'Eternal' wine revives Assyrian culture in Turkey

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A customer (L) speaks with a sales assistant about Assyrian wine produced by Yuhanna Aktas in a wine store in Mardin, southeastern Turkey
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Assyrian merchant Yuhanna Aktas no longer has to hide from villagers in his conservative corner of southern Turkey that the grapes they harvest are destined to become wine.

A member of the shrinking Christian minority in Mardin province, Aktas has been waging a lonely battle for acceptance by his Muslim neighbours and local officials, who frown on alcohol sales.

"Winegrowing and reviving the disappearing Assyrian culture were my childhood dream," Aktas said, next to barrels of wine fermented from green grapes in Midyat, a town 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Syrian border.

Only 3,000 or so Assyrians still live in the wider Mardin province, which is part of the historical Mesopotamia region where some archaeologists believe wine was invented 2,700 years ago.

Subjected to discrimination and violence, most of the Assyrians have either relocated to Istanbul or emigrated to the West, reducing their number from 700,000 during the Ottoman Empire to 15,000 across Turkey today.

Their gradual departure over the years has dealt a bruising blow to Mardin's viticulture traditions, pushing Aktas onto a tormented journey to realise his dream.

Bespectacled and sporting a hint of a beard, the 44-year-old says he received death threats when he first tried to get wine production rolling in 2009.

"Workers refused to work for me and villagers refused to sell their grapes, saying that wine is forbidden in Islam," he recalled.

But he persevered and now sells 110,000 bottles annually throughout Turkey.

The secret to his success, says Aktas, was choosing the right local grapes, including a Mazrona variety that has an intense aroma similar to Gewurztraminer grapes used in Alsatian white wines.

Organically farmed and naturally fermented without yeast or sulphites -- additives which prolong conservation -- the wines have the extra benefit of being much better for your health, Aktas says proudly.

"Other wines can cause headaches because of sulphites. That is never the case with our wine," he said with a hint of a smile.

- Vanishing hopes -

Business has been so good that Aktas has launched a second production site in his home village of Beth Kustan, about 30 kilometres from the vineyards of Midyat.

Like in other villages across the region, the majority of the original Assyrian families now live in Europe or the United States.

Nearly a decade ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, promised to make it easier for these families to reclaim their lands, raising hopes for their return.

"Several Assyrians had planned to return to Turkey at the time," said Ayhan Gurkan, president of the local Assyrian Culture Association.

"They renovated their ruined houses, but some saw that their lands had been confiscated by the state or neighbouring villagers," Gurkan said.

The Assyrians' misfortunes date back to 1915, when many were killed during the genocide of fellow Christian Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Those who survived and their descendants gradually began to leave.

This exodus accelerated when the first serious clashes erupted between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army across Turkey's border regions with Syria and Iraq in the 1980s.

- Booming sales -

A government crackdown on political opponents and the Kurds after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016 created still more distrust.

Most recently, this febrile atmosphere was exacerbated by the disappearance of an Assyrian couple near the Iraqi border and the conviction of an Assyrian Orthodox priest for "aiding a terror organisation".

"The plans to return home are now suspended," said Aktas, who himself is facing trial for membership of a group linked to the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which Erdogan's government is trying to ban.

Local sales restrictions and a soaring alcohol tax, which has tripled since Erdogan's Islamic-rooted AKP party came to power in 2002, have added to the pressure.

In May, the government banned alcohol sales during a 17-day coronavirus lockdown, sparking outrage among secular Turks.

But Aktas says the various attempts to ban or restrict the trade of wine -- and his special grapes -- have actually helped sales.

"Today, alcoholic beverages are living their golden age in Turkey," the winemaker said.

"The bans have provoked a backlash. Sales have boomed."

Aktas hopes that something similar could happen to Assyrian culture in Turkey.

"Crushed grapes die during winemaking," he said. "But only to start their eternal life through wine."

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