I took each step with caution, placing one foot in front of the other with the precision of a tightrope dancer. I carefully traced the edge of the crumbling wall, where the earth was dry. Just a few inches to my right was the stew of mud, manure, and urine that carpeted the interior of what was once a church, today a barn. We were in Baglarpinar, once called Darman. I could hear men talking in Turkish behind me. At that moment, I did not care who they were, how they had congregated there that fast, or what was being said. I needed to walk alongside those walls. Later, my colleague Khatchig would tell me, “They were asking, ‘Why is that woman in there?’”
Why was I in there? It was silly, really. One wrong step and I would have been ankle deep in feces. Why were we driving through these villages in search of anything from our past, anything Armenian? Only an hour earlier, as we had entered Adakli—known to us as the fortress of the stars, Asdghapert—we had been given a warning by an old man. We had asked whether any Armenian churches still stood, in Adakli. “If you ask such questions here, they will throw you off a cliff,” he had told us before jumping in the front seat of our van and directing us to the old Armenian fountain in town.
We saw the fountain, and the spray painted sign—MHP—the acronym for the ultra-nationalist party in Turkey. We saw the small monastery attached to the fountain, and the new mosque that was built on top. Inside the monastery, we saw crosses engraved in the walls, and a book-size fragment of a cross-stone (khatchkar). We had to leave fast. Our presence was raising suspicion. This was Bingol province, where clashes between PKK fighters and the Turkish Army are far too common. The hostility level towards us was also markedly higher than anywhere else we had been to so far.
As we left Baglarpinar, Khatchig’s voice pulled me out of the maze of questions my mind had wandered into. “Perhaps they’ll think you know where gold was hidden…maybe it’ll prompt them to dig. In the process, they’ll clean the filth,” he said. We smiled sadly. “Do I look like someone who’s here to dig for gold?” I murmured.
Apparently, I did. Why else would two Armenians search for crumbling churches? It soon became clear how suspicious we had seemed, when in Keghi we were confronted by two Turkish military officers who pulled up next to us in an armored vehicle. Someone in Adakli had reported us, said the tall man clad in a bullet-proof vest, as his smaller companion stood by his side, machine-gun in hand. After a brief interrogation, and after they inspected our passports, we were allowed to leave. Before we could even begin to discuss what had just happened, we were stopped by yet another vehicle. This time it was the chief of police, and another officer—both clean-shaven, and in plainclothes. They wanted to check my camera. They zipped through the donkey pictures, the pictures of us standing next to the walls of houses, the old stonewall by a garden, and the stream with the floating trash. He handed the camera back to me, and with a few words of advice (and after telling us that there were those who dig for gold in the area, and that it was his job to stop them), he let us go.
I wanted to hand him back the camera. I wanted to zoom into my pictures to show him how on the walls of the houses, the Armenian cross-stones had survived. You could clearly see the crosses! The massive column supporting that village house most likely bore the weight of the church at one time. The stone wall enclosing the garden? That was the church! Wasn’t it obvious? We were hunting for treasure! We were guilty!
We left Keghi, drove through the mountains, back-tracking our nearly five-hour long journey from Diyarbakir. We drove through and by villages. We saw old and new structures. I wanted to stop at every turn, see every stone.
The sun was falling fast. We had been warned against lingering in the area after dark. The stones called me back. I know it won’t be long before I answer their call—even if that means falling into shit.