It is common in Turkey for churches and sites of religious and cultural importance to Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and Jews to be deeded to individuals and eventually demolished.
It is often the result of a Turkish state policy. The state prevents the restoration of these sites by the individuals or organizations holding the deeds. “You may not even hammer a nail into a wall, as this place is registered in the national board of monuments,” they are told.
At the same time, because we registered it at the ministry level with the Board of Monuments, we are told, “It was not us. We protect the property; it was the owner who did not protect it.”
Of course, no one asks how a site registered as a historical monument and under the supposed protection of the state as a cultural heritage was deeded to the Board of Monuments in the first place.
As a result of this policy, Surp Toros Church in Kutahya, the birthplace of Gomidas, has been flattened to the ground.
As recently as 2015, there was an attempt by the Armenian community to restore the church building. Over the years, the building had been used as a movie theater and a wedding hall.
The community hoped to renovate the building at least as a cultural center.
But, that did not happen.
News of the demolition came from a friend in Kutahya.
Although the registration of the church with the Ministry of Culture’s Kutahya Regional Protection Board was approved on Aug. 27, 2019, it is still not clear whether the process was completed. However, we do know that the individual holding the deed to the church building acquired the necessary permissions from the municipality to demolish it.
There is nothing left to see, except for the doors and the surrounding walls.
A Hoofprint, a Saint, a Cinema
Arshag Alboyadjian wrote in his book Houshamadyan Gudinahayeru (Memorial to Kutahya Armenians, 1961) that the Surp Toros Church may have been built during the time of Sultan Murad. Although the church was burned down during the Celali rebellions in 1603, it was rebuilt soon after.
Alboyadjian wrote that the church was known to have a stone that bore a hoof-mark believed to belong to the horse of St. Toros. Alboyadjian noted that Turkish women would sit on this stone while religious officials recited prayers from the holy book as they believed it would grant them better health.
Hakan Değirmencioğlu, the current owner of the building, told me his grandfather left him “the heritage.” He said he believes that the building was constructed by his grandparents in 1951.
He doesn’t know about the church.
Or, shall we say, he doesn’t want to know.
Değirmencioğlu said, “Saray Cinema [what the church had been converted to] was built as the first cinema of Kutahya in 1951 by the Değirmencioğlu family. My grandfather.”
The Church was used as a cinema until 2000.
Later, it operated as a cafeteria and a wedding hall.
In the last seven to eight years, it was empty and abandoned and falling apart.
Değirmencioğlu said, “As a result of the struggle I have been fighting for years, it was demolished in January 2021. Saray Cinema took its place in the history of Kutahya. It will live in [people’s] memories.”
Did Değirmencioğlu mean the struggle to erase the history of this church?
In the end, he told me to stay away.
He said, “It was a personal property which was burned, a bad situation. So we demolished it.”
I asked about the decision by the Cultural Ministry to designate it as a cultural heritage site.
He said it was revised.
I asked about the new revised version.
He said he didn’t have it.
Either the municipality or him took advantage of the situation and demolished this church.
Once it was done, there was nothing anyone could do.
Shame on you, Kutahya.