Ruins to Memories: Uncovering the Last Armenian Church of Sivas

The church services had ended, and with the customary repetitions of “Krisdos haryav i merelots” behind us, we made our way to my grandparents’ house since they weren’t able to attend the service. With each passing year, my grandfather had aged considerably, and it was physically demanding for him to make his way to church. Stopping by their home was a way of spending family time together and, indeed, a good excuse for all of us to have some nice tea, choreg, and, of course, to engage in the lively tradition of egg-breaking.

That day, my grandfather was a different man, lost in melancholy and silence, unlike his usual self. He was a storyteller who could bring the past alive with his anecdotes, but that day he sought solace in his cumbus, a banjo-like instrument. He then beckoned me with his notorious wink to come join him in his room. 

I sat across from him and listened to a couple of his tunes. Once he finished playing, he unhesitatingly asked:

“How was church?” 

“As usual,” I replied. “Don’t worry. You didn’t miss out on much,” I added to make him feel better for being unable to attend.

“You know, it’s the first Easter that I wasn’t able to attend since we moved to this country.”

“I’m sure,” I responded sorrowfully.

“But there’s a reason why I never missed Easter or any other holiday. A very good reason which I never like talking about is because it brings about accursed memories.”

It was obvious he was itching to share a story that he had never told before. Usually, the stories we would hear from him were cheerful and lighthearted, but when it came to gloomy ones, he would recount them only once.

“Just say it, Dede,” I implored. “Get it off your chest. It’s not good to keep all this inside you.”

He conceded and put down his instrument. He then released a heavy sigh and began to tell his story: 

“I remember that ill-fated day like it was yesterday. It was around sundown, and I was closing up my shop in Sivas’ city center. I remember how quiet everything was. Unusually quiet. In my heart, a feeling of unease was stirring, but I brushed it aside, eager to return home. And then, just as I was about to lock up, it happened.

An explosion. A thunderous loud noise ripped through the air. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

I felt the shock reverberate right down to my bones. Buildings trembled around me, and the screams of frightened people pierced the air, their voices joining together in a chorus of panic. In that moment, chaos erupted in the city, and people poured out of their homes and stores to bear witness to the disaster. A cloud of ash began to form, looming close to where I stood. Some fled in terror, while others, driven by a need to know, raced toward the epicenter of the catastrophe. I locked up my shop and joined the throngs of people running toward the source of the devastation.

As I drew closer to the scene of destruction, I was taken aback by the curious reaction of the crowd. They were not consumed by fear or despair, as I had expected. In fact, they appeared to be almost relieved, their faces displaying an odd sense of calm and solace. I wondered why until I reached the site and found out what was demolished.

It was the Armenian church.

The building had been completely obliterated, leaving behind nothing but a pile of rubble. As I stood there gazing at the ancient stones beneath my feet, I couldn’t help but ponder the many stories they held. The baptisms that occurred within those blocks of stone. The weddings. The many joyous occasions.

As people were approaching the site, they started to shout, ‘It’s the Armenian church!’ 

Another cried, ‘They’ve finally destroyed it!’

‘We’ll have more room in the city center now – something we’ve needed for so long.’

Another man, not knowing I was Armenian, said to me, ‘It was a useless building anyway.’ 

Even to this day, the name of that church in Sivas remains a mystery to me. The tragic aftermath of the Genocide left our community with nothing but ruins and ashes. There were no active churches or schools, no priests to guide us. The timeframe I speak of was the 1950s, and by that time, all that remained were the crumbling remains of institutions, which we referred to simply as ‘the old Armenian church’ or ‘the old Armenian school.’ Despite our proximity to these sacred spaces, we were disconnected from their history, and their names remained unknown to us. Our only connection to faith was the simple gesture of making the sign of the cross as we passed by. Without any formal education or guidance, many of us never learned to pray or read in Armenian. It wasn’t until we left Sivas and moved to Istanbul that I had my first encounter with an Armenian priest.

