Turkey: Minor Armenian Churches- the sad story of historical monuments used as barns

A Turkish Turkey poses in front of 
the Hexagonal Chapel in Kozluca
A smattering of endangered and neglected Armenian churches in Eastern Turkey. 

Why visit? 
See them while you can. 

Nearby Ani is reasonably well-known as a historical Armenian sight- but these churches have been neglected since their keepers fled in the early part of the 20th century.

These 1000 year old gems are now used as barns, or simply shuttered up. Only the most intrepid travellers seek them out.

Near Ani and Kars, in Eastern Turkey, near the Armenian border. Map

MY HEART CRIES when I think of the poor Armenian churches of Eastern Turkey. They are remnants of a rich civilization that flourished in these lands for 2000 years- and which was wiped out around 1915 when Ottoman soldiers started sending ethnic Armenians on death marches into the Syrian desert.

All that's left is their churches- and in some cases, that may not last long. Please seek them out while they are there. 
We've written about Ani (see article), the famed Armenian capital, but all these lands between the modern state of Armenia and the Mediterranean were home to large communities of Armenians. Of course, they don't had the place all to themselves. Over the years they shared the land with Hittites, Greeks, Persians, Kurds and Turks. The first Armenian state was established in the 6th century BC- more than 1500 years before the first Ottoman Turks came riding in from Central Asia. 

Armenian culture flourished here in the middle ages, and its churches, a delightful mixture of Western Romanesque as well as Middle-Eastern and Byzantine architecture were delightful little wonders.  

Fast forward to 1915. The events that took place then, considered by most non-Turkish historians to be the 20th century's first genocide, led to a mass expulsion of the Armenian population, something the current Turkish state does not deny, although the number of people who died as a result is debated.

The bottom line is that after 1920 or so very few Armenians were left in Eastern Turkey... and hence, few people remained to tend to these medieval gems. 

Some churches were turned into mosques- recycling of religious buildings being a universal and ancient tradition (Notre Dame in Paris was built on top of a Roman Temple, and Cordoba's cathedral used to be a mosque.)  
Reincarnation exists: in a previous life I was  the Church of the Apostles in Kars. Now I'm a mosque.  
But others were not so lucky: William Dalrymple, in his excellent book From the Holy Mountain, describes how he saw evidence of Armenian buildings being deliberately destroyed by Turkish authorities in the 1990s

Others were simply left to rot, neglected, or used for more utilitarian purposes, like storing cattle and hay.

These pictures here were taken in 2012 at Bagnayr monastery, in the Kurdish village of Kozluca, spitting distance from Ani. 
Ani's magnificent buildings as seen from the road to Kozluca. 
Little is left of this monastery which probably dates back to the 10th century. A few walls, with beautifully carved columns and Armenian inscriptions. But it's still in use... as a barn. 
Armenian inscriptions on the wall...
...and here as well. 
We're so proud of our barn! Isn't it gorgeous?
If these medieval churches were in France, or Italy, they'd be the proud center of the village, restored and adored. Here, not so much. Let's not be too quick to blame the farmer: there is no interest from local worshippers, who go to the mosque, nor are there any tourists (apart from the few oddball travellers looking for Minor Sights.) So what else is a farmer to do, apart from putting the building to use?
Let's load some hay!
Dead and gone. 
Of course, there are plenty of Turks who regret the neglect of these historical monuments. This excellent New Yorker article tells the story of the ancient church of Surp Giragos in Diyarbakir which has been restored by the local community. But unfortunately it may be too late for some of the minor Armenian churches hidden in the Anatolian countryside.  

Getting there: 
Not easy. You need your own wheels, ideally with a driver/guide who knows the region. Ask around in Kars. In 2012, we used the knowledgable and friendly Celil Ersozoglu (celilani AT hotmail.com) who seems to have cornered the 'independent traveller to Ani' market. He's helpful and speaks good English. 

You may come across Turks who have views on the Armenian genocide and the current closing of the border that may differ from what you have heard at home. In these kind of situations it is always best to nod politely and not initiate any arguments. Don't mention the war!

Useful links:
- The best source of information is Virtual Ani, a rich source of information regarding Ani and other Armenian sites in Turkey. The site covers the churches mentioned above, including the Church of the Apostles and the Bagnayr monastery

- Minor Armenian churches on Turkey from the Inside

- New York Times Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview