Armenian Ayntap from the Hittites to Cilicia

The seismic event that struck Turkey had a devastating impact on the historical Armenian Ayntap, a heritage site recognized by UNESCO and now known as Gaziantep under Turkish rule.

This land, steeped in ancient history, is believed by archaeologists to have been home to civilization as early as 6,000 BC. Throughout the millennia, this area, previously known as Deluche, served as a spiritual center for the Hittite queen Teshupa. Today, the remnants of this history are preserved in the village of Dyulyuk, where stone burial sites and temples still stand.

Situated at the junction of the Great Silk Road, Ayntap connected the north and south with the Mediterranean Sea and the West. It’s no surprise that the surroundings of Gaziantep, as it’s presently known, yield archaeological findings ranging from Hittite and Assyrian artifacts to remnants from the eras of Persians, Alexander the Great, Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, and Armenians. The oldest discovery made so far is the stone tools from the Dyulyuk cave, dating back to the Paleolithic era.

The term “Antep,” derived from the Hittite language, translates to “royal land,” and in Persian, it means “place of springs”. During the era of the Armenian Cilician Kingdom, this area was the king’s abode.

Throughout its tumultuous history, Aintap experienced numerous takeovers, from the reign of the Egyptian sultans in 1404 to Tamerlane’s destructive invasion. Still, its Armenian identity remained intact. By the 18th century, the region comprised approximately 100 Armenian villages. However, a deliberate policy by the Ottoman Empire to settle Kurds in the area resulted in the displacement of Armenians and the imposition of the Turkish language.

It was only at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “Armenian question” in international discourse, that Armenians were permitted to open schools, allowing the revival of their native language.

In 1912, a census conducted by the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople identified 44,414 Armenians residing in the sanjak of Aintap, which incorporated Aintab and Kilis. At the dawn of the 20th century, Aintap boasted a population of 50,000, with Armenians constituting 40% of the populace. Among the city’s notable structures was the church of St. Mary, an architectural gem designed by Sarkis Balyan between 1873 and 1893.

Tragedy struck in 1915 with the genocide that led to the forced migration of the Armenian populace of Ayntap to the Deir ez-Zor desert. Following Turkey’s defeat in World War I, the surviving Armenians began returning to Ayntap, a territory assigned to French influence as per the Allied treaty. Unfortunately, France failed to guarantee the safety of the returning Armenians, leaving the Turkish authorities and armed Muslims in charge, leading to a resurgence of violence against the Armenian community.

The Armenians of Aintap put up a heroic resistance, sparing themselves from a massacre. However, France’s unwillingness to confront the Turks resulted in their withdrawal from Cilicia, leaving the Armenians at the mercy of their ruthless adversaries. The fierce struggle for Ayntap and its fortress marked one of the most challenging battles for the Kemalists. But, after France’s betrayal, the city fell to the Turks, who added “Gazi” to Aintap, meaning victorious hero, and thus the city was renamed Gaziantep.

By the end of 1921, to escape further bloodshed, the Armenians of Ayntap migrated to Syria, Lebanon, the USA, and the Armenian SSR. Thus concluded the resilient Armenian chapter of Ayntap’s history.

Vigen Avetisyan

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