Regardless, there still existed a sizable Armenian community in Sivas, and word slowly reached each and every one of them about the church’s destruction. I encountered one of them on my way back home from the destruction site, and he told me plans had already been made to gather at a local Armenian’s house to discuss what happened. I agreed to join. Arriving at the home later that evening, I was met with a sight that will forever be etched in my memory. The spacious house was filled with many Armenians, all dressed in black, with the women in particular standing out. The discussion did not take place as planned. Everyone was mourning. All I heard was wailing and weeping. Amid the cries, I heard prayers. Some prayed in Armenian, others in Turkish. I then witnessed women lifting their hands in the air pleading for help from God or some sort of divine intervention. One particular moment that stuck with me was when an Armenian man who couldn’t speak Armenian or recite a prayer, instead prayed in the way of the Muslim faith by kneeling down on the floor. It was a subtle reminder that regardless of our different faiths or levels of assimilation, the devastating impact of the blast affected us all.

The small and forgotten Armenian community of Sivas never felt more neglected and alone that night. It seemed as though even God had forsaken us. We were alone in an ocean of a hostile environment that not only turned our community into ruin, but also destroyed those ruins. We struggled to come to terms with the enormity of our loss and the indifference of the world around us.

So with nothing left to say or do, the mourners were left with only their tears and prayers to offer. They cried and prayed, prayed and cried. It continued all throughout the night, and I could hear their voices till this very day.”

Overcome with grief, my grandfather ended his story just like that. Like a Siamanto poem with no happy ending in sight.

Part 2

Years went by and, after my grandfather passed away, I found myself still holding onto that story. I could recall every detail vividly, but I had always regarded it as just another family anecdote. Yet, as the old Russian saying goes, “trust but verify.” Although I trusted my grandfather completely and had no reason to doubt him, I knew that verifying the story would elevate it from the realm of family lore to academic inquiry. I wondered what I might discover if I were to investigate it fully and whether the truth might reveal new dimensions to the tale that I had never imagined.

Yet, I had no hope that I would find any piece of information about it anywhere. I first needed to find the name of the church, which I didn’t know. Even if I did know the name of the church, where would I find more information about it? Something inside me refused to give up, and I felt compelled to continue my search for the truth.

My “aha” moment came when I least expected it. I stumbled upon a book about Sivas that had been published by the Hrant Dink Foundation. As I flipped through the pages, one passage caught my eye:

The last of the Sivas churches, Surp Asdvadzadzin Cathedral was demolished by explosives in the early 1950s during a wave of cultural heritage destruction that struck central Anatolian cities. In that regard, Sivas city has no standing Armenian church.

This was it. I finally discovered vital pieces of information I had been searching for: the name of the church, the rough time of the bombing. Now, my only task was to delve deeper into my research to uncover more details.

The Surp Asdvadzadzin Church from afar (Source: Houshamadyan)

The church was originally part of the Surp Nshan Monastery complex, built in the 11th century during a period when King Hovhannes-Senekerim was forced by the Byzantines to move to Sivas (then Sepastia) as part of a territorial exchange intended to strengthen defenses against the Seljuks Turks in the east. The monastery was made up of three churches: Surp Khatch (Nshan), Surp Hovhannes Karapet and Surp Asdvadzadzinthe church that was demolished. The churches were located in different parts in and around the city. The complex included a large garden with fruit and willow trees and a renowned school called the Sanasarian Varjaran. The monastery also owned property throughout the city of Sivas including 47 fields, two mills and 19 stores. Its influence in the region was palpable.

A 1918 photo of an Armenian church in Trabzon, which was used as an auction site and distribution center of confiscated Armenian goods and belongings after the Armenian Genocide for the Liquidation Commission. The Surp Nshan monastery suffered a similar fate. (Photo: Public Domain)

