It was at this point that a little confusion prevailed. The owners of the hotel thought I wanted to visit Arapgir’s oldest district rather than Eskisehir and, because of this, dropped me at an albeit interesting spot at the southerly extremity of the town beside a river in a valley with quite steep walls on both sides. The road crossed the river by means of an old stone bridge benefiting from the final touches of a substantial restoration project which, although over-zealous in the fashion I had observed elsewhere, nonetheless guarantees that the bridge will last for centuries to come. I walked up and down stone steps, along a footway below the road but above the river, and chatted with labourers installing railings that would soon be painted black. The side of the bridge devoid of the footway had been subjected to far less vigorous restoration and, although more difficult to see because it was now in late afternoon shade, gave an excellent impression of how the bridge must have looked until about a year earlier.
Among the trees about 20 metres from the bridge and just above the river is a relatively slim but tall stone building with a square ground plan and damaged dome. The wall facing the bridge is pierced by an arched doorway partially framed by stonework carved with patterns more Muslim than Christian, and beside the doorway is a window rectangular in shape. The wall overlooking the river is pierced by a single window, in this case with a slightly pointed arch framing a second pointed arch within it. Inside the building are the piers and arches that support what remains of the dome and the walls have a few small cavities that may have been storage spaces. The structure resembles a one-time hamam, but it is just possible that it had been a church or chapel.
The couple who owned the hotel had told me that the scant remains of a church lie a little above the bridge, so I found a dirt road that led in the direction required. I soon found some courses of stone lurking among long grass and wild flowers not far from where two small houses overlook fields and gardens. Two families were at work in the fields and gardens and, when I began examining the courses of stone, they stopped to say hello. Chat followed, as did offers of tea, but I was very disciplined and explained that I needed to see the ruin and what remained of what I thought was Eskisehir.
It was at this point that Veysel introduced himself. Veysel lived in one of the houses just mentioned and worked for the Belediye driving dustcarts. He explained that I was not in Eskisehir at all. Esksehir was about 3 or 4 kilometres away on the far side of modern Arapgir, but he had time to spare and would take me there after I had examined what remained of the church.
What remains of the church is very little, but one stretch of stone suggests that it was a very substantial building when extant. The surviving stone reveals that the external walls had been unusually thick, which points toward a cathedral rather than a church. It was obviously Armenian because, after examining what survives of the external walls, Veysel led me to some nearby houses in which stone from the building and its immediate surroundings has been recycled. I saw stone with Armenian script and some it had dates such as 1890 and 1891. One attractively carved stone, no doubt from a grave, had had all its Armenian script obliterated by someone hacking at it with tools, but a cross could be made out and no damage had been done to two branches of leaves that overlapped at what would have been the top of the stone when marking someone’s final place of rest. Here was very obvious proof that, at some point in the past, the authorities did all they could to obscure the fact that Arapgir once had a substantial Armenian community.
Back home I undertook research into the history of Arapgir and its immediate surroundings and found the following. Somewhere in Eskisehir or Arapgir there had once been the magnificent 13th century Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God, but in 1915 it was attacked, looted and set on fire. After the first world war, because only a few Armenians remained in the town and the surrounding area, what remained of the cathedral was repaired and used as a school. However, at some point in the 1950s, important figures at the Belediye decided to demolish the building and, in 1957, it was blown up with dynamite. The land on which it had stood was sold to someone living nearby and, today, only very small sections of stone survive. The cathedral is described as one of the largest Armenian churches that ever existed in what is now Turkey and a picture of it on the internet suggests that this was indeed the case.
There were six other Armenian Apostolic churches in the town in 1915, a Roman Catholic church and a Protestant church. It was mainly Armenians who attended the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches, information confirming that Arapgir was a very important Armenian settlement at the beginning of world war one.
At home, the more I thought about the remains I have just described, the more it seemed that I had been directed toward what remains of the cathedral. I am by inclination cautious about reaching conclusions of this nature, but there was nothing I saw later that suggests my assessment is incorrect. This said, it was obvious that a lot more needs to be done in and around Arapgir to document and preserve what remains from the past. Arapgir stands at the centre of a remarkably interesting part of Turkey rich in the physical remains of many different people.
Veysel was keen to leave for Eskisehir, so off we went. I thought we were going to walk all the way and therefore suggested we hire a taxi, but Veysel had a much better and more cost effective plan. We walked through the town, passing on the way some large old houses spread over two or even three floors. A mixture of timber-frames, stone, plaster, corrugated iron, overhanging upper storeys and storage spaces immediately below the pitched roofs (most such storage spaces lacked walls) ensured there was much to admire. Every so often stone tablets set into walls had some carved decoration and, perhaps, a date revealing when a house was built or extended. A network of narrow canals carried water from springs into gardens and small fields.
