I admired from a distance the ruins of the citadel high above the town because there is much to enjoy in Cermik itself. The main street meanders into the pazar, which is larger than a town of Cermik’s size would seem to require, but the town is obviously a commercial centre for many smaller settlements nearby. The pazar peters out in a small square dominated by the Ulu Camii, which has two small prayer halls side by side. The prayer hall to the west has three aisles separated by walls pierced at irregular intervals by arches and appears to date from 1144 or 1145, but only some of the original stone blocks remain. The prayer hall to the east, which may date from 1517, has a squinch and blind-arch dome and a three-domed portico.
Ascending the steep slope between the Ulu Camii and the citadel is a part of town where many old houses survive. Some of the houses are timber-framed and spread over two storeys, but others are built largely of stone, are smaller in size and spread over only one floor. Gardens, many in a state of neglect, lie among the houses.
It was Saturday evening and many women and children were outside enjoying the gradually cooling conditions. The women chatted amongst themselves or occasionally stirred large pots of food kept hot by wood-burning fires they had built in the street, and the children played games, football included. Some of the women were too shy to talk or, in some instances, even make eye contact, but a more assertive woman with whom I had spoken earlier invited me to consume a bowl of excellent soup made from yoghurt, bulgar, lemon and salt. The soup was so filling that, as well as everything I had eaten earlier in the day, I knew I would not want a proper evening meal. I would have loved to take a photo of the woman, aged about thirty-five, and her female companions aged about sixteen to fifty, but I was in a predominantly Sunni area where taking photos of women is still discouraged. Because I did not want to cause a problem, I kept my camera hidden.
I walked to different spots beyond the last houses to secure better views of the ruined citadel on the cliffs above, but it is not an easy monument to access without some clambering up rocks on steep slopes. Although the views from the summit must be outstanding, the town centre promised more delights.
Back in the town centre I saw a large hamam in excellent condition, a cesme in very poor condition and a large stone building described to me as a saray, or palace. The saray was extensive and adjoined a stone structure with what looked like a tower. Taken as a whole, the stone structure beside the saray resembled a small castle, but local people said the saray and the “castle” were really one building. Once the home to a rich and powerful family, most of the saray, which spreads over three floors, is now abandoned, but very poor families live in some of the rooms.
It was now about 7.15 and I began walking toward Kaplica, but on the way men were dancing in Kurdish line-style in the playground of a religious school. I entered the playground and was soon in conversation with two men, a doctor and a teacher, who explained that a wedding was taking place. The males and females were strictly segregated, of course, the latter inside the school attending to the bride and preparing the food for a large feast in about an hour’s time. I was given tea to drink and invited to partake in the feast, but declined the kind invitation because of my prior commitment to Mehmet and Cemal, and because I did not want to be part of a wedding reception in which I would have to spend time only with the men while the women were having great fun (I hope) elsewhere.
I quickly freshened up at the hotel, then walked back to the brothers’ workshop, where I found Mehmet and Cemal with four of their best male friends and a relative. One of their friends had with him his daughter aged about fourteen. It was interesting to see how easily the daughter got on with her male companions and how often she contributed to discussions. The brothers had only stopped work about an hour before my arrival and looked very tired. We drank tea and ate an ice cream each. About 10.00pm I said I needed to get some sleep and Mehmet quite unnecessarily gave me a lift to the hotel.
It was while we chatted in the workshop that I discovered something of the area’s rich ethnic and linguistic diversity. Two of the men present, one of whom was a police officer, were Turks whose first language was obviously Turkish, two were Kurds who spoke Kurmanji and the rest were Kurds who spoke Zazaki. I was told that a few Armenians and Kizilbash still lived locally.
Back home I found that Zazaki subdivides into three main dialects, with southern Zazaki being spoken in Siverek, Cermik, Egil and parts of Adiyaman and Malatya provinces. Central Zazaki is spoken in Solhan and parts of Elazig and Bingol provinces, and northern Zazaki is spoken in Gumushane, Varto and parts of Tunceli, Erzincan, Erzurum and Sivas provinces. It is estimated that between 1.5 and four million people speak Zazaki in Turkey, with most academics inclining toward a figure of about two million.
About 15 million Turkish Kurds speak Kurmanji, but Kurmanji is also spoken by Kurds in Syria and parts of Iraq and Iran. Moreover, Kurmanji is the language used for ritual purposes by the Yazidis, the great majority of whom are Kurds.
Although a majority of Turkey’s Kurds are Sunnis, as are a majority of the Turks with whom they have had such troubled relations for so long, most Kurds follow the shafi school of jurisprudence while most Turks remain loyal to the hanefi school. However, many Kurds are Alevis and some belong to different Sufi groups, the Bektashis included (sometimes no distinction is made by Kurds between being Alevi and Bektashi, which, if nothing else, confirms the similarity between the two expressions of faith). A small number of Turkish Kurds are Yazidi (most Turkish Yazidis have migrated to Germany because the Turkish government never did enough to protect them from persecution), but Turkey’s Yazidi population has increased of late due to the Islamic State’s persecution of Yazidis in Syria and Iraq and the Yazidi exodus from the lands that they have lived in for centuries (the Islamic State has not withdrawn its threat to rid the world of Yazidis by an act of genocide. We still do not know how many Yazidis in the last year or so have been enslaved, forcibly converted and/or murdered, but thousands have already been killed, of that we are certain). Of course, many Kurds have no faith commitment at all, as is the case with many Turks. Kurds devoid of a faith commitment overwhelmingly incline toward the political left.