Up until the Armenian Genocide, Surp Nshan served as the primary repository of medieval Armenian manuscripts in the Sepastia region, housing at least 283 manuscripts. Fortunately, the library was not destroyed during the Genocide, and most of the manuscripts survived the carnage. Afterward, around 100 of them were transferred to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1918. Others can be found in the Matenadaran in Yerevan, as well as in various public and private collections. But not all were saved. Almost all the treasures and objects belonging to the monastery were liquidated through “Liquidation Commissions” (Turkish: Tasfiye Komisyonu) and are now lost forever. The depository was the most sought after item in the monastery and contained prized artifacts such as old books, jewelry, gold and silver items and chasubles. Writer Haygazn Ghazarian’s account in the 1929 edition of New York’s defunct Alis newspaper provides important insight into the fate of the depository. According to Ghazarian, Turkish authorities coerced local Armenians into opening the depository, despite not having the key. After much resistance, the Armenians were eventually forced to use hammers to break it open. The discovery of the items must have felt like stumbling upon a treasure trove for the Turkish authorities, who immediately registered each item they uncovered and subsequently sold them at auction through the Liquidation Commission. The most prized item, however, was the throne of Senekerim-Hovannes, which we will get to. 

The most recent information available about Surp Nshan indicates that in 1939, the traveler H. E. King visited the monastery complex, which was being used as a military depot and closed to the public. However, King observed that the monastery was still intact, and the main church appeared to be in excellent condition, complete with its distinctive dome. This was vital information, because it showed that given how well preserved the monastery complex was, the only way to bring down its churches would have to be with explosives. King, however, was most likely referring to the main church of Surp Nshan, which was outside the city center. 

The altar of the Surp Asdvadzadzin church featuring mother Mary holding Christ Child within a gilded frame

The church in question, Surp Asdvadzadzin, was the main focus of my inquiry. Turns out, it was a domed church that follows a “Hripsime-type” plan modeled after the church of the same name at the Varagavank monastery, according to the 11th-century historian Aristakes of Lastivert. The church had four monumental doors, four chambers and two chapels complete with a striking dome that was visible in much of the city. It was this very church that housed the throne of King Senekerim-Hovhannes. This magnificent throne, adorned with ivory, was brought to Sepastia in the 11th century by Senekerim-Hovannes after the Armenians struck a deal with the Byzantines to relocate their kingdom from Van. According to Ghazarian’s account, which provides previously undocumented details not found in English-language sources, the throne was taken from the church and given to Ahmet Muammer Bey, the Vali of the Sivas province who kept it in his living room as a personal possession. Unfortunately, the fate of the throne now remains a mystery, and it seems to have been lost forever. Muammer Bey died in 1928, and it may have been disposed of that year. The loss of the throne may not come as a surprise, as Turkish authorities may have viewed it as a threat due to its symbolic significance as a representation of the Armenians’ once independent kingdom and government. The throne provides irrefutable evidence of this history and perhaps why it has led to its destruction or disappearance, which is something especially plausible during the time of Turkey’s new nation-building project under Ataturk. The church also housed the graves of Armenian catholicoi, including Petros Getadardz, and featured a richly decorated main altar with a painting of Mary holding the Christ child. The image was framed by a stunning gold frame that resembled rays of light radiating from the image. The frame was topped off with an arch that contained the Bible verse John 10:9 in Armenian: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” The combination of the intricate frame and the meaningful verse added to the church’s overall grandeur and spiritual significance. Notably, the church underwent renovations during the mid-19th century, generously supported by local Armenians, and received further embellishments at the onset of the 20th century. Of all the churches in the complex, this particular one stood out as the only one located in the heart of the city. According to the Hrant Dink Foundation, during a brief period in the early Republican era, the church may have had some secret worshippers, which is surprising news. However, it was soon permanently blocked off. It’s also interesting to note that a group of Armenians actually petitioned the government to reopen the church, but their efforts were met with the demolition of the building. However, this surely cannot be the only reason for its destruction. 

