Exile in Diyarbakir

In search of the Bulgarian connection in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir.

Exile in DiyarBakir
Sur's 5.5km ancient wall still standing ''tall and strong'' on a rainy day [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Diyarbakir was the second Turkish city I knew of as a child. The first one was Istanbul, or Tsarigrad as Bulgarians used to call it – the city of kings.

Tsarigrad was the grand city of cities – a place of high culture and power, the conquest of which was a painfully unattainable dream for our medieval kings, we were told as children. To this day the main boulevard in Sofia is called Tsarigrad Road – the one many Bulgarian merchants, priests and learned men would take when they had business to do in the imperial capital in Ottoman times.

And then there was Diyarbakir – a city of hopelessness and desolation, strange and remote, or as we say in Bulgarian, “10 mountains away”. It was where Bulgarian revolutionaries who fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire were exiled in the 19th century. It became the epitome of suffering for the “Bulgarian cause” in popular Bulgarian culture.

And here I am today, 10 mountains away from home looking at a city that had occupied my childhood imagination with tales of exile and misery, only to discover that now it has other stories of displacement and hardship to tell.

Exactly one year ago, the “anti-terrorism” operation against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party ( PKK ) fighters in the historical Sur district of Diyarbakir ended, leaving four of its neighbourhoods heavily damaged and tens of thousands of people displaced.

Cifte Han was once known as the Bulgarian Han in Diyarbakir [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]
Cifte Han was once known as the Bulgarian Han in Diyarbakir [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Revolutionary exiles

“If you were to conduct a survey among Bulgarians of all social classes and educational levels and ask what they associated with Diyarbakir, they would say ‘exile’. If you ask what they associate with ‘exile’, they would say Diyarbakir. The two words have become synonymous,” writes Bulgaria-born Turkish writer and academic Huseyin Mevsim in his new book Diyarbakir Exiles.

In the 1860s and early 1870s, more than 100 Bulgarian revolutionaries who plotted and incited Bulgarian revolts were exiled to Diyarbakir.

The plight of these people – as few as they were – was a major theme in Bulgarian 19th-century literature, which, with its nation-building pathos, shaped the Bulgarian national psyche.

“Long and wide is Diyar Bakir, strong and tall are his walls of its citadel, heavy are the Turkish chains. This city has been cursed by God. There’s no rain, no dew, no mountain breeze; there’s nothing good as there is in our lands in our blessed Bulgaria,” Lyuben Karavelov, a 19th-century Bulgarian poet who never visited Diyarbakir, wrote in his short story Martyr .

Today, the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir looks like any other large Turkish city: full of modern buildings, wide streets, and shopping centres. Life is bustling in the new part of town, and except for a few police checkpoints with armoured vehicles, one would not know that an “anti-terror” operation had just concluded in the area.

The citadel where the Bulgarian exiles were initially kept is still standing “strong and tall” at one end of the Sur district – the old part of the city. While it does get hot in Diyarbakir, it is hardly a desert. Just below the walls of the citadel flows the Tigris River, which waters the vast agricultural lands of Diyarbakir before flowing east through Mosul and Baghdad and into the Gulf.

The Bulgarian exiles initially had a rather miserable life. Those who survived the long journey to Diyarbakir were then forced to face horrible living conditions in prison, where some succumbed to disease and died. But their circumstances eventually  improved.

It was the local Christian community, especially the Assyrians, who vouched for them and lobbied the local authorities to ease their imprisonment and allow them to live and work in the city.

Diyarbakir's St Mary Church was constructed in 3rd century CE on top of a pagan temple [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]
Diyarbakir’s St Mary Church was constructed in 3rd century CE on top of a pagan temple [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Bulgarian connection

I asked Father Yusuf about Diyarbakir’s Bulgarians, but he only shrugged his shoulders.

“We built this place a few thousand years ago,” he said proudly. “We were the first to convert to Christianity and spread it.”

Father Yusuf is the lone priest of the 1,750-year-old Assyrian church St Mary in Diyarbakir’s Sur district. Of the thousands of Christians (Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks) that used to live in the city only about 100 are left.

I asked Father Yusuf why he stayed with his family in Diyarbakir when so many Assyrians left the country.

He answered my question with a question: “Should I also leave?”

Self-portrait of Bulgarian artist and revolutionary Georgi Danchov who was exiled in Diyarbakir for his anti-imperial activities [Wikipedia]
Self-portrait of Bulgarian artist and revolutionary Georgi Danchov who was exiled in Diyarbakir for his anti-imperial activities [Wikipedia]

He then pulled on the white-and-red thread on my wrist. I explained it was a martenitsa – part of a Bulgarian pagan custom celebrating spring.

