A life dedicated to the service of a temple: 40 years as a volunteer guardian of a monastery

A life dedicated to the service of a temple: 40 years as a volunteer guardian of a monastery
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Mehmet Coban has been caring for the Varakavank Monastery for the past 40 years, following the wish of his father, who was actually an imam.

Turkey is first among the places where historical buildings are destroyed and places of worship belonging to different faiths are left unattended. Throughout the country, historical buildings either disappear due to neglect or are subjected to the destruction of treasure hunters.

Unprotected, unrestored and unclaimed, these places are slowly vanishing. Monasteries and churches belonging to the Armenian community are at the top of the list of buildings facing demolition.


One of these places is the 1,400-year-old Varakavank Monastery, known as the Seven Churches, located in the village of Yukari Bakracli near the city center of Van. Built on a large area, the historic monastery still stands, despite the damages it has suffered due to a lack of maintenance. When he visited the Varakavank Monastery on Sept. 1, the HDP deputy for Diyarbakir, Garo Paylan, pointed out that the monastery is still standing thanks to heroes such as "Uncle Mehmet." Paylan's hero is 62-year-old Mehmet Coban, whose house is next to the Varakavank Monastery.


Mehmet Coban is from the same village where Varakavank Monastery is located. He was born and raised in this village and dedicated his life to the protection of Varakavank Monastery.

The life story of the guardian of Varakavank Monastery, Mehmet Coban, has been documented by art historian Fatih Guden under the title "Bekci" (The Guardian). 

Uncle Mehmet, who has devoted his life entirely to the upkeep of Varakavank Monastery, picks up fallen stones from the monastery, fixes them from time to time and removes it when it snows. The reason why Uncle Mehmet, who strives to maintain the monastery, takes on this task is his father.


Mehmet Coban's journey of taking over the Varakavank monastery began with his father's will when he came of age. His father, Sêyda (sheikh) Resul, was educated in a madrasa and was an imam to the only masjid in the village. Sêyda Resul took care of the Varakavank monastery for 25 years, maintaining it and preventing it from damage. Mehmet Coban tells that some villagers wanted to store their hay and bring animals into the monastery at that time and that his father made great efforts to prevent this:

"My father would try to prevent it. When he preached, he would say, 'Don't do those things, this is also a sacred place, a place of worship.' But no matter how many times he preached about it, there was no way to persuade anyone not to do it. He realized that this place would eventually be destroyed, so he took precautions in his own way."


Mehmet Coban explains the precaution Sêyda Resul took and how that changed his life:

"My father, who was getting old, finally called his children around. I was in my 20s at the time. He asked, 'I am old now, I have guarded this place for so long, which one of you will keep watch over it after me?' I came forward and said I would. My father said, 'I could see it in your eyes that you would take on this task.' Since then, I have been protecting this place like my home because of that promise."

Mehmet Coban has been taking care of Varakavank Monastery for more than 40 years according with the wishes of his father, who was a sêyda, or a sheikh.


Uncle Mehmet struggles not only with the natural elements but also with treasure hunters. He shows us the holes dug inside the monastery and tells us about the difficulties he has experienced:

"There is no end to the people who come here looking for treasure. I keep them away from here and have driven them away many times. If someone still tries, I report them immediately. Of course, they do it in secret because they know me. Once it turned out that four people came and stayed in the house behind the church during a winter season.

They snuck in, covered all the windows with grass and rags to block the light, and started digging at night. When I went out in the morning, snow had just fallen. I saw some footprints leading to the church, but no sounds were coming from inside of it. I became suspicious, and when I went to check, I found them inside. I immediately filed a report. At first they ran away, but then they were caught. No matter how much pressure they put on me, I didn't withdraw my complaint because I believe they had to be punished, and they were. I will not let those I caught here go unpunished.


Following in his father's footsteps and dedicating his entire life to the preservation of Varakavang Monastery, Mehmet Coban's greatest regret is that the building can no longer stand. There is no place he has not turned to for its restoration and preservation. Uncle Mehmet, who complained that all his attempts were fruitless, said that his only wish was that the monastery be taken under protection:

“Responding to my father's will, this work has become my heart's desire. I cannot leave this place. If I were young, if I had the strength, I would do it by myself. But I am no longer capable of doing things. There are depressions on the roof. I took measurements, I wanted to have a tarp made to cover it myself, but they don't allow that either. Nor do they intend to do anything about it. It makes me sad that this temple is crumbling in this way, that it is slowly collapsing. My only wish is that this place be put under protection.”