Last known photograph of Senekerim-Hovhannes Artruni’s throne taken in the 1880s at Varagavank near Van. The throne was left vacated after Senekerim-Hovhannes surrendered his Kingdom to the Byzantines and was given land in and around Sepastia as compensation. Approximately 14,000 Armenians from Vaspurakan moved to Sepastia. The whereabouts of the throne are unknown, but it is believed to have been lost during the genocide. (Photo: Public Domain/Library of Congress)

The bombing of the church was carried out by Mayor Rahmi Günay, though it is believed he received an order from higher authorities. Günay was a loyal member of Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party and was the longest serving mayor in Sivas’ Republican history, eventually becoming a member of the National Assembly. In fact, Günay was so popular that he served two separate terms as mayor in Sivas’ municipality from 1942 to 1960 and 1968 to 1973. It is no surprise that one of the most famous streets in Sivas is named after him. 

Mayor Rahmi Günay

It should be noted that it is very likely that Sivas was undergoing a significant reconstruction project that required the demolition of the Armenian church due to its prime location. Initially serving as a military depot, the church’s dome was dynamited on June 21, 1949, with the fortified walls still standing. It took two years to destroy the rest of the building, with the final explosion occurring around 1951 under the pretext of ensuring “public safety.” Following the demolition, the stones of the church were sold and repurposed for building residences and making sidewalks. Some accounts even suggest that the stones were used to repair Sivas’ main mosque. Nevertheless, the preservation of many historical monuments, especially Seljuk ones, in the city center today raises questions about why the Armenian church was specifically targeted for destruction. The location of the church is now a shopping center called Arı (39.7494518, 37.0163831), and one can see that the church stood right beside Sivas’ main central square. All around the central square, one can encounter many historical monuments today, but the only one missing is the Armenian church. Hence, one can’t help but deduce that the deliberate bombing of the church suggests a more sinister motive behind its destruction. 

It is highly likely that an anti-Armenian agenda was also at play. According to the Hrant Dink Foundation’s book on Sivas, there was a widespread campaign of getting rid of Armenian churches during the 1950s throughout Turkey’s interior provinces. The mayor may have been merely acting upon orders of a larger and more systematic campaign to erase the vestiges of the once thriving Armenian community.

An Armenian wedding ceremony in Sivas, pre-1915 (Source: Houshamadyan)

When I revisit the brief sentence about the bombing, I’m struck by the realization that history has its limitations. It can capture events and facts, but it often fails to convey the true emotional impact on those involved. The words on the page didn’t mention the grief-stricken mourners who gathered late at night, nor did they capture the callousness of the local Turks upon seeing an Armenian church reduced to rubble. It brought to mind Napoleon’s famous quote, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” I finally understood the sentiment behind his words. Historians consolidate their version of events and often leave out crucial details that help us understand how a tragedy affected the people who witnessed it. Instead, we’re left with dry and impersonal accounts that read more like science textbooks than a true depiction of history. However, in reality, history is full of half-truths, with the other half either left unrecorded or retained by those who experienced it, only to be revealed if and when they choose to share their stories.

The famed poet Czesław Miłosz once said, “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” As Armenians who have suffered and continue to suffer from genocide and cultural erasure, this obligation weighs particularly heavily upon us. The loss of monuments like this church is not just a loss for the Armenian people, but a loss for all humanity. It serves as a stark reminder of the importance of preserving our shared cultural heritage, recognizing the injustices of the past and striving toward a more equitable future. By telling the story of this church and other similar sites, we not only honor the memory of those who built and maintained them, but also fulfill our duty to preserve and share the stories of those who came before us. In this way, we can ensure that their voices and stories are not lost to the sands of time, but rather continue to inspire and inform future generations. Indeed, it is the least we can do.

Author’s Note: This article is dedicated in memory of all those who were impacted by the tragic event, particularly my grandfather. Additionally, I want to express my deep appreciation to Robert Sukiasyan, a researcher of Armenian Studies at Yerevan State University, for providing invaluable information and insights about the church.

The Surp Asdvadzadzin (Photo: Houshamadyan)
Garen Kazanc

Garen Kazanc

Born in Paris to Armenians from Turkey, Garen Kazanc moved to Los Angeles at a young age, where he attended and graduated from the Armenian Mesrobian School in 2006. He received a B.S. degree in sociology from Cal State Los Angeles. He has been an active member of Hamazkayin and the Armenian Poetry Project and has contributed articles to various Armenian newspapers and media outlets.

