Mastering Heritage: Reconstruction of History and Space in Post-Conflict Diyarbakır

Ronay Bakan, Johns Hopkins University


In summer 2015, the 30-year civil war between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerillas fought in rural Kurdistan became markedly urban. Suriçi, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to almost 50,000 people, became an epicenter of urban warfare between the Turkish state and the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), an armed, urban, Kurdish youth organization allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The United Nations in 2017 reported that military engagements that included the use of heavy weaponry on populated areas led to killings, torture, violence against women, displacements, disappearances, and destruction of homes and cultural monuments. However, the district’s destruction persisted in the aftermath of the conflict.

Following the cessation of hostilities in March 2016, the Official Gazette, the official journal of the Republic of Turkey, reported that urgent expropriation decrees were issued across the region. Government demolition crews and security forces subsequently arrived to raze civilian dwellings in Kurdish neighborhoods. Further, instead of providing a path to return for the residents, the government aggressively built up the district’s touristic potential as a key part of its ongoing security agenda. These actions prompt the question: How do urban development and heritage tourism serve as integral tools of warfare against populations viewed as unruly and living environments perceived as disorderly? How do inhabitants whose self-identity is shaped, in part, through attachments to urban landscapes conceive, resist, adopt, or repurpose the land-heritage-military nexus in the everyday?

Figure 1: The gradual destruction of six neighborhoods in Suriçi in the wake of the armed conflict. Aerial pictures are from May 10, 2016 (left); August 16, 2016 (middle); and July 11, 2017 (right) (TMMOB 2019, 61, 65, 69).

Turkey is not unique in its use of land expropriation and (re)purposing against domestic populations it perceives as threats. The Syrian government has weaponized land and property rights against citizens it perceives as disloyal by bulldozing damaged buildings, transferring property rights to supporters, and redistricting to prevent refugee families from returning (Unruh 2016). Both Israel and Guatemala have established ecological conservation spaces to claim and depopulate minoritized communities’ land (Braverman 2021; Devine 2014). During the years preceding the Sri Lankan civil war, the government attempted to bolster Sinhalese identity in the face of growing Tamil counter-claims through production of the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, the Ancient City of Sigiriya, the Ancient City of Dambulla, and the Sacred City of Kandy constituting the Cultural Triangle (González-Ruibal and Hall 2015). Nevertheless, the use of legal and developmentalist tactics as a means of counterinsurgency in controlling and containing spaces of contention has received little academic attention (Wood 2008).

This paper examines Suriçi in the wake of the urban war of 2015 to illustrate how heritage tourism serves as an integral tool of warfare against populations viewed as threatening and living environments perceived as disorderly. By treating heritage as data, I elaborate how heritage efforts in the historical city center of Suriçi have become tools to suppress what the state considers future threats by bolstering the Turko-Islamic past and containing non-Turkish and non-Muslim claims to the place and its history. I draw on a multi-sited ethnography of local governance and city planning in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, carried out in 2022–2023, encompassing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suriçi as well as the Kayapınar and Bağlar districts. Specifically, this paper mobilizes in-depth interviews with former and current bureaucrats, activists, and residents; firsthand observations of staged heritage at cultural events in the district, including the week-long Sur Culture Road Festival organized by the government in October 2022; archival research on government documents, officials’ public statements, news, and reports regarding the districts; and ordinary maps.

I suggest that the staging and regulation of heritage in the historical city center of Suriçi is key to the state’s counterinsurgency strategies in the wake of urban violence in 2015–2016. The state re-imagines and appropriates the history and space of the district in the same way that it blocks any (military and political) counterclaims to its highly centralized understanding of the Turkish nation-state and its foundational pillars. Heritage-making efforts in the post-conflict era do not simply inscribe Turco-Islamic past onto the cityscape, they also promote a novel historicization of Turkification of Anatolia and thereby Turkishness by centering the Kurdish region. Accordingly, heritage-making efforts post-2015 also contain non-Muslim and non-Turkish heritage in the district by singling them out from their social, political, and economic contexts in the urban landscape, while preserving them for heritage tourism.

Heritage as Subterranean Battleground in the Aftermath of the Conflict

The cosmopolitan idea of “world heritage,” echoed in the UNESCO constitution, treats heritage spaces as remnants of ancient civilizations that constitute “the ancestors and transmitters of a single human civilization” (Kuppinger 2006, 316). The critical study of heritage, however, emphasizes how the material construction of cultural and natural heritage sites is essentially conflictual and contested due to production and preservation processes that inscribe the landscape with the concrete signs, symbols, and meanings of certain histories at the expense of others (Abu El-Haj 1998, 168; Ferry 2005; Povinelli 2002; Meskell 2018). In this way, states engage with heritage production and preservation not only to translate the past in light of present conditions, but also to selectively reinvent it in the service of their (future-oriented) colonial and national imaginaries (Abu El-Haj 1998; Scholze 2008). Thus, the practice of heritage production and preservation allows states to cast a veil over certain civilizations while also treating current residents in heritage sites as threatening, dangerous, disruptive, and “lacking in culture” (De Cesari and Herzfeld 2015). This situation reinforces racial, ethnic, gender, and class-based power structures in heritage sites through processes of selective reinvention of the past, gentrification, and commodification (De Cesari 2010; Franquesa 2013; Herzfeld 2010; Meskell 2012).

Building on critical heritage studies, this paper proposes that the staging and regulation of heritage sites constitutes a particular type of rescue mission. I suggest that the increasing involvement of Kurdish municipalities, in collaboration with civil society activists, in heritage production and preservation in Northern Kurdistan prior to 2015 emerged as a significant instance of decolonization that counteracted the hegemonic Turkishness and Muslimness inscribed in the cityscape (Biner 2020; Çaylı 2016; Çaylı et al. 2021). However, I here center the intimate relationship between the state’s security agenda and its heritage production and destruction to trace the transformation of the old city center of Suriçi from a site of “threat” to a site of “desire” aligned with tourism mobility (Stein 2008).

To illustrate, I first focus on the Conquest Week celebrations of May 2021. These celebrations constituted a significant instance of simultaneous processes of re-imagining the Turkish past in Anatolia and its re-inscription in the old city center to block any counterclaims to the place and its history. The week began with the “conquest march” starting from the Fetih Mosque in Dicle University where it is presumed the Islamic army was based while sieging the city (Keremke 2021). During the march, 100 young people carried torches and Turkish flags while chanting the takbir (the phrase, God is the greatest) and salawats (divine blessings on the Prophet Muhammad) to re-enact the entrance of the Islamic army to the city (Figure 2).

Figure 2: 100 young people carrying torches and Turkish flags in commemoration of the entrance of Islamic armies to Diyarbakır, May 27, 2021. (DMM, 27 May 2021)

The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) MPs, the state-appointed trustee of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, pro-government civil society organizations, and citizens also attended the commemoration of the Islamic conquest of the city. Although the Turkish nation-state narrative takes the Battle of Menzikert (Malazgirt) in 1071 between the Byzantine Empire and Seljuk Empire as the starting date of Turkish rule in Anatolia, during these events the then-trustee of the city, Münir Karaloğlu suggested that the Islamic conquest of Diyarbakır in 639 was “the harbinger of the conquest of Menzikert [in 1071] and the herald of the conquest of Istanbul [in 1453]” (Keremke 2021, 14). This statement reflects how heritage-making efforts in the post-conflict era attributed a central role to the Kurdish region in reconstructing the narrative of the “Turkification of Anatolia.” Shared Islamic roots, which pre-date the arrival of Turkish tribes from Central Asia, also became key in defining Turkishness itself.

Simultaneously, the Conquest Week celebrations also included tangible heritage-making efforts to aggressively inscribe the Islamic past onto the cityscape. Accordingly, Münir Karaloğlu also initiated the “re-opening” of the “Conquest Gate” (Keremke 2021). Karaloğlu claimed that this gate had been closed since the 1970s and was now being opened, also as a part of a new tourism route. In this new tourism route, visitors enter the Inner Castle via the Conquest Gate and walk through the Roman Road to go to Saraykapı. Then, they can stop by Hazreti Süleyman Mosque to visit 27 companions of the Prophet Mohammad who are believed to have died during the Islamic conquest and buried in the mosque.

However, these heritage-making efforts led to criticisms among citizens including archeologists, architects, and art historians. According to these experts, there is not any historical evidence or study that demonstrates that the door being restored was the Conquest Gate used by the Islamic army in 639. In fact, they argued that despite the militaristic language that is employed in these celebrations, historically there was a peaceful transition of power from Assyrian to Islamic rule. Secondly, they criticized the misrepresentation of the Hazreti Süleyman Mosque. They argued that 26 of the 27 shrines that are being staged as “the shrines of 27 companions of the Prophet Mohammad” in fact belong to Ottoman governors and their families as it is inscribed on the gravestones. According to these experts, there is only one anonymous grave, which is presumed to belong to Hazreti Süleyman himself. Despite their insistence on further excavations to determine the identity of the occupant of the anonymous grave, it remains unidentified until today due to the active opposition of local state institutions as well as the local Islamic community. They object to an archeological excavation at the site, which is known to be home to both Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations in the city. While these criticisms demonstrate the contested nature of heritage-making efforts, they also reveal the aggressive re-imagination of the past in the district in line with the government’s political Islamist ideals to limit any counterclaims to the place. This re-appropriation of the city center happens through militaristic performances, while its continuity is ensured by engineering mobility for tourists.

In addition, the restoration of three churches—the Armenian Catholic Church, Surp Giragos Armenian Church, and Mar Petyun Chaldean Church—in the aftermath of the conflict is an example of containing heritage to render the local social, political, and economic legacies of non-Muslim and non-Turkish communities in the district invisible. In February 2022, the government finally lifted the curfews in the six neighborhoods of Suriçi where the conflict was at its peak. Following the end of the curfew, the government organized a weeklong Sur Culture Road Festival in October 2022 as the grand opening of the conflict-affected district. The festival was depicted as a new beginning in the city, which was unimaginable ten years ago due to the security threats. Throughout the festival, tourists, locals, and officials filled the streets of Suriçi where post-conflict restoration and reconstruction activities made a debut for the first time. Although the festival aimed to stage the heritage site as a site of “desire” that marked a rupture from its “dangerous past,” the events and movements of people were surveilled and controlled by riot police, special operation forces of the army, armored vehicles, checkpoints, and drones.