Strictly speaking, the Kizilbash are not an ethnic but a religious minority. They are Shia Muslims who emerged during the late 13th century. Their name means “red or crimson-headed”, which is a reference to the headwear they once wore. Because in the past they regarded their rulers as divine figures, even mainstream Shia Muslims condemned them as heretical extremists. Ethnically, some of Turkey’s Kizilbash are Turks and others are Kurds. In the contemporary era, few if any female Kizilbash cover their faces or wear a headscarf. If females wear a headscarf at all it is usually worn like a loose turban and little care is taken to cover all their hair. To this day mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims distrust the Kizilbash, even though they do not appear in the least fanatical about their religious beliefs and devote most time to securing their economic well-being in conditions not conducive to generating much wealth (many Kizilbash live in villages and small towns and depend on agriculture or semi-skilled labour for a living). Encounters with Kizilbash later during the trip convinced me that they are generally a very sound group of people opposed to religious extremism and in sympathy with secular political parties seeking to combat disadvantage and discrimination.
Only twenty-four or twenty-five hours had passed since arriving at Diyarbakir Airport but I had already seen some amazing places, met some delightful people and been the recipient of remarkable hospitality from complete strangers. The trip could not have begun in a manner any better.
I quickly washed a few items of clothing and draped them over plastic chairs on the balcony confident that most would dry by the morning. Two balconies along two young women were smoking cigarettes. They were not wearing headscarves and were therefore either secular or Alevi. We waved to each other.
P.S. The following is part of an article that appeared in the 16.4.15 edition of “The New York Times” and is inspired by a visit to Cungus:
The crumbling stone monastery, built into the hillside, stands as a forlorn monument to an awful past. So, too, does the decaying church on the other side of this mountain village. Farther out, a crevice is sliced into the earth, so deep that, peering into it, one sees only blackness. Haunting for its history, it was there that, a century ago, an untold number of Armenians were tossed to their deaths.
“They threw them in that hole, all the men,” said Vahit Sahin, 78, sitting at a cafe in the centre of the village, reciting the stories that have passed through the generations.
Mr. Sahin turned in his chair and pointed toward the monastery. “That side was Armenian.” He turned back. “This side was Muslim. At first, they were really friendly with each other.”
A hundred years ago, amid the upheaval of world war one, this village and countless others across eastern Anatolia became killing fields as the desperate leadership of the Ottoman Empire, having lost the Balkans and facing the prospect of losing its Arab territories as well, saw a threat closer to home.
Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials embarked on what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century. Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres like the one here, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.
The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War. It also remains that conflict’s most bitterly contested legacy, having been met by the Turkish authorities with a hundred years of silence and denial. For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide became a central marker of their identity; the psychic wounds passed through generations.
A recent article in “The Armenian Weekly” contains the following description of what happened at Cungus in 1915:
“They brought the Armenians here. Thousands of them. They stripped them of their belongings and threw them into the chasm,” explains a Kurdish villager who had spotted us while driving by.
We are standing at the mouth of a deep, eerie cleft – bottomless, according to the locals – called Dudan by Armenians and Kurds for centuries (the cleft is also known as Yudan Dere).
“How do you know the Armenians were killed here?” I ask. It’s not that I’m skeptical. We know from various survivor and perpetrator accounts that the 10,000 (?) Armenians of Chunkush (Cungus, a district in the province of Diyarbakir) were led here by gendarmes and armed chettes (irregular Kurdish “troops” often “recruited” from among Muslim prisoners released to engage in acts of rape, pillage and murder) in 1915, brutally murdered and hurled into the chasm.
“There was a woman in our village. She lived to be 104,” he replies. “She saw it all.”
He pauses. “Everybody knows.”
We had already realised that everybody knew. In Chunkush one of the locals, a teenager, had given us directions to Dudan where, he said, the entire population of the almost exclusively Armenian village had perished.
As we were driving… we asked a man where Dudan is. He jumped into our van and led us there. When we got to Dudan, our driver, a Kurd from Diyarbakir, asked him, “What happened here?”
“Nothing,” the man murmured.
“They say something happened to the Armenians here,” the driver insisted. At that point the man became visibly angry. “I do not know,” he said, and stormed out of the van.
The murder of the Armenians of Chunkush constitutes one of the largest, most brutal in situ massacres of the Armenian genocide. The Armenians from Chunkush were marched to Dudan – only two hours away by foot – and massacred on the spot. Historian Raymond Kevorkian writes:
“The males were dealt with first, in accordance with a classic procedure: tied together in small groups of fewer than ten, they were handed over to butchers who bayoneted them or killed them with axes and then threw the bodies into the chasm. The method used on the women was quite similar, except that they were first systematically stripped and searched and then had their throats cut, after which their corpses were also thrown into the chasm. Some of them preferred to leap into the abyss themselves, dragging their children with them; thus they cheated their murderers of part of their booty.”