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Turkey: The Last Armenian Woman in a Once-Christian Town

Prior to the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Turkish southeastern town of Derik used to be an important center for Armenian and Assyrian/Syriac Christians.  Today, only one Armenian woman remains: Yursalin Demirci.

The Kurdish news site Şûjin recently covered her story. The Armenians of Derik were first subject to massacres and deportations in 1915. The remnant Armenians emigrated from Derik in later years due to various pressures. Because of these reasons, there is no longer an Armenian community in the town. The doors of the Surp (Saint) Kevrok Armenian Church were not opened at Christmas this year. And the church bell no longer rings.

“I miss the old days,” said Yursalin. “But I have got used to the fact that there is no one left. We were born here, we grew up here and we do not want to leave our lands. Fifty years ago, when the church bell rang, the church became filled with people. I hope these days will return.”

Yursalin and her husband are the only remaining Christian couple in the town. “In Christianity, couples marry at church. But as there was no Christian priest left in the town back then, I had to marry at home.

“I am proud of being an Armenian. I have never given up on my religious faith. Our neighbors sometimes tell me to do Salah [five times daily Islamic prayers]. I do not know how to do it. … The Muslim religion is beautiful. So is Christianity. If you do not leave your faith, we don’t leave ours either.”

The city of Mardin, where Derik is also located, was for centuries a part of the Kingdom of Assyria.  In the Roman period, the city itself was known as Marida (Merida), from a Syriac/Neo-Aramaic name meaning "fortress". Marida, the center for Episcopal Sees of several Armenian, Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean churches, fell to the Seljuk Turks led by Alp Arslan after the Battle of Manzikert in the 11th century.

Professor Peter Fraser Purton writes in his book, “A History of the Early Medieval Siege, C. 450-1220”:

“In 1064, the Armenian city of Ani [in the present-day Turkish city of Kars on the Turkey-Armenia border]  situated on a step hill, fell to the Turks of Alp Arslan. [Historian]Aristakes tells [us] that this was after a section of the wall had been demolished with a catapult… A sudden collapse of a stretch of wall permitted the Turks to storm Ani.

“Following the Battle of Manzikert, Turkish forces took numerous towns: Erzerum (formerly Theodosiopolis), Diyarbakir (Amida), Mardin (Marida), Malatya (Melitene) and many others.”

The process of annihilation of indigenous Christian civilization in the region took centuries. Today, some Turkish authorities proudly declare that Turkey is 99 % Muslim. Before the 1915 genocide, however, Ottoman Turkey still had sizable Christian communities.