Minorities and Gaziantep: there is a painful past that remains untold. Armenians and Jews lived in this city, called Aintep or Ayintep in the old days, for over a thousand years. Going to Gaziantep castle / kalesi, the signs that tell you about the history of 1919-1923 narrate about the coalition between the French and the Armenians, thus reducing Armenians to the status of traitors of their city and their country. It is a convincing, consistent story for visitors who never heard about the period before. As the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1914-1916 is even formally recognized by the Turkish government, a museum fails when it presents facts in this way.
Minorities Gaziantep heritage
Few signs indicate that Gaziantep once had thriving minority communities who largely contributed to the wealth of the city in trade, science and arts. The former synagogue has been restaured and is now a cultural center for the university. The former Kenderli church has also been transformed into a culturel center. The former Armenian Catholic Surp Asdvazdadzin church is now a mosque called the Liberation Mosque (Kurtulus Camii). In the center close to the castle there is a neighbourhood called Bey where the minorities used to live. It is full of cafes and hotels and also home to quite some Syrian refugees. The investment in restauration is strikingly less here than in other parts of the city. What is rebuilt, is the great Ottoman past. There is an inclination to wipe out a part of history that is more difficult to explain.
Local truths about minorities in Gaziantep
I asked around to see what locals would answer me. Where are the Armenians and the Jews? Where did they go and why? These are sensitive subjects but locals were not unwilling to shed some light on them. For the Armenians, I met with two kind of responses. Mostly and at first sight locals told me that Armenians cooperated with the French and that they left with them, in 1923. But other views were also given, and what surprised me is that they were given by very nationalist locals. ‘They got rid of them, yani…’ (and then a waiving hand symbolizing their disappearance). ‘You know there was freedom of religion in the Ottoman empire and we were living side by side. That was better’. ‘I do not respect the heroes shown at the castle (see my blog about that), you know what these people did, they used the situation to steal from the Armenians and enrich themselves. They have become wealthy by killing and looting. I would never go to the exposition in the castle, these people are not good’. This kind of responses by ordinary locals show me that on a deeper level, there is awareness of how the Gaziantep society deals with minorities and the historic narrative, even when you do not hear it in the daily narrative.
As for the Jews, it is difficult to get an answer from locals. ‘But the Jews, where did they go? They were not involved in the fight with the French. I saw the synagogue, they were here. So…?’ All but one I got there was a kind of blank look; locals staring at me with a look I can not interprete. Don’t they know? Do they think I am naive? Is there some embarrasment they do not want to speak about? On the subject of the Jews, they stayed silent. All but one. ‘I will tell you what happened to the Jews, and to the last Armenians that were here in Gaziantep. In the ’70s crosses were put on their houses to indicate that Jews and Armenians lived there. So they left, not all of them abroad, also to Ankara, to Istanbul. They didn’t stay here because they were threatened. People won’t tell you that but this is what happened’…. (another wave of the hand, to show how despicable the actions in the ’70s have been).
The new Syrian minority
Syrians form now a 20% minority in Gaziantep. Their migration has come up in just a few years time. They are called ‘brothers’ and that is not only because of the status of neighbours; they are muslims like the people of Gaziantep are. I can not prove it but walking and talking around I had a stronge sense that that matters more than ethnicity. Also, Syrians are seen as guests and their venue is expected to be temporarily, although maybe for ten or fifteen years. Future will tell how that develops.
Another thing that I can not prove, there is a new, cosmopolitan spirit in Gaziantep that would like to go back to Ottoman times where respect is shown for minorities, also religious minorities. Although there is hardly any Armenian and Jew left in town, this is always a sign of hope. We can not change the past but we might influence the future.
A very interesting blog about the Liberation Mosque, (Kurtulus Camii) and the Armenians in Gaziantep’s history: a beautiful mosque …
About the restauration of the Kenderli church:
Short info about the synagogue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaziantep_Synagogue