Arapgir itself has some monuments confirming that it was a population centre by the 18th century, but it was in the 19th and early 20th century when its prosperity was most apparent. Its former wealth was dependent on trade and industry. Arapgir’s merchants were wholesalers for goods such as soap and olive oil from Gaziantep and Aleppo, and glass and iron from Beirut. They also bought goods from Europe such as cloth from Manchester and Marseilles. But Arapgir also had its own weaving industry and imported the yarn from Britain. However, with the end of the first world war, trading activities fell into rapid decline. Part of the reason for this was because of the loss of Armenian merchants during the genocide. Merchants who survived the war migrated to cities in the west where economic opportunities were superior. The town’s economic decline was reinforced by the expansion of the rail network and, later, the road system because goods that used to pass through Arapgir were taken directly to large urban centres where the majority of consumers lived. The weaving industry also fell into decline as other localities in Turkey invested in modern machinery to give them a competitive edge. Today little evidence for such economic prosperity exists other than in the town centre han, now a hotel, and the large old houses which confirm that many local families in the past had considerable wealth. Of course, some of the houses had belonged to Armenian families, but which ones it is difficult to say today.
Veysel’s cunning plan was that we would drive to and around Eskisehir in a Belediye dustcart! We arrived near the north-west extremity of Arapgir and Veysel fired up the engine of his motor vehicle. We first drove along a road that ascended over a hill and into a very pretty valley with trees, orchards, small fields, the occasional building and views of hills and mountains. The road, which soon degenerated into dirt, meandered along the valley wall, sometimes high up and sometimes quite close to the river. It was an enchanting drive, but I was very conscious of Veysel’s time and the cost of the petrol. When I offered to pay for some petrol and his time, he looked at me with an expression of anger that morphed into hurt feelings. We were friends. Friends pay for nothing because hospitality is a mark of friendship. I was in the company of yet another amazing Alevi who at one point said, “Really I am a Bektashi. Veysel is and always will be a Bektashi. Arapgir now has many Bektashis and Alevis and we cannot stand the Sunni Muslims.”
Veysel grew very animated as he tore into the Sunni Muslims and at one point tears stood in his eyes. He seemed to give expression to the persecution his people have suffered for centuries. The more the trip went on, the more often I encountered Alevis, Bektashis and Kizilbash who expressed anger and outrage similar to the anger and outrage felt by Veysel. The two or three times I met Armenians, they kept their feelings to themselves as if to share them would open wounds of such magnitude that the pain would never abate. In the face of crimes against humanity on the scale that have happened in Turkey in the past, silence is sometimes the only appropriate response.
Eskisehir, which, as its name implies, is much older than Arapgir (‘eski” mean “old” and “sehir” means “town” or “city”), was also a trading settlement. Its site, just as large as that of Arapgir although not much survives today, is to the north-west of and at a higher level than its neighbour. It is hidden from the present town by the hill I referred to earlier. It extended for about 4 kilometres in a north-easterly direction until coming to the Arapgir Cayi. Evidence suggests that many of the houses of the town were spaced quite generously apart, perhaps with large gardens or orchards around them (many orchards survive to this day). The citadel is perched high above the tree-line to the north of Eskisehir overlooking the Arapgir Cayi. The bare slopes below the citadel once had houses on them, but today all that remains of the houses are piles of stone “gradually being forced downhill in spring floods”, as Sinclair says. It was in this area that Eskisehir had its commercial heart. Some buildings survive, albeit ruined, including mosques dating from the late Selcuk and the Ottoman periods. Some way from the ruined buildings is a restored mosque dating from as late as the early 19th century, by which time Arapgir was emerging as the more important and economically vibrant settlement.
Around what was once the town are the Ulu Camii, at least three other mosques, a residence for Sufi dervishes called a hankah, a hamam and what would appear to be a bedesten, all in various stages of restoration or decay. However, we spent most time examining a structure Veysel thought was a church, although if it was a church there was nothing I could identify to confirm that this was so. It was certainly a large structure with what resembles a tower (a bell tower?) at one end. After it was abandoned, someone converted part of it into a house with a door and three windows set into the south-facing wall.
We drove along the dirt road through the trees and came out beside the Arapgir Cayi, where I was surprised to find a large stone bridge crossing the river. The bridge, which is probably Ottoman in origin, had recently benefited from a very complete programme of restoration. It crosses the river with two arches of slightly different width and has a quite steep ramp at the south end. The road across the bridge has a kink in it near the middle. Motor vehicles as large as the dustcart can cross the bridge and people like to drive out to the bridge to swim in the river or eat picnics. When we stopped the vehicle to examine the bridge from the north bank, we met a family preparing to return home after relaxing in the pretty surroundings for the afternoon. The father of the family, who wore only his swimming shorts and a pair of shoes because he had just got out of the river (his wife and other family members were fully clothed, of course), tried to encourage us to drink raki with him, but we declined the kind invitation.
