manoug Khatch (khatch is Armenian for “cross”) is painted over, and there is no visible trace of its Armenian past. Outside, we see the area, now barren, of what was once the vineyard of the church. Before the genocide, Armenians from Diyarbakir and the surrounding areas used to come to this monastic complex during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in mid-September, Rev. Dr. Leylekian tells me upon my return to the U.S.
I leave the compound and start walking. I overhear a few people talking to our driver about George’s maps and whether we are looking for treasure. Hrant Dink had a powerful response to those in Turkey who loiter in the ruins of Armenian graveyards and churches looking for treasure: You are digging and looking for treasure under the ground, he used to say, and you fail to realize that the real treasure was walking on the ground in these lands and was annihilated.
The voices of George, Umit, and the treasure-obsessed locals gradually die down. I am now in a narrow street between the monastic compound and a hill. An old tractor approaches. I give way. The driver smiles and asks where I come from.
“I am an Armenian from America,” I respond. “I came here to see the church.”
He turns off the engine. He begins talking in detail about the Armenians who lived in the village almost a century ago. He points to a nearby area crowded with houses and says: “The Armenian cemetery was right there. They destroyed it and built those houses. I asked our Imam if Islam permits that. He said no religious site should be desecrated.”
His eyes are sad as he speaks. And then they tear up.
“My father was a young Armenian boy when the genocide happened. His entire family was massacred—parents, brothers, sisters. He was taken in by some newcomers and survived. No Armenians remained here.”
He can’t make eye contact anymore.
I think about my own grandparents, those I knew, and those I never met. I take a step forward. We hug each other.
I see George approaching with maps in one hand, camera in the other. I ask him photograph the two of us. Soon afterwards, the man turns the engine on. But before he drives off, he points in the opposite direction and says: “Walk some 200 meters that way. There is an open area where the Armenians used to gather to celebrate the religious feast. There’s nothing there now. But you will feel their presence…” The sound of the engine covers his voice.
I turn towards that direction and start walking.
I had found the treasure.
The Turkish version of this article, which appeared in Radikal, can be accessed here.