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Which future for the city of Diyarbakır?

  Other point of view

Which future for the city of Diyarbakır?

Martine Assénat


Martine Assénat

Professor of Roman History at Paul-Valéry Montpellier III University, France

After the Diyarbakır inner city was nationalized by the Turkish state on 21st March 2016, Martine Assénat, a lecturer at the University of Montpellier,  reminds us of the importance of Sur, the historic centre of Diyarbakır. She explains why it is essential to preserve the “original” alignment of the old streets whose current weave is a major source of information to understand Roman and Byzantine history as well as the medieval and Ottoman periods of this exceptional urban site. She also makes a non exhaustive list of the places and monuments destroyed or damaged during the clashes between the Turkish army and the Kurdish movement in the fall of 2015, which includes the Armenian Catholic church located in the Hasırlı neighbourhood and the Sheikh Muhattar mosque with its four-pillared minaret. Finally, she wonders about the future of that part of Diyarbakir, of which 82 percent of land parcels could possibly be expropriated and turned into public property, causing local people to leave massively in order to make way for the building of a new “Diyarbakırland”, with a gentrified and forever soulless downtown.

Will the inner city of Diyarbakır become a 21st century project town, a “new Toledo”, or will it be just another listed UNESCO world heritage site destroyed in the conflict that has flared across the Middle East – like Palmyra?

In the fall of 2015, an armed conflict started in many cities of Eastern Turkey pitting supporters of the Kurdish movement who declared self-administration (özyönetim) against Turkish security forces. Violent clashes resulted in very heavy human casualties, whose numbers are still disputed. According to the Kurdish rebellion, over 70 members of security forces (soldiers, policemen, village civil guards) and over 250 civilians have been killed since 2nd December 2015, whereas, according to police, over 270 “terrorists” and a few civilians have died.

It is in that context that heavy weaponry inflicted considerable damage on the historical buildings of Sur. And Sur is a highly unusual place. It includes the remarkable 5km-long city fortifications so often described by travellers since the Middle Ages and recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as the city they circumscribe, which is Diyarbakır’s old city centre. Mentioned as “Amedu” in the Assyrian royal texts, turned “Amida” in Greek and Roman times, ceaselessly inhabited for millennia, it is a major site for the history of Upper Mesopotamia. Listed as an “urban archeological site” since 1988, Sur has turned into a buffer zone of the UNESCO site because of a special configuration: circled by a linear monument, namely the Byzantine rampart, the old city is also an integral part of that monument, and even contains its explanation. Before the conflict, public institutions such as the Ministry of Culture and tourism and the Metropolitan City Hall of Diyarbakır had been working at the enhancement of many city monuments, such as the restoration of patrician homes, although along very distinct programmes: whereas state authorities would favour restoring Islamic religious building, the Kurdish municipality would prefer to highlight the multicultural and multi-denominational character of the urban architecture.

According to a recent report from the Diyarbakır City Hall, combats have seriously damaged the Armenian Catholic church in the South-eastern Hasırlı neighbourhood, the Kursunlu mosque, the Sheikh Muhattar with the four-pillared minaret – the wall building being partially destroyed to let armoured vehicles into the street – as well as listed historic shops in Yeni Kapı Street, and the Haman Paça, which was burnt down. Other impaired buildings to be put on the list are examples of traditional civil architecture such as the stately home turned into the Mehmed Uzun House and Museum and the covered street, which was a rare example of traditional street work in Diyarbakır.

When prodded about the government’s response to damages caused to the heritage, Prime Minister A. Davutoğlu answered that Diyarbakır would become a “new Toledo”, referring to General Franco’s victory over the Spanish Republican insurgents and the rebuilding of the Alcazar. And soon after the curfew was lifted, Sur was confiscated by way of a government decree signed by President R.T Erdoğan on 21st March 2016, which happens to be the day of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. In fact, not much is known about the state’s intentions, which constitutes a real challenge to build communication – if there is any wish to do so – between the various players involved: the City, its citizens and the heritage experts.

The decree provides for the expropriation of 6292 of the 7714 parcels of land available in Sur based on Law 2942 about expropriation. It thus concerns 82 percent of plots, the 18 percent remaining already being in the hands of TOKI (the office of collective housing) or the Treasury, which means that the totality of the real estate will become public property1.

This radical step of extraordinary proportions involves exceptional powers on the part of the executive government and is associated to special measures on site, such as blocking almost all the Eastern part of the city and isolating the Western and other district of the metropolis. Many small checkpoints barricaded with sandbags or concrete blocks totally forbid access to streets located East of the Sarey Gate, the Han Hasan Paşa and, from Yeni Kapı Street to the Mardin Gate, to all the streets East of Gazi Caddesi. The Mardin Gate itself is condemned while all the throughways in the old Wall between Sur and the Ben-U-Sen neighbourhood are closed. The only working gates are Urfa, Çift Kapı et de Dağ Kapı, where traffic is however filtered by police barrages. The only vehicles that can be seen driving to and from these neighbourhoods locked in secrecy is a steady stream of dump trucks loaded with rubble.

Accessible streets are deserted, emptied of the noisy life of playing children and the peaceful bustle of ordinary citizens. Meanwhile Turkish flags and nationalist graffiti have flourished everywhere.

