Most of Van’s multicultural history is buried in the rubble of churches and villages scattered across the province. A civil society group in Van’s Catak county is now digging up that history in order to build a multi-cultural future. The Catak Environmental and Historical Conservation Association (Catak-Der) hopes that identifying historic sites and their Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish names will support societal reckoning with the past. The project is headed by Catak-Der chairman Ali Sulamaz, a self-described “grandson of an assimilated Armenian family” from Van. He returned to Turkey in 2010 after living abroad for decades. So far, his group has identified the names and locations of several Armenian churches.
“My mother’s grandmother was Armenian but was one of those who was not massacred during the 1915 events and was later forced to convert to Islam. I always admired Armenian art. For six months I wandered all around Catak and saw virtually all the sites there are to see. Later I intensified my research and started the organisation to support it,” Sulamaz, 33, told SES Türkiye.
“The fact that society trampled on and misused the Armenian people’s places of worship really hurt me, and I set out to find a solution. The work lasted for about a year, and we succeeded in some places. I tried to find out who the architects were and how the structures were built. I painstakingly gathered documents from some Armenian friends and identified the names of the places.”
Sulamaz hopes his group’s work will help restore the historic sites and draw religious and natural tourism to Catak. In the future, he intends to produce a guidebook for tourists.
“Our goal is for people to get to know the place where they live, and to introduce these places. The Kurds, Armenians and Turks who have lived together for centuries will revisit these historic places in three languages. I hope it will create employment opportunities in religious tourism for the next generation of unemployed youth, and support the economy of the province, county and country,” Sulamaz said.
Local citizens have been supportive of the project. Catak shopkeeper Huseyin Bayat, 27, told SES Türkiye the project will help residents face the past.
“We’ve learned a lot of names that we didn’t know before, thanks to this work. Most of the Armenian names were forgotten, and the Kurdish names were outlawed years ago. Thanks to this work, the people will be more sensitive about the past, and people will know more about their history,” Bayat said.
Kerem Elbir, 34, a construction worker from Catak, called on residents to embrace the county’s Armenian heritage.
“The Armenian people contributed so much to this place. Everybody should support this sort of work in order to stand up for the valuable legacy the Armenian people left us,” Elbir told SES Türkiye. “These types of projects remind us of our history and the fact that we all used to live together, and I will support it to the end.”