YEMIŞLIK, Turkey -- The mosque in the center of this village in eastern Turkey looks new compared to the buildings around it. Sporting a fresh coat of green paint, it overlooks a group of crumbling houses, most of them abandoned, made of stones, sticks and steel sheets. There is virtually no trace of the once-famous village that Armenians view as one of the holiest places on earth.
Yemişlik, previously called Narek, was one of the most important villages in medieval, deeply Christian, Armenia, known for its monastery and religious leaders. In the collective Armenian memory of the killings, this is ground zero -- and it’s also, Armenian activists say, a place where the Turkish government is trying to erase all signs of the ethnic/religious minority who used to live here.
Thousands of Armenians this week will travel to Turkey, including the picturesque Lake Van region where many Turkish Armenians lived before 1915, to visit some of these sites in their ancestral homeland to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide, when 1.5 million people were systematically killed by Ottoman government forces. Today the Turkish government still denies the genocide -- sometimes referred to as the Armenian Holocaust -- even happened, a denial mirrored here.
In the 1950s, Turkish police forces demolished what was left of Narek. Since then, the Turkish government has removed all the stones of the old monastery and built a mosque in its place. The demolition and subsequent restoration are representative of a wider phenomenon occurring in eastern Turkey: the altering and erasing of Armenian antiquities.
“For centuries [Narek] was a place people imagined and thought about going to, and was a place of national pilgrimage until the beginning of the 20th century,” said James Russell, a professor of Armenian studies at Harvard University. When he visited here in 1997, Russell recounted, the last stones of the monastery had been taken by the police “to destroy all evidence that Armenians had been there.”
The village is rarely visited or even spoken about in Turkey; its name was changed in the 1990s to the Turkish Yemişlik. Nothing about it is Armenian anymore. Traveling through this region, one meets no Armenians. The 70,000 Armenians still living in Turkey are concentrated almost entirely in Istanbul. For most people who pass by this cluster of houses on a hillside, it’s just one of the many Turkish mountain villages on the coast of Lake Van.
Although there are no Armenians left in this area, the Kurdish residents of the village, some of whom moved here decades ago, say they know what happened to the monastery.
“This is the place of the monastery, but it is not here anymore. The government built us a mosque,” a Kurdish woman in the village said, pointing to the center of town, where the mosque sits.
To be sure, the Turkish government has restored some of the Armenian antiquities and religious artifacts in this area, but its restoration policy is scant, at best. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has taken on several restoration projects of Armenian antiquities, but those sites are rarely promoted and are open only for tours, not for use. On the ministry’s website, Van is not listed under destinations to visit in Turkey. There is one section on the website that highlights the Van museum, but it describes the Armenian section of the museum as dedicated to the “Armenian massacres” -- those carried out by Armenians on Turks.
The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, visible from the Narek mosque, is one of the main restoration projects undertaken by the government, which does promote it as a tourist destination. But there’s no mistaking the message: A seven-story-high pole with the Turkish flag sits on the point of the island. On the mountain range that surrounds the lake, a giant Turkish flag is carved into the green hills.
Armenian religious sites dot the landscape, holding a mythical significance for a people that describes itself as the world’s oldest officially Christian nation.
This was the birthplace of St. Gregory of Narek, who wrote a book of 95 psalms, also known as the Book of Lamentations or the Book of Narek. Historians say that many Armenians keep the book in their homes.
“St. Gregory of Narek, in Armenian legend, could fly or travel underwater from his village to Akdamar Island and to little islands in Lake Van,” Russell said. “It's the locus of what I would say is the imagination of the culture.”
Of the dozens of Armenian antiquities around Lake Van, some have been destroyed, others are barely standing, and just one or two have been restored, Russell said.
One of the places in near-ruins is Varekabank, also called Yukarı Bakraçlı in Turkish, the site of the “Seven Churches,” an Armenian monastery built in the 11th century that was once the seat of the archbishop of the Armenian Church in Van. The roads leading to the church, at the top of Mount Erek, are not paved completely. There are no signs pointing to the monastery, which was sacked by the Turkish army during the genocide in the spring of 1915. To find the church one has to ask local villagers, who today are Kurds.
The church is crumbling from the roof and the sides. Branches from nearby trees hold some of the stones together. It was also damaged during the Van earthquake in 2011. Inside, paintings of the apostles are fading on stone pillars.
Local tourist guides say the Turkish government is considering renovating the church, but the discussions are ongoing.
There are dozens of Armenian antiquities that activists say should be restored. Over the last five years teams of experts have traveled through the Lake Van area to try and document all of the remaining Armenian sites. But for those that have been through what the government calls “restoration,” including the village of Narek, there is no way to bring them back to their former Armenian self. They have been altered to represent the Turkish identity.
The restoration process is "taking away the memory of Armenians,” said Ara Sarafian of the Gomida Institute, an Armenian research organization based in London. “What you see is what the state wants you to see. Not one of the ancient sites has a sign that says they are Armenian. The word Armenian does not exist there.”