10 Comments

  1. I visited my grandfather’s village Bardizag in 2015.where St.Kevork church once stood is now a mosque.I believe the neighboring village of Prapert still has the structure. So sad.

  2. Hi Garen,

    My Armenian grandparents also went from Sebastia to Argentina after the second decade of last century.
    Good article

  3. Thank you for this article. My maternal grandparents are from Sepastia. We need to hear these stories.

  4. My name is John Chookasezian. I am a first generation Armenian-American. My parents Arshalous and Manase Chookasezian were both born in Sebastia, historic Western Armenia.
    My parents each had their many own blood-curdling and inhumane accounts and stories that they each witnessed and lived through, while escaping from the Turkish soldiers throughout Turkey! Also, the almost complete loss of their family members from Sebastia! The persecution, torture and murder of many of their fellow Sebastiatzis became engraved in their memories and hearts and were passed down to me.
    I have documented and written down the many horrors that each one of my parents encountered while escaping from Sebastia.

  5. I served in the Turkish Army in Sivas from 1959 to 1961.Because of my special position in the army I was able to visit Surp Nisan Vank. I could feel the holiness of the edifice . After so many years still Holy Spirit was present, at least to me.
    Surrounding the vank were many caves and according to an old local Armenian, historian, when the enemy was attacking the monastery, people hide in this caves. in one of them I could tell a cross was removed that was embedded in the wall. Vank was off limits to all civilians also some military too because it was used as an ammunition depot and needed special permission to go near by. A wonderful river flow nearby called Kepenek suyu meaning water and we use to do our wash in that river .Surp Nisan vank was located about 15 minutes from the center of Town . However in town there were also 2 other churches. One converted into a Turkish bath and the other a barn for animals. I met an elderly woman that was married to a Turk during genocide. She never admitted being Armenian .The story is too long to publish here. It was an interesting experience my life in the Turkish Army with many funny memories. And I must add, beside some sickness in the beginning, I had most comfortable 2 years of my life. Turkey had a revolution in 1960 and that was when I was posted in Sivas.

  6. Thanks Garen for the great article about the churches in Sivas. My grandmother was born there in 1891 and lived in Sivas until she was able to flee in 1916. She was great witness to life in old Sivas alway telling me tails of pilgrimages to the surprise Nishan Vank and the great beauty of the mother church in the city center. Although I new the faith of these monuments your article made me very sad and angry.

  7. The author is confusing Surp Nshan monastery (with its three churches, one named Surp Asdvadzadzin), which was located quite far outside Sivas (far enough away for Muslim mobs intending to march from Sivas to be discouraged, as one traveller put it), with the completely separate Surb Asdvadzadzin in the centre of Sivas. Many Armenian churches were blown up in the 1950s because it was then that Turkey had, for the first time, access to cheap and plentiful high explosives (obtained thanks to surplus WW2 munitions and NATO membership). The intent to demolish existed before the 1950s, the ability to carry it out didn’t.

    As to the (perhaps deliberate?) forgetting of the names of churches by the post-genocide Armenians of Sivas, I recall in the late 1990s taking a taxi from Sivas to see the large 19thC Armenian church in nearby Tuzhisar village. The taxi driver was Armenian, had spent his whole life in Sivas, and had no knowledge of that church’s existence until we went there.

    • The article speficifically mentions that Surp Nshan and Surp Asdvadzadzin are two separate churches, albeit part of the same monastery complex. From the article:

      “King, however, was most likely referring to the main church of Surp Nshan, which was outside the city center.”

      And again, from the article regarding Asdvadzadzin:

      “Of all the churches in the complex, this particular one stood out as the only one located in the heart of the city.”

  8. Fantastic article and deep dive into the history of the church. Much appreciated for bridging the personal and top-level histories.

    There would be more stories about the destruction via Hrant Dink Foundation’s oral history collection.

  9. Hey Garen,

    Thanks for the article. We need to hear these stories to understand the reality behind the government’s (fake) stories.

    Can you please renew the image links, I am not able to view them, I think they’re expired.

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