On Wednesday and Saturday nights, if you follow the narrow, stone streets in Gaziantep, Turkey's old Armenian district to an unmarked silver door and knock three times, you're in for a treat.
Moments later, a man with a long white ponytail and round glasses will appear, welcoming you to his cafe, Jazz ve Kahve, and whisking you away for a night of food and traditional Middle Eastern music. Inside a room filled with Persian carpets, locals will be listening to the melody of a ney (a Turkish wind instrument) intertwining with that of a Syrian lute-like oud in a 19th-Century Armenian mansion overlooking a scenic courtyardstrewn with dangling lights.
"Gaziantep is a city at a crossroads in the heart of old Mesopotamia. When they were under the same empire, Armenians, Turks and Arabs all coexisted peacefully," said Murad Uçaner, the ponytailed cafe's owner. "In these few square metres, we are trying to revive that ancient vibe."
In the past few years, Uçaner's intimate cafe has become an institution in Gaziantep – one of the cities impacted by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the Turkish-Syrian border in February 2023. Several buildings around this old Armenian neighbourhood of Kayacık were damaged or collapsed, but Jazz ve Kahve is still standing, and Uçaner is motivated to preserve its legacy.
"This is not just a place where people eat and drink," he said. "It is also a place where people from different cultures and countries meet, exchange information and get to know each other's cultures."
The story of Jazz Kahve goes back to 2017 when Uçaner, a historian, translator and novelist, became fascinated with the history of Armenians in Gaziantep. While noticing the construction of more and more high-rise buildings across the city, Kayacık's cobbled streets and Ottoman konak residences made him feel nostalgic for a past he wanted to revive.
Uçaner researched archival footage of the area and stumbled on a photograph taken in 1907 whose caption mentioned it was an Armenian house. As Uçaner explained, not only is the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks that took place during World War One something that is generally denied in Turkey, but he never learned that Gaziantep was once home to a thriving Armenian, Kurdish and Arab population. "It made me question the accuracy of the history they teach us," Uçaner said. "I discovered that even though Armenians survived for thousands of years in these lands, there have been attempts to erase the memory of their presence here."
Ümit Kurt, a Middle East historian and the author of the book The Armenians of Aintab: The Economics of Genocide in an Ottoman Province, explained that approximately 32,000 Armenians lived in Gaziantep before WW1, but as the war intensified, most were deported to Syria and other nations to remove this non-Muslim ethnic group from Anatolia.
For nearly a century since the war's end, most of these families' homes were left abandoned and in ruins. But after Gaziantep was named Turkey's capital of gastronomy in 2015, many of these crumbling buildings were transformed into cafes and hotels in an effort to draw tourists while preserving the architectural heritage of the city.
Inspired to take part in the city's collective urban renewal, Uçaner hatched a plan to combine his love of history and music.
"For 10 years, he dreamt about opening a cafe, but he was worried he would have had to leave his job in translation," said Murad's sister, Mujgan Şahin, who helps him run the cafe. "One day I stumbled upon an abandoned Armenian building dating back to the 1890s. I encouraged Murad to rent it."
After a year-long restoration, Jazz ve Kahve's (which means "jazz and coffee") opened in 2018. Uçaner never had to leave his full-time job, and the cafe has become a hub for the city's intellectuals, who come to share knowledge about Gaziantep's shared Turkish, Armenian and Syrian history.
After knocking at the silver door, visitors walk by the building's 19th-Century frescoes and engravings in the Armenian alphabetas Uçaner explains the area's unique history. Sometimes, he even guides guests around the neighbourhood to see similar examples of Gaziantep's multi-ethnic past, such as the Papirus Cafe, which was once the house of a prominent Armenian politician. Guests are then treated to Turkish and Arabic music and can order Turkish teas or wines alongside traditional Syrian food that was once commonly eaten in Gaziantep under Ottoman rule, such as muhammara (walnuts and roasted red peppers) and mutabbal (aubergine dip).
Ironically, the recent earthquakes that struck the region have made the cafe's role as a cultural meeting point even more symbolic.
When Uçaner was jolted awake by the earthquake (whose epicentre was near Gaziantep) that February morning, he was scared to see if his cafe was still standing. Hours later, he saw that the minaret and dome of the city's famous Liberation Mosque (which was formerly an Armenian church) located just in front of his cafe were in ruins.
"It was almost like a heartbreak," Uçaner said. The region's seismic capacity had destroyed much of its rich history, and he feared Gaziantep's culture and past may one day be forgotten. As such, Uçaner says he now feels his role as one of the custodians of Gaziantep's fading multicultural past is more important than ever.
"It is important to preserve the memory and transform it into a lesson for future generations to not hate your neighbour, because we were all one population once," Uçaner said. "These buildings speak for us, and they need to be protected and repurposed to be part of our present."
Since the 1970s, Gaziantep has grown from a 120,000-person town of primarily ethnic Turks to a bustling two-million-person metropolis – and much of this growth is due to the Syrian civil war. Thanks in large part to its location along the southern border with Syria, Gaziantep has absorbed an estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the nearby conflict. Despite the fact that Syrians once peacefully co-existed here with Turks and Armenians, the recent influx of Arabic-speaking residents has led to tensions.
Yet, Uçaner hopes his secret jazz cafe can not only preserve the memory of a more cosmopolitan Gaziantep but serve as a bridge connecting its past with its present. In recent years, it has displayed photo exhibits documenting the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and hosted panels and lectures about the city's multicultural past.
In 2021, Uçaner and several customers – including a sociologist, an urbanist and a musician – also launched the project Memory of Anteb to highlight the architectural and cultural legacy of Armenians and Muslims who once lived in Gaziantep.
"The history of Gaziantep was written by official historians in line with the denial policy of the country. We wanted to rewrite that history in a more peaceful present," Uçaner said.
Today, during lazy summer afternoons or cold winter nights, artists and musicians of all backgrounds come to drink a hot cup of tavsan kani çay (red "rabbit blood tea"), chat and get inspired by music from around the region.
"It's here, playing with other musicians, that I learnt we play the same songs but with different lyrics, depending on our language," said Ezzat Dahman, a Syrian-Palestinian oud player who regularly performs Turkish and Syrian music at the cafe. "That shows just how similar our cultures are and how many things in common we have."
Dahman had the idea to launch his own music project at the cafe, called Music Against Racism, to bring Turks, Syrians and Kurds closer together. "The idea will be to play Syrian and Turkish traditional songs that have the same melody together, to foster mutual understanding."
Regular customers are also treated to Turkish folk music, which bears traces of Arab and Armenian melodies. "We like to discover new forms of music we had never been accustomed to, like jazz or classic," said customer Irem Deniz Adali, holding a glass of Suryani red wine, typical of south-eastern Turkey, as she tapped the wooden table to the rhythm of an old folk song. "But what's even more beautiful is how this place gives us a chance to revive the old, diverse, festive past of this region."
The earthquake may have temporarily stopped these gatherings, but they quickly returned in full force as the building didn't suffer any major structural damage. "If you're aware of a place's past, its community can move forward to build a more peaceful present," Uçaner smiled, before welcoming a few other guests at the door.