A few of Eskisehir’s houses survive. They are large, timber-framed houses that spread over two or even three floors in a manner very similar to some of the old houses that survive in Arapgir. However, today Eskisehir is no more than a widely dispersed village and one with a very small population.
We drove away from Eskisehir by following a road east of the bridge. The road crossed the river, ascended the valley wall to the south and led to a road destined for the centre of Arapgir, so we managed to do a superb round trip. Once on the road leading to Arapgir we were high above the Arapgir Cayi and the views into and along the valley were sublime. However, by now the sky had filled with dark clouds and it began to rain. The rain persisted for the next half hour or so.
We drove into the centre of Arapgir where we picked up two of Veysel’s work colleagues outside a bakery; the team of three were about to begin their evening shift collecting litter from large wheelie-bins. I stayed with the team for about half an hour, by which time we were close to the hotel. Because the men wanted a short break from work, we stopped for glasses of tea brought to us from a nearby tea house. It turned out that both Veysel’s colleagues were Alevis and all three had harsh things to say about the AKP and Sunni Muslims. If I understood what they were saying, the AKP was currently in control of Arapgir, but whether the party would still be in power following the general election was uncertain. Overhead, rumbles of thunder and flashes of fork and sheet lightning added drama to our conversation.
What an amazing day it had been, although it was not quite finished. I said goodbye to Veysel and his colleagues, walked to the hotel and freshened up in my room, then went to the very centre of town, a roundabout with roads leading off in four or five different directions, and took photos of the bunting flapping against the rapidly darkening sky. I then met a young man who had a camera far superior to mine and, in his shop, he showed me some of the photos he had recently taken. We took photos of each other, then I walked a short distance further down the road, a road leading past a very large modern mosque in the mock-Ottoman style to the small bus station. I stopped at a small lokanta for koftes, salad and bread washed down with ayran. A woman not wearing a headscarf called in and ordered some food to take home. My meal over, I went almost next door for a large bowl of ice cream. Two children walked in and had small portions of ice cream at a nearby table.
As I walked back to the hotel I was reminded that, when planning the trip in the UK, I had toyed with the idea of not visiting Arapgir because I had been once before and was not sure a second visit could be justified by what I would see. How wrong such an idea would have been. But my lack of sound judgement in relation to Arapgir convinced me that to go to Divrigi the following day was the right thing to do because, although I had also been there once before, it had been a very long time ago when me and my travelling companion had time to see only two major monuments, the Ulu Camii and the Hospital.
But what of the wine that I consumed with great pleasure in my room as I wrote up notes about the day’s many delights and sometimes sobering encounters? It had a pale colour not unlike a rosé and a delicate bouquet with the faintest hint of mint. It tasted dry with some crisp acidity and reminded me of fino-style wines found in pasts of southern Spain such as Montilla. Although not very sophisticated, it packed a punch! I drank the whole half litre with a growing sense of satisfaction, but I had no adverse effects the following morning. Being an organic wine, perhaps the detrimental after-effects really are much reduced!
What a day. The monuments, the birds, the flowers, the wild herbs such as mint and oregano, the hospitality, and the nagging sense that I had found somewhere I could almost call home despite the language barriers. My goodness: the wine was getting me quite emotional! Yes, the wine was dry like a good fino or amontillado from southern Spain. Perhaps it was even a bit like those amazing wines from Sanlucar de Barrameda (one of the strangest but most likeable of all Andalucian towns) with their salty smack. It might have passed muster in Jerez, the home of sherry, although in some ways it was more interesting than half the dry wines that derive from that source of intoxicating drink. And how different it was from the wine with which I had started the trip, a wine of dark ruby colour with a taste reminiscent of reds from some of Europe’s most reputable wine regions.
My last thoughts turned toward the Kurds with whom I had engaged during the day. It is obvious that many Kurds still have sympathy for the PKK and such sympathy may have increased in recent years because the AKP has become more obviously Turkish nationalist in its inclinations and has tried to push through a legislative programme appealing to the needs and aspirations of the country’s Sunni majority. I am fully aware that, in the past, the PKK was a dangerous and violent terrorist group which, in common with the Turkish armed forces, committed some terrible crimes against humanity and unforgivable human rights abuses. However, on every occasion I have engaged with its sympathisers and/or people alleging that they are past or present PKK members, I have never felt in any danger. Putting to one side that this may say more about me than them, such Kurds have posed a threat not to me but to many of the Sunni extremists who, for lack of a better political party to support, vote for the AKP. They also pose far more of a threat to extreme Turkish nationalists such as the Grey Wolves, some of the most dreadful people who have thrived and murdered in Turkey past and present.
P.S. Back home I found something on the internet referring to an Armenian cemetery in Arapgir, a cemetery with about thirty or so irregularly dispersed tombs. According to the article, a few hundred Armenians remained in Arapgir after world war one before most moved to Istanbul to improve their chances of economic well-being. Some survivors of the genocide migrated to Soviet Armenia and settled in Yerevan, the capital, where to this day a district has the name of Arabkir. Today, Arapgir has only two Armenians, brothers in their forties who spend their spare time caring for the cemetery. The cemetery has a small altar which is sometimes used for ritual purposes.
Another internet article suggests that the arrest of leading figures in Arapgir’s Armenian community began as early as 26th April 1915 and that the first large group of Armenians were expelled from the town on 19th June. The last large group were expelled on 5th July and a majority of all those expelled met their death as they marched ever further from home. Arapgir was one of the many towns and cities which, in 1895, witnessed massacres of Armenians on a much smaller scale than in 1915.
P.P.S. The following provides some context for the information already shared about Alevis and Bektashis. It is an article on the internet that I have quite savagely edited to extract the most relevant points.
As well as grappling with the issue of growing Kurdish disenchantment with AKP rule in Ankara, Erdogan must face the problem of the Turkish and Kurdish Alevi minority, which, in common with the Kurds, represents about a quarter of the Turkish population, or twenty million people. Alevis are heterodox Muslims following a tradition that combines Shia Islam, metaphysical Sufism and pre-Islamic shamanism. Alevis do not pray in mosques and a cem evi is an Alevi meeting house.
In 1995 an Alevi leader, Izzettin Dogan, launched an officially-approved Alevi group called Cem Vakfi. The Turkish government used Cem Vakfi to split the Alevi opposition to the regime. The government, even when it was secular, favoured Sunni Islam and harassed Alevis. Politically, Dogan represented the extreme nationalist right and was linked to the MHP, or Nationalist Movement Party, which has links with the fascist Grey Wolves. The MHP supported the military in its campaign against the Kurdish PKK and the Grey Wolves have been charged with at least five thousand murders of Turkish and Kurdish leftists, Alevis included, in the 1980s. In 1997, Dogan formally constituted Cem Vakfi in four towns in the Netherlands under the auspices of the foreign branch of the MHP, the Federation of Turkish Democratic-Idealist Organisations in Europe, or ADUTDF. Today, veterans of the Grey Wolves are embedded in the state apparatus and responsible for countless abuses of human rights in both the Kurdish areas of south-east Turkey and in parts of the western regions where they hold political office.
In 1978 the Grey Wolves committed a massacre of Alevis by calling all “believers” to aggressive jihad against Alevis and other leftists. The Grey Wolves proclaimed, “One who kills an Alevi will enter Paradise, and the death of an Alevi is equal to five haj pilgrimages to Makkah.”
In 1980, after a military coup, the MHP was banned, along with all other political parties. Nonetheless, many supporters of the Grey Wolves had careers in the military and state bureaucracy. The ban on the MHP was eventually removed and in the late 1990s the party changed its public orientation in a religious direction.
Erdogan’s government has approached the Alevis in Turkey with ambitious plans for the construction of mosques in their communities, even though Alevis meet for their rituals in cem evis and only a few Alevis attend mosque services. Mosque-building in Alevi settlements is therefore a waste of public funds, but, since the 1980s, pressure for the Sunnification of all Turkey’s Muslims has been intense and, in response, has provoked political unrest among the Alevis. Today, Alevis increasingly refuse to conceal their identities, as they might have done in the past. Instead, they present themselves openly as Alevis and defend the Alevi faith. Alevi books and magazines are now issued prolifically and Alevism is offered as a counter to mainstream Sunni ideology.
Support for Cem Vakfi and Dogan by Turkey’s state institutions and mass media has failed. Alevis with democratic or leftist inclinations reject him and the situation is likely to remain as such for many years to come.
Nonetheless, the AKP government, through its apologists, has performed brilliantly in convincing politicians in Washington and elsewhere that the Alevis support the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. There is no serious corroboration of this claim, which has also been made by Erdogan himself. Its proponents assert falsely that the Alevi movement in Turkey is similar to the Shia Alawite cult ruling Syria, but this is not so. It is denied by Alevis themselves as well as by authoritative, objective academics in Europe and North America.
P.P.P.S. Arapgir is famous for having a craftsman who makes shoes with wooden nails, but no stitching or chemical glues. Only the wooden nails keep the shoes intact. It is said that he can make a pair of shoes in one day.