Such conditions are fuelling all sorts of conjectures about the future of the ancient city, while photographs of a devastated old centre are circulated on the web: Sur will be razed and the rebuilding contract will be given to TOKI; or the new town will be peopled by Syrian refugees; or only gecekondu (squatter houses) will be demolished in order to bring up the value of the historic buildings… In any event, the inner city population will disappear in order to leave room, at best, to a gentrified city centre in a touristy Diyarbakırland.

Will Sur really be the new Palmyra? On 4th July 2015, the Diyarbakır fortifications and the cultural landscape of the Hevsel Gardens were listed as a UNESCO World heritage. This is why reports have been written throughout the conflicts by a group of experts for the KUDEB project group (Heritage protection, development and control) and submitted to Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which is very involved financially in UNESCO. The reports have also been handed to the Turkish National Committee for UNESCO, the Turkish National Committee for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and the Turkish National committee for ICORP.(International Committee on Risk Preparedness).

It was called again to everyone’s attention that the site administration was subject to the protection of a series of international charters to which Turkey is a signatory, such as: The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), the Convention for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Paris, 2003), the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (Paris, 1972);  the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in case of armed conflict (The Hague, 1954),the Venice Charter (1964) and the Amsterdam Declaration (1975) as well as the protection of Provision 2863 of the Turkish Constitution titled: “Conservation of the cultural and natural Heritage”.

Pacifist voices calling for a ceasefire also rose to say that the Diyarbakır fortifications and the Hevsel Gardens had just been listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. But, on 28th November 2015, violence struck like a dark omen: while holding a press conference on that particular issue in front of damaged monuments, Tahir Elçi, Chairman of the Diyarbakır Bar, was assassinated.

For a historic reading canvas of the city of Sur

We would like to come back to the historic importance of the Diyarbakır old centre and explain why it is so crucial today to preserve the initial layout of the ancient streets of Sur. In a series of articles published in Anatolia Antiqua, it was shown that the current street texture was a major source of understanding of the Roman and Byzantine history of the inner city. Indeed, according to a rather well-known mechanism, many cities of Hellenistic or and/or Roman origins have retained the traces of ancient spatial arrangement in their current urban weave. Each alignment made by the façades of houses, streets, rows of trees, and everything that composes the urban landscape testifies to these remarkable continuities.

The study and analysis of these various land parcels delineations have been decisive to understand the evolutive stages of the Roman city and, from there, to refine the dating assessments of the fortifications. Likewise, the urban textures have kept parceling anomalies which are the fragile remnants of the ancient architectural splendor of Amida. In the Dabanoğlu neighbourhood, for instance, study of land division has made it possible to detect an imprint identifiable as an ancient amphitheatre. The discrepancy between the general orientation of streets in the East and in the West of the city also enabled to better understand the mapping of the Ulu Cami Mosque, bringing to light the presence of a Roman forum in that location and putting the building of its Western façade back into the Roman-Byzantine context. Other anomalies have been noticed, which inspire important conjectures regarding the ancient topography of the city while many indications of ancient monuments in Syriac texts must also be matched to on-site examination of the urban texture. This parceling stability is the breadcrumb trail making it possible to write the urban and topographical history of Amida/ Diyarbakır because most of the public or religious buildings, and popular or patrician housing which make the historic layering of the city are still to be found in the intricate lace of today’s streets. There are no less than 595 landmark buildings, 147 of which may be listed as monuments and the other 448 as remarkable examples of civil architecture.

Yeni Kapı Street, for instance, is lined with buildings rich in history because it used to be a decumanus of the Roman city, which explains their presence: the Sheikh Muhattar Mosque and its four-pillared minaret, the Surp Giragos Church, the Chaldean church and a synagogue have thus shared a prestigious location on that axis because it had been established as such by the Roman mapping.

This parceling plan is just as important for the study of the medieval and Ottoman city. Historical sources also mention a string of monuments, still existing or destroyed, for post-antiquity periods. It is just one example, but it is possible to trace the Suleyman Paşa aqueduct through the city of Sur.

We thus understand that it is essential to preserve the integrity of the parceling map of the inner city and that any kind of alteration of the mapping would irremediably destroy important pages in the history of Sur. However the little information that may be obtained on what is happening in Sur is extremely alarming, such as that aerial photograph showing the disappearance of entire living quarters and the destruction of the historic alignments of Yeni Kapı Street.

The civil war in Diyarbakır took a terrible human and political toll, and will probably have important consequences on the future of the city. Before the war, Diyarbakır was coming to life again. Its UNESCO listing of 4th July 2015 was the crowning achievement of a beautiful adventure made possible by the peace process, which had paved the way for ambitious cultural policies, even if the players were developing divergent projects. After the wave of refugees that Sur had to absorb in the 1990s and the pressure it put on the urban texture, the UNESCO heritage listing brought a genuine hope of renewal for the city and its inhabitants. Private, and often collective initiatives brought it slowly back to life, bringing about, for instance, the restoration of traditional buildings such as the  Diyarbakır Evi or the Sülüklü Han, and the opening to the public to share local and micro-economic projects. It is also that special climate, that enthusiasm, which created the “UNESCO dynamics” and made it possible for Sur to obtain the world heritage listing. This is the reason why Sur should remain true to its past.


[1] Cultural Heritage. Report on the damage assessment in the Sur (Diyarbakır) district. Consequences of the armed conflict, Diyarbakır, 30 March 2016, in Report of the Metropolitan Municipality of Diyarbakır.

Article published on 3 May 2016 on the DIPNOT website of the Institut Français des Etudes Anatoliennes.



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