Syrian Conflict Taking Toll on Turkey’s Last Armenian Village

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Vakifli, a village in Hatay province, is Turkey’s sole remaining Armenian village. Home to just 135 people, the village relies heavily on tourism and returning residents to keep going. Hasan Kanbolat reports on the heavy toll the nearby Syrian conflict is having on this idyllic part of Turkey.

I am in Vakifli village, the last Armenian village in Turkey’s Hatay province, Samandag township, near the Syrian border.

Vakifli is on the slopes of the Musa Mountain. Over time this village became a neighborhood of Samandag. We climb up to reach Vakifli village, which is a couple of kilometers away from [Samandag] town center. We are surrounded by reed beds, olive, mulberry and pomegranate trees, while walking up the Musa.

The Gabris coffeehouse, under the shadow of gigantic pines, serves orange, lemon, mandarin and mulberry syrups. The cool breeze coming from the Mediterranean adds pleasure to our chat.

Bogos Silahli, a retired philosophy teacher from Istanbul, is occupied with his preparations for the Philosophy Days festival, which will celebrate its fourth anniversary in 2013. He already decided the topic: “The Ethics of Food and Human Rights.”

I asked whether Silahli considers organizing Philosophy Days on the Middle East or the Syrian issue. He calmly said he doesn't want to get involved in politics.

Despite its decreasing population, Vakifli is becoming more and more important since it is the only Armenian village in Turkey. It is undergoing restoration, while preserving its old architecture. Its population has dropped down to 135 Armenians.

There are 35 households in Vakifli. During the 1940s, it used to be the biggest village in the area, yet its population decreased to 320 by 1964. Its youth immigrated to big cities or abroad to either work or study. The average age in the village is now about 60-70. With the decrease in the number of children, the village school was shut down.

You come across old people in the streets and gardens of Vakifli, while the roads are filled with luxury cars with foreign plates owned by youngsters. During the holidays, those who live abroad or in big cities visit their native village; in summer the population of Vakifli goes up to 2,000.

The family of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the first president of Armenia, is originally from Vakifli. The family first migrated to Syria from Vakifli, and then to Armenia from Syria.

With the opening of the nearby Hatay airport, Antakya’s increasing prospects of becoming a touristic city, development of relations between Turkey and the Middle East, and the lifting of visas between Turkey and Syria, as well as Lebanon, Vakifli started to enjoy many visitors. Accordingly, some small hotels and social facilities were constructed in the village.

However, the civil war in Syria and the worsening relations between Turkey and Syria had an adverse impact on the village. The tourist flow from abroad and Turkey to the village has decreased.

Villagers are worried about the hardships faced by Armenians in Syria and the beginning of their emigration to Armenia. They are hesitant to talk about the Syrian issue. In general, they hold the opinion that it is the imperialist powers that stirred up the crises in Syria. They also think that the fall of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is inevitable, yet that peace won't come to Syria after his fall.

The church in Vakifli serves as a unifying factor. The building was constructed for silk farming in 1890. It was converted to a church in 1924 and reconstructed in 1996. It is a beautiful architectural monument with stone masonry.

The two bell towers of the church distinguish it from other examples. Every year, Surp Asdvadzadzin (Annunciation Day) is celebrated on the second Sunday of August, which is also the harvest time, in this church.

Herise (a special food eaten during this occasion) is cooked in seven boilers in the garden of the church. There is a symbolic meaning of this number. Each boiler represents the seven other Armenian villages that used to be located in the region (the contemporary names of these villages can be listed as: (Yoğunoluk, Bityas, Kebusiye, Hidirbey, Hacihabipli, Azir and Vakifli).

Vakifli hosts its guests coming from other regions of Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, the United States and other countries during the Christian festivals. Despite the clashes in Syria, this year this festival was celebrated in peace in Vakifli. 

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Found in: violence, turkish-armenian relations, turkey, armenians, armenian genocide
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