“It’s Christian. We also have it. The red and white symbolise the humanity and divinity of Christ,” he told me.

During the security operation against the PKK, Father Yusuf had to leave the church. When he came back, three of its doors were damaged but everything else was intact, he said. On the other side of Sur district, the Armenian Catholic Church was not so lucky. It suffered partial damage during the operation and it remains within the security area still under curfew in the northeastern part of Sur.

Nearby, there is a small Bulgarian cemetery where some of the revolutionaries who died in Diyarbakir were buried. It is also within the borders of the security area, so I couldn’t visit.

I did, however, manage to get to Cifte Han, a small merchant’s building that the Bulgarians rented to do business after they were permitted to live and work in the city. Some of the revolutionaries came from prominent families and were well-educated. They were welcomed in Diyarbakir by the local population and were well-respected, said Seyhmus Diken, a Diyarbakir-based Kurdish writer who did research on the Bulgarian community. It was one of the Bulgarian exiles, the artist Georgi Danchov, who opened the first photography shop in Diyarbakir, Diken told me.

Today, there’s no trace left of Cifte Han’s former Bulgarian glory. The walls of the han are still standing but its ceiling has caved in. The massive wooden door is locked and no one in the area seemed to know it was once a flourishing Bulgarian operation.

As I tried to peek through a crack in Cifte Han’s door, white dust filled the narrow alleyway. People came out covering their mouths. Just 20 metres down the road, behind the police barriers in the security area, another house was being demolished by the local authorities, who say they are clearing buildings damaged by the fighting. 

A pack of smuggled Bulgarian MMs lying around at a women-run restaurant in Diyarbakir [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]
A pack of smuggled Bulgarian MMs lying around at a women-run restaurant in Diyarbakir [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Minority issues

Today, the only strong Bulgarian connection I managed to find in Diyarbakir were smuggled Bulgarian cigarettes. MM and Prestige are all over the place in southern Turkey . Smuggled through a bizarrely long and complex route – from Bulgaria to Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan then to northern Syria and then finally to Turkey again – these cigarettes are known for being extra cheap – about 4 lira ($1) a pack.

A Kurdish journalist told me the MMs are so popular that locals call them Mela Mustafa – named after Mustafa Barzani, the late Kurdish nationalist leader and father of Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Messoud Barzani.

Most of the Bulgarian exiles left Diyarbakir after a Bulgarian state was established with Russian help in the late 19th century.

Like elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans were ethnically mixed all over. Almost all wars fought after 1878 in the Balkans have been about ethnic borders and the perverse idea of a nation-state. Forced displacement was perpetrated by all sides in the process.

After all that, Bulgaria was left with ethnic Turks making up about 10 percent of its population. Through the following decades, they suffered various levels of oppression. During communist rule, the party initially gave Turks education and newspapers in Turkish, only to turn around a few decades later and decide it was a good idea to forcefully assimilate them by changing their names to Bulgarian ones.

Today, under democracy, the Turkish minority has had 10 percent political representation in every parliament elected since 1989, but a solid dose of ethnic nationalism still runs in the veins of most members of the Bulgarian ethnic majority. Talk about Turkish culture and language in Bulgaria usually gets you hostile stares and aggressive declarations such as, “This is Bulgaria. We speak in Bulgarian.”

We learn in schools that a Bulgarian means being ethnic Bulgarian and Christian (whether believing or not).

Just like in Turkish schools, children learn that being Turkish means being an ethnic Turk and Sunni Muslim.

A lot of the complaints I heard about discrimination against Kurds in Turkey remind me of the problems that Turks face in Bulgaria. But many Turks, like many Bulgarians, would say there’s “no problem”.

Of course, the parallel between the “Kurdish issue” and the “Turkish issue” can be drawn up to a point. The military conflict in southeast Turkey has dragged down the Kurdish issue into the realm of national security.

The UN just released a report saying the security operation in the southeast has resulted in the deaths of 2,000 people and the displacement of between 350,000 to 500,000.

There is no parallel to that in Bulgaria today and I hope there never is.

But Turkey’s and Bulgaria’s cases both illustrate the same thing: The ethnic nation-state model is doomed to fail in ethnically diverse societies. And unfortunately, as we painfully know in the Balkans, its forceful imposition leads to death, misery and displacement.

Source: Al Jazeera