Figure 3: A security map of the Sur Culture Road events drawn by the author, 2022.

Along with various concerts, exhibitions, and workshops, the festival also included “Heritage Talks” consisting of talks, interviews, and panels on heritage-making efforts in the aftermath of the conflict. High-ranking bureaucrats and academics from archeology to art history took the stage to present accounts of ongoing archeological excavations as well as restoration projects to mark this new era. For example, they presented the restoration of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church, Mar Petyun Chaldean Church, and Armenian Catholic Church as a sign of indiscriminate heritage-making efforts. However, I suggest that “indiscriminate restoration” allowed certain non-Muslim monuments to be preserved for the sake of tourism mobility while the social, political, and economic dynamics that brought them into existence in the first place have simultaneously been erased from the heritage-scape.

This became particularly evident during the panel called “Geçmişten Günümüze Diyarbakır [Diyarbakır from Past to Present]” by the Turkish Historical Society (THS) as part of the festival. The event took place in the restored Armenian Catholic Church, which had been damaged by the state during the clashes to enter Hasırlı neighborhood. According to experts in the community, aerial photos of State Hydraulic Works vehicles in the backyard of the church led to public outrage against the destruction of cultural monuments as part of military tactics. This public pressure prevented the church from total destruction. Instead, the church was restored to its original form in the wake of the military conflict. However, the church’s property was expropriated due to the absence of the church community, and it was transferred to Dicle University, which now uses the church as the Dicle University Culture and Art Center. For this panel, the audience was welcomed with an Islamic calligraphy exhibition at the entrance marking the new beginning for the Armenian Catholic Church.

Figure 4: Armenian Catholic Church during the Sur Culture Road Festival. Photo taken by the author on October 10, 2022.

In this new era, the old church itself became a venue for the erasure of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the panel instead celebrated the Islamic conquest of the city in 639. Moreover, a member of the THS emphasized that after the 1540s the Muslim population constituted the majority in the city. He stressed that Armenians were only one segment of the 20 percent of the population that was non-Muslim, along with Assyrians, Chaldeans, Latins, and so on. Referring to the Armenian Genocide as “Armenian incidents,” he argued that they occurred due to the provocation of foreign countries such as France, England, and the United States in the region. He concluded that Kurdish tribes were responsible for the incidents, claiming that the Ottoman Empire could not have possibly intervened due to its weak state presence during its decline.

The restoration of Surp Giragos Armenian Church and Mar Petyun Chaldean Church were also presented during the festival as evidence of the government’s “indiscriminate” approach. However, activists described these heritage-making efforts as examples of incomplete restoration that isolated the churches from their social, political, and economic environments. As a member of the activist community succinctly put it, a church exists when there is a church community. But in this case, all three restored churches—celebrated as signs of indiscriminate heritage preservation—are in the six neighborhoods that were completely bulldozed following the urgent expropriation decrees in the wake of military conflict in 2015. Although the non-Muslim communities of Diyarbakır have been long gone due to the history of violence against them, the recent destruction erased the last traces of these communities who lived, loved, and died in these neighborhoods. Similarly, the restoration projects for the Surp Giragos Armenian Church and Mar Petyun Chaldean Church also removed the historical shops that belonged to these churches while widening Yenikapı Street from three to twelve meters to accommodate (armored) vehicles. In addition, the doors of both Surp Giragos and the Chaldean Church were reoriented to open onto Yenikapı Street, as opposed to their original direction, to revive the street that was designed as an open-air shopping center for tourists.

Figure 5: A view of Yenikapı Street. On the left-hand side, there are restored churches that now open to the street. On the right-hand side, there are newly built “Diyarbakır Houses” which host London and Ankara-based coffee houses as well as shops that sell high-end luxury brands. The photo shows two special operations army officers waiting in front of the church, where the historic shops of the church community used to be located. Photo taken by the author in November 2022.

These churches were singled out and restored as monuments isolated from the social, political, and economic conditions in which they historically came into being. Hence, I contend that these restorations constitute instances of containing heritage, which renders the (violent) past invisible and thus future claims to the place as “unfounded,” rather than providing examples of indiscriminate restoration to bolster multicultural heritage.


In this essay, I argue that security strategies of developmentalist states such as Turkey exceed military means in targeting populations who are viewed as unruly, and their living environment perceived as disorderly. By focusing on heritage-making efforts in the historical city center of Suriçi, this paper particularly demonstrates the intertwinement of heritage-making and pacification in urban Kurdistan. By treating “heritage as data,” it proposes that heritage-making efforts constitute a particular mode of counterinsurgency in preventing spectral insurgencies by mastering the past and space in the aftermath of the urban war of 2015. In doing so, the state bolsters the Turco-Islamic past while rendering non-Islamic and non-Turkish heritage as fixed categories that are deprived of social, political, and economic legacies.




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