How may Sourp Minas Church be saved?

Ahmet Sabri Ergin, the owner of St. Minas Church remained in the middle of urban transformation in Gezköy of Erzurum, talked to Agos. Ergin says he is not against a duly restoration of the building and he is ready to allocate it to the municipality on the condition that it is transformed to a cultural center, but he has not received any reply to his offer.

The concept and practice of urban transformation has become a tool for devastation of cultural heritage in Turkey. They demolish the buildings that they have neither restored nor erased for years, under the cover of urban transformation. Let’s look at one of these projects in Erzurum. St. Minas Church in Gezköy, Erzurum, which was an old Armenian settlement, has remained functionless for years. When I went there in 2016, its windows were walled, and the surroundings of the church were full of garbage. It could be predicted that the trash of urban transformation would bring about a risk for the church in the coming years.

Since then, same news about the church has been repetitiously served. Same sources have written that the church could not be restored because its Turkish owner living in Germany had not permitted. I have coincidentally met the title holder, Ahmet Sabri Ergin, living in Germany. I saw that the news had not been reflected rightly in the national and local media. It’s time to elucidate this issue. The church today is registered in his and his sister’s name, Prof. Ceyda Ergin. They inherited it from their mother, Mehlika Kobal after her death on 29 March 2015, who herself had inherited it from his father, Samih Kobal.

The story of Sourp Minas

Let’s look at the story of Sourp Minas more closely. The church, in Gezköy neighborhood of Aziziye, Erzurum, was built by Armenians in 1790. It became private property between 1914 and 1918. Sabri Ergin and his sister Ceyda Ergin registered it under the status of historical monument in 2010. Murals on the inside walls of the church have been largely erased whereas the outer walls have been honeycombed by treasure hunters.

Sabri Ergin relays the course of events in these sentences: “Erzurum Municipality sent a letter to my mother via notary in 2010. This letter was saying that as the St. Minas Church had the risk of collapse, to prevent any harm, we had to demolish it; otherwise, the municipality would do it and charge us for the expenses. Upon this letter, our advocate applied to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and registered the church as historical monument on 29 June 2010.” The municipality has claimed that Ergin’s signature is necessary for restoration, but he has rejected to give his signature to this date. In fact, he has been working for years for the restoration of this church and making it an asset for the cultural life of Erzurum. Yes, the title of the church is registered on him and his sister as a family heirloom. It is also true that he has some conditions for restoration. But I think these conditions, with which I may agree as an Armenian, are reasonable in the current conditions of Turkey.

Ahmet Sabri Ergin, who continues to negotiate with Aziziye Municipality of Erzurum via his advocates, says this place is a historical monument and should be restored accordingly. Also, he wants to be a part of restoration procedure. He had meetings with the Armenian Patriarchate, some Armenian foundations, European Union, UNICEF, Association for the Protection Cultural Heritage, various universities, those in Erzurum being in the first place. He repeated same offer to them: let restoration happen and ownership remain in the family.

Many may evaluate this as “Someone else will spend the money to make their property more valuable”, but I do not think so. After having phone calls with Ahmet Sabri Ergin, I have believed in his sincerity. He says they are looking for a solution: “We have declared everywhere that we will transfer the management of building for free to the University of Erzurum to be opened as a public cultural center.”

If ownership is transferred to municipality today, I cannot trust that its name will not be changed, or its stones will not be carried away tomorrow. Unfortunately, I do not think that the Armenian Patriarchate has the power to protect this building today. So, the idea of restoration by the municipality to be used accordingly makes sense to me. 

On the other hand, we learned that the municipality’s proposal is to carry the church stones to another location and rebuild it there. Ahmet Sabri Ergin says: “If I had money, I would make the restoration by myself. Why should I need someone else? We have the title but do not want it for commercial purposes.” 

They proposed to carry the church

Ergin relays these remarks about municipality’s proposal: “The municipality proposed to change the name of this place to Mehlika Kobal Cultural Center after renovation to erase the name of St. Minas, but I rejected it. Additionally, the mayor of Aziziye proposed to carry the church somewhere else. He said that this piece of land is so precious, and the presence of the church prevents its development. I also rejected that.”

According to feasibility plan, the cultural center requires $500,000. Could not this amount be extracted from urban transformation project? When one talks about urban transformation, profit is there. Ergin relays that authorities even do not avoid to express their motivation for profit openly. They find it natural. They say, “We rightfully want to make some profit”. When profit comes in, the bells start to ring for cultural devastation.

“We expect protocol from the municipality”

Ahmet Sabri Ergin says “We opt for agreement. Lastly, the municipality would work on a contract and send to us, but we could not hear from them afterwards. We will give only the right of usage of that building.” He adds that “In 2021 my architect and an associate professor from the University of Erzurum, who accompanies this project, visited the mayor at his office and said that some news in the press has nothing to do with reality and explained him that we have been working to make St. Minas Church a cultural center for Erzurum people for 20 years. Before this meeting I had verbally articulated our will in a phone call with the mayor. After the meeting at Erzurum mayor’s office they promised to send us a protocol. They said they could not send it until now due to the Covid pandemic and some difficulties in the municipality. We are still waiting for this protocol.”

I also asked the municipality. Here is the reply coming from their White Desk: “According to our knowledge, the efforts to protect the historical monument you mentioned is still going on despite the urban transformation project. Our institutional contributions aim to make it a touristic site. You will be informed through social media and the press.” 

Conclusion: The tile of the St. Minas Church is currently registered in the name of Ahmet Sabri and Ceyda Ergin. Nobody asked their opinion before when all the news were released by mainstream media organs. They do not prevent anything. All they want is duly restoration of a historical monument. We are right in not trusting the urban transformation projects. Repetitious news describing this site as “abandoned building” or “ruins” may be propaganda to open the way of its sudden demolishment one day by the hand of municipality. 

I hope Mr. Ahmet Sabri Ergin can